Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G review: Enough of an upgrade?
Let’s see how it fares…and answer the more important question – is this the right time to buy it?
Samsung’s Fan Edition or FE series have been built on a simple premise – take flagship-grade features and package them into a device that retails at the sort of upper-mid-range prices that are decidedly lower than their current flagship lineup. Back in 2020, Samsung launched the S20 FE with all the ‘premium’ hygiene features that one would miss in its price segment, stuff like IP68 dust and water and wireless charging, but it was the follow-on S20 FE 5G that launched in India last year that really nailed the brief. The S20 FE 5G offered arguably the most complete and balanced package if you were in the market for something in the range of forty-fifty grand, and the inclusion of a top-tier Qualcomm mobile chipsets sealed the deal for many.
We’re now in 2022, a year since the launch of the S21 Series and a couple of days away from the S22 lineup…and Samsung’s given us the S21 Fan Edition. Samsung’s stuck to the tried-and-tested formula with the S21 FE, sticking to what it’s seen work earlier…well, almost. Let’s see how it fares…and answer the more important question – is this the right time to buy it?
Before we begin, here’s the lowdown on current prices for the S21 FE 5G – you can pick from two 8GB variants, one with 128GB of storage for Rs. 54,999 and the other with 256GB of storage for Rs. 58,999…plus there are cashback offers that knock off Rs. 5,000 from the official prices.
The most obvious change from its predecessor is how the S21 FE adopts the design language of the S21 series, with that distinctive ‘contour cut’ camera module making an appearance. Of course, you’re talking about a whole price category lower here, so the back panel is plastic and not glass – glasstic, as Samsung calls it - and the camera module is plastic in place of metal, which in turn doesn’t extend from the metal frame quite the same way as it did on its pricier siblings. Don’t get me wrong – it’s still a premium look, only not as much. I quite like the matte black finish on the Graphite version, but there’s always the Olive, Lavender and White trim if you want something livelier.
It's the ergonomics that tip the argument in the S21 FE’s favor - its smaller, slimmer, and lighter when compared to the S20 FE. Even on its own, its rounded edges, 177g weight and 7.9mm thickness allows it to be comfortable to grip and use on the daily. No headphone jack or microSD card slot, the latter something that we saw in last year’s model, but there’s IP68 dust and water protection and support for wireless charging, both of which are unique to the S21 FE in its price range. On flagships, it feels like a hygiene factor, but in this category, these two could be a strong reason to consider the S21 FE if having both of these features matter to you.
Now, in a world of ever-increasing display sizes, it’s unusual for the S21 FE to have gone with a smaller-by-comparison 6.4-inch display, but the sleek bezels maximize the screen real estate and allow the S21 FE to be compact and pocket-friendly. The Dynamic AMOLED 2X display is a hallmark Samsung display – 1080p resolution, plenty bright at 1200 nits, with rich contrast, good viewing angles and HDR10+ support, and a snappy 120Hz refresh rate, all of which will contribute to slick everyday use and a good gaming & multimedia experience. Oh, and there’s a reasonably loud dual speaker setup for all the times you couldn’t be bothered to reach over for your headphones. Haptics are excellent as well.
Under the hood is the same Exynos 2100 chip that powers the flagship S21 series along with 8GB of LPDDR5 memory and up to 256GB of fast UFS 3.1 storage, which wouldn’t have anyone bat an eyelid under normal circumstances – I mean, you’re getting the same chip that’s in the twice-as-pricey S21 Ultra, right? What’s happened is that Samsung’s packed in the latest Qualcomm chips in the recent foldables lineup, and even the previous-gen S20 FE 5G came with a Snapdragon 865 chip, so there were some fans which had hoped for the India variant to come with the latest Snapdragon 888 chip. Having used the phone, going with the Exynos 2100 chip may have actually worked in favor of Samsung – although the Samsung chip is surpassed by the Qualcomm chip in terms of pure performance, it does offer a good balance of performance and thermal efficiency, a fact that we’ve seen work against some Snapdragon 888 phones which simply can’t keep their cool.
In daily use, I quite enjoyed using the S21 FE, whether it was for gaming on COD or Asphalt, or taking it out to shoot photos or video – the phone doesn’t disappoint. There is the occasional throttling and slight warmth on the rear panel with sustained gaming, but nothing to complain about under most normal circumstances. It runs Android 12 with OneUI 4.0 on top, which as I’ve said often, is a testament to how well Samsung is getting the software upgrades game right. There’s even support for the DeX platform, which allows you to share content to a larger screen and use the phone like a PC.
Battery life is decent, with the phone’s 4500mAh battery lasting till the end of the day, unless you’ve had a couple of heavy gaming sessions. You can drop this onto a wireless charger for 15W charging or plug it in for 25W charging, and it takes about an hour plugged – nowhere close to the insane charging speeds other brands are going to town about. Unlike the S20 FE 5G, the S21 FE 5G doesn’t come with a charger in the box, which is a definite bummer.
Coming to the cameras, the S21 FE ships with the same set of cameras as the S20 FE - a 12MP primary with OIS, another 12MP ultra-wide and an 8MP telephoto with OIS. In good light, the S21 FE takes good photos that are best described as pleasing – colors tend to lean towards oversaturated but there’s plenty of detail and good dynamic range. The ultra-wide takes good images and lines up alongside the primary in terms of color science, while the telephoto offers you serviceable zoom levels in the 3x-5x range, and you should be happy as long as you don’t push it to the 30x space zoom. Low light shots were pretty impressive for the price segment, but it was the low-light selfies from the 32MP selfie shooter that really impressed.
Now, here’s the rub. The S21 FE is an extremely competent phone, one that checks all the boxes in terms of performance and features, and even offers stuff like wireless charging and IP68 dust/water resistance which is missing in phones at this price. Not to mention, Samsung is fast becoming my go-to for prompt software updates. But it’s landed at the wrong time, both in terms of existing competition from within the family and the new S22 lineup that’s due to land soon. Crucially, the phone it was meant to replace - the S20 FE 5G - had a few extra inclusions by way of expandable storage, a bundled charger and slightly better battery life, which still make it an excellent phone to pick up at under forty grand. You can even take a look at the standard S21, which has dropped to the same price point and offers slightly better camera performance. With the S21 FE 5G, I’m going to suggest what each crypto bro offers up as advice – wait for dip and then pick it up!
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G
Pros: Good build quality and ergonomics, lightweight design, bright display, IP68 rating and wireless charging, dependable performance and cameras, Android 12, good speakers
Cons: No bundled charger, misses the microSD card slot
Price: Rs. 54,999 (8GB/128GB, as tested), Rs. 58,999 (8GB/256GB)
Tushar Kanwar is a tech columnist and commentator, and tweets @2shar