Review: Samsung S21 FE is a beautiful phone, but maybe six months too late

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
With the S22 range just days away, is it worth buying one? Photo credit: Newshub

Unless you've been hiding behind an obscenely large rock, you'll have noticed the world's been having some issues lately, primarily due to a pandemic that's got us all on edge.

The tech world certainly hasn't been immune to that, with supply chain issues causing massive delays, chip shortages and delivery problems for just about everyone.

One of the victims was the Samsung Galaxy S21 Fan Edition (FE), which launched just a few weeks ago in Aotearoa.

The previous version of the FE was released in September 2020, five months before the announcement of Samsung's S21 range of phones. But the delayed latest version, the S21 FE, has been released just over a month ahead of the S22 announcement last week.

So can it overcome the odds and make it the mid-price phone you should be looking at buying? Or should you be holding out for the new S22 range?

I've been using the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE for a couple of weeks now and here are my thoughts.

The good

I've always considered myself a premium type of guy, so I wasn't expecting to love the styling of the mid-range S21 FE as much as I did.

Part of that came from just how comfortable it is to use and hold, from the slender width and lovely green plastic back to just how light it felt compared to others (different colours are available if you prefer.)

The screen is also particularly impressive.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE has a brilliant AMOLED display.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE has a brilliant AMOLED display. Photo credit: Newshub

I'm not the biggest fan of adaptive brightness and tend to control my own levels, and anything over 60 percent looked great to my older eyes in natural light. You can definitely drop that if you're in bed bingeing your favourite TV show.

That's thanks to the 6.4-inch dynamic AMOLED display, with a resolution of 2340 x 1080 pixels.

Streaming movies and television shows were a delight to watch at any time of day, particularly given the 177g weight which means your hands don't get tired holding it quickly.

While Apple finally introduced 120Hz refresh rates on its iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max models last year, it's been a fixture with Samsung's phones for a while now so it's no surprise the S21 FE has it too.

Scrolling at that high rate is great, as is playing games, and if you're still using a phone with anything less than that ability, I'd recommend checking it out for yourself.

I also loved the main camera on the phone which takes brilliant quality images with lots of details and contrast, but not a lot of noise. Unless you're particularly demanding, I can't see many people being disappointed with this camera performance.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
The same picture with the Galaxy S21 FE (left), iPhone 13 Pro (middle) and Samsung Flip 3 (right). Photo credit: Newshub

One of the areas which has received a boost from last year's S21 range is the selfie camera on the front, which is ideal for those who like to take pictures of themselves.

The 32 MP camera compares favourably to the 10 MP offerings on the S21 and S21 Plus, although it does lack the autofocus of the latter. But combined with Samsung's brilliant 'Single Take' functionality, you're practically guaranteed to look as good as you can.

I also found the life in the 4500 mAh battery to be more than good enough for all day usage and with  plenty left at bedtime when it was plugged in again. I left it sitting for a couple of days without playing with it and there was still plenty of life in the phone, more than enough for me to use it for hours before I needed to boost the juice.

One other thing to note: Samsung guarantees its phones get three years of major Android OS updates and four years of security updates.

Given the S21 FE launched with Android 12, as opposed to Android 11 on last year's S21 models, you are effectively getting an additional year's worth of updates over the existing range.

Throw in 5G connectivity, lag-free performance, Ultra HD video recording at 60fps and you've got an excellent overall package for a nice low price.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
The same picture with the Galaxy S21 FE (left), iPhone 13 Pro (middle) and Samsung Flip 3 (right). Photo credit: Newshub

The bad

Largely the issues with the S21 FE aren't of its own making - its problems generally lie in the fact the S22 range was announced practically moments after it was launched.

In terms of technology and mobile phones, it's really not that expensive, starting at $1099 for the 128GB model, but it now feels overpriced when you consider it's essentially last year's phone.

That might be a little unfair, but perception means a lot, particularly in the tech world. Granted, that may matter more to tech fans and those who prefer top-of-the-range devices like myself; but Samsung has put this likeable smartphone in a difficult position.

That said, there are a couple of things I noticed while using it that were less than ideal.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
The same picture with 5x zoom on the Galaxy S21 FE (left), iPhone 13 Pro (middle) and Samsung Flip 3 (right). Photo credit: Newshub

The first was the charging time. It may be anecdotal, but it seemed to take ages when plugged in the USB charger on my Belkin powerboard. As with other Samsung phones, there's no charging plug provided - just a USB-C cable, so if you don't have a fast charger then you may well end up forking out extra for one out of frustration.

The other may not matter quite as much, depending on your style of photographs.

I don't tend to use zoom a lot in the photos I take with my phone, generally because I'm either taking landscape shots or I'm really close to the subject.

The telephoto lens hasn't been updated from the S20 FE model, so it has3x optical zoom with a lower 8 MP camera as opposed to the 64 MP version on the S21 Plus.

That doesn't mean it's bad. It's not. But it's just another indication that the phone feels a touch more out of date than perhaps is ideal.

The phone also lacks the ability to add more storage - there's no MicroSD slot here. While that might not mean much to those who favour iOS devices, if you enjoy the ability to add more storage cheaply to your phone then you're in for disappointment.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
The S21 FE is great for watching videos and listening to music. Photo credit: Newshub

The verdict

I really enjoyed my time with the S21 FE. It's style and weight make this quite a bit different to my current phone and I appreciated that a lot.

While some may not like the plastic back, I love it and I've always felt safer with those kinds of phones than I tend to do when holding glass-backed ones.

For a mid-priced phone, there's a lot to like about the overall performance from the high-quality screen and long battery life to the decent cameras onboard.

However the timing alone may be the downfall for the phone. There's not much time for it to find its audience before the S22 range makes its way to our shores.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
The S21 FE is light and really easy to hold for long periods. Photo credit: Newshub

With the new standard S22 out in a couple of weeks, and starting at just $1299, that's got to be tempting to those willing to fork out $1099 for the new S21 FE.

In fact, it's almost a no-brainer. If you're willing to look around then you can find some fantastic pre-order deals for the S22 range. Samsung themselves are offering a $300 voucher with pre-orders to spend in its store, allowing you to stock up on earbuds or other accessories.

If I was given an S21 FE I would not be disappointed in the slightest. If I was buying a new phone right now? Then an S22 model would get the nod every single time.

It may be a light and attractive phone but when it's between a rock and a hard place then there's only one outcome, I'm afraid.

Newshub was supplied with a Samsung Galaxy S21 FE for this review.