I never understood Samsung’s Fan Edition brand. For me, fans are first in line, first to read all related news and rumors, and most importantly, first to check out the latest products from their favorite device makers. So when Samsung announced the $700 Galaxy S21 Fan Edition nearly a full year after the original S21 was released, it felt long overdue. What we’re looking at here is less of a phone for die-hard enthusiasts and more of a remix of some of the S21’s best features for a lower price. Unfortunately, all of this doesn’t solve the S21 FE’s problem of essentially feeling out of date on day one.
Look, the S21 FE might technically be a new phone, but let’s not pretend we haven’t seen it before. It has essentially the same shape and design rows as the previous S21, just with a slightly different size. With a 6.4-inch screen, the S21 FE sits exactly between the 6.2-inch S21 and the 6.7-inch S21+. That said, at around six ounces, the S21 FE feels a little lighter than its brethren, thanks to some streamlined design changes.
- Cheaper than a standard S21
- Strong battery life
- High resolution selfie camera
- 120Hz bright screen
- slightly outdated
- Lower resolution zoom camera than the S21
- No microSD slot or headphone jack
On the back, the S21 FE still features Samsung’s Contour Cut design, but instead of having a camera with a metal cover, the back of the phone is made from a single piece of matte plastic. (Samsung calls it glastic because it’s a plastic that looks like glass.) And instead of a two-tone color scheme, the S21 FE is drab throughout, with a color choice of blue, lavender, bronze, white , red and graphite (shown above).
Elsewhere, the S21 FE has essentially the same design as its predecessors, with a selfie camera located centrally on the front, a power and volume button on the right, and a USB-C port on the bottom for data and charging. . There’s a speaker grille below that works with the phone’s headphone jack to deliver stereo audio, which sounds good, even if it’s a little too light on bass for my taste.
Samsung makes the best phone screens in the industry, and while the S21 FE’s screen isn’t as large or high-res as the S21 Ultra’s, there’s not much to complain about. You get strong brightness that tops out at 700+ nits, a 120Hz refresh rate and 2400 x 1080 screen resolution – the same as you get on the S21+.
On the front, the screen of the S21 FE is protected by Gorilla Glass Victus. It also houses a handy fingerprint sensor under the display. And while the S21 FE’s in-display optical fingerprint sensor isn’t as sophisticated as the ultrasonic sensors Samsung used in the original S21 models, in my experience it’s fast and reliable.
While Samsung (and carriers) continue to release Android 12 for older S21 devices, the S21 FE comes with One UI 4.0 (based on Android 12) pre-installed. Visually, this doesn’t have a huge impact on the S21 FE’s overall interface and layout, although the extra customization options make it easy to customize the home and lock screens. And since Samsung’s version of Android includes support for features like scrolling screenshots, the most important update in One UI 4.0 is the new Privacy Dashboard. In addition to new notifications that call attention to when apps are accessing your phone’s microphones or cameras, Privacy Dashboard offers a simple, easy-to-access way to manage things like permissions, tracking data and settings, and more. At a time when digital privacy remains a constant concern, more control over your data is definitely a good thing.
The S21 FE’s cameras are another area where Samsung’s spec shuffle really comes into play. The phone has a familiar wide, ultra-wide and telephoto camera setup on the back, but with a low-res 8-megapixel sensor compared to the 64MP sensor you get on its predecessors. You still get a 3x optical zoom, but from a camera that produces photos that aren’t as sharp or detailed as a standard S21.
The wide and ultra-wide cameras both take great photos, although the S21 FE still lags behind the Pixel 6. For example, in a photo of some toys taken outside, the Pixel 6 preserved the highlights on a toy’s face, while maintaining the toy sitting in the shadow of looking very underexposed. In contrast, the S21 FE blew up the sunlit face and eyes without providing much in the way of sharpness or extra detail. Google’s Night Sight also consistently outperformed Samsung’s night mode for low-light shots, although the S21 FE was often not far behind. That said, the S21 FE’s cameras aren’t bad.; they’re not as good as the Pixel 6. And let’s not forget that the Pixel 6 only has two rear cameras, without any sort of dedicated telephoto option like Samsung’s.
Gallery: Samsung Galaxy S21 FE camera samples | 7 photos
Gallery: Samsung Galaxy S21 FE camera samples | 7 photos
On the other hand, Samsung has upped the resolution of the front camera on the S21 FE to 32 MP (up from 10 MP on the S21), which is good if you like a lot of selfies or videos for social media. But at the same time, I don’t think this update is enough to change the overall impact of the device, leaving it more of a nice bonus and less of a noticeable improvement.
At this point, the Snapdragon 888 chip inside the S21 FE is a pretty well-known quantity. It offers fast performance and helps support features like 4K video capture on all of the phone’s cameras (at 60 frames per second on the main wide-angle and front selfie cameras, and 30 fps for the rest). However, since the base S21 FE only comes with 6GB of RAM instead of 8GB on a regular S21, I noticed that the FE felt slower at times, including when processing photos in night mode.
Granted, it’s a very small difference, and you might not even notice it unless you use both phones side-by-side. But for people who do a lot of memory-intensive tasks like gaming or video editing, the FE’s lower base RAM is probably the biggest reason to pay $70 to upgrade to the 8GB model or just opt for one. S21 or S21+ standard.
Another bonus of the S21 FE’s larger body is that it offers extra room for a larger battery. So instead of a 4,000mAh cell like you get in the S21, the S21 FE has a 4,500mAh power pack, which makes for a noticeable improvement in longevity. In our battery test, the S21 FE lasted 16 hours and 55 minutes, or just over an hour and a half longer than the S21’s 15:17 time. And in the real world, the S21 FE’s battery life often feels even more prodigious than that, as I’ve often ended the day with over 40% battery left in the tank.
It’s also worth noting that, like the standard model, the S21 FE doesn’t come with a power adapter in the box. So if you want to take advantage of your phone’s 25-watt wired charging, you’ll likely need to fork out a separate charging pad. It’s annoying, sure, but like Apple, Google and others, Samsung says that not including a power adapter in their phones should help reduce e-waste.
With the supply of standard S21 models starting to dry out, the S21 FE it’s not really competing against the originals. It is a replacement that is unfortunately overdue. It’s still a solid phone, but the standard Pixel 6 takes better photos, has a more attractive design, and if you get the unlocked model directly from Google, it’ll cost you $100 less too. The Pixel 6 is simply the best buy unless you really care about mmWave 5G (which the jailbroken Pixel 6 doesn’t support) or access to a telephoto camera.
Hell, the S21 FE is so late that Samsung is already planning to release its next big flagship in the coming weeks. So even if you’re a big fan of Samsung’s latest FE handset, at the very least, you should wait to see what the S22 has to offer before buying what is essentially a year-old phone. Also, the arrival of a new Galaxy S phone often means discounts coming soon for older devices.
Oh, and if Samsung wants to keep this whole Fan Edition thing going, what I’d really like to see is a device that better matches the brand. Instead of a repackaged one year old phone, why not make a premium remixed version with a microSD card slot and headphone jack? Not only would this be a welcome alternative to many of today’s flagships with minimal ports, but it would also be a thoughtful nod to fans of old-school Galaxy phones who may have felt betrayed when Samsung removed these features from the S20. in 2019. That’s the kind of customer appreciation I can really support.
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