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HomeNewsSamsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. S21: Which should you buy?

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. S21: Which should you buy?

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

Affordable flagship

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$700 at Samsung

Pros

  • Slick design
  • Big, beautiful screen
  • Snapdragon 888 still plenty powerful
  • Capable camera system with telephoto zoom
  • Android 12 with three platform updates promised

Cons

  • Inferior telephoto camera compared to the S21
  • Still relatively expensive at $700

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

The mainstream choice

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$800 at Samsung

Pros

  • More compact form factor
  • More RAM in base model
  • Higher-res telephoto camera
  • IP68 dust and water resistance
  • Better haptics

Cons

  • Higher price
  • Smaller battery
  • No guaranteed updates after Android 14

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.

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

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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.

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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.

Operating system Android 12One UI 4 Android 12One UI 4
Display 6.4-inch 120Hz AMOLED2400x1080 (20:9)HDR10+Gorilla Glass Victus 6.2-inch Full HD+ Dynamic AMOLED 120Hz refresh rate
Chipset Snapdragon 888 Snapdragon 888
RAM 6GB/8GB 8GB
Storage 128GB/256GB UFS3.1 128GB/256GB UFS3.1
MicroSD slot
Rear camera 1 12MP primary 12MP primary
Rear camera 2 12MP ultrawide 12MP ultrawide
Rear camera 3 8MP 3X telephoto 64MP 3X telephoto
Front camera 32MP 10MP
Connectivity 5G Sub-6/mmWave, SA and NSAWi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0NFC, A-GPS 5G Sub-6, SA and NSAWi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0NFC, A-GPS
Audio USB-CStereo speakers USB-CStereo speakers
Battery 4500mAhNon-removable 4000mAhNon-removable
Charging USB-C PD 3.025W fast charging15W wireless charging USB-C PD 3.025W fast charging15W wireless charging
Water resistance IP68 IP68
Security In-display fingerprint (optical) In-display fingerprint (ultrasonic)
Dimensions 155.7 x 74.5 x 7.9mm177g 151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9mm172g

Galaxy S21 FE vs. Galaxy S21: Cameras

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When it comes to the main and ultrawide cameras, there’s almost nothing in between the Galaxy S21 and S21 FE, with nearly identical hardware backed by the same chipset, image processing, and camera features. Samsung’s 12-megapixel shooter isn’t as expansive as the larger sensor offered by the Pixel 6, but still holds its own even in darker conditions. And you’ll benefit from Samsung’s highly competent suite of camera features, like 24fps 8K recording and dual front/rear video capture.

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.

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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

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Samsung offers some of the best software support of any Android manufacturer. It’s second only to Google regarding how long its phones will get Android platform updates, with three years of updates from launch for Samsung flagships. What’s more, phones like the S21 and S21 FE get four years of security patches from launch.

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

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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.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

All the power you need

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$700 at Samsung

The essential flagship

The Galaxy S21 FE is Samsung’s worthy successor to one of the past year’s most popular phones. It has the same hardware level as the regular Galaxy S21 series and comes with a gorgeous design backed by a sublime 120Hz AMOLED screen, all-day battery life, and Android 12 out of the box. Plus, you’ll save $100 compared to the S21.

Samsung Galaxy S21

Still phenomenal

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$800 at Samsung

This 2021 flagship remains one of the best

If you’re after a smaller handset, or if you value a great telephoto camera over higher-res selfies, there’s a lot to like about the Samsung Galaxy S21. Although the S22 will eventually surpass it, it’s still a great buy in early 2022.

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