Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Good phone, wrong time

It's a hard phone to love when the S22 is due out so soon.

I've never really understood Samsung's Fan Edition branding. To me, fans are the people who are first in line, first to read all the related news and rumors, and most importantly, the first to check out the latest products from their favorite device makers. So when Samsung announced the $700 Galaxy S21 Fan Edition almost a full year after the original S21 came out, it felt long overdue. What we're looking at here is less of a phone for die-hard enthusiasts and more of a remix featuring some of the S21's best traits for a lower price. Unfortunately, all that doesn't solve the S21 FE's problem of it feeling outdated essentially on day one.


Look, the S21 FE might technically be a new phone, but let's not pretend we haven't seen it before. It's got essentially the same shape and design queues as previous S21s, just with a slightly different size. Featuring a 6.4-inch screen, the S21 FE lands squarely between the 6.2-inch S21 and the 6.7-inch S21+. That said, at around six ounces the S21 FE feels slightly lighter than its siblings thanks to some streamlined design changes.

Review photo for Samsung's Galaxy S21 FE smartphone
Sam Rutherford/Engadget

Around back, the S21 FE still features Samsung's Contour Cut design, but instead of having a camera bump with a metal shroud, the phone's back is made from a single piece of matte plastic. (Samsung calls it glastic because it's plastic that kind of feels kind of like glass.) And instead of a two-toned color scheme, the S21 FE is monotone throughout, with a color choice of blue, lavender, bronze, white, red and graphite (shown above).

Elsewhere, the S21 FE essentially has the same design as its forebears, featuring a centrally located selfie cam in front, a power button and volume rocker on the right, and a USB-C port on bottom for data and charging. There's a speaker grille down below that works with the phone's earpiece to provide stereo audio, which sounds fine even if it's a little light on bass for my taste.


Samsung makes the best phone displays in the industry, and even though the screen on the S21 FE isn't quite as big or high-res as the S21 Ultra's, there's not much to complain about. You get strong brightness that tops out at over 700 nits, a 120Hz refresh rate, and 2,400 x 1,080 screen resolution — the same as what you get on the S21+.

Review photo for Samsung's Galaxy S21 FE smartphone
Sam Rutherford/Engadget

In front, the S21 FE’s display is protected by Gorilla Glass Victus. It also houses a handy fingerprint sensor beneath its screen. And while the S21 FE's optical in-screen fingerprint sensor isn't as sophisticated as the ultrasonic sensors Samsung used in the original S21 models, in my experience, it's fast and dependable.

Android 12

While Samsung (and carriers) continue rolling out Android 12 to older S21 devices, the S21 FE comes with One UI 4.0 (which is based on Android 12) pre-installed. Visually, this doesn't have a big impact on the S21 FE's overall UI and layout, though the extra personalization options do make it easier to customize your home and lock screens. And because Samsung's spin on Android has long included support for features like scrolling screenshots, the most important upgrade in One UI 4.0 is the new Privacy Dashboard. In addition to new notifications that call attention to when apps are accessing the phone's mics or cameras, the Privacy Dashboard provides a simple and easily accessible way of managing things like permissions, data and tracking settings and more. At a time when digital privacy remains a constant concern, more control over your data is definitely a good thing.


Review photo for Samsung's Galaxy S21 FE smartphone
Sam Rutherford/Engadget

The S21 FE's cameras are another area where Samsung's spec shuffle really comes into effect. The phone has a familiar wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto camera setup on its back, but with a lower-res 8-megapixel sensor compared to the 64MP sensor you get on its predecessors. You still get a 3x optical zoom, but from a camera that produces pictures that just aren't quite as sharp or as detailed as a standard S21.

The wide and ultra-wide cameras take great photos, though the S21 FE still lags behind the Pixel 6. For example, in a shot of some toys taken outside, the Pixel 6 preserved highlights on one toy's face, while keeping the toy sitting in the shade from looking too underexposed. In contrast, the S21 FE blew out the sunlit face and eyes without providing much in the way of extra sharpness or detail. Google’s Night Sight also consistently outperformed Samsung’s Night Mode for low-light shots, even though the S21 FE often wasn’t far behind. That said, the S21 FE's cameras aren’t bad; they’re just not as good as the Pixel 6. And let’s not forget the Pixel 6 only has two rear cameras, lacking any sort of dedicated telephoto option like you get from Samsung.

On the flip side, Samsung actually increased the resolution of S21 FE's front cam to 32-MP (up from 10MP on the S21), which is nice if you like a lot of selfies or videos for social media. But at the same time, I don't really think this one upgrade is enough to change the overall impact of the device, leaving it feeling more like a nice bonus and less like a notable improvement.


At this point, the Snapdragon 888 chip inside the S21 FE is a pretty well-known quantity. It delivers speedy performance and helps support features like 4K video capture across all of the phone's cameras (at 60 frames per second on the main wide-angle and front selfie cams and 30 fps for the rest). However, because the base S21 FE only comes with 6GB of RAM as opposed to 8GB on a normal S21, I noticed the FE felt slower at times, including when it was processing Night Mode photos.

Review photo for Samsung's Galaxy S21 FE smartphone
Sam Rutherford/Engadget

Granted, it's a pretty minor difference, and you might not even notice unless you use the two phones side by side. But for people who do a lot of memory-intensive tasks like gaming or video editing, the FE's lower base RAM is probably the biggest reason to pay $70 to upgrade to the 8GB model or just opt for a standard S21 or S21+.

Battery life

Another bonus of the S21 FE's larger body is that it provides extra room for a bigger battery. So instead of a 4,000 mAh cell like you get in the S21, the S21 FE features a 4,500 mAh power pack, which provides a noticeable improvement in longevity. On our battery test, the S21 FE lasted 16 hours and 55 minutes, or a little more than an hour and a half longer than the S21's time of 15:17. And in the real world, the S21 FE's battery life often feels even more prodigious than that, as I often finished the day with upwards of 40 percent battery still left in the tank.

Review photo for Samsung's Galaxy S21 FE smartphone
Sam Rutherford/Engadget

It's also worth noting that, like the standard model, the S21 FE doesn't come with a power adapter in the box. So if you want to take advantage of the phone's 25-watt wired charging, you'll probably have to shell out for a separate charging brick. It's annoying for sure, but like Apple, Google and others, Samsung says not including a power adapter with its phones should help cut down on e-waste.


Review photo for Samsung's Galaxy S21 FE smartphone
Sam Rutherford/Engadget

With the supply of standard S21 models starting to dry up, the S21 FE isn't really competing against the originals. It's a replacement that's sadly way past due. It's still a solid phone, but the standard Pixel 6 shoots better photos, has a more attractive design, and if you get the unlocked model directly from Google, it costs $100 less, too. The Pixel 6 is simply the better buy unless you really care about mmWave 5G (which the unlocked Pixel 6 doesn’t support) or having access to a telephoto camera.

Hell, the S21 FE is so late Samsung is already planning to release its next big flagship in the coming weeks. So even if you're a huge fan of Samsung's latest FE handset, at the very least, you should wait to see what the S22 has to offer before purchasing what is essentially a year-old phone. Plus, the arrival of a brand new Galaxy S phone often means discounts are coming soon to older devices.

Review photo for Samsung's Galaxy S21 FE smartphone
Sam Rutherford/Engadget

Oh, and if Samsung wants to keep this whole Fan Edition thing going, what I'd really like to see is a device that better lives up to the branding. Instead of a repackaged year-old phone, why not make a premium remixed version sporting a microSD card slot and headphone jack? Not only would this be a welcome alternative to a lot of today's flagships with minimal ports, but it'd also be a considerate nod to old-school Galaxy phone fans who may have felt betrayed when Samsung removed those features from the S20 in 2019. That's the kind of customer appreciation I can really get behind.

Key specs


Galaxy S21 FE


6.4-inch 2,400 x 1,080 (20:9) OLED. 411ppi, up to 120Hz


6.13 x 2.93 x 0.31 inches / 155.7 x 74.5 x 7.9 mm; 6.24 oz / 177 g

Processor, RAM and Storage

Qualcomm Snapdragon 888;6GB DDR5 RAM;128GB / 256GB UFS 3.1 storage

Rear cameras

12MP f/1.8 wide, 1.2-micron pixels, 1/1.31" sensor and f/1.85 aperture12MP ultrawide camera, 1.25-micron pixels, 114-degree FOV and f/2.2

Front camera

32MP, 1.22-micron pixels, f/2.2


4,500 mAh, 25-watt fast-charging, fast wireless charging

Sensors and connectivity

Under-display fingerprint sensor, single sim, NFC, WiFi 6, Bluetooth 5.0

Water resistance


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