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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE Review: A Great $700 Phone

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE editors choice AM AH
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The Galaxy S21 FE is a great phone, launching at a pretty bad time.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
$699
Rating
star star star star star_empty
Pros
  • Impressive screen
  • Great performance
  • Decent battery life
  • Comes with Android 12 & One UI 4 out of the box
Cons
  • 6GB of RAM is not enough for everyone
  • Not as great of a value as the Galaxy S20 FE was
  • Camera is okay, nothing to write home about

Samsung sent us the Galaxy S21 FE in black ahead of its announcement at CES earlier this month. We’ve been using it for nearly two weeks before forming our opinion in this review.

Samsung’s Galaxy S20 FE came out in late 2020, and it was at the beginning of the chip shortage. It came out a pretty aggressive $699 price tag, and featured a lot of the features that the Galaxy S20 series had, but a bit cheaper. That had us pretty excited for the Galaxy S21 FE last year (which got pushed to early 2022 because of the chip shortage and likely other reasons). But a few things changed. A lot of other phones now exist in that $699 price range, and the Galaxy S21 series was $300 less than the Galaxy S20 series was at launch. Making that $699 price tag a lot tougher to compete at.

So is Samsung able to compete at that $699 price with the Galaxy S21 FE this year? Let’s find out in our full review of the Galaxy S21 FE.

Familiar design gets improved

Even before the Galaxy S22 launches, Samsung is refining its Galaxy S design that it debuted last year. On the Galaxy S21 FE, you’ll see some of the refinements here. That includes a camera bump that is the same color and material as the backside of the phone. It’s still a plastic-backed phone, or as Samsung likes to call it “Glasstic”.

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Honestly, this Glasstic back is not bad. It keeps the phone from being super heavy, which is nice and makes it more durable. While also still having a pretty premium-looking phone. The camera bump also appears to be less obtrusive here. Even compared to the Galaxy S21 from last year – of course, it’s much less thick compared to the Ultra model.

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Other than that, it’s the same design that Samsung has been using for a good little while now, even on its cheaper, lower-end phones. With the traffic-light cameras on the back, and the volume rocker with power button on the right-hand side.

Samsung kept with a flat display on the Galaxy S21 FE, which should be no surprise. Since the only curved display smartphone Samsung put out in 2021 was the Galaxy S21 Ultra. And honestly, I’m fine with that. The curved display looks great, but a flat display is better in day-to-day use. Especially when it comes to accidentally touching things on the display.

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We also have a hole-punch display here, with the 32-megapixel camera in the center. This, I feel is the best way to do the hole punch. It’s more out of the way than having it in the corner, as Google did on the Pixel 5 last year.

Samsung’s fingerprint sensor is not perfect but better than the competition

I’ve been using the Google Pixel 6 since it came out in October and let me tell you, that fingerprint sensor is just so bad. So it was nice to return to the Galaxy S21 FE which has a much better fingerprint sensor. It is still the ultrasonic sensor that Samsung has been using on its phones for a few years now.

It’s accurate and fast. And that’s what matters for a fingerprint sensor. I do wish that more smartphone makers would put the sensor in the same position though. And yes, I understand that this is a very first-world problem. But moving from the OnePlus 9 to the Pixel 6 Pro to the Galaxy S21 FE, they are all in different positions. And having to retrain muscle memory every time, is quite annoying.

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I still wish smartphone makers would make the entire bottom third or even bottom half of the display a fingerprint sensor. We’ve been seeing concept phones do this for a few years already. So hopefully it’s not far away, but it is going to be expensive for a smartphone maker to do that.

Battery life is decent, but not amazing

In 2021, it seemed like every phone was giving us incredible battery life. Maybe 5G has really been optimized so that battery life is way better. But with the Galaxy S21 FE, the battery life is just okay. And yes, I’ll admit we have gotten used to the much-improved battery on the Pixel 6, iPhone 13, Galaxy S21 Ultra, and even the OnePlus 9 Pro. But the Galaxy S21 FE falls short of all of those devices.

I was able to get about six to seven hours of screen on time, during my week or so with the phone. It’s not amazing, but also not terrible. That should be enough for most people to get through a day, or even two on a single charge. And my usage included a lot of YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter. So there was a lot of video in there. If you’re doing a lot of just browsing Twitter or websites, then you can likely get a lot more out of it.

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  • Editor’s Note: Battery life was tested at FHD+ resolution and 120Hz. The Galaxy S21 FE does not do adaptive refresh rates, it’s either 120Hz or 60Hz.

So overall, it’s probably fine for most people, but if you’re looking for a battery life champ, this isn’t it chief. The Pixel 6 is likely still going to be better, and its $100 cheaper.

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One UI 4 is surprisingly good

With the Galaxy S21 FE, it was my first experience with One UI 4, which is based on Android 12. Typically any interface elements that Google adds to Android won’t be seen on non-Pixel phones. But Samsung actually added some of these features to One UI 4. The biggest feature is Material You which Google added in Android 12. It works in Samsung’s One UI 4, and it’s just as annoying as it is on Pixel phones.

The ability to theme your phone based on your wallpaper is cool, especially with the icons being themed too. But not all the icons are themed, and that’s where the annoyances come in. Only some icons are Material You, though more Samsung apps than I expected support Material You. But you still end up with a home screen that is not entirely themed. That is something that will hopefully get better in the future, but it’s up to the app developers.

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Seeing the Galaxy S21 FE launch with Android 12 on-board is surprising and not surprising at the same time. Typically the next Galaxy S flagship is the first to launch with a new version of Android. So that would have been the Galaxy S22 next month. But instead the Galaxy S21 FE was first. That’s surprising, but also not surprising because Samsung has rolled out the update to almost every phone already. Which is impressive to say the least.

Overall, the software on the Galaxy S21 FE is pretty good. Samsung is continuing to improve One UI 4 and dare I say, I almost prefer it over Pixel Experience.

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A good camera, without a lot of useless tricks

The cameras on the Galaxy S21 FE are pretty good, but the best part is, it doesn’t boast any useless tricks like Space Zoom. Instead, we have a 12-megapixel main sensor, 12-megapixel ultra-wide, and an 8-megapixel telephoto here. Basically, all of the necessities.

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The pictures coming out of this camera are pretty good. Now are they better than the Pixel 6? No. But there’s really no phone that can beat the Pixel 6 right now, which is pretty impressive given the fact that it is just $599. But for most people, the Galaxy S21 FE is going to do the trick.

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We did take some photos with the Galaxy S21 FE, but due to the ongoing Omicron surge and the fact that I’m in Michigan and in the middle of an arctic blast, there’s far fewer photo samples than normal. Without further ado, here are some samples taken with the Galaxy S21 FE.

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Should you buy the Galaxy S21 FE?

Since I was pre-briefed about the Galaxy S21 FE in December, I’ve struggled about whether I can actually recommend the Galaxy S21 FE. You see, it sits in a relatively odd space. It’s $100 cheaper than the Galaxy S21 which you can usually find on sale for much less. But then it has most of the same specs as the Galaxy A52s which is around $500.

We also can’t forget the fact that the Galaxy S22 series is launching next month. So why would someone want to buy the Galaxy S21 FE? The only reason I can think of is if you need a phone right now. And your wireless carrier is offering an incredible deal for the phone. Which some will be.

Otherwise, the Galaxy S21 is a better buy, or waiting for the Galaxy S22 next month is an even better option. Don’t forget that the Galaxy S21 base model has more RAM and a slightly smaller display that does do adaptive refresh rates. So that is worth considering.