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Samsung's foldable phone launch proves there's still a need for the Galaxy S21 FE

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE render
(Image credit: 4RMD)

It was certainly a big week for Samsung, which rolled out two new foldable phones that — at first glance, anyhow — seem to be improvements over their predecessors. Our Galaxy Z Fold 3 review and Galaxy Z Flip 3 review remain in progress as of this writing, but two phones addressed concerns about the durability of folders, added some welcome new features and — oh yeah — debuted at lower prices than the devices they're replacing.

Not bad for a day's product launch and we haven't even talked about the Galaxy Watch 4 and Galaxy Buds 2 that also enjoyed a big rollout at last Wednesday's Galaxy Unpacked. And yet, even with four products making their debut during an event that lasted about an hour, you could still argue that there's a hole in the Samsung mobile product line.

A Galaxy S21 FE-sized hole, to be exact.

Long rumored but never officially confirmed by Samsung, the Galaxy S21 FE could still make its debut this year, Samsung watchers say. Unlike the Galaxy Z Fold and Z Flip models that embrace foldable designs, the S21 FE would be a more conventional smartphone. Like last year's Galaxy S20 FE, it would take many of the top features from Samsung's flagship Galaxy S21 lineup and include them in a slightly less expensive package.

Why foldable phones aren't enough for Samsung

There's still a need for that kind of device in the wake of the foldable-focused Galaxy Unpacked event, even with Samsung dropping prices on this year's models. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 starts at $,1799 — a $200 drop from the Galaxy Z Fold 2's astronomical debut price. The Galaxy Z Flip 3 does event better, dropping to a starting price of $999 — the first time a foldable dropped below $1,000.

galaxy z fold 3 and galaxy z flip 3

(Image credit: Samsung)

It's all part of Samsung's stated goal to make foldable phones appeal to a broder audience. You could argue that the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3 pulled off that feat — to a point.

"More appealing is relative," said Tuong Nguyen, a senior principal analyst at market research firm Gartner. "The improvements and lower pricing do make the new foldables more appealing, but we’re still talking about a very small base to begin with."

The improvements and lower pricing do make the new foldables more appealing, but we’re still talking about a very small base to begin with.

— Tuoung Nguyen, Gartner

The jury's still out if that base will broaden thanks to the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip, which are both available for pre-order in advance of going on sale August 27. After all, Samsung made plenty of moves to alleviate concerns about the durability of foldables. Both devices now feature IPX8 water resistance ratings as well as screens that are less prone to scratching. Samsung's also working to get more foldable optimized apps out there, and it's adding features like S Pen support for the Z Fold 3 (though as an optional accessory).

Still, hurdles remain that will keep people from embracing foldable phones. The Galaxy Z Fold 3's starting price may have fallen, but $1,799 is still a lot to pay for a phone. So too is $999 for the Galaxy Z Flip 3, when you realize that device lacks a telephoto lens. And the visible crease in the Flip's display still remains.

“Samsung has led the charge in launching foldable phone technology, overcoming early missteps with impressive iterations and revealing a strong, high-end pairing in the Fold 3 and Flip 3 at its latest Unpacked event," said Ernest Doku, a mobile devices expert at Uswitch.com. "Nevertheless, Samsung’s core customer base continues to be those aspirational smartphone consumers. Pairing premium S-series capabilities with fun flourishes such as array of color variants and mid-tier pricing means the FE range has proven to be a dynamite combination."

What needs the Galaxy S21 FE could address

That's where the Galaxy S21 FE could enter the picture. The rumored device may lack some of the innovation of the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3, but it would be able to deliver a dependable experience at a lower price — at least based on what people are saying about the phone.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE renders

Galaxy S21 FE renders (Image credit: Evan Blass / Twitter)

And last year's Galaxy S20 FE can offer some clues, too. While that phone lacked the more impressive zoom features of premium Galaxy S flagships, it still had a telephoto lens — something the more expensive Galaxy Z Flip 3 can't offer. Presumably, the Galaxy S21 FE would follow suit.

As for the Galaxy Z Fold 3, its under-display camera may be a first for Samsung, but that 4MP resolution can make for some sketchy shots. The Galaxy S20 FE used a more conventional punch-hole cutout for its selfie cam, but it featured a more robust 32MP sensor.

"Conventional" may not be a bad word when talking about phones like a rumored Galaxy S21 FE. Certainly, Samsung has pulled off some neat engineering feats to make the Galaxy Z Fold and Z Flip expand into larger displays, but it's clear that a segment of smartphone shoppers isn't necessarily looking for that, especially if it means a lower price.

"I think consumers who can’t afford flagship phones — aka most people — appreciate having flagship features without the flagship price tag," Nguyen said.

Galaxy S21 FE outlook

And that could be the biggest feature of all for the Galaxy S21 FE. Rumors point to the phone coming in at less than the $799 Galaxy S21, possibly at $699. That would be $300 cheaper than the Galaxy Z Flip 3 — the most affordable foldable phone in Samsung's lineup.

Speculation around the Galaxy S21 FE points to a phone that will look a lot like the S21 models that came out earlier this year, possibly in a brighter array of colors. Like the S20 FE last year, the S21 FE would feature the same processor as the rest of its pricier siblings — in this case a Snapdragon 888 — though it would scale back in other areas like design.

“The FE devices have proved incredibly popular for Samsung, with the Galaxy S20 FE and its 5G counterpart being our best performing devices from the Korean manufacturer over the past few months," Uswitch.com's Doku said. There's no reason Samsung wouldn't want that to continue with the Galaxy S21 FE — new foldable phones or not. 

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.