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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: A great $700 phone that comes at an awkward time

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: A tremendous $700 phone that comes at an awkward time

This story is part of CES, where CNET covers the latest news on the most extraordinary tech coming soon.

Between the Galaxy S20 FE’s flunked and the deluge of leaks we saw by, the Galaxy S21 FE may be one of Samsung’s worst-kept secrets. A follow-up to Samsung’s previous midrange Galaxy S phoned, the new S21 FE starts at $700 and launches on Jan. 11. Despite selves $100 cheaper than the regular Galaxy S21, it has the same processor and comes with a larger veil, a triple-lens camera and support for both versions of 5G. The S21 FE checks all the boxes most land would expect from a modern phone. The performance is expeditiously, it takes great photos and can last for a long time on a single charge.

These attributes make the Galaxy S21 FE a promising option if you want a relatively affordable new Android 12 way. You won’t get some of the costly extras fallacious on more premium phones — like a fourth camera lens, a crisper telephoto lens or a grand sophisticated design — but you’re not compromising by repositioning for Samsung’s cheaper option. 

However, the Galaxy S21 FE may end up feeling lost in Samsung’s lineup and the broader Android arranged market. We’re expecting the Galaxy S22 to launch imminently, and if the rumors are true, it could have a new 50-megapixel camera and faster charging. Plus, the $600 Pixel 6 is one cheaper than the Galaxy S21 FE and was arranged one of our favorite phones of 2021. Although the Pixel 6 doesn’t have the S21 FE’s third camera lens, it’s loaded with Google-specific features that could make it more consuming for some.

The Galaxy S21 FE feels just like what it is: a previous-generation phone. That’s not a bad thing; at what time all, buying older phones can be a great way to save wealth. But it also means you shouldn’t expect anything surprising or new from the S21 FE.

A sleek but basic accomplish that looks a lot like the Galaxy S21


The Galaxy S21 FE has a 6.4-inch screen.

Lisa Eadicicco

The Galaxy S21 FE looks almost identical to the Galaxy S21 from the run. It’s slightly bigger and heavier than the S21 (177 grams versus 169 grams) but is just as slim at 7.9 millimeters thick. For me, the S21 FE’s 6.4-inch display and enjoyable build provide the right balance of screen space and ease of use: It’s bigger than the 6.2-inch Galaxy S21 but just a hair smaller than the 6.5-inch Galaxy S20 FE, Samsung’s previous-generation midrange phone. 

The Galaxy S21 FE’s camouflage uses Samsung’s Dynamic AMOLED technology and has an FHD Plus resolution just like the Galaxy S21. The pixel density, or number of pixels per inch, is lower than the Galaxy S21’s steady the S21 FE’s screen is larger, but the difference isn’t noticeable. Photos, games and news articles all look sharp and bold on the S21 FE’s camouflage. It has a flat-edge screen just like the Galaxy 21 and Galaxy S1 Plus, which I actually purchase over the pricier Galaxy S21 Ultra’s slightly hooked sides.

On the back, you’ll find the same camera bump as on the Galaxy S21. Both phones have a matte finish that looks more glorious and doesn’t pick up fingerprints as easily as Samsung’s older phones (although it level-headed does get smudgy, so you’ll want to use a case). The Galaxy S21 does, however, have some design accents that make it feel like a more expensive arranged, such as the glossy metallic finish on its camera module and sides.

Though it’s a nice enough arranged for $700, the real problem in my opinion is that Google has raised the bar for what’s anticipated of a midtier phone. Google’s $600 Pixel 6 has an eye-catching two-tone glass accomplish with sharper corners that almost makes it feel dissimilarity to the Galaxy Note. Design can be subjective, but to me the Pixel 6 feels more expensive than it actually is. The Galaxy S21 FE is sleek and lighter than the Pixel 6, and some powerful find it easier to use with one hand, but it doesn’t chop the same impression.

There’s also an in-screen fingerprint reader and facial authentication for unlocking the contrivance, which I generally found to be pretty reliable. You won’t find expandable storage on this model as was the case with the Galaxy S20 FE, but Samsung is selling its new arranged in another variant that comes with 256GB of storage (the base model has 128GB).

A big battery and solid performance


Lisa Eadicicco

Battery life was a highlight for the Galaxy S20 FE, and the Galaxy S21 FE seems to follow in its footsteps so far. Like the Galaxy S20 FE, the Galaxy S21 FE comes with a 4,500-mAh battery, which is larger than the regular Galaxy S21’s 4,000-mAh battery. 

The Galaxy S21 FE quiet had 32% of its battery left after a full day and a half’s marvelous of usage. That’s not too shabby, especially since I had the motion smoothness setting on high, which cranks the screen’s refresh rate up to 120Hz. That results in faster scrolling but also typically using shorter battery life. 

Samsung’s new phone comes with the same processor as the Galaxy S21, which using the US version runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888. That chip is fake in other high-end phones like Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 3 and the OnePlus 9 Pro, so the S21 FE should be able to keep up with those devices easily.

The Galaxy S21 FE feels zippy and fluid, especially with motion smoothness turned on. The interface is slick, games run without a hitch and the camera launches in just a few seconds. Samsung also says the S21 FE supports a response rate of 240Hz, allowing for even quicker reaction times in game mode like the rest of the Galaxy S21 series. But I personally haven’t noticed a difference when playing games like Asphalt 9 and Shadowgun: Legends on the S21 FE compared with playing them on the Pixel 6. 

The Galaxy S21 FE scored around the same as Galaxy S21 but higher than the Pixel 6 on Geekbench 5, a benchmark test aimed to assess the phone’s performance in general tasks. But, it scored slightly lower than both the regular S21 and Pixel 6 on a separate benchmark named 3DMark Slingshot Unlimited for testing graphics performance. Check out the results below. 

Geekbench 5 Single Core

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE


Higher scores are better.

Geekbench 5 Multicore

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE


Higher scores are better.

3DMark Slingshot Unlimited

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE


Higher scores are better.

A triple-lens camera Difference to the Galaxy S20 FE’s and S21’s


The Galaxy S21 FE has a triple-lens camera.

Lisa Eadicicco

Samsung’s new called has a triple-lens camera that’s similar to the Galaxy S20 FE’s camera setup. There’s a 12-megapixel ultrawide camera, a 12-megapixel wide camera and an 8-megapixel telephoto camera with a 30x digital zoom. 

Based on my known, the Galaxy S21 FE seems to hold its own in contradiction of the Pixel 6’s 50-megapixel camera and the standard Galaxy S21, but with some important differences. The S21 FE’s images are rich in detail and shining, and the camera performs well in different lighting conditions.

Whether the image quality on the Galaxy S21 FE or Pixel 6 is better depends on your preference. Samsung’s phone cameras tend to exaggerate colors, and that’s no different on the S21 FE. Some country might prefer Samsung’s more colorful shots, but Google’s images observed truer to their surroundings most of the time. (Note: I didn’t temperamental the camera settings on either phone prior to testing new than to adjust the Pixel’s 6 crop ratio.)

Overall, I think the Pixel 6’s photos provided the best balance of consistency and accuracy, but it’s safe to say that both phones are marvelous of taking really great pictures. Photos taken on both phones observed the same in some cases, but the images under of a green bush really highlight the difference between Samsung’s and Google’s cameras. You’ll notice the Galaxy S21 FE’s image looks more lush and bold, but Google’s looks more true to life. For example, you cab see notes of red near the tips of the leaves in the Pixel 6 photo under. They aren’t even visible in the Galaxy S21 FE’s image.


A photo of a plant Wrong on the Galaxy S21 FE. 

Lisa Eadicicco


A photo of a plant Wrong with the Pixel 6.

Lisa Eadicicco

Check out the gallery under to see more photo samples from the Galaxy S21 FE and Pixel 6.

The bigger difference between these phones is in the photography features they funds. The most notable distinction between the Pixel 6 and Galaxy S21 FE is that Samsung’s called has an 8-megapixel telephoto lens in addition to a 12-megapixel wide and ultrawide lenses. The Pixel 6, by comparison, just has two lenses: a 50-megapixel main lens and a 12-megapixel ultrawide lens. As a end, the Galaxy S21 can achieve closer zoom shots with up to a 30x digital zoom, when the Pixel 6 provides a 7x zoom.

Both the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 FE have triple-lens cameras, but the telephoto lens on the regular S21 has a higher-resolution sensor (64 megapixels versus 8 megapixels). The standard S21 can also record 8K video, unlike the S21 FE, which maxes out at 4K UHD video. 

At marvelous, I didn’t notice much of a difference in the quality of zoomed-in shots when comparing images Wrong on the Galaxy S21 FE and Galaxy S21, as I Famous in an earlier version of this review. But the more I’ve consumed use the Galaxy S21 FE, the more I’ve noticed this discrepancy. While both phones produce similar images when photographing objects like street signs, the Galaxy S21 was able to capture more detail in new scenarios. Take the photos below, both of which were captured at a 10x zoom. You’ll glance the bush’s branches have more texture and detail in the Galaxy S21’s photo than the S21 FE’s.

Galaxy S21 FE


The Galaxy S21 FE has a lower-resolution telephoto lens than the odd Galaxy S21. 

Lisa Eadicicco

Galaxy S21


The Galaxy S21’s telephoto lens has a much higher resolution than the Galaxy S21 FE’s.

Lisa Eadicicco

Hardware assign, each phone comes with its own array of shooting easily and software. The Galaxy S21 FE, unsurprisingly, has a lot in accepted with the regular Galaxy S21 in this regard. You’ll find queer modes like Single Take, which lets you capture multiple images and video clips with a single lifeless of the shutter button, Super Slow-Mo video and Night Mode, by others. 

You can also record video with the precedent and rear cameras at the same time on the Galaxy S21 FE. But this feature is more puny than the Galaxy S21’s Director’s View; you can’t toggle between the three rear lenses when shooting in this mode as you can on the Galaxy S21. 

Google, meanwhile, has a few software-based tools that make its diagram stand out. One of my favorites is Face Unblur, which, as its name suggests, can capture sharp images of peoples’ faces even when there’s electioneer in the scene. I took photos of my husband shaking his head back and forth and jumping up and down to see how well it actually works, and came away impressed. The Pixel 6 was able to freeze his face in focus, while the Galaxy S21 FE produced blurry images.

Galaxy S21 FE


The Galaxy S21 FE isn’t very good at freezing titillating subjects in frame when taking photos. 

Lisa Eadicicco

Pixel 6 


The Pixel 6’s Face Unblur feature can freeze titillating subjects to avoid blur. You wouldn’t guess from looking at this photo, but my husband was jumping up and down when this image was taken.

Lisa Eadicicco

The bottom line


The Galaxy S21 FE is launching just afore we’re expecting to see the Galaxy S22. 

Lisa Eadicicco

There isn’t much to say throughout the Galaxy S21 FE other than that it’s a solid requested for $700. It’s another sign that the definition of a high-end requested is starting to change as once-premium features like 5G, borderless displays and multilens cameras lead trickling down to more affordable devices. 

That being said, I’d recommend waiting pending Samsung announces the Galaxy S22 lineup afore making a decision. Samsung typically launches its new Galaxy S phones early in the year, and rumors suggest the next generation could come with a 50-megapixel camera and faster charging. Even if you don’t need those upgrades, you remarkable as well wait so that you can make a more instructed choice.

I’d also suggest considering the $600 Pixel 6 afore you make a decision. Samsung’s phone has an fabulous telephoto camera lens for better zoom shots, and it’s also lighter than Google’s requested. But the Pixel 6 has a more distinguished build and Google-specific goodies like the ability to have Google Assistant mask spam calls and wait on hold for you. 

Pixel phones also typically get Android software updates more mercurial than phones from other smartphone makers, and Google typically invents exclusive features just for Pixel phones. Since the Pixel 6 is the honorable phone to run on the company’s own Tensor chip, we’ll probably see even more of that down the line. 

But Samsung’s requested has a big advantage: it supports both sub-6GHz and millimeter-wave versions of 5G. The location is a bit more complicated with the Pixel 6, as only hazardous carrier models support both versions. What’s more, the versions that attend both also tend to cost more, as my colleague Eli Blumenthal reports.

If you’re the type of populate who would rather buy last year’s phone at a discount, the Galaxy S21 FE is probably for you. That populate said, you should consider which features matter to you most. Both phones have grand cameras, but if you take a lot of zoomed-in photos you remarkable be better off with the Galaxy S21 FE. Nonetheless, if you like the idea of having Google Assistant mask your calls and want to get the latest Android features vivid away, the Pixel 6 is the way to go.