Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. iPhone 13: Which phone wins?

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. iPhone 13
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The arrival of the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE gives Android fans a lower cost way to enjoy some of the features found on the Galaxy S21. But is it enough to make Samsung's latest phone a viable alternative to the iPhone 13? Our Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. iPhone 13 face-off looks at how these two phones measure up.

The iPhone 13 is a tough device for any phone to top. It's powered by Apple's latest processor and relies on computational photography to produce some excellent photos. But the Galaxy S21 FE boasts a few things Apple's flagship can't offer — a fast-refreshing display and a dedicated telephoto lens, to name just two. 

We've limited our Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. iPhone 13 comparison to Apple's 6.1-inch model, since the iPhone 13 mini's screen is much smaller than what the FE offers and the iPhone 13 Pro models are a different class of device. Here's what we found when comparing Samsung's new phone with Apple's.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. iPhone 13: Specs

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Row 0 - Cell 0 Samsung Galaxy S21 FEiPhone 13
Starting price$699$799
Screen size6.4-inch AMOLED (2400 x 1080)6.1-inch OLED (2532 x 1170)
Refresh rate120Hz60Hz
CPUSnapdragon 888A15 Bionic
RAM6GB, 8GB4GB (based on teardowns)
Storage128GB, 256GB128GB, 256GB, 512GB
Rear cameras12MP main (f/1.8); 12MP ultrawide (f/2.2); 8MP telephoto (f/2.4) with 30x Space Zoom12MP main (f/1.6); 12MP ultrawide (f/2.4)
Front camera32MP (f/2.2)12MP (f/2.2)
Battery size4,500 mAh3,227 mAh (based on teardowns)
Battery life (Hrs:Mins)7:46 (120Hz); 9:15 (60Hz)10:33 (60Hz)
Size6.1 x 2.9 x 0.31 inches5.8 x 2.8 x 0.3 inches
Weight6.2 ounces6.14 ounces
ColorsGraphite, White, Olive, LavenderRed, Starlight, Midnight, Blue, Pink

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. iPhone 13: Price and availability

Like the iPhone 12 before it, the iPhone 13 looks to battle the rising cost of flagship phones by keeping the starting price at $799. That's not inexpensive, by any stretch of the imagination, but it's at least cheaper than the $1,000 that many phone makers charge today for their top flagships (Apple and Samsung included).

Still, the Galaxy S21 FE undercuts that price by $100. The $699 cost of Samsung's phone matches that of the iPhone 13 mini, but that latter device will only appeal to you if you prefer much smaller screens.

You'll find a number of iPhone 13 deals from both carriers and Apple itself, where you can save money by trading in your current iPhone. Samsung also offers trade-in rebates that lower the cost of its phone if you're wondering where to buy the Galaxy S21 FE.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. iPhone 13: Design

Samsung's Galaxy S21 FE enjoys two advantages over the iPhone 13 on the design front. First, there's no notch on Samsung's phone. The iPhone 13 notch may be 20% smaller than the one on its predecessor, but it just can't complete with a punch-hole cutout like the one on the S21 FE for unobtrusiveness.

Second, you get an under-display fingerprint sensor on the Galaxy S21 FE. (It helps matters further, that the sensor is easy to use and very responsive, unlocking your phone very quickly.) Fingerprint sensors remain MIA on Apple's phones save for the iPhone SE, and that's pretty frustrating if you've tried unlocking your iPhone using Face ID while wearing a face mask.

Samsung galaxy s21 fe vs iPhone 13

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

That's where the Galaxy S21 FE's design wins end, though. The plastic materials used to make the S21 FE let you know exactly where Samsung kept costs down, and even adopting the contour cut design of the standard S21 to let the rear camera array blend into the edge of the phone only goes so far at mitigating the S21 FE's lower-cost look.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. iPhone 13

iPhone 13 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The iPhone 13 works an aluminum band into its design, adding an air of elegance to the phone's look and feel. While both phones offer IP68 water resistance, the iPhone's version goes even further, protecting the device for up to 6 meters. The S21 FE's IP68 rating is good for up to 1.5 meters. A Ceramic Shield display on the iPhone 13 makes Apple's phone less prone to cracking up when you drop it.

Winner: iPhone 13

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. iPhone 13: Display

Even without taking the iPhone's notch into consideration, you get more screen real estate with the Galaxy S21 FE. It's got a 6.4-inch OLED screen compared to the 6.1-inch OLED panel used by Apple. The screens are just about as colorful — the S21 FE captures 119.8% of the sRGB color spectrum to the iPhone's 110.2% — though the iPhone has the lower Delta-E rating (0.26 vs 0.29), meaning its colors are slightly more accurate.

Samsung galaxy s21 fe vs iPhone 13

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

The iPhone 13 is a bit brighter, too — we recorded a reading of 795 nits using a light meter, while the Galaxy S21 FE came up with a 700-nit reading. Both phones are visible in bright daylight, though you may have to adjust brightness on the S21 FE more than you would on the iPhone 13.

The iPhone's display advantages come to a screeching halt, however, when you take refresh rate into account. While Apple's iPhone 13 Pro models enjoy an adaptive refresh rate, the standard iPhone does not — it's stuck at 60Hz. In contrast, the Galaxy S21 FE is capable of supporting a 120Hz refresh rate for a smoother experience when scrolling.

samsung Galaxy s21 fe vs iPhone 13

iPhone 13 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Unlike other phones in the S21 lineup, the Galaxy S21 FE's refresh rate does not dynamically adjust. Instead, you have to manually set it. The fact that the refresh rate can't scale down automatically does hurt battery life, as we'll see later on, but even a manually adjusted refresh rate is better than a static one.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. iPhone 13: Cameras

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs iPhone 13

iPhone 13 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Are two lenses better than three? When those two cameras are backed up by Apple's computational photography as they are with the iPhone 13, chances are the answer is yes. The hardware specs on the iPhone 13 cameras are modest on paper — the phone has a pair of 12MP lenses — but the main camera lets in 47% more light, which should make for better shots.

Samsung galaxy s21 fe vs. iPhone 13

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

Still, the Galaxy S21 FE is ready to take on the iPhone 13 with a triple camera array, highlighted by an 8MP telephoto lens that not only delivers a 3x zoom, but can zoom up to 30x using Samsung's Space Zoom feature. The other cameras — a 12MP main shooter and 12MP ultrawide angle lens — aren't too shabby, either.

At a local fruit stand, the Galaxy S21 FE pumps up the color for a bright, vibrant that really showcases the tomatoes and avocados on display. But all that fine-tuning comes at the expense of nearly over-saturating the photo to the point where there's a glare not evident in the iPhone 13 photo. The iPhone 13 strikes a warmer tone for the colors, which I think creates a better balanced shot.

Testing the ultrawide lens on both phones, the Galaxy S21 FE and iPhone 13 turn in equally pretty shots of a church on the opposite corner from where I'm standing. Again the iPhone 13 edges ahead here by allowing the church to stand out more sharply against the blue sky.

There's a pronounced fisheye effect to both shots, exacerbated by the telephone poles and curved crosswalk lines on the street. But that tends to happen with wide-angle shots, and neither phone is guiltier of this than the other.

Any zoom-off between the Galaxy S21 FE and iPhone 13 was going to end with a resounding Samsung win. That's the advantage of actually having a telephoto lens. Still, it's helpful to see how these two phones handled a shot of the Oakland skyline blown up to 5x, which is the maximum amount the iPhone 13 can zoom in. There's noticeable distortion in the iPhone's shot, even if the colors are more accurate. The Galaxy S21 FE, on the other hand, produces a photo clear enough to read the Tribune building's lettering.

30x space zoom photo shot by Galaxy S21 FE

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Galaxy S21 FE doesn't stop at 5x; it can also take a 30x zoom and use the Zoom Lock feature to keep your subject in focus. You'll still want to use a tripod to line up the shot more steadily — that's why the Tribune Building isn't perfectly framed in this extreme zoom — but the lettering remains clear, even if the full picture is starting to get fuzzy. 

I was surprised by how much better the Galaxy S21 FE performed in low light, though Samsung says that was a focus with this release. This skeleton hanging in an unlit basement workshop with only minimal ambient light on the right side of the photo is very well-balanced when the Galaxy S21 FE is on the case. The iPhone 13 loses the top of the skull in shadows, and the background on the left is pretty dark, too.

Neither portrait shot of my daughter is anything to write home about. Both the Galaxy S21 FE and iPhone 13 struggled to figure out if the ukulele to her side needed to be blurred or not — they both went about halfway. And either shot overly smoothes her face to eliminate any hint of her freckles. I think the iPhone 13 does a slightly better job with more realistic colors, so that'd be my pick here.

The 32MP front camera on the Galaxy S21 FE contained another surprise, and not a good one — it really toned down the colors on this selfie, to the point where I look fairly ashen. Things are much brighter in the shot produced by the 12MP TrueDepth camera on the iPhone, from the turquoise on my shirt to the ripening citrus fruit behind me.

Video features on the Galaxy S21 FE include dual capture for filming from multiple cameras at once. I think the iPhone 13's Cinematic mode — the focus of a shot can shift automatically — is a much more welcome addition.

Winner: iPhone 13

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. iPhone 13: Performance

The Snapdragon 888 powering many of the best Android phones hasn't put up much of a fight against the iPhone 13's A15 Bionic chipset, and that trend continues here. The Galaxy S21 FE uses the same Snapdragon 888 silicon found in more expensive members of the Galaxy S21 family. (That's good!) But none of those phones have measured up well against the iPhone 13 in terms of performance. (That's bad!)

And so it goes with the Galaxy S21 FE. On Geekbench 5, Samsung's phone posted single and multicore scores of 1,101 and 3,199, respectively. Those are fine numbers, but nowhere near the iPhone 13's 1,668 and 4,436 results.

Likewise on graphics, the Galaxy S21 FE performs as ably as other Snapdragon 888 devices on 3DMark's Wild Life Unlimited test, with a score of 34 frames per second. The iPhone 13 outdistances that by some measure, with a 55.9 fps score.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. iPhone 13

iPhone 13 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

You could argue that these numbers don't translate to that big a difference in real-world phone use, and it's certainly true that the Galaxy S2 FE is more than capable of handling whatever demanding task you throw at it. But the iPhone 13 should feel zippier and take on processor-intensive tasks with greater aplomb.

There's nothing really separating the phones on the 5G front. While Apple claims its phones have the greatest 5G support around the world, both the iPhone 13 and Galaxy S21 FE will work with the different flavors of 5G available in the U.S. That's good enough for most users.

Winner: iPhone 13

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. iPhone 13: Battery life and charging

The Galaxy S21 FE's losing streak continues here, as the phone's 4,500 mAh battery fails to help it last a long time on a charge. Running our battery test in which we have a phone surf the web over 5G until it runs out of power, we recorded a time of 7 hours and 46 minutes on the Galaxy S21 FE with the phone's 120Hz refresh rate turned on. That's roughly two hours behind the average result for a smartphone. Only by shifting the phone to 60Hz did we get a more respectable time of 9-plus hours.

There was no need for such tricks when we tested the iPhone 13. Thanks to a bigger battery than its predecessor — Apple doesn't officially say how big, though teardowns suggest it's a 3,227 mAh power pack — the iPhone 13 held out for 10 hours, 33 minutes.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. iPhone 13

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

The Galaxy S21 FE saves a little bit of face with its 25W wired charging speed, which is faster than the 20W the iPhone 13 charges at. Still, Samsung says its phone can reach a 50% charge after half an hour, which is what we get from the iPhone 13 using a 20W Apple charger we bought separately. (Neither the Galaxy S21 FE nor the iPhone 13 ship with an included charger.) So whatever edge the S21 FE enjoys there is minimal.

Winner: iPhone 13

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. iPhone 13: Software and special features

If you're the type to look for silver linings, take comfort in the fact that the Galaxy S21 FE's delayed launch — the phone was expected last year — means that it ships with Android 12. That means you don't have to wait for a software update to enjoy the latest version of Android. Given Samsung's software update policy of three years of Android updates, your Galaxy S21 FE should be a viable phone for some time.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. iPhone 13

iPhone 13 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

But that still falls short of Apple's level of software support, where phones can go four to five years running the latest version of Apple's iPhone software. In the case of the iPhone 13, that's iOS 15, which brings a number of nice features to the mix including the ability to watch movies and listen to music with other people in FaceTime. 

Comparing the software experience on the Galaxy S21 FE vs. the iPhone 13 likely comes down to your preference of Android vs. iOS, so Apple's extended software support is really the deciding factor here.

Winner: iPhone 13

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. iPhone 13: Verdict

Samsung made a good phone for bargain hunters with the Galaxy S21 FE, but the extra $100 that the iPhone really makes a difference. A Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. iPhone 13 contest is really no contest at all.

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Header Cell - Column 0 Samsung Galaxy S21 FEiPhone 13
Price and availability (10 points)87
Design (10 points)89
Display (15 points)1312
Camera (20 points)1720
Performance and 5G (20 points)1520
Battery life and charging (15 points)1013
Software and special features (10 points)910
Overall (100 points)8091

Besides the lower price, the Galaxy S21 FE can lay claim to having a better display, even though that advantage is limited somewhat by the fact that the faster refresh rate needs to be manually adjusted. Camera and design comparisons are close, but the iPhone 13 simply surges ahead when its superior performance and battery life are taken into account.

Android fans should still consider the Galaxy S21 FE, especially if they're on a budget and the cost of the Galaxy S22 proves higher than expected when that phone launches. But there's a reason the iPhone 13 dominates our list of the best phones and that's on display here.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.