An $800 Galaxy S21 is impressive — except in a world with the S20 FE
Unless you were living under a rock last week, chances are you've heard all about Samsung's new Galaxy S21 series. The entire S21 lineup looks quite promising, offering the latest Snapdragon 888 processor from Qualcomm, a revamped design, new camera tech, etc.
Above all that, one of the biggest talking points for the Galaxy S21 is how the new phones actually cost less compared to the S20 family from last year. All three phones are $200 cheaper than their predecessors, with the S21 costing $800, the S21+ going for $1000, and the S21 Ultra coming out as the most expensive with an MSRP of $1200.
Those are really good prices considering what each phone brings to the table, and as you'd expect, that $800 Galaxy S21 is what will likely be the go-to Galaxy for a lot of people this year. It's effectively the same exact phone as the pricier S21+, has all of the flagship features you could ask for, and has a seriously competitive price. All of that makes the Galaxy S21 a home-run on paper, and while we have no doubt that it's a fantastic device in its own right, the overall package feels a bit underwhelming the minute you remember that last year's Galaxy S20 FE is still a thing.
We praised the S20 FE quite a bit last year, and even here in early 2021, it's still our number one pick as the best Android phone you can buy. It's one of those devices that sounds like it's too good to be true, because while it is technically a lesser version of the Galaxy S20+ from last year, the cuts Samsung made are incredibly minor. So long as you don't mind the plastic build, the S20 FE has everything we've come to expect from a flagship.
With the Galaxy S21, Samsung basically gave it the FE treatment without actually calling it that. It has virtually all of the same components and features as the $1000 S21+, but thanks to a plastic design, it's being sold for just $800. It's a formula that obviously worked incredibly well for the S20 FE, but the problem of the S21 is that compared to the FE, it's not that much better outside of the expected generational improvements.
To be fair, those generational improvements offered by the S21 shouldn't be scoffed at. The new Snapdragon 888 is Qualcomm's first-ever 5nm chipset, meaning you should be able to look forward to blistering fast performance. The camera package should also be a bit better, especially with the new 64MP telephoto sensor. Add that together with the revamped design and sub-6 + mmWave 5G connectivity, and there are real benefits of getting the newer S21 over the S20 FE.
Here's the thing, though. Those are all relatively small upgrades on top of what was already an excellent phone. The Snapdragon 865 in the S20 FE is still a stupidly-fast bit of tech, its cameras continue to take great photos, and being limited to sub-6 5G is hardly a con worth mentioning for 99% of people. Stacked side-by-side, the user experience offered by both phones is going to virtually indistinguishable in more ways than one.
There's also the fact that the Galaxy S20 FE is actually a better phone than the S21 in some regards. The Galaxy S21 doesn't have expandable storage at all, but on the S20 FE, you can pop in a microSD card and add up to 1TB of extra space. The S20 FE even benefits from a larger 4500 mAh battery compared to the 4000 mAh one present on the S21.
Comparing these two phones solely on specs is essentially splitting hairs, but where any of this matters is when you throw price into the mix. That $800 MSRP of the Galaxy S21 is fantastic, but considering you can regularly buy the S20 FE for just $600 these days, it's hard to justify shelling out another $200 for Samsung's latest. The added horsepower and newer cameras are great upgrades, no doubt, but given how good these two things already are on the S20 FE, it just doesn't make sense for most people to spend more for the S21.
Of course, this is a conversation that can (and will) shift a bit once Samsung starts discounting the retail price for the Galaxy S21. It's only a matter of time before that happens, and once we get to a point where you can buy the phone for $700 or $650, it'll have that appeal it's lacking right now.
Whether you wait for that day to come or decide to pick up the S20 FE this week, it's a win-win no matter how you look at it. Samsung's making really good phones for really competitive prices, and in the end, that's never something we'll complain about.
The Samsung phone that's too good
We're thrilled to see Samsung cutting prices for the Galaxy S21 lineup, especially with the $800 baseline model. However, unless you really need the latest Snapdragon processor and upgraded cameras, the S20 FE is still the value flagship we recommend buying. The day-to-day experience is almost every bit as good, and with it often selling for just $600, it's considerably more affordable.
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Joe Maring was a Senior Editor for Android Central between 2017 and 2021. You can reach him on Twitter at @JoeMaring1.