Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: A great $700 phone that comes at an awkward time
The Galaxy S21 FE offers a lot for the price, but the Galaxy S22 may be coming soon. And the Pixel 6 brings some serious competition.
Lisa EadiciccoSenior Editor
Lisa Eadicicco is a senior editor for CNET covering mobile devices. She has been writing about technology for almost a decade. Prior to joining CNET, Lisa served as a senior tech correspondent at Insider covering Apple and the broader consumer tech industry. She was also previously a tech columnist for Time Magazine and got her start as a staff writer for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide.
Between the Galaxy S20 FE's success and the deluge of leaks we saw beforehand, the Galaxy S21 FE may be one of Samsung's worst-kept secrets. A follow-up to Samsung's previous midrange Galaxy S phone, the new S21 FE starts at $700 and launches on Jan. 11. Despite being $100 cheaper than the regular Galaxy S21, it has the same processor and comes with a larger screen, a triple-lens camera and support for both versions of 5G. The S21 FE checks all the boxes most people would expect from a modern phone. The performance is snappy, it takes great photos and can last for a long time on a single charge.
These attributes make the Galaxy S21 FE a promising option if you want a relatively affordable new Android 12 device. You won't get some of the costly extras found on more premium phones -- like a fourth camera lens, a crisper telephoto lens or a super sophisticated design -- but you're not compromising by going for Samsung's cheaper option.
Watch this: Galaxy S21 FE review: Samsung's new phone gives the Pixel 6 some competition
However, the Galaxy S21 FE may end up feeling lost in Samsung's lineup and the broader Android phone market. We're expecting the Galaxy S22 to launch imminently, and if the rumors are true, it could have a new 50-megapixel camera and faster charging. Plus, the $600 Pixel 6 is slightly cheaper than the Galaxy S21 FE and was named one of our favorite phones of 2021. Although the Pixel 6 doesn't have the S21 FE's third camera lens, it's loaded with Google-specific features that could make it more appealing for some.
The Galaxy S21 FE feels exactly like what it is: a previous-generation phone. That's not a bad thing; after all, buying older phones can be a great way to save money. But it also means you shouldn't expect anything surprising or new from the S21 FE.
A sleek but basic design that looks a lot like the Galaxy S21
The Galaxy S21 FE looks almost identical to the Galaxy S21 from the front. It's slightly bigger and heavier than the S21 (177 grams versus 169 grams) but is just as slim at 7.9 millimeters thick. For me, the S21 FE's 6.4-inch display and light build provide the right balance of screen space and ease of use: It's bigger than the 6.2-inch Galaxy S21 but just a hair smaller than the 6.5-inch Galaxy S20 FE, Samsung's previous-generation midrange phone.
The Galaxy S21 FE's screen uses Samsung's Dynamic AMOLED technology and has an FHD Plus resolution just like the Galaxy S21. The pixel density, or number of pixels per inch, is lower than the Galaxy S21's since the S21 FE's screen is larger, but the difference isn't noticeable. Photos, games and news articles all look sharp and bold on the S21 FE's screen. It has a flat-edge screen just like the Galaxy 21 and Galaxy S1 Plus, which I actually prefer over the pricier Galaxy S21 Ultra's slightly curved sides.
On the back, you'll find the same camera bump as on the Galaxy S21. Both phones have a matte finish that looks more elegant and doesn't pick up fingerprints as easily as Samsung's older phones (although it still does get smudgy, so you'll want to use a case). The Galaxy S21 does, however, have some design accents that make it feel like a more expensive phone, such as the glossy metallic finish on its camera module and sides.
Samsung's Galaxy S21 FE looks almost exactly like the Galaxy S21
Though it's a nice enough phone for $700, the real problem in my opinion is that Google has raised the bar for what's expected of a midtier phone. Google's $600 Pixel 6 has an eye-catching two-tone glass design with sharper corners that almost makes it feel similar to the Galaxy Note. Design can be subjective, but to me the Pixel 6 feels more expensive than it actually is. The Galaxy S21 FE is sleek and lighter than the Pixel 6, and some might find it easier to use with one hand, but it doesn't leave the same impression.
There's also an in-screen fingerprint reader and facial authentication for unlocking the device, which I generally found to be pretty reliable. You won't find expandable storage on this model as was the case with the Galaxy S20 FE, but Samsung is selling its new phone in another variant that comes with 256GB of storage (the base model has 128GB).
A big battery and solid performance
Battery life was a highlight for the Galaxy S20 FE, and the Galaxy S21 FE seems to follow in its footsteps so far. Like the Galaxy S20 FE, the Galaxy S21 FE comes with a 4,500-mAh battery, which is larger than the regular Galaxy S21's 4,000-mAh battery.
The Galaxy S21 FE still had 32% of its battery left after a full day and a half's worth of usage. That's not too shabby, especially since I had the motion smoothness setting on high, which cranks the screen's refresh rate up to 120Hz. That results in faster scrolling but also typically means shorter battery life.
Samsung's new phone comes with the same processor as the Galaxy S21, which means the US version runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888. That chip is found in other high-end phones like Samsung's Galaxy Z Fold 3 and the OnePlus 9 Pro, so the S21 FE should be able to keep up with those devices easily.
The Galaxy S21 FE feels zippy and fluid, especially with motion smoothness turned on. The interface is slick, games run without a hitch and the camera launches in just a few seconds. Samsung also says the S21 FE supports a response rate of 240Hz, allowing for even quicker reaction times in game mode like the rest of the Galaxy S21 series. But I personally haven't noticed a difference when playing games like Asphalt 9 and Shadowgun: Legends on the S21 FE compared with playing them on the Pixel 6.
The Galaxy S21 FE scored about the same as Galaxy S21 but higher than the Pixel 6 on Geekbench 5, a benchmark test meant to assess the phone's performance in general tasks. However, it scored slightly lower than both the regular S21 and Pixel 6 on a separate benchmark called 3DMark Slingshot Unlimited for testing graphics performance. Check out the results below.
A triple-lens camera similar to the Galaxy S20 FE's and S21's
Samsung's new phone has a triple-lens camera that's similar to the Galaxy S20 FE's camera setup. There's a 12-megapixel ultrawide camera, a 12-megapixel wide camera and an 8-megapixel telephoto camera with a 30x digital zoom.
Based on my experience, the Galaxy S21 FE seems to hold its own against the Pixel 6's 50-megapixel camera and the standard Galaxy S21, but with some important differences. The S21 FE's images are rich in detail and color, and the camera performs well in different lighting conditions.
Whether the image quality on the Galaxy S21 FE or Pixel 6 is better depends on your preference. Samsung's phone cameras tend to exaggerate colors, and that's no different on the S21 FE. Some people might prefer Samsung's more colorful shots, but Google's images looked truer to their surroundings most of the time. (Note: I didn't change the camera settings on either phone prior to testing other than to adjust the Pixel's 6 crop ratio.)
Overall, I think the Pixel 6's photos provided the best balance of consistency and accuracy, but it's safe to say that both phones are capable of taking really great pictures. Photos taken on both phones looked the same in some cases, but the images below of a green bush really highlight the difference between Samsung's and Google's cameras. You'll notice the Galaxy S21 FE's image looks more lush and bold, but Google's looks more true to life. For example, you cab see notes of red near the tips of the leaves in the Pixel 6 photo below. They aren't even visible in the Galaxy S21 FE's image.
Check out the gallery below to see more photo samples from the Galaxy S21 FE and Pixel 6.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE camera testing: See how it compares to the Pixel 6 and Galaxy S21
The bigger difference between these phones is in the photography features they offer. The most notable distinction between the Pixel 6 and Galaxy S21 FE is that Samsung's phone has an 8-megapixel telephoto lens in addition to a 12-megapixel wide and ultrawide lenses. The Pixel 6, by comparison, just has two lenses: a 50-megapixel main lens and a 12-megapixel ultrawide lens. As a result, the Galaxy S21 can achieve closer zoom shots with up to a 30x digital zoom, while the Pixel 6 provides a 7x zoom.
Both the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 FE have triple-lens cameras, but the telephoto lens on the regular S21 has a higher-resolution sensor (64 megapixels versus 8 megapixels). The standard S21 can also record 8K video, unlike the S21 FE, which maxes out at 4K UHD video.
At first, I didn't notice much of a difference in the quality of zoomed-in shots when comparing images taken on the Galaxy S21 FE and Galaxy S21, as I noted in an earlier version of this review. But the more I've spent use the Galaxy S21 FE, the more I've noticed this discrepancy. While both phones produce similar images when photographing objects like street signs, the Galaxy S21 was able to capture more detail in other scenarios. Take the photos below, both of which were captured at a 10x zoom. You'll notice the bush's branches have more texture and detail in the Galaxy S21's photo than the S21 FE's.
Galaxy S21 FE
Hardware aside, each phone comes with its own array of shooting modes and software. The Galaxy S21 FE, unsurprisingly, has a lot in common with the regular Galaxy S21 in this regard. You'll find familiar modes like Single Take, which lets you capture multiple images and video clips with a single press of the shutter button, Super Slow-Mo video and Night Mode, among others.
You can also record video with the front and rear cameras at the same time on the Galaxy S21 FE. But this feature is more limited than the Galaxy S21's Director's View; you can't toggle between the three rear lenses when shooting in this mode as you can on the Galaxy S21.
Google, meanwhile, has a few software-based tools that make its device stand out. One of my favorites is Face Unblur, which, as its name suggests, can capture sharp images of peoples' faces even when there's movement in the scene. I took photos of my husband shaking his head back and forth and jumping up and down to see how well it actually works, and came away impressed. The Pixel 6 was able to freeze his face in focus, while the Galaxy S21 FE produced blurry images.
Galaxy S21 FE
The bottom line
There isn't much to say about the Galaxy S21 FE other than that it's a solid phone for $700. It's another sign that the definition of a high-end phone is starting to change as once-premium features like 5G, borderless displays and multilens cameras begin trickling down to more affordable devices.
That being said, I'd recommend waiting until Samsung announces the Galaxy S22 lineup before making a decision. Samsung typically launches its new Galaxy S phones early in the year, and rumors suggest the next generation could come with a 50-megapixel camera and faster charging. Even if you don't need those upgrades, you might as well wait so that you can make a more informed choice.
I'd also suggest considering the $600 Pixel 6 before you make a decision. Samsung's phone has an extra telephoto camera lens for better zoom shots, and it's also lighter than Google's phone. But the Pixel 6 has a more distinguished design and Google-specific goodies like the ability to have Google Assistant screen spam calls and wait on hold for you.
Pixel phones also typically get Android software updates more quickly than phones from other smartphone makers, and Google typically creates exclusive features just for Pixel phones. Since the Pixel 6 is the first phone to run on the company's own Tensor chip, we'll probably see even more of that down the line.
But Samsung's phone has a big advantage: it supports both sub-6GHz and millimeter-wave versions of 5G. The situation is a bit more complicated with the Pixel 6, as only certain carrier models support both versions. What's more, the versions that support both also tend to cost more, as my colleague Eli Blumenthal reports.
If you're the type of person who would rather buy last year's phone at a discount, the Galaxy S21 FE is probably for you. That being said, you should consider which features matter to you most. Both phones have great cameras, but if you take a lot of zoomed-in photos you might be better off with the Galaxy S21 FE. However, if you like the idea of having Google Assistant screen your calls and want to get the latest Android features right away, the Pixel 6 is the way to go.
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