The greatest trick Samsung ever pulled off was convincing people its "Lite" phones and tablets were actually "Fan Edition" devices. But the last two Samsung FE devices — the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE and Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 FE — have taken the shine off the FE label a bit.
The excellent Galaxy S20 FE, still one of our best Android phone picks despite its age, gave us unrealistic expectations for Fan Editions. But Samsung told Goldilocks in reverse with its FE tech: It started with the just-right phone before releasing the decent-but-underpowered Tab S7 FE and the solid-but-overpriced S21 FE.
So instead of spending so much time worrying about the Galaxy S21 Lite in all but name, I wish we'd spent more time noting the absence of other Limited Edition phones instead. Because Samsung and other OEMs seem to have seriously scaled back licensed phone releases compared to previous years. And it's a damn shame for those out there who want their phones to be a little more fun.
Fans love compromise, right?
Samsung fans loved the Galaxy S20 FE because it downgraded specs they could live without but kept the core flagship essentials. It truly did feel like a love letter to fans who wanted a high-quality phone but couldn't quite afford one. Plus, unlike its predecessor the Galaxy S10 Lite, it didn't sound overpriced (despite costing more) because it was relatively cheap compared to its flagship bretheren.
Almost every major phone brand has its own mid-cycle value flagship phone, with its own way of labeling them so they sound like a "cool" downgrade instead of a wimpy one. You have your Pixel 5a, OnePlus 9RT, Xiaomi 11T Pro, and so on.
When you strip away the cool label, the S21 FE is just another flagship-at-half-mast. It sits between the S21 and mid-range phones like the Galaxy A52 or A72, designed for people that think $500 is too cheap but $800-$1,000 costs too much. This feels especially true due to the phone's launch timing, sandwiched between Black Friday (when the S21 could be found for at least $100 off) and the Galaxy S22 release next month.
I'm not arguing that Samsung and co. should stop releasing value flagships. My issue is that, unfortunately, very few of them tend to hit the compromise sweet spot, and end up not being all that exciting to talk about.
People in 2022 expect a flagship to have certain core essentials that were cutting-edge just a couple of years ago, like 120Hz OLED displays, high-MP cameras, and high-RAM performance. Because the devs have less wiggle room for compromise without making their phone look like, god forbid, a mid-range phone, they skimp on the intangibles that aren't as prominent on a spec sheet: IP rating, charging speed, 5G bands, screen brightness, haptic motors, speaker quality, and so on.
So you buy a phone for slightly less than a flagship price that looks on paper like it should be great but is missing what it needs to have longevity. Either that or, in the case of the S21 FE, it barely costs less than a flagship at all. Regardless, it caters to techies who love to pour over smartphone spec sheets. That's fine, but I think other Samsung/Android fans want something else entirely.
Pandering to nerds, gearheads, and the BTS ARMY
As an Apple-to-Android convert, my only awareness of a "Special Edition" phone was the budget iPhone SE. It wasn't until I switched over that I realized how many cool limited-edition and licensed Android phones have come out over the years — only to then realize that I had basically missed the boat on them.
A few OEMs are still releasing licensed phones, like the gorgeous OnePlus Nord 2 x Pac-Man pictured above. But in many cases, they're not available in the U.S. Sometimes the base phone isn't available here because the U.S. market isn't profitable for most OEMs. In other cases, licensing the phone in the U.S. is more expensive than in other countries, as with the OnePlus 6 Avengers Edition exclusive to India and China.
Samsung has had no issues paying those fees, releasing a handful of charming Special Edition phones in the U.S. and worldwide over the years. Most recently, you had the Galaxy S20+ BTS Edition that, unsurprisingly, sold out immediately, plus the $3,299 Thom Browne Edition of the Z Fold 2. Before that, you had the Galaxy Note 10+ Star Wars Edition, the Galaxy S7 Edge Injustice Edition (a.k.a. a Batman phone), the Galaxy S6 Edge Iron Man Edition, and a variety of Olympic Edition phones.
It's not a surprise that we didn't see many Limited Edition phones in 2021 from Samsung or anyone else. Due to the chip shortage, most brands consolidated their phone lineups and focused on having enough flagship stock. The Galaxy S21 frequently sold out with carriers all year, frustrating customers and the carriers themselves.
I know logically that these phones are a gimmick. You pay more than the hardware is worth for a snazzy redesigned back with a logo, some wallpapers and ringtones, and maybe some cute easter eggs in the software. But they're fun, plain and simple! And at least they're not compromised versions where you have to examine an itemized list of everything the manufacturer cut out of it.
So it's a shame that limited edition phones seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur. And I'm waiting for a Jurassic Park-style rebirth (without all the death and mayhem).
Bring back a fan edition renaissance
I'm not privy to the behind-the-scenes info on what makes Samsung decide a particular brand or celebrity is worth a limited run of phones or how much it'll cost them. But I think the OnePlus Nord 2 x PAC-MAN Edition should serve as its guiding light.
The standard OnePlus Nord 2 is a great mid-range phone with solid performance at an affordable price. With the Bandai Namco-backed variant, you pay just £499, £30 more than the original list price. Even with the licensing fee, it didn't price the phone out of most people's range. Compare that to the $1,250 S20+ BTS Edition, which, even at just $50 more than the original was not something most people could afford easily, even before all the reselling and price gouging that followed.
Samsung may release a special edition S22 for a grand or more. But it could just as easily launch an A53 5G SE, or any mid-range phone that works respectably well and doesn't cost too much with the extra licensing fee added in. Maybe even the S21 FE! (An SFE, if you will.) It'll ensure that Android fans don't see them as unattainable, and actually reward the people who waited past launch.
As for the licensing itself, there are too many fun options to pick from. Looking over the 2022 movie calendar, a comic-book phone connected to Wakanda Forever or Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse would look great with the right pattern. If OnePlus evokes another classic arcade franchise, Tetris or Mario would be the obvious choices. With The Mandalorian season 3 coming, maybe a Baby Yoda phone could make an appearance?
And, sure, we can get another OnePlus McLaren or a Lady Gaga Galaxy phone or whatever floats your boat. I'm here for the nerd stuff.
It's likely that we may not see many Special Edition phones anytime soon, and that they may only show up in territories like Europe or India where licensing isn't as pricey. But I still want phone developers to get creative with their designs and give us something to look forward to beyond the major calendar releases.
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Michael spent years freelancing on every tech topic under the sun before settling down on the real exciting stuff: virtual reality, fitness wearables, gaming, and how tech intersects with our world. He's a semi-reformed Apple-to-Android user who loves running, D&D, and Star Wars. Find him on Twitter at @Michael_L_Hicks.