Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: One for the fans?
With the Samsung Galaxy S22 just around the corner, it might seem a bit of an odd moment to launch a phone based on last year’s Galaxy S21 flagship, but Samsung clearly thinks it’s the ideal time to launch the Galaxy S21 FE 5G.
Targeted at the more cost-conscious Samsung aficionado – the FE tag stands, rather cringingly, for “Fan Edition” – the S21 FE 5G follows closely in the footsteps of the S20 FE, a phone that we rated at the time for its budget take on the full-fat Galaxy S20.
Samsung Galaxy S20 FE review: What you need to know
Just like last year’s FE, this year’s edition includes broadly similar internals and specifications to Samsung’s 2021 flagships, albeit with a slightly lower list price than the original had at launch. In a nutshell, you’re getting flagship-class features at a more modest cost.
The Galaxy S21 FE shares the 120Hz, FHD+ display of the regular model, although it measures an extra 0.2in across the diagonal (6.4in). It also has a triple camera array on the rear, with a main 12MP sensor working alongside an 8MP 3x optical zoom camera and another 12MP 123-degree ultrawide unit. The same 32MP selfie camera sits on the front of the handset.
The most notable difference, however, is that the Galaxy S21 FE has opted for Qualcomm’s top-end Snapdragon 888, rather than going for Samsung’s homemade Exynos 2100 equivalent (found inside the normal S21 in the UK). Architecturally speaking, both of these chipsets are pretty much identical, so there’s a good chance you won’t notice a difference between the two in regular use anyway – but we’ll find out later in this review.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Price and competition
What about that price, then? The Galaxy S21 FE is available from 11 January in the UK, starting at £699 for the 128GB model and rising to £749 for the 256GB variant. The regular Galaxy S21, which launched 12 months prior, cost either £769 or £819 for the same storage options, meaning you’re only really getting a small discount of £50 or £60 here.
Of course, since it’s now a year old, you might also be able to pick one up for around the same price (or slightly cheaper) as this year’s FE, if you shop around. However, it seems the Galaxy S21 is out of stock at a bunch of retailers at the time of writing this review, so there’s a good chance that it’s nearing end of life.
As for contract prices, the S21 FE starts at £35 a month at Carphone Warehouse, which gives you 20GB of monthly data with iD Mobile.
The S21 FE’s most obvious rival is Google’s Pixel 6, which starts at just £599. That £100 saving gets you one of the most versatile camera arrangements to date, paired with a lavishly refined software experience unlike any other on the market. Essentially, the Pixel 6 is a handset that will take some beating – the S21 FE has a difficult task ahead.
On the other side of the smartphone coin, you’ll find Apple’s iPhone 13. If you don’t mind ditching Android and you’re willing to pay the Apple tax, expect to spend at least £779 for the basic model with 128GB of internal storage.
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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Design and key features
At first glance, the S21 FE 5G is very similar in appearance to the original S21. It has that “contour cut” housing around the three cameras at the rear and comes in a similar array of pastel shades. In this case, you’ll be able to pick up an S21 FE in a choice of four colours: white, graphite, olive or lavender.
Like the FE from last year and the S21, the rear is made from matte-finish plastic, which is surprising in a phone costing nigh on £700. It doesn’t feel particularly cheap in the hand, however, and it has the benefit that it’s extremely light for such a large phone, weighing a mere 177g.
The phone supports wireless charging speeds up to 15W, with wired 25W charging via the USB-C port at the bottom. The S21 FE, like its predecessor, is also capable of reverse wireless charging supported devices, such as the Galaxy Buds 2 – you simply place them on the handset’s rear and enable the feature in the phone’s settings.
Like the rest of the range, the Galaxy S21 FE is also IP68-rated for protection against dust and water, and the display sits underneath a layer of Gorilla Glass Victus. As for unlocking, it supports face recognition and incorporates an in-display fingerprint sensor, which is useful if you’re wearing a mask and want to use your phone for contactless card payments.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Display
In a surprise development, the S21 FE’s display is actually a bit larger than the S21’s, but with similar capabilities. It’s a high-refresh-rate 120Hz unit – not adaptive – but with the same 2,400 x 1,080 resolution and 2x Dynamic OLED tech, measuring 6.4in (the S21 is “only” 6.2in).
Aside from the differences in dimensions, the quality of the S21 FE’s display remains unchanged. You still get the option to switch between two display modes – Natural and Vivid – with the former being the most colour-accurate of the two. In our tests, the S21 FE’s panel covered 90% of the sRGB colour gamut in this mode, with a total coverage of 91%. And with a measured Delta E of 1.73, you can’t really do much better, either.
Brightness peaks at 634cd/m² with a torch shining on the ambient light sensor, and reaches 1,000cd/m² when displaying HDR video. On that note, HDR films and TV shows looked absolutely superb, boosting the highlights in the second season of Netflix’s The Witcher TV series in spectacular fashion.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Performance and battery life
Inside, the Galaxy S21 FE comes with a similar lineup of core componentry as the regular S21, with the 5nm Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chipset at the helm, backed by 6GB of RAM, and either 128GB or 256GB of internal storage for your apps, photos and home movies.
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What this means is that the S21 FE delivered largely similar results as the S21 in our tests, matching single-core speeds in Geekbench 5, with the full-fat S21 coming off only slightly better in multicore. It’s pretty much as nippy as it gets, at least until the first Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 flagships start to trickle in.
It’s a similar story when it comes to gaming. The S21 FE beat the Pixel 6’s Tensor chipset in the GFXBench Manhattan benchmarks, drawing level with the S21’s score from last year. It’s worth mentioning that while the iPhone 13’s off-screen frame rate might look impressive, unlike the S21 FE, you’re limited by a bog-standard 60Hz display. Provided the game supports it, high frame-rate gaming is definitely on the cards for the S21 FE.
Sadly, while the battery is identical in capacity at 4,500mAh, the S21 FE’s stamina is the worst of the lot. Reaching only 15hrs 42mins in our video rundown test, the S21 FE falls three hours short of the S21 and almost five hours behind the iPhone 13 under the same conditions.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Cameras
The S21 FE 5G’s cameras are pretty close to what you get with the older Galaxy S21. Indeed, the main camera’s specifications are identical, shooting 12MP images from a 1/1.76in, f/1.8 sensor with 1.8um pixels and optical image stabilisation (OIS).
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Only the telephoto and ultrawide cameras are different, both coming with slightly smaller sensors and the telephoto with a dimmer aperture. Meanwhile, the specs of the telephoto camera are unchanged from those of the S20 FE, with a 1/4.4in f/2.4 sensor, a 3x optical zoom capability and OIS.
Unsurprisingly, images taken on the S21 FE’s main sensor are phenomenal. There’s plenty of detail, loads of contrast and very little visual noise – although some of the colours did look a bit too vibrant for my taste. Night pictures are also wonderful, with the phone’s HDR algorithm working well to subdue bright highlights while simultaneously lifting darker areas.
The same can’t be said about the S21 FE’s ultrawide sensor. There’s very little detail in this mode – even in bright environments – with zero texture in landscape photos. Thankfully, the 3x telephoto zoom camera works very well, even when light levels are low. The maximum 30x optical zoom is fine enough, but as always it’s more of a gimmick than anything else.
Portrait images are also very good. Sure, the Pixel 6 is still top dog – its blurred backgrounds are a step above – but there’s plenty of facial detail, and subjects stood out quite nicely against the backdrop.
As for video, the S21 FE can capture footage at up to 4K 60fps, fully stabilised. With the previous model, you had to reduce the frame rate to 30fps if you wanted to record at 4K resolution with stabilisation. Footage is crisp, detailed and rock-steady.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Verdict
First out of the gate, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE had the potential to be the first must-have phone of 2022. With a similar design and specifications to last year’s flagship Galaxy S21, but at a lower launch price of £699 and a larger display, it looked like it might have been a bit of a bargain for what it offers.
However, now that I’ve spent some time using it, the S21 FE’s slightly reduced launch price is a bit too much to pay for a phone that’s almost identical to last year’s “normal” model. Pair those similarities with a battery life hit and things start to turn sour.
Of course, if you’re a Samsung devotee and just can’t wait to get your Galaxy fix, the S21 FE is still a decent alternative, with a top-notch set of cameras and a great display, but it might be best to wait just a little while longer for the S22 to arrive before you make any snap decisions on which phone to buy next. For everyone else, buy the Pixel 6 instead.