Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: good smartphone, bad timing

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is an excellent device with few drawbacks. However, you should not buy this smartphone just yet.

The story behind the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (749 euros incl. VAT) is important to understand the rest of this review. At the end of September 2020, Samsung released the first ‘Fan Edition (FE)’, a variant of the Galaxy S20 with a competitive price-quality ratio. The result was a huge commercial success with more than 10 million units sold in less than a year.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE was officially expected along with the launch of the two foldable smartphones Galaxy Z Flip 3 and Galaxy Z Fold 3. Despite the big leak before, no official announcement followed. At the end of September, all references on official Samsung sites were cleared, suggesting that the model was deleted through the global chip shortage. After that it became quiet around the smartphone, until the official announcement on CES 2022.

The launch of the Samsung Galaxy S22 however, is imminent with an official announcement that would be sent out any minute. Does this Galaxy S21 FE still have a right to exist?

More plastic, but that’s okay

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (6.4 inches) perfectly fills the gap between the traditional S21 (6.2 inches) and the S21 Plus (6.7 inches) in terms of screen size. In this review, however, we don’t want to compare every step between the three models. Those who would like to analyze and compare every specification can here justifiably.

On the outside you notice that the ‘Fan Edition’ of the Galaxy S21 does not take over a striking design choice from the original: the integration of the camera island at the back of the edge. With the Galaxy S21 FE, it forms a seamless whole with the rest of the back because Samsung opts for plastic instead of glass. It looks cheaper, but we are more of a fan of the extra grip that plastic brings. If you buy a case for your device, it doesn’t matter much anyway.

The flat 6.4-inch amoled screen (1,080 x 2,400 pixels) looks stunning and remains the best of its kind. Good news that Samsung has not cut back on this. Again we get a flat screen in the front, just like with the rest of the Galaxy S21 line-up except the Ultra variant. It’s a matter of taste, but we find a flat screen more practical because you run less risk of false contact points on the side when holding the device in your palm.

Excellent performance

The Fan Edition saves on a number of things compared to the S21, but in terms of performance this is a top device that can compete with the best. Inside is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, which is striking. Other top devices from Samsung use an in-house developed chip under the name Exynos.

It is unclear whether the chip shortage has to do with this, but as far as we are concerned, you should not lose sleep over it. What’s more: the graphics performance of the Snapdragon 888 is better than that of Samsung’s own Exynos.

The device also feels very fast thanks to the 120 Hz refresh rate of the screen. Scrolling, multitasking, games, video streaming: nothing will stop you.

For the sake of completeness, we have to say that the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE will probably be the last top device with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 on board. This year, every flagship will receive a new Qualcomm 8 gen 1 chipset that is expected to be even faster and more economical. The chance is small that you need even more speed, but more economical can be interesting.

Other camera configuration

The specifications of the camera island of the Galaxy S21 FE look the same at first glance as that of the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus, but appearances can be deceiving. The 12-megapixel main camera is identical, while the 12-megapixel wide-angle camera also almost saves a slightly wider angle for the Fan Edition (120° vs. 123°) in exchange for a slightly smaller sensor (1.4µm vs. 1.12µm).

We spot the biggest change in the zoom camera. The Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus have a 64 megapixel camera with a 1.1x optical zoom. The S21 FE has an 8 megapixel camera with a 3x optical zoom. There is also a difference in pixel size: 1.0µm versus 0.8µm. In theory, you can zoom in 4 times on a 64-megapixel photo to get to the 8-megapixel photo of the S21 FE, but the 3x optical zoom results in much less loss of quality.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

The cameras do differ on paper, but in practice we hardly expect to see a difference. Unfortunately, we no longer had a Galaxy S21 in the office to compare with the Fan Edition.

Decent photos

From theory to practice: are the cameras pulling at something? Sure they do, all three show realistic colors and shoot very good photos in broad daylight. Only drawback: in our short test period, we had four days of fog without a streak of sun on the Kempen sandy soils. You can see the result in the example photos below:

If we switch from day to night, you will notice that usually only the main camera is really usable. The zoom lens does its best and with a little light you will get a decent result. It is better not to use the wide-angle camera, as you can see below.

Looking at the front, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE gets a rare upgrade compared to its closest brothers. The 10 megapixel camera is exchanged for a 32 megapixel variant for better video calling.

Shameful battery

So far, the S21 FE managed to charm us, but unfortunately we now come to the weakest point of this smartphone: its battery. This smartphone scores sadly poorly in our extensive battery test suite. Even during daily use, it is noticeable that the battery runs out quickly and we often do not make it to the end of the day with intensive use.

Testsuite 1 focuses on light applications such as streaming videos and browsing the internet. Testsuite 2 goes further and adds slightly heavier tests, including video calling and photo editing.

A bad battery is one thing, but couple that with slow charging and you’ll be in trouble sooner than you want. We hope that Samsung will remedy this handicap with its future Galaxy S22 line-up, because in 2022 we expect better within this price category. There is also no charger in the box. To obtain the maximum charging speed, you need at least a 25 watt charger, ideally with Power Delivery.

The result above is a maximum result. Those who use a slower charger will have to wait even longer until their device is charged enough.

In theory a nice addition

On paper, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (749 euros incl. VAT) fits nicely in the row between the current Galaxy S21 line-up. Here and there we detect a small compromise, such as a slightly slower optical fingerprint sensor instead of an ultrasonic sensor, but there is a good chance that you will not notice that much.

The battery is the biggest disappointment in this test. Perhaps this has to do with Android 12 that is standard on the Galaxy S21 FE and needs some fine-tuning? Samsung is gradually pushing the update to other devices within its line-up, so the chance seems small to us, but we can’t think of another reason. After all, there is a hefty 4,500 mAh battery in the device that should normally perform better.

Conclusion

Besides the disappointing battery life, another factor prevents us from praising the S21 FE: the Samsung Galaxy S22. It is in the works and will reportedly be announced any time. Regardless of how good that device becomes, there is a good chance that the current Galaxy S21 line-up will probably drop considerably in price, which makes the Fan Edition no longer interesting unless it also falls in price. On top of that comes with the Oppo Find X3 Neo in OnePlus 9 competition does not stand still and offers more for the same money or less.

Besides the disappointing battery life, another factor prevents us from praising this smartphone: the Galaxy S22 lurking around the corner.

The only trump card is that the Samsung Galaxy S21 has FE compared to the other S21 models, is that the update policy of 3 years of security updates and 3 years of OS updates only starts now and has not been running for a year. With that in mind, this device can still be an interesting option for companies if the Samsung Galaxy A series is found to be too light.

.pro’s

  • Excellent screen quality
  • Lightning fast performance
  • Decent photo quality

.contra’s

  • Bad battery life
  • Charging speed could be better
  • Launch timing

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is only available with us in four colors: graphite, olive green, lavender purple and white. The basic version with 128 GB of internal storage and 6 GB of RAM costs 749 euros. The version with 256 GB internal storage and 8 GB RAM is sold for 819 euros. Both prices include VAT.

Android updatebeleid: Samsung guarantees that the Galaxy S21 FE will receive at least three years of security updates and three years of OS updates. That term starts from the launch on January 11, 2022 with Android 12.

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