Sometimes a phone can do pretty much everything right and still be sorta hard to recommend. That’s where I’m at with the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE.
Samsung’s latest (the FE stands for “Fan Edition”) is somewhat of reimagining of last year’s Galaxy S21. On paper and, for the most part, in practice, it’s an impressive offer: A bigger screen and bigger battery to go along with a similar triple-camera array and the same premium Qualcomm Snapdragon processor as the S21 for $100 less. Last year’s flagship S21 launched at $800 and the S21 FE retails at $700.
And all of that is fine! It’s good, even. This is a really nice Android phone that’s a better value than the original S21. But the “Fan Edition” part of the name is apt; unless you’re really devoted to Samsung’s product ecosystem, there are better values out there in the world of mid-range Android phones.
A beefy lad
The first thing you’re likely to notice once you get your hands on the S21 FE is that it’s not exactly small. In fact, it’s actually a little bit bigger than the more expensive S21. Sorry if you have small hands — this phone isn’t for you.
Here’s exactly how the specs shake out on the S21 FE versus its older counterpart:
- 6.4-inch AMOLED screen with 120Hz refresh rate vs. 6.2-inch on S21
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 5G processor in both phones
- Rear triple-camera array: 12MP wide and ultrawide lenses, 8MP telephoto vs. 64MP telephoto lens on S21
- 32MP front camera vs.10MP on S21
- 4,500mAh battery vs. 4,000mAh on S21
- Either 6GB or 8GB RAM vs. 8GB only for S21
- 128 or 256GB storage on both phones
In other words, this is a slightly bigger phone than the S21 with an incredibly high refresh rate, a high-end processor, and slightly altered cameras. You’ll have to spend $770 for the model with 8GB RAM and 256GB storage, which makes it only a $30 discount from last year’s 8GB/128GB model. That’s…not a great value, honestly. An extra year (plus the imminent announcement of 2022’s Samsung flagships) would’ve ideally reduced the price just a bit more.
Aside from those differences, the two phones are physically and functionally pretty similar. Like the S21, the S21 FE has a razor-thin bezel around the display with the selfie cam nested in a hole-punch slot at the top center of the screen. All three rear cameras are stacked in a vertical, rectangular bump on the plastic backside of the phone. Power and volume buttons adorn the right side while the bottom features a USB-C port for charging and a SIM slot. And finally, the S21 FE comes in four colors: graphite, lavender, white, and olive.
As I hinted at before, the size of the S21 FE is going to be a turn-off for some people, myself included. I don’t have especially small hands but I still have to two-hand the phone to navigate Instagram and Twitter because the system-level back button is on the bottom right corner of the screen, while many apps put important functions (like Instagram Stories) on the upper left corner. I recently had to replace my iPhone and went with the 2020 SE model simply because it’s smaller than the newer, fancier models.
Tech companies, please give us more phones we can use with one hand.
I also strongly feel that a more budget-friendly take on a flagship should include a 3.5mm headphone jack, but the S21 FE doesn’t have one. People who want cheaper versions of phones may not have expensive Bluetooth headphones and shouldn’t have to buy a USB-C dongle just to use their wired earbuds. There are several ways in which 2020’s Google Pixel 5a is a better value than the S21 FE (and we’ll get to some of them later), but a major one is that Google’s $450 handset has a headphone jack.
Oh, one more thing: Samsung says the S21 FE is capable of fast charging like the other S21 models, but the FE doesn’t come with a charger at all. A USB-C cable is included in the package, but I couldn’t test out the fast charging because I wasn’t going to shell out $50 for an official charging brick from Samsung. Big thumbs down to all of that.
More size doesn’t mean less speed
Samsung may have cut corners to (marginally) downsize the S21 FE’s price, but the good news is that performance didn’t take a hit.
The Snapdragon 888 5G processor from last year’s phones is still here and still provides plenty of juice for all your daily smartphone tasks. I could switch from researching the amusing, extremely southern names of Georgia Bulldogs quarterbacks over the years (shout out to current Bulldogs like Stetson Bennett IV and Jack Vandagriff) to yammering about those names to my friends on Twitter and Discord without a hitch. All the while, I was streaming podcasts from Spotify and occasionally bopping over to YouTube to watch game highlights or other such distractions.
This is admittedly helped by the blazing fast 120Hz refresh rate. Everything just feels so smooth. A couple of other quick things to note about usability: Unlocking the phone via facial recognition and the in-display fingerprint sensor both worked almost flawlessly for me. The fingerprint sensor on the S21 was irksome for our reviewer last year, but not for me this time around.
I sincerely don’t have any complaints about the moment-to-moment process of using the S21 FE. I only wish I could do it for longer without needing to plug in.
Bigger battery, but could be better
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the S21 FE is its battery life. I can’t directly compare it to an S21 because I don’t have one of those on hand, but the big increase in the spec sheet wasn’t really reflected when I actually used the dang thing.
To be more specific, I got about 12 hours out of a full charge while doing the things I always do on my phone: Streaming podcasts, vomiting my brain’s wastewater out onto my Twitter feed, occasionally watching YouTube videos, reading articles about sports, and chatting with the homies on Discord. This also included a couple of relatively brief (about 45 minutes total) excursions outside into the 5G zone (more on that in a second), which may have put a little more stress on the battery.
I suppose dropping the refresh rate down to 60Hz would save some battery, but why the heck would I do that? The brilliant display is one of the main selling points of this phone. Compromising that just to compensate for a battery that could be better goes against everything I believe.
That’s a tad dramatic, but the point is that there are other Android phones in this price range that can last much, much longer. For instance, Google’s Pixel 6 starts at $600 and can get you through an entire day. You don’t even need to shell out the extra few Benjamins for the Pixel 6 Pro to get a battery that’s easily better than what’s on offer in the S21 FE.
5G still isn’t reliable
As a quick aside, the S21 FE is a 5G-compatible phone and Samsung helpfully provided a 5G-ready SIM card from T-Mobile for testing purposes. As always, the quality of 5G service varies greatly not only depending on which city you’re in, but it’s literally also down to which street you’re on at times. However, T-Mobile is supposed to have the best 5G service around. That was not my experience.
I was able to get some decent download speeds in my Brooklyn neighborhood, topping out at around 300Mbps. That’s fine! The only problem is the network couldn’t sustain that consistently. Trying to watch YouTube videos on the go in 1080p or higher resulted in frequent buffering breaks if I happened to round a corner where the signal wasn’t strong enough.
If, for some reason, 5G is a major selling point of the S21 FE for you, I can’t promise a great experience in that regard.
I’m not real thrilled about certain aspects of the S21 FE, like the battery life or the price. But Samsung usually doesn’t mess around with its phone cameras, and I’m happy to report that you can still get some really great shots on this slightly downgraded set of lenses.
In particular, I was impressed by the nighttime photography feature. This is standard fare in plenty of phones now, but sometimes post-processing for dark photos makes them look a little too much like they take place in fake daytime instead of capturing the feel of being out in darkness. Nighttime is great. It’s atmospheric. My fellow Michael Mann-heads understand this; Collateral would look like crap if it took place during the day.
Anyway, nighttime shots on the S21 FE look nice.
Of course, portrait mode is here, too, and I’ve got no qualms with how those shots come out on S21 FE. You can adjust blur intensity on the fly to produce just the right bokeh effect for your photos.
The most noteworthy downgrade from the old S21 is that the 64MP telephoto lens was replaced with a measly 8MP one. As a result, highly zoomed in shots don’t look super sharp. You’re allowed to zoom as high as 30x, but I wouldn’t recommend that. Every shot I took like that turned out blurry and ugly.
Just look at what the telephoto lens did to my boy Gengar!
For all the grousing I’ve done about various setbacks with the S21 FE, at least the cameras are still pretty darn good.
For Samsung fans only
On its merits, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is a high-performing Android phone that doesn’t cost as much as a flagship, with a solid set of cameras and an excellent display. I’d easily recommend it in a vacuum. Unfortunately for Samsung, we’re not in a vacuum and there are just better values out there for Android lovers.
I just can’t see a compelling reason to go with this phone over either the Pixel 5a or Pixel 6. The former is a massive discount at $450 and has a much better battery, terrific cameras, and the all-important headphone jack. The only downside is the 60Hz refresh rate. If you want a higher refresh rate and don’t care about a headphone jack, the Pixel 6 is only $600 and delivers a 120Hz display to go along with a similarly excellent battery and Google’s great cameras.
The best case I can make for the S21 FE is if you really care about seamless connectivity between your phone and external Samsung devices like the Galaxy Buds 2. However, you can just download the Galaxy Wearable app from the Play Store, so even that is a minor inconvenience at worst.
If you’re a massive Samsung fan and can’t deal with Android phones from other brands, you’ll find plenty to like about the Galaxy S21 FE. Everyone else should get a Pixel.