Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G review: Is the sequel as good as the original?

Right phone, wrong timing.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G starts at Rs 54,999. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

The Galaxy S20 FE literally dropped out of nowhere and took the market by storm. The phone was so “epic”, Samsung boldly launched the 5G version in India nearly six months after global, and yet, managed to upset competition. It was proof that there was demand for another category of smartphones – between flagship and flagship killer – if the product was able to crack the fundamentals and provide an experience usually reserved for a more premium tier, at a more accessible price point.

The S20 FE was an ode to fans, Samsung said, born out of a raging pandemic that (has) made phones an absolute necessity for work, leisure, you name it. A successor was duly awaited. It is here, finally, after months of leaks and speculations. It is unsurprisingly called the Galaxy S21 FE. It was supposed to launch much earlier, but global supply chain issues apparently delayed the launch. With the Galaxy S22 series launch nearing (this could be as soon as in February), the timing could play a spoiler for the S21 FE.

Also Read | Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G review: More value than OnePlus 9

Before diving into what’s new, it’s imperative to talk about the pricing, because that’s probably going to raise a few eyebrows. Samsung has launched the Galaxy S21 FE 5G in India at a starting price of Rs 54,999 (8GB/128GB). The top-end 8GB/256GB model of the phone will set you back by Rs 58,999. Then when you factor in the chip that it’s rocking, which is the Exynos 2100 (similar to all S21 series phones), you can’t help but think, has Samsung shot itself in the foot? Is the Galaxy S21 FE 5G even worth all that money?

We will try and answer these questions in the course of this review, but, know this: the S20 FE 5G was launched in March 2021 at a market operating price of Rs 55,999. This was for a version with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 chip, 8GB RAM, and 128GB storage. For what it’s worth, the S21 FE isn’t overpriced. Yes, the price could be slightly lower but you’ve got to understand, the world isn’t the same that it used to be and getting those parts – those chips et al – is far more challenging now than it was, at the start of the pandemic. No brand that dabbles with tech is immune to this, today. If anything, it’s remarkable how Samsung has been able to control the urge to price the S21 FE higher. For context, the S21 costs Rs 64,999, the S21 Plus Rs 76,999. You can, obviously, get them cheaper online, but good luck finding them. You will, eventually, also be able to buy the S21 FE at lower prices. That’s just how Samsung phones work.

So, what is the purpose of the S21 FE 5G? It is but a stopgap solution until the S22 arrives that should help Samsung continue the momentum it’s built with the S21 Ultra (at the higher end) and S20 FE (entry-level). With no new Note happening in 2021, every effort counts. It may not be an out-and-out winner like the original, but the sequel is definitely more than the sum of its parts (and pricing) and that makes it as interesting, if not more. Cut to the chase – don’t write off the S21 FE, just yet.

The S21 FE is “new” in three aspects, broadly speaking. It has an upgraded design, a brighter display, and a faster chip. Rest of it is very familiar, which is to say, it’s all—still—very good.

Design and display

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G
(Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

The focus, like last year, remains on taking some of the best parts of the S21 series (S21, S21 Plus) and removing everything that would otherwise, add to cost. This is more evident in the overall design of the S21 FE, than anything else.

It is closer to the vanilla S21 as far as choice of build materials is concerned. This means it uses a combination of plastic, metal, and glass. The back panel is all polycarbonate. The frame is made of aluminium. The front has Corning Gorilla Glass Victus. As far as entry-level flagships go, this is as high-end as it gets, so, no complaint there whatsoever.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G
(Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

Aesthetics are where the S21 FE shows definite signs of cost cutting. Samsung has tried to mimic the whole contour-cut formula of the S21 series that we all love to death but the whole thing looks like an afterthought here. Samsung’s embrace of the camera bump and giving it its own signature hue and then merging it, gracefully with the frame, showed character and individuality. The S21 FE in contrast appears to be a cheap knockoff.  It also doesn’t help that Samsung chose some of the blandest colour schemes to go with it. The S20 FE was clearly, a better-looking product. We still can’t get over how refreshing its mint version was.  

The S21 FE makes strong comeback with ergonomics. It’s much more compact and pocketable. It is smaller in size (6.4-inch versus 6.5-inch), slimmer (7.9mm versus 8.4mm), and lighter (177g versus 190g) in comparison to the S20 FE. Samsung has paired this with a matte finish on the back and subtle curves that melt seamlessly into the frame (which is also soft to the touch). The front meanwhile is completely flat. It’s a pleasure to hold this phone and chances are, you’d fall in love with it, too. Compact phones are rare these days and while the S21 FE isn’t technically a mini phone, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Samsung has nailed the in-hand feel on this one, is all we can say.

Rounding off the package is IP68 dust and water resistance. The S20 FE also had this.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G
(Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

The display of the S21 FE gets the same “Dynamic AMOLED 2X” branding as the other S21 series phones. It isn’t the same on a technical level, though, it’s a step up from the S20 FE’s seemingly vanilla “Super AMOLED.” The biggest draw is the jump in peak brightness. This is 1200nits. It’s a hallmark Samsung display which is to say, it works as advertised. It’s very good with rich contrast and excellent viewing angles. The 1080p panel can refresh up to 120 times per second. This is still not adaptive, though, like the other S21 phones. HDR10+ content playback is supported. This works in apps like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. The optical in-display fingerprint reader is fast and mostly reliable.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G
(Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

Another difference, which may not be as apparent to those who’ve not seen the S20 FE, is that Samsung has removed the “annoying” silver accent around the hole punch in the S21 FE (there is no screen guard this time either) something that those finicky about symmetry would appreciate. The bezels around the display are, also, fairly uniform. Basically, Samsung has left nothing out. What you get is a high-quality display inside a well-made chassis.

Performance and cameras

Inside that chassis lies the Exynos 2100 chip. This is perhaps the S21 FE’s most controversial feature. That’s because there is another alter ego of this phone based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip. With Samsung turning to Qualcomm chips with some of its recent launches like the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Flip 3 and the fact that the S20 FE 5G came with the Snapdragon 865, many buyers would be hoping to see something similar with the S21 FE, too. Rightly so. But Samsung choosing Exynos over Qualcomm—in this case—may be a blessing in disguise, actually.     

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G
(Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

The Snapdragon 888 is a resource hog and it’s very hard to cool, something that becomes even more difficult inside thin and light phones like the S21 FE. The Flip 3 is a good example. In other words, the Snapdragon 888 is not a winner like say the Snapdragon 865. The Exynos 2100, though it’s not as powerful, can offer more value with a finer mix of performance and thermal efficiency. All this bodes well for battery life, too. Something we found during our time reviewing the S21 Ultra and S21 Plus.

That is not to say that the S21 FE doesn’t throttle, or that it doesn’t get hot, or that it has outstanding battery life. Far from it. But it doesn’t disappoint, or leave you asking for more, in any of these areas which come to think of it, speaks volumes of how far Exynos has come, to a point where we can recommend it rather than dismissing it purely because it’s well, Exynos. The perception needs to change, though. Hopefully, the next flagship Exynos chip that’s set to come with an AMD GPU, will build on this further. Options are nice, monopoly is never a good idea.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G
(Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

Speaking of which, let us quickly take you through the nitty-gritties of the phone. Firstly, there are no major red flags, which is a good thing. You get 8GB RAM and up to 256GB UFS3.1 storage – this is non-expandable.

The S21 FE feels buttery smooth, plays demanding games with ease, and does not get toasty though it does get warm when stressed. That is when it also tends to throttle a bit. But, not alarmingly so. It takes its time, too, which is to say, it’s not instantaneous. And certainly not, in a haphazard manner so it would kill the experience. What does it mean in the real world? You may never notice any perceivable lag in this phone in basic day-to-day use. Frame rate drops are also barely noticeable unless, you’re playing a graphically demanding game for say, over 20-30 minutes at a stretch. Battery life, too, doesn’t fall abruptly during peak gaming sessions, which is another big highlight of this phone.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G
(Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

Battery life, on the whole, is good. It has the same 4,500mAh battery as its predecessor but it performs marginally better thanks to the new chipset. Our battery loop test gave us 10 hours on the S21 FE with screen set to 120Hz, a respectable figure for an Exynos Galaxy.

Samsung is sticking with 25W fast wired charging but while the S20 FE came with a 15W charger in the box, the S21 FE comes without one, altogether – so, that’s a bummer. You get 15W wireless and reverse wireless charging, also, in this phone.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G
(Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

Software is one big area where Samsung has been hitting all the right notes, lately. The S21 FE, again, is a fine testament of this. The phone is launching with Android 12-based One UI 4 and is promised three years of OS updates and four years of security updates. Stock Android-nerds would find it difficult to tell if this phone is running Android 12, really, since there are so many layers on top of it—unsurprisingly—but believe us, everything from endless customisation through colour palettes and widgets to granular privacy guards including microphone and camera indicators are all there and working the way they’re supposed to. As an added bonus, the S21 FE supports Samsung’s DeX suite letting you hook the phone to a monitor and have a PC-like setup on the fly. The phone could do with less bloat/duplicate apps though. Our review unit runs the November, 2021 security patch at the time of writing.  

The S21 FE has the same cameras as the S20 FE. It has a 12MP primary sensor behind a 26mm wide f/1.8 aperture lens with Dual Pixel PDAF and OIS. This is paired with another 12MP sensor behind an f/2.2 aperture ultra-wide-angle lens and 8MP telephoto camera (with OIS). we expected the new chip to bring improved processing and let’s just say, Samsung didn’t disappoint. Using the same set of sensors, the S21 FE is able to shoot consistently better photos across lighting scenarios.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G
(Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

The main sensor takes good photos in good light with warm and pleasing, if a little oversaturated colours, lots of detail and excellent dynamic range. The ultrawide-angle, too, takes comparable photos with tones largely in sync with the main sensor. Optically, the S21 FE 5G can only go as far as 1.1x but 3x hybrid zoom photos are serviceable. On paper, it can shoot up to 30x zoom photos, but that’s just software overkill.

But it’s in low light, where the S21 FE’s cameras really come into their own. Samsung’s night mode offers bright and detailed photos in tricky and low light 9 out of 10 times. The same is true about the phone’s portrait mode. Subject isolation is fairly on point.

Video recording, too, is top-notch. 4K @30fps, 60fps videos shot with the phone are sharp, have lots of detail, and offer excellent all-round stabilisation.

The 32MP camera on the front clicks nice and detailed selfies in most lighting scenarios.

All in all, the S21 FE has one of the best camera systems in and around its price point.

Should you buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G?

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G
(Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

There are multiple reasons to write off the S21 FE despite it being a very capable phone. There’s every chance it could fly right under your radar. Unnoticed, unappreciated. It could be the right phone for you, could be all that you’ll ever need, but there’s no denying that it’s coming at the wrong time. Not only did the S20 FE had the element of surprise, it dropped in the middle of no competition. The S21 FE doesn’t have that luxury and that makes it a tough sell.

Also Read | iPhone buying guide: How to pick the best iPhone per your budget today

That is not to say it’s a bad phone. It’s just that it lacks a certain wow factor. Maybe it’s the design, maybe it’s the hardware, or maybe it’s the pricing, we can’t say for sure. It’s too vanilla. With iPhones selling at an all-time low, burgeoning competition from OnePlus, Xiaomi, Vivo and more, and Samsung’s own soon-to-launch S22 series to top them all, the S21 FE could easily get lost in the crowd.

Still, if you’re in the market looking to get an all-rounder phone that’s a jack of everything, and you’ve got Rs 50,000 to spare, you should most definitely give the S21 FE a second look. Alternatively, you can also look at the S20 FE that’s selling at around Rs 40,000 at the time of writing, and still remains, a fantastic buy.

Compact designBoring design
Top-notch buildNo micro-SD card slot
Good displayNo charger in the box
Good performance and battery lifeBit pricey
Android 12
Capable cameras
Loud stereo speakers

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First published on: 11-01-2022 at 17:05 IST