Samsung Galaxy S21 FE Review: The nice flagship for everyone

    The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE scores high on the basics but how does it hold up against the bunch of Chinese flagship killers?
    By AMRITANSHU MUKHERJEE
    | Updated on Jan 19 2022, 09:43 AM IST
    The Galaxy S21 FE in India relies on the Exynos 2100 chip instead of the Snapdragon 888. 
    The Galaxy S21 FE in India relies on the Exynos 2100 chip instead of the Snapdragon 888.  (Amritanshu / HT Tech)
    The Galaxy S21 FE in India relies on the Exynos 2100 chip instead of the Snapdragon 888. 
    The Galaxy S21 FE in India relies on the Exynos 2100 chip instead of the Snapdragon 888.  (Amritanshu / HT Tech)

    The FE lineup is to Samsung what the SE lineup is to Apple, and “Lite” to most other brands. 2020’s Galaxy S20 FE was a sweet smartphone initially but after the Snapdragon variant came, it was highly sought after in the sub- 50,000 segment and is quite a classic now. Many were skeptical of Samsung being able to pull the same effect with the Galaxy S21 FE. It has got the same formula that made the S20 FE a fan favourite but with enhancements the old one lacked.

    And the recipe works. After spending a few days with the Galaxy S21 FE, I can say it makes the Galaxy S20 FE look like a relic of the past. Even though India gets the Exynos version, the need for a Snapdragon variant is minimal this time. The S21 FE is built better, has a superior display, looks nicer, and still has some amazing cameras.

    But 2022 is also seeing flagship killers from Xiaomi, OnePlus and a couple of other brands heading towards us. Knowing what the others will bring to the table, is the Galaxy S21 FE enough to fend for Samsung in this category?

    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE Design

    The Galaxy S21 FE draws from the S21 lineup and hence, proudly wears the same design ethos that got us impressed. It’s got the same neatly cut edges and cleverly shaped surfaces to make it feel high-end. The rear has got the S21 looks but the attention to detail around the camera is minimalised. There are simpler lines all around and as a result, the jaw-dropping appeal is gone. To add to that, Samsung’s choice of light pastel colours don’t do justice to this design. Even the fancy Olive green looks dull when the sunshine is absent. 

    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Amritanshu Mukherjee/HT Tech)
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Amritanshu Mukherjee/HT Tech)

    That said, the phone is built supremely. The fit and finish is top-notch, and despite the plastic rear, it feels high-end. Most importantly, it is comfortable to hold. The display bezels on the front are unbelievably slim; they end up making every other “bezel-less” phone design look dated.

    Moreover, there’s the IP68 water and dust resistance rating – something that only the iPhone 12 and iPhone 11 offer around these prices. The display is covered in Gorilla Glass Victus, which should make the phone’s glass surface pretty shatter-resistant. Plus, there’s 15W wireless charging and reverse wireless charging for accessories. Samsung, sadly, eliminates the in-box charger and there’s no case either in the package.

    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE Display

    At 6.4-inches, the Galaxy S21 FE’s display is adequately large. Within these dimensions lies Samsung’s brilliantly tuned AMOLED display with support for HDR10+ colours and a refresh rate of 120Hz. Compared to displays we have seen on the iPhone 12 and other AMOLED-display phones at this price, the Galaxy S21 FE’s display looks lively.

    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Amritanshu / HT Tech)
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Amritanshu / HT Tech)

    Whether it is the One UI 4 interface or the diversely vivid colours of Instagram timeline, they all look pretty on this display. Brightness levels are adequate and makes it easily legible under the sun. The 120Hz refresh rate makes every animation and scrolling appear smooth but the lack of a variable refresh rate tech means it isn’t as power efficient as the regular Galaxy S21’s display.

    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE Performance

    Critics have seen the Exynos 2100 chip as a rather “meh” alternative to the Snapdragon 888 on the US version. Frankly, I have witnessed more issues with the Snapdragon 888 phones over the last year and the Exynos 2100 had been more stable in comparison. The performance metrics are similar to what we saw on the Galaxy S21 last year, with the chip happier in managing daily tasks efficiently.

    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Amritanshu / HT Tech)
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Amritanshu / HT Tech)

    Samsung has then put its well-optimised One UI 4 experience. Based on Android 12, this is bar far the prettiest smartphone OS I have seen this year. The interface is neatly designed and you will be surprised to see Samsung packing extra features that most Android phones still lack. This year, the system ads are gone from Samsung apps, and most other crucial productivity apps either come from Google or Microsoft. Samsung’s own apps are reduced to the basics but you can always download them from the Galaxy Store.

    Throughout my days with it, One UI 4 on the Galaxy S21 FE was like a symphony – everything just falls into place when you tap on an app, or scroll through menus/lists. The phone feels snappier than iOS 15 on the current iPhone 13 models! The privacy indicator is a nice touch coming from Android 12 itself and is quite a relief, knowing that your phone tells you when an app opens up the mic or camera.

    When it comes to gaming, the Galaxy S21 FE holds its might well. The Exynos 2100 almost matches the Snapdragon 888’s capabilities and after a year, games such as Call of Duty: Mobile and Shadow Fight 4 Arena are well optimised to make the most out of the chip.

    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Amritanshu Mukherjee/HT Tech)
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Amritanshu Mukherjee/HT Tech)

    That said, the audio output via the stereo speakers isn’t the best we have seen in the segment. The audio quality is good but in comparison to the ROG Phone 5 and the Xiaomi Mi 11X Pro, it seems flat. Volume levels are decent but loudspeaker volume during calls could have bene higher, at least for the Indian variant. 

    Network reception has been strong so far, with the phone keeping hold of the Jio 4G network even in the basement. The chip supports 5G networks too but at this point in time, this is just a fancy feature.

    That said, I was disappointed with the haptic feedback. The vibration motor isn’t as neatly controlled as the one on the Galaxy S21 and hence, it feels unsatisfactory, especially for a Galaxy S series device.

    Samsung Galaxy S21 Cameras

    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Amritanshu / HT Tech)
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Amritanshu / HT Tech)

    The Galaxy S21 FE cameras do not have bragging megapixel count like its competition but it kicks them away with real-world performance. The main 12MP camera is brilliant in both daylight and night situations, preserving ample details and oodles of colours. Photos wear a traditional “Samsung saturated” look but every photo looks lively. I personally prefer the white balance and the sweet dynamic range (colour variety) this camera produces.

    The 12MP ultra-wide is easily among the better ultra-wide cameras I have seen in this segment, having a largely identical colour profile and performance to the main camera. There are signs of struggle at night though. The 8MP telephoto camera is good for portraits and regular zooming, with 3X optical range coming handy in shooting birds. Zoomed photos look nice but pixel-peepers can notice the upscaling the camera does.

    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

    The video shooting performance is among the best in the class. Wide dynamic range, good noise suppression and decent stability are visible properties of the Galaxy S21 FE’s video mode. You can shoot up to 4K videos at 60 fps; no 8K videos here.

    Lastly, the 32MP front camera impresses with its capabilities too, taking clear selfies with ample facial details and natural skin tones.

    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE Battery

    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Amritanshu / HT Tech)
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Amritanshu / HT Tech)

    Having a 4500mAh battery on a flagship-grade phone is good enough these days, provided the entire system is well optimised. With the first build of One UI 4 on Android 12, the Galaxy S21 FE is strictly a single day phone. On weekdays when the phone was subjected to more “phone-like” tasks (phone calls, reading emails, texting, social media and occasional camera work), I was finishing the day with 25-30 percent power remaining. Adding video calls often dropped the battery meter under 20 percent. Maybe a future update can improve the stamina and I genuinely hope Samsung does it, given that most Samsung phones don’t improve their stamina figures as they age.

    With no charger in the box, I relied on the 120W Xiaomi charger to keep the phone alive. With the battery under 20 percent, it takes over 1.5 hours for a full charge. Doing the same charging with a 15W wireless charger makes you wait over 2 hours. In a world where phones worth half the price charge entirely under 20 minutes, this seems slow by all means.

    Verdict

    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Amritanshu Mukherjee/HT Tech)
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Amritanshu Mukherjee/HT Tech)

    The Galaxy S21 FE is in many ways more like the iPhone 12 -- just a nice high-end phone for everyone. Samsung seems to have built a phone for those seeking a nice high-end experience without shelling a penny north of Rs. 60,000. Unlike the Galaxy S20 FE, where the cost cutting was more evident, the Galaxy S21 FE feels no different to use than a regular S21. It’s got a superb display, genuinely nice cameras, effortless performance, and an overall well-rounded user experience.

    It is not perfect though. For a phone that costs Rs. 55,000, the Galaxy S21 FE looks dull in comparison to the iPhone 12, a much cheaper iQOO 7 Legend, and Vivo’s X70 series – this Samsung isn’t grabbing eyeballs even without the case. The battery life has room for improvement and the charging speeds are slow by modern “flagship” standards.

    So, who should buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE? Based on our experience, we feel you will be genuinely happy with S21 FE if you care deeply for a sublime Android experience sprinkled with Samsung-ness, a lively display for your Netflix/Prime Video sessions, timely updates and security patches, and a versatile yet solid camera experience. We also recommend gamers to keep this in consideration but anything running on a Snapdragon 888, or Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 at this price will be superior.

    Rating
    4 out of 5
    Price
    INR 54,999/-
    Product Name
    Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
    Brand Name
    Samsung
    Pros
    • Great Display
    • Impressive Cameras
    • Sublime user experience
    Cons
    • Battery life
    • Dull design
    Specifications
    • Display
      6.4-inch Dynamic AMOLED 120Hz
    • Chipset
      Samsung Exynos 2100
    • OS
      One UI 4 on Android 12
    • Rear Cameras
      12MP main + 12MP ultrawide + 8MP 3X Zoom
    • Battery
      4500mAh, 25W fast charging
    • Front Camera
      32MP

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    First Published Date: 19 Jan, 08:39 AM IST
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