The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE really challenges the idiom ‘better late than never’: arriving around five months after it was expected - and 11 months and one week after the other phones in the Galaxy S21 family - the S21 FE is finally here only a month or so before the next-gen Galaxy S22 range.
This is purportedly the budget member of the Samsung Galaxy S21 range, offering features and specs from the main S21 family, but at a lower asking price because of a few select downgrades that average phone users likely won’t notice. This phone is also not the first Fan Edition phone from Samsung (it should be noted that the Galaxy S20 FE proved rather popular).
Right off the bat, the price is a problem. The S21 FE is supposed to be the budget member of its family (a fact denoted by the FE in the name) but arriving so long after other phones in the S21 range, it is full price whereas others have been discounted. You can pick up the Galaxy S21 - a now older phone with more impressive specs and features - for less (assuming you find a good, sub-$600 deal). As Rick Rossovich says in Top Gun: “no points for second place.”
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE’s price problem is a shame, because the mobile could be a tempting buy at a more competitive price point. Nowadays, you can get phones with the same processor, screen specs and camera capabilities for less.
But the price is not the mobile’s only issue. The phone - even with its wireless charging - is rather slow to charge, and it also doesn’t last long enough between charges. We sometimes had to curtail our standard usage to ensure the phone lasted a full day.
We also found the software to be rather laggy, and swiping between menus, closing and booting up apps, and simply unlocking the phone often took longer than it would have on another mobile. That’s a surprise given the phone’s processor, screen refresh rate and RAM, but this isn’t the first time we’ve found Samsung’s One UI to behave like this.
To be clear, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE isn’t a bad phone, which is why we gave it a mixed score as opposed to a negative one. We found the S21 FE screen to be vibrant and bright, which made watching content enjoyable. The powerful processor is good for gaming, and the cameras were up to the task for most photographs we took.
If you can pick up the phone as part of a bundle, with price reduced in sales, refurbished or second hand, then you might discover the mobile is worth it. But at its launch price, it’s hard to recommend.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE price and availability
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE went on sale on January 11, 2022, after being unveiled at CES 2022 a week before, and retailers in the US, UK and Australia offered various incentives to encourage purchases, including free headphones or in-store credit.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE comes in two storage sizes. First, there’s one with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage that costs £699 / $699 / AU$999, and there’s also an 8GB RAM and 256GB storage model for £749 / $769.99 / AU$1,099.
The Galaxy S21 launched for $799 / £769 / AU$1,249 for 8GB/128GB, but at the time of writing, we can easily find it for £649 / $549 / AU$949 (it has been even cheaper during sales periods like Black Friday and Cyber Monday).
Some Samsung Galaxy S21 FE deals might make it more affordable, but discounts only do so much in making the phone worthwhile.
So it's hard not to feel like the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE's price is too high for what you're getting, especially when you could pick up the S21 for less instead.
You’d be forgiven for confusing the Galaxy S21 FE with its non-FE siblings, because other than its size, it’s a dead ringer for the vanilla and Plus members of its family.
Like those aforementioned mobiles, the FE has the same rear camera, Contour Cut bump to house its three lenses. One tiny difference is that the FE uses plastic material around these rear cameras whereas the S21 features metal.
That’s right, this is a plastic phone - or maybe we should call it Glasstic, which is Samsung’s marketing term for it, even though its similarities to glass (a common smartphone material) end with the name. There are pros and cons of a plastic phone: it’s more durable and easier to grip, but it feels a little cheap in the hand.
As with the S21, the FE’s power button and volume rocker are on the right edge of the phone, and we found both easy to reach when using the mobile. There’s a USB-C port but no 3.5mm headphone jack - that means you’ll need a USB-C to 3.5mm adaptor, or Bluetooth headphones, to listen to music.
This is a very slender mobile, and it has the same thickness as the S21, despite being larger, so it’s fairly comfortable to hold in the hand. Samsung’s clearly not wasting any space here, a design element also noticeable in the bezel (the space on the front between the phone’s screen and the edge of the mobile) because it’s incredibly thin.
There are four Samsung Galaxy S21 FE colors: black, white, pink and green, and as the colors show, we tested the former.
With a 6.4-inch screen, the Galaxy S21 FE sits between the 6.1-inch S21 and 6.7-inch S21 Plus in the family line-up, and just like those mobiles, the display has a 1080 x 2400 resolution and 120Hz refresh rate.
Another point of similarity is the Dynamic AMOLED 2X screen tech - that’s basically a Samsung marketing term for a type of AMOLED panel that first showed up in the Galaxy S20 phones. To summarize lots of tech fluff, that means the screen is vibrant and bright, and from using the phone, we’d definitely agree.
The screen is the Galaxy S21 FE’s strong suit. Colors, contrast, and brightness all look great, and it made streaming TV shows or playing games on the phone a treat.
Breaking up the display is a cut-out for the front-facing camera along the top edge, but it’s not too big, so not much real estate is lost.
Though some of the specs are different, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE’s camera performance is largely comparable to that of the S21 and S21 Plus. We would even say there are far more similarities than there are differences.
The main snapper here is a 12MP main camera and that, as well as the 12MP ultrawide, are both holdovers from the S21. But while the S21 also has a 64MP telephoto camera, the S21 FE only has an 8MP one.
This telephoto snapper may be lower-res than the S21’s, but it’s actually paired with the same lens, which allows for 1.1x optical or 3x hybrid zoom; this seeming downgrade therefore won’t make a huge difference for most people.
On the front of the phone is a 32MP snapper - that’s a jump up from the 10MP on the other S21 models - but resolution isn’t necessarily the be all and end all of camera quality.
We found pictures taken on the main camera to be very colorful, which is pretty standard for shots taken on a Samsung phone - it’s apparent the brand’s scene optimization software has never heard of oversaturation. Still, the main camera capabilities make shots look instantly social media-worthy, especially pics taken in well-lit situations.
We also appreciate how pictures taken on the three different cameras shared a color profile - many phone cameras don’t have these in sync, so jumping between a zoom and standard shot can affect how colors and brightness look. For the S21 FE, we could guarantee that no matter what zoom level we picked, shades would look the same.
Many photography and videography modes from previous Samsung phones are present here, including options like Single Take, which captures a photo on multiple lenses at once so you can pick the best, or Dual Recording, which allows you to record video on a rear and front camera simultaneously.
Talking of that front camera, snaps looked bright and detailed, even in low-light settings, which is impressive. But we found ourselves avoiding Portrait mode, because it was sometimes inaccurate at applying the digital bokeh background blur, even though it was great at balancing exposure and contrast to distinguish the subject from their background, .
If we have a criticism, it’s that on the rear camera, the autofocus was a little iffy for close-up subjects, both ones that were very close like flowers, and ones taken at a medium distance like pets. It’s something you can toggle while taking a picture, but in the case of furry friends, you often don’t have the time to manually change the focus.
With regards to video recording, both the front and rear cameras can hit 4K resolution and 60fps, and while that’s expected for the rear camera, it’s a surprise for the front one, as very few phones hit 4K selfie recording. The Galaxy S21 can actually record 8K video, so the FE might disappoint all four people in the world who want that on a phone - but we don’t mind.
Performance and specs
We wouldn’t be surprised if the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE ends up being the last phone using the Snapdragon 888 chipset - the 888 was the top-end Android processor for the best part of 2021, but at this time, the newly-unveiled Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 is already being used in a few phones.
That 888 chipset is a 5G-enabled one, so the Galaxy S21 FE can connect to next-gen networks if you have a 5G contract and are in an area that allows for it. The chip is also paired with 6GB or 8GB RAM, depending on the model of phone you opt for.
Despite not being the newest or most powerful chipset on the block, the difference between the Snapdragon 888 and its successors are marginal, and the former is still a supremely powerful processor that runs demanding apps without breaking much of a sweat.
We took the phone for a spin playing games, and it performed admirably, with quick loading, top graphical options available, and no significant lagging or freezing.
The phone is good for mobile gaming then, and also fine for streaming media, but we’d recommend using headphones. Why? Because we found it very easy to accidentally cover up the phone’s speakers when holding it horizontally.
The Galaxy S21 FE runs Android 12, with Samsung’s One UI 4 fork laid over the top. The main changes Android 12 brings over previous versions is increased customization, particularly in your ability to pick a color scheme for the menus and icons, and One UI 4 brings this feature across.
The RAM, processor and screen refresh rate should make navigating the FE’s menus a breeze, but in our experience, that wasn’t the case. We found that swiping between home pages, opening apps and unlocking the phone felt a little sluggish, especially when using gesture navigation. In particular, using the phone menu’s search to find a particular app was often laggy.
Not everyone might notice or care about this, as the phone isn’t slow by any means, but it’s worth nothing that the phone is just not as snappy as you’d expect for its specs. As tech reviewers, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point this out.
We also need to point out that this sluggishness was only an issue for the phone’s menus. When using apps, the phone felt perfectly snappy.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE has a 4,500mAh power pack - that’s a fairly standard size for a mobile - but we still found the battery life disappointingly lacking.
With average use - that is to say, some social media browsing, music streaming and maybe the odd game and photo capture here and there, we found the battery just about limped to the finish line and barely survived a whole day between powering. But heavy use ensured we’d need to charge the mobile in the early evening to keep it ticking until the next morning.
So if you’re only a light phone user, you might find the Galaxy S21 FE’s lasting power is just fine; but if you like to use your mobile a lot, it might not be enough.
Powering wasn’t exactly impressive either, as the FE’s 25W powering is startlingly uncompetitive compared to the huge number of fast-charging phones on the market, some of which go up to 65W or even 120W.
At 25W, the phone takes about an hour and a half to power from empty to full, though we’d imagine most users will power it up overnight at that speed. That's with the fastest-charging cables we had at home, but since a charger isn't included in the box, you'll have to power at the speed of whatever plug you already own or choose to buy.
Surprisingly for a ‘budget’ phone, the Galaxy S21 FE also offers 15W wireless powering and 4.5W reverse wireless powering, the latter of which lets you juice up other mobiles. Those aren’t fast speeds either, but given that not many mobiles offer wireless powering, the specs may tempt some buyers.
Should I buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE?
Buy it if...
You want a good-looking medium-sized screen
While the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE has similar screen specs to its siblings, it sits at a nice middle ground between them in terms of size.
You want the Galaxy S21's cameras
Despite a few slight changes here and there, the Galaxy S21 FE has basically the same camera capabilities as its main-series siblings.
You want a slender mobile
We found the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE comfortable to hold in the hand, with a thin body and light weight, so if you don't want a chunky device it's a good option.
Don't buy it if...
You find the Galaxy S21 for cheaper
The Samsung Galaxy S21 is a better-specced phone than its FE sibling in most ways, so if you find it available for less, just buy it instead. Alternatively, you could wait for the S22, which should be along soon.
You need fast charging
The FE's 25W powering certainly isn't fast, not when it means the device takes well over an hour to fully power up, and if you need quick turn-around times for charging your device, there are many better options.
Long-lasting battery is important
We often found we needed to augment our behavior to get the Galaxy S21 FE to last a full day between charges - if you want a reliable one-day-plus mobile, it's not going to be great for you.
First reviewed January 2022