Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: An okay budget phone, but is it right for you?

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE reduces the great screen, impressive camera, and snappy software of the Galaxy S21 into a less flashy, more affordable package. And while the $699 S21 FE isn’t the company’s first full-featured phone under $1,000, it does launch with stiff competition this time around in the form of the $599 Google Pixel 6.

After a week of living with the latest Samsung smartphones, here’s what you need to know about S21 FE.

An affordable Galaxy phone

The S21 FE is the best choice for those who want an affordable Galaxy smartphone but don’t skimp on features like a vibrant display and triple cameras.

Who, what and how?

Who is this for: The S21 FE is ideal for those who want a bright screen and a versatile camera kit to shoot for under $700, or those who want Samsung-exclusive software and features at an affordable price point.

What you need to know: The S21 FE performs smoothly in everyday use, can handle intense tasks, and is a solid shooter for photos or videos. Samsung’s variety of modes including portrait, night mode and Single shot take the hassle out of capturing content. The phone also offers smooth, fluid handling, a triple camera system, and long battery life.

How does this compare: The Galaxy S21 FE It’s not the best in class like the more expensive S21 smartphone, but it offers a vibrant display, quick handling, and better-than-average camera housed in a premium lower build. But if you don’t marry Samsung’s look, we’d opt for another phone like the Pixel 6. Google’s latest flagship offers the best camera experience of any Android phone we’ve tried. experience and even though it only has two lenses – wide and Ultrawide – we didn’t miss the telephoto, thanks to its excellent digital zoom. And if you’re not after the latest and greatest hardware, Pixel 5a with 5G is a great $449.99 phone with similar camera parts and from Samsung Galaxy A52 5G ($449) offers a dose of anti-future with full support for mmWave and Sub-6 5G. If you’re looking for an Apple product, the $399 iPhone SE is a high-performance product with a classic design, while iPhone 11 ($499) and 12 ($599) both are available at a discounted price – just be wary of the storage limit on these models.

Jacob Krol / CNN

The Galaxy S21 FE looks like a modern smartphone with a catch button. Like the S21 and S20 FE, Samsung is using less premium materials. The frame is aluminum, but the back is polycarbonate – aka plastic. It doesn’t necessarily feel cheap in the hand and is very comfortable and light, but the smooth plastic finish on the back shows fingerprints, so we recommend a case. .

The S21 FE is slightly smaller than the standard S21, and despite being built with similar materials, it feels cheaper. For example, the camera bump on the back, which houses the triple-camera system, remains outside of the device’s frame – but instead of metal on the Galaxy S21, it’s all polycarbonate here.

The S21 FE also fully supports wireless charging and works on any standard Qi charging dock, although you can also plug it in via a USB-C cable. On either side of the port are the speaker and Micro SIM card slot, while the power/sleep button and volume rocker are on the right edge. You’ll also find cutouts and bands to support 5G – S21 FE supports both Sub-6GHz and mmWave standards. Not only will this future-proof you as these networks continue to roll out, but it also corrects the 5G lead of the previous S20 FE, which only supported the slower Sub-6 spectrum.

The front of the phone is mostly a display surrounded by thin bezels. Centered at the top of the screen is a pinhole notch with a 32-megapixel selfie camera, although it’s not distracting in day-to-day use.

Jacob Krol / CNN

The 6.4-inch Dynamic AMOLED display comes to life, with vibrant colors striking when scrolling through Instagram, using TikTok, or swiping through different apps. Watch an episode of “The Book of Boba Fett” that will showcase how the S21 FE’s display can handle areas as bright as the blazing sun against the dark armor of a bounty hunter in the same scene. Other screens, mainly on cheaper phones, can struggle with scenes like this.

The display also has a 120Hz refresh rate, which is becoming the new standard for mobile phones. It’s not as adaptive as the 60Hz display on the S21 or iPhone 13 Pro, so it won’t adjust based on what you’re watching or what you’re doing on the phone, but you’ll see a noticeable difference in how The higher refresh rate enhances action scenes and allows for smoother scrolling. You can set the display to 60Hz or 120Hz in the settings menu – using the former can increase battery life.

The in-display fingerprint sensor might not be as fast as the standard S21, S21+, or S21 Ultra, but it performs admirably. Samsung uses a less advanced optical sensor in the S21 FE, unlike the powerful ultrasonic sensor that has impressed us on more expensive models.

Smooth performance and solid battery life

Like nearly every recent higher-end Android phone, Galaxy S21 FE packs a powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, allowing you to easily browse social media, handle productivity tasks (email, web browsing, G Suite, and spreadsheets) and even engage in some games play, whether it’s streaming video or playing games.

And since the Galaxy S21 FE will launch almost a year after the main Galaxy S21 series, you’ll get an Android 12 score running Samsung’s One UX 4.0 right out of the box. We especially appreciate the new privacy tab in settings for a better understanding of how hardware is being used. However, if you’re expecting a clean Android without the Samsung UI, you’ll want to look at the Google-made Pixel 6.

Jacob Krol / CNN

Our other takeaways with the Galaxy S21 FE is that it’s limited to 6GB of RAM in 128GB of storage and 256GB with 8GB of RAM. This is a full 2GB less than the entry-level S21, although we easily got through some tasks and a full day of use. Those who use the phone for more intense tasks, like photo editing and gaming, may notice a slower phenomenon. In short, with software updates, this can cause problems as systems and applications become increasingly demanding. And of course, it won’t offer the same future-proofing as the S21 Ultra, which has a massive 12GB of RAM.

During day-to-day use, we noticed that the S21 FE sometimes glitched or ran slow. This can be resolved with software updates, but it’s worth noting that we didn’t encounter these errors on the standard S21 or Pixel 6.

As we do with every device we test at CNN Underscored, we ran the Galaxy S21 FE through a series of benchmarks. On the benchmark Geekbench 5, which runs the phone through a series of tasks in the stress test, the Galaxy S21 FE scores 1,098 points in the single-core test and 3,210 points in the multi-core test, which is quite in line with the tests. check running another Snapdragon 888 chip. phones, including the standard Galaxy S21. Most importantly, however, the S21 FE’s score was consistent with our day-to-day use.

In terms of battery life, Samsung’s 4,500mAh battery got us through the day.

The Galaxy S21 FE has a different appearance than the Galaxy S20 FE, but the camera hardware is identical.

The triple main camera system works well, allowing colors to pop without sacrificing detail in the image. Samsung’s software modes for taking photos and recording content also make the experience better. As we’ve called it before, Samsung’s Single Shot mode is an intuitive feature that takes the hassle of taking pictures for a moment. You just have to press the start button and move the phone around what you want to capture. It then uses AI to strategically take photos and videos. It’s a pretty neat feature, and we had no problems with processing.

Samsung also offers plenty of other modes, like portrait bokeh and an effective night mode, though given the choice, we’d rather shoot with Apple and Google’s proprietary modes for similar looks. .

There’s also no battle when it comes to image processing against Pixel 6 because Google images always look better and have more details.

Here’s what to expect with the Galaxy S21 FE:

  • 12-megapixel ultra-wide lens: You can pack a lot into a scene without moving by shooting with this 123-degree field of view. It’s a great way to frame different photos, and Samsung minimizes interruptions at the edges of photos.
  • 12-megapixel wide-angle lens: The camera automatically unfolds to the 12-megapixel main camera. This works best for portraits and can handle more crowded photos with lots of color and detail.
  • 8-megapixel telephoto lens: The zoom lens here is only 8 megapixels, allowing for 3x optical zoom and 30x spatial zoom. This combines optical and digital zoom into one shot. While this is a fun mode to use, the quality will be far from the 10x zoom, resulting in blurry images.

You can check out some of the images we shot on the device above. In a direct comparison, the telephoto lens included here performs better than the Pixel 6 at zoom shots in most situations. Samsung also enhances the vibrancy of its photos compared to the competition and you can see that on S21 FE. The selfie camera works admirably and is excellent for capturing TikToks or posting to stories, while the overall performance of the wide and ultra-wide lenses is on par with the previous S20 FE and close to that of the S21.

Jacob Krol / CNN

As the final chapter in the story of the Galaxy S21 and the first Samsung smartphone of 2022, S21 FE get a lot of rights. But when it comes to timing and price, the smartphone space has other compelling models to offer.

If you’re not desperate for a Galaxy smartphone or a dedicated telephoto lens, we’d opt to save $100 with the Pixel 6. Google’s $599 phone offers longer battery life, a premium design, and a premium design. and fast handling along with one of the best cameras we’ve ever tested. But if you want a Samsung-flavoured Android or an impressive zoom lens, the S21 FE has a lot to offer. You can also consider the standard Galaxy S21, which is typically discounted from its $799 starting price and comes with more RAM, a better display, higher-end specs, and a better telephoto lens.

Right now Amazon has a great deal that gets you to buy the S21 for $699 and for free Gift Card $100. If you choose to order from Samsung, you can get a $100 credit or choose a pair Galaxy Buds Live or Galaxy Buds Pro for $29.99 with purchase of S21 FE. Either way, you’ll want to wait to buy it at a discounted price or with a deal.


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