Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G review: The sequel is never as good

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G review: The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G has a lot of pressure on it. The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE was one of the finest Android smartphones in 2017. For individuals looking to play in the Samsung market, it offered an easy choice due to its characteristics and price. Not only do they offer solid specs at amazing prices, but also they deliver a package that equals or surpasses many flagship phones on the market. It’s still not enough to hold your attention for long. Fast forward to today, when Samsung is attempting to do the same thing, but something doesn’t seem right. In fact, a lot of things don’t appear right. Let’s start with the time aspect.

“The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G is the capable successor to the S20 FE, but comes at a poor time with the S22 around the corner, making it tougher to justify its value.”

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G review

Pros

  • Powerful specifications
  • Solid cameras
  • Impressive 120Hz display
  • Priced well for a flagship

Cons

  • Touchscreen issues
  • Battery just OK
  • Too much competition at its price point

A long-awaited phone

The camera bump on the back of the Galaxy S21 FE (right) is less pronounced than on the S21.
Adam Doud/Clear Tips

The Galaxy S20 FE was released in September 2020. This is approximately seven months after its predecessor, the Galaxy S20 series. It also came out four months before the Galaxy S21 series. There was also a Note release, but it is not noteworthy. The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G comes out just a year and a few weeks after the S21 series launched. It’s not ideal but take into account the competition.

In the past, budget flagships were dominated by the OnePlus series of phones and a few LG releases. Sometimes, a Moto “flagship” was released. The Pixel is a modern version of that. OnePlus has now reached full flagship status. LG is no longer in the game. To put it mildly, Motorola is targeting a completely different audience. The Google Pixel 6 was a game-changer in late 2021, and it remains one of the most beloved phones of 2021. It’s also $100 cheaper than the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE5G.

It is clear that there are many questions surrounding the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G.

The Galaxy S20 series was launched in 2020 at $999 and higher. The Galaxy S20 FE was launched at $699. This is $300 less than its flagship sibling. The Galaxy S21 series was launched in 2021 at $799. This puts the S21FE at $100 less than its closest flagship sibling and $100 more than the Google Pixel 6.

It’s not difficult to say that there are many questions surrounding the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G. I have spent the past 10 days testing it on T-Mobile’s 5G network. In short, I wanted the phone to be as good as its predecessor, despite the S22’s imminent launch.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G is Samsung's latest budget flagship phone.
Adam Doud/Clear Tips

Design and hardware

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G isn’t as distinctive in design as its siblings. My Galaxy S21 Ultra has a camera bump on its back that seems less noticeable. The camera bump blends in with the back and sides of the phone just like the other flagships. However, unlike the S21’s dual-tone approach, it does not have a single housing. The camera bump is more attractive because it doesn’t have seams. However, the single color makes it less boring.

You will find a power button on the left and volume rocker at the right, as well as a single speaker port and a USB-C port. There is also a SIM tray. The front features a stunning 120Hz AMOLED panel, which I will discuss below. The top has a single hole punch to hold the 32-megapixel selfie cam and the reliable under-display ultrasonic fingerprint scanner at the bottom.

The phone’s inside houses the Snapdragon 888 processor. My review unit had 6GB RAM and 128GB storage. However, you can choose 8GB or 256GB if that’s what you want. The 4,500 mAh battery supports fast charging at 25 watts or wireless charging at 15 watts. These are all good specifications for a flagship 2021.

The processor is now available with the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chip. This is the only hardware that is not obsolete. Samsung is right to stick with the Snapdragon 888 processor, but it’s less than I would have liked given the fact that the S20 FE was released with the most powerful processor available at the time.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G is Samsung's latest budget flagship phone.
Adam Doud/Clear Tips

Display

The display is one area in which Samsung didn’t cut corners. The 6.4-inch, 2400x 1800 dynamic AMOLED panel is just a touch smaller than previous generations but retains the same 20/9 aspect ratio. Although the phone is easy to hold and use with one hand, I would not mind if Samsung reduced the size by a third.

It is stunning, with incredible viewing angles and excellent color reproduction. The panel is 1080p, which means it doesn’t have the best resolution. It’s not necessarily bad. A lower resolution will greatly improve battery life, especially if the phone is running at 120Hz refresh rate. It’s hard for me to tell the difference between 60Hz and 120Hz refresh rates. I don’t find it impressive, but it doesn’t bother me. You might have a different preference and that is okay.

I tend to increase the brightness to see the fine details of movies or games, but the Samsung Galaxy S21FE 5G was so bright that I didn’t have to.

Surprisingly, I didn’t notice how bright the display was until the sixth or fifth day of my review. Then, I realized that I hadn’t turned up the brightness for anything. This is unusual for me. Although I use 70% brightness on my phone, I sometimes crank it up to 100% for gaming or watching videos. I increase the brightness to take advantage of HDR10+ and see the rich details of the movies or games I’m playing. But with the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G I didn’t have to.

Samsung’s screen edges continue to be a problem. This flat panel is not prone to accidental touches, making games such as Call of Duty Mobile almost impossible to play. The situation does improve after you add a case, but it doesn’t disappear completely. Although my sausage fingers and pudgy hands are probably to blame, I know I am not the only one having this problem.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G is Samsung's latest budget flagship phone.
Adam Doud/Clear Tips

While I am complaining about the excessive touch sensitive on this phone, let me also complain about the low touch sensitivity on this phone. This problem mainly occurred while I was gaming. However, small touch targets such as buttons in Call of Duty Mobile and small squares in Sudoku were extremely difficult to press. Although I am aware that I have large fingers, the Sudoku games surprised me. I don’t have this problem with any other phone.

Performance, battery life and connectivity

Battery life was average for its size. This is a 4,500mAh power cell. I often went to bed with my phone hovering in the teens or single figures percentage-wise. After bouncing between four emails addresses, Twitter Discord, Reddit and Kindle and all the Microsoft apps (Teams and Outlook), that’s a whole day. This includes a lot of gaming on Call of Duty Mobile and Sudoku. The phone can last you for a whole day, but may not perform well in the final hours.

  • PCMark Work 3.0 Performance: 1371
  • Geekbench (single/multi-core): 873/2284
  • GFXBench Aztec Ruins Open GL: 27fps
  • 3DMark: 5062

The phone has a Snapdragon 808 processor and 6GB RAM. This is sufficient to run most applications. Although I do occasionally experience a slight stutter when gaming, it is not a major issue. My connectivity seems solid or as solid as the signal strength of my T-Mobile phones. My iPhone 13 Pro had no issues with dropped calls or slow internet.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G is Samsung's latest budget flagship phone.
Adam Doud/Clear Tips

Cameras and video

The S21 FE has a very similar camera to the S20 FE. The S21 FE and S20 FE both have three cameras sensors that can be used to capture ultrawide, wide, or telephoto lenses. Both the main and ultrawide cameras have 12MP sensors. The telephoto camera has 8MP. Although there are subtle differences between what the older cameras can capture (e.g. 1080p at 240 frames/second (fps), overall, you won’t find any difference between the S20FE and S21FE on the back)

Portrait mode is the best I have seen. It blurs out the background and picks out your subject’s edges easily.

All cameras work well in broad daylight. One subtle difference that I noticed was the main camera’s ability to capture brighter colors at higher temperatures than the other sensors. This is particularly true for reds which can get too saturated.

Portrait mode is the best I have seen. It can easily pick out the edges of your subject and blur the background. It’s not perfect but it’s very effective if you do close-up pixel peeping. This is true for both the 32MP rear-facing camera and the front-facing 32MP camera.

The video is quite decent. Both at night and during the day, stability is not present. Walking at night can cause a bit of judder, especially at night. This is a disappointing feature because it is also present on the front-facing camera. The front-facing camera of previous Samsung phones, which I have tested over the past two generations, has always been rock-steady. This makes it great for vloggers who love to talk and walk to their cameras. This is not the case and it’s very disappointing.

You can still capture great photos at night as long as you have enough ambient light. The ultrawide sensor as well as the telephoto sensor both lose detail when they are looking at objects with sharp edges. Text will still be legible, but statue texture will not. This is not surprising as lowlight performance puts a lot of cameras at their limits. Night video is not very good, but it’s not horrible. You will have some luck from time to get useful footage, but it will not be the norm.

The 3x Telephoto lens is the best zoom. You can use the Galaxy S21 FE to achieve hybrid zoom of up to 30x. However, you should not use it unless you are looking for models to practice watercolor painting. Moon is the exception to this rule. Samsung’s A.I. is able to take great moon shots despite the low resolution. Scene detection can still give you great handheld shots of the moon. This is a fun trick that can be used to get a great handheld shot of the moon.

The Galaxy S21 FE’s camera performance is slightly lower than that of current rivals. The cameras are still excellent, but not as great as the Pixel 6 or iPhone 13.

Software and other features

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G comes with One UI 4.0 from Samsung, which is based upon Google’s Android 12. This is mostly Samsung’s show. However, there’s not much that’s inherently Google about it. Although the software can change the system’s UI based on your wallpapers, most options were muted and grays. I chose the bright orange sunset photo as my wallpaper. It was a bit disconcerting.

The animations Google offers when your device is powered on or off are also missing. Android 12 has a black screen that sweeps across the screen when you press the power key to turn the phone off. The reverse happens when you wake up the phone. It’s decorative but it’s something I miss when I use other phones than my Pixel 6.

One UI has a lot of good points. Large labels at the top for menus and buttons near the bottom are standard for One UI. The app drawer is one area that needs improvement. Although it’s not a bad side-scrolling experience, you cannot move from the beginning to the end of the menu. Simply put, if the As are on the screen and Zillow is open, then you have lots of side-swipes in your near future.

If you are like me, and have all your apps organized in folders on the homescreen, this is not a problem. Samsung has added a wonderful feature: the ability to add multiple apps to folders. Everyone should copy this feature immediately! This is something that some manufacturers do. Those that don’t should not need to wait because it is an amazing feature that makes it difficult to use phones without it, even the Pixel 6.

Overall, One UI is great, but I prefer Google Android’s approach. It adapts to me a lot more, from animations to the theing to the app drawer.

Our take

It’s so strange that the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is hard to understand. Not least. The question I am asking myself is “Why?” Is this why the phone exists? In just two weeks, the next generation of Galaxy smartphones is expected to be released. There are many ways you can spend $700 on a phone. However, that is not a recommendation. This may be a great deal depending on the price and specification of the S22 series. Or it could be a bad purchase that will cost you more.

Let’s be honest, this smartphone is great at its price. Samsung would probably have done better releasing it later or placing it next to the S22 as a budget alternative.

Is there another option?

Yes. Both Android and iOS offer better options than this phone depending on your preferences. The Google Pixel 6 and iPhone 13 do not have optical zoom capabilities, so this is one advantage for Samsung. Both phones are superior in other areas, including design, software, camera processing and design. This phone is too small and too late.

What will be the duration of this?

Samsung warranties its phones with a standard one-year warranty. Its Snapdragon 888 processor, and its plastic construction will ensure it lasts for a typical 24-month phone cycle. Although the plastic back isn’t as premium, it can withstand falls and impacts much better than the metal. Both the processor and RAM should last at least that long.

Do you need to buy it?

No. The Google Pixel 6 is simply a better phone than the iPhone 13 in nearly every way. It also costs $100 less. The iPhone 13 is a great alternative to the iPhone 6. This phone is excellent, and it comes at an odd time. This phone should only be purchased if you absolutely need a Samsung flagship. However, you don’t want to purchase a nearly year-old Samsung Galaxy S21 phone, or a brand new, more expensive S22 phone. Although this is a very specific list, it’s still Samsung’s bread and butter — a phone that suits all budgets.

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