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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Super phone, super late

Review
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Last updated: January 18th, 2022 at 12:16 UTC+01:00

The Galaxy S21 FE, after a months-long delay, is finally in our hands, and I’ve had the opportunity of using one for the past week or so. A lot has been said about how the S21 FE is overpriced and coming in too close to the Galaxy S22 series. I agreed with both those arguments when the phone launched in early January, but after using it as my primary device and now that pricing has been revealed for most markets, has the S21 FE managed to change my mind?

Well, let’s not waste any time and get down to answering that question in this Galaxy S21 FE review. Actually, I’ll do you a favor and let you know that the Galaxy S21 FE is more or less quite similar to the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ (and, as a result, the S20, S20+, and S20 FE, as the S21 and S21+ barely brought any upgrades over their predecessors), so you’d be forgiven if you skipped right to the verdict. But if you want all the details, read on (or check out our video review below).

Design and display

Galaxy S21 FE review

The Galaxy S21 FE’s design follows that of its more expensive siblings, and except for the larger screen, it’s pretty similar to the base Galaxy S21 in construction. There’s Gorilla Glass Victus protecting the display while the back is plastic (which makes for excellent grip compared to glass and prevents finger marks).

However, unlike the Galaxy S21, S21+, and S21 Ultra, the rear camera island doesn’t connect to the metal frame. It just sticks out from the edge of the back panel, so it’s a discount version of the design that we fell in love with in early 2022 when the S21 series first arrived.

Samsung has managed to make the Galaxy S21 FE thinner than the Galaxy S20 FE. At 7.9mm, the S21 FE is now as thin as the regular Galaxy S21 (there’s no headphone jack, in case you’re wondering), although the difference isn’t that noticeable since the Galaxy S20 FE was just 0.5mm thicker. The S21 FE is lighter, too, and this is what feels more tangible in day-to-day use.

Another way the Galaxy S21 FE has been improved over the S20 FE is the removal of the shiny border around the camera punch hole in the display. The punch hole area hasn’t gotten smaller – there’s still a black circle around the camera that takes up more space than you would like, but at least now your eyes won’t dart over to the top of the screen every time light hits the punch hole.

Galaxy S21 FE review

The larger than ideal punch hole area aside, the Galaxy S21 FE has an excellent AMOLED display, as you expect from every Samsung flagship. It’s a (flat) 6.4-inch panel so it’s just the right size for one-handed use and consuming content. It’s also got a 120Hz refresh rate, and while it’s not an adaptive refresh rate (meaning it stays at 120Hz all the time), you’re still getting a crazy smooth scrolling experience and animations.

The bezels around the display are quite slim, although the bottom one isn’t as tiny as it is on the Galaxy S21 or S21+. As for the in-display optical fingerprint sensor, it’s surprisingly accurate and quick, and I prefer it over the ultrasonic variety found on Samsung’s non-FE flagships. Naturally, Samsung also gives you the option of facial recognition for more convenient unlocking, and it works well most of the time.

Unfortunately, Samsung’s cost-cutting efforts are going even further this year. The Galaxy S21 FE doesn’t ship with a screen protector installed out of the box, at least in India or the UK, which is where we received our review units. And as we’ve discussed before, there are no charger or earphones in the box, either. Just a USB-C cable, SIM ejection pin, and the quick start guide no one ever reads.

Galaxy S21 FE cameras

Galaxy S21 FE review

Just like the Galaxy S21 and S21+ carried the same camera sensors as the Galaxy S20 and S20+, the S21 FE uses the same cameras as the S20 FE, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here. That’s because the S21 FE’s camera experience is pretty much a mix of what you got on all those models I mentioned above.

There’s no 8K video recording on this phone, but the rest of the camera app’s functionality is copied from the Galaxy S21 series, including modes such as Director’s View. Photo quality remains pretty similar to those phones, as well.

The main camera takes excellent pictures in all lighting conditions, while the ultra-wide and zoom cameras perform well mostly during the day. Selfies, meanwhile, are a little light on detail no matter the time of day or environment you’re shooting in but have low noise levels.

For more info on what you can expect from the camera experience on the S21 FE, I recommend reading our Galaxy S20 FE review and our Galaxy S21 review. Also check out camera samples from the phone in the gallery below (a couple of these scenes were shot at 0.5x, 1x, 3x, 10x, 20x, and 30x zoom levels to show the phone’s zooming capabilities).

Performance

Galaxy S21 FE review

We have both the Snapdragon 888 and Exynos 2100 variants of the Galaxy S21 FE, and we haven’t noticed any performance difference between the two. Like the original Galaxy S21 trio, the S21 FE can handle everything you throw at it and not break a sweat. Well, except in the camera app, where for some reason taking pics continuously can sometimes be a stutter-filled affair. This is probably down to lack of optimization, though, and easily fixable through software updates.

While we haven’t been able to compare gaming performance side-by-side, both of our units did excellent in the most demanding games while never getting anything more than just a little warm to the touch over extended gameplay sessions. In short, the Galaxy S21 FE is a snappy phone in our experience and goes toe-to-toe with the other S21 models.

Sadly, it also goes toe-to-toe with them when it comes to missing out on expandable storage. The Galaxy S21 FE doesn’t have any, and if you want as much onboard storage as possible, you’re going to have to buy the 256GB variant, which will cost you extra (around $70 in the US) and is one of the reasons why the Galaxy S21 FE feels overpriced despite having the same price tag as its predecessor.

Software

Galaxy S21 FE review

The Galaxy S21 FE is the first phone in Samsung’s lineup to launch with One UI 4.0 and Android 12 out of the box. It was originally supposed to come with Android 11, but you’re getting the latest software instead because of how the phone was delayed. And thanks to Samsung’s upgrade policy, the Galaxy S21 FE will one day end up getting Android 15, so it will match the Galaxy S22 series instead of the Galaxy S21 series as far as software support is concerned.

All of the One UI 4.0 features (see the video below) are included on this phone, along with pretty much every feature you find on modern Galaxy flagships, including support for Samsung DeX. In fact, Samsung also seems to have made a few minor improvements to One UI 4.0 that we don’t see on devices that got Android 12 through a software update. I only noticed one — volume levels are now numbered (0 being the lowest, 150 being the highest) — but there could be a few others, which we’ll report on separately should we come across them.

Audio quality

Galaxy S21 FE review

The Galaxy S21 FE has the same stereo speaker setup as other Samsung flagships. There’s a dedicated speaker at the bottom with the earpiece acting as the second speaker, and there’s Dolby Atmos support. And quality over the speakers is similar, too, although the non-FE Galaxy S21 models have a little extra bass and depth that made the awesome Avengers theme song in the final battle of Avengers: Endgame a tad more enjoyable. Nothing you will notice unless you have the devices side-by-side, but I would still have liked to see the same exact setup on all four models.

Battery life

Galaxy S21 FE review

Like the Galaxy S20 FE and the Galaxy S20+, the Galaxy S21 FE has a 4,500 mAh battery. And Samsung must have done some crazy optimization here, because the S21 FE — even the Exynos 2100 variant — will last you all day long and then some with 120Hz mode enabled (unless you’re gaming for multiple hours) and performs much better than the S21+ with its 4,800 mAh battery.

Seriously, my Exynos 2100-powered Galaxy S21+ didn’t last half as long as the S21 FE does. Sure, the S21+ has a bigger screen (6.7 inches). But the resolution remains the same and the S21+ has an adaptive refresh rate, which can conserve battery when 120Hz mode is enabled as opposed to the Galaxy S21 FE’s fixed 120Hz refresh rate, so there’s clearly something else at play here.

In any case, the Galaxy S21 FE — whether you buy the Exynos or Snapdragon model — has fantastic battery life. Charging is also quick, at least if you have a 25W charger or decide to buy one. A full charge from 0 to 100 took around 75 minutes, while 10 minutes and 30 minutes of charging got the battery up to 21% and 56% respectively. 15W wireless charging and 4.5W reverse wireless charging (for charging other devices) are supported, too.

Verdict

I initially thought it would be hard to come to a verdict about the Galaxy S21 FE. But as I neared the end of this review, I realized that it’s quite simple. The Galaxy S21 FE is coming to the party super late, and a sensible choice would be to wait and see what the Galaxy S22 series brings to the table or at least wait for some discounts on the S21 FE when the S22 lineup arrives.

On the other hand, if you must buy a new flagship phone today that is cheaper than the S21 and S21+ while giving you most of the same features, get the S21 FE. It’s a solid phone, and while the removal of the microSD slot and in-box accessories might frustrate some, it’s still impressive what you’re getting for the asking price and you won’t regret the purchase.

Image

Samsung
Galaxy S21 FE

What we like

  • Beautiful 120Hz display that's just the right size
  • Excellent performance on both Exynos and Snapdragon variants
  • Fantastic battery life no matter which model you get
  • Excellent main camera, impressive zoom at 3x-10x
  • Android 12 out of the box, will get Android 15 one day!
  • Features like water resistance, wireless charging, stereo speakers, 5G

What we don't

  • No 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Zoom camera is more or less useless in low-light situations
  • No microSD slot
  • 6GB of RAM on base variant might not satisfy serious multitaskers
  • No charger or earphones in the box
Review Galaxy S21 FE
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