When the Galaxy S20 FE launched last fall it was a welcome surprise from Samsung, offering most of the great features of the Galaxy S20 line, but without the jaw-dropping cost. Samsung got the message and slashed the prices on the Galaxy S21 models this year by $200, but in order to get there, it cut out some well-loved features that even the budget-focused Galaxy S20 FE offered.
I’m sympathetic to always wanting the newest phone but splurging on the latest device is just not the right answer for most people in this case. I am leaving the Galaxy S21 Ultra out of the conversation here; that device, at twice the typical price for the Galaxy S20 FE, is in a different class. But for users considering the Galaxy S21 or Galaxy S21 Plus, I’m going to walk you through the reasons why you might want to opt for the Galaxy S20 FE instead.
Galaxy S20 FE is the better value
I don’t just mean that it’s cheaper, but that dollar-for-dollar it is a much better value than the Galaxy S21. The Galaxy S20 FE was $699 at launch, but can frequently be found for $599 or even $549. While there are some trade-in deals available on the Galaxy S21 models, pricing is otherwise pretty static at $799 for the Galaxy S21 and $999 for the S21 Plus.
That price gap, particularly to the Galaxy S21 Plus, is not justifiable based on the fairly limited feature differences between these devices. I’ll cover those differences in more detail later, but the biggest disadvantage for the Galaxy S20 FE is its Snapdragon 865 processor versus the Snapdragon 888 found in the Galaxy S21 models. That doesn't add up to a $200 to $400 difference for most users.
In almost every other regard, the Galaxy S20 FE matches spec-for-spec with the Galaxy S21 models and, as previously mentioned, it even has a few tricks that its pricier counterparts lack.
Galaxy S20 FE features the Galaxy S21 lost
There are a few features longtime fans of the Galaxy S line are particularly frustrated to see eliminated from the Galaxy S21 in the name of cost-saving, especially since they can be found in the affordable Galaxy S20 FE.
The biggest loss for those who like to take photos and video is, by far, the elimination of the microSD card slot found in the Galaxy S20 FE. This allowed you to easily add up to 1TB of extra storage space to your device. Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus users can max out at 256GB for an extra $50, but for less than that, Galaxy S20 FE users can pick up an extra 256GB microSD card on top of their 128GB of internal storage.
Another casualty of the Galaxy S21 cost savings was MST payment support in Samsung Pay. This is the awesome feature that allows Samsung devices to use contactless payments through their phones even on a standard Magnetic Strip Terminal (MST). While many retailers have moved to support NFC payments, adoption isn’t 100%, and this allows you to confidently rely on your phone as your method of payment wherever you are. Galaxy S20 FE users still enjoy this privilege.
Finally, the Galaxy S21 followed Apple’s lead and dropped the charger from the box. This one isn’t a huge deal because Samsung’s 25W USB-C charger is less than $20 and much better than the 15W charger included with the Galaxy S20 FE, but it is one more purchase you might need to make.
Galaxy S20 FE features that match or beat the Galaxy S21
Part of what was so shocking about the Galaxy S20 FE at its launch last year was how close it managed to get to the Galaxy S20 on features. This remains true with the Galaxy S21 as it is only a marginal step up in some regards, and a step back in others, compared to the Galaxy S20.
The Galaxy S20 FE offers a triple camera array on the back just like the Galaxy S21 with a wide-angle, ultra-wide and telephoto lens. The Galaxy S21 offers considerably more resolution on the telephoto at 64MP versus 8MP, but the Galaxy S20 FE fights back with its front-facing camera at 32MP to the mere 10MP of the Galaxy S21. Whether this tips you one way or the other will depend on your mobile photography preferences.
The Galaxy S20 FE includes a 4,500mAh battery, which falls between the 4,000mAh of the Galaxy S21 and the 4,800mAh of the S21 Plus. To be fair, the Galaxy S21 still managed a better result in our battery testing, lasting 9 hours and 53 minutes compared to 8 hours and 58 minutes of the Galaxy S20 FE. It's possible that, over time, the larger battery may regain the advantage and that One UI 3.1 offers some battery optimizations.
The Galaxy S21 currently offers Android 11 and One UI 3.1, compared to the Android 10 and One UI 2.5 software on the Galaxy S20 FE, but Samsung is in the process of rolling out Google's latest version to the S20 FE to put it on equal footing.
Samsung is renowned for its displays and the Galaxy S20 FE was no exception with its 120Hz FHD+ panel delivering an amazing 133.3% of the DCI-P3 color space and 679 nits of brightness. This wildly outperformed the Galaxy S21 on color gamut, which managed only 77.4% of the DCI-P3 while the S21 came out slightly ahead on brightness at 711 nits.
The Galaxy S21 does notably pick up an adaptive refresh rate, allowing it to range from 48Hz to 120Hz depending on what is on screen, but resolution now tops out at FHD+ while last year’s Galaxy S20 offered QHD+ for those who didn’t care about 120Hz.
Who should consider the Galaxy S21?
I’ve laid out the case for why the Galaxy S20 FE is the better buy for most users, but this isn’t to say that the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus are terrible phones and that no one should consider them. I’ve covered some of the features of the Galaxy S20 FE that are missing or simply worse on the Galaxy S21, but there are unquestionably some improvements to the new model.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 is inarguably a superior processor to the Snapdragon 865 particularly when it comes to the crucial area of machine learning or AI. This is something that Android and Samsung will increasingly take advantage of in the coming years. It also could be at least partially responsible for that improved battery life on the Galaxy S21.
The superiority of the telephoto on the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus bears repeating: the 64MP will allow you to get very usable photos much closer to its max 30x zoom than the 8MP telephoto sensor on the Galaxy S20 FE. A lot of users don’t particularly care about telephoto, but if you do, this advantage shouldn't be ignored.
Finally, if the cost or value doesn’t play much of a factor for you, then the Galaxy S20 FE is a tougher sell. I’ve shown you where it outclasses the Galaxy S21, but the value proposition is certainly a big part of why I recommend it over the Galaxy S21, so removing that from that equation changes things. If this is the case for you, I would strongly recommend going for the Galaxy S21 Ultra. As I said at the outset, it is a different class of device entirely with a superior display, RAM, battery, cameras and S Pen support that really sets it apart from the rest of the Galaxy S21 lineup.
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Sean Riley has been covering tech professionally for over a decade now. Most of that time was as a freelancer covering varied topics including phones, wearables, tablets, smart home devices, laptops, AR, VR, mobile payments, fintech, and more. Sean is the resident mobile expert at Laptop Mag, specializing in phones and wearables, you'll find plenty of news, reviews, how-to, and opinion pieces on these subjects from him here. But Laptop Mag has also proven a perfect fit for that broad range of interests with reviews and news on the latest laptops, VR games, and computer accessories along with coverage on everything from NFTs to cybersecurity and more.