I’m a big fan of what Samsung is trying to do with its S21 FE. It’s a stripped-back version of the S21, designed collaboratively with fans, via their Samsung Members program, to produce a device that has as many flagship features as possible, that comes at a cheaper price point.
But while the S21 FE is a capable device that can take great photos, has a vibrant display, that lasts all day, and runs the most graphically-demanding games, it feels a bit pointless when you look at the real-life prices of the S21 FE and the S21 proper.
The S21 FE is almost identical to the S21. The only significant differences it has are a superior 32MP selfie camera (the S21 has a 10MP selfie) and an inferior 8MP telephoto camera (the S21 has a 64MP telephoto).
There isn’t a lot here to warrant buying an S21 FE over an S21. If the Fan Edition device was significantly cheaper, I could see the appeal, but it’s only $200 cheaper.
It’s also arrived late. To be fair this might have been due to the chip shortage, however it’s been a year since the S21 was released and the hype has moved on. People are now looking towards the S22 rather than a Fan Edition of the S21.
This device looks great, will do everything you want it to, but I’m left wondering, who actually wants it?
- Great design
- Slick 120hz display
- Battery lasts all day with normal usage
- Olive colour is unique
- 32MP Selfie camera
- No adaptive refresh rate
- 8MP telephoto lens
- Not much difference to the S21
The S21 FE comes in two variations. A $1,099 128GB/6GB RAM model and $1,199 256GB/8GB RAM model. To put that in perspective, the 256GB/8GB RAM version of the standard S21 costs $200 more at $1,399.
I like the S21 FE’s design. It’s thin, stylish and lightweight.
The first thing you’ll notice is the plastic back. The FE doesn’t have the premium feel of top of the range devices like the S21 Ultra or the iPhone 13 Pro. But the material makes the device both durable and lightweight.
Weighing only 180g (the iPhone 13 Pro weighs 201g/Samsung S21 Ultra 221g), it feels nice. The plastic back made me less worried about dropping the device as I felt it was less likely to dent or shatter.
The S21 FE comes in four matte colours, Graphite, Lavender, Olive, and White. They all look fine, with the Olive version being a notable standout.
The camera array blends into the back of the phone nicely. The bump is minimal and unobtrusive. It’s stylish and smooth.
The S21 FE has a 6.4inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X display with 1080×2340 resolution and 120hz refresh rate. It’s slightly larger than the S21’s 6.2-inch display but has a slightly lower resolution than the S21s 1080×2400 screen.
It’s bright, vibrant and the 120hz refresh rate makes scrolling through apps buttery smooth. There’s no variable refresh rate here, though. You’re either locked into 120hz or 60hz. The standard S21 was able to downclock to 48hz and back to 120hz based on usage to save battery. Fortunately, the S21 FE has a larger 4500mAh battery to alleviate this issue, more on this below.
Like every phone in the S21 range, the pinhole selfie camera is at the top of the screen. I’m OK with this. It’s small enough that most of the time I barely noticed it.
The bezels around the outside of the display are very thin, and unless you’re actively looking for them, you won’t notice them. It’s not quite an edge-to-edge display, but it looks sleek.
Inside the S21 FE is the 5G capable Exynos 2100 processor (the same one found in the standard S21).
We were given the 256GB/8GB RAM version of the phone, and it performed well. I didn’t encounter any hiccups using intensive camera features like portrait mode, and playing graphically intensive games like Genshin Impact was a doddle.
The S21 FE comes with Android 12 on OneUI 4.0 and all of its enhancements and features. There’s been an increase in privacy options, you can change the phone’s colour palette to suit your wallpaper, the camera app has been updated and loads more. It’s a much more user-friendly experience than OneUI 3.1, and it’s refreshingly simplistic.
The S21 FE has a three-camera array consisting of a 12MP f/1.8 wide lens, an 8MP f/2.4 telephoto lens and a 12MP f/2.2 ultrawide lens. All of which have optical stabilisation.
This is the same array found on the S21, other than the telephoto lens. The S21’s telephoto camera has a much larger 64MP sensor and supports 3x hybrid digital/optical zoom. The S21 FE’s 8MP telephoto lens only supports 3x optical zoom. The S21 is much better for long-range photography.
While the S21 FE supports 30x zoom, the small 8MP sensor doesn’t generate nearly as much detail, and typically, long-range photos look blurry. You’ll want to stay within its 3x optical zoom maximum for the best results.
Standard photos taken with the S21 FE are great. They have a good amount of saturation. They’re bright, vibrant and generate a good amount of detail.
Strangely, the S21 FE sports a 32MP front camera which is much better than the 10MP front camera found on the S21. This isn’t something I would’ve thought would be necessary, but if you like to take selfies, they’re going to look better on the S21 FE.
You can see some comparisons between the S21 FE and the Oppo Find X3 Pro below. Bear in mind the Find X3 has a much better camera array with a 50MP f/1.8 main, 50MP f/1.8 ultra-wide, and a 13MP f/2.4 telephoto. Its a good indicator of how the S21 FE lacks behind the more premium phones.
You can see the Find X3 Pro takes in a lot more detail and takes a photo that more realistically depicts the colours of the trees and grass.
The S21 FE looks good at 1x zoom. However if you look at the plant on the right you can see the colours are slightly oversaturated giving a less realistic image.
There’s not much difference in these two photos other than the vibrancy. The Find X3 Pro takes a more vibrant photo.
While neither of these phones take a particularly good photo at 20x zoom, in my opinion the S21 FE’s oversaturation produces a better picture than the Find X3 Pro.
The S21 FE has a 4,500mAh battery. This is larger than the 4,000mAh battery found on the S21.
It’s enough to last a full day at moderate usage. Gamers or heavy battery users might find themselves running low on battery by the end of the day.
The device charges via a USB-C port and supports 15W wireless and 25W wired charging.
Annoyingly, the S21 FE doesn’t support fast charging through a computer USB port, so you’ll need a compatible power outlet charger. And even more annoyingly, the charger isn’t included in the box.
There’s a lot to like about the S21 FE. It’s a capable Android-based device that does everything you’d want a smartphone to do.
But unless you use your phone for long-range photography, there isn’t much difference between the S21 FE and the S21. It has the same Exynos 2100 processor, great-looking 120hz display and a larger battery.
The question I’m left with, though, is why? Why is the S21 FE a thing? The only benefits to buying an S21 FE over an S21 is the 32MP selfie camera and the 4,500mAh battery. In my eyes, these aren’t major improvements.
The S21’s 64MP telephoto camera is significantly better than the S21 FE’s 8MP lens, and the display is compatible with an adaptive refresh rate. For only $200 more, you’re better off buying the S21.
The S21 FE has also arrived incredibly late. The S21 was released almost a year ago, on the 29th of January 2021. If previous Samsung release schedules are indicative, it won’t be long (a matter of weeks only) until we see the S22 or some version of it.
While the S21 FE is a competent phone, it feels a bit pointless. For only $200 less, it isn’t enough to warrant buying an S21 FE over an S21.