Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. S21

Samsung Galaxy S21 Fe Display Sunset
Samsung Galaxy S21 Fe Display Sunset (Image credit: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

Galaxy S21 Fe White Render Crop

Samsung's affordable flagship model for 2022 takes last year's S21 and ups the screen size and battery capacity while cutting back in areas that make sense, like base RAM and the resolution of the telephoto camera. If you can live with these few compromises, you'll get a great phone with an extended support lifespan ahead of it.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

Affordable flagship

Slick design
Big, beautiful screen
Snapdragon 888 still plenty powerful
Capable camera system with telephoto zoom
Android 12 with three platform updates promised
Inferior telephoto camera compared to the S21
Still relatively expensive at $700

Samsung Galaxy S21

Samsung Galaxy S21 Render

Even with the Galaxy S22 hot on its heels, the standard Galaxy S21 holds its own in 2022. The chassis design looks slightly more premium than the S21 FE, and you'll enjoy more RAM in the base model for improved multitasking. Plus, if you're a big photographer, the extra resolution of the S21's telephoto camera will let you capture more distant subjects.

Samsung Galaxy S21

The mainstream choice

More compact form factor
More RAM in base model
Higher-res telephoto camera
IP68 dust and water resistance
Better haptics
Higher price
Smaller battery
No guaranteed updates after Android 14

If you're shopping around for a mid-priced Samsung flagship in early 2022, you're pretty spoiled for choice. The Samsung Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 FE are two top models at the moment, each coming close to the sweet spot in terms of specs, performance, price, and software support. However, the choice between them can be tricky, not least because the S21 FE straddles the generational gap between S21 and S22 while featuring a handful of downgrades compared to the vanilla S21.

Galaxy S21 FE vs. Galaxy S21: Hardware

Samsung Galaxy S21 in-hand

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

From any angle, it's clear the Galaxy S21 and S21 FE belong to the same family of phones, with trademark Samsung design cues like the corner-mounted camera cutout and central hole-punch selfie camera shared across both models.

While the FE is a little more unapologetic in how plasticky it is — the back panel, camera hump, and all, is clearly made from a single mold of the stuff — the more expensive S21 is also furnished in polycarbonate. There's no metal or glass to be seen here, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. Samsung knows how to do plastic in a way that doesn't feel cheap or insubstantial.

Physically, the regular S21 is clearly the smaller of these two, offering a more pocketable, one-handable handset. The FE, meanwhile, sits between the S21 and S21 Plus in terms of size, with its 6.4-inch display-diagonal. This isn't a huge phone by any means, but it offers more screen real estate than the vanilla S21.

That larger form factor also allows for a bigger battery — a 4,500mAh cell representing a pretty decent upgrade from the 4,000mAh of the base S21. As such, you can expect the FE to last longer between refills — in his S21 FE review, Android Central's Nick Sutrich calls out the device's longevity, saying he had no trouble at all getting a full day's use out of it. However, with the smaller S21, you may have to ration your battery charge a little more. In our review of that device, we found its battery life to be middling at best, especially when used on 5G.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Fe Back Hold Sunset

Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

There's more to the SE than a handful of spec compromises for a $100 saving.

The $100 saving does mean there are a handful of spec compromises if you choose the Galaxy S21 FE, though. The base model of the FE only comes with 6GB of RAM — you'll need to opt for the more expensive variant with 256GB of storage if you want 8GB of RAM. That's not a huge deal right now for the Android apps of 2022. But if you're planning to keep the device for as long as the software is supported (another three years or so), you may want to pick up the pricier version.

The haptic vibration motor of the S21 FE also bears mentioning here because it's a subtle area in which the standard S21 pulls ahead. The taps and clicks that accompany actions on the FE feel mushier than the FE and other cheaper flagships like the Google Pixel 6. That's not a deal-breaking flaw, but it is a prominent area where Samsung's saving on its bill of materials with the cheaper phone.

Everything that makes the S21 a true flagship also applies to the FE.

The S21 FE also gets a technical downgrade in its fingerprint scanner, though this is probably not something you'll notice. The more expensive S21 packs Samsung's ultrasonic fingerprint tech, which can read your fingerprint without illuminating it — a bonus if you're unlocking it in darker environments. But in practice, the FE's optical sensor works just as well.

There are also a couple of camera differences that we'll get to later — specifically around the telephoto and selfie shooters.

Other than that, the essential bits of what makes a Galaxy S21 phone are present in both models — a fantastic 120Hz Full HD+ display that's smooth, responsive, and bright, with plenty of power thanks to Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 processor in its U.S. variant. (Internationally, you'll get a roughly equivalent Samsung Exynos 2100 chip in both S21 and FE.) And both phones offer those crucial nice-to-have extras like IP68 water and dust resistance, Qi wireless charging, and fast wired charging at up to 25W — provided you bring a compatible plug since there's none in the box.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
CategorySamsung Galaxy S21 FESamsung Galaxy S21
Operating systemAndroid 12One UI 4Android 12One UI 4
Display6.4-inch 120Hz AMOLED2400x1080 (20:9)HDR10+Gorilla Glass Victus6.2-inch Full HD+ Dynamic AMOLED 120Hz refresh rate
ChipsetSnapdragon 888Snapdragon 888
Storage128GB/256GB UFS3.1128GB/256GB UFS3.1
MicroSD slot
Rear camera 112MP primary12MP primary
Rear camera 212MP ultrawide12MP ultrawide
Rear camera 38MP 3X telephoto64MP 3X telephoto
Front camera32MP10MP
Connectivity5G Sub-6/mmWave, SA and NSAWi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0NFC, A-GPS5G Sub-6, SA and NSAWi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0NFC, A-GPS
AudioUSB-CStereo speakersUSB-CStereo speakers
ChargingUSB-C PD 3.025W fast charging15W wireless chargingUSB-C PD 3.025W fast charging15W wireless charging
Water resistanceIP68IP68
SecurityIn-display fingerprint (optical)In-display fingerprint (ultrasonic)
Dimensions155.7 x 74.5 x 7.9mm177g151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9mm172g

Galaxy S21 FE vs. Galaxy S21: Cameras

Samsung Galaxy S21 Fe Camera Zoom

Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

Elsewhere, you'll find subtle upgrades and downgrades. For example, the S21 FE boasts a higher-res selfie shooter, with a larger 32-megapixel sensor compared to the standard 10 megapixels of the S21. So, in theory, you could capture more detail in ideal lighting. Still, the FE's lack of autofocus in its front camera means it's less versatile when capturing in-focus subjects outside the usual focal range.

Then there's the step down from a 64-megapixel 3X telephoto camera in the S21 to 8 megapixels in the FE, though still at that same 3X zoom level. That sounds like a huge downgrade, but in reality, we've found the FE's zoom camera to be equally capable in almost all situations. So unless you're capturing shots at very high zoom levels, you likely won't notice much of a difference.

Galaxy S21 FE vs. Galaxy S21: Software

Samsung Galaxy S21 Fe Display Sunset

Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

Samsung's software support has improved immeasurably.

The crucial difference here, then, is that the S21 FE launches almost a full year after the vanilla S21, giving it platform updates until early 2025 and security patches until 2026. For the regular S21, which arrived in early 2021, you'll get a year less on both counts — platform updates until early 2024 and security until 2025.

As for the user interface itself, both phones currently run Android 12, kitted out with Samsung's One UI 4 software. The software on both is identical in terms of performance and feature set. The only possible difference is multitasking capabilities with the 6GB of RAM in the base model S21 FE.

Otherwise, One UI 4 is performant, attractive, and feature-rich, with handy floating window capabilities to juggle multiple apps at once, as well as wallpaper-based theming similar to Google's Pixel phones on Android 12.

One UI is a mature software experience and highly enjoyable whichever handset you're using it on.

Galaxy S21 FE vs. Galaxy S21: A question of priorities

Samsung Galaxy S21 Fe Back Sunset

Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

We think the Galaxy S21 FE is the better buy for most people in 2022. While so much is great about both models, we appreciate the FE's larger battery, more expansive display size, and the $100 saving compared to the vanilla S21. Outside of a relatively small number of compromises, the S21 FE offers the full Samsung flagship experience, including crucial conveniences like wireless charging, a slick 120Hz display, and triple rear cameras.

Samsung has done a great job hiding most of the hardware trade-offs required to launch the S21 FE with a larger display and battery at a lower price point.

Samsung hides its hardware trade-offs well.

The software equation also favors the Galaxy S21 FE, with an extra year of software support than the older and more expensive model.

That's not to say you should overlook the regular Galaxy S21, though. On the contrary, it remains one of the best Android phones in its class, has arguably a better-looking chassis, particularly in the phantom violet hue, and boasts more RAM for a technical advantage in multitasking.

While it's tough to go wrong with either of these phones, we think the Galaxy S21 FE will be the right pick for the majority of buyers seeking a more affordable Samsung flagship.

Alex Dobie
Executive Editor

Alex was with Android Central for over a decade, producing written and video content for the site, and served as global Executive Editor from 2016 to 2022.