The Samsung S21 FE: So nice, you’ll forget it’s the cheap Galaxy phone

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The full color lineup of Samsung’s Galaxy S21 FE.
Image: Samsung

I’m an Apple user, and I have been for years. My stuff all lives in the Apple ecosystem, and I love the fact that my iPhone, iPad, MacBook, AirPods and Apple Watch all talk to each other and for what amounts to one big device.

Apple has cornered the market when it comes to building an ecosystem: It builds software for its own hardware, doesn’t license its operating systems for third-party hardware, and so the company’s philosophy of being a “walled garden” has largely worked. There isn’t another manufacturer that has managed to create such an interconnected ecosystem, which basically puts Apple in its own class as a company that sells an environment just as much as it sells hardware.

But Apple is starting to slip in terms of hardware innovation, and nothing makes it more clear than the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE. For a device priced at $699 (the same as the iPhone 13 Mini that I use as my personal device), it offers a hardware experience that, quite frankly, makes Apple look like it’s working with last generation components.

Both Apple and Samsung make some of the highest-quality, most cutting-edge devices on the market, with only a few historic snafus. Those instances aside, you’d be hard pressed to find a device that outdoes either manufacturer. Having tested the latest in Samsung’s youth-oriented, budget-friendly devices, I’d say that the momentum is currently favoring Samsung; read on to find out why.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE: What it is, and isn’t

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Fan Edition is Samsung’s mid-cycle entry level device. Samsung said that it considers the S21 FE part of the flagship Galaxy device family, but by sacrificing a few features it turned what is easily a top-tier device into a lower priced one that still feels like it’s worth an extra few hundred dollars.

Looks wise, the S21 FE is identical to the Galaxy S21, and it’s not too different internally, either. The S21 FE has the same frosted glass back, the same 120Hz refresh rate on its FHD+ AMOLED screen, the same RAM and storage options, the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 and both are 5G and Wi-Fi 6 capable. So, what’s the catch?

The things that mark the FE as an entry-level Galaxy smartphone are minimal, at least visually. To the S21 FE’s benefit, it has a larger display (6.2” on the S21, versus 6.4” on the FE), but to its detriment, the FE’s battery is 500mAh smaller. The S21 FE also lacks Samsung’s new under-screen ultrasonic fingerprint sensing tech, and instead uses an optical sensor.

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Perhaps the biggest sacrifice S21 FE owners will have to live with is the lack of support for the ultra wide band mmWave 5G that carriers like Verizon market as the fastest possible connection. Luckily for most FE owners, UWB 5G is generally confined to high-traffic urban areas, like near sports stadiums and convention centers.

The last difference between the S21 and S21 FE comes in the form of its cameras, with the FE taking a decided hit to its capabilities in the name of lowering its cost. The S21 has three rear cameras: A 12MP primary lens, a 12MP wide-angle lens, and a 64MP telephoto lens. On its front, the S21 has a 10MP selfie camera.

The S21 FE, by contrast, has its telephoto lens dropped to 8MP, while its front camera is boosted to 32MP.

What the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE does well

The FE is responsive, easy to use, feels like a flagship device and, despite being priced lower, it is.

When I fired up my S21 FE test unit, the first thing I noticed was its 120Hz screen refresh rate. If you’ve never owned a device with a 120Hz screen you’ve probably never realized that doubling the refresh rate would make such a difference, but it’s remarkable how much smoother and clearer the FE is than my iPhone 13 Mini (yes, I know that the iPhone 13 Pro series has a 120Hz display; it’s also an extra $300). The display alone could be a selling point, but there’s more.

The battery life on the FE is great, at least in my usage. While I don’t typically use my loaner devices to the point of draining the battery to zero, I was still impressed by how well it handled multiple downloads, video streams and calls without a serious drain on the battery percentage.

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There are also several smaller features on the S21 FE that impressed me, especially given its price point. It has wireless power sharing that allowed me to charge non-Samsung devices, even my AirPods. iPhones are actually capable of doing the same, but Apple hasn’t seen fit to allow it beyond the iPhone’s ability to charge the MagSafe battery pack.

Another feature included on the S21 FE is the Android-standard security feature that allows device owners to flag certain spaces as safe enough to keep their phones unlocked while in that location. As an additional security feature, the fact that the S21 FE has both a fingerprint reader (hidden beneath the screen) and face unlocking means that when one won’t work the other is close at hand as a backup.

I’m sure that Android users and Samsung owners will be quick to point out that these aren’t special features, and/or they’re typical for a good Android device. I foresee many a comment telling me I’m late to the party, or that my iPhone has made me blind to the innovation happening elsewhere.

I won’t argue that point. Regardless, I think small features like these are important considerations for both those coming from another ecosystem, like Apple’s, and those who are wondering if a budget-priced Samsung Galaxy device aimed at younger people is still useful for professionals. Short answer: Yes.

What the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE could do better 

For its price, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is bearing the flag of what cheaper smartphones could be. That said, it doesn’t do everything perfectly.

One of the big Galaxy features the S21 FE has is its AI photo tweaking and remastering. Despite taking multiple photos in different light settings, I couldn’t get an image enhanced in any way that truly made it better.

Pictures of my cats, some of my favorite photo subjects due to the level of detail capturable in their fur, weren’t all that improved by AI remastering compared to the original, and when zoomed in fully, my iPhone 13 Mini’s pictures were slightly sharper. The end result of an enhanced image, at least when zoomed in, leaves it looking like a digital painting (Figure A). There’s enhanced color depth in the remastered image, but compared to the iPhone 13 Mini image I took, it looks a bit flat and unnatural (I encourage you to open that image in a new tab and take a closer look).

Figure A: A Samsung Galaxy S21 FE AI-remastered image on the left, and a standard iPhone 13 Mini photo taken from the same perspective.

My other big gripe is one that’s sure to make Android users roll their eyes: Too many bells and whistles makes the device a bit trickier to make good use of.

There are a lot of things you can do with the S21 FE, from AI photo editing, color palette and app icon options and Samsung DeX, to security features that make it good for business users, and all of it is buried in a labyrinth of menus. Luckily you can search inside the settings app for certain features, but if you don’t know the precise name of what you’re looking for it can still be tricky.

If you’re the sort of person who wants a device that they can use to its maximum potential with little learning curve, an iPhone may be a better choice. If customizability, openness and options are your priority (and you’re not afraid to do some digging to get to your destination) then this issue likely won’t be a deterrent.

Should business users consider the S21 FE?

With Samsung having just launched the S22 series at this year’s Samsung Galaxy Unpacked, this may seem like an odd time to say “Yes, go buy an S21 FE,” but it isn’t. Especially if you’re a business user.

I’m currently testing a Galaxy S22 and S22 Ultra, and having played with all three I can say that, if you’re not considering buying the S22 Ultra for its Galaxy Note-like features, and you don’t need the latest in cutting-edge gizmos and features, the S21 FE is hands down a phone worth buying for work, or even as a fleet of company-issued devices.

The relatively low price point of $699.99 for the S21 FE leaves it a good few hundred dollars cheaper than the S22. Being only a month older than its successors, the S21 FE isn’t as far behind as its non-FE siblings.

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Like the S22 series, the S21 FE will get four years of guaranteed Google and Samsung security updates, and three generations of Android support, meaning it’ll be supported up through Android 15. The non-FE S21 devices, on the other hand, will stop getting support with Android 14.

In addition, the S21 FE has security features like the Samsung Knox Secure Folder, which lets users store files in an encrypted space on the device, as well as encrypted file sharing features that include expiring share permissions, read only and screen capture blocking, resharing restrictions, and more.

Samsung also said that the S21 FE supports the FirstNet Emergency Network band, which makes the FE an ideal device for emergency services workers and organizations.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE: The verdict

As I’ve tried to make clear during this review, I’m an Apple user. This phone gives me no pause to rethink my decision, but that’s not because I’m happy with Apple’s latest generation of iPhones — it’s because I’m already invested in the Apple ecosystem, and as a conglomerate of interconnected devices I still don’t believe anyone competes with Apple.

If I were a Windows or an Android user, I would choose a Samsung device, and there would be little doubt in my mind which device that would be given its capabilities and price: The Galaxy S21 FE.

I don’t feel like I’m suffering from vendor lock-in by sticking with Apple, but when I use the F21 FE I feel like I’ve invested my tech dollars in a company that has come to largely rest its laurels on its history as an innovator, underdog and industry leader.

This $699 phone has made me seriously wonder if Apple still has what it takes to attract users, both business and consumer, with its lower-priced devices. The S21 FE is only four months older than the iPhone 13 series. Apple better have some big surprises up its sleeve for 2022 if it’s going to keep its users from looking longingly over the wall toward more innovative pastures.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is available now directly from Samsung starting at $699.99, or you can check with your carrier for trade in or other promotional deals.



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