The Galaxy S20 FE debuted as the answer to overpriced flagship smartphones at a time when many really needed the option. That made the device hugely popular, but just over a year later the equation has changed and the Galaxy S21 FE is a little less appealing. That said, it’s still a solid smartphone, and it’s one that’s ready and waiting for its inevitable discounts.
Hardware and display
Like the Galaxy S20 FE, this year’s affordable flagship is an all-plastic smartphone, which is where it mainly cuts corners. Where the Galaxy S21 had a metal frame next to its “glasstic” rear panel, the Galaxy S21 FE is all plastic. This is by no means a bad thing.
Over the time I’ve used this device, I’ve managed to accidentally drop it a few times, a rarity for me, but it came out with no noticeable damage. The body and frame are flawless, and the only damage to report in my use was a scratch on the screen. Samsung uses Gorilla Glass Victus here, however, it’s probably safe to say that this damage that I can’t explain was a quirk rather than a pattern.
The good news about this glass is what’s underneath. The 6.4-inch FHD display is a brilliant AMOLED panel with great colors, smooth 120Hz scrolling, and excellent touch response. A wonky touchscreen was by far my biggest complaint with the Galaxy S20 FE, so I’m really glad to see Samsung paid attention to fixing it in the sequel.
One interesting quirk I found on the hardware, however, was the pair of mmWave antenna cutouts that were eager to collect dust and hair. Twice I found foreign bodies lodged in these places which took a bit of effort to remove. Not a big deal, but good publicity to pick up a deal.
Another notable cost-saving measure on the S21 FE is the fingerprint scanner, which ditches the ultrasonic technology of the rest of the series for an optical sensor. In terms of accuracy and reliability, I don’t see any difference in performance here – the sensor works very very well. The only real downside is that an optical fingerprint sensor requires bright light to work, which can be jarring and distracting in a dark environment. Ultrasonic sensors do not have this problem. It’s a bit of a shame, but something I’m more than willing to overlook.
Another big change from the Galaxy S20 FE to its sequel is the removal of a microSD card slot. It’s not a shock, but it’s a shame to see.
Software & performance
Under the hood, the Galaxy S21 FE runs above a spec sheet that’s definitely ripped from 2021, rather than the 2022 it launched in – which includes the use of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 chip rather than of the newer and faster Snapdragon 8 Gen 1. The chip is paired with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. Overall, performance looks virtually identical to the Galaxy S21 in all but the most intense scenarios. You may feel the limited memory when switching between demanding apps, but for most day-to-day use this is flagship performance across the board. I thought 6GB of RAM was limiting on the Galaxy S20 FE last year, but in hindsight I think that was just down to the touchscreen issues that plagued the S20 FE, and perhaps a general lack of optimization.
There’s also a bonus for the Galaxy S21 FE when it comes to software – this phone comes with Android 12 out of the box and Samsung’s One UI 4.0 skin. While Android 12 isn’t a major upgrade on Samsung phones, it does mean you get all of Android’s best new features out of the box. This includes new privacy indicators when the camera or microphone is in use, revamped home screen widgets, and system colors that sync with your wallpaper. As shown below, Android 12 will automatically select your wallpaper colors and apply them to the various system accents and buttons.
The other big plus for Samsung to launch the S21 FE with Android 12 out of the box is that the phone will see one more update compared to the rest of the S21 series. In line with Samsung’s commitment, the Galaxy S21 FE will see major Android updates through 2025, which should deliver Android 15 to this device, with security patches continuing for a year after that. It’s awesome!
The endurance on the Galaxy S21 FE isn’t terribly impressive, but it’s not unbearably bad. The 4,500mAh cell offers decent battery life, with the phone easily lasting all day with moderate usage, but excessive time or playing local games will quickly drain the battery. Most days, I was able to squeeze four hours of active use – screen time – out of the battery with about 20% remaining at bedtime.
The Galaxy S21 FE’s battery life is decidedly average and partially offset by fast charging. Over USB-C, a 25W power brick can top this phone up in no time, which was handy since I missed the wireless charger one night before bed.
Notably, however, the S21 FE follows the lead of Samsung’s other recent flagships in ditching the included charger. As such, you’ll need to buy one from Samsung or a third party. I was very pleased with this GaN charger from Anker and the new compact 30W adapter from Anker and Nomad.
It’s especially easy to talk about the camera on Samsung’s Galaxy S21 FE, as it’s virtually identical to the Galaxy S21’s setup. The 12-megapixel main sensor captures generally pleasing photos with vivid colors and acceptable depth, but it’s not the most reliable camera. It will take time to get to know the specifics of this camera before you can confidently get the shot you want every time. The same goes for the 12MP ultra-wide camera, which is fine, but not particularly impressive.
The rear camera array is complemented by an 8MP 3x telephoto lens, which takes decent photos that sometimes lack detail. There’s also a new 32MP selfie shooter, which is detailed in its shots, but there’s also a fixed-focus lens which leads to less impressive shots overall.
At its retail price, the Galaxy S21 FE is in a really strange place. It’s only $100 less than the standard Galaxy S21, which is a better phone overall and is often available for less than the FE. Meanwhile, the Pixel 6 costs $100 less and offers essentially the same plan.
That said, the Galaxy S21 FE makes sense in a few key situations. First, when it is inevitably discounted. The Galaxy S20 FE was the go-to choice for Samsung and carriers to offer with huge discounts and in many cases even almost free with trade-ins. It seems quite likely the same will happen with the S21 FE, and it started with Samsung offering up to $560 off the cost of the phone with trade-ins around launch day.
Plus, there’s the fact that the Galaxy S22 series, coming next month, is expected to start at $899.
Another way the Galaxy S21 FE makes a lot of sense is if the Pixel 6 isn’t available in your region, which is quite likely given Google’s limited list of supported countries. When the Pixel 6 isn’t in the room, the S21 FE is easily one of the best “affordable flagship” level smartphones on the market today. When it gets those inevitable cuts, it will be a no-brainer for many.
Buy Galaxy S21 FE:
- best buy
- T Mobile
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