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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Better phone, worse price

This upgrade is an uphill battle for Samsung thanks to steep competition.

It's hard to believe that it's been a year and a half since Samsung redefined the "flagship killer" concept with the Galaxy S20 FE. At the time, the phone blew us away with its quality, delivering a true flagship experience for a significantly lower price than a "regular" Galaxy S20. The Galaxy S21 FE was rumored to be released the entire second half of 2021, and now it's finally here.

The Galaxy S21 FE debuts with some of the expected upgrades over its predecessor but still retains many of the points that made the S20 FE a more affordable device. You won't find a brand new camera array on this phone when compared to 2020's device — that's a 12MP sensor for the main and ultra-wide lenses, while an 8MP sensor still resides behind the 3X telephoto lens — but Samsung has upgraded the styling to be more in line with the Galaxy S21 and the rumored look of the Galaxy S22 series.

The display got a big touch latency upgrade — up to 240Hz touch response rate when using game mode — and the processor has been bumped up to the same Snapdragon 888 that powers the rest of the Galaxy S21 lineup. But, despite the Galaxy S21 being less expensive than the Galaxy S20 at launch, the Galaxy S21 FE launches at the same $699 price as the Galaxy S20 FE.

That makes it $100 less than a standard Galaxy S21 — and it sports a bigger screen than that phone, too — but does it make too many concessions for a mere $100 savings? Our Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review will give you the answer.

Bottom line: The Galaxy S21 FE is, most certainly, a love letter to Samsung fans who don't upgrade to the latest and greatest every year. It costs $100 less than the Galaxy S21 but, save for lower quality haptic motors, you'll never notice the difference. It's the best value Samsung phone since the Galaxy S20 FE, even if the Pixel 6 is a better value buy.

The Good

  • Big, beautiful 120Hz screen
  • Same great cameras from the S21
  • Light and thin
  • Great battery life
  • Excellent performance
  • Launches with Android 12/One UI 4

The Bad

  • Not as good a value as last time
  • Haptic motors are lower quality
  • One UI 4 color changing isn't as good as the Pixel

From $699 at Samsung From $700 at Best Buy

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE: Price and availability

Category Galaxy S21 FE
Operating System Android 12 + One UI 4
Display 6.4 inches, 120Hz refresh rate, Dynamic AMOLED 2X, 2340 x 1080 resolution
Processor Snapdragon 888 or Exynos 2100
Graphics Adreno 660 or Mali-G78 MP14
Memory 6GB or 8GB
Storage 128GB or 256GB
Expandable Storage No
Rear Camera 12MP, ƒ/1.8 (wide-angle)
12MP, ƒ/2.2 (ultra-wide)
8MP, ƒ/2.4, 3x optical zoom (telephoto)
Front Camera 32MP, ƒ/2.2
Security Optical in-display fingerprint sensor, single-camera face unlock
Connectivity Wi-Fi 4/5/6, Bluetooth 5.0, 5G
Ports 1x USB Type-C
Audio Stereo speakers
Battery 4500mAh
25W Fast Charging
15W Wireless Charging
Reverse Wireless Charging
Water and Dust Resistance IP68
Dimensions 155.7 x 74.5 x 7.9mm
Weight 177g
Colors White, Graphite, Olive, Lavender

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE will be available Jan. 11 from all major carriers and unlocked from Samsung, as well as the usual retailers that carry Samsung phones. Samsung set the MSRP for the Galaxy S21 FE to $699.99 — the same price the Galaxy S20 FE launched at — making it $100 less than the regular Galaxy S21.

The Galaxy S21 FE with 6GB RAM with 128GB internal storage sells for $699.99, while $769.99 will upgrade that to 8GB RAM with 256GB internal storage.

As is the case with most Samsung phone launches, the Galaxy S21 FE can be had for a deal at launch from many carriers, including AT&T. AT&T is selling the Galaxy S21 FE for $15/month on a qualifying installment plan, which makes it $540 total. That's $160 less than the retail price. At that price, the phone is an absolute steal and incredibly easy to recommend.

Samsung runs the usual trade-in promotions on its own website, meaning you can get the Galaxy S21 FE for hundreds less if you trade in a qualifying smartphone and use the credit towards the purchase of a new Galaxy S21 FE.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE: A marked improvement

For the past year and a half, we've been raving about the Galaxy S20 FE. Not only was the price excellent — especially when it went on sale — but the overall experience was just as good as a regular Galaxy S20 for most users. The Galaxy S21 FE holds to that same mantra and, when compared to the S20 FE, brings about an upgraded processor that will be able to handle anything you throw at it, including the upgraded 120Hz display.

The Galaxy S21 FE is very much a combined and refined version of the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S20 FE.

The Galaxy S20 FE also had a 120Hz panel, but the S21 FE features the Dynamic AMOLED 2X from the S21 series — bringing about general improvements in image quality and refresh rate tweaks — which features a new 240Hz input refresh rate while game mode is enabled.

While it was subtle, I could tell the difference between the input latency while playing fast games that require twitch reflexes. In short, a 240Hz refresh rate means that the Galaxy S21 FE is able to detect any touches on the screen twice as fast as the 120Hz display physically refreshes the image.

Because of that, you'll feel like any touches made to the screen are absolutely instantaneous. This sort of 240Hz input refresh tech has been used on the Galaxy S20 and S21 — as well as plenty of phones from other manufacturers — but it's a first for the FE series.

The panel itself looks absolutely gorgeous, as you might expect from a Samsung display, and is both plenty bright outdoors as well as ultra-smooth when 120Hz mode is enabled. You'll find that 120Hz is enabled out of the box, so the best experience can be had without tweaking a single thing.

As far as design is concerned, the Galaxy S21 FE is very much a combined and refined version of the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S20 FE. As with both of those phones, the side rails of the Galaxy S21 FE are metal, while the back is plastic. This is a nice powdery plastic that feels solid throughout, with no obvious give even if you press hard on it.

The entire body sports a matte finish, which helps make it more difficult to tell which parts are metal and which are plastic. That's a stark contrast from the glitzy, shiny Galaxy S21.

Samsung continues to reduce the overall number of curves found on its phones, straightening out the back corner contours and the metal side rails to form a more uniform curve. The unique camera hump from the S21 has been brought over but now features a smoother transition between the back and the hump. I preferred the dual-tone colors of the S21 series but like the curve on the S21 FE's camera hump better.

The fingerprint scanner is so much better than the Pixel 6's, which I've grown accustomed to hating.

Samsung also lowered the location of the in-display fingerprint reader when compared to the S21, which I find to be a far more natural position. In fact, there were several times where I pulled the phone out of my pocket only to find that I had unlocked it in the process of grabbing it, simply because the fingerprint reader now resides in the exact location where I grab the phone.

The Galaxy S21 FE launches with One UI 4, built upon Android 12, and all the fantastic features from other Samsung flagships are here and as good as ever. The new theme engine ensures that your device feels unique by changing the color of the UI based upon the wallpaper you've chosen.

Additionally, Android 12 brought sweeping privacy changes, including a privacy dashboard and icons that appear on the screen any time an app requests the use of your camera, microphones, or location. Unlike Google, Samsung didn't go out of its way to significantly alter the visual style of One UI with the Android 12 upgrade. Rather, it's the same interface you love, now with a bit more color.

Good Lock remains one of my absolute favorite reasons to use a Samsung phone, simply because it offers more customization options than any other OEM bothers to. Want a different multitasking screen that's far more useful than the stock one? How about the complete history of all your notifications? No matter what you want to change, Good Lock is almost guaranteed to allow it.

While it features the same battery size as last year, I had no problem getting a full day's use out of it. One charging cycle actually saw almost two full days of use, meaning some users could very well get the same longevity.

What's nice is that even power users will be able to get more than a full day's worth of use from this phone, and charging up is quick, thanks to the 25W wired and 15W wireless charging. It's also got reverse wireless charging in case you need to top up a pair of the best wireless earbuds.

The camera, too, has seen a few tweaks and upgrades despite not having any hardware updates. In fact, the telephoto camera is a lower megapixel count sensor than the one on the regular S21. While that sounds like a huge downgrade, I didn't see any notable difference between these phones, and, in some cases, the S21 FE actually had slightly more detail in some situations when zooming in more than 3x.

In general, when compared to the Galaxy S21, I preferred the images that came from the S21 FE.

The Galaxy S21 FE supports all the rest of the expected modes and features, including 30x Space Zoom for photo mode, which combines a hybrid digital and optical zoom via the 3x telephoto lens. Video mode is restricted to a maximum zoom of 10x, which is identical to the regular Galaxy S21.

In general, when compared to the Galaxy S21, I preferred the images that came from the S21 FE.

Samsung seems to have further enhanced the HDR processing when compared to the S21, adding in more shadow detail and balancing out highlights slightly better than the Galaxy S21.

When compared to the Pixel 6, I almost always preferred the Pixel 6 photo. Despite significant improvements and lots of excellent AI tricks, Google's processing still does a better job at the end of the day.

The only place where the S21 FE fell behind was in video recording, as there's no option to record 8K video. Still, it's not likely that most people will concern themselves with this feature, so it's probably not a real loss.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE: Where the downgrades come in

When the Galaxy S20 FE launched, it surprised many people because it cut out the "least important" specs and delivered a huge $300 price cut when compared to the Galaxy S20. This time around, the Galaxy S21 FE is only $100 less than its respective more-premium Galaxy S21 phone, which makes it feel like less of a value win for customers.

The elephant in the room is the Google Pixel 6, which is a further $100 less expensive than Samsung's offerings.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the Google Pixel 6. At $100 less than the Galaxy S21 FE, the Pixel 6 will likely remain the choice for folks wanting to spend less without actually getting less from their phone.

The question, of course, is whether or not Google can iron out the myriad of Pixel 6 bugs that keep cropping up. Google certainly has the price advantage here, but Samsung tends to be better about stable software updates these days, in addition to users more options and features out of the box.

Carrier deals, as was noted in the availability section above, further muddies these waters. You'll almost certainly be able to get an S21 FE for much less than the $700 MSRP at any given point in time. At full price, I'd buy the S21 FE over the S21 any day, but I'd also opt to save the $100 and just get the Pixel 6, instead. With carrier discounts, it's much harder to decide.

On the hardware side of things, my biggest disappointment with the Galaxy S21 FE remains the haptic motors Samsung chose. Out of the box, the Galaxy S21 FE's haptic motors feel cheap and old, delivering that harsh, imprecise vibration of the phones of yore. It feels like maybe a marginal upgrade from the S20 FE's vibration motors, but they still feel more in the budget category than anything else.

The Pixel 6 haptics absolutely slay the ones on the S21 FE.

This won't bother you if you're someone who turns haptic feedback off right away but, for folks like myself, it's a big turnoff if you've become a haptic feedback snob over the past few years.

The difference between this phone's haptics and the haptics on the Pixel 6 are night a day. The Pixel 6 haptics absolutely slay the ones on the S21 FE and, at least for me, that's one of those seemingly small features that actually ends up providing a better overall experience over time. I still pick up the Pixel 6 and marvel at how good it feels to just use the phone because of these advanced haptic motors.

On the software side of things, One UI 4 simply isn't as colorful or playful as Android 12 on the Pixel 6. Sure, it's got some of the color-changing bits from Google's flavor of Android 12, but that color doesn't go nearly as deep.

For example, when you set your wallpaper and change the interface color on the Pixel 6, all supported apps will also be themed. On One UI 4, this color change will only affect some Samsung apps, and all 3rd party apps that have support for Google's color-changing effects retain their original colors. Not a huge deal but, if you're someone who really loves theming your device, Google has the edge on color.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE: Competition

As I've already mentioned multiple times, the Google Pixel 6 is the most obvious direct competitor to the Galaxy S21 FE. At $100 less, the Pixel 6 is certainly the value winner, as it packs in much better haptics, a slightly better camera — although zoom is limited to less than 10x — and a more attractive design. I personally prefer Google's visual design for Android 12, although Samsung's features are definitely better and offer more options for power users.

If you want a smaller phone, though, the Pixel 6 certainly isn't going to be a better choice.

Samsung has several other phones in the Galaxy S20 or S21 series that are all worth considering, depending on your budget. For the most part, the software experience between all of them is identical, and you'll largely just be choosing between price and hardware specs.

In many cases, carriers may offer a better deal on a Galaxy S21 than they will on the Galaxy S21 FE. Many times, we've seen US carriers offer the Galaxy S21 for free when you trade in an old phone. In that case, the decision is a no-brainer. Get the Galaxy S21. If you get something older than that, however, be willing to make feature concessions for the price difference.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE: Should you buy it?

You should buy this if ...

  • You want Galaxy S21 features without the extra cost
  • You need all-day battery life
  • You don't need a fancy-looking phone

You shouldn't buy this if ...

  • You want a small phone
  • Haptic motors matter to you
  • You want the best of the best

With increased competition this year — and the fact that significantly less expensive phones like the Pixel 5a are good enough for most folks — Samsung has priced itself into a strange corner with the Galaxy S21 FE. It's absolutely an upgrade over the S20 FE but, with the Pixel 6's existence, it's much harder to justify spending the $700 that the phone costs. Unless you really want to stick with Samsung's software, the Pixel 6 is a better buy.

4 out of 5

With that said, though, the Galaxy S21 FE is an overall better buy than a regular Galaxy S21 at full price. The $100 price reduction means almost nothing at the end of the day — really just the omission of 8K video recording and lower quality haptic motors — but the rest of the experience is identical or even better. Camera software improvements mean you'll get better photo quality much of the time, and the same One UI 4 running the show means you won't even miss out on a great software experience.

Bottom line: At $700, the Galaxy S21 FE is a better buy than the $800 Galaxy S21. It's not just because of the price, though. It's because, despite the $100 price cut, there are virtually no concessions that are worth mentioning. If you want a great Samsung phone without spending $800 or more, this is your best bet.

From $699 at Samsung From $699 at Best Buy

Source: androidcentral

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