Galaxy S21 FE hands-on: Last year’s flagship without the frills

But maybe you should wait for the S22?

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

At CES 2022 today, Samsung has finally unveiled the Galaxy S21 FE (or “Fan Edition”) phone. This is basically a tweaked version of last year’s S21 that the company is selling for $700 starting January 11th. That’s $100 less than the regular S21, and for the price this year’s model offers the same 5nm processors, same 120Hz refresh rate (in a slightly bigger screen) and a similar triple camera system. The S21 FE has a larger battery, though, and comes with Android 12. We’ll have a full review coming soon, but based on our brief hands-on with a test unit, the S21 FE appears to be a well-rounded device.

At first glance, the S21 FE isn’t as eye-catching as last year’s flagship. While it features a similar bump on the top left corner for its camera module, its housing doesn’t have a shiny finish like the original S21. I prefer the previous style — this one’s kind of bland. But the S21 FE feels sturdy and its matte finish helps it resist fingerprints, too

The S21 FE is also available in a different set of colors than the original: This time, you get to choose from lavender, olive, silver or black (which is the color of my sample unit).

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE in black held in mid-air with its right side facing the camera.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

At 177 grams (or 6.2 ounces), the S21 FE is slightly heavier than the S21, which is reasonable given the newer model’s bigger 6.4-inch screen. The display still runs at Full HD+, and looks bright and sharp. But don’t expect S Pen support here like you’d get on the S21+ and Ultra. Like the S21, the Fan Edition doesn’t support Samsung’s stylus.

Aside from size, the biggest difference between the S21 FE and the original model lie in their rear cameras. While both versions have a similar 12-megapixel main camera with a f/1.8 aperture, the FE’s ultra-wide lens has a slightly wider field of view of 123 degrees. Also, the FE’s telephoto camera uses an 8-megapixel sensor while the S21’s is 64 megapixels, though they both offer 30x Space Zoom.

During my hands-on period with the S21 FE, I haven’t really put its cameras through rigorous testing and so far I haven’t noticed any major issues with picture quality. Images came out colorful and clear. Oddly, the FE’s front camera is 32 megapixels sharp while the original’s is just 10 megapixels. The selfies I’ve shot with it so far were indeed tack sharp and individual strands of my damaged hair were painfully clear.

A close up of the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE's triple camera system on its back..
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

These tweaks are similar to how the S20 FE varied from the S20. Samsung said it sold 10 million units of the S20 FE in just over a year since the phone’s launch in Q4 2020, making that model one of the best-selling Galaxy smartphones over the past year.

Since this is just a brief hands-on and not our full review, I can't yet tell how the S21 FE will stack up to other phones in this price range. But already it faces stiff competition from the Pixel 6, which offers excellent cameras and software at the same cost, although it has a polarizing design.

Though the combination of features for the relatively lower price might make the S21 FE an appealing phone to many Samsung fans, the company picked an awkward time to release this device. With next-gen flagships presumably on the horizon, Galaxy shoppers might be inclined to wait and see what the company might bring at that launch. Even if you’re dying to buy a new Galaxy S series handset already though, at least wait till we can test the S21 FE out more comprehensively before spending your money.

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