Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Google Pixel 6: The battle of the affordable flagships

When Samsung launched the Galaxy S20 FE back in 2020 for $699, we thought it was among the best Android smartphones you could buy in its segment. Fast forward to 2022, and the outlook seems radically different for its much-delayed successor, the Galaxy S21 FE. Unlike the case 16 months ago when there were no compelling “affordable flagships” that put up a fight against the S20 FE, customers looking to spend $500 to $800 on a smartphone today have a myriad of options to choose from.

With its $699 price tag, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE inevitably locks horns with one of these options — the Google Pixel 6. With a starting price of $599, not only is the Pixel 6 a good $100 cheaper, it actually stacks up well against the S21 FE. We were impressed in our Pixel 6 review and awarded it a 4-star rating.

So, if you have between $500 and $800 to spend on a new smartphone and are on the fence, confused between the Galaxy S21 FE and the Google Pixel 6, this article might just be the thing you need to arrive at an informed decision. Let’s dive right in and figure out which of these phones you should be spending your hard-earned money on!

Specs

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE Google Pixel 6
Size 155.7 x 74.5 x 7.9mm (6.12 x 2.93 x 0.31 inches) 158.6 x 74.8 x 8.9mm (6.29 x 2.93 x 0.41 inches)
Weight 177 grams (6.24 ounces) 207 grams (7.30 ounces)
Screen size 6.4-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X capacitive touchscreen (120Hz) 6.4-inch OLED capacitive touchscreen (90Hz)
Screen resolution 2400 x 1080 pixels (411 pixels per inch) 2400 x 1080 pixels (411 pixels per inch)
Operating system Android 12, One UI 4.0 Android 12
Storage 128GB, 256GB 128GB, 256GB
MicroSD card slot No No
Tap-to-pay services Google Pay Google Pay
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 Google Tensor, Titan M2 coprocessor
RAM 6GB, 8GB 8GB
Camera 12-megapixel wide, 12MP ultra-wide, 8MP telephoto rear, 32MP front 50-megapixel wide, 12MP ultra-wide, 8MP front
Video 4K at 60 frames per second 4K at 60 frames per second
Bluetooth version Bluetooth 5.0 Bluetooth 5.2
Ports USB-C, 3.1 USB-C, 3.1
Fingerprint sensor Yes, in-display Yes, in-display
Water resistance IP68 IP68
Battery 4,500mAh

Fast charging (25W)

Fast wireless charging (15W)

4,614mAh

Fast charging (30W)

Fast wireless charging (21W)

App marketplace Google Play Store Google Play Store
Network Support AT&T, Verizon Verizon
Colors Olive, Lavender, White, Graphite Stormy Black, Sorta Seaform, Kinda Coral
Prices $699+ $599
Review score News 4 out of 5 stars

Design, display, and durability

The Google Pixel 6’s design is a huge departure from last year’s Pixel devices — particularly when you get to the rear panel. The design changes made here have (generally) been well-liked by people across the board. The central design element here is the large, elevated camera strip that spans the entire width of the phone. Apart from providing visual relief to an otherwise uneventful rear panel, this design also happens to be somewhat functional in nature and lets you keep the Pixel 6 on flat surfaces without wobbling.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 makes no attempts at hiding its connection to the Galaxy S21 family. Again, this is evident from the rear camera module, which bears the now-famous Galaxy S21 series look. But that aside, there is nothing exciting going on here. Samsung does offer you four very good color options, but that’s just about exciting a polycarbonate rear panel could get.

The Google Pixel 6 scores easy brownie points over the Galaxy S21 FE and definitely looks more premium of the two. And this is primarily because of its glass-clad metal body. And if that wasn’t all, the Pixel 6 matches the S21 FE (well, almost!) when it comes to offering interesting color options.

If you’re fussy about phone sizes and were considering the Pixel 6 because it is a compact device, that’s actually a point in favor of the Galaxy S21 FE. Yes, surprising as it may seem, the Pixel 6 is slightly bigger, and at 207 grams, it is substantially heavier than the 179-gram Samsung. So, if compact phones are your thing, the Galaxy S21 FE is the one to go for here.

The Google Pixel 6’s 6.4-inch AMOLED panel is the same size as the Galaxy S21 FE’s. They share the same resolution numbers and have Gorilla Glass Victus’s improved scratch resistance and durability. But the Galaxy S21 surges ahead with a higher 120Hz refresh rate and 240Hz touch sampling rate, which is objectively better than the 90Hz, 144Hz sampling rate display on the Pixel 6 — especially if you play games.

Besides, the S21 FE also gets the supposedly superior AMOLED 2X panel compared to the Pixel 6’s standard OLED panel. Another screen-related similarity between the two is the presence of an under-display fingerprint scanner on both phones. However, initial reviews indicate that the S21 FE’s fingerprint unlock mechanism works flawlessly — quite unlike the one on the Pixel 6’s scanner that has been riddled with bugs since the phone’s release.

Both smartphones are evenly matched when it comes to ingress protection and durability, thanks to their IP68 rating. However, the Galaxy S21, because of its polycarbonate panel, is technically better equipped to take in an occasional fall without you needing to visit a service center for a cracked rear panel.

Even though the Galaxy S21 has several things going for it, we have to award this one to the Pixel 6, which feels better and is almost as good as the S21 FE in terms of other features, while also costing $100 less. Besides, some of the “issues” on the Pixel 6 can be sorted by a mere software update.

Winner: Google Pixel 6

Performance, battery life, and charging

Two Samsung Galaxy S21's on a table.
Samsung

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE’s powerful Snapdragon 888 chip may not be the newest kid on the SoC block anymore, but it is still a beast of a performer. In terms of raw performance and benchmark scores, it easily leaves Google’s new Tensor chip behind.

But then benchmark scores don’t matter that much in real life. Besides, the so-called difference in performance between the two will only manifest in intensive tasks like gaming and heavy multitasking. For day-to-day tasks, Google’s Tensor chip — which is also a flagship-grade SoC — should be more than enough.

Google’s Tensor chip also gets a powerful A.I. and ML-focused Tensor Processing Unit which should work well with Google’s existing and upcoming A.I.-centric initiatives ranging from computational photography and automatic speech recognition to an improved Google Assistant experience.

The Google Pixel 6 is physically larger than the Galaxy S21 FE and also boasts a slightly bigger battery. However, the difference in capacity is marginal, and the 4,500mAh cell on the Samsung should hold fairly well against the 4,614mAh battery on the Pixel 6.

Google also supports faster 30W fast charging — which on the Samsung is restricted to 25W. The Pixel 6 also gets faster (21W) wireless charging support compared to the S21 FE’s 15W. So even though the Galaxy S21 FE seems to trail the Pixel 6 in terms of its battery capacity and charging speeds, we expect real-life performance to be much closer — thereby resulting in no clear winner here.

As far as battery life is concerned, this will depend on the kind of usage you subject your phone to. However, recent improvements in OneUI and stock Android should endow both phones with good battery life. We’ll update this section with more battery-centric information once we get to review the Galaxy S21 FE.

This section would have been a tie – but the presence of the uber-powerful Snapdragon 888 chip on the Galaxy S21 forces us to award this one to the Galaxy S21 FE — especially because the phones are evenly matched in most other departments.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

Cameras

A closer look at the Google Pixel 6 camera array.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Google’s legendary photography prowess makes the Pixel 6 the clear favorite here. And this time around, Google has upped the ante with better hardware too. The Pixel 6’s 50MP primary camera sensor manages to capture images that rival its more expensive sibling — the Pixel 6 Pro. While it misses out on a dedicated telephoto lens, it does retain the 12MP ultra-wide camera, which also takes great shots.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE’s triple camera setup looks good in isolation, but given that the Pixel 6 has the specs to give even the mighty Galaxy S21 a run for its money, this one will be an uphill battle for the S21 FE. That being said, we will reserve our judgment until we get to test the S21 FE’s camera.

Do note that Samsung does feature a higher resolution (32-megapixel) selfie camera, which should — on paper — take better selfies than the Pixel 6’s 8MP unit. Then there are Samsung-specific features like Single Take and dual recording mode, which you will miss on the Pixel 6.

Despite all this, in our opinion, the Google Pixel 6 will be the obvious choice for anyone seeking the best camera phone under $700.

Winner: Google Pixel 6

Software and updates

The camera app of the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE.
Samsung

One thing that every prospective Google Pixel buyer can be assured of is excellent software support and priority updates for the foreseeable future. Then there is the stock Android experience that some people swear by. Google’s camera software also has its own set of fans.

Samsung has also upped its software game, and both the phones in this comparison run Android 12. The company also promises three years of software updates and one additional year of security updates for most of its new devices — which means the Galaxy S21 FE will easily last you the next 2-4 years and will continue receiving relevant updates for a long time. Then there are features that you will only find on Samsung’s OneUI.

Honestly, both phones seem evenly matched in this segment, and you will need to pick one from the other based on your individual preference.

Winner: Tie

Special features

The under display fingerprint scanner of the Google Pixel 6.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Even though stock Android has improved by leaps of late, it is still no match for Samsung’s OneUI when it comes to the sheer number of extra features and customization options.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is the one to go for if features like Dex Mode, Samsung Pay, and Bixby Routines matter to you. Pixel’s stock Android almost looks lackluster in comparison. Samsung also offers many other good-to-have camera-centric features that we have talked about earlier in the camera section.

Even though this is another section where personal preferences matter a lot, we’ll have to award this one to Samsung just because it offers a bouquet of extra features over and above the ones already offered by Android 12.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

Price and availability

The Google Pixel 6 comes in two storage options; a base 128GB variant that costs $599. If you wish to get the 256GB variant instead, it will set you back by $699. The three color options include Coral, Seafoam, and Black.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE goes on sale starting January 11, 2022, and will be sold in two variants: A $699 6GB and 128GB option and a pricier ($769) 8GB and 256GB variant. The color options on offer here are white, graphite, olive, and lavender.

Overall winner: Google Pixel 6

Even though it is a bit early for us to give a clear verdict on this one, we increasingly found ourselves leaning towards the Google Pixel 6 in this comparison. And why not? The Pixel 6 has arguably the best camera on any smartphone in its price range, runs the latest and greatest Android version, and has very good, future-proof hardware to boot. In addition, the Pixel 6 is an overall better looker and even feels more premium even after costing $100 less!

That is not to say the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE doesn’t have its strengths. But most of these strengths matter to the most ardent of Samsung fans. The average smartphone user who may not have used a Samsung phone before can quite easily survive 2022 without having to use the Samsung-only features they may find on the Galaxy S21 FE. That being said, we do intend to revisit this comparison once we review the Galaxy S21 FE thoroughly.

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