It’s been over a week since Samsung unveiled the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Ultra and I’ve spent the last few days putting two of the biggest phones of 2021 through their paces for our full, in-depth reviews.
One thing that hit me straight away after putting my SIM into the cheaper Samsung Galaxy S21 was just how familiar it felt. I’d used something very similar recently, and it certainly wasn’t the Galaxy S20.
For this year’s big S series update, Samsung has done things differently. The S21 isn’t really an upgrade to the S20 and in many ways, it’s more of a downgrade. With a lower screen-resolution, no glass back, a lack of expandable storage and basically the same camera system I wouldn’t advise anyone who already keeps an Galaxy S20 in their pocket to upgrade. It’s simply not worth it.
Instead, the £769 Galaxy S21 feels far more like the Galaxy S20 FE. Released towards the end of 2020, the FE was a cheaper version of the S20 without some of the more luxurious extras. It had a plastic back, a 1080p display and it ditched the curves seen on the main S20. When you put the FE side-by-side with the Galaxy S21 there are many similarities.
While Samsung is clearly trying to entice those people who haven’t upgraded in a while, or simply who don’t want to spend close to £1000/$1000 on a phone, the Galaxy S21’s biggest competition is actually the Galaxy S20 FE. They just have so many similarities that I am not sure why you’d spend the extra money on the S21.
Of course, the S21 does have some features you won’t find on the FE. It has a larger, far better in-display fingerprint scanner and the Snapdragon 888 chipset or Exynos 2100, if you’re in the UK. While it’s nice to have to the latest chips, the Snapdragon 865 in the Galaxy S20 FE is more than capable and I really don’t see too many benefits for the mass-market of paying more just for the newer chips.
The Galaxy S21 also has slightly better camera specs, with a much higher resolution 64MP zoom camera. However, once again, there’s not a huge gulf in overall quality if you jump from the S2o FE to the Galaxy S21. There is a slight improvement yes, especially with better video skills, but the camera on the S20 FE is more than good enough for most people.
We raved about the Galaxy FE when it came out. It bagged a high 4.5/5 score in our review, sits near the top of our best Android phone list and is one of the easiest to recommend devices around. It’s also very affordable for what you get: £599 for the 4G model and £699 for the 5G model. You’ll also find it frequently on sale and we saw huge price drops making it even more tempting during Black Friday.
There are some areas where the S20 FE does a better job than the S21. I prefer the slightly roomier 6.5-inch display and the bigger 4500mAh battery gives slightly better endurance. You also still get a charger in the box.
With phones seemingly getting more expensive each year, I have to applaud Samsung for bringing the base price of the S21 down rather than pushing it up even more. Yet, with the Galaxy S20 FE already taking this approach and offering it for even less, the biggest threat to Samsung’s new flagship comes from within.
If you’re disappointed about the lack of upgrades for the S21, then Samsung isn’t completely forgetting tap. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is a true next-gen leap and one of the best phones Samsung has ever made.