The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE trickles down the Galaxy S21’s great display, impressive cameras and versatile software into a more affordable, less flashy package. And though the $699 S21 FE is not the company’s first full-featured phone to go for under $1,000, this time it’s launching with stiff competition in the form of the $599 Google Pixel 6.
After a week of living with Samsung’s latest smartphone, here’s what you need to know about the S21 FE.
The who, what and how
Who this is for: The S21 FE is ideal for someone who wants a bright display and a versatile set of cameras to shoot with for under $700, or who wants Samsung’s software and exclusive features on a budget.
What you need to know: The S21 FE is smooth in everyday use, can handle intense tasks and is a solid shooter for photo or video. Samsung’s many modes include portrait, a night mode and Single Take, which removes the fuss out of capturing content. The phone also offers smooth, fluid processing, a triple-camera system and long battery life.
How this compares: The Galaxy S21 FE isn’t best in class like the more expensive S21 smartphones, but it offers a vibrant display, swift processing and better-than-average cameras housed in a less-than-premium build. But if you’re not married to Samsung’s interface, we’d opt for another phone like the Pixel 6. Google’s latest flagship delivers the best camera experience on any Android phone we’ve tested, and while it has only two lenses — wide and ultrawide — we didn’t miss the telephoto, thanks to its excellent digital zoom. And if you’re not after the latest and greatest hardware, the Pixel 5a With 5G is an excellent $449.99 phone with similar camera chops, and Samsung’s Galaxy A52 5G ($449) offers a dose of future-proofing with full support for mmWave and Sub-6 5G. If you’re looking for an Apple product, the iPhone SE at $399 is a high performer with a classic design, while the iPhone 11 ($499) and 12 ($599) are both available at discounted prices — just be wary of the storage limit on these models.
A simple build with a great display
The Galaxy S21 FE looks like a modern smartphone with one catch. Like the S21 and S20 FE, Samsung is using less premium materials. The frame is aluminum, but the back is polycarbonate — aka plastic. It doesn’t necessarily feel cheap in hand and is plenty comfortable and light, but the smooth plastic finish on the back shows fingerprints, leading us to recommend a case.
The S21 FE is slightly larger than the standard S21, and though it’s built with similar materials, it feels cheaper. For instance, the camera bump on the back, which contains the three-camera system, still comes out of the device’s frame — yet instead of the metal on the Galaxy S21, here it’s all polycarbonate.
The S21 FE also fully supports wireless charging and works on any standard Qi charging pad, though you can also plug it in via a USB-C cable. The port is flanked by a speaker and the Micro SIM card slot, while the power/sleep button and volume rocker live on the right side. You’ll also find cutouts and bands for 5G support — the S21 FE supports both the Sub-6GHz and mmWave standards. This not only future-proofs you as these networks continue to roll out, but it fixes the 5G conduction of the previous S20 FE, which only packed support for the slower Sub-6 spectrum.
The front of the phone is mostly screen surrounded by thin bezels. Centered at the top of the screen is a pinhole notch with a 32-megapixel selfie camera, though it doesn’t distract in everyday use.
The 6.4-inch Dynamic AMOLED display is immersive, with vibrant colors that pop when scrolling through Instagram, taking in a TikTok or swiping through various apps. Watching an episode of “The Book of Boba Fett” showcases how the S21 FE’s display can handle vibrant areas like a glowing sun against the dark armor of the bounty hunter in the same scene. Other displays, mostly on cheaper phones, may struggle with scenes like this.
The display also features a 120Hz refresh rate, which is becoming the new standard for mobile phones. It’s not adaptive like the 60Hz screens on the S21 or the iPhone 13 Pro, so it won’t adjust based on the content you’re watching or what you’re doing on the phone, but you’ll see a marked difference in how the higher refresh rate enhances action scenes and allows for smoother scrolling. You can set the display to 60Hz or 120Hz in the settings menu — going with the former option could increase battery life.
The in-display fingerprint sensor may not be as fast as the standard S21, S21+ or S21 Ultra, but it performs admirably. Samsung’s using a less advanced optical sensor in the S21 FE, unlike the zippy ultrasonic sensor that impressed us on the more expensive models.
Smooth performance and solid battery life
Like nearly every higher-end Android phone that launched recently, the Galaxy S21 FE packs the zippy Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, letting you easily browse social media, handle productivity tasks (email, web browsing, G Suite and spreadsheets) and even engage in some play, whether that be streaming video or gaming.
And because the Galaxy S21 FE is launching close to a year after the main Galaxy S21 family, you’ll score Android 12 running Samsung’s One UX 4.0 out of the box. We especially appreciate the new privacy tab in settings to get a better sense of how the hardware is being used. However, if you’re expecting clean Android without the Samsung user interface, you’ll want to look at the Google-made Pixel 6.
Our other qualm with the Galaxy S21 FE is that it’s limited to 6GB of RAM in the 128GB of storage and 256GB with 8GB of RAM. This is a full 2GB less than the entry-level S21, though we easily got through several tasks and a full day of use. Those who use the phone for more intense tasks, like photo editing and gaming, might see more of a slowdown. Down the line, with software updates, this could present an issue as the system and apps get more demanding. And, of course, it won’t offer the same future-proofing as the S21 Ultra, which features a massive 12GB of RAM.
In day-to-day use, we found the S21 FE glitched or slowed down at times. This could get sorted out with software updates, but it’s worth noting we didn’t encounter these snags on the standard S21 or Pixel 6.
As we do with every device we test at CNN Underscored, we ran the Galaxy S21 FE through a series of benchmarks. On the standard Geekbench 5, which runs the phone through a series of tasks in a stress test, the Galaxy S21 FE scored 1,098 on single-core performance and 3,210 on multi-core tests, which are well in line with other Snapdragon 888-powered phones, including the standard Galaxy S21. Most importantly, though, the S21 FE’s scores match up with our use day in and day out.
In terms of battery life, Samsung’s 4,500mAh battery has been getting us through a full day.
Nearly identical camera chops
The Galaxy S21 FE has a different look than the Galaxy S20 FE, but the camera hardware is identical.
The triple-camera main system performs well, allowing colors to pop without sacrificing the image’s details. Samsung’s software modes for taking photos and capturing content also help make the experience better. As we’ve called out before, Samsung’s Single Take mode is an intuitive feature for taking the fuss out of photographing a moment. You just tap the start button and move the phone around what you want to capture. It then uses AI to strategically snap shots and capture video. It’s a pretty neat feature, and we had no issues with processing.
Samsung also offers a variety of other modes, like a portrait bokeh effect and an efficient night mode, though if given the choice, we prefer shooting with Apple and Google’s proprietary modes for those same styles.
There’s also no battle when it comes to image processing against the Pixel 6 because Google’s images consistently look better and pack more details.
Here’s what to expect with the Galaxy S21 FE:
- 12-megapixel ultrawide lens: You can pack a lot in a scene without physically moving by shooting with this 123-degree field of view. It’s a great way to frame different shots, and Samsung minimizes disruptions in the edges of the photos.
- 12-megapixel wide-angle lens: The camera automatically opens to the 12-megapixel main camera. This works best for portraits and can handle more crowded shots with tons of colors and details.
- 8-megapixel telephoto lens: The zoom lens is only 8 megapixels here, allowing for a 3x optical zoom and a 30x Space Zoom. This mixes optical and digital zoom into one shot. Though it’s a fun mode to use, the quality phases out past 10x zoom, resulting in blurry images.
You can see some images we shot on the device above. In direct comparison, the telephoto lens included here outperforms the Pixel 6 in zoom shots in most scenarios. Samsung also ups the vibrancy with its photos compared to rivals, and you can see that on the S21 FE. The selfie camera performs admirably and is excellent for capturing TikToks or posting on stories, while the overall performance of the wide and ultrawide lenses is on par with the previous S20 FE and nearly the same level as the S21.
As the last chapter in the story of the Galaxy S21 and the first Samsung smartphone of 2022, the S21 FE gets a lot right. But when it comes to timing and price, the smartphone space has other compelling models to offer.
If you’re not desperate for a Galaxy smartphone or a dedicated telephoto lens, we’d opt to save $100 with the Pixel 6. Google’s $599 phone delivers longer battery life, a higher-end design and fast processing along with one of the best cameras we’ve ever tested. But if you want a Samsung-flavored Android or an impressive zoom lens, there’s a lot to like with the S21 FE. You also might consider the standard Galaxy S21, which is frequently discounted from its $799 starting price and comes with more RAM, a better screen, a higher-end build and a better telephoto lens.
Right now Amazon has a great deal that gets you the S21 for $699 with a free $100 Amazon.com gift card. If you choose to order from Samsung, you can either get a $100 credit or choose a pair of Galaxy Buds Live or Galaxy Buds Pro for $29.99 with the purchase of the S21 FE. Either way, you’ll want to wait to purchase it at a discount or attached to a deal.