Don’t Buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

Don’t Buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G. (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)

With Samsung’s Galaxy S22 lineup due out in just a couple days, I’m sitting here wondering: What exactly is the point of the company’s new Galaxy S21 Fan Edition? There seems to be no element of fan service to it whatsoever, and I can’t imagine what devoted Samsung user would pull the trigger on this phone today just for a slightly lower price.

The Galaxy S21 FE 5G isn’t a bad smartphone by any means. But it does feel like you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel (a nice barrel, but a barrel nonetheless). Some people might be OK with that, but with the smaller Google Pixel 6 offering a better camera for $150 less, you have to really want a Samsung phone to choose this “fan edition.”

Galaxy S21 FE 5G

WHAT IS IT?

Samsung's cheapest Galaxy S21

PRICE?

Starts at $1,149

LIKE

Compact design, beautiful screen, good battery life

DISLIKE

Night vision isn't as good as the Pixel 6, telephoto lens produces choppy photos, less memory than the regular Galaxy S21

A Perfectly Fine Design

If I can appreciate one thing about Samsung’s devices, the hardware always feels premium even when it’s decidedly not. Samsung’s designs stand out from the sea of Androids, and the Galaxy S21 FE continues in that vein with a stacked rear triple-camera array, which rumours tell us we’re going to lose with the next generation of Galaxy phones.

Despite its “fan edition” moniker, this version of Samsung’s flagship looks cheaper than the other Galaxy S21 models. There’s no fancy trim around the smartphone’s edges, and the back cover feels like just a mere plastic shell. At the very least, it’s matte-like, so the phone isn’t slipping and sliding around like the OnePlus 9 and Pixel 6 smartphones when it’s on a table. The S21 FE comes in multiple colours, including purple, olive green, and white. I tested it in black, though it appears dark grey in person.

The Galaxy S21 FE 5G looks similar to the Galaxy S21, but cheaper. (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)The Galaxy S21 FE 5G looks similar to the Galaxy S21, but cheaper. (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)

The Galaxy S21 FE 5G has all the same features as the Galaxy S21 in the same places. The volume rocker and power button are both on the right side of the device, and the speaker grill and SIM tray are at the bottom. The front side features a nearly edge-to-edge 6.4-inch Dynamic AMOLED display, which makes it the goldilocks of Galaxy devices if you thought the Galaxy S21+’s 6.7-inch screen was too big and the Galaxy S21’s 6.2-inch screen was too small. There’s only a tiny sliver of bezel, so your cradling thumb isn’t activating the screen. There’s also an in-display fingerprint sensor. It works fine, though it seems to be particular about how you place your thumb.

The Galaxy S21 FE also has a 120Hz refresh rate, which makes things look nice and smooth. I love watching videos on this smartphone — even my 720p TV shows look good on the Galaxy S21 FE. The stereo speakers are loud enough to hear the dialogue on an episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 one room over.

Sacrifices Add Up

The Galaxy S21 FE can handle multitasking, but it would have been so much snappier with a bit more RAM. (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)The Galaxy S21 FE can handle multitasking, but it would have been so much snappier with a bit more RAM. (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)

These days, you can typically gauge how good an Android smartphone is by its specs. The Galaxy 21 FE 5G sports Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 processor, the chip that powered most of 2021’s Android flagships. But now we’re in 2022, and new processors are coming through the pipeline — for Android, that’s the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1. If you buy this phone now, ask yourself if you’re ok with living with last year’s hardware.

The other thing to consider is that the Galaxy S21 FE only comes with 6GB of RAM. That’s mid-range living if you’re an Android user, and there’s a slightly noticeable performance difference in the day-to-day between this device and the OnePlus 9 I use daily, which has the same processor paired with 8GB of RAM. It’s minimal, but the difference crops up in minuscule ways, like whether an animation is stuttering or fluid in intensive apps like Pokémon Go.

On synthetic benchmarks, the Galaxy S21 FE’s numbers were on par with Samsung’s foldable phones, which have the same processor. So while it’s capable, there will be times when it won’t feel as snappy as if you had more memory memory. As for its battery performance, the Galaxy S21 FE lasted 13 hours and 29 minutes in our rundown test. The 4,500 mAh battery offers plenty of battery life.

Don’t Zoom In Too Much

The Galaxy S21 FE 5G has a triple-camera array on the backside.  (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)The Galaxy S21 FE 5G has a triple-camera array on the backside. (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)

The Galaxy S21 FE has a triple-lens rear camera array: a 12-MP wide-angle lens with an f/1.8 aperture; another 12-MP ultra-wide camera with an f/2.2 aperture, and an 8-MP telephoto camera with an f/2.4 aperture. There’s a 32-MP selfie camera on the front with an f/2.2 aperture, which I still think is too high resolution for a camera that’s supposed to capture your face.

The photos I took with the Galaxy S21 FE were fine. The phone kept up with my toddler during the daytime and captured broody evening photos with its low-light capabilities. But I’m seriously considering the point of the rear zoom lens, as it caused me the most trouble during testing.

The Galaxy S21 FE's front-facing camera is a whopping 32-MP for some reason. (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)The Galaxy S21 FE’s front-facing camera is a whopping 32-MP for some reason. (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)

Samsung swapped out the 64-MP macro sensor on the Galaxy S21 for this 8-MP one, so photos taken with its 3x optical zoom aren’t very sharp — and that was with the aid of a tripod. Anything zoomed in past the optical length appeared too grainy to share publicly. I tested it against the Pixel 6 Pro with a 48-MP lens and a 4x optical zoom (a lens that’s not on the cheaper Pixel 6).

Enjoy this scenic photo I took with the Galaxy S21 FE 5G. (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)Enjoy this scenic photo I took with the Galaxy S21 FE 5G. (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)

I’ve always been a little miffed with Samsung’s cameras, usually because of the overprocessing of the final product. The Fan Edition is no different.

Photos taken in the daylight were crisp and clear but take on a blue tinge on extremely sunny days. It’s especially apparent with the same picture taken by the Pixel 6 Pro, which tends to downplay the colour in favour of bumping up detail. In some cases, the Galaxy S21 FE photo of a scene would have more blown-out elements than the one shot with the Pixel 6 Pro.

I also saw this overprocessing come into play while zooming in to a rapidly-moving object. I took two subsequent photos of a flag flapping in the wind, and both times there was a blob of what looks like unprocessed pixels floating around the scene. It looked like anti-aliasing, and it was not something I could crop out of the photo.

The nighttime capabilities of the Galaxy S21 FE were also average in terms of performance, because it doesn’t have the Pixel 6’s smarts. The Pixel 6 camera system automatically switches into an extended exposure mode when it senses it’s on a tripod, which helps grab detailed photos at night. You have manual capabilities with the Galaxy S21 FE within its camera app to do the same, but you don’t have access to the same algorithms.

The Pixel 6 Pro's Night Sight capabilities are on the left, and the right is the Galaxy S21 FE's Night mode capabilities.  (Image: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)The Pixel 6 Pro’s Night Sight capabilities are on the left, and the right is the Galaxy S21 FE’s Night mode capabilities. (Image: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)

In the camera example above, the Pixel 6 Pro’s camera stayed open for four minutes and captured a ton of detail. You can even see a plane flying by in the distance and texture in the hills. The Galaxy S21 FE’s night mode stopped short of that detail. The result is a darker night shot tinged with green.

Not Exactly Made for Fans

The Galaxy S21 FE is a good phone, but it's not better than its predecessors.  (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)The Galaxy S21 FE is a good phone, but it’s not better than its predecessors. (Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo)

One bonus is that Samsung offers the latest version of Android right out of the box, with Samsung’s One UI 4 layered on top of Android 12. Samsung has promised up to four years of security updates on its smartphones, so if you can live with the Galaxy S21 FE’s camera for that long, it has that going for it.

One UI does have its own quirks. You won’t have access to the Material You theming capabilities that Google debuted on Android 12, for example. However, there are other little features you might like (or hate), including the slide-out dock that hides in the corner of the screen where you can pin apps and things. There’s also a feature that lets you link your Windows PC with your Samsung device.

The Galaxy S21 FE 5G may be for Samsung super-fans, but it’s arriving way too late and with too few features to make it worth buying. With the Galaxy S22 launching soon with a a slew of new features, including what will probably be better nighttime photo-taking abilities, you’re better off waiting a little while longer than spending $1,149 on this repackaged but ultimately underwhelming flagship.