IF YOU SAW the words “Fan Edition” etched on a product, chances are you’d expect some exclusive features or designs for the company’s most devoted followers, right? Not according to Samsung. The Galaxy S21 Fan Edition (shortened to FE) adopts many of the same features as the high-end Galaxy S21 from last year, with a few cost-cutting measures for a lower MSRP.
What’s weird is Samsung “fans” will probably want to buy the latest and greatest. The company is announcing its 2022 range of flagship smartphones—presumably dubbed the Galaxy S22—on February 9. So why spend $700 on the recently launched FE when we know there’s something better (likely in every way) right around the corner for not much more?
I don’t have an answer. It’s perplexing. But I do have a suggestion: Don’t buy the S21 FE at full price. Wait for it to dip to $600 or less—as of publication, we’ve already seen it drop to $600 here and there. It’s a pretty darn good smartphone that just arrived at an awkward time.
Not much is new with the S21 FE (you can read our Galaxy S21 review here). That said, it will eventually replace the entire S21 lineup as stock for those older models declines—and it is dwindling—so it’s worth talking about.
I’ve been using the FE for nearly four weeks and have been able to run all my usual apps and games with barely a sputter, thanks to the flagship Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip inside. I did notice the phone getting quite warm and saw a bit of stuttering as my gaming sessions stretched past an hour in Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier, but that’s to be expected. This isn’t a drastically different experience from the Galaxy S21. One factor that might have impacted this is the fact that the base model comes with 6 gigs of RAM instead of 8. You can pay $770 to upgrade to 8 GB, which also bumps the storage from 128 to 256 GB, but that’s not necessary for most people.
It’s a slightly bigger phone with a 6.4-inch screen (over the S21’s 6.2 inches), but I never felt that it was oversized. It helps that it’s light and thin, and you won’t need to worry about the back shattering after an accidental drop because it’s made of composite plastic. This matte rear can look grubby at times (it attracts a lot of fingerprints), but I’m more upset that Samsung decided to forgo the accented color design on the camera module. To me, that gave the S21 a bit of a playful, fun look that helped it stand out from the crowd. The all-black S21 FE I tested is drab and dull. Thank goodness you can snag it in olive, lavender, or white.
The screen itself is nearly identical. It’s an AMOLED, so colors are punchy, blacks are inky, and it gets plenty bright to see outdoors. It does support a 120-Hz screen refresh rate, meaning it’ll look and feel smoother when you scroll through Instagram. But unlike the S21, which can adjust the refresh rate based on what you’re doing, the S21 FE can be set to 60 or 120 Hz and that’s it. Having a variable rate usually translates to better battery life as the screen won’t need to refresh so many times if you’re just static on the homepage.
The measure of a good camera is when I’m not hesitant to take photos with it. That can happen a lot when you test as many phones as I do, with varying degrees of camera quality. I’m happy to say that I have taken heaps of photos since I started testing the S21 FE. And I like ’em!
The triple-camera system retains a similar, if not the exact, same 12-megapixel main sensor and a 12-MP ultrawide as the original Galaxy S21. The results from these are sharp, colorful, and often well-exposed, though not as contrasty as I like. Even at night with Samsung’s dedicated Night mode, you can usually expect a blur-free image that’s reasonably well-detailed.
Where things diverge is the telephoto zoom camera. You still get a 3x optical zoom, but the sensor steps down from 64 megapixels to 8. It can take some pretty great shots during the day, but at night, I almost always preferred the S21’s 64-MP zoom camera. It produced more detailed photos with nicer colors. It’s the inverse story with the selfie camera: the S21 FE has a 32-megapixel sensor, a bump up from the 10-MP selfie shooter on the S21. My selfies on the FE had more contrast, better skin tones, and finer details.
There honestly isn’t much to dislike here. Just about the only bug I’ve run into is with Samsung’s Gallery app, which triggers the blue-light filter and makes the screen yellow, even when I have the filter turned off. Otherwise, the S21 FE runs everything well, has a pretty screen, versatile cameras, and a reliable battery. Oh, and Samsung guarantees three Android OS upgrades and four years of security updates, which is among the best in the industry for Android phones.
But is it worth $700? I’d say the $599 Google Pixel 6 is better value with its more helpful software features and stronger camera system. Sure, it lacks a 3x optical zoom camera, but Google’s image processing is so good it delivered a better digitally zoomed photo (specifically at night) than the S21 FE.
If the upcoming S22 costs $800 like its predecessor, you’re likely missing out on some valid upgrades for nearly the same price. Fan or not, you should wait for a sale.