Android Central Verdict
Bottom line: The Galaxy S21 FE has the makings of a fabulous value flagship: A stunning 120Hz AMOLED panel, stereo sound, and the Exynos 2100 platform are well-suited for intense gaming sessions. The battery even lasts all day, its cameras are great, and you get Android 12 out of the box. There's only one thing the S21 FE gets wrong, and that's the price.
Good 120Hz AMOLED screen
Android 12 out of the box
Excellent internal hardware
Cameras take vivid photos
IP68 and wireless charging
Comfortable to hold and use
Unreasonably costly for what you get
No microSD slot
No bundled charger
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The Galaxy S20 FE was a big hitter for Samsung in 2021. In a year where the Galaxy S21 series sells anywhere nearly as well as its predecessors, the S20 FE pulled in $10 million sales on its own. A big part of the phone's success was down to its value. It offered similar hardware as the standard Galaxy S20 at a lower price point, propelling Samsung to deliver one of the best Android phones of the year.
Samsung is now trying to emulate a similar level of success with the Galaxy S21 FE. The phone features a new design that mimics the Galaxy S21 and comes with updated internals in the Exynos 2100. Other than that, Samsung hasn't really changed much here, with the S21 FE offering the same camera modules as its predecessor, as well as the same battery and charging tech.
Still, there's one area where the S21 FE stands out: software. The phone is the first from Samsung to offer One UI 4 based on Android 12 out of the box, and that's a big deal for a few reasons. The first is that you're getting the latest version of Android right out of the box, and the second, is the phone will receive three Android version updates, up to Android 15.
There's a new design too, and the Exynos 2100 version promises to deliver much better performance over the S20 FE. So if you're interested in buying a value flagship in 2022, here's why you should pay attention to the Galaxy S21 FE.
About this review
Before writing this review, I used the Galaxy S21 FE for two weeks in Hyderabad, India. The phone came with One UI 4 based on Android 12 out of the box and got a stability update midway through the testing window.
Galaxy S21 FE Exynos: Price and availability
The Galaxy S21 FE was unveiled on Jan. 4, 2022, and went on sale in global markets starting Jan. 11. While Samsung offers the Qualcomm-powered version of the S21 FE in North America and South Korea, other international markets get the Exynos 2100-powered model. Other than this change, the device is identical to the Qualcomm variant.
The S21 FE Exynos is on sale in the U.K. for £699 ($950) for the 8GB/128GB model, with the 8GB/256GB variant coming in at £799 ($1,087). You stand to get up to £150 ($204) off when you trade in an existing device, but the retail price in the U.K. makes the S21 FE a poor choice.
The phone is reasonably priced in India, with the 8GB/128GB version debuting at ₹54,999 ($735) and already down to ₹49,999 ($670) found on Amazon India. On the other hand, the 8GB/256GB edition was introduced at ₹58,999 ($790) and is now available on Amazon for ₹53,999 ($723). So, for some context, the 8GB/256GB version of the S21 FE in India is roughly $225 less than what the 8GB/128GB model retails for in the U.K. In fact, India is now the most affordable market for buying the S21 FE, with the ₹49,999 ($670) less than the U.S. retail of $700.
Galaxy S21 FE Exynos: Design and display
The Galaxy S21 FE borrows the design aesthetic from the regular S21, making it look striking, particularly at the back. Samsung calls the rear camera design contour cut, with the housing blending seamlessly into the phone's frame. The design is very minimalist, and unlike other phones in this category, the camera housing doesn't have any extraneous branding, just three modules ensconced by large rings.
One of my main considerations when switching to a new phone is how comfortable it is to use. After using the Mi 11 Ultra and the Galaxy Z Fold 3 — two of the heaviest phones available — for most of the latter half of 2021, my goal this year is to try out lighter phones, and the S21 FE fits the bill on that front.
The device is thinner and lighter than its predecessor, coming in at just 7.9mm and 177g. The width of 74.5mm also ensures the S21 FE isn't unwieldy for one-handed use, and the lighter design is perfect for my use case. What I like the most about the design is the matte finish at the back. It's great to hold, doesn't reveal smudges, and makes the phone look upmarket. In short, it is the best phone in its category when it comes to ease of use.
The camera housing protrudes slightly from the body, but it doesn't cause a wobble when using the phone on a flat surface. Elsewhere, you'll find the power and volume buttons on the right and the SIM card tray at the bottom next to the charging port. You can slot two SIM cards into the tray, but like the regular S21 series, there's no option to add a microSD card here.
While I understand that this is the direction Samsung is taking for its flagship series, it could have retained the microSD slot and a 3.5mm jack considering the phone is aimed at fans. But that isn't to be, so if you absolutely need a microSD card slot, you'll need to pick up the S20 FE.
With a 6.4-inch screen, the S21 FE slots in between the 6.2-inch S21 and the 6.7-inch S21+. The AMOLED panel goes up to 120Hz and has touch polling of 240Hz for gaming, and the FHD+ resolution is standard fare in this category.
The panel is fantastic, with outstanding color vibrancy and viewing angles. There's stereo sound here, but you don't get identical channels at the top and bottom. Instead, you'll find some level of stereo separation, but not anywhere close to the fidelity that you get on Xiaomi's phones like the Mi 11.
There's HDR10+ and a layer of Gorilla Glass Victus, and Samsung hasn't really omitted much in features here. The 120Hz mode is enabled out of the box, and the phone feels sublime in daily use, whether it's gaming, streaming videos, or scrolling through text.
You'll find decent amounts of customizations, including schedulable dark mode, the ability to tweak color balance and warmth, and an always-on mode that's among the best in the industry.
Galaxy S21 FE Exynos: Performance and battery
This version of the S21 FE is interesting because it is powered by the Exynos 2100. While there isn't much to mention on the hardware front with the Qualcomm version, that's not the case with the Exynos model.
|Specs||Galaxy S21 FE Exynos|
|Software||One UI 4, Android 12|
|Display||6.4-inch (2400x1080) 120Hz AMOLED|
|Chipset||2.90GHz Exynos 2100|
|Rear Camera 1||12MP ƒ/1.8 (primary), OIS|
|Rear Camera 2||12MP ƒ/2.2 (wide-angle)|
|Rear Camera 3||8MP ƒ/2.4 (3x zoom), OIS|
|Front Camera||32MP ƒ/2.2|
|Connectivity||Wi-Fi 6, BT5.0|
|Battery||4500mAh | 25W|
|Security||Optical in-screen fingerprint|
|Colors||White, Lavender, Olive|
|Dimensions||155.7 x 74.5 x 7.9mm|
With the 5nm Exynos 2100, Samsung switched back to using off-the-shelf Arm cores, and the difference is immediately noticeable. The S21 FE feels just as fast as devices powered by the Snapdragon 888, and I didn't see any of the throttling issues that plagued the Exynos 990.
Samsung's decision not to use its semi-custom cores was the right call, and if you've used the S20 FE with the Exynos 990 or an older Samsung phone, you will see a tangible difference when switching to the S21 FE. There's a level of fluidity and performance that was sorely lacking in previous generations, and while the Exynos 990 wasn't slow by any measure, it struggled with consistency — particularly when gaming.
Thankfully, those problems are in the past, and the sense that I got while using the S21 FE for two weeks is that the hardware can handle anything you throw at it. Samsung says it chose the Exynos 2100 in countries like India instead of the Snapdragon 888 version because of all the positive feedback from the Galaxy S21 series.
I didn't see any issues with overheating or lag even during extended gaming sessions, and in my use, the Exynos 2100 feels just as reliable as the Snapdragon 888 for most tasks.
As for the rest of the hardware, you get 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage as standard, and there's an 8GB/256GB variant if you need additional storage. Samsung offers a decent selection of 5G bands for each market, so there should be no issues in this area. There's Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0, and NFC, and I had no problems pairing the phone to Bluetooth audio devices or my Wi-Fi 6 router.
Call quality was also good thanks to Wi-Fi calling, and for whatever reason, Samsung bundles Google's dialer in addition to its own. Other brands have switched to Google's option as standard, but Samsung hasn't followed suit. That said, you get the ability to choose.
The vibration motor does an excellent job of delivering feedback for keyboard strokes and gesture navigation. Samsung went with an optical in-screen fingerprint reader for the S21 FE, so it is faster and works better than the ultrasonic ones that you'll find in the regular S21 series. Finally, the S21 FE has IP68 dust and water resistance, so you don't have to worry about using the device near water bodies or in the tub.
Battery life is more than adequate. I consistently got a day's worth of usage and didn't run into any issues in this area. Even when I spent time outdoors and needed to rely on cellular data and navigation, there was at least a 20% charge by the end of the day.
When it comes to charging, the Galaxy S21 FE is virtually unchanged from last year. The phone has the same 4500mAh battery that charges over 25W, and you get wireless charging as well as the ability to charge other devices.
The 4500mAh cell goes up to 50% in just over 30 minutes with a 25W charger, but you'll have to buy a wall charger with the phone because there isn't one bundled in the box — just like the regular S21 series. I can understand Samsung's rationale, but the move feels shortsighted and not in line with the ethos that this is a phone meant for fans.
A full charge takes over 80 minutes, and Samsung is firmly on the backfoot for charging tech. With the likes of Xiaomi offering 120W wired charging in mainstream devices like the 11T Pro, Samsung's 25W charging standard is starting to look antiquated.
Galaxy S21 FE Exynos: Cameras
As for the cameras, Samsung hasn't changed the hardware itself: the primary shooter is a 12MP f/1.8 Samsung S5K2LD lens joined by a 12MP f/2.2 wide-angle lens and an 8MP zoom module with 3x optical zoom. The primary and zoom lenses get OIS, and at the front, there's a 32MP camera that saves photos at 8MP.
Samsung cleaned up the interface a little with the switch to One UI 4, but the layout is essentially unchanged. You can easily find all the shooting modes and toggles for the timer, flash, motion photos, and settings. Video recording is identical to the S20 FE, with the S21 FE offering the ability to shoot 4K video at 60fps.
There's also the option to shoot footage from both the front and rear cameras at once, and Samsung says it made tweaks to its Night mode to deliver better images in low-light situations. So while the S21 FE doesn't get new hardware, the inherent changes to Samsung's camera tuning algorithms lead to a noticeable difference over the S20 FE.
Shots taken in daylight conditions are fantastic. HDR ensures plenty of detail, and you get saturated colors that look great on the phone. The wide-angle lens also does a brilliant job, serving up photos of the same caliber as the primary lens.
The S21 FE excels in low-light situations, managing to deliver excellent color vibrancy and plenty of detail while minimizing noise levels. The Night mode brightens shadows and does a much better job eking out more detail in low-light situations, and it works just as well on the wide-angle lens.
Similarly, the 8MP zoom lens holds up against the standard S21, offering shots with minimal noise and lens distortion at up to a 3x zoom level. The S20 FE sold so well because it had a standout camera, and Samsung is continuing that in 2022 with the S21 FE.
Galaxy S21 FE Exynos: Software
Samsung is doing all the right things on the software side of things. The Galaxy S21 FE comes with Android 12 out of the box, and it will get three guaranteed Android version updates along with four years of security patches. Like the standard S21 series, the S21 FE will get monthly security patches.
One UI 4 integrates all the new features built into Android 12. For example, you get recording indicators whenever the camera is accessed, granular location sharing, and a privacy dashboard.
Samsung also cleaned up the interface, particularly around toast notifications and the pane. There's also a better interface for picking out widgets, and while Samsung hasn't integrated Google's Material You color picker feature, it offers a derivative that works just as well.
You still get a lot of extraneous services out of the box, including a lot of Samsung "utilities" that aren't worth the hassle. However, Samsung's collaboration with Microsoft means you also get the Office suite and LinkedIn pre-installed, and thankfully, you can uninstall all of these services.
Samsung stated it would curtail the number of ads on its phones, which seems to be the case here. However, other than a few push notifications to try out the Galaxy Store, I haven't seen much in the way of ads.
Having switched over from One UI 3.1 on the Galaxy Z Fold 3 to the S21 FE, there isn't a lot that has changed from a user-facing point of view. Samsung clearly didn't want to overhaul the interface; instead, it focused on a few areas that needed attention. The result is that One UI 4 feels polished, modern, and great to use.
Galaxy S21 FE Exynos: The competition
The Galaxy S20 FE continues to be on sale in 2022, and it is still a very decent option to consider. The phone has plenty to offer on the hardware front, the cameras are still relevant, you don't miss out on any extras, and because of the discount, the S20 FE is an outstanding value in a lot of markets right now. The phone launched with Android 10, so it will only get updated to Android 13, but if that's not an issue, the S20 FE is a standout choice that costs a lot less.
The OnePlus 9 is also a strong option in this category. The phone has robust hardware in the form of a Snapdragon 888, 120Hz AMOLED panel, stellar cameras, and all-day battery life with 65W fast charging. The OnePlus 9 costs £629 ($857), and ₹44,999 ($604) in India.
Galaxy S21 FE Exynos: Should you buy it?
You should buy this if ...
You want a value flagship in 2022
Samsung nailed the fundamentals once again, with the S21 FE offering a good 120Hz AMOLED panel backed by robust internal hardware and all-day battery life. So whether it's gaming, playing videos and movies, or just scrolling through social media, the S21 FE is effortlessly fluid in day-to-day use.
You're looking for great cameras
Although the camera hardware hasn't changed from the S20 FE, the S21 FE can take better images in every lighting scenario.
You need all the extras
The S21 FE has an IP68 rating, wireless charging, reverse wireless charging, and will get three platform updates. However, it isn't missing out on any of the extras you get on the regular S21 series.
You should not buy this if ...
You need the best value
The Galaxy S21 FE should ideally cost up to $100 less to hit the value sweet spot, but you will have to shell out a premium since it is a new launch.
You need a microSD slot or a charger in the box
Samsung has stayed too close to the regular S21 series with the S21 FE, and the result is that you don't get a charger in the box, and the device misses out on the microSD card slot.
Samsung shows that with the Galaxy S21 FE, it can deliver a value flagship that ticks all the right boxes. There isn't much missing here; you get a vibrant AMOLED screen with a 120Hz refresh rate, the Exynos 2100 platform holds its own during intensive tasks, the cameras are great, the battery lasts all day, and it runs Android 12 out of the box.
The S21 FE isn't lacking in terms of extras, with IP68 water resistance and wireless charging included as standard. And with three Android version updates and four years of security patches, the S21 FE will be relevant for several years to come. Unfortunately, there's only one thing the phone gets wrong: pricing.
4 out of 5
Retailing for the equivalent of $950, the Galaxy S21 FE is not a good choice in the U.K., which will be the case until the phone gets a substantial discount. It is much more palatable in India at ₹49,999 ($670), but that is still a little too high; it needs to be selling in the vicinity of ₹45,000 ($602) to see anywhere close to the same level of sales figures that the S20 FE managed to attain.
If history is any indication, Samsung won't wait too long before rolling out enticing offers for the S21 FE in most markets. The Galaxy S22 series is on the horizon, and the S21 FE will undoubtedly get a discount once the regular S22 is available on store shelves around the world. So if you're interested in the Galaxy S21 FE, my recommendation would be to wait a little while for it to go on sale.
Harish Jonnalagadda is a Senior Editor overseeing Asia at Android Central. He leads the site's coverage of Chinese phone brands, contributing to reviews, features, and buying guides. He also writes about storage servers, audio products, and the semiconductor industry. Contact him on Twitter at @chunkynerd.