Back in 2020, Samsung released its first “FE” handset in its popular Galaxy line of smartphones. According to Samsung, “FE” stands for “Fan Edition”, but in more practical and less marketing terms, it’s essentially Samsung’s low-end premium line of smartphones. If you want a budget Samsung phone, that’s the Galaxy A line – handsets like the Galaxy A12. If you want the best Samsung can do, that’s the Galaxy S phones such as the Galaxy S22 line, or Samsung’s very fancy Galaxy Z Fold 3. The Galaxy FE phones sit dead in-between, offering (in theory) the best of both worlds.
I’ve been putting Samsung’s new Galaxy S21 FE through its paces, and it’s fair to say that I was rather keen to do so. Its predecessor, the Galaxy S20 FE was one of my favourite phones of the past few years, expertly balancing features, power, and price in a very appealing way. Has Samsung struck gold twice?
Nearly… but not quite. There’s quite a lot to like about the Galaxy S21 FE, but you’ve got a wide array of choices at its price point that are also worth considering.
Design: Nice colours, great screen
The Galaxy S21 FE looks a lot like the S21 phones, to no surprise. It’s meant to be that way, with a beautiful 6.4-inch AMOLED display that supports refresh rates up to 120Hz. What that means for the non-techy types is that you get much smoother scrolling and faster graphics updates in games, making them a lot more fun to play at the cost of some extra battery life. You can switch off the 120Hz refresh rate down to a more standard 60Hz to preserve battery life – more on that later.
A 6.4-inch phone is naturally pretty big, and while that does give you a good size screen for your on-the-go Netflix binges, it also might make it less compelling if you’ve got smaller hands or prefer a smaller handset.
Like the Galaxy S20 FE before it, you also get a choice of fun colours to pick from, with Lavender, White, Graphite, or Olive finishes to pick from. The model I’ve been testing out is the Graphite – basically black – variant, best suited for those who really don’t want a “showy” looking handset.
The Galaxy S21 FE uses an in-display fingerprint reader for unlocking. The technology here is quite cool, but the reality of not using a physical sensor does mean that it will sometimes miss a legitimate unlocking attempt. I guess that’s preferable to unlocking just on any random finger, but I have tested other phones (including some from Samsung) that were a little sharper in this regard.
Cameras: Impressive triple lens
Samsung saves its very best camera tech for the full-fat Galaxy S phones, but there’s only a light compromise with the Galaxy S21 FE. At the back there’s a triple lens array with a 12MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide and an 8MP telephoto lens capable of up to 30x optical zoom.
The obvious competitor in this space (and also worth considering) is Google’s similarly priced Google Pixel 6, but this is an area where if photos were my primary concern, I’d opt for the Galaxy S21 FE if those were my only choices. That’s largely because while both phones do a good job with your basic portrait, landscape and low light/night photography, the Pixel 6 doesn’t include a telephoto lens.
30x zoom sounds super impressive, but like the S21 phones it resembles, you’ll need a tripod and a fair bit of luck to get decent shots at full zoom. Keep it between 3x-12x however and you can get some really nice photos; I’ve managed some finely detailed shots of wild birds in my garden that I could never actually get near this way on the Galaxy S21 FE.
Performance: Samsung’s Exynos processor is good, not great for the price
The Galaxy S21 FE runs on one of Samsung’s own processors, the Exynos 2100 with 6GB of onboard RAM and 128GB of storage space. You actually get a little less than that, because the Android operating system and Samsung’s own apps take up some of that space. Annoyingly, there’s no capability for using inexpensive microSD cards to expand the storage – but that competing Pixel 6 has the same limitation, to be fair.
I could bewilder you with benchmarks and numbers here, but the reality in smartphones these days is that unless you really want to push pixels hard with intense mobile games, mid-range or better phones are more than powerful enough for everyday users. I’ve had no problems with any apps on the Galaxy S21 FE, including popular Android games, social media apps, web browsing and mobile banking. Both Google Pay and Samsung Pay are supported if your bank offers them.
The Galaxy S21 FE is also 5G capable, although that’s still not a key selling point for any phone right now. 5G can be nicely quick if you can get it (and your telco plan supports it), but with so many of us not really getting around in a mobile capacity as much right now, there’s just less call for it generally. It’s a nice-to-have feature, for sure, but not a must-have, at least for now.
Battery: Not quite keeping pace
Like most smartphones these days, the Galaxy S21 FE uses a sealed battery for its power. It’s rated at 4,500mAh with support for USB-C and wireless charging, as well as Samsung’s nifty “reverse” wireless charging that lets you charge other Qi-compatible gadgets by placing them back-to-back with the S21 FE.
That’s a nice feature set to have, but what you really want out of any smartphone is good battery life. The Galaxy S21 FE only really hits at an average level here, especially against other phones in its price bracket. Quite how long a phone will last obviously depends on how heavily you use it.
I’ve generally had few issues if the S21 FE’s only been lightly used in a given day, but on days where I watched lots of streaming video, surfed the web and used 5G networks, it often struggled to reach the finish line of a working day. In this space, I’d definitely opt for the Pixel 6.
Who is the Galaxy S21 FE for, exactly?
The other big challenge to the Galaxy S21 FE is that as I’m writing this review, Samsung is about a week away from announcing the Galaxy S22 line. There’s no way that the flagship of that line – likely to be called the Galaxy S22 Ultra 5G – will cost what the S21 FE does. However, it’s pretty likely that the entry level model (presumably the Galaxy S22) won’t be that much more than the Galaxy S21 FE.
That puts the Galaxy S21 FE in an awkward position. It’s undoubtedly better than the Galaxy A phones you can buy right now if you like Samsung phones. There’s not much doubt that the Galaxy S22 will be a “better” handset, because Samsung will have real trouble selling them if they’re not. However, I’d strongly advise at least waiting until the Galaxy S22 is available before making that buying decision.
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