Google Pixel 6a vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 FE: Which offers better value?

With smartphone prices climbing in recent years, companies have taken to releasing cheaper "flagship killer" models that bring some higher-end features to less-pricey devices. Samsung has attempted this with its Fan Edition phones, the latest being the Galaxy S21 FE. Meanwhile, Google has stuck to its A-series phones, which have gotten quite a revamp thanks to the latest Pixel 6a.

While these phones are technically in different price brackets, they're actually more alike than you'd think. Both sport the same flagship processors found in their higher-end models, sport some of the same great flagship features, and have great software support. At first glance, it seems like there might be a clear winner between these phones, but our pick might surprise you.

Google Pixel 6a vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 FE: Design

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Google Pixel 6a

(Image credit: Nicholas Sutrich / Android Central)

One thing these phones have in common is that, to different degrees, they're both watered-down versions of their flagship counterparts. That means, as far as design goes, they're similar to the more expensive devices, although with some compromises. That said, only one seems to pull this off better than the other, and that's the Pixel 6a.

This phone takes after its flagship counterparts, particularly the Pixel 6. Given the size difference, the Pixel 6a is definitely the more pocketable device, given the 6.1-inch display that seems to be the sweet spot for smaller Android phones. It's a flat display with fairly minimal and symmetrical bezels. There's an aluminum frame, and on the back, the 6a has a two-tone color scheme with a distinct camera visor near the top. It's not a glass back like you'll find on Google's recent flagships, but the polycarbonate feels smooth to the touch, and the phone still looks surprisingly premium.

The 6a is available in Sage, Chalk, and Charcoal colorways, depending on the region.

Google Pixel 6a

(Image credit: Nicholas Sutrich / Android Central)

As for the Galaxy S21 FE, Samsung took after the flagship S21 series, although it looks noticeably cheap(er). Sure, it doesn't look bad, per se, but even against the "glastic" back on the standard Galaxy 21, the plastic back on the FE just looks dull. And it doesn't help that Samsung chose washed-out colors to go with it. Those colors include Olive, Graphite, Lavender, and white.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

(Image credit: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central)

On the front is a larger 6.4-inch flat display with a center hole-punch camera, a size that may be more ideal for content consumption than the smaller 6a display. Bezels are also fairly minimal, although there's an ever-so-slightly larger chin. The plastic back has a matte finish that is smooth to the touch and is slightly raised for the camera housing.

Both phones have stereo speakers, center hole-punch front-facing cameras, USB-C ports at the bottom, and IP67 water and dust resistance.

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I can't help but give the Pixel 6a a win in the design department. Despite being much cheaper, it manages to look more premium than Samsung's entry-level "flagship killer."

Google Pixel 6a vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 FE: Hardware and specs

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE display in sunset lighting

(Image credit: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

These two phones are surprisingly similar in terms of hardware and specs. For instance, the Galaxy S21 FE sports a Snapdragon 888 chipset (or Exynos 2100), which powered most flagship Android smartphones in 2021. Meanwhile, the Pixel 6a is powered by Google's in-house Tensor chipset, the same that powers its flagship Pixel 6 series launched the same year. Both these chips run well on their respective phones, and they can easily stand their own against some of the best Android phones on the market today.

But the chipset is only part of the story. The Galaxy S21 FE has quite a few things going for it that make it the "flagship" it is, starting with the display. It features a Full HD+ OLED display with a 120hz refresh rate, giving users extra-smooth animations. That's double the 60hz refresh rate found on the Pixel 6a, and if you've used a smartphone with a high refresh rate, you'd know how hard it is to switch back to anything less.

Covering the display on both devices is Gorilla Glass. However, the S21 FE opts for the newer GG Victus as opposed to the GG3 found on the 6a.

Fingerprint sensor on the Google Pixel 6a

(Image credit: Nicholas Sutrich / Android Central)

Interestingly, the Pixel 6a was marred with issues plaguing its in-display fingerprint sensor. In addition to being unreliable, users claimed that others could unlock the device using fingers not registered in the phone, creating a concerning security issue. Google appears to have improved the sensor as part of the September 2022 update. We've noticed it seems more reliable since the update, but we will continue testing it further. As for the S21 FE, we've noticed no problems and even prefer the sensor over the one on the flagship Pixel 6.

Under the hood, there's 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, which bests the 6a and even the flagship Pixel 6. However, you'll be paying more for that configuration, with the cheapest option aligning with the 6a with 6GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. Neither support expandable memory.

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CategorySamsung Galaxy S21 FEGoogle Pixel 6a
SoftwareAndroid 12 (upgradeable to 13)Android 12 (upgradeable to 13)
ProcessorSnapdragon 888, Exynos 2100Google Tensor
Storage128GB, 256GB128GB
Display6.4-inch AMOLED | 2340 x 1080 | 120Hz refresh rate6.1-inch AMOLED | 2400 x 1080 | 60Hz refresh rate
ProtectionIP67 water/dust resistance | Gorilla Glass VictusIP67 water/dust resistance | Gorilla Glass 3
SecurityIn-display fingerprint sensorIn-display fingerprint sensor
Rear Camera 112MP Main camera, 1.8μm, ƒ/1.812MP Main camera, 1.4µm, ƒ/1.7
Rear Camera 212MP Ultrawide, 1.12μm, ƒ/2.2, 123°12MP Ultrawide, 1.25µm, ƒ/2.2
Rear Camera 38MP Telephoto, 1.0µm, ƒ/2.4, 3x zoom
Front Camera32MP, 0.08μm, ƒ/2.28MP, 1.12μm, ƒ/2.0
Charging25W wired, 15W wireless, Reverse wireless18W wired
Connectivity5G (sub-6, mmWave), Bluetooth 5, Wi-Fi 65G (sub-6, mmWave), Bluetooth 5.2, Wi-Fi 6
ColorsOlive, Graphite, Lavender, whiteCharcoal, Chalk, Sage
Dimensions155.7 x 74.5 x 7.9mm, 177g152.2 x 71.8 x 8.9mm, 178g
AudioStereo soundStereo sound

The S21 FE also has a bit of an upper hand regarding battery and charging. Samsung equips it with a 4,500mAh battery, with support for up to 25W charging and 15W wireless charging. In our testing, it managed to regularly last a full day and even go up to two days on a charge. Meanwhile, the Pixel 6a battery has a slightly smaller capacity of 4,410mAh, and charging tops out at 18W. Unfortunately, that smaller capacity became apparent in testing, with the phone falling behind older Pixels in battery endurance. And charging is particularly slow if you're not using a Google Pixel charger. There's no wireless charging here.

One place that the Pixel 6a excels in is haptics. It's an important part of the smartphone experience, especially for our Nicholas Sutrich, who absolutely loves the haptic feedback on the 6a. However, He had nothing good to say about the haptic motors on the S21 FE, saying they feel cheap and old, "delivering that harsh, imprecise vibration of the phones of yore."

Google Pixel 6a vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 FE: Cameras

Google Pixel 6a

(Image credit: Nicholas Sutrich / Android Central)

Regarding the cameras, the Galaxy S21 FE does better on paper, mainly due to its additional camera sensor. Its primary camera is a 12MP wide sensor, with a 12MP ultrawide and 8MP telephoto.

The Pixel 6a only has a 12MP primary camera coupled with a 12MP ultrawide. Yet, despite the much older primary sensor and lack of a telephoto lens, the Pixel 6a is probably the better option when it comes to image quality.

In our testing, the Pixel 6a managed to output surprisingly good photos, besting any budget Android phone you'd find at this price point. Google has always been great at computational photography, but the Tensor chip really steps things up, seemingly giving an old sensor new tricks. The 6a performs admirably during the day and doesn't seem to falter at night.

That said, the Galaxy S21 FE isn't going down without a fight. It has the same primary camera as the S21 and manages to take some great images, even besting its flagship counterpart with improved HDR and detail in telephoto shots.