Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs. Google Pixel 6
(Pocket-lint) – If you’re looking to get a flagship phone, but don’t want to spend more than around £600 in the UK (or the equivalent wherever you read this), chances are whether you’ve at least taken a look at the Google Pixel 6 or the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE. These are two of the best phones in this price range.
Google has been one of the best-selling phones of 2021, offering a flagship experience, great cameras, and unique software for a price well below the more expensive phones. As for Samsung, it is a simplified version of the S21. But which one to choose? Read on – or watch the video below – to find out.
- Samsung: 155.7 x 74.5 x 7.9mm – 177g
- Pixel: 158.6 x 74.8 x 8.9mm – 207g
- Samsung: Gorilla Glass Victus front, plastic back – IP68 rating
- Pixel: Gorilla Glass Victus on the front, Gorilla Glass 6 on the back – Ingress protection IP68
- Both: aluminum frame
There’s more than one way the Pixel 6 and S21 FE differ, and the most obvious ways are in the design. When it comes to glass slabs, the Pixel 6 is vastly different from virtually anything on the market. Its bold camera strip protrudes dramatically from the back and spans the full width of the phone.
Love it or hate it, there’s convenience in that you can lay it on its back and it won’t wobble. Unlike those phones with their cameras in the corner. Although Samsung sticks very much to this boilerplate format, the protrusion on the S21 FE is very minimal, and so while there is some wobble, it’s not major.
There are a few things that work in Samsung’s favor. First, the phone is noticeably thinner. In fact, it’s a millimeter thinner, and also noticeably shorter. This makes it a bit more comfortable and easier to hold for long periods of time. And a surprising advantage is the materials used. While the Pixel’s glass is definitely a more premium material, the Samsung’s matte plastic makes it less prone to slipping and feels warmer and softer in the palm.
Both phones have pretty boxy designs though, and both feature heavy-duty aluminum frames, so you know they should be able to take a beating. Both also have the same Corning Gorilla Glass Victus on the front. They’ll even survive the odd occasion when you drop them in the sink, toilet or use them in the shower, as they’re both waterproof to IP68 ratings.
Both have similarly thin bezels around the display, but to the eye the Pixels look a little bigger. A small difference that you can’t see from the outside: the vibrator motor. Pixel has much nicer haptic feedback, feeling more like a tap than a buzz, where the S21 FE has a buzzy feel.
One last minor thing – the buttons. The Pixel’s power button is above the volume – making it a little harder to reach naturally – where Samsung has it handy, below the volume rocker. Still, you quickly get used to either, so it’s not something we’d base a decision on.
Neither has a physical fingerprint sensor. Both use built-in screens. But we found the Samsung to be generally the most reliable. It seems to register and unlock quickly and reliably almost every time.
Display and media
- Both: 6.4-inch AMOLED – 1080 x 2400 resolution – HDR10+ support – 411ppi
- Samsung: up to 120 Hz refresh
- Pixel: refresh up to 90 Hz
- Both: stereo speakers
Curiously, there’s one area – at least on paper – where the two phones are nearly identical: the displays. They both feature the same 6.4-inch, 1080 x 2400 AMOLED display with HDR10+ support. They do, however, have different refresh rates.
Pixel 6 can hit up to 90Hz, Samsung goes up to 120Hz, but you’d be hard-pressed to really spot the difference between those two peaks. Especially since there are very few truly popular apps that take advantage of the highest refresh rates.
If you were to walk through the UI, record it at a high frame rate, and watch it in slow motion, you’d see it. But otherwise, it’s hard to tell, since its peak refreshes aren’t active in most apps.
In their default modes – Samsung in “Vivid” mode and Pixel in “Boosted”. They have quite different approaches to color and contrast. With the Pixel seeing more contrast, which can help make things a bit sharper, but then you lose some of the color and texture of the elements. You can – of course – tweak the setting somewhat, with Pixel offering two additional color profiles.
Samsung’s screen looks brighter overall though, and that’s very beneficial when watching your favorite HDR shows on Netflix and other services, you’ll see dark scenes more clearly. Pixel has a little trouble with those.
On the front of the speakers, they are both similar. Both offer a stereo speaker. There is little discernible difference between the two. They can both be noisy, with similar approaches to frequency balance.
Performance and battery
- Samsung: Snapdragon 888 or Exynos 2100 processor
- Pixel: Google Tensor chip
- Samsung: 6GB/128GB, 8GB/128GB, 8GB/256GB options
- Pixel: 8GB/128GB, 8GB/256GB options
- Samsung: 4500 mAh battery – 25 W wired / 15 W wireless charging
- Pixel: 4,614 mAh battery – 30W wired/21W wireless charging
Google’s Pixel 6 runs on Google’s own processor, called Tensor, which is similar to Samsung’s Exynos-branded chips. But, if you run a geekbench test – for example – you’d see that it doesn’t quite hit the same numbers as the S21 FE which comes in two variants – Snapdragon 888 and Exynos 2100. lots in it though.
This particular S21 FE we had for review has SD888, and when using either phone the feel is one of speed and smoothness. They’ll load the most demanding games quickly, with no lag or stutter. We can’t say that we found one much better than the other here. It feels very fluid on both phones.
From a battery perspective, the interesting thing we found about the Pixel is that the longer we used it, the better the battery performance got, as the software got used to our usage patterns. At 4614 mAh it has a bigger capacity than the Samsung’s 4500 mAh, but there isn’t much at all.
Because they’re similar, we didn’t see a significant difference between the two in regular, everyday use. Neither is good enough to get through two full days with our moderate usage – typically around 2-3 hours of screen time per day – but they’ll comfortably get through a full day and end the day with around 40% remaining. on. Both also charge at similar speeds, delivering around 50 per cent charge in 30 minutes. You can even charge them both wirelessly.
Overall, at least when it comes to speed and smoothness or battery life, this is definitely an area we wouldn’t use as a factor in deciding which of the two phones you should buy.
- Samsung: three-camera system
- 12MP f/1.8 dual pixel primary – PDAF/OIS
- 12MP f/2.2 ultrawide
- 8MP f/2.4 3x zoom telephoto lens – PDAF/OIS
- Pixel: dual camera system
- 50MP f/1.9 dual pixel primary – PDAF/Laser AF/OIS
- 12MP f/2.2 ultrawide
- Both: 4K video up to 60 fps
When it comes to cameras, the two phones have slightly different makeups. The most obvious difference being that Pixel 6 doesn’t have a dedicated zoom camera like the S21 FE. But it doesn’t make as big of a difference as you might think in actual use. It still has a pretty good 2x digital zoom, which gets you closer to the action and gives you decent, sharp images.
When you compare the results, especially in daylight, you’ll see that the two have different approaches to color reproduction, but both can give you that vibrant, slightly artificial result. But of the two, the Pixel looks closer to natural coloring and has better detail.
The thing we noticed the most was Google’s HDR performance was better, so in the parts of the image where you have bright highlights from direct light, the Pixel was much better in the evening and in retaining details. And it didn’t matter whether we used the ultrawide or the main camera, it was the same thing.
Both also feature decent night mode capabilities, offering a way to shoot in low light, entirely handheld, without any need for stabilization. There are differences here too, but both are solid. Using the main camera, the Pixel seemed to pull out shadow detail better and even out highlights, but Samsung’s ultra wide seems to lift more light by default. However, the results of the two ultrawides at night can be quite strange and unnatural. Too sharp with too contrasting looks.
- Both: Android 12
- Samsung: One UI 4
- Pixel: pixel launcher
Oddly enough, it may be in the software that reading the spec sheet really doesn’t give you a full understanding of the differences in experience between the two phones. Because – after all – both run Android 12. They just feel very different.
One UI 4 – Samsung’s skin – is very similar to previous versions, with large, colorful app icons and lots of extras that Samsung likes to add. It’s adopted Android 12’s ability to them the interface based on wallpaper colors, but that’s about all that’s changed. Most of it – stylistically – is the same as before.
Google’s version is quite different. Everything from the drop-down settings, phone dialer, and pre-installed keyboard is themed. And there are – of course – all those new widgets, giving it a much fancier feel. It’s a redesign that will definitely split opinions, but I happen to like it a lot. And that’s one of the main reasons I would choose the Pixel 6 over most other Android phones, including the S21 FE.
Here’s one you won’t need to base your decision on: price. Both sell for the exact same figure. While they might cost slightly different amounts if you contract them with a carrier plan, the prices for the two phones are very similar.
Ultimately, we think it boils down to a couple of things. Pixel – of course – has this new software experience, which we really like. And, it has the best camera performance.
If you care more about media consumption, we think the display on the Samsung is better, and the slimmer, more comfortable build is also something to consider. Or if you really want a zoom camera, there’s one on the Samsung.
Written by Cam Bunton.