Samsung Galaxy S21 FE Review: A Perfect Mixed Bag

The Nic Cage of smartphones

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE Review
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In this review, I’ll be discussing the new Samsung Galaxy S21 FE, which has been grabbing a lot of headlines lately. Most reviewers have been quite critical about the phone because of how late it launched & maybe because of its relatively higher price tag too. But recently, one of the favorite reviewers—Dave2D—had some positive remarks about it in his video, thus bringing some fresh perspective on the S21 FE.

And the reason why I think this phone is receiving a mixture of love and hatred is that if you really dig in, it does offer something that no other phones do in this price range. But at the same time, there are some crucial things that Samsung could have done better here.

Anyway, how you take the Galaxy S21 FE also depends on the region you live in. If you’re located in someplace where the Pixel 6 is readily available, this phone comes off as an unwise, costlier choice. I, on the other hand, live in South Asia where Pixel phones have not launched yet. So my review of the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is a little different and is therefore going to circle around the Nepali and Indian sub-continent.

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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE Specifications:

  • Body: 74.5 x 155.7 x 7.9mm, 177 gm, Plastic back/aluminum frame, IP68 dust-and-water resistance
  • Display: 6.4-inches Dynamic AMOLED 2X panel, 120Hz refresh rate, 240Hz touch sampling rate, Gorilla Glass Victus
  • Resolution: FHD+ (2400 x 1080 pixels), 20:9 aspect ratio, 411 PPI
  • Chipset: Samsung Exynos 2100 (5nm mobile platform)
  • CPU: Octa-core:
    – 1x Cortex-X1 (2.9 GHz)
    – 3x Cortex-A78 (2.8 GHz)
    – 4x Cortex-A55 (2.2 GHz)
  • GPU: Arm Mali-G68 MP14
  • Memory: 6/8GB LPDDR5 RAM, 128/256GB UFS 3.1 storage (fixed)
  • Software & UI: Android 12 with Samsung’s One UI 4 on top
  • Rear Camera: Triple (with LED flash);
    – 12MP, f/1.8 primary sensor, OIS
    – 12MP, f/2.2 ultra-wide camera, 123º FOV
    – 8MP, f/2.4 telephoto camera (3x optical, 30x Space Zoom)
  • Front Camera: 32MP f/2.2 sensor (punch-hole cutout)
  • Audio: Stereo speaker setup, No 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Security: In-display fingerprint sensor (optical), Face unlock
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, Barometer, Gyro, Geomagnetic, Hall, Light, Proximity
  • Connectivity: Dual-SIM (Nano), Dual-band WiFi 6 (802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax), Bluetooth 5.0, GPS / AGPS / Glonass / Galileo / BDS, USB Type-C, NFC, 4G LTE (VoLTE), 5G
  • Battery: 4500mAh with 25W fast charging (no adapter provided)
  • Wireless Charging: Yes (15W), Wireless PowerShare
  • Color Options: Olive, Lavender, Graphite (White not available in Nepal)
  • Price in Nepal: Rs. 89,999 (8/256GB)

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE Review:

I have been using the S21 FE as my primary device for about three weeks now alongside the OnePlus 9RT which I recently shifted to—while my team members have been testing the Xiaomi 11T Pro and Vivo V23 Pro.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE - UI

All these phones have incredibly competitive specs and are available at a much cheaper price than this. So, does it make sense to chip in almost 20% more and go for this phone? Let me discuss all about it in this review of the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE.

Display

  • 6.4-inches FHD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X panel
  • 120/240Hz refresh/touch sampling rate
  • Corning Gorilla Glass Victus protection
  • Optical in-display fingerprint scanner

Alright, first things first, allow me to discuss the things that I absolutely love about this phone, starting with the display. Samsung has made sure to make the Galaxy S21 FE a good multimedia device by including an excellent “almost flagship-level” display with great colors, contrast, and brightness levels. And the fact that the bezels on this thing are next to non-existent makes the viewing experience even better.

Yes, I know it does not have a crazy-high touch sampling rate as you get with Xiaomi or Realme phones, but the core quality and the color calibration of this screen are quite appreciable and are in fact on par with the likes of the flagship Galaxy S21+.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE - Display 2

The optimized 120Hz refresh rate further elevates the user experience and throughout my use, I’ve never faced a single instance of jittery or sluggish UI—or any kind of touch response issues whatsoever. To top things off, you also get Gorilla Glass Victus protection here.

No ultrasonic fingerprint reader

So, the S21 FE’s display is one of the best things about it. However, to bring down the cost, Samsung has replaced the ultrasonic fingerprint sensor that you’ll find on its flagship phones with an optical one instead. For me, it hasn’t really made a big difference in usability since it is equally fast and accurate. But given the price, I certainly would have appreciated an ultrasonic implementation more.

And maybe the hole-punch cutout could’ve had a smaller diameter as well.

Regardless, I do love how this display is complemented by an awesome pair of dual speakers whose output is loud and crisp. As I mentioned in my impressions video, it isn’t S21+ level good, but I can assure you that it won’t disappoint in any way. The audio quality has balanced mids and highs where the vocals and instruments sound really good too.

Galaxy S21 Plus vs S21 FE
Left: Galaxy S21+ | Right: Galaxy S21 FE

But coming from the S21+, the only thing I miss here is an LTPO screen. Samsung Galaxy S21 FE’s inability to dynamically adjust the refresh rate based on the content on the display definitely has had a less-than-ideal effect on the battery life, which I’ll talk about more in the latter portion of this review. For now, let’s get into the cameras—which is another aspect to love about the S21 FE.

Cameras

  • Triple camera setup at the back
  • (12MP main, 12MP ultrawide, 8MP telephoto)
  • 32MP selfie camera (punch-hole)

Although it borrows the same cameras from the S20 FE, it is reliable enough to be your point-to-shoot companion.

Be it in daylight or low light conditions, you can get well-detailed and social media-ready images from this phone. And this is one area where Samsung is ahead of brands like Xiaomi, Realme, Vivo, or even OnePlus for that matter.

Normal, Ultrawide Images

Here, the normal daytime images from the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE have that classic “punchy” color optimization which makes the photos look appealing. Similarly, this camera is able to maintain details and dynamic range really well too.

The only aspect where I think it could do better is maintaining highlights and exposure in a bright environment.

And this holds true for both regular and wide-angle shots. Other than that, it can pull off some really good pictures from its normal as well as ultra-wide sensors.

Telephoto Images

And one of the reasons why the S21 FE’s cameras stand out in this price bracket is also because it has a dedicated telephoto lens capable of 3x optical zoom.

So if you are more into zoom photography, you can get more detailed zoomed-in shots here.

Portrait Images

Similarly, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE natively uses its telephoto lens for portrait shots as well—which translates to incredible subject focus.

But you sure can notice the slightly punchy color reproduction here as well.

Selfie Images

Like the portraits, the S21 FE also takes wonderful selfies. The subjects look bright and the phone delivers consistent results through and through.

Nighttime Images

During nighttime, the onboard OIS works well to preserve details. And shooting with Night Mode turned on further improves the exposure and detail levels.

Sadly, you’ll need to be a bit patient since it takes around 10 seconds to process a single shot. So, I definitely feel like Samsung needs to work on bringing down the processing time via an update soon.

Videography

Even in terms of videos, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE holds its ground. Like the S21+, it can shoot steady 4k 60 fps footages with great quality and color science. The microphone quality is equally impressive with decent background noise cancellation.

It’s only the selfies videos where the phone doesn’t have the best of the stabilization at 4k resolution—under both 30 or 60 fps mode. 1080p footages don’t suffer from shakiness though. But even so, I wish the company had provided better stabilization by cropping the frame a little since that would have been really helpful for vloggers.

Overall, apart from selfie videos, the S21 FE’s cameras do quite a good job in most aspects. And it sure is one reliable option for anyone looking for a good camera phone. Goes on without saying that it is certainly better than the OnePlus 9RT or the Xiaomi 11T Pro on the camera front.

Performance

  • Octa-core Samsung Exynos 2100 5G SoC (5nm)
  • 6/8GB LPDDR5 RAM, 128/256GB UFS 3.1 storage (fixed)
  • Android 12 with Samsung’s One UI 4 on top

Now, I have been using Samsung’s flagship phones as one of my primary devices for years and I have been quite vocal on how One UI is one of my favorite Android skins. As you’d expect, the Galaxy S21 FE brings the same software experience as other Samsung flagships, meaning the 120Hz display is optimized amazingly (barring the lacking adaptiveness, of course), the dark mode is also well-implemented, and there are no software bugs or anything unlike the Pixel 6 or Xiaomi’s MIUI.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE - Gaming

Plus, the Galaxy S21 FE runs on the latest Android 12-based One UI 4 out-of-the-box and Samsung even promises 3 years of major software and 4 years of security updates for this.

Moving on, the phone ships with either Snapdragon 888 or Exynos 2100 depending on your region. Here in South Asia, we have the Exynos variant and for the most part, its performance is up to the mark—especially when it comes to CPU-intensive workloads. Multitasking with the heaviest apps hasn’t been a problem so far and the RAM management on this thing is really good too.

Not the most capable GPU

However, unlike with CPU, the S21 FE couldn’t maintain a consistent graphics performance on my tests. In demanding games like Genshin Impact—as you can see from this chart—the phone struggles to maintain a steady fps count throughout the gameplay at the Highest settings and 60 fps mode.

Even dialing down the settings to High graphics quality does not help with the stability.

Likewise, in Mech Arena, where the phone supports 120 fps gaming, it starts off with a relatively high 113 fps—but dips to as low as 77 fps after just a few minutes into the game. And this fluctuation is noticeable all through the gaming session.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE - Mech Arena - 120fps
Mech Arena – 120 fps

I didn’t find any stability issues when playing PUBG though, as the game delivered a stable 58-60 fps on average at Smooth graphics and Extreme frame rate settings—whereas COD is also well playable with a constant 60 fps even at the highest of settings.

During all my gaming sessions, I didn’t face any major heating issues either, although the phone got slightly warm near the camera module on a few occasions. And this is great news because the Snapdragon 888 and Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chipsets have been subject to a great deal of criticism for having a bad thermal performance under load.

In any case, since I’m not a heavy gamer, Galaxy S21 FE’s regular day-to-day—as well as gaming performance—has been plenty enough for me.

Design & Build

  • 74.5 x 155.7 x 7.9mm, 177 grams
  • Glass front, plastic back, aluminum frame
  • IP68 certified against dust/water damage

On a different note, I think Samsung should have put a little more thought into this phone’s design. Because of the plastic back, it feels a bit too light and un-ergonomic for a semi-flagship phone since it doesn’t have that heft.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE - Design

And this is where I have to disagree with what Dave2D said in his video about the plastic back on this phone being a better implementation. On the contrary, in my experience, plastic backs get scratches and scuffs easily—which in turn makes your device look really old really fast. Plus, plastic is more susceptible to discoloration in the long run as well.

Thankfully, the frames here are made of aluminum which prevents the S21 FE from totally feeling like a mid-range device.

Likewise, it also misses out on good haptics. The vibration feedback here is quite similar to what you’d find on a mid-range phone these days. And for something that costs NPR 89,999, I find this to be quite disappointing. Even a sub-50K phone like the POCO F3 (Mi 11X) has better haptics than this one.

However, I do appreciate the fact that Samsung has included IP68 dust-and-water resistance as well as Gorilla Glass Victus protection on the front. Considering my relatively rough usage pattern, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE has held up admirably so far. I’ve even accidentally dropped it a few times but everything’s nice and intact.

Battery

  • 4500mAh battery with 25W fast charging

Finally, the one thing that’s surprised me here is the average battery life. I don’t know why it’s delivering such a sub-par screen-on time despite featuring a modest 4500mAh battery. But I guess this has a lot to do with the display’s lack of energy-saving LTPO backplane technology.

I am a pretty heavy user and the Galaxy S21 FE lasted for a little less than a full day when keeping the display to 120Hz at all times. But if you are someone who isn’t on their phone most of the time, then it’s probably not going to be a big concern for you.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE - Charging

Plus, with a compatible 25W charger—which you’ll have to buy separately by the way—it fuels up within 1.5 hours. While I realize it’s not as fast as what other brands are offering these days, considering the long-run battery health, I’m perfectly fine with it.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE Review: Conclusion

Wrapping up this review, after having used the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE for a good number of days, I must say that it has definitely grown on me. It has an awesome display, the cameras and performance here are—although not flagship level—incredible for the price, and the great stereo speakers alongside the reliable One UI software make for one satisfying smartphone experience.

And looking at the Nepali market, there aren’t many options in the sub 1 lakh category either. The two-and-a-half years old iPhone 11 was recently discounted heavily but it’s no longer available. Xiaomi’s Mi 11 and Mi 11X Pro are also competent devices, but they’re pretty much out-of-stock in the market—whereas Pixel 6 and OnePlus 9RT are straight-up unavailable in Nepal.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE - Display 1

Then again, maybe Samsung Nepal should’ve launched the 8/128GB variant at around Rs. 80,000 which would’ve been a lot more digestible price point. As a result, the S21 FE is not an extraordinary phone, but it isn’t exactly terrible either.

Plus, if you can wait for the upcoming S22 series, bumping your budget a little for the standard Galaxy S22 could be a wiser purchase decision. We’re pretty familiar with Samsung Nepal’s impressive pre-booking offers, so that’s definitely something to look out for as well.

  • Watch our review video of the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE:

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE Review: Pros & Cons

Pros:

  • Terrific 120Hz AMOLED display
  • Decent stereo speakers
  • Great set of cameras for the price
  • IP68 dust-and-water resistant
  • One UI 4 is well-optimized
  • Class-leading software support

Cons:

  • Build quality lacks a definite heft
  • Plastic back prone to scuffs, discoloration
  • Relatively weak haptics
  • Exynos 2100’s GPU isn’t that competent
  • Not the best battery endurance
REVIEW OVERVIEW
Design & Build
7.5
Display
8.5
Performance
8.5
Back Cameras
9
Front Camera
8.5
Software & UI
9.5
Battery
8
Speaker & Haptics
8
Value for Money
8
All in all, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE provides a near-flagship smartphone experience but with a few compromises here and there. So if you can overlook some of the said compromises like a plastic back design, comparatively weak GPU—and more importantly the Rs. 90,000 price tag—then it's still a decent phone. If not, then you're better off waiting for the upcoming Galaxy S22 or other alternatives.samsung-galaxy-s21-fe-review