Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
The Galaxy S21 FE continues Samsung's momentum in the value flagship category. The phone offers powerful hardware backed by great cameras, a modern design, and the latest version of Android out of the box. It doesn't miss out on the extras either, and while you're not getting an outstanding value right now, that will change soon.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
The OnePlus 9 launched nearly a year ago, but it is still one of the best phones you'll find in this category. Much of that is down to the hardware, with the Snapdragon 888 chipset delivering blistering performance. You also get a svelte design, 120Hz AMOLED screen, bloat-free software with three Android version updates, 65W fast charging, wireless charging, and Hasselblad-tuned cameras that take great photos.
If you're looking for a value flagship in 2022, you have an extensive set of choices available. The OnePlus 9 continues to be a solid pick thanks to its combination of hardware and clean software and Samsung's Galaxy S21 FE delivers exciting upgrades for 2022. So let's look at what these two phones have to offer and which device you should pick up.
Galaxy S21 FE vs. OnePlus 9: Design and display
Let's start with the design. The Galaxy S21 FE is modeled after the S21 series, and that means you get the contour cut design at the back, where the rear camera housing blends into the chassis. The design aesthetic borders on minimalism, and the large rings around the camera modules give the device a little bit of flair.
The matte finish doesn't call out too much attention to the S21 FE, and it makes holding and using the device that much easier. Now, the OnePlus 9 doesn't have the same matte finish, but it has a striking design that makes it more noticeable — particularly in the Winter Mist hue that I'm using. The colorful hue combined with the bold camera housing with the Hasselblad logo makes the phone stand out, and the back is curved along the sides, making the OnePlus 9 just that little bit more comfortable to use.
Of the two devices, the OnePlus 9 has a more flashy design, so if you want a phone that'll turn heads, you will need to pick up OnePlus's offering. As for the materials used, the OnePlus 9 has a glass layer at the front and back, with both panes covered by Gorilla Glass 5. The S21 FE features a polycarbonate back instead, but it isn't necessarily an issue; it is lighter and much more durable.
The bigger deal is the mid-frame itself, with Samsung going with aluminum to reinforce the chassis while OnePlus chooses polycarbonate. So although you miss out on a glass back with the S21 FE, it has a more robust chassis. As for usability, the S21 FE is a better choice in my book: it is 4.3mm shorter, 0.8mm thinner, and 15g lighter than the OnePlus 9, which amounts to a significant difference in day-to-day use.
Coming over to the front, both phones have 120Hz AMOLED screens, with the S21 FE offering a 6.4-inch panel while the OnePlus 9 sports a slightly larger 6.55-inch screen. You get HDR10+ and stereo sound on both devices and a lot of customization when tweaking the color balance to your tastes.
Considering the segment these phones are targeting, you get two of the best available panels. I didn't notice any issues with either device in this area, and they're fantastic for reading long-form content, playing games, and streaming videos. Unfortunately, there's no 3.5mm jack on either device, but the stereo sound is pretty good for what it's worth, and it makes a decent amount of difference.
And finally, the S21 FE scores a win by offering Gorilla Glass Victus for the front pane of glass. I haven't had the chance to test the effectiveness of the glass layer just yet (thankfully), but I've used several Gorilla Glass 5-backed phones that took a tumble off my table and came away unscathed, so the fact that Victus is that little bit more resilient is a bonus.
Galaxy S21 FE vs. OnePlus 9: Hardware
The big draw with devices in this category is the hardware, and you get your money's worth with the S21 FE and the OnePlus 9. Both phones feature the Snapdragon 888 and deliver standout performance in any use case. The S21 FE runs the Exynos 2100 in most global markets outside North America, but it is on par with Qualcomm's 2021 chipset in day-to-day use.
You also get 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage as standard on both devices, and if that's not enough, you can pick up the 256GB storage option. That particular variant of the OnePlus 9 has 12GB of RAM, with Samsung offering 8GB as standard on all storage configurations.
That said, the S21 FE sold in North America comes with Sub-6 and mmWave 5G as standard, but you can only get mmWave 5G on the OnePlus 9 if you pick up the carrier variant — the unlocked model is limited to Sub-6 bands. There are similar restrictions in other areas: only the T-Mobile version of the OnePlus 9 includes IP68 water resistance, and the model sold in India and China lacks wireless charging.
The S21 FE doesn't have these issues. Regardless of where you're buying the phone, you get IP68 dust and water resistance and 15W wireless charging, and 5W reverse wireless charging. Neither phone has a MicroSD card slot, but that's how the industry is going, and if you have data stored on a MicroSD card, you will need to pick up an older phone like the S20 FE.
Coming to the battery, both phones have 4500mAh batteries and last all day without any issues. The OnePlus 9 has a distinct edge for charging, thanks to 65W wired charging, with the phone hitting a full charge in just over 30 minutes. The S21 FE, meanwhile, takes over an hour to fully charge the battery. It isn't a huge deal considering you get decent battery life on both phones, but Samsung needs to do more for charging tech.
|Category||Samsung Galaxy S21 FE||OnePlus 9|
|Operating system||Android 12|
One UI 4
|Display||6.4-inch 120Hz AMOLED|
Gorilla Glass Victus
|6.55-inch 120Hz AMOLED|
Gorilla Glass 5
1 x 2.84GHz X1
3 x 2.42GHz A78
4 x 1.80GHz A55
1 x 2.84GHz X1
3 x 2.42GHz A78
4 x 1.80GHz A55
|Storage||128GB/256GB UFS3.1||128GB/256GB UFS3.1|
|Rear camera 1||12MP f/1.8|
8K at 24fps
|48MP Sony IMX689|
f/1.8, 1.12um, EIS
8K at 30fps, 4K at 60fps
Hasselblad Camera for Mobile
|Rear camera 2||12MP, f/2.2|
1.12um, 123-degree wide-angle
|50MP Sony IMX766 (wide-angle)|
f/2.2, freeform lens
4K at 60fps
|Rear camera 3||8MP, f/2.4|
1um, OIS, telephoto
3x optical zoom
|2MP monochrome camera|
|Front camera||32MP, f/2.2|
4K at 60fps, autofocus
|16MP Sony IMX471|
f/2.4, 1.0um, EIS
|Connectivity||5G Sub-6/mmWave, SA and NSA|
Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0
|5G Sub-6, SA and NSA|
Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.2
|Charging||USB-C PD 3.0|
25W fast charging
15W wireless charging
Warp Charge 65 (10V/6.5A)
Wireless charging (select markets)
|Water resistance||IP68||T-Mobile only|
|Security||In-display fingerprint (optical)||In-display fingerprint (optical)|
|Dimensions||155.7 x 74.5 x 7.9mm|
|160 x 74.2 x 8.7mm|
|Colors||White, Olive, Lavender||Winter Mist, Arctic Sky, Astral Black|
Galaxy S21 FE vs. OnePlus 9: Cameras
The key addition with the OnePlus 9 is the Hasselblad color tuning that gives its photos a distinct look. For its part, Samsung hasn't changed the camera hardware from the S20 FE, but the tuning algorithms have been overhauled, making for a noticeable difference.
The S21 FE has a 12MP primary lens, a 12MP wide-angle camera, and an 8MP module that offers 3x optical zoom. The OnePlus 9 has a 48MP primary camera, a massive 50MP lens for the wide-angle lens, and a 2MP monochrome camera included only for marketing reasons.
There are many modes to choose from on either device, and the S21 FE has the bonus of OIS for the primary and zoom lenses. There isn't much to differentiate the camera interface, with both phones offering a decent number of shooting modes and easy access to toggles for HDR, filters, and so on. With the Hasselblad integration on the OnePlus 9, you get a little extra in the unique shutter sound and the XPan Mode.
Galaxy S21 FE on the left, OnePlus 9 to the right
The S21 FE has a definite edge over the OnePlus 9 in terms of photo quality and ease of use when it comes to day-to-day use. The Hasselblad color science delivers bold colors that aren't necessarily accurate, but the camera doesn't quite manage to produce the same level of detail as the S21 FE.
In low-light shots, in particular, the S21 FE can manage highlights and eke out detail much better while minimizing noise levels. And I found that the first shot I took with the S21 FE was always usable regardless of the lighting scenario; while that wasn't the case on the OnePlus 9; I had to adjust focus a few times because it couldn't dial in on a subject, and the color balance was off a few times.
Galaxy S21 FE vs. OnePlus 9: Software
With hardware being largely the same across both devices, the software is the differentiator. And in this area, Samsung has an outright lead. The S21 FE comes with One UI 4 based on Android 12 out of the box, and with three guaranteed version updates, it will make the switch to Android 15.
Having launched nearly a year earlier, the OnePlus 9 runs Android 11. But the device will also get three updates, so it should see Android 14. However, there's a lot of uncertainty on the software side of things with the OnePlus 9. The ColorOS integration hasn't gone to plan, and at the end of January, my unit still hasn't picked up the OxygenOS 12 stable update.
Then there's the fact that OxygenOS 12 looks very different from earlier skin versions, and the uniqueness that sets OxygenOS apart is not present. You still get a lot of customizability and minimal bloatware, but it isn't as optimized for the hardware as it used to be, and that's a problem.
Samsung has done a much better job with software updates — both in consistency and stability — and I don't see that changing in 2022.
Galaxy S21 FE vs. OnePlus 9: Two outstanding phones, one clear winner
With the S21 FE, Samsung has delivered one of the best overall phones you'll find in this category. There isn't much missing from a hardware point of view, and the fact that it has all the extras makes it that much more enticing.
With both phones currently available for $700, there isn't much to differentiate them; you get fantastic hardware, reliable cameras, and three years of Android version updates as standard, but because the S21 FE is launching with Android 12, it is eligible for the Android 15 update.
Granted, you're not likely going to use the S21 FE for more than three years, but the fact that it will get long-term updates means it will be worth just that little bit more in the resale market — or when you trade it in to upgrade to another device. Samsung generally has the most lucrative trade-in schemes, making it easier to switch to its latest phones.
And as much as the OnePlus 9 gets right, it won't hold its value as well as the S21 FE, which ultimately makes Samsung's value flagship the outright winner here. Nevertheless, it is one of the best Android phones of the year, and while it is sold for a slight premium, it should become an even more attractive option once it goes on sale.
The value flagship to beat in 2022
The Galaxy S21 FE has it all: it has a minimalist design that's easy on the eyes, and the matte finish at the back means you can comfortably hold the phone. The hardware is outstanding, the cameras hold their own in this category, the 120Hz AMOLED screen is one of the best you'll find, and it comes with Android 12 out of the box and gets three platform updates. You cannot ask for much more than that.
Still a good choice
The OnePlus 9 has a lot going for it, with the phone delivering sublime hardware and a premium design. It is on par with the S21 FE when it comes to the internal hardware, and it has a distinct edge on the charging front. That said, the cameras aren't as good as the S21 FE, and the phone misses out on the software side of things with the switch to OxygenOS 12.
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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.