Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Samsung Galaxy S21

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE, Samsung’s much-delayed affordable flagship, was originally slated for an August launch. However, several factors — including the ongoing semiconductor shortage — led to the phone being released five months later. This delay has resulted in a rather peculiar circumstance. The Galaxy S21 FE’s $699 price tag puts it very close to its stablemate, the Samsung Galaxy S21, which starts at $799.

With just $100 separating these two phones, does it even make sense for anyone to opt for the Galaxy S21 FE when you can buy the Galaxy S21 for a small increase in price? Are there things that the S21 FE does better than the S21 because it’s the newer phone? That’s what we intend to investigate in this head-to-head comparison.

Specs

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE Samsung Galaxy S21
Size 155.7 x 74.5 x 7.9mm (6.12 x 2.93 x 0.31 inches) 151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9mm (6 x 2.8 x 0.31 inches)
Weight 177 grams (6.24 ounces) 171 grams (6.03 ounces)
Screen size 6.4-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X capacitive touchscreen (120Hz) 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X capacitive touchscreen (120Hz)
Screen resolution 2400 x 1080 pixels (411 pixels per inch) 2400 x 1080 pixels (421 ppi)
Operating system Android 12, One UI 4.0 Android 11, One UI 3.0
Storage 128GB, 256GB 128GB, 256GB
MicroSD card slot No No
Tap-to-pay services Google Pay Samsung Pay, Google Pay
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
RAM 6GB, 8GB 8GB
Camera 12-megapixel wide, 12MP ultrawide, 8MP telephoto rear, 32MP front 12MP wide, 12MP ultrawide, 64MP telephoto rear, 10MP front with AF
Video 4K at 60 frames per second 8K at up to 30 fps, 4K at up to 60 fps, 1080p at 240 fps
Bluetooth version Bluetooth 5.0 Bluetooth 5.1
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)

4,000mAh

Fast charging (25W)

Fast wireless charging (15W)

App marketplace  Google Play Store  Google Play Store
Network Support All major carriers All major carriers
Colors Olive, lavender, white, Graphite Phantom Gray, Phantom White, Phantom Pink, Phantom Violet
Prices $699+ $799+
Review score News 3.5 out of 5 stars

Design, display, and durability

Thanks to the Galaxy S21 lineage, both phones share the same family look, and to an untrained eye, it might even be difficult to tell them apart — especially from the front. The subtle differences are on the rear panel, where the camera bump on the Galaxy S21 has a more premium finish compared to that of the S21 FE.

Both phones have a polycarbonate rear panel, though the S21 has a more premium “glasstic” build compared to the S21 FE’s plastic. The S21 FE is the slightly larger of the two as well, but it’s a small difference. That larger size does mean the Galaxy S21 FE’s 6.4-inch display is marginally bigger than the S21’s 6.2-inch panel, but the rest of the specifications are near identical. Both displays are Samsung AMOLED 2x panels with the same resolution (1080 x 2400 pixels). The similarities extend to HDR10+ support and Gorilla Glass Victus protection.

Even though both devices have an under-display fingerprint scanner, the S21 has a more premium ultrasonic scanner. In contrast, the S21 FE does with a traditional (and cheaper) optical fingerprint scanner. In real-life usage, there won’t be a huge difference between the two, but the ultrasonic scanner is likely to be better.

Both devices are evenly matched as far as durability is concerned, and the polycarbonate rear panel should aid in better survivability in case of nasty drops. Apart from sharing the same grade of scratch and shatter resistance from Corning, both the phones also happen to be IP68 rated for dust and water ingress protection.

Even though the Galaxy S21 FE nearly matches the S21 in most of its design aspects, some subtle elements give the S21 an edge. These include a more premium look and objectively better under-display fingerprint scanner tech. It’s such a slight difference that we’re calling this one a tie for now.

Winner: Tie

Performance, battery life, and charging

The front and rear view of the Samsung Galaxy S21.
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Powering the Galaxy S21 FE and the S21 is the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip, which is among the most powerful mobile SoCs currently available for Android smartphones. This translates to excellent performance across the board, and both devices can handle even the most resource-hungry applications without breaking a sweat.

For the extra $100 you pay for the base variant of the Galaxy S21, you get slightly more RAM than the S21 FE, which only gets 6GB RAM. While this should mean a slight performance advantage for the S21, this may not necessarily be noticeable in day-to-day usage.

Being the physically larger phone, the S21 FE gets a 4,500 mAh battery compared to the 4,000 mAh cell on the S21. This will almost certainly translate to better battery life for the S21 FE, given that both these phones will run near-identical software versions.

Unlike the S20 FE from 2020, the S21 FE does not ship with an in-box charger, and you’ll need to purchase one separately if you do not have a Samsung fast charger with you. This is also the case with the Galaxy S20. Both phones support the same charging speeds — 25W wired fast charging and 15W wireless fast charging. The smaller battery of the S21 should, on paper, take a shorter time to go from zero to 100%.

Thanks to the near-identical hardware in both these phones, it is difficult to pick a clear winner for this section. It’s likely the FE has a stronger battery, but until we test it, we’re not going to know for sure. We’re calling this a tie for now.

Winner: Tie

Cameras

A close-up shot of the rear camera unit of the Samsung Galaxy s21.
Samsung

Even though the rear camera setup on the Galaxy S21 FE and the S21 look somewhat similar, there are subtle differences in the hardware specs of the telephoto and ultrawide lenses on these devices. The only instance of both phones using identical camera hardware is the primary 12MP sensor, which is the same on both phones and offers dual-pixel autofocus and optical image stabilization (OIS) support.

The telephoto camera on the S21 FE uses an 8MP sensor mated to an f/2.4 lens, supporting 3x optical zoom with OIS. In contrast, the telephoto camera on the Galaxy S21 uses a higher resolution 64MP sensor — which is also physically larger than the one used on the S21 FE. However, the optical zoom figure on the S21 — at 1.1x — is lower than the S21 FE. This means if you tend to take a lot of images with zoom, the S21 FE might just be a better option. However, note that the S21 also offers the option to capture much larger and detailed 64MP images that you can crop and zoom in.

The third camera on both phones uses a 12MP sensor mated to an ultrawide lens. Again, there are slight differences here, with the S21 getting a slightly larger sensor and a less wide (120-degree) field of view compared to the 123-degree field of view lens used on the Galaxy S21. In terms of video recording, the Galaxy S21 offers 8K video recording at 24 fps, while the S21 FE tops out at 4K 60 fps.

The Galaxy S21 FE’s 32MP front-facing camera wins the resolution battle when compared to the 10MP selfie camera on the S21. However, what it gains in resolution it loses in terms of sensor size and the lack of autofocus. Technically, the S21’s larger sensor, coupled with support for autofocus, should help it capture overall better selfies than the S21 FE. However, we’ll reserve a judgment only after we review the Galaxy S21 FE in the days to come.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is almost as good as the Galaxy S21 in terms of camera hardware. In fact, in some areas like optical zoom (on the telephoto camera) and a wider ultrawide lens, some users may find it better than the S21. However, there is no getting around the fact that the Galaxy S21’s larger sensors on the telephoto, ultrawide, and selfie cameras will let it unlock better overall performance. So, this round goes to the Samsung Galaxy S21 — albeit by a slight margin. We will also re-evaluate these scores once we review the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21

Software and updates

The camera UI of the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE.
Samsung

If there is one advantage that the Galaxy S21 FE has gained on account of its delayed launch, it would be the fact that it is eligible for one more year of Android updates compared to the rest of its S21 clan. Its 2022 release with Android 12 and One UI 4.0 increases the likelihood of it receiving Android updates for the next four years — while the S21 will reach its end-of-life period three years from now since it has already been around for a year. As of now, both phones run Android 12 with One UI 4.0.

Since both these devices run the same Android and OneUI versions, there isn’t much to differentiate between the two. However, we will have to award this one to the Galaxy S21 FE because of its probable longer shelf life.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

Special features

The Samsung Galaxy S21's rear panel with its triple camera setup.
Samsung

Since both the handsets in this comparison come from the same device family, they also share almost all of the unique features that people are used to seeing on Samsung phones. These include camera-centric features like Single Take and dual video recording (using the front and rear cameras simultaneously) to specialized things like support for Samsung DeX and Samsung Pay. Needless to say, there is no clear winner for this round.

Winner: Tie

Price and availability

The pricing of these two phones is where things get interesting. At this writing, the Galaxy S21 FE is the cheaper of the two devices with the base variant (6GB and 128GB) priced at $699. The top-end 8GB and 256GB variant of the S21 FE will set you back by $769. The color options on offer include white, Graphite, olive, and lavender.

The base version (8GB and 128GB) of the Galaxy S21 costs $799, with the 8GB and 256GB variant going for $849. The S21 came in gray, white, violet, and pink color options at launch. Right now, however, only the gray variant seems to be in stock.

Now that the Galaxy S21 has been around for nearly a year, there have been instances of its prices falling to the S21 FE’s levels (during discount sales and offers), thereby making it a very attractive option. Also, with the Galaxy S22 lineup just around the corner, the Galaxy S21 is staring at an impending price cut. So, it would be a good idea to compare the prices of the S21 just before you hit the Buy button next to the Galaxy S21 FE.

Overall winner: Samsung Galaxy S21

There is no getting around the fact that the Galaxy S21 FE is the lowest positioned phone in the S21 hierarchy. Its current entry price of $699 sits too close to that of the S21. Unless the S21 FE’s prices fall between the $500 and $600 mark, it would be difficult for us to recommend it over the S21. However, if you want an S21 series phone with a large display and battery capacity — but do not wish to spend over $999 on the S21 Plus — the S21 FE does make for an excellent choice.

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