Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 FE: Does reality trump ambition?

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE vs Galaxy S21 Ultra

Credit: Robert Triggs / Android Authority

In the last six months, Samsung has released more flagship smartphones to suit a wider range of customers than ever before. For the more budget-conscious consumer, there’s the Galaxy S20 FE that launched to critical acclaim in late September 2020. This more value-oriented pricing strategy seeped into Samsung’s 2021 flagship launch too. The standard Galaxy S21 model costs $200 less than 2020’s Galaxy S20. Samsung has made some of its latest products quite affordable, finally tackling the allure of cheaper flagship phones from Chinese brands.

Then there’s the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. A colossal $1,199 technological behemoth featuring the very latest and greatest that Samsung has to offer — with an eye-watering price to match. Even here though, Samsung has reduced the price of its S21 Ultra down to the same price as last year’s S20 Plus.

Read more: Samsung Galaxy S21 buyer’s guide — everything you need to know

We don’t know whether Samsung’s turn to lower pricing is a well-timed reaction to the economic fallout of COVID-19 or a more concerted effort to rejuvenate falling flagship sales. According to Statista, Samsung’s average quarterly market share crept down from 21.8% in 2017 to 20.6% in 2020. That same timeframe has seen Oppo and Xiaomi grow into increasingly powerful market forces. Not to mention Samsung’s ongoing rivalry with Apple. There’s never been a more pressing time for Samsung to make its prices more attractive.

Samsung is in the midst of weighing up its desire to push the technological envelope with the reality that value for money is driving the bulk of sales growth in the mobile industry. As a result, it’s ended up with two different phones for two very different consumers. But will reality really trump ambition in 2021?

Our verdicts:

Two phones for two very different customers

Having spent some decent hands-on time with the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE and Galaxy S21 Ultra, as well as the S21 Plus model, there’s really not a whole lot to choose from between these phones for day-to-day use. Sending messages, browsing the web, checking email, and snapping a quick picture all work and feel the same, whether you spend $699 or $1,199.

Importantly, the S20 FE offers the same integration with Samsung’s SmartThings and Dex support (if you’ve bought into Samsung’s wider ecosystem), wireless charging, an IP68 rating, and 5G networking support. This matches its more expensive siblings. It’s already running Android 11 too. Put simply, the S20 Fan Edition is very much a fully-fledged Galaxy S experience, only cheaper. There’s a reason it won our Editor’s Choice award for 2020 smartphone of the year.

The trade-off with lower prices across the board is that not a lot changed between the Galaxy S20 and Galaxy S21. In fact, the newer models actually saw a few downgrades in order to help bring down the price, such as the omission of a microSD card slot and, on the vanilla model, a plastic rear build. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the only choice if you’re after something from Samsung that feels really new. This is yet another sign of Samsung’s shift in strategy. The core Galaxy S hardware offering is now great enough to hit pause on. At least for one generation.

  Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Display 6.5-inch Dynamic AMOLED
Flat FHD+
2,400 x 1,080 at 407ppi
Adaptive 120Hz refresh rate
HDR10+ certified
6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED
Curved WQHD+
3,200 x 1,440 at 515ppi
Adaptive 120Hz refresh rate
HDR10+ certified
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 (5G) or Samsung Exynos 990 (4G) Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 or Samsung Exynos 2100
RAM 6GB 12 or 16GB
Storage 128 or 256GB 128, 256, or 512GB
MicroSD Yes, up to 1TB No
Battery 4,500mAh
Fast wired and wireless charging
5,000mAh
Fast wired and wireless charging
Reverse wireless charging
Cameras Rear:
– Wide-angle: 12MP, 1/1.76″, ƒ/1.8, 1.8µm
– Telephoto: 8MP, ƒ/2.4, 1.0µm
– Ultra-wide: 12MP, ƒ/2.2, 1.12µm

Hybrid optical/digital zoom at 3x
“Space Zoom” at 30x

Front
– 32MP sensor, ƒ/2.2, .8µm

Rear:
– Wide-angle: 108MP, ƒ/1.8, 0.8µm with OIS and phase-detection AF
– Telephoto: 10MP, ƒ/2.4, 1.22µm with OIS, dual-pixel AF, and 3x optical zoom
– Telephoto: 10MP, ƒ/4.9, 1.22µm with OIS, dual-pixel AF, and 10x optical zoom
– Ultra-wide: 12MP, ƒ/2.2, 1.4µm with dual-pixel AF and a 120-degree FoV
– Laser AF sensor

10x optical zoom
100x “Space Zoom”

Front:
– 40MP, ƒ/2.2, 0.7µm, with phase-detection AF

Connectivity 4G-only option
4G/5G support (sub-6Ghz and mmWave)
4G/5G support (sub-6Ghz and mmWave)
S Pen support No Yes
Operating System One UI 3.1
Android 11 (upgrade)
One UI 3.1
Android 11
Water resistance IP68 IP68
Security Ultrasonic fingerprint sensor, face unlock Ultrasonic fingerprint sensor, face unlock
Color Cloud Navy, Cloud Red, Cloud Lavender, Cloud Mint, Cloud White, Cloud Orange 128 GB in Phantom Silver and Phantom Black
256 and 512GB in Phantom Black
Future colors: Phantom Titanium, Phantom Navy, and Phantom Brown
Dimensions and weight 74.5×159.8×8.4mm
190g
75.6 x 165.1 x 8.9mm
229g

Not a lot has changed from the S20 to S21, with the exception of the S21 Ultra model.

Bleeding-edge performance, time-of-flight cameras, and fancy curved displays are nice luxuries, but they’re exactly the right sort of corners that can be cut without consumers noticing too much. While the “average consumer” might not really exist (we all have our own needs and wants from a phone after all), even the most eagle-eyed of us struggle to make out a 5fps boost to our games or the subtle pixel-sized differences in camera quality with next-gen hardware. Flagships hardware is already excellent for most use cases, so price and aesthetic design have become more important. It’s no coincidence that colorway selections are increasingly diverse in recent years.

With the Galaxy S20 FE, Samsung distilled the quintessential Galaxy S experience down to just $699. An impressive feat and one that makes it increasingly difficult to justify $500 more the S21 Ultra’s diminishingly improved features. 80% of the experience for almost half the price is a value proposition that speaks to most consumer’s common sense.

Read more: Galaxy S21 prices make this Samsung’s most inclusive line-up in years

Value versus ambition, which comes out on top?

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 2

Credit: Adam Molina / Android Authority

This isn’t to say that the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra isn’t a great smartphone. It certainly has its fans, myself included, and there’s a small but healthy market of ultra-enthusiast phone buyers out there. Particularly picky photographers, S Pen enthusiasts, app power users, and the most demanding gamers definitely have something to gain from the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

But the last couple of years have seen ultra-premium phones, not just from Samsung, take a backseat as technological showcases that most will look at from afar. They’re no longer a generation’s must-have purchase, and while they often represent a heavy proportion of sales at launch from enthusiasts, the more affordable options have tended to be the real sales drivers.

So should Samsung abandon phones like the Galaxy S21 Ultra in favor of an exclusively affordable approach? Definitely not, in my opinion.

Technological innovation is essential when it comes to tech company reputations. After all, pundits love to compare the latest and greatest features from rival companies, such as a camera shootout versus Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max. We all want to see what’s possible with a high-end budget. But cutting-edge handsets also plot the roadmap for more affordable models further down the line. Previously expensive wireless charging and 5G components are much more affordable today, and the same will eventually be true for periscope cameras and the like. Premium-tier innovation is what drives the industry.

Value might be more appealing, but Samsung needs premium-tier innovation for its next-gen handsets.

Samsung’s current strategy is a fitting one, particularly given the times we’re living in. So long as it remains financially viable, I definitely want to see Samsung continue to distill its latest technology down to the core essentials with a Samsung Galaxy S21 Fan Edition model. Lower prices are great, obviously. Although the already more affordable nature of the Galaxy S21 series may see an S21 FE struggle to stand out compared to last year.

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That said, the situation will need to change again come 2022. Samsung’s Galaxy S22 lineup will require a dash of high-end innovation to keep consumers interested. A single generation where not a lot changes is fine but two would be a worrying sign of stagnation at the company. Fortunately, a balanced but evolving portfolio spanning a cost-effective FE to bleeding-edge Ultra should keep most consumers happy.

The reality of a value-oriented market may come up trumps against technological ambition in 2021, but I expect consumers will yearn for a return to more aggressive innovation next year.


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