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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Google Pixel 6: Which phone wins?

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Google Pixel 6
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The newly arrived Samsung Galaxy S21 FE invites comparison to the rest of the Galaxy S21 lineup, as people try to figure out what features they have to give up for the S21 FE's lower price tag. But a Samsung Galaxy S2 FE vs. Google Pixel 6 comparison seems more relevant if you're looking for a bargain handset.

After all, the Pixel 6 and Galaxy S21 FE are essentially scaled back versions of premium phones that command bigger prices — the Pixel 6 Pro in the case of the Pixel 6, and the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus for Samsung's phone. If you're in the market for a moderately priced Android phone that offers some high-end capabilities, your search should take you to one of these two phones.

So which should you pick? The Galaxy S21 FE sports a fast-refresh display, a dedicated telephoto lens and the same top-performing Snapdragon silicon as the rest of the S21 lineup. The Pixel 6 has a fancy chipset of its own — Google's new Tensor system-on-chip — plus Google's well-deserved reputation for superior mobile photography.

It's a close battle, but we can guide you through our Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Google Pixel 6 face-off to help you discover which device is best suited to your needs.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Google Pixel 6: Specs

Samsung Galaxy S21 FEGoogle Pixel 6
Starting price$699$599
Screen size6.4-inch AMOLED (2400x1080)6.4-inch OLED (2400 x 1080)
Display refresh rate120Hz90Hz adaptive
CPUSnapdragon 888Google Tensor
RAM6GB, 8GB8GB
Storage128GB, 256GB128GB, 256GB
Rear cameras12MP main (f/1.8); 12MP ultrawide (f/2.2); 8MP telephoto (f/2.4) with 30x Space Zoom50MP wide (f/1.85), 12MP ultrawide (f/2.2)
Front cameras32MP (f/2.2)8MP (f/2.0)
Battery size4,500 mAh4,614 mAh
Battery life (Hrs:Mins)Not yet tested8:13
Size6.1 x 2.9 x 0.31 inches6.2 x 2.9 x 0.4 inches
Weight6.2 ounces7.4 ounces
ColorsBlack, White, Olive, LavenderStormy Black, Sorta Sage, Kinda Coral

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Google Pixel 6: Price and availability

The Galaxy S21 FE costs $699 — a $100 discount from the Galaxy S21's price. It goes on sale January 11, and you'll be able to get it from all the major U.S. carriers. You can also buy the phone from select retailers as well as directly from Samsung — our guide on where to buy the Galaxy S21 FE has more details, including current deals.

As affordable as the Galaxy S21 FE is, the Pixel 6 is actually cheaper. Google says the phone for $599, and you can also pick one up at Google Fi, T-Mobile or Xfinity Mobile for that price.

Curiously, you'll pay more for the phone if you buy it from AT&T ($739) and Verizon ($699). That's because the version of the phones those two companies sell are able to work with the mmWave-based 5G networks available from those carriers. We're tracking the best Pixel 6 deals, too.

Both phones come with 128GB of storage in their base models with option of going up to 256GB. There's no microSD slot on either model.

Winner: Google Pixel 6

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Google Pixel 6: Design

Both phones are available at lower-than-expected prices because Samsung and Google saved money on materials, opting for plastic to house the devices instead of more expensive materials. At 6.2 inches, the Pixel 6 is fractionally taller than the Galaxy S21 FE; it's noticeably thicker, too.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Google Pixel 6

Google Pixel 6 (left) and Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (right) (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Galaxy S21 FE looks like the rest of the rest of the S21 lineup, right down to the contour cut design that has the rear camera array blend seamlessly into the phone's frame. If you opt for the black model — your other choices for the Galaxy S21 are white, olive and lavender — the camera array blends right into the phone's back, so that it doesn't appear to jut out as far.

Samsung galaxy s21 fe screen showing video

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Pixel 6 wins points for a more distinctive look. Instead of housing its rear cameras in a rectangle or square in the upper left corner like nearly every other smartphone on earth, the Pixel 6 stretches them across the length of its back in a horizontal bar. This adds to the thickness of the Pixel 6, but it also means the phone doesn't wobble when you set it on its back. And the tri-color design really stands out, particularly on the Kinda Coral model.

Pixel 6 fingerprint sensor

Google Pixel 6 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Both phones use an under-display fingerprint sensor to help you unlock the floor. The Pixel 6's sensor is fussier and slow to unlock even when it correctly reads your fingerprint. I found the Galaxy S21 FE's sensor simply works as you'd expect it to.

Winner: Google Pixel 6

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Google Pixel 6: Display

No matter which phone you pick, you'll get a 6.4-inch OLED screen. The Pixel 6's is brighter, at 843 nits to the Galaxy S21 FE's 700 nit reading on a light meter. 

Samsung galaxy s21 fe display

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Both devices handle colors equally as well. Watching the trailer for Uncharted side by side on a Galaxy S21 FE and Pixel 6, you'd be hard-pressed to spot the differences as Tom Holland takes a cherry red sports car to the gut and falls out of a cargo plane. Our testing backs up the notion that these are pretty similar-looking screens — the Galaxy S21 FE showed off 119.8% of the sRGB color spectrum to 100.9% on the Pixel 6. The phones' respective Delta-E ratings — 0.29 for the S21 FE and 0.28 for the Pixel 6 — indicates that colors are displayed just as accurately on either device.

Pixel 6 full-screen video

Google Pixel 6 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

If there's an edge to be found here, it's in the screens refresh rates, though not in the way you might imagine. The Galaxy S21 FE supports a 120Hz refresh rate for smoother scrolling, while the Pixel 6 maxes out at 90Hz. However, the Pixel 6 automatically adjusts its refresh rate depending on what's happening on the display; you have to manually change the Galaxy S21's motion smoothness.

Winner: Google Pixel 6 

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Google Pixel 6: Cameras

When it comes to cameras, the Pixel 6 is tough to beat, as it earned a place on our list of the best camera phones. Google replaced the 12MP main lens that had been on previous Pixels with a 50MP sensor; the Pixel 6 also features a 12MP ultrawide angle lens. And of course, all that's supported by Google's computational photography for optimizing the photos you've captured.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Google Pixel 6

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (top) and Google Pixel 6 (bottom) (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Galaxy S21 FE combats that with 12MP wide and ultrawide cameras of its own, but brings another shooter to the mix. There's also a dedicated 8MP telephoto lens that supports a 3x optical zoom. Thanks to Samsung's Space Zoom feature, you can zoom in 30x (though if you do, you should really use a tripod to get a stable shot.)

You'd be pleased with either shot from this vegetable stand, though the Galaxy S21 FE does pump up the colors to the point of nearly over-saturating the image. I prefer the warmer tones of the Pixel 6's photo, where the colors are still vibrant but you don't get the glare off the packaging seen in the Samsung photo. It's a better balanced shot.

Outdoors, there's no real difference between how the Galaxy S21 FE and Pixel 6 handled a photograph of a church from across the street. The S21 FE does a better job of keeping background buildings in focus (see that white building on the church's right) while you can make out more of the brickwork in the Pixel 6 photo. I also prefer the deeper shade of blue to how the Pixel 6 renders the sky. But, really, the Galaxy S21 FE more than holds its own here.

Ultrawide cameras can add a fisheye effect to their shots, and that's especially evident in the Galaxy S21 FEW's ultrawide photo of that same church. (Note how the lines in the crosswalk seem to bend.)The colors are a little brighter for the Galaxy S21, particularly the yellows. And because of its 123-degree field of view, the Galaxy S21 Ultra captures more of the background that the Pixel.

Because the Pixel 6 doesn't have a zoom, I can't really compare its photos to Samsung's zoomed in shots. There are limits to whaat a digital zoom can do, even when it's bolstered by a feature like GoogleS Super Res Zoom, which taps into software to sharpen up zoom shots. The Pixel 6 actually takes a decent shot of the Oakland skyline at 7x (its maximum zoom). But the Galaxy S21 FE keep details more focused and less fuzzy. The Tribune building is especially clear.

I also think the Galaxy S21 FE takes better low-light images — music to Samsung's ears since it focused on improving the night mode on the FE. The skeleton hanging in this basement workshop is brighter, even though there's only a smidgen of ambient light streaming in from the right side of the shot. The Pixel 6's image is clear enough, but the skeleton is still bathed in shadow and doesn't pop out of the background the way it does in the Samsung photo.

I took a selfie in portrait mode to test out that feature as well as the front camera on both phones. The background blur is more thorough in the Pixel 6 photo, and I like the warm tones that the 8MP selfie cam applied to my face. There's no real problem with the image the Galaxy S21 FE's 32MP camera produced, though there's a little bit of shine on the left side of my face. I just think the Pixel shot reproduces colors in more engaging way.

While the Galaxy S21 FE is better for zooming in — having a dedicated telephoto lens helps with that — and takes the superior night shot, I think the Pixel 6 cameras produce the better overall photos. What also gives Google an edge are the features that let you do things with photos after you've taken them. I'm thinking specifically of the Magic Eraser tool, which can remove unwanted people or objects from photos with a simple tap.

Winner: Google Pixel 6

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Google Pixel 6: Performance

Performance comes down to a battle of the Snapdragon 888 that powers the Galaxy S21 FE against Google's Tensor processor, which was introduced for the Pixel 6 lineup. It's an interesting match-up, especially since the Galaxy S21 FE and Pixel 6 are both moderately priced phones that run on the silicon found in more expensive models.

The battle mirrors our Tensor benchmarks that we published when the Pixel 6 first came out. The Galaxy S21 FE has the better Geekbench scores — 1,101 single core and 3,199 multicore to the Pixel 6's respective results of 1,029 and 2,696. When we switch to graphics testing, the Pixel 6 fares better. Its 34.3 frames per second result on 3DMark's Wild Life Unlimited test was in line with the 34 fps score that the Galaxy S21 FE posted.

Galaxy S21 FE playing pubg mobile

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

We haven't had a chance to run Adobe Premiere Rush on the Galaxy S21 FE yet to see how quickly Samsung's new phone can transcode a 4k video into 1080p. The Pixel 6 excels on that test, completing the task in 48 seconds, beating out the standard Galaxy S21 by 14 seconds. We'd be surprised if the Galaxy S21 FE improves on that result, especially considering that it comes with less RAM than the regular S21.

Both the Galaxy S21 FE and Pixel 6 work with 5G networks, though Samsung's phone has a bit of an edge here. If you want a version of Google's phone that can work with the high-speed networks of AT&T and Verizon, you've got to buy your Pixel 6 specifically from those carriers, which charge more than the device costs elsewhere. You don't have to jump through that hoop with the Galaxy S21 FE. The Pixel 6's modem is also a generation older than what Samsung uses in the Galaxy S21 lineup, so 5G speeds aren't as faster on Google's device.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Google Pixel 6: Battery life and charging

Our battery tests for the Galaxy S21 FE are ongoing, though at this point, we think it's pretty clear that Samsung's latest phone is unlikely to land on our best phone battery life list. The 4,500 mAh has enough power to get you through a day of normal use, but we have noticed a battery drain when putting the phone through its testing paces. That especially true if you have the 120Hz refresh rate enabled; locking motion smoothness at 60Hz definitely allows the Galaxy S21 FE to last longer.

Galaxy S21 FE recharging

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Then again, the Pixel 6 is not exactly a model of long battery life. In our test, in which we have phones surf the web continuously until they run out of power, the Pixel 6 lasted for 8 hours and 13 minutes with its screen refresh rate set to 90Hz. That's more than 90 minutes worse than the average smartphone. The Pixel 6's older 5G modem shoulders some of the blame — running the same test over LTE instead of 5G produced a much better time.

Neither phone ships with a charger. The Pixel 6's wired charging speed is capped at 21W, even though Google sells a 30W charger as an accessory for the phone. As a result, charging speeds are nothing to write home about, with the drained Pixel 6 getting back to a 29% charge after 30 minutes.

The Galaxy S21 FE can charge at 25W with a wired connection. It got back to a 46% charge in that same half hour where the Pixel 6 struggled to reach 30%. For that reason, we'll give the tentative nod to Samsung's phone in this category, pending the S21 FE's results in our battery test.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Google Pixel 6: Software and special features

Google's phones normally have an edge on the software front, as they ship with the latest version of Android while other Android devices have to wait their turn for an update. The Galaxy S21 FE's delayed launch — rumors suggest it was supposed to arrive in 2021 — eliminates that advantage, though, as Samsung's phone ships with Android 12. Samsung's update policy — three years of software updates — is pretty generous as well.

Google Pixel 6 home screen

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Yet, the Pixel 6 still gets the nod for software because of all the AI-powered features enabled by the phone's Tensor chipset. The Pixel 6 can warn you of wait-times for 800-numbers before you call, help you navigate automated menus once you make the call and even handle some voice-powered commands without the customary "Hey Google" to summon the phone's digital assistant. Galaxy S21 FE owners won't have those experiences.

Winner: Google Pixel 6

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Google Pixel 6: Verdict

The Pixel 6 just barely beats out the Galaxy S21 FE in a number of categories. But as slight as its edge might be in areas like display, design and price, it wins enough categories to finish on top comfortably in our Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Google Pixel 6 face-off.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FEGoogle Pixel 6
Price and availability (10 points)78
Design (10 points)78
Display (15 points)1213
Camera (20 points)1618
Performance and 5G (20 points)1817
Battery life and charging (15 points)129
Software and special features (10 points)810
Overall (100 points)8083

Samsung's phone certainly has its selling points. Its cameras nearly match those on the Pixel 6 stride for stride, and it's the phone to get if you really want a telephoto lens. With the Galaxy S21 FE, you get impressive performance, a fast-refreshing display and the latest version of Android. Had it been closer to the Pixel 6 in price, it would have been a much more compelling value.

But the Pixel 6 delivers Google's camera know-how in a very inexpensive package that includes a bright display and a distinctive look. It also benefits from the software smarts enabled by Google's Tensor chipset, and that's what really pushed the Pixel 6 over the top as the phone for bargain hunters who don't want to pay up for a flagship device.

Philip Michaels is a senior editor at Tom's Guide. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics and old movies. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.