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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE could use a new focus — if it ever ships

samsung galaxy s21 fe
(Image credit: Samsung)

If you've been mourning the sudden cancelation of the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE, dry your tears. The lower-cost version of Samsung's Galaxy S21 flagship may still yet see the light of day.

A would-be successor to last year's Samsung Galaxy S20 FE, a new rumor claims that the Galaxy S21 FE might still be on the way after all. Considering the Galaxy Note 21 has already been dropped this year, that would be good news. Still, if we are to get a Galaxy S21 FE, I think Samsung needs to take a look at exactly what the phone is for, now that its primary reason for existing — the lower price — has been addressed by other phones in the company's lineup.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE — coming or not?

It seems like the Galaxy S21 FE has been canceled and uncanceled more times than people's holiday plans during a pandemic. We'd all assumed that since Samsung launched a Galaxy S20 FE last year in October, we'd see a successor come this fall. However, rumors about the S21 FE have gone back and forth, suggesting both manufacturing issues and a lack of interest on Samsung's part as reasons why the phone may not appear at all.

The most recent date we heard for the S21 FE to possibly launch was October 29. However a newer report from Korea citing an unnamed Samsung executive has since said that the phone's been cancelled to allow Samsung to focus on the Galaxy Z Flip 3.

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That would seem to be that, only now leaker Max Weinbach points out that this doesn't make sense in light of T Mobile adding new SKUs (stock-keeping units), implying that these are in fact for the S21 FE. It's possible that these numbers could refer to another device, but Weinbach has been a reliable leaker previously.

What the Galaxy S21 FE could do differently

The on-again, off-again nature of the S21 FE's release suggests that the phone is struggling to find its place in Samsung's portfolio. And it's understandable why — the main appeal of last year's Samsung Galaxy S20 FE was that it was significantly cheaper than the other Galaxy S20 phones, which started at $999. At the same time, the S20 FE could match most of the specs of those phones.

The Galaxy S21 lineup debuting earlier this year changed things up, with those phones debuting at $799 and up. That's a challenge for Samsung and the Galaxy S21 FE, which can either be priced too similarly to the standard S21 or remove so many features to drop the cost lower that it's more like a phone from Samsung's mid-tier Galaxy A series. (And the Galaxy A52 5G is a pretty solid phone in its own right.)

The answer, I think, is to change what exactly the FE offers. Rather than aim it as a cheaper way into the Galaxy S range, it should become an alternate take on the most recent model that can not only try and steal sales from more recently launched phones but offer a new combination of features.

The S20 FE did this to a certain extent. Aside from starting at $300 less than the Galaxy S20, it offered a new mid-sized frame between the size of the S20 and Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus, a more compact rear camera system, 6GB RAM instead of 12GB and a higher resolution front camera than the S20. Users who wanted more detailed selfies and a more average-sized display, but weren't that bothered about the lower RAM or inferior rear cameras would have found their niche with the S20 FE that neither the S20 or S20 Plus would have fulfilled.

If Samsung could go even further than this with a device that slots between the S21 and S21 Plus but with a few unique selling points of its own, then I think the Galaxy S21 FE still has a reason to exist alongside Galaxy S flagships with lowered starting prices.

An unofficial render of the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE in light green

An unofficial render of the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE in light green. (Image credit: Future)

This approach would basically copy what Xiaomi's doing right now with its flagship phones. I recently praised the Xiaomi 11T Pro for its unbelievably fast 120W charging, but another aspect of the phone that I like is how many smaller design elements and features it changes from the Xiaomi Mi 11 that launched in the U.K. earlier this year. The screen's changed from curved to flat, the punch-hole camera's moved from the left corner to the center, the back's made of plastic instead of glass, and there's no wireless charging option. You could consider this unnecessary fiddling with the design, but I instead see it as a meaningful remix of the phone.

All these features are ones that smartphone buyers likely have a strong preference about, or are features that not everyone will make use of. Therefore, offering two similar phones that between them cover all these preferences means that Xiaomi's current crop of flagship phones should suit anyone.

Another example that U.S. users may recognize is OnePlus and its T-series models, most recently 2020's OnePlus 8T. It offered a new look, a better display and faster charging than the OnePlus 8, while still costing less than the OnePlus 8 Pro by leaving off the expensive telephoto lens and keeping the display smaller. It's a shame that there is no OnePlus 9T this year, as it would likely also have made for good proof that mid-life refreshes of smartphones can have a point beyond just letting companies spend more time in the launch event limelight.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE outlook

Samsung is infamous for offering a huge number of similar phones, particularly when looking at the cheaper end of its lineup. So perhaps encouraging the creation of more phone models with minor specs differences could prove to just be confusing.

Nevertheless, I still think if these modified premium phones are to stick around, they need to offer a meaningful difference, either in price or in specs. In a flagship phone market where manufacturers are keen to lock you into their ecosystem but also encourage you to refresh your phone regularly, users at the very least deserve a tiny bit more choice.

Richard Priday

Richard is a Tom's Guide staff writer based in London, covering news, reviews and how-tos for phones, gaming, audio and whatever else people need advice on. He's also written for WIRED U.K., The Register and Creative Bloq. When not at work, he's likely thinking about how to brew the perfect cup of specialty coffee.