It’s been a while since I last used a Samsung smartphone as a daily driver. In fact, the last time I used a Samsung device, it ran Android Gingerbread with the infamous TouchWiz skin. As such, I was actually a little excited to try out the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE when Rory handed it to me, especially considering that the Galaxy S20 FE it replaces was viewed as one of the best devices from Samsung in a while.
Samsung though certainly took their time with actually launching the Galaxy S21 FE. While the Galaxy S20 FE appeared back in October of 2020, the Galaxy S21 FE would only show up in January this year. Perhaps they were worried it would cut into their sales of the Galaxy Z Flip 3, which was a pretty solid smartphone in its own regard. Nevertheless, the Galaxy S21 FE has indeed launched, and is positioned pretty much as the more ‘affordable’ version of Samsung’s flagship smartphones.
The model we got was the higher specced one, with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. However, almost immediately after unboxing it, it certainly didn’t feel as though I was holding a supposedly ‘flagship’ smartphone.
Life in plastic, it’s not fantastic
As Rory also notes in his hand-on with the device, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE really doesn’t match the same kind of near-flagship pedigree that the Galaxy S21 series or even the Galaxy S20 FE has. It still comes with Samsung’s much maligned ‘Glasstic’ polycarbonate back, and the camera bump isn’t a separate metal component like its fellow S21 series siblings. Instead, it’s just the same polycarbonate material that sweeps upwards into the linear camera bump.
It results in the camera bump feeling like an afterthought from Samsung, almost as though it was an attempt to maintain the design philosophy of the Galaxy S21 series while using the cheapest materials they can find. The matte black finish on the plastic back does give it a really nice ‘professional’ look though, especially compared to the plethora of flashy colour-changing smartphones in the upper midrange segment these days. There’s some upsides too of the matte plastic back, such as fingerprints not being as noticeable. Of course, if you rather your smartphone double as a fashion statement, the Galaxy S21 FE also features a white, olive and lavender colourway.
As a whole, you end up with a device that looks and feels as though it’s in the wrong Samsung lineup. If I hadn’t known any better and you told me this was the latest and greatest in the midrange Samsung Galaxy A series, I genuinely might believe you. At the very least, there’s IP68 water and dust resistance, while the front of the device also has a layer of Corning Gorilla Glass Victus over it in case you want a reminder of how glass actually feels like.
Of course, the Galaxy S21 FE wasn’t made with only stunning looks in mind. Instead, it’s supposed to offer the same flagship-level of performance you expect in a Galaxy S series device while being a little cheaper too. So let’s talk performance then, shall we?
It’ll keep your hands warm
When the Galaxy S20 FE debuted in Malaysia, it was almost immediately a hit with the Samsung fans here thanks to it being the only member of the Galaxy S20 lineup with a Snapdragon chip inside it. However, with the Galaxy S21 FE, Samsung has instead decided to ship it with the same Exynos 2100 system-on-chip that powers the rest of the Samsung S21 series too, rather than something like the Snapdragon 888. I won’t go on too much about the specific differences between the two chipsets, but it’s a bit of a shame considering that the local market does seem to prefer Snapdragon chips rather than Exynos ones.
As for how it actually performs, well the short answer is that it’s alright, but also won’t blow your socks away. Generally, I’m quite a heavy user with my devices, and often have plenty of apps running in the background too. This includes everything from social media stuff like Facebook and Twitter, messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Discord, some content streaming like YouTube and TikTok as well as stuff like Spotify, Waze and the like. For the most part, the Galaxy S21 FE holds its own with these apps, and barring a couple of stutters here and there, day-to-day performance was fine.
It’s also the first time I got to properly experience OneUI 4.0 and I’ve got to say it’s pretty decent to use. Things like the diagnostics, the widgets and stuff seem decent, and the UI itself is quite slick to use and easy to navigate around. It’s not a pure stock Android experience of course, and there’s also plenty of Samsung apps around.
Gaming though is a bit of a mixed bag. The Galaxy S21 FE technically handled most of the games I threw at it, such as RL Sideswipe, Pokemon Unite and Magic: the Gathering Arena. However, when there’s plenty of animations on the screen, frame rates seem to take a minor hit every now and then. What I really wasn’t expecting though was how warm the back of the phone gets when playing games, even for a short while. When I play a game of MTG Arena for instance, in just about 20-30 minutes, the phone becomes noticeably warmer, and the resolution seems to be taking quite a hit as well. Plus with all the ongoing issues surrounding Samsung throttling apps and games, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s causing all of this heat.
Furthermore, battery life is fine but again it isn’t great either. There’s a 4,500mAh battery that will last me the day, but squeezing more out of it might be a bit tougher. The screen was mostly on at between 50-70% brightness and as I mentioned I pretty much used it as I normally would with any other device, with around six hours of screen time and about 14 to 15 hours of time on battery. Most of the time I would end the day with about 20-30% of battery life remaining. Furthermore, unlike the previous Galaxy S20 FE, the Galaxy S21 FE also lacks a charging brick in the box. It does have reverse wireless charging though, which came in pretty handy a couple of times.
Good, but not great cameras
In the camera department, we’ve got a triple rear camera setup on the rear housing a main 12MP, f/1.8 wide camera, a 12MP, f/2.2 ultrawide camera and a third 8MP, f/2.4 telephoto camera. The front of the Galaxy S21 FE meanwhile has a 32MP, f/2.2 selfie camera.
Overall, the camera app was simple to use, though sometimes required digging through the settings and the ‘More’ tab to find all the features. The photos also turned out for the most part fine, and will do just well on social media, but lack that final bit of sharpness and clarity to make it stand out amongst the crowd of upper midrange smartphones with big camera claims. They often have pretty solid colours too, with bright and vibrant images.
However, the cameras will struggle a bit in low light conditions, with images noticeably much more noisy once the lighting isn’t as complementary. Turning on night mode makes it somewhat better, as long as you don’t zoom in and notice the post processing at work that is. You will want to find a balance though, as every now and then shots end up blown up and overexposed.
It’s not all bad though
I might be coming off a little bit harsh on the Galaxy S21 FE so far, but that’s honestly because I expected so much more from it especially seeing how great of a smartphone the Galaxy S20 FE was. However, there are some positives on the Galaxy S21 FE, most notably of which is its display.
It has a 6.4-inch, FHD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X display that is absolutely brilliant. The Galaxy S21 FE gets really bright when you need it too, and colours are absolutely gorgeous on the display. One particularly striking note was how deep the blacks get viewing content, with excellent contrasts throughout the screen. That made watching movies and videos distinctly enjoyable, and is no surprise considering Samsung’s history of having some of the best smartphone screens in the market.
If there was something I had to nitpick though, it would be that the 120Hz refresh rate isn’t adaptive. The lack of an adaptive refresh rate means that it’s stuck at 120Hz the entire time, even when it doesn’t need to such as when I’m reading an article or when the game I’m playing maxes out at 60fps. This is also perhaps helps to explain why I didn’t get much more battery life out of the Galaxy S21 FE.
You don’t watch content silently though, and so any great display needs to be paired with some solid speakers too to really complete the audiovisual experience. Here, the Galaxy S21 FE falls ever so slightly short of the mark, but is still pretty good in its own regard. The stereo speakers are fine for most applications, but lacks just that little bit of oomph compared to something like an iPhone 13, while also not getting as loud. Nevertheless, unless you’re a huge audiophile—which I’m not—-you’ll likely find the stereo speakers on the Galaxy S21 FE good enough. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come with a 3.5mm audio jack, but you can switch the Bluetooth codec to something like LDAC.
Another plus point that the Galaxy S21 FE has going for it is that it launches with Android 12 out of the box. Samsung has recently promised to provide up to four major Android OS upgrades, with up to five years of security patches too. With the Galaxy S21 FE launching with Android 12, this means that if you were to get one of these for yourself, you could ostensibly keep using it until Android 16 rolls around or maybe even longer too. This kind of software support was previously unheard of in the Android space, and is a clear sign of Samsung’s intent to take on Apple’s near-legendary status in this regard.
And yet, with all that being said…
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is simply too little, too late
Let me be clear, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is by no means a bad smartphone. As I’ve pointed out, it has a pretty solid display and audio, and the fact that it launches with Android 12 out of the box means that you could technically use it until Android 16 rolls around thanks to Samsung’s promise of four major Android OS upgrades. But Samsung simply took way too long to actually release the device, and with these prices the value proposition of the Galaxy S21 FE has been significantly diminished.
In just a month since the launch of the Galaxy S21 FE, Samsung launched the Galaxy S22 series. We’ve already highlighted the notable differences in specs between the Galaxy S21 FE and the Galaxy S22, but the main takeaway is that the Galaxy S22 is the much better device compared to the Galaxy S21 FE, with only the smaller display the one thing the Galaxy S22 loses out to the Galaxy S21 FE in. And yet despite that, there are people who would prefer a more compact device, in which case it becomes an almost outright win for the Galaxy S22 over the Galaxy S21 FE.
The Galaxy S22 comes with a 6.1-inch FHD+ AMOLED display, while on the back of the device—gasp, it’s real glass this time! Furthermore, it on paper has better cameras too, with the Galaxy S22 series as a whole seeing a number of not insignificant upgrades in the camera department from Samsung. And perhaps a little ironically, it comes with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 too; Snapdragon chips have long been the fan favourite SoC here in Malaysia, and the use of the Snapdragon 865 in the Galaxy S20 FE was undoubtedly one of its biggest selling points here.
However, the Galaxy S22 will cost you RM600 more, with the 128GB model starting at RM3,499 while the 256GB variant goes for RM3,699. Now RM600 is a lot of money, I know. But honestly though, if you were already about to shell out nearly three grand for the Galaxy S21 FE, the RM600 extra to get the Galaxy S22 could be well worth it, assuming you don’t mind the smaller display. There are other non-Samsung alternatives as well of course, such as the Motorola Edge 30 Pro that’s priced at RM2,699. It’s also the only other Snapdragon 8 Gen 1-powered device currently available in Malaysia at time of writing.
That being said, we know that many of you firmly prefer paying a little more for a Samsung-branded device than other brands, perhaps due to familiarity with One UI or maybe you find Samsung Pay too convenient to live without. If you really do want to consider a ‘flagship’ device from Samsung, the Galaxy S21 FE remains a tough sell. But, if—and this is a big if—Samsung ends up giving it a significant enough price cut to make its price to performance ratio much better, then maybe you could consider the Galaxy S21 FE. And perhaps they will too, seeing as Samsung Malaysia has just recently announced a limited time RM300 discount for the Galaxy S21 FE. The Galaxy S21 FE simply came about too late, and much of its shine has since been overshadowed by the Galaxy S22 series.