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4 reasons to buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE — and 3 reasons to skip

Samsung galaxy s21 fe review
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

With the Galaxy S21 FE, Samsung hopes to recapture the magic of the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE launch from 2020. That phone offered many of the same features found in Samsung's flagship phone, but for hundreds of dollars less. It's no wonder the phone proved so popular — Samsung says it sold 10 million Galaxy S20 FE models in a little more than a year after its release, making it one the best-selling Galaxy phones ever.

The Galaxy S21 FE looks to repeat that by using the same formula. A lot of the features found in the standard Galaxy S21 are on display here, and the price is lower, too. With Galaxy S21 FE deals currently available, it would be very tempting to snap up the phone right now.

But hold up before you mash that buy button. There's also good reason to hold off on that Galaxy S21 FE purchase — at least for a little while — if not skip it entirely.

Here are the arguments for and against the Galaxy S21 FE, if you're considering whether to buy or skip Samsung's new smartphone. And be sure to check out our Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs Galaxy S20 FE comparison to break down the differences. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE: Reasons to buy

You don't have to sacrifice much to save

We've only got two previous FE models to go by, but clearly Samsung tries to keep these phones as close to their flagship counterparts as possible. In the case of the Galaxy S21 FE, in fact, you can count the major differences from the rest of the Galaxy S21 lineup on one hand.

Samsung galaxy s21 fe held in hand

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Galaxy S21 FE doesn't have as much RAM as the other phones in the S21 lineup, and while that will have some implications on performance, it won't be enough for you to notice a real world difference. 

The telephoto lens on the Galaxy S21 FE isn't as sharp — it's 8MP to the 64MP telephoto camera on the Galaxy S21, But then there are some phones in the Galaxy S21 FE's price range that don't have a telephoto lens at all. (And with that, we look pointedly at Apple's iPhone 13.)

Probably the biggest thing you give up by opting for the Galaxy S21 FE over one of the Samsung's pricier flagships is the lack of an adaptive refresh rate. While the S21 FE's screen can support a 120Hz refresh rate, it's a feature you have to toggle on and off, rather than one that adjusts dynamically.

As you'll see in our Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Galaxy S21 comparison, some differences work in the FE's favor. You'll get a larger screen and bigger battery with the Galaxy S21 FE over the regular S21.

The Galaxy S21 FE's Snapdragon 888 system-on-chip

Even with just 6GB of RAM in the this new phone, you won't spy much of a performance gap between the Galaxy S21 FE and last year's flagships from Samsung. That's because Samsung is using the same Snapdragon 888 system-on-chip in the S21 FE that powers its top 2021 handsets.

Snapdragon 888

(Image credit: Qualcomm)

In the Geekbench 5 general performance test, the Galaxy S21 FE posted single- and multi-core results of 1,101 and 3,199. That's in line with the standard Galaxy S21's respective results of 1,048 and 3,302. Both phones also produced around 34 frames per second in 3DMark's Wild Life Unlimited test for graphics. In fact, look at any Snapdragon 888-powered phone (save for the best gaming phones that come packed with RAM), and the Galaxy S21 FE's performance results will be in the same ballpark.

The bottom line: buy a Galaxy S21 FE and you'll get flagship-quality performance in a midrange-priced device.

The Galaxy S21 FE has great cameras

Apart from the sensor on the S21 FE's telephoto lens, it has the same camera setup as the standard Galaxy S21. And considering last year's Samsung flagship were among the best camera phones we tested, you can imagine that the Galaxy S21 FE produces some strong images, too.

Samsung galaxy s21 fe cameras

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

In fact, for our Galaxy S21 FE review, we ran photo face-offs between the Galaxy S21 FE and two top camera phones that cost about the same — the iPhone 13 and the Pixel 6. The S21 FE more than held its own with those two phones, even topping them in some tests. The Galaxy S21 FE took better low light shots, for example, and as you might expect, that telephoto lens produces zoom shots the iPhone and Pixel simply can't replicate.

It helps that Samsung has equipped the Galaxy S21 FE with the camera capabilities you'd get on the regular S21. That includes helpful additions like Zoom lock for keeping your camera still when you zoom in on a subject, Single Take for simultaneously capturing shots from all of the S21 FE's cameras, and dual recording to capture video from both the front and rear cameras.

You get Android 12

The Galaxy S21 FE was supposedly set to debut last year, but the launch got pushed back, reportedly because of supply chain issues similar to the ones dogging other tech companies. There's a silver lining to that delayed launch, though — it gave Samsung enough time to ship the Galaxy S21 FE with Android 12 preinstalled.

samsung one ui 4

(Image credit: Samsung)

That means no waiting around for the latest version of Android or for Samsung's new One UI 4 interface. It also extends the life of the Galaxy S21 FE, as Samsung promises three years of Android software updates for Galaxy S devices. That means you'll still be enjoy Android updates into 2025 if you buy this phone.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE: Reasons to skip

The Galaxy S21 FE's design is not premium

Pick the up the Galaxy S21 FE, and you're definitely not going to confuse it for a premium flagship. With its plastic back, the S21 FE does little to mask its origin story as a lower-cost device.

Samsung galaxy s21 fe design

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Admittedly, that won't matter to bargain hunters who favor value over aesthetics. But there is a practical concern about the materials and design of the Galaxy S21 FE — the phone's a little slick and hard to hold on to. You'll definitely want to to consider one of the best Samsung Galaxy S21 FE cases to improve its grippiness.

The price difference between the Galaxy S21 and S21 FE isn't that huge

Look, $100 — the difference in price between the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 FE — is nothing to sneeze at. For some people, keeping an extra $100 in their wallet makes all the difference. But part of what made the Galaxy S20 FE so appealing was that it cost $300 less than the standard S20, and there's no denying that gap has shrunk.

The major reason the price difference is so much smaller this time around is that Samsung responded to user criticisms of Galaxy S20 pricing and lowered the cost of its Galaxy S21 models by $200. Samsung deserves credit for that move, but it does make the value argument for the Galaxy S21 FE a tougher sell than before.

The Galaxy S22 is coming soon

There's always a new phone lurking around the corner, but in the case of the Galaxy S21 FE, that corner is just a few steps away. The Galaxy S22 is supposed to launch in February — at least if rumor sites are to be believed — and that makes it hard to buy any Samsung phone right now. Unless you need a phone right away, it makes sense to see what Samsung has planned for this year's flagships.

a screenshot of a Samsung Galaxy S22 hands-on video from Unbox Therapy

(Image credit: Unbox Therapy)

In the case of the Galaxy S22, we're expecting a more powerful processor like the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, camera improvements and other features that could make it worth your while to pay up for the flagship instead of a device based on last year's top features. 

Much will depend on the Galaxy S22 price, of course, and whether it retains the S21's $799 starting point. If the new phone costs the same, but delivers more features, that $100 savings for the Galaxy S21 FE will look like chump change.

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.