Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Back to the past future

Is the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE relevant in 2022? One year after the release of the vanilla Galaxy S21 that can be purchased for the same price, and also unveiled just a few weeks before the launch of the technically superior Galaxy S22, this is one particular question that needs addressing. I will try to answer it in this complete review of the new old Samsung smartphone.

Good

  • Bright, smooth and responsive 120Hz AMOLED display
  • Snapdragon 888 performance without overheating issues
  • Neat and modern design (despite all the plastic)
  • Convincing wide-angle and 3x zoom camera module
  • Night Mode works great
  • 3 major Android versions and 4 years of security updates
  • IP68 certification

Bad

  • Mediocre battery life
  • Archaic 25-watt fast charging
  • No microSD port or 3.5mm audio jack
  • Charger is not included in the box
  • Price is not competitive

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE in a nutshell

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE was released in the US earlier this January 11 for $699 a pop for the 6 GB RAM/128 GB storage model, while the 8 GB RAM/256 GB storage model is going for $769.99. This makes it $100 cheaper than the vanilla Galaxy S21 that was released in 2021 at the tail end of January.

The thing is, if you were to roll back the calendar by one year, you will be able to find the vanilla Galaxy S21 being sold at a cheaper price circa $750 on Amazon with prices dropping even lower than that during Black Friday 2021. And that’s not even taking the Galaxy S22 into account which is tipped to be launched officially in just a matter of weeks or perhaps, even days.

This is the main question that we ask ourselves about the Galaxy S21 FE is: Why? Why launch this smartphone which, in the first place, has very little relevance within the Samsung ecosystem? Apart from the Snapdragon 888 SoC that is not found in selected markets (especially in Europe) apart from foldable devices? Didn’t Samsung wait too long to release this smartphone?

Yes, there is no doubt about that. But just because it’s released at the wrong time doesn’t mean the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is a bad smartphone. It’s also not the poor timing that should discourage you from picking it up later without any risks of it becoming totally obsolete, even after the Galaxy S22 hits the market.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

Design: Plastic is in vogue 😞

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE has a sober and slim design with a matte plastic back that covers the entire device, even on the camera module at the back. This is not something I hated, to my greatest surprise. However, this choice of a less premium material does not necessarily reflect any technical compromises.


What I liked:

  • Unified “one block” design despite the plastic.
  • Matte coating at the back despite the plastic.
  • IP68 certification despite the plastic.
  • Thin and light form factor despite the plastic.

What I disliked:

  • Plastic looks a bit fragile.
  • No 3.5mm headphone jack or microSD port.

Yes, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is made out of plastic. P-L-A-S-T-I-C! The Antoine of 2021 would surely have scribbled a 3,000 words article about this affront. But in fact, I find the look of the Galaxy S21 FE to be rather nice. The matte coating is comfortable to the touch and offers a good grip.

The smartphone is also lighter as it tips the scales at 177 grams while remaining rather slim with a thickness of 79 mm. The power button is very well placed, working well regardless of whether you are right- or left-handed, although the volume rocker is positioned way too high for my liking which does not augur well for one-handed use.

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The “full plastic” look is certainly less premium but it has its charms. / © NextPit
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The camera module is like a direct extension of the back of the Galaxy S21 FE. / © NextPit

The switch to an all-plastic design also implies that the camera module is no longer nested within an aluminium base as found in the vanilla Galaxy S21. And frankly, this uniform design is a rather modern take. Oppo has already done this on its Find X3 Pro, but this concept has also proven itself to be fashionable with Adidas’ Yeezy Foam Runners, for example.

In any case, our dear readers have already shared their opinion about how they really feel about glass backs in a poll. As Charles would say, “I got you.”

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The 6.4-inch screen sports the classic punch-hole camera that is centered at the top. / © NextPit
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I can’t believe the Galaxy S21 FE has IP68 certification! / © NextPit

Let’s take a look at the negatives. I think it is a shame that there is no microSD slot, especially since the storage in the base model of the Galaxy S21 FE stands at a mere 128GB in this day and age. There is no 3.5mm headphone jack either, but that’s almost a given in this price range now, which is still no excuse for smartphone manufacturers to give it a pass.

On the other hand, the smartphone has IP68 certification against dust and water immersion for an hour and up to 1 meter deep. It’s a good thing that Samsung didn’t skip this element.

NextPit samsung galaxy s21 fe vs s21 ultraS21 Ultra (left) vs S21 FE (right): 
I really like this matte coating at long last, plastic or not. / © NextPit

Screen: OLED with 120 Hz refresh rate and Full HD+ resolution simply works!

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE offers a quality screen, as Samsung obliged with a 6.4-inch AMOLED panel in Full HD+ resolution offering a refresh rate of 120 Hz.


What I liked:

  • Smooth 120 Hz refresh rate.
  • 240 Hz touch sampling rate.
  • Good brightness level.
  • Flat and not curved screen (depends on personal preference).

What I disliked:

  • Flat and not curved screen (depends on personal preference).
  • Colors are not very accurate by default

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The screen of the Galaxy S21 FE is an instant classic, which Samsung always delivers most of the time. / © NextPit

I will not dwell on the screen quality of the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE. Most of you should be familiar by now concerning the quality of the panels made by Samsung. This model is no exception. Sure, the AMOLED screen at 1080 x 2400 pixels resolution with a 120 Hz refresh rate is a classic recipe that simply works.

The screen is bright enough to be readable under all circumstances, the display is also very smooth thanks to the 120 Hz refresh rate but also very responsive with the 240 Hz touch sampling rate, making it perfect for gaming.

My colleague Stefan also placed the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE under the microscope of a calibration tool (Spyder 5) coupled with HCFR software in order to examine the colorimetry of the display. We are interested here in the average deltaE figure, which is the average difference between the colors reproduced in a given color space.

And the observation is that with the default colorimetry settings under “vivid colors”, there were signs of serious deviations. Colors were saturated and very unnatural. We can see that the measurements made on the Galaxy S21 FE and depicted by the white triangle do not stick to what they should be in the ideal color space that is depicted by by the dark triangle.

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The colorimetry of the screen in “bright colors” mode. / © NextPit

The reproduction is definitely more faithful with the “natural” display mode (no joke), with an average deltaE of 2.4. But personally, I find the color palette a bit too poor and much prefer the “vivid color” mode. In any case, it’s the first time we used this test protocol and we’ll have to measure other smartphones and be more familiar with this tool in order to make these figures more relevant.

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The colorimetry of the screen in “natural” mode is more reliable although a little too cold (look at the gap on the blue tones). / © NextPit

Interface/OS: OneUI 4 and Android 12 make a difference

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE runs on OneUI 4 that is based on Android 12. The manufacturer promises three major Android updates and up to four years of security updates.

I’m really going to skim over this section since we recently published a full review of Samsung’s OneUI 4 skin. There were no major interface innovations or revolutionary features to offer here. I still noted that Samsung offers the best multitasking features of any Android manufacturer with its super intuitive flying windows, for instance.

The battery utility is also light years ahead of the one offered by OnePlus and their OxygenOS. As for the rest of the operating system, Samsung has only integrated the additions of Android 12 with the Privacy Panel or the Material You customization options, such as aligning the overall theme to follow your wallpaper’s color palette. 

samsung galaxy s21 fe review ui
While there is nothing new under the sun, OneUI remains one of my favorite Android skins./ © NextPit

But the fact that the Galaxy S21 FE comes with Android 12 right out of the box and benefits from the same update policy as the base Galaxy S21 already makes it a bit more relevant. You will receive one additional year of software and security updates for a small price difference between the two models. For me and many other demanding users, this is a significant plus point.

Performance: No overheating but…

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE features the SnapDragon 888 SoC instead of the Exynos chipset, which is a welcome move. Despite the rather strict thermal throttling, performance of the Galaxy S21 FE remained excellent.


What I liked:

  • Solid graphics performance.
  • Triple-A mobile games run at 60 FPS.
  • Very little overheating despite the Snapdragon 888 SoC.

What I disliked:

  • Aggressive thermal throttling.
  • Consistent frame rate losses due to thermal throttling.

In terms of purely CPU-related calculations, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE does perform slightly better than the basic S21 with Exynos 2100 or the Xiaomi Mi 11 that is powered by the Snapdragon 888 chipset. But when we take a look at the graphics benchmarks, we can note a rather aggressive thermal throttling pattern.

On the one hand, the temperature always remains contained at a level that does not exceed 43 ° C, which is a rare occurrence for a smartphone powered by the Snapdragon 888 SoC. But on the other hand, this implies occasional frame rate losses and therefore a relative stability of about 60% during the tests I have done on 3D Mark.

samsung galaxy s21 fe review performance wild life test
Simulation of a gaming use during 1 minute: The frame rate remains above 30 FPS during a short session. / © NextPit
samsung galaxy s21 fe review performance wild life stress test
Simulation of a 20 minutes gaming session: Stability drops noticeably in long sessions. / © NextPit

I’ve seen a few reviewers complain about framerate issues for Fortnite in HD at 60 FPS. But honestly, this game is so poorly optimized on Android that it is not a reliable benchmark, at least in my opinion. Personally, I was able to run Call of Duty: Mobile with the graphics on “high” (notch 3 out of 4) and the frame rate on “high” (notch 4 out of 6) without any problems.

In real-world use, we experienced some dropped frames in the game after half an hour of non-stop gaming. But with more classic and casual titles, the smartphone offers a performance level that is perfectly consistent with its price range.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

Graphics benchmark
Model/Benchmark Samsung Galaxy S21 FE Google Pixel 6 Samsung Galaxy S21 (Exynos) Xiaomi Mi 11
Geekbench 5 (single/multi) 1096/3002 1031/2803 899/2961 722/2259
3DMark Wild Life 5712 6721 5461 5390
3DMark Wild Life Stress Test 5603 6707 5609 5407
3DMark Wild Life Extreme Stress Test 1484 2017 1785 1226

Audio

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE has two stereo speakers but no 3.5mm headphone jack. It is clearly not the best smartphone for watching movies without any headphones or Bluetooth earbuds.


What I liked:

  • Stereo sound.
  • Voice quality.

What I disliked:

  • Bass is far too flat.
  • Difference in amplitude between the two speakers.
  • Bad placement for one of the speakers (which explains the above defect).
  • No 3.5mm headphone jack.

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This speaker is really poorly placed and harms the stereo sound output. / © NextPit

The first speaker of the Galaxy S21 FE is placed on the bottom edge, while the other is directly located in the opposite direction. The placement of the first speaker is poorly thought out since you tend to obstruct it with your hands, especially when sound is directed away from you when you hold the smartphone in landscape mode.

This results in a difference in amplitude that seriously affects the stereophony of the sound because the volume is louder on the left speaker than on the right (in landscape mode).

As for audio quality, it is frankly unimpressive in my eyes and ears but this is also partly due to the fact that I have been pampered by the ROG Phone 5’s audio performance which is a real home theater by comparison. But the sound remains correct on the mediums and voices come out clearly enough, which is more than enough to watch a movie or stream a TV series.

In terms of connectivity, the Galaxy S21 FE does not have a 3.5mm jack, but it obviously supports HD audio codecs like most Android smartphones do since Android 8. For your audiophile-level headphones and earphones which are wired, it is better to use a portable DAC.

Photo and video

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE packs a triple camera module that is spearheaded by a 12 MP wide-angle primary lens, a dedicated 8 MP telephoto lens, a 12 MP ultra-wide-angle and a 32 MP selfie camera.


What I liked:

  • A dedicated telephoto lens (absent on the vanilla Galaxy S21).
  • 3x zoom is effective all the way to 10x.
  • Good level of details and dynamic range is well managed with the main sensor.
  • Efficient night mode (except in ultra wide-angle).

What I disliked:

  • Ultra wide-angle lens is disappointing.
  • Portrait mode in 3x zoom by default is not as good as in wide-angle.
  • Color saturation may bother purists.

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The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE camera configuration works for me. / © NextPit

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE daytime photos

During the day and under good lighting conditions, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE offers very convincing shots. The level of detail is very good, whether in wide-angle or with the telephoto lens, as long as you do not exceed the 3x magnification. The 10x zoom still produces usable pictures, but the 30x is totally unusable and the artifacts seriously sting the eyes.

The ultra wide-angle lens is the most disappointing among the lot in my opinion. If the colorimetry remains consistent with the main lens most of the time, the decrease of the level of detail as well as the poor management of the dynamic range is too noticeable for my taste.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE in portrait mode

The portrait mode of Samsung is rather strange. By default, with the rear camera module, it relies on the telephoto lens in 3x zoom. But personally, I much prefer the level of detail obtained using the primary wide-angle lens. Clipping is pretty clean in most cases, whether with people or objects.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE photos in selfie mode

When it comes to selfies, the unique 32 MP lens performs very well in my opinion. Without any stabilization or autofocus, I found it difficult to take sufficiently sharp self-portraits. I did however find the smoothing of my facial skin quite limited, which makes the shots look more natural.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE at night

At night, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE does pretty well. Logically, the ultra wide-angle photos are really ugly, even with the night mode enabled. But the main lens and the 3x telephoto lens offer a rather efficient rendering of the situation. Digital noise is well contained without smoothing things out too much that make them look muddy.

And the flare effects are mitigated in night mode which prevents urban lighting from burning up your picture. In short, we have a real “before/after” effect with a notable gain in the level of detail and sharpness once night mode is activated.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE videos

When it comes to video, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is capable of shooting in 4K at 60 FPS. It also offers a Super Steady mode that first debuted on the Galaxy Note 10 but limits the video to a resolution of 1080p and a frame rate of 30 FPS. Samsung also offers a few gimmicky modes like portrait mode videos with a bokeh effect.

But these features are neither new nor revolutionary, so I won’t dwell on them. As for the overall quality, I am not really convinced by the Super Steady mode. Apart from extremely specific scenarios, the sacrifice that you have to make in terms of video quality is not worth it in my opinion.

As for the rest, it’s a very classic rendering that can be found on many other smartphones, regardless of their price range, which I’ll let you discover in the short clips below.

  • 1080p at 60 FPS in wide angle
  • 4K at 60 FPS wide-angle
  • 1080p at 30 FPS with Super Steady ultra wide angle mode
  • 1080p at 30 FPS with Super Steady wide-angle mode

Battery life and fast charging: Wake up, Samsung!

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE has a 4,500 mAh battery that accepts 25-watt wired and 15-watt wireless “fast” charging.


What I liked:

  • Wireless charging supported (although 15 watts is pretty slow).
  • The most detailed and complete battery utility on Android (maybe with the exception of Xiaomi).

What I disliked:

  • Mediocre battery life
  • Fast charging is far too slow in 2022.
  • Charger does not come included in the box.

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I really missed OnePlus’ Warp Charge during my Galaxy S21 FE review. / © NextPit

As for the battery life, I submitted the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE to the PC Mark benchmark, which simulates a theoretical usage (but it’s already more accurate than no benchmark at all). And the smartphone took 7h39 to go from 100% to 20% battery life. This is a very average score and it would take at least 10 hours to consider battery life as good in my opinion.

In real-world usage, the Galaxy S21 FE lasted one day in the office, no more than that. If you don’t have access to a power outlet at work, you should activate the different battery optimization modes for peace of mind that your smartphone still works at the end of the day. In any case, you’ll have to plug it back in at night because it won’t last more than a day.

samsung galaxy s21 fe review battery
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE battery life is too short for this price range / © NextPit

It’s really quite disappointing. And it’s even worse for the charging rate because offering 25 watts in 2022 is totally archaic! It’s seriously slow. Move on with the times, Samsung! It took me almost two hours (1h 50m) to go from 0 to 100%, it’s crazy!

I do give it a good point to integrate wireless charging support, although it is rather slow at 15 watts. Still, it is better than not having it at all in this price range!

Technical specifications

  Editor’s Choice
Product name
Image Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
Weight & Dimensions

155.7 x 74.5 x 7.9 mm / 177 g

Display Amoled / 6.4 inch / Full HD+ (1080 x 2400) / 441 dpi / 120 Hz refresh rate / 240 Hz touch sampling
Memory 6/128 GB / 8/256 GB / Non-expandable
SoC+GPU Snapdragon 888 / Adreno 660
OS OneUI 4 / Android 12
Camera module
  • Primary (wide-angle): 12 MP / f/1.8 aperture / 1/1.76″ sensor size / 1.8µm pixel size / Dual Pixel PDAF / OIS
  • Ultra wide-angle: 12 MP / f/2.2 aperture / 123° FOV / 1/3.0″ sensor size / 1.12µm pixel size
  • Telephoto: 8 MP / f/2.4 aperture / 1/4.5″ sensor size / 1.0µm pixel size / PDAF / OIS / x3 optical zoom
  • Selfie: 32 MP / f/2.2 aperture / 123° FOV / 1/3.0″ sensor size / 1.12µm pixel size
Audio

2 stereo speakers / no 3.5mm jack

Battery 4500 mAh / wired charging at 25 watts / wireless charging at 15 watts
Price $699/$769.99

Conclusion

Does the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE’s only fault lie in the fact that it was released too late? No.

First of all, its main flaw is its mediocre battery life as well as its fast charging rate that is totally outdated in 2022. The battery life is a pox upon an otherwise decent value-flagship device that delivers a solid performance, a successful design, and a very convincing camera module.

Also no, because I don’t think the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is really released too late to be relevant. Of course, if you were compare the price/performance ratio with the basic Galaxy S21, you might think that the Fan Edition doesn’t add anything and that the price is too expensive.

But the additional year of software updates for the Galaxy S21 FE, which comes with Android 12, already differentiates it from the vanilla S21 model. Yes, you can find both at the same price, but then why opt for the model that will have one less year of software and security updates?

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

I’ll even go further to say that Samsung did wait “too long”, although this is not intentional. They were able to give Google time to totally screw up with their otherwise excellent Pixel 6 software. With a release price of $699, I would never have recommended the Galaxy S21 FE that is more expensive than the Pixel 6. However, it is a totally different story today.

Finally, I would say that it’s not too late for the Galaxy S21 FE. It may even be too early. Just be patient and wait for the release of the Galaxy S22, and let the hype train stop at another station. Wait for promotions that Samsung will undoubtedly offer to boost the sales of this model that will be eclipsed by their new flagship.

We keep saying that buying the latest smartphone is like chasing the wind. With the Galaxy S21 FE, it’s an opportunity to make those words come true. Buy a 2021 flagship that is still competitive against 2022 standards, even if this means having to wait for its price to drop by $100!

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