Samsung's new Galaxy S21 FE will keep the Galaxy S21 alive at a more affordable price
Samsung's Galaxy S21 FE has a triple-lens camera, 5G and the same chip as the Galaxy S21.
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.
Watch this: Galaxy S21 FE: Samsung's affordable new alternative to the Galaxy S21
Some companies discount older phones after releasing new models. Samsung is leaning into that concept with the $700 Galaxy S21 FE, which launches on Jan. 11 and will be available in the US and other countries. Samsung's new Fan Edition phone will fill the same role as its predecessor, the Galaxy S20 FE, by becoming the new affordable option in Samsung's premium Galaxy S lineup.
The Galaxy S21 FE, announced just ahead of CES 2022, will serve as a replacement for the Galaxy S21 once Samsung eventually phases out that family of devices. If you typically wait for the newest Galaxy S phone to launch so that you can get the previous model at a discount, you're Samsung's target audience for the Galaxy S21 FE. Samsung doesn't have any immediate plans to stop selling the Galaxy S21, which launched about a year ago. But it will position the Galaxy S21 FE as its previous-generation option once it does cycle out that series, the company said.
This isn't a new strategy. The past few years have seen a resurgence in midtier and budget phones across the industry. Even Apple revived its wallet-friendly $400 iPhone SE in 2020. But Samsung's strategy is different from Apple's in one key way. Samsung is essentially borrowing certain aspects of its mainstream Galaxy S21 phone and selling it as a midrange device. Apple, meanwhile, tends to keep older phones like the iPhone 11 in its lineup to fill that gap between its budget SE and high-end iPhones.
Similar to Samsung's first FE phone, the Galaxy S21 FE comes with features that were once reserved for more expensive phones, such as a triple-lens camera, 5G support, reverse wireless charging and a screen that can boost its refresh rate to 120Hz.
The Galaxy S21 FE is arriving as Samsung's smartphone lineup has become increasingly crowded and will likely continue to expand. The company is expected to launch the Galaxy S22 lineup in the early part of the year, just as it has done in the past. It also recently launched the $250 Galaxy A13 5G in the US and also sells other midtier phones such as the Galaxy A52 5G.
Here's a closer look at what to expect from Samsung's new midtier Galaxy phone.
Galaxy S21 FE specs: All the important details and features
CNET's Andrew Hoyle praised the Galaxy S20 FE and gave it an Editors' Choice Award for its excellent balance of performance and price. It seems like Samsung is carrying that approach forward with the Galaxy S21 FE, which appears to be a hybrid of the Galaxy S20 FE and Galaxy S21.
It has the same processor as the Galaxy S21, which means it will run on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 chip in the US, but otherwise has a lot in common with the Galaxy S20 FE. For example, both this year's FE phone and the 2020 version have a 4,500-mAh battery and a triple-lens camera with a 12-megapixel ultrawide camera, a 12-megapixel wide camera and an 8-megapixel telephoto lens. Both the Galaxy S21 FE and Galaxy S20 FE also have a 32-megapixel front camera, which is a step up from the Galaxy S21's 10-megapixel selfie camera.
You can also expect to see a similar selection of the software-based photography features typically available on Samsung phones. In addition to night and portrait modes, there's also a tool for shooting with the front and rear lenses simultaneously. It's similar to the Galaxy S21's Director's View, but slightly different. You can't switch between the different rear lenses in addition to shooting with both the front and rear cameras on the Galaxy S21 FE as you can on the Galaxy S21.
One of the few areas in which the Galaxy S21 FE differs from the Galaxy S20 FE and Galaxy S21 is screen size. At 6.4 inches, the Galaxy S21 FE's screen is larger than the Galaxy S21's (6.2 inches), but slightly smaller than the Galaxy S20 FE's (6.5 inches). But like those two phones, the Galaxy S21 FE will support the ability to boost the refresh rate up to 120Hz for smoother scrolling.
You'll get both flavors of 5G in the Galaxy S21 (sub-6GHz and millimeter-wave), and the base model will include 6GB of memory and 128GB of storage. There's no microSD card slot, but Samsung is offering the phone in another option that comes with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage for $770.
Samsung is continuing its tradition of offering multiple color options for its new phone, although the Galaxy S21 FE won't come in as many different shades as the Galaxy S20 FE. The new phone will be available in white, graphite, lavender purple and olive green, while its predecessor came in navy blue, lavender, red, mint green, white and orange.
Is the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE worth it?
We can't recommend the Galaxy S21 FE until we've spent more time testing it. But it looks like a promising option for those who want a general-purpose phone with a reliable camera, solid performance and a spacious screen. At $700 in the US, it's $100 less than the current Galaxy S21 and $500 less than the top-of-the-line $1,200 Galaxy S21 Ultra.
The problem, however, is that Samsung is facing a lot of competition, even within its own product line. The Galaxy S22 is expected to launch in early 2022, and there's a chance it may only cost $100 more than the Galaxy S21 FE if Samsung sticks with its current pricing structure.
Based on Samsung's history, it seems fair to assume that the base Galaxy S22 will come with a new Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and a sharper telephoto lens than the Galaxy S21 FE. It might also come with a 50-megapixel camera sensor, according to well-known leaker Ice Universe. Significantly faster charging speeds are also a possibility, according to FronTron and Ice Universe. A more powerful processor, better camera and quicker charging could be enough to justify the extra $100 for some shoppers, possibly making the Galaxy S21 FE feel lost in the lineup.
There's also Google's $600 Pixel 6 smartphone, which is $100 cheaper than the Galaxy S21 FE. Google's latest Pixel is among the first to come with the company's new Tensor chip, which particularly shines in the device's camera. Patrick Holland gave it a CNET Editors' Choice Award for its excellent combination of elegant design, powerful performance and superb photography.
We'll know more once we've had a chance to check out the Galaxy S21 FE ourselves. To learn more about how it compares with the Galaxy S20 FE, Galaxy S21 and Google Pixel 6, check out the table below.
120Hz screen refresh rate, support for 30W fast-charging and 15W fast wireless charging
5G sub-6 (some carrier models also have 5G mmWave) support, Wi-Fi 6E, 30W fast-charging, Magic Eraser, Motion mode, Real Tone, Face Unblur, Cinematic Pan, 5 years OS and security updates, IP68 rating for dust and water resistance, Gorrila Glass Victus (front), Gorilla Glass 6 (back)