Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: A solid budget phone, but is it right for you?

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE combines the big screen, impressive cameras and versatile software of the Galaxy S21 in a more affordable and less flashy package. And while the $699 S21 FE isn’t the company’s first full-featured phone to cost under $1,000, this time around it will launch with stiff competition in the form of the $599 Google Pixel 6.

After a week of living with Samsung’s latest smartphone, here’s what you need to know about the S21 FE.

An affordable Galaxy phone

The S21 FE is best for those who want an affordable Galaxy smartphone that doesn’t skimp on features like an immersive display and a trio of cameras.

The who, what and how

For whom is this: The S21 FE is ideal for someone who wants a brilliant display and a versatile set of cameras to shoot for under $700, or who wants Samsung-exclusive software and features on a budget.

What you need to know: The S21 FE is smooth in everyday use, can handle intense tasks, and is a solid shooter for photos or video. Samsung’s many modes include portrait, a night mode, and Single Take, which takes the fuss out of capturing content. The phone also offers smooth and fluid processing, a triple-camera system, and a long-lasting battery.

How does this compare: The Galaxy S21 FE isn’t best-in-class like more expensive S21 smartphones, but it does offer a vibrant display, speedy processing, and better-than-average cameras housed in a less-than-premium build. But if it’s not married to Samsung’s interface, we’d opt for another phone like the Pixel 6. Google’s latest flagship offers the best camera experience on any Android phone we’ve tested, and even though it only has two lenses: wide and ultra Wide Angle: We didn’t miss out on the telephoto, thanks to its excellent digital zoom. And if you’re not looking for the newest and best hardware, the Pixel 5a with 5G is a great $449.99 phone with similar camera features, and Samsung’s Galaxy A52 5G ($449) offers a dose of future-proofing with support. complete for mmWave and Sub -6 5G. If you’re looking for an Apple product, the $399 iPhone SE is a high performer with a classic design, while the iPhone 11 ($499) and 12 ($599) are available at discounted prices, just watch out for the price limit. storage. in these models.

Jacob Krol/CNN

The Galaxy S21 FE looks like a modern smartphone in one shot. Like the S21 and S20 FE, Samsung uses less premium materials. The frame is aluminum, but the back is polycarbonate, also known as plastic. It doesn’t necessarily feel cheap in the hand and it’s quite comfortable and light, but the smooth plastic finish on the back shows fingerprints, which leads us to recommend a case.

The S21 FE is slightly larger than the standard S21, and while it’s built from similar materials, it feels more affordable. For example, the camera bump on the back, which contains the three-camera system, still sticks out of the device’s frame; however, instead of metal on the Galaxy S21, it’s all polycarbonate here.

The S21 FE is also fully compatible with wireless charging and works on any standard Qi charging pad, although you can also plug it in via a USB-C cable. The port is flanked by a speaker and Micro SIM card slot, while the power/sleep button and volume rocker are located on the right side. You’ll also find cutouts and bands for 5G support: the S21 FE supports Sub-6GHz and mmWave standards. Not only does this prepare it for the future as these networks continue to roll out, but it also fixes the 5G drive of the previous S20 FE, which only included support for the slower Sub-6 spectrum.

The front of the phone is mostly a screen surrounded by thin bezels. In the center of the top of the screen is a pinhole notch with a 32-megapixel selfie camera, though it’s not distracting in everyday use.

Jacob Krol/CNN

The 6.4-inch Dynamic AMOLED display is immersive, with vibrant colors that pop when you scroll through Instagram, grab a TikTok, or flip through multiple apps. Watching an episode of “The Book of Boba Fett” shows how the S21 FE’s screen can handle vibrant areas like a bright sun against the bounty hunter’s dark armor in the same scene. Other screens, mainly on cheaper phones, may struggle with scenes like this.

The display also features a 120Hz refresh rate, which is becoming the new standard for mobile phones. It’s not adaptive like the 60Hz screens on the S21 or iPhone 13 Pro, so it won’t adjust based on what content you’re watching or what you’re doing on the phone, but you will see a marked difference in how the refresh rate higher height enhances action scenes and allows for smoother scrolling. You can set the display to 60Hz or 120Hz in the settings menu; opting for the first option could increase battery life.

The in-display fingerprint sensor may not be as fast as the standard S21, S21+, or S21 Ultra, but it works admirably. Samsung uses a less advanced optical sensor in the S21 FE, as opposed to the speedy ultrasonic sensor that impressed us in the more expensive models.

Smooth performance and solid battery life

Like almost all high-end Android phones recently released, the Galaxy S21 FE packs the speedy Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, allowing you to easily navigate social media, handle productivity tasks (email, web browsing, G Suite and spreadsheets) and even engage in some play, be it streaming video or gaming.

And because the Galaxy S21 FE will launch almost a year after the main Galaxy S21 family, it will get Android 12 with Samsung’s One UX 4.0 out of the box. We especially appreciate the new privacy tab in settings to get a better idea of ​​how the hardware is being used. However, if you’re hoping for a clean Android without Samsung’s UI, you’ll want to look at the Pixel 6 made by Google.

Jacob Krol/CNN

Our other issue with the Galaxy S21 FE is that it’s limited to 6GB of RAM on the 128GB of storage and 256GB with 8GB of RAM. This is a full 2GB less than the entry-level S21, though we easily got through multiple tasks and a full day of use. Those who use the phone for more intense tasks like photo editing and gaming may see more slowdowns. Later, with software updates, this could present a problem as the system and applications become more demanding. And, of course, it won’t offer the same future-proofing as the S21 Ultra, which features 12GB of RAM.

In daily use, we found the S21 FE to crash or slow down at times. This could be fixed with software updates, but it’s worth noting that we didn’t find these issues on the standard S21 or Pixel 6.

As we do with every device we test at CNN Underscored, we run the Galaxy S21 FE through a series of benchmarks. In the standard Geekbench 5, which runs the phone through a series of tasks in a stress test, the Galaxy S21 FE scored 1098 in single-core performance and 3210 in multi-core tests, which are in line with other Snapdragon 888 phones, including the standard Galaxy S21. More importantly, though, the S21 FE’s scores match our day-to-day use.

In terms of battery life, Samsung’s 4,500mAh battery has gotten us through a full day.

The Galaxy S21 FE looks different than the Galaxy S20 FE, but the camera hardware is identical.

The main triple-camera system works well, allowing colors to pop without sacrificing image detail. Samsung’s software modes for taking photos and capturing content also help enhance the experience. As we mentioned before, Samsung’s single shot mode is an intuitive feature for taking photos of a moment. Just tap the home button and move your phone around what you want to capture. It then uses AI to strategically take snapshots and capture video. It’s a pretty good feature and we had no issues with rendering.

Samsung also offers a variety of other modes, like a portrait bokeh effect and an efficient night mode, though given the choice we’d rather shoot with Apple and Google’s proprietary modes for those same looks.

There is also no battle when it comes to image processing against the Pixel 6 because Google images look better and contain more detail.

Here’s what you can expect from the Galaxy S21 FE:

  • 12 megapixel ultra wide angle lens: You can cover a lot of a scene without physically moving by shooting with this 123-degree field of view. It’s a great way to frame different shots, and Samsung minimizes blurring at the edges of photos.
  • 12 megapixel wide angle lens: The camera automatically opens to the main 12-megapixel camera. This works best for portraits and can handle more crowded shots with tons of color and detail.
  • 8 megapixel telephoto: The zoom lens is just 8 megapixels here, allowing for 3x optical zoom and 30x spatial zoom. This combines optical and digital zoom in one shot. Although it’s a fun mode to use, the quality is reduced beyond 10x zoom, resulting in blurry images.

You can see some images we took on the device above. In direct comparison, the telephoto included here outperforms the Pixel 6 for zoom shots in most scenarios. Samsung also ups the vibrancy of its photos compared to its rivals, and you can see that in the S21 FE. The selfie camera performs admirably and is great for capturing TikToks or posting to stories, while the overall performance of the wide and ultra-wide lenses is on par with the previous S20 FE and almost on par with the S21.

Jacob Krol/CNN

As the latest chapter in the story of the Galaxy S21 and the first Samsung smartphone of 2022, the S21 FE has a lot going for it. But when it comes to time and price, the smartphone space has other compelling models to offer.

If you’re not desperate for a dedicated Galaxy smartphone or telephoto lens, we’d opt to save $100 with the Pixel 6. Google’s $599 phone offers longer battery life, a high-end design, and fast processing along with one of the best. cameras we have tested. But whether you want Samsung-flavored Android or an impressive zoom lens, there’s plenty to like with the S21 FE. You might also consider the standard Galaxy S21, which is frequently discounted from its $799 starting price and comes with more RAM, a better screen, a higher-end build, and a better telephoto lens.

Right now Amazon has a great deal giving you the S21 for $699 with a free $100 Amazon.com gift card. If you choose to order from Samsung, you can get a $100 credit or choose a pair of Galaxy Buds Live or Galaxy Buds Pro for $29.99 with the purchase of the S21 FE. Either way, you’ll want to wait to buy it at a discount or attached to a sale.

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