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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Questionable value
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is here to serve as a more affordable option to Samsung’s full Galaxy S22 flagship series. Samsung says the phone offers “fan-favorite features” like top performance and a solid camera packed into a stylish piece of hardware that fits naturally into the greater Samsung ecosystem. It does those things, to some degree, but the timing of the phone’s arrival to market is off, as is the price point, and that leaves the Galaxy S21 FE standing in a strange spot. Can the “Fan Edition” phone overcome its odd positioning and win over the hearts of Samsung fans? Find out in the Android Authority Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review.
Update, November 2022: We’ve updated this review by adding updated software information and listing a few new competitors that are available on the market.
What you need to know about the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
- Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (6GB/128GB): $699 / €749 / £699
- Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (8GB/256GB): $769 / €819 / £749
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE purports to deliver much of the Galaxy S22‘s premium experience at a price point more befitting of an affordable flagship.
Samsung originally debuted the S21 FE right at the end of the Galaxy S21’s lifecycle and ahead of the Galaxy S22. Since then, the Galaxy S21 series has been discontinued, leaving the S21 FE to stand in as the low(er)-cost option against the better-equipped S22 series. The S21 FE is just $100 less than the vanilla Galaxy S22, which really complicates the value equation of the phone.
Check out: The best Samsung phones
Samsung is selling two memory/storage variants of the Galaxy S21 FE, one with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage and another with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. Only $70 separates the two models, which means you can upgrade for just a few more beans. The phone comes in four colorways: White, Graphite, Olive, and Lavender. Samsung lent us the Graphite model for review. The phone is being supported widely by US carriers, including AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, as well as the usual slate of third-party electronics retailers.
The US and European model ships with the Snapdragon 888 processor, though some global variants of the phone will pack the Samsung-made Exynos 2100 SoC instead. Samsung began selling the Galaxy S21 FE in January 2022.
How is the hardware?
Samsung took the one significant visual design characteristic of the Galaxy S21 — the raised corner camera module — and made sure the S21 FE featured it prominently. There is a bit of a change in the way it is presented, but the basics are there. Specifically, the over-large styling of the module and the way it cozies up to the side rail are similar to the Galaxy S21’s looks, but the Galaxy S21 FE doesn’t feature the two-tone shading of its flagship siblings. It’s exactly the type of downgrade you’d expect on a lesser phone.
The Galaxy S21 FE is a mixed slab. It boasts a flat Gorilla Glass Victus panel on the front, a rounded metal frame, and a plastic rear panel. The curved shape of the aluminum frame is particularly comfortable when holding the phone. The back is flat except where it bends just a bit along the edges where it meets the frame. It’s a fairly straightforward-looking phone. I’d call it a bit of a step up from the Galaxy S20 FE, which wasn’t as cohesive in its looks. I’m not necessarily a fan of the new Olive color, but the other shades are solid. Sadly, Samsung did away with the brighter shades that were available to the Galaxy S20 FE.
Sizing of the Galaxy S21 FE is balanced. Samsung was able to keep the dimensions in check, thanks in part to the average-sized 6.4-inch screen. It’s big enough without being too big and you’ll have no problem stuffing it into your pocket. The phone is fairly light, too, which helps reduce or prevent hand fatigue during prolonged use. The plastic backing gives me more confidence in carrying it around without a case, but surely some will feel better about wrapping it up in some protection (check out our picks at the link above.) The phone meets the IP68 rating for protection from dust and water, which is increasingly common for affordable flagships. I let it sit in a bowl of water for a few moments and it turned out fine.
Samsung did a good job assembling a quality piece of hardware. The smooth Gorilla Glass and metal frame go a long way toward giving the phone a better-than-mid-range appeal. The plastic rear panel in no way feels like glass despite Samsung’s marketing, but the matte finish works really well and helps prevent fingerprints from mucking it up.
The Galaxy S21 FE passingly resembles the fancier Galaxy S21 and S22 but doesn't carry the same sex appeal.
Functional controls for the phone are the bare minimum. A small power button and stubby volume toggle populate the right edge of the phone. Travel and feedback are good, though the buttons are too thin for my tastes. It’s like pressing on a wire. There’s no headphone jack, but you’ll encounter the USB-C port and SIM card tray on the bottom edge. The SIM card tray supports two physical SIM cards, but does not accommodate a memory card, nor does it support eSIM. The Galaxy S20 FE did have microSD support, so that’s a disappointing change between the two phones, though it does match the Galaxy S21.
In sum, there’s absolutely nothing objectionable about the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE design and hardware. Samsung took a rather basic approach to building the phone. It passingly resembles the now-retired Galaxy S21 but doesn’t carry the same sex appeal.
What’s the screen like?
Samsung reduced the Galaxy S21 FE’s screen size a smidgen compared to the S20 FE, but it is otherwise identical in terms of core features and performance.
The Galaxy S21 FE’s AMOLED display measures 6.4 inches, with an odd 13:6 aspect ratio. Samsung packed 2,340 x 1,080 pixels into the panel, which gives it an FHD+ resolution and a pixel density of 403ppi. There’s a punch-hole selfie camera centered near the top edge of the panel.
More reading: Displays specs and terms explained
The screen is surely large enough for all your apps and content. It’s not a Note-sized monster and instead matches the screen dimensions of the Pixel 6. I found landed squarely in the Goldilocks zone — just right. The resolution is more than dense enough, particularly for this class of device. FHD+ means it renders games and videos to a crisp enough standard for the price. I found on-screen elements were sharp and clean.
Like the 2020 model, the Galaxy S21 FE offers a 120Hz refresh rate. There are two settings: 120Hz and 60Hz. Samsung set the Galaxy S21 FE to the 120Hz option by default. This means scrolling behavior looks a bit smoother when using apps like Twitter and YouTube. The Galaxy S21 FE also includes a 240Hz touch sampling rate when you’re in gaming mode, an upgrade from the Galaxy S20 FE, which means it reacts to your touch input faster than many other phones.
The S21 FE’s faster 240Hz touch sampling rate gives it an advantage over slower screens when it comes to gaming.
You’ll find a proper number of advanced tools for controlling the screen’s behavior. In addition to basics such as dark mode and blue light settings, the Galaxy S21 FE permits owners to choose from several pre-defined color profiles, as well as set their own white balance and even custom-tune red, blue, and green levels to get the look they want.
The Galaxy S21 FE’s screen doesn’t have quite the same visual impact as the Galaxy S21’s or S22’s, which are a tiny bit brighter and slightly more pixel rich, but it’s more than good enough for the price point.
How good is the Galaxy S21 FE’s battery life?
Samsung took the Galaxy S20 FE’s 4,500mAh and carried it over to the Galaxy S21 FE. That’s a little bit larger than the vanilla Galaxy S22’s 3,700mAh cell and equal to the S22 Plus’s 4,500mAh cell. What you need to know is that it should get most people through a day without much worry.
It’s actually impressive that Samsung was able to keep the size of the battery the same as its predecessor since the Galaxy S21 FE itself is thinner and lighter than the S20 FE. I tested the phone for more than a week and never had trouble using the phone from breakfast to bedtime. It always ended the day with at least a 30% charge to spare. It never surpassed more than a day and a half of battery life, however; something to keep in mind.
As for charging speeds, the Galaxy S21 FE supports 25W wired charging and 15W Qi wireless charging. You’ll need a Power Delivery PPS charger to get the top charging speeds, but you won’t find a charging brick in the box. You’re on your own to supply one. We tested it with an Anker Nano II 30W charger and it usually took about 90 minutes to recharge fully — nothing to write home about, but not terrible either. Wireless charging speeds on our 18W wireless charger were notably slower at more than two hours. The phone does offer reverse wireless charging for accessories, so you can power up your headphones or smartwatch when needed.
The Galaxy S21 FE’s battery life doesn’t go out of its way to impress. Instead, it delivers just the right mix of features and performance for this class of phone. Some mid-range devices from Motorola, however, handily beat the S21 FE with two-day battery life.
How powerful is the Galaxy S21 FE?
Like many Samsung smartphones, there are two major versions of the Galaxy S21 FE: one with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor and one with a Samsung Exynos 2100 processor. The Snapdragon model is being sold in the US and select other markets in the West, while the Exynos model is found in regions such as India. Whichever processor you get, the Galaxy S21 FE comes with either 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage or 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. Samsung lent us the Snapdragon-equipped 6GB/128GB model for testing purposes. We prefer to see at least 8GB of RAM on flagship-level phones as it helps to keep more apps running at once. Moreover, one of the Galaxy S21 FE’s top competitors, the Google Pixel 6, has 8GB of RAM, as does the Galaxy S21.
The newer Galaxy S22 series ships with the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, which moderately boosts CPU performance and significantly ramps up GPU performance.
As far as everyday performance goes, the S21 FE absolutely flies. Even though the Snapdragon 888 itself is more than a year old, it is a welcome step up compared to the Snapdragon 865 that was in the S20 FE. I found the Galaxy S21 FE to be a smooth operator across the board no matter the task at hand, including more intensive 3D games such as Asphalt 9. And the 888 is a better option for gaming than the Tensor processor in the Pixel 6.
When it comes to performance, the Galaxy S21 FE is indeed superior to the Galaxy S20 FE and about equal to that of the Galaxy S21.
We ran the usual set of benchmark apps, including AnTuTu, GeekBench, and 3DMark, and the phone put up respectable scores that stopped just short of being outstanding. In most of the tests, the Galaxy S21 FE bested between 75% and 80% of competing devices. That means it handily outperformed the vast majority of entry-level and mid-range phones. It scored on par with competing Snapdragon 888 devices, such as the Galaxy S21 or OPPO Find X3. With our homegrown Speed Test G benchmark, the Galaxy S21 FE scored one minute 22 seconds, which is right on par for a Snapdragon 888 phone.
What you really need to know here is that the Galaxy S21 FE is indeed superior to the Galaxy S20 FE and about equal in performance to that of the Galaxy S21. In other words, it performs as well as Samsung says it should.
How good are the Galaxy S21 FE’s cameras?
One area Samsung didn’t improve much between the Galaxy S20 FE and the Galaxy S21 FE is the camera. Sure, the lenses may look bigger thanks to the revamped rear hardware, but the sensors themselves and their core capabilities are carried over from one generation to the next.
The main camera has a 12MP sensor at f/1.8 with OIS and dual pixel autofocus — same as the Galaxy S21. The ultrawide camera also has a 12MP sensor at f/2.2 with a really wide 123-degree field of view. Looking to shoot some zoomed shots? The telephoto camera boasts an 8MP sensor at f/2.4 with 3x optical zoom and 30x Space Zoom, which is Samsung’s fancy branding for its hybrid optical/digital zoom. The Galaxy S21 FE also packs the same 32MP selfie sensor at f/2.2 as the S20 FE, with a fairly standard 81-degree field of view.
More reading: The best camera phones you can get
How does the camera fair? Everyday shots you take outdoors during the day or indoors with good lighting turn out bright with that typical Samsung color boost. I was mostly happy with focus and white balance, though things were sometimes a little soft. The camera defaults to auto HDR, and the tool manages to balance things out in decent fashion even in high-contrast scenes. It’s a solid main shooter.
Hopping to the ultrawide, which is at 0.5x zoom compared to the main camera, is fun when you want to squeeze more into the frame. Ultrawide shots are definitely softer than those taken from the main camera, but the color profile and exposure are about the same. HDR isn’t as effective with this camera and you’re more apt to get overexposed or underexposed spots in photos with overly bright or dark regions.
Things really soften up with the telephoto. It does alright, but not nearly as well as the Galaxy S21. The native 3x shots are exposed well enough and not too noisy, though clarity was sometimes on the soft side. I like that the camera’s controls make it easy to jump from 0.5x to 1x, 2x, 3x, 4x, 10x, 20x, and 30x with little buttons. You’ll find 20x and 30x Space Zoom to be mostly worthless in terms of real-world results. The shots are simply too noisy and lacking in focus and detail.
The Galaxy S21 FE includes a dedicated night mode for shooting in the dark. It’s the same night mode available on other Samsung phones, which means it takes a longer exposure and you have to hold still when shooting. Results vary widely depending on the light, what you’re shooting, and how still you hold the phone. I’ve seen better results from other phones.
Shooting selfies? The selfie camera does a fair job when it comes to color and exposure, but images are a bit soft in terms of focus. You’ll also spot a fair amount of grain, particularly in darker environments. Portraits, whether taken with the rear camera or the front camera, are pretty good. The separation between the subject and background is good and the amount of blur is nice without being too much. Edge detection is hit or miss when it comes to your hair.
The one significant new feature Samsung added to the camera is dual capture. This mode allows you to record video from the front and rear cameras at the same time. There are two views: split-screen (50-50) or picture-in-picture. I like that you can prioritize either the front or rear camera when in picture-in-picture mode. The results are about what you’d expect from such a feature. I do wish you could snap photos in this mode, but you cannot.
The one significant new feature Samsung added to the camera is dual capture.
Other camera modes include AR Doodle, pro mode, panorama, food, portrait video, pro video, super slow-mo, slow-mo, hyperlapse, and of course Samsung’s Single Take, which captures a blend of still photos and videos. These all work the same as they have on most Samsung phones over the last few years and the selection strikes a nice balance between fun and functional.
Last, video. The S21 FE maxes out at 4K resolution at 60fps. There are plenty of advanced features, including an HDR 10+ “Samsung Lab” mode, which means it’s a feature that’s still under testing. The high-res video footage I shot looked good on my 4K monitor, though contrast was a little flat.
See also: Photography terms explained
Bottom line, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE has a good camera for the price point, though it doesn’t quite match today’s leading devices. Most notably, it’s outgunned by the less expensive Google Pixel 6 unless you really want a telephoto shooter. Since launch, the Galaxy S21 FE has been swamped by a wave of new flagships — including the Samsung Galaxy S22. While the majority of people will be satisfied with the S21 FE’s camera, those looking for the best possible experience may benefit from going with a newer flagship.
Full-resolution photos are available in this Google Drive folder.
- Software: The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE shipped with Android 12 and One UI 4. It was among the first phones from Samsung to ship with the current operating system from Google, and that’s a good start. One UI 4 is a solid update to the One UI 3 family, and it takes advantage of the new Android 12 features in a respectable way. For example, you’ll notice the new speaker/microphone alerts in the notification bar when the phone is using those features, as well as the precise/approximate location dialog box. One UI does a fair job of adopting Android 12’s automatic color palette feature, but the options aren’t quite as good as those you’ll see on the Google Pixel 6 devices. In all, however, it’s a solid software experience.
- Updates: Samsung has made firm commitments to software updates for its phones and is now promising four years of OS updates and five years of security upgrades. That’s better than any other phone maker at the moment, even Google, which means your S21 FE will remain up to date longer than most. So far, we’ve seen updates through the November 2022 security patch and Android 13 is just starting to roll out.
- Biometrics: Basic biometrics are on board. Samsung added an optical fingerprint reader to the display. It’s positioned just a bit low on the phone’s face, but training and using it are no problem at all. It is generally the best/fastest way to unlock the phone. There’s also a basic face recognition feature, though it’s not the super-secure type that relies on dedicated hardware.
- Stereo speakers: There’s no headphone jack, but you do get stereo speakers with the Galaxy S21 FE. The speakers actually sound pretty good. You’re not going to get the loudest, clearest sound in the world, but you’ll get enough volume to fill a small room and enough clarity to discern the highs from the lows, whether listening to music or watching videos.
- 5G: The Galaxy S21 FE supports both sub-6GHz and mmWave 5G. While the former gets you 5G access across the US and parts of Europe, mmWave is mostly used in the States. Samsung provided a T-Mobile SIM card with our review unit and we were able to put the phone’s 5G to the test. It really worked out well. Download/upload speeds were snappy. Obviously, your mileage will vary depending on where you live. You also get Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0 to round out the connectivity suite, which isn’t quite up to par with the Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.2 found on today’s leading devices.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE specs
|Samsung Galaxy S21 FE|
6.4-inch Dynamic AMOLED
FHD+ (2,340 x 1,080)
120Hz refresh rate
240Hz touch sampling in gaming mode
Gorilla Glass Victus front
Plastic rear panel
Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 (US)
Exynos 2100 (Global)
6GB or 8GB
128GB or 256GB
No expandable storage
Battery and power
25W wired charging
15W wireless charging
Reverse wireless charging
No charger in box
-12MP primary (ƒ1.8, Dual Pixel AF, OIS, 79-degree FoV)
- 12MP ultrawide (ƒ2.2, 123-degree FoV)
- 8MP telephoto (ƒ2.4, 3x optical zoom, OIS, 32-degree FoV)
- 32MP single (ƒ2.2, 81-degree FoV)
Dolby Atmos support
No 3.5mm headphone jack
In-display optical fingerprint sensor
5G: Non-Standalone (NSA), Sub-6GHz, and mmWave
Enhanced 4x4 MIMO, up to 5CA, LTE D/L Cat.19 (1.6Gbps)
LTE U/L Cat.18 (211Mbps)
One UI 4
Dimensions and weight
155.7 x 74.5 x 7.9mm
White, Graphite, Olive, Lavender
Value and competition
Here’s where things get really complicated for the Galaxy S21 FE. The MSRP of the phone is $699 for the 6GB/128GB model, which is what most people will choose, and $769 for the 8GB/256GB model. On their own, these prices don’t seem unreasonable. You’re getting a solid piece of hardware that has a decent screen, good battery life, a top-shelf processor, and a camera setup that comes close to flagship-class despite the hardware beginning to show its age. Not to mention, you get Android 12 out of the box and a firm update commitment. So far so good.
Let’s reel things back a minute, however, and look at how the Galaxy S20 compared to the Galaxy S20 FE, which originally launched at $699. The S20 FE had a solid $300 price advantage over its sibling. From that perspective, the Galaxy S20 FE was a legit bargain compared to the Galaxy S20.
The differential between the vanilla Galaxy S22 ($799) and the base model Galaxy S21 FE is only $100. The Galaxy S22 has fully updated specs, a more appealing design, and higher performance parameters. Perhaps the biggest outward differentiator between the two is the S22’s smaller screen size. Even so, this puts the Galaxy S21 FE in an awkward spot. It is really hard to recommend the Galaxy S21 FE over the Galaxy S22. You can read more in our in-depth comparison.
If you want a Samsung with a similar screen size to the S21 FE, there’s always the Galaxy S22 Plus ($999). This phone is legit $300 more than the S21 FE, but you’re getting a lot for your money with one of the best all-rounders in the market. You could also go in the other direction. For example, the Galaxy A53 5G ($449) is an excellent phone for the price that loses some raw power but provides much of the same experience as the Galaxy S21 FE for $250 less.
Then there’s the elephant in the room. The Google Pixel 7 ($599) is an absolute bargain. The phone has an excellent camera, solid performance and some AI-powered perks, and a software commitment that’s almost as good as the Galaxy S21 FE. Moreover, you get special Pixel-exclusive features directly from Google, such as Call Screening, Now Playing for music discovery, Live Caption, and others. The updated Tensor G2 chip also fixes a few of the flaws from the previous Pixel 6, making it even better for the same price of admission.
You can also score the truly capable Apple iPhone 14 ($799) for a little bit more, though it’s a relatively iterative update with the same chipset as the iPhone 13 and two slightly larger camera sensors. If you really want to save money, the iPhone 13 is a more affordable way to go.
In other words, if the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE doesn’t quite float your financial boat, you’ve got options.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: The verdict
Samsung conjured up a solid smartphone in the Galaxy S21 FE. On the surface, there’s nothing objectionable about the phone at all. Samsung managed to get many of the tent poles firmly in place.
It’s attractive (if a touch simple), slim, and lightweight. I genuinely appreciate the quality of the materials and the tight assembly. The screen is very good, battery life is above average, and it delivers better performance than many phones in its price class. Samsung managed to ship the phone with the latest version of Android (at the time), and it comes with the very best OS and security update commitment.
Samsung shipped the phone with the latest version of Android at the time, and it comes with the very best OS and security update commitment.
Where the phone stumbles is its pricing compared to the competition. The phone simply doesn’t have the price advantage it needs to stand apart from the Galaxy S22. In the US, there’s little reason to opt for the Galaxy S21 FE over the Galaxy S22 with the small $100 price delta. Budget-conscious power users in regions where the Galaxy S22 has an Exynos chipset may be tempted by the Fan Edition, but most should still favor the real thing.
And that’s without getting into the compelling alternatives that may have more appeal. The Pixel 7, in particular, is simply a better buy than the Samsung for the moment, especially if you care about camera results and software.
There’s nothing wrong with the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE. However, unless you can find it on sale, there’s something to be said for pricing. While the $100 between the S21 FE and the S22 is surely a lot to some potential buyers, it’s money well spent if you’re going with Samsung’s latest flagship.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE top questions and answers
While it’s not a bad phone overall, we think that the Galaxy S22 is a better buy than the Galaxy S21 FE despite costing a bit more. There are also a few non-Samsung alternatives out there that are better overall.
There are four Galaxy S21 FE colors to choose from: White, Graphite, Olive, Lavender.
Yes, the Galaxy S21 FE supports both mmWave and sub-6GHz 5G.
The FE stands for “Fan Edition.”
The back of the Galaxy S21 FE is plastic, but the frame is made of metal.