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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE — or Fan Edition — is the latest and last addition to the S21 family. But, with the S22's release presumably just around the corner, is this handset worth its surprising price tag?

Hand holding the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
Published: Friday, 21st January 2022 at 1:24 pm
A star rating of 3.5 out of 5.
Our Rating
From GBP £699

Our review

In itself, the Galaxy S21 FE is a very good smartphone. However, the fact that its been released at an odd time and at a high price-point — amongst more affordable direct competitors — seriously erodes its appeal. That said, it's got a fantastic display, a great camera with versatile settings and it's a good-looking handset.

Pros

  • Good camera
  • Appealing design
  • Phone trade-in service slightly mitigates price concerns

Cons

  • Samsung One UI is not the smoothest
  • Some Samsung bloatware
  • Price compares poorly to competitors
  • Awkward release timings

Samsung's latest handset, the Galaxy S21 FE is a fantastic smartphone on paper. It's well-equipped, smartly designed and feature-packed, but there are issues — quite large issues.

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There is lots to like about the FE, but it's turned up very, very late in the lifecycle of the S21 range and far too close to the release of the S22, which is expected in February. There is one notable way to get hold of this handset more cheaply but, by and large, it needs some retailer price-slashing before it will become a truly appealing proposition.

In most respects, the S21 FE is just like the standard S21 and that's no bad thing. We loved the standard S21 and the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra — the latter even bagged a rare five-star review from our experts. However, with the Samsung Galaxy S22 is just around the corner, it can't help but make the FE's release feel a little muted. It begs the question: 'Why buy this for a similar price as the S21 when you could wait a month or so for an S22 that likely won't cost much more?'

There's nothing particularly wrong with Samsung's latest handset but it's going to struggle to stand out from the crowd in an increasingly competitive marketplace. It's a great phone in a lot of ways, but right now it's held back by its price and the strange timing of the release. The Google Pixel 6 outperforms the FE in several departments and costs £100 less at the time of writing.

That said, we're going to take an in-depth look at the FE to see how it stacks up against competitors and if it might actually be worth your cash.

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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: summary

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

On the face of it, the specs sheet below is what we expected and the phone delivers an enjoyable user experience, though not a perfect one. Its 6GB of RAM and Snapdragon 888 chipset make for a smooth enough experience, the camera captures bright, detailed images consistently and the display is very good.

That display is perhaps the enduring highlight of the S21 FE. It's a joy to use and to watch content on. However, that smooth 120Hz refresh rate isn't an adaptive one that can notch up and down to suit your usage, so the battery runs down slightly more quickly than it otherwise would. You can manually turn it down to 60Hz though if the battery life is becoming a problem.

It's also worth noting that the display is very slightly larger than that of the standard S21, 6.4-inch rather than 6.2-inch. The phone feels pocketable though and not overly large.

Samsung's One UI isn't as fast as we'd like. Occasional moments of lag compare poorly to competing phones from Google and Apple. Typing was a recurring example of this — it just wasn't as smooth as the Google equivalent, running Android 12 without the Samsung One UI laid over the top.

The lingering issue is the price and timing of the phone. On the one hand, competitors are delivering similar experiences, with the same features and specs, for less money. On the other, even if you're a Samsung loyalist, it's tempting to wait for the S22 or buy the standard S21 at a discount.

We wouldn't be surprised to see retailers offering some good deals on the FE soon, precisely because it's currently occupying a strange space in the line-up and the wider market.

Key features:

  • 6GB or 8GB of RAM
  • £699 for 128GB version, £749 for 256GB version
  • Snapdragon 888 chipset
  • 6.4-inch OLED display
  • 120Hz refresh rate
  • 12MP main camera, 12MP ultra-wide, 8MP telephoto
  • 32MP front-facing camera
  • IP68 rating
  • 15W wireless charging
  • 4500mAh battery

Pros:

  • Good camera
  • Appealing design
  • Phone trade-in service slightly mitigates price concerns

Cons:

  • Samsung One UI is not the smoothest
  • Some Samsung bloatware
  • The price compares poorly to competitors
  • Oddly late release date

What is the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE?

The Galaxy S21 FE is the latest handset from Samsung. It was announced at CES 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada and went on sale on January 11th 2022. It's essentially a slightly more affordable version of the standard Samsung Galaxy S21.

However, starting at £699, it's less affordable than most onlookers expected.

Buy Samsung Galaxy S21 FE in contract

Buy Samsung Galaxy S21 FE SIM-free

How much is the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE?

Is the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE good value for money? No. Unfortunately, it just isn't right now. Previously this type of 'FE' (or SE in Apple's case,) iteration of a phone was based around offering a lot of the same tech, slightly later, for a smaller price tag. However, the discount on the standard handset is next to non-existent right now.

While the FE is a handset we like in most respects, the £699 (or £749 for the 256GB version,) price tag is very much on the hefty side. Given that the standard Samsung Galaxy S21 is often discounted below this price at present — and given you can pick up a Google Pixel 6 for less too — it's hard to see the unique appeal of the FE.

The one saving grace of this pricing strategy is that Samsung offers £150 off the FE if you trade in an old Android phone. There are some minor conditions of course, but that takes the price down to a much more palatable £549 — less than a key competitor, the Pixel 6.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE features and performance

There's a full menu of reasonably top-end features including wireless charging, zoom photography and snappy performance. As you'd expect from a phone at this price point, the S21 FE is 5G-enabled, offering better connectivity if you have a 5G contract and you're in the right area.

The Snapdragon 888 5G chipset was one of the best of 2021 and does well enough here, but it's already being surpassed in 2022 and this phone doesn't feel like its best outing. Performance is good but, again, not best in class.

That might seem an odd criticism to level at a 'mid-range' phone, but taking the FE up to £699 means it's competing with some truly fantastic handsets — and some very good handsets can be had for much less, take a look at our best budget smartphones list if you're on the lookout for a more balance-friendly option.

Elsewhere among the notable features is a fingerprint sensor, which appears low down on the screen itself. It's good enough, but not the best we've used.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE battery

The wireless charging facility is a great option to have but it's not the fastest out there. That's doubly irritating given that the battery life isn't too impressive either. You'll manage a day of use before having to recharge, but you might have to compromise on your usage at times.

With that in mind, it's not a phone for a power user and probably not the handset to pick if battery life is one of your main priorities.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE camera

The camera shoots in Samsung's distinctive style. Images are bright and detailed and the camera UI is simple and easy to use. The FE's camera is one of its highlights.

If you like shooting on Samsung phones, you'll like this one. However, some images can be left feeling like they've gone slightly too far down the stylised, colour-saturated root. That's nit-picking though and we were consistently impressed with the camera of the FE. Bear in mind though, it is less powerful than the standard handset, which packs a similar set-up and a 64MP telephoto camera, rather than a 12MP one.

The FE can take 30x hybrid zoom images, just as the S21 can, but with less power to get the job done, they end up lacking in detail. Those taken at 3x zoom are much better, offering a good level of detail.

Take a look below for a few examples of photographs captured by the S21 FE.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE design

The composite plastic back of the phone is similar to that of the standard S21, while lower-end than a glass panel it is aesthetically pleasing and doesn't mark up easily. Twinned with the appealing display and metallic edges, the S21 FE feels like a tactile, good-looking and well-made handset.

It's pretty hard-wearing too. This reviewer accidentally dropped the phone almost straight away, (queue panicked swearing,) but the FE was completely unfazed, with no scratches or blemishes at all.

The 6.4-inch display does work as the phone's centrepiece thanks to its slim bezels, curved corners and bright colour rendering.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE comes in four colours: white, graphite, lavender and olive.

Our verdict: should you buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE?

During testing, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE generally gave us a good experience. We liked the camera, the look and feel of the handset and the wonderful display. Samsung offers plenty of software support too, with regular updates. But the elephant in the room was always the price.

The £699 price tag makes this phone very hard to recommend. If you have an Android phone to trade in that knocks the price down and makes it worth considering but there are also great deals to be had on the standard S21 at the moment. The S22 will be released very soon too, so it's worth seeing how that is priced before committing yourself to an FE.

If you're not trading a phone in to buy, then the Pixel 6, standard S21 — and possibly a few other phones depending on your budget — make more sense.

Where to buy Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

If you're a real Samsung fan, or you have an old Android phone to trade in, then you might still be tempted to pick up the FE. We've listed some of the best deals available on the FE below, alongside some competitors you should consider.

Buy Samsung Galaxy S21 FE in contract

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE SIM-free

Google Pixel 6

Samsung Galaxy S21 

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If you're looking for more phone buying options, take a look at our Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review, Google Pixel 6 Pro review and our best Android phones guide. Or for gift ideas, try our list of the best tech gifts

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