Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: A solid phone out of time

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE specs

Starting price: $699
Display: 6.4-inch AMOLED (FHD+; 120Hz)
CPU: Snapdragon 888
RAM: 6GB, 8GB
Storage: 128GB, 256GB
Rear cameras: 12MP main (f/1.8); 12MP ultrawide (f/2.2); 8MP telephoto (f/2.4) with 30x Space Zoom
Front camera: 32MP (f/2.2)
Battery size: 4,500 mAh
Charging speed: 25W wired; 15W wireless
Size: 6.1 x 2.9 x 0.31 inches
Weight: 6.2 ounces

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE has arrived, bringing a lower-cost addition to the Galaxy S21 lineup. But has the window for releasing this new $699 handset already slammed shut?

It’s a question worth considering since the launch of the Galaxy S22 lineup — Samsung’s next round of flagship devices — is just around the corner. That means the Galaxy S21 FE not only invites comparisons to other Galaxy S21 models but to Samsung phones that could be in our hands as quickly as a month from now. Even smartphone shoppers holding out for the S21 FE’s lower price may be tempted to wait just a little bit longer to see if the Galaxy S22 introduces significantly improved features.

That’s a question that will have to wait until the Galaxy S22 makes its first appearance, which will reportedly be at a launch event in February. For now, our Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review finds a device that doesn’t sacrifice too many features from the Galaxy S21 lineup, but doesn’t come with as big a discount in price as you were probably hoping for.

Editors’ Note: We’ve updated our hands-on with camera testing, an update on battery testing and an initial rating.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE cheat sheet: Top features

  • Costs $100 less than the Galaxy S21
  • Features same Snapdragon 888 chipset as the Galaxy S21 for comparable performance
  • 8MP telephoto lens isn’t as sharp as the 64MP lens that the S21 offers
  • 120Hz refresh rate, but you manually adjust that
  • 4,500 mAh battery is the same size as the one in the Galaxy S20 FE, while the screen shrinks slightly (6.4 incehs vs. 6.5 inches)
  • Lavender is the best color option among graphite, white and olive models

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Price and availability

A big part of the appeal of the Galaxy S20 FE was its price — it debuted at a $300 discount from the Galaxy S20. But after cutting prices on the Galaxy S21 lineup last year, Samsung had a harder time offering the Galaxy S21 FE for that substantial a discount from its main flagships.

The Galaxy S21 FE starts at $699 in the U.S. That’s $100 less than the Galaxy S21’s debut price from last spring; depending on the Galaxy S21 deals available, you may even be able to find last year’s flagship for less. Unless Samsung raises the price for the upcoming Galaxy S22 — and it’s a possibility according to rumors — the Galaxy S21 FE won’t cost that much less from Samsung’s newer flagship.

The Galaxy S21 FE goes on sale a week from now on January 11. Samsung says the new phone will be widely available through carriers and retailers as well as through its own online store. AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon all announced plans to sell the phone, with discounts available as the phone launches if you’ve got a device to trade-in. Our guide on where to buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE includes information about those deals.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Design

With Samsung moving to its plastic-dependent polycarbonate design for the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus, there’s no mystery as to what material the phone maker would use for the Galaxy S21 FE. It’s plastic, and while that’s not necessarily a big trade-off from the S21, there’s no attempt to disguise what this phone is encased in. A haze finish on the back of the phone gives the Galaxy S21 FE a professional veneer, but no one’s going to confuse this phone with a premium handset.

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

The Galaxy S21 FE does adopt one of the S21’s better design flourishes with the contour cut design that houses the rear camera array. While there is a bump holding that strip of vertically aligned lenses, it blends seamlessly into the side of the phone, making the array seem less prominent.

I wish the sides of the Galaxy S21 FE were a little bit more prominent, though — instead, they’re fairly slick, making the phone hard to hold on to. Within a couple hours of taking possession of the Galaxy S21 FE, the phone had already slipped out of my hands a couple times, and only my cat-like reflexes kept it from tumbling to the ground.

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

Like the regular S21, the Galaxy S21 FE uses a fingerprint reader that’s embedded under the display. An overlay that appears when the phone is locked makes the sensor easy to find, and I’ve certainly found it more responsive than the Pixel 6’s pokey unlocking feature.

The Galaxy S21 FE adopts another Galaxy S21 feature that’s likely to annoy some users. There’s no microSD card slot like there was on the Galaxy S20 so the storage on the phone you buy — whether it’s 128GB or 256GB — is what you’re getting.

(Image credit: Samsung)

The blackish graphite color of my review unit is easily the least exciting of the Galaxy S21 FE’s four color options. You can also get the phone in lavender, olive and white. Lavender’s the slickest-looking option in my opinion, but your mileage may vary.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Display

The 6.4-inch AMOLED panel on the Galaxy S21 FE is larger than the standard S21’s 6.2-inch display, though a wee bit smaller than the 6.5-inch screen on the Galaxy S20 FE. The smaller panel doesn’t feel particularly cramped, and I’d go so far as to say it probably makes the S21 FE easier to use with one hand than the previous model.

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

Like the S20 FE, the Galaxy S21 FE can support a 120Hz refresh rate, if you set motion smoothness to High in the device’s Settings app. That means scrolling will look smoother on the Galaxy S21 FE’s display, which leads to a better overall experience with the phone. That said, it looks like you can only toggle between 120Hz and 60Hz manually; the other phones in the Galaxy S21 lineup have adaptive displays that adjust on the fly. It’s perhaps a minor distinction, but it helps explain that $100 difference with the standard S21.

Watching the Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness trailer on the Galaxy S21 FE, I thought the Sorcerer Supreme’s red cape looked suitably vibrant — well, except when he was strolling around the moodier sections of the multiverse. An episode of AP Bio streaming via the Peacock app was also bright and clear. 

Our testing confirms the Galaxy S21 FE does a pretty good job with colors, as it reproduces 119.8% of the sRGB color spectrum in natural mode. That compares to 109.2% on the Galaxy S21. Both Samsung phones recorded Delta-E ratings of 0.29, so colors are just as accurate on the Galaxy S21 FE as they are on the more expensive model.

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

We measured the Galaxy S21 FE’s display at 700 nits with Adaptive Brightness turned on. That’s just shy of the Galaxy S21, which maxed out at 711 nits. And while the 795-nit iPhone 13 outshines the S21 FE, Samsung’s latest phone is still bright enough to see outdoors.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Cameras

Cameras haven’t changed all that much on the Galaxy S21 FE when compared to the previous generation, at least in terms of hardware. As with the S20 FE, the new phone features a 12MP main camera, augmented by a 12MP ultrawide lens and 8MP telephoto lens, with the latter shooter capable of delivering a 30x Space Zoom. Even the apertures on those three lenses are unchanged from the S20 FE.

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

The 8MP telephoto lens is easily the biggest trade-off between the Galaxy S21 FE and Samsung’s standard flagship. Both the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus featured a telephoto camera with a higher resolution — 64MP, specifically. I don’t have either an S21 or S21 Plus on hand, but I imagine photos taken with either phone’s telephoto lens will look a little sharper than what you get from the Galaxy S21 FE.

Still, the Galaxy S21 FE at least has a telephoto lens, which is not something you can say for other phones in its price range. The Pixel 6, which costs $100 less than the Galaxy S21 FE, lacks a dedicated telephoto lens, as does the iPhone 13, which costs $100 more. Considering those two devices rank among the best camera phones, it’s worth seeing how the Galaxy S21 FE’s photographic output measures up.

You’d be hard-pressed to find any difference in these dueling shots of a plate of tacos other than how I framed the shot with the Galaxy S21 FE and Pixel 6. The cilantro leaves topping the tacos in the Galaxy S21 FE shot stand out a bit more distinctly, and the texture of the lime green wall in the background is more detailed. Otherwise, these two photos are roughly the same, and that speaks well of the Galaxy S21 FE’s optics.

Moving outside to a covered vegetable stand, we see the Galaxy S21 FE exhibit a familiar trait for Samsung camera phones — it likes to amp up colors, even if the end result teeters on over-saturating the shot. I think the Pixel 6’s warmer tones lead to a better composed shot — the tomatoes may not look as vibrant as they do in the S21 FE’s photo, but the overall image is balanced throughout.

Not that the S21 FE’s bias toward colors doesn’t pay off in some instances, like in this shot at a nearby marina with downtown Oakland in the background. I like the brightness of the blue sky that the S21 FE captures and how it’s reflected in the water. The iPhone 13’s photo — while more accurate — doesn’t pop as much.

It’s hard to test the Galaxy S21 FE’s zoom lens against either the iPhone 13 or Pixel 6, as those phones must rely entirely on digital zooms. You see the edge the Galaxy S21 FE has when you max out the iPhone 13’s zoom to 5X and compare it to a similar shot from the S21 FE. The name of the Tribune Building is very legible in the S21 FE photo; it’s just a blur when captured by the iPhone.

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

Of course, the Galaxy S21 FE can go beyond 5x, as the telephoto lens supports a 30x Space Zoom feature. It’s hard to frame a shot when maxing out the zoom without using a tripod, but Samsung’s zoom lock feature can at least help you get a focused shot without too much blur. This shot of the Tribune building isn’t as sharp as a purely optical zoom would be, but the photo is clear enough to not only display the Tribune name but to also make out the Wells Fargo sign on the adjacent building.

The ultrawide angle lens on the Galaxy S21 FE has a 123-degree field of view, which is essentially the same as the 120-degree FOV on the iPhone 13.  Consequently, both phones capture an equal amount of detail in ultrawide mode. They also add a noticeable distortion around the sides of the picture, as you can see from the way the lamppost on the right is listing. The bend seems more pronounced on the Galaxy S21 FE’s shot, but I think that’s partly because people are walking into the frame just as I hit the shutter button.

Even ignoring all that, I think the iPhone 13 did a better job here, with its darker, more balanced composition. Once again the Galaxy S21 FE has highlighted the colors, particularly the blue sky, but it’s washed out some elements of the movie theater’s art deco facade.

The Galaxy S21 FE’s portrait mode does an adequate job blurring the background of shots to highlight your subject, even if it aggressively smooths out faces. You can’t even tell that my daughter has freckles in the S21 FE’s photo, when they’re somewhat evident in the Pixel 6 shot. 

I also think Google’s phone is smart about what to blur and what to leave alone. The ukulele next to my daughter in the left side of the portrait only gets a modest blur from the Pixel 6. The Galaxy S21 FE, on the other hand, is a lot more inexact with how it applies that blur. Samsung’s photo does clearly differentiate between her and the background though, which is what you want in a shot like this.

Samsung says it improved the Night Mode on the Galaxy S21 FE, and I think that’s evident from this shot of a skeleton we have hanging in our basement workshop. (“Why do you have a skeleton hanging down there?” you ask? Why don’t you, I reply.) The skeleton emerges clearly from the shadows in the Galaxy S21 FE shot, and Samsung’s phone even does a good job balancing the ambient lighting streaming in from the right side of the picture. Looking at Samsung’s shot, you’d be hard pressed to realize it was taken in a pitch black room. 

The iPhone 13’s effort is a little darker, particularly on the left side of the shot. That probably makes for a spookier photo, but the image comes out more clearly in the Galaxy S21 FE shot.

One thing I’d add about Night Mode on the Galaxy S21 FE: When taking photos in low-light with the S21 FE’s camera app, a crescent moon will appear in the viewfinder. This might make you think that Night Mode is turning on automatically, but it’s not — you have to manually enable the feature, and I’ve found that the best way to do that is from the More options listed among the different camera modes. Otherwise, you might wind up with a shot that’s still very much in the dark.

The 32MP sensor on the front of the Galaxy S21 FE takes an uncharacteristically muted selfie. Colors look accurate, but are a lot more muted than what the iPhone 13’s TrueDepth camera produces. I look hale and hearty in the iPhone 13 selfie, whereas the Galaxy S21 FE has an ashen quality.

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

Among the Galaxy S21’s video features is support for dual video capture. That means you can record video using both the front and rear lenses of the S21 FE, just as you would on the standard Galaxy S21. It’s a nice feature to have if video blogging or Instagramming are among your passions.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Performance and 5G

Many of the new top-of-the-line Android phones coming out this year will run on Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chipset, but the Galaxy S21 FE will stay a year behind with 2021’s Snapdragon 888 silicon. On the bright side, the Snapdragon 888 is the same system-on-chip that powered the entire Galaxy S21 lineup, so you can expect comparable performance with those models. And the three S21 phones were among the best performing Android handsets we’ve tested in the last year.

You make a trade-off from the rest of the Galaxy S21 lineup when you opt for the FE, though. Samsung includes less RAM, with the 128GB base model of the Galaxy S21 FE sporting only 6GB to the 8GB found in the standard S21. That affects the ability to quickly switch between apps, though not so much that you’ll notice a serious lag.

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

Certainly, I was able to switch back and forth between apps without any issues on the Galaxy S21 FE. I also appreciated how the phone can handle some fairly demanding apps without hesitation. I played PUBG Mobile on the Galaxy S21 FE, and the game ran smoothly without sacrificing any of the first-person shooter’s detailed graphics.

My experience is reflected by our benchmark tests for the Galaxy S21 FE. When we ran Geekbench 5 on the new Samsung phone, we got a multicore score of 3,199. That’s not as good as the 3,302 result the standard Galaxy S21 posted on that general performance test. The OnePlus 9, a comparably priced Snapdragon 888-powered phone that comes loaded with 12GB of RAM, posted a 3,618 score. The Pixel 6, which is powered by Google’s Tensor silicon, lags the Galaxy S21 FE with a 2,696 multicore score.

In graphics testing, the Galaxy S21 FE produced similar numbers to the Galaxy S21. Both Samsung phones churned out 34 frames per second in the 3DMark Wild Life Unlimited test. That’s also the score the OnePlus 9 and Pixel 6 both produced. It’s worth noting that the iPhone 13 and its A15 Bionic chip outperforms all these Snapdragon 888 devices, with a 55.9 fps result. Still, the takeaway here is that the Galaxy S21 FE can hold its own against the best Android phones.

With support for both mmWave and sub-6Ghz 5G, the Galaxy S21 FE should work just fine on any 5G network in the U.S, just like any other Galaxy S21 model. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Battery life and charging

You get a 4,500 mAh battery inside the Galaxy S21 FE, which is the same size as the power pack in the phone’s predecessor. With a slightly smaller screen and a more power efficient chipset running the new phone, you’d be inclined to expect some improvement in battery life over the Galaxy S20 FE’s so-so performance.

While we’re still finishing up battery testing on this phone, early indications aren’t encouraging. The battery should get you through a day of normal use, but heavy usage can drain things at a more rapid clip, particularly if you’ve enabled the 120Hz refresh rate in the Galaxy S21 FE’s display settings. The official battery test results could prove to be more encouraging, but this doesn’t seem like a phone likely to end up on our best phone battery life list.

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

Samsung has boosted the charging speed from the Galaxy S20 FE, as the S21 FE supports up to 25W charging. That should get a drained phone to a 50% charge after half-an-hour. In that time, my Galaxy S21 FE got back to a 46% charge, though I wasn’t able to run that test with a 25W charger.

That’s because Samsung doesn’t include a charger with the Galaxy S21 FE, just like it doesn’t include that accessory with other S21 models. There are perfectly sound environmental reasons for that move, but it puts the burden on consumers to already have a charger that can support the Galaxy S21 FE’s speeds or to buy one along with the phone. A 25W charger from Samsung runs you anywhere from $20 to $35.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Software

The delayed Galaxy S21 FE launch has a silver lining in one regard — you won’t have to wait for an update to Android 12. Instead, the Galaxy S21 FE ships with Google’s latest software already installed, along with Samsung’s updated One UI 4.0 interface.

One UI 4 introduces a number of ways to customize the look of your phone’s home screen, icons, wallpapers and more. Widgets get a redesign, and are more customizable, too. Samsung also adopted many of the privacy features Google built into Android 12, so that you can get alerts when an app tries to use the Galaxy S21 FE’s microphone or camera. It’s a better experience, overall. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Verdict

The Galaxy S21 FE is a fine addition to Samsung’s S21 lineup, retaining the very best features of those flagship phones for a more modest price. The tradeoffs you have to make to save $100 aren’t major ones, with the biggest sacrifice being the lack of an adaptive display as that can impact battery life. 

Otherwise, this is a solid phone, matching the performance of the top Android flagships from a year ago and delivering photos that hold their own against some of the best camera phones we’ve tested.

But we can’t just compare phones to what’s come before them. There’s also the matter of what’s coming next, and with the Galaxy S21 FE, that next is coming very soon. With the Galaxy S22 about to launch, it’s hard to recommend buying the Galaxy S21 FE until you’ve at least seen all the upcoming phone’s new features and whether they’ll justify paying a little bit extra for that handset. It could well be that the Galaxy S21 FE is still the better buy, though odds are the S22 is going to prove to be a more compelling choice. (We consider make that case in our Galaxy S21 FE vs. Galaxy S22 comparison.)

In the end, the biggest flaw surrounding the Galaxy S21 FE is the timing of the phone’s release. And that may be the hardest one to overcome.

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