Samsung Galaxy S21 FE ongoing review: Value-packed at $700, but there are reasons to wait

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The Galaxy S21 FE

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

This story is part of CES, where CNET covers the latest news on the most incredible tech coming soon.

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Samsung is once again launching a more affordable version of its popular Galaxy S phone with the Galaxy S21 FE, which starts at $700 and launches on Jan. 11 following its CES 2022 reveal. It’s $100 cheaper than the regular Galaxy S21 and comes with a larger screen, the same processor, a triple-lens camera and support for both flavors of 5G. I’ve only spent a couple of days with the Galaxy S21 FE, but it seems to check all the boxes most people would expect from a modern phone. The performance is snappy, it takes great photos and the battery life is fairly impressive so far.

These attributes make the Galaxy S21 FE a promising option if you want a relatively affordable new Android 12 device. You won’t get some of the costly extras found on more premium phones — like a fourth camera lens, a crisper telephoto lens or a super sophisticated design — but you’re also not compromising by going for Samsung’s cheaper option.

At the same time, the Galaxy S21 FE may end up feeling lost in Samsung’s lineup and the broader Android phone market. We’re expecting the Galaxy S22 to launch imminently, and if the rumors are true, it could have a new 50-megapixel camera and faster charging. Plus, the $600 Pixel 6 is slightly cheaper than the Galaxy S21 FE and was named one of our favorite phones of 2021.

We’ll be updating this story as we spend more time using the Galaxy S21 FE, but here are my impressions so far.

A sleek but basic design that looks a lot like the Galaxy S21


The Galaxy S21 FE has a 6.4-inch screen.

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

The Galaxy S21 FE looks almost identical to the Galaxy S21 from the front. It measures 7.9 millimeters thin just like the standard Galaxy S21, despite the fact that it has a larger screen. For me, the S21 FE’s 6.4-inch display and light build provide the right balance of screen space and ease of use: It’s bigger than the 6.2-inch Galaxy S21 but just a hair smaller than the 6.5-inch Galaxy S20 FE, Samsung’s previous-generation midrange phone. 

The Galaxy S21 FE’s screen uses Samsung’s Dynamic AMOLED technology and has an FHD+ resolution just like the Galaxy S21. The pixel density, or number of pixels per inch, is lower than the Galaxy S21’s since the S21 FE’s screen is larger, but the difference isn’t noticeable. Photos, games and news articles all look sharp and bold on the S21 FE’s screen. It has a flat edge screen just like the Galaxy 21 and Galaxy S1 Plus, which I actually prefer over the pricier Galaxy S21 Ultra’s slightly curved sides.

On the back, you’ll find the same camera bump as the Galaxy S21. Both phones also have a matte finish that looks more elegant and doesn’t pick up fingerprints as easily as Samsung’s older phones (although it still does get smudgy, so you’ll want to use a case). The Galaxy S21, however, does have some design accents that make it feel like a more expensive phone, such as the glossy metallic finish on its camera module and sides.

Though it’s a nice enough phone for $700, the real problem is that Google has raised the bar for what’s expected of a midtier phone. Google’s $600 Pixel 6 has a gorgeous, two-tone glass design that makes it feel much more expensive than it actually is. The Galaxy S21 FE is sleek and light, but it doesn’t leave the same impression.

There’s also an in-screen fingerprint reader and facial authentication for unlocking the device, which I generally found to be pretty reliable. You won’t find expandable storage on this model as was the case with the Galaxy S20 FE, but Samsung is selling its new phone in another variant that comes with 256GB of storage (the base model has 128GB).

A big battery and solid performance


The Galaxy S21 FE has the same processor as the Galaxy S21. 

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Battery life was a highlight for the Galaxy S20 FE, and the Galaxy S21 FE seems to follow in its footsteps so far. Like the Galaxy S20 FE, the Galaxy S21 FE comes with a 4,500 mAh battery, which is larger than the regular Galaxy S21’s 4,000 mAh battery. 

The Galaxy S21 FE still had 32% of its battery left after a full day and a half’s worth of usage. That’s not too shabby, especially since I had the motion smoothness setting on high, which cranks the screen’s refresh rate up to 120Hz. That results in faster scrolling but also typically means shorter battery life. 

Samsung’s new phone comes with the same processor as the Galaxy S21, which means the US version runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888. That chip is found in other high-end phones like Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 3 and the OnePlus 9 Pro, so the S21 FE should be able to keep up with those devices easily.

Using the Galaxy S21 FE certainly feels zippy and fluid, especially with motion smoothness turned on. The interface is slick, games run without a hitch and the camera launches within just a few seconds. Samsung also says the S21 FE supports a response rate of 240Hz for even quicker reaction times in game mode, but I haven’t spent enough time gaming on it yet to tell if this really makes a difference.

The Galaxy S21 FE scored about the same as Galaxy S21 but higher than the Pixel 6 on Geekbench 5, a benchmark test meant to assess the phone’s performance in general tasks. However, it scored slightly lower than both the regular S21 and Pixel 6 on a separate benchmark called 3DMark Slingshot Unlimited for testing graphics performance. Check out the results below. 

Geekbench 5 Single Core


Higher scores are better.

Geekbench 5 Multi Core


Higher scores are better.

3DMark Slingshot Unlimited


Higher scores are better.

A triple lens camera similar to the Galaxy S20 FE’s


The Galaxy S21 FE has a triple-lens camera.

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Samsung’s new phone comes with a triple-lens camera that’s very similar to the Galaxy S20 FE’s camera setup. There’s a 12-megapixel ultra-wide camera, a 12-megapixel wide camera and an 8-megapixel telephoto camera with a 30x digital zoom. You can also record with the front and rear cameras at the same time on the Galaxy S21 FE similar to the Galaxy S21. But unlike the regular S21, you can’t toggle between the three rear lenses when using the camera in this mode. 

I haven’t had much time to test out the camera. But based on the few test shots I’ve taken, the Galaxy S21 FE certainly seems to hold its own against the Pixel 6’s 50-megapixel camera and standard Galaxy S21. 

The S21 FE’s images are rich in detail and color, and the camera seems to perform well in different lighting conditions. We’ll have more detail on camera performance in our full review, but for now check out the samples below.


A photo taken with the Galaxy S21 FE’s main camera. 

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET


Another image taken with the Galaxy S21’s main wide camera. 

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET


A photo taken with the Galaxy S21 FE’s zoom lens. It’s zoomed in at 10x. 

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

The bottom line


The Galaxy S21 FE is launching just before we’re expecting to see the Galaxy S22. 

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

There isn’t much to say about the Galaxy S21 FE other than that it’s a solid phone for $700. It’s another sign that the definition of a high-end phone is starting to change as once-premium features like 5G, borderless displays and multilens cameras begin trickling down to more affordable devices. 

I can’t issue a full verdict until I’ve spent more time testing the Galaxy S21 FE. But if you’re an Android user looking to upgrade an older phone without spending too much, I can’t imagine you’ll be disappointed with it. 

That being said, I’d recommend waiting until Samsung announces the Galaxy S22 lineup before making a decision. Samsung typically launches its new Galaxy S phones early in the year, and rumors suggest the next generation could come with a 50-megapixel camera and faster charging. Even if you don’t need those upgrades, you might as well wait so that you can make a more informed choice.

Samsung is also facing a lot of competition in the midrange phone space. While I’ve been enjoying using the Galaxy S21 FE so far, I also feel that Samsung could be doing more to make this device stand out, especially against the $600 Pixel 6. Although the Pixel 6 isn’t perfect, Google has done a good job of differentiating its phone with specific features built around the Google Assistant, such as the ability to have the assistant screen calls and wait on hold for you.

Check back soon for more details and our full take on the Galaxy S21 FE.

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