Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G review: Too pricey for what it is
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G is a decent phone, though not perfect. And it would be an acceptable mid-range device if it didn't cost $999.
- Lovely design
- Decent camera
- Good performance
- Terrible battery
- Too expensive for what it is
- Large and heavy
Power, storage and battery
|Launch price (RRP)||$0|
Samsung broke tradition this year by announcing a new phone at CES. The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G sits on the more premium end of mid-range phones, offering an alternative to the flagship S21 devices. While it's a sexy device, it also has a $999 price tag. And unfortunately it's just not worth that much.
When it comes to design, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G looks almost exactly the same as its regular S21 counterpart, including the left-justified camera bump with 3 lenses. The main difference is that it's a touch smaller.
It honestly looks and feels quite slick, despite the plastic finish. Or as Samsung calls it, Glasstic. I'm choosing to not comment on that.
On the colour front there are 4 options: Graphite, White, Olive and Lavender, with the latter 2 being particularly pleasing to the eyes.
The device is incredibly thin and light, which is a refreshing change after rolling with the hefty iPhone 13 Pro Max over the past few months. The display is also impressive, with a slender bezel and 6.4-inch FHD+ 120Hz display.
In short, this thing looks and feels hot.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Performance
When it comes to performance, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is surprisingly impressive, especially when it comes to the 120Hz AMOLED display. It has a level of brightness that makes streaming content great, especially at 6.4 inches. But the refresh rate also means the response is buttery smooth. This makes light gaming as well as simply scrolling the web and social a fun and swift experience.
Under the hood you'll find an Exynos 990 processor (keeping in mind much of the rest of the world gets a Snapdragon 888) as well as a couple of storage and RAM options: 6GB RAM with 128GB of storage or 8GB RAM with 256GB of storage. This all helps contribute to the overall decent performance.
Despite being stuck with the Exynos, I found that it had few issues handling any apps that I threw at it, and gaming was fine too. Likewise, the face and fingerprint unlock functionality worked perfectly every time.
The only real issue I've had is the UI on the home screen lagging. It's not constant, but it has happened enough during the review period to be annoying. It's also not an unknown thing to occur with Samsung's proprietary One UI.
But overall, it's been a pleasing performance experience so far. But when it comes to benchmarking, it's not the beefiest contender. The single and multi-core scores were roughly on par with the S20 FE and well below the iPhone Mini and regular Samsung Galaxy S21 FE. It did hold out pretty decently compared to the Pixel 6 though:
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Camera
When it comes to standard point-and-shoot photos, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G does quite well. In fact, in some cases they look incredibly similar to the regular S21.
And this is because the main and ultra-wide lenses, both 12MP, are the same as S21. The only big difference is the telephoto lens, which is just 8MP compared to the S21's 64MP. This mostly impacts the zoom, which falls over when you try to go past 10x.
You'll also find a point of difference on the front-facing camera, which is just 10MP on the S21 FE compared to 32MP on the S21. But I didn't find this made a whole lot of difference.
When it comes to the photos themselves, you'll find the same bright colour palette as other modern Samsung phones. At times it can border on over saturation, but this is something you can play with in the in-built photo editor. But in general the outcome of these shots were really nice.
The bokeh effect in portrait mode is also decent, although sometimes it did have a little trouble focusing on the subject. This also occurred with the autofocus on the rear camera at times, which is something even the flagship Samsung devices have struggled with over the last couple of years.
"Nothing suspicious to see here..."
But in general, the shots I got were great. My only real disappointment was a distinct lack of lowlight capability. Taking shots with very little light in my own house resulted in unusable photos. Similarly outdoor shots at night were not very good.
This is not something I would usually expect from a mid-range camera. But because it's the same price as the Google Pixel 6, which has excellent low light and general camera functionality, it gave me pause.
After spending 10 days with the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE, I found that for the most part the camera did a better job with natural light than artificial.
On the plus side, the S21 FE cameras do come with some premium features such as Single Take (which lets you take multiple photos at once with different lenses) as well as Dual Recording, where you can record video with the front and rear cameras at the same time.
Here are some more camera samples:
Here's one for whoever started my Wikifeet page:
Nature in all of its glory:
And here's how it went indoors at night time with artificial lighting:
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Battery
I was frankly a bit shocked when it came to the battery performance of the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G. The battery itself is 4,5000mAh, which isn't exactly small. But it just couldn't hold a charge.
On my first day of use it dropped 10% in less than an hour. Now to be fair I was installing a bunch of apps at the time, so I tried to keep an open mind. But after general use throughout the day (social media, web browsing messenger apps, taking photos and listening to music) it had dropped to 18% by 8:30pm. And the percentage has been similar on subsequent days. And this concerns me for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, if it hadn't been a weekend I would also be using my phone for work related apps which would flog the battery even harder. Secondly, this is a 5G enabled phone. I wasn't able to get 5G on my network in the areas I was in throughout the weekend. But if I had, this too would have impacted the battery further.
In addition to my personal experience, I also ran one of Finder's standard battery tests. I streamed video on the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G for an hour at full volume and 50% brightness. In our years of experience we've found that anything above 90% generally indicates that a phone battery can last all day.
Unfortunately, the S21 FE 5G came in at 86%. It was also running extremely hot on the front and back of the device.
For a relatively pricey mid-range phone this is not great. In fact, it only managed to beat out the iPhone 13 Mini by 1%, which is another expensive phone in this bracket that had a terrible battery life.
Comparatively, the Google Pixel 6 came in at 96% on this test, and it's the same price as the Galaxy S21 FE.
Ultimately the battery life seems to be a victim of the phone overall. Its lovely display, processing power and 5G functionality are all really good, but to the detriment of the battery.
And at the end of the day, it doesn't matter how good the accoutrement is if something as basic as battery life isn't up to scratch.
Should you buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE?
- Buy it if you really want a mid-range Samsung phone with a few flagship specs.
- Don't buy it if you want better value for money.
Overall my experience with the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G has been quite good. It's a wonderfully light device with a chic design and some nice features. And the camera, while not best in class, can shoot some lovely pictures.
But at $999, the S21 FE is in an awkward position. Over the last few years we have seen an influx of quality devices in the mid-range market that offer high quality specs for a lower price. This has resulted in consumers, quite rightly, expecting more from the $600 - $1,000 price bracket. Not to mention the fact that you can pick up a regular Samsung S21 5G for just $250 more these days.
And unfortunately for the S21 FE, it's entering the chat mere months after Google dropped its truly sensational Pixel 6, which I personally think was the best phone of 2021.
It too is $999 and simply offers so much more for the price tag. The battery is fantastic, the performance is great and the photo capabilities are stunning. Not to mention the fact that it goes beyond basic point and click and can take awesome low light shots and offers Google's new Magic Eraser functionality.
So while the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G isn't bad (besides the battery), it just isn't offering enough.
The good news is that Samsung has been putting in a concerted effort to up its low and mid-range game. Its 2021 A-Series of devices offered beefy specs for devices that ranged between $499 and $749. So it knows the importance of upping the ante in these spaces, it just hasn't quite gotten there with the S21 FE 5G.
My advice: If you want a slick device but don't require all the flagship bells and whistles, take a look at the Samsung A72 or A52.
But if you're happy to drop $999 on an Android device and want the absolute best bang for your buck, you can't go past the criminally good Google Pixel 6.
Images: Tegan Jones
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Pricing and availability
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G is available now and starts at $999 in Australia. At the time of writing some retailers, such as Amazon, are also throwing in a a pair of Galaxy Buds 2 for free with the purchase. This offers ends at 11:59pm on 31st January 2022.
You can find all the best plans from Telstra, Optus and Vodafone right here.
How we test
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G was tested extensively over a 10-day period as the author's daily driver. She has been testing and reviewing phones for over 5 years and won best reviewer at the 2021 Australian IT Journalism Awards.
Power, storage and battery
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