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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. S21: Should you pay an extra $100 for the flagship?

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. S21
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. S21 (Image credit: Future/Samsung)

This Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. S21 face-off is for folks who are wondering, “Why on earth would I pay $100 more for the S21 when the S21 FE seemingly offers more value?” After all, the budget-friendly S21 FE, priced at $700, has a bigger battery and display compared to the $800 S21, Samsung’s entry-level flagship phone.

The S21 FE also has a sharper selfie camera that takes crisper photos than the S21’s front-facing lens. The S21 FE, marketed as a mid-tier, easy-on-the-pockets alternative, makes the S21 look like an overpriced device.

However, when we look beyond the specs and sift through our test results for performance, battery life, and more, perhaps the S21 isn’t as overrated as you may think. Let’s get ready to rumble! The Galaxy S21 FE and the Galaxy S21 are ready to step into the face-off ring and show us what they’ve got.  

Galaxy S21 FE vs. Galaxy S21: Specs
Galaxy S21 FEGalaxy S1
Starting price$699$799
Display6.4-inch, Dynamic AMOLED, 2340 x 1080 pixels (120Hz)6.2-inch, Dynamic AMOLED, 2400 x 1080 pixels (120Hz)
CPUQualcomm Snapdragon 888Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
RAM6GB/8GB8GB
Storage Options128GB or 256GB128GB or 256GB
Selfie camera32MP10MP
Battery size4500 mAh4000 mAh
Water resistanceYes, IP68 Yes, IP68
ColorsOlive Green, Lavender, White, GraphitePhantom pink, Violet, Gray, White
Dimensions6.13 x 2.93 x 0.31 inches5.97 x 2.80 x 0.31 inches
Weight6 ounces6.03 ounces

Galaxy S21 FE vs. Galaxy S21: price and value 

The Galaxy S21 FE, a latecomer in the space whom we expected to arrive last year, got unveiled in mid-January during the CES 2022 fanfare with a starting price of $700. The base model comes with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. For an additional $70, you can upgrade your FE to a configuration with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage.

The Galaxy S21 FE retailing for $700 is no surprise (the S20 FE launched with the same starting price), but the S21’s pricing was a little more shocking. When the new S21 line was announced last year, Samsung shaved $200 off the starting price. The entry-level S20 had a dreadful sticker price of $1,000 when it launched in March 2020. Now, the S21 starts at $800, dropping it closer in value to the FE line. It comes with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. For the 256GB variant, you’ll have to shell out an extra $50.

Winner: Galaxy S21 FE

Galaxy S21 FE vs. Galaxy S21: design  

If the Galaxy S21 could talk, I’m sure it’d say, “The Galaxy S21 FE stole my look!” Similar to its higher-priced counterpart, the FE sports a hole-punch design that houses a 32 megapixel front-facing lens. The only difference is that the Galaxy S21 is outfitted with a 10 MP selfie camera instead. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Image credit: Samsung)

Both also share a display that appears damn-near bezel free. When you flip both phones to reveal their backsides, you’ll see a triple-camera setup inside a module that follows the curve of the top-left corner. One notable difference, however, is that the camera module on the S21 FE matches the device’s skin. For example, the Cloud Lavender S21 FE wraps its light-purple hue on the chassis and the camera module.

The S21’s camera module, on the other hand, sports a different color from the chassis for an eye-catching, two-tone color scheme. For example, the Violet S21 has a gold camera module that stands out conspicuously on top of a regal purple hue. In my opinion, the Galaxy S21 is more attractive.

Samsung Galaxy S21

Samsung Galaxy S21 (Image credit: Samsung)

The Galaxy S21 FE, weighing only 6 ounces, is lighter than the Galaxy S21 (6.03 ounces) — but not by much. Both phones have the same thinness at 0.31 inches. The Samsung devices also have an IP68 rating, which means they can endure water and dust — within reason, of course.

Winner: Galaxy S21 

 Galaxy S21 FE vs. Galaxy S21: display 

The Galaxy S21 FE features a 6.4-inch, 2340 x 1080-pixel, Dynamic AMOLED display. The Galaxy S21 has the same resolution and AMOLED technology for its panel, but its screen is slightly smaller at 6.2 inches.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE display

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. S21 (Image credit: Samsung)

It’s worth noting that the Galaxy S21 FE has a screen-to-body ratio of 86.77%. Conversely, the Galaxy S21 has a screen-to-body ratio of 86.06%. The Galaxy S21’s screen real estate is slightly smaller, but the difference is so miniscule, it’s negligible.

Both devices offer 120Hz refresh-rate displays, but there are some dissimilarities. The Galaxy S21’s 120Hz panel is adaptive. In other words, depending on what the user is doing, the screen could drop to 48Hz or climb to 120Hz. This deters the battery from draining too quickly because the screen isn’t always running at 120Hz — only when it’s needed.

The Galaxy S21 FE, on the other hand, doesn’t have a variable refresh rate — it’s either running at 120Hz full blast or you can downclock it to 60Hz.

According to our display testing, with Adaptive Brightness on, the Galaxy S21 reached 702 nits, which is a tinge brighter than the 700-nit FE. Again, we’re splitting hairs here — their brightness scores are practically the same. 

Samsung Galaxy S21

Samsung Galaxy S21 (Image credit: Samsung)

Both Samsung devices have two display modes: Vivid and Natural. We flipped on the latter and tested their DCI-P3 color gamut coverage. The Galaxy S21 covered 77.4% while the FE eclipsed its pricier counterpart by a hair (78.5%). Both phones have a Delta-E color accuracy score of 0.29 (tested in Natural mode).

Winner: Galaxy S21 FE 

Galaxy S21 FE vs. Galaxy S21: performance and graphics 

The five-nanometer Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip powers both Samsung devices. Despite having the same CPUs, we received different performance results for the Galaxy S21 and the FE.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Image credit: Samsung)

On the Geekbench 5 overall performance test, the Galaxy S21 notched 3,302 while the FE achieved a less impressive score of 3,199. On the Jetstream 2 benchmark, which tests how quickly Web pages load, the Galaxy S21 showed off its stellar score of 84. The Galaxy S21 FE, on the other hand, hung its head down in shame over its measly score of 67.

When we ran the 3DMark Slingshot Extreme test (Unlimited OpenGL ES 3.1), one of the most demanding graphics benchmarks we run, the entry-level flagship phone hit a score of 8,700 while the FE dragged its feet (8,248).

Winner: Galaxy S21 

Galaxy S21 FE vs. Galaxy S21: Cameras 

The Galaxy S21 and the FE sport a trio of cameras on their backsides like most phones these days. Both have 12 MP ultra-wide and wide lenses, but have different telephoto specs. The Galaxy S21 FE has an 8 MP telephoto lens while the Galaxy S21 offers 64 megapixels for its telephoto. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 cameras

Samsung Galaxy S21 (Image credit: Samsung)

With these specs, zoomed-in shots should be more defined on the Galaxy S21, but we can’t say for sure without comparing photos. Moving on to the front-facing camera, the Galaxy S21 FE outclasses its higher-priced rival with a 32 MP lens while the Galaxy S21 has a 10 MP selfie camera.

The Galaxy S21 FE may take crisper selfie photos, but for some, that’s not always an advantage. Not everyone wants a camera that captures too much detail when it comes to selfies.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE camera

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. S21 (Image credit: Samsung)

In terms of video recording, the Galaxy S21 takes the win. It can capture 8K footage at 24 frames per second while the best the FE can do is 4K at 60 fps. However, I understand that not everyone is gung-ho about 8K recording, so it all depends on your personal needs.

Winner: Galaxy S21 

Galaxy S21 FE vs. Galaxy S21: battery life 

The Galaxy S21 FE, outfitted with a 4,500 mAH battery, has a larger cell than the Galaxy S21 (4,000 mAH), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will last longer on a charge.

According to our battery rundown test, which consists of continuous web surfing over AT&T’s 5G network at 150 nits of brightness and 60Hz, the Galaxy S21 FE ran for 9 hours and 15 minutes before shutting down. The Galaxy S21, on the other hand, managed to last 38 minutes longer (9:53).

Winner: Galaxy S21 

Overall winner: Galaxy S21 

The Galaxy S21 FE may have climbed into the ring with bigger muscles (e.g. a larger display and battery), but stacked up against the Galaxy S21, you’ll find that it’s all brawn, no brains. 

Samsung Galaxy S21

Samsung Galaxy S21 (Image credit: Samsung)

The higher-priced Samsung device crushed the FE in the performance round, proving that it has more processing power and zippier browser loading. 

In our display testing, the Galaxy S21 FE may have edged out the Galaxy S21, but the margins are too negligible to be significant. However, the Galaxy S21 does standout in regards to its 120Hz variable refresh rate perk.

As far as cameras are concerned, the Galaxy S21 has a better telephoto lens while the FE bested the S21 with its 32MP selfie lens. However, as mentioned, some may not want a front-facing camera with a high megapixel count. Conversely, others may not care for sharper zoom capabilities. 

One aspect of phones most people agree on is battery life — we all want our devices to last as long as possible. In this case, the Galaxy S21 reigns supreme, lasting almost 40 minutes longer than the FE. Due to its faster performance and longer runtime, the Galaxy S21 won the championship belt in this face-off; spending the extra $100 is worth it.

Keep an eye out for the Galaxy S22 line. It’s expected to arrive in early February. Check out our oft-updated rumor hub to keep abreast of all the Galaxy S22 news.

Kimberly Gedeon, holding a Master's degree in International Journalism, launched her career as a journalist for MadameNoire's business beat in 2013. She loved translating stuffy stories about the economy, personal finance and investing into digestible, easy-to-understand, entertaining stories for young women of color. During her time on the business beat, she discovered her passion for tech as she dove into articles about tech entrepreneurship, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and the latest tablets. After eight years of freelancing, dabbling in a myriad of beats, she's finally found a home at Laptop Mag that accepts her as the crypto-addicted, virtual reality-loving, investing-focused, tech-fascinated nerd she is. Woot!