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Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE: Which phone should you buy?

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

In this Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE face-off, we dive into just how different these two phones are. When it comes down to it, the Samsung Galaxy S21 and the Galaxy S20 FE are impressive phones, especially for the money. The S21 has many features going for it — a display with a dynamic refresh rate, a top-of-the-line processor and top-performing cameras. But one of its most attractive features may be its price. At $799, this is one of the least expensive flagship phones Samsung has introduced in years.

But it's not the least expensive. That honor goes to the Galaxy S20 FE, which debuted last year at $699. Even with that lower price, the Galaxy S20 FE didn't make too many trade-offs from the rest of the Galaxy S20 lineup, as it still offered the same processor and a display with a 120Hz refresh rate. At the time of its release, we hailed the Galaxy S20 FE as quite a bargain.

Does the Galaxy S20 FE still hold that title? Or has it been surpassed by the Galaxy S21, which may cost more but offers more advanced specs? To find out, a Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE face-off can tell us which Samsung phone is the better buy.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE: Specs

Samsung Galaxy S21Samsung Galaxy S20 FE
Starting price$799$699
Screen size6.2 inch AMOLED (2400 x1080)6.5 inch AMOLED (2400 x 1080)
Refresh rate48 - 120Hz120Hz
CPUSnapdragon 888Snapdragon 865
RAM8GB6GB
Storage128GB, 256GB128GB
microSD?NoYes
Rear cameras12MP wide (ƒ/1.8), 12MP ultra-wide (ƒ/2.2), 64MP telephoto (ƒ/2.0) with 3x hybrid zoom/30x digital12MP main (ƒ/1.8), 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2), 8MP telephoto (ƒ/2.4) 3x hybrid zoom/30x digital
Front cameras10MP (ƒ/2.2)32MP (ƒ/2.2)
Battery size4,000 mAh4,500 mAh
Size6 x 2.8 x 0.31 inches6.29 x 2.93 x 0.33 inches
Weight6.07 ounces6.7 ounces
ColorsPhantom Violet, Phantom Pink, Phantom White, Phantom GrayNavy, Lavender, Mint, Red, White, Orange

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE: Price and availability

The Galaxy S21's $799 debut price is $200 cheaper than what Samsung charged for last year's Galaxy S20. That high price for the S20 — and, more likely, consumers' reaction to it — probably pushed Samsung to come out with the Galaxy S20 FE at a much lower price. That phone debuted at $699 in October.

Now that the Galaxy S21 is shipping, you can likely find a lower price for the Galaxy S20 FE. Samsung currently gives you a $275 discount on the phone with trade-in, allowing you to buy a Galaxy S20 FE for $424. Of course, a current trade-in promotion at Samsung knocks $700 off the price of the Galaxy S21, so don't automatically assume you'll pick up the Galaxy S20 FE for less.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE: Design

The Galaxy S20 FE is the bigger of the two phones, at 6.29 x 2.93 x 0.33 inches. That makes it slightly taller and wider than the more slender S21. The 6.07-ounce Galaxy S21 weighs less than 6.7-ounce S20 FE, though unless you've replaced your hands with scales, we doubt you'll notice the difference.

Samsung Galaxy s21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE

Galaxy S20 FE (Image credit: Future)

The phones share a few things in common. Both have IP68 water resistance ratings, handling a 1.5 meters dunk in water. Both also feature plastic backs, a cost cutting move that lets Samsung charge less for each device. When we reviewed both the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S20 FE, we didn't have a problem with that trade-off, but don't expect the glass backs that you get with Samsung's fancier flagships.

The Galaxy S21 introduces a new contour cut design where the camera array on the back of the phone seems to blend in with the metal band around the side. That gives the S21 a distinctive look while helping the camera array blend into the overall design of the phone in a way that doesn't happen with the S20 FE.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE

Galaxy S21  (Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S20 FE boasts one benefit over the S21, with a microSD slot that allows you to boost storage up to 1TB. Samsung skipped this option on the Galaxy S21, so you're stuck with the on-board storage you get with the phone — either 128GB or 256GB. (The S20 FE features a single 128GB configuration.)

You'll have a few more colors to choose from with the Galaxy S20 FE, which comes in Navy, Lavender, Mint, Red, White and Orange. The S21 keeps things simple with Phantom Violet, Phantom Pink, Phantom White, Phantom Gray.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE: Display

You'll get a larger display with the Galaxy S20 FE, as it offers a 6.5-inch AMOLED panel to the 6.2-inch screen on the Galaxy S21. Both phones offer FHD+ resolution at 2400 x 1080. That means things are a little sharper on the S21's smaller screen, as it offers 421 pixels per inch to the Galaxy S20 FE's 407.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE

Galaxy S20 FE (Image credit: Future)

Each phone can support 120Hz refresh rates — significant given each phone’s respective price tag, since that's a feature normally reserved for the most expensive phones. Only the Galaxy S21 offers a dynamic refresh rate, though, ranging from 48Hz to 120Hz depending on what you're doing with your phone. (The more screen movement, the faster the refresh rate.) The Galaxy S20 FE is stuck at 120Hz if you enable the feature, which could put a hit on battery life.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S21's display is brighter, though just by a little bit. We measured a maximum brightness of 711 nits on the S21, which is slightly better than the Galaxy S20 FE's 679 nit reading. The S20 FE screen captures more of the DCI-P3 color space (133.3% vs.77.4%), while the colors on the S21 were slightly more accurate than the Galaxy S20 FE.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE: Cameras

There's no difference in the number of lenses on either phone, though the optics are better on the Galaxy S21, as you might expect. Both phones use a 12MP sensor as their main lens with a 12MP ultrawide shooter along for the ride. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE

Galaxy S20 FE (Image credit: Future)

It's the telephoto lenses where things really diverge. The Galaxy S21 uses a 64MP sensor that delivers a 3x optical zoom and can go up to 30x with the help of software. The 8MP telephoto lens on the Galaxy S20 FE can also offer a 3x optical/30x digital zoom, but we'd presume shots on the S21 are a bit sharper. The S21 also benefits from a Zoom Lock feature that hones in on your subject and steadies the shot for less fuzzy photos.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE

Galaxy S21 (Image credit: Future)

That's not the only way in which the Galaxy S21's cameras reap the reward of software improvements. The newer phone has an updated version of the Single Take feature that debuted on the Galaxy S20; with Single Take 2, slow motion videos now enter the mix of the images your phone captures simultaneously from multiple cameras. 

Director's View on the Galaxy S21 lets you shoot video using both the rear and front cameras simultaneously, and you can also toggle between the shots captured by the phone's different lenses. Portrait video features add the blur that's common with portrait still shots these days. In other words, the Galaxy S21 is a far more capable shooter than the Galaxy S20 FE, and one of the best camera phones we've seen.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE: Performance and 5G

One of the best things about the Galaxy S20 FE is that it didn't cut corners on processing power to arrive at a lower price. Like the rest of the Galaxy S20 lineup, the FE ran on the Snapdragon 865. Even with less RAM than those other S20 models — the FE made do with 6GB — Samsung's budget flagship offered comparable performance to many of the best Android phones that came out last year.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE

Galaxy S21 (Image credit: Future)

Of course, the Galaxy S21 outdoes the Galaxy S20 FE with an even newer system-on-chip, Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888. That, along with the 8GB of RAM Samsung has included, helps the S21 post a Geekbench 5 score of 3,302 in the multicore test. That edges the Galaxy S20 FE's 2,928 result. 

The S21 also tops the S20 FE in our real-world test where we use Adobe Premiere Rush to transcode a 4K video into 1080p. The Galaxy S21 completes that task in 1 minute and 3 seconds, shaving 21 seconds off the S20 FE's time.

Both the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S20 FE are 5G-capable phones that work with the faster network that carriers are currently rolling out across the country. While the S21 supports all 5G bands, Samsung had to produce a separate Galaxy S20 FE UW version that could take advantage of Verizon's super-fast mmWave-based 5G towers.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE: Battery and charging

At 4,500 mAh, the battery inside the Galaxy S20 FE is larger than the 4,000 mAh power pack used by the Galaxy S21. But it's not the size of the battery, it's what you do with it. The Galaxy S21 outlasted the S20 FE on our battery test, which involves surfing the web over a cellular connection until the phone runs out of power. The Galaxy S21 lasted 9 hours and 53 minutes on our test, versus 8 hours and 58 minutes for the Galaxy S20 FE.

Samsung Galaxy S21 v. Galaxy S20 FE

Galaxy S20 FE (Image credit: Future)

Of course, the S21's result comes with a caveat. We got that time by setting the screen's refresh rate to 60 Hz. With the dynamic refresh rate feature enabled, the Galaxy S21's battery test time fell by more than 3 hours to 6:31. Neither of these phones are long-lasting devices.

The Galaxy S20 FE only includes a 15W charger which gets the drained phone up to a 35% charge in 30 minutes. At least, you get a charger with the S20 FE — Samsung stopped including that accessory with the Galaxy S21. If you do have a 25W charger, you can get to a 55% charge in 30 minutes with the S21.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE: Software and special features

The Galaxy S21 ships with Android 11 pre-installed, which means it also features Samsung's One UI 3 interface built on top of the latest version of Android. While the Galaxy S20 FE came out around the same time as Android 11's release, it still shipped with Android 10, but the Android 11 update has been rolling out to devices.

That means there aren't many software differences between these two phones, as Samsung reserved many of the special features for the Galaxy S21 Ultra. If you want S Pen support, for example, you'll have to pay up for the $1,199 Ultra, as that feature is not included with the Galaxy S21.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Galaxy S20 FE: What about the Galaxy S21 FE?

Rumors suggest that Samsung is readying a Galaxy S21 FE for launch later this year. We're not entirely sure what to expect with this phone, especially since the Galaxy S21 was much more affordable this year. In fact, the existence of an S21 FE would further muddle Samsung's already messy device portfolio.

We've heard that the Galaxy S21 FE will look a lot like the Galaxy S21, including a plastic body. It might have a 32MP front camera, which would be a significant upgrade over the 10MP in the Galaxy S21/Plus. But another leak contradicts that, saying the front camera will be 12MP.

The point being, we don't know too much about a possible Galaxy S21 FE right now. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FE: Bottom line

The Galaxy S20 FE was an eye-opening bargain when it debuted last year, and it's still a very good option if you can find it for less than its $699 debut price. But the arrival of the Galaxy S21 for a lower price than past Samsung flagships is a game-changer, especially when you consider all the advances Samsung has included in this year's models.

As good a value as the Galaxy S20 FE is, the Galaxy S21 shows that you don't have to wait around for an FE version of one of Samsung's phones to get more for your money.

Philip Michaels
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.
  • TheDarkLordShallRiseAgain
    Please make a correction in the spec table. The S20 FE actually has 3x optical zoom on the telephoto lens.
    Please make a correction in the camera section. The S21 has a 3x hybrid zoom (1.06x optical zoom) on the telephoto lens.

    Theoretically, the S20 FE would produce better zoom shots. But from looking at other reviews, the results are very close between the two.
    Reply