(Pocket-lint) - If you're looking at getting a flagship phone, but don't want to spend more than about £600 in the UK (or the equivalent wherever you're reading this) there's a good chance you've at least glanced at the Google Pixel 6 or the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE. They're two of the better phones in this price range.
Google's was one of the hit phones of 2021, offering a flagship experience, great cameras and unique software for a price much lower than the top dollar phones. As for Samsung's, that's a stripped down version of the S21. But which one should you go for? 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 front, Gorilla Glass 6 back - IP68 rating
- Both: Aluminium frame
There's more than one way in which the Pixel 6 and S21 FE differ, and the most obvious ways are in design. As glass slabs go, the Pixel 6 is very different to pretty much anything on the market. Its bold camera strip protrudes significantly from the back and expands all the way across the width of the phone.
Whether you love it or hate it, there is some practicality here in that you can lie it on its back, and it won't wobble. Unlike those phones with their camera units in the corner. Despite Samsung's sticking very much to that 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 couple of things that work in Samsung's favour. First, the phone is noticeably slimmer. In fact, it's a full millimetre thinner, and also noticeably shorter. That makes it a bit more comfortable and easier to hold for long periods. And one surprising benefit is the materials used. While glass on the Pixel is definitely a more premium material, the matte plastic on the Samsung makes it less prone to slipping off things, and is warmer and softer in the palm.
Both the phones have quite square designs though, and both feature very strong-feeling aluminium frames, so you know they should be able to take a beating. Both have the same Corning Gorilla Glass Victus on the front too. They'll even survive the odd occasion you drop them in the sink, toilet, or use them in the shower, since they're both waterproof to IP68 ratings.
Both have similarly skinny bezels around the display, but to the eye, the Pixel's do seem a tiny bit chunkier. One small difference you can't see from the outside: the vibrator motor. Pixel has a 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. Pixel's power button is above the volume - making it that bit harder to reach naturally - where Samsung has it within easy reach, below the volume rocker. Still, you soon get used to either, so it's not something we'd base a decision on.
Neither has a physical fingerprint sensor. Both use in-display ones. But we found the Samsung to be the more reliable one generally. It seems to register and unlock quickly and reliably nearly every time.
Display and media
- Both: 6.4-inch AMOLED - 1080 x 2400 resolution - HDR10+ support - 411ppi
- Samsung: Up to 120Hz refresh
- Pixel: Up to 90hz refresh
- Both: Stereo speakers
Funnily enough, there is one area - at least on paper - where the two phones are almost identical: the displays. They both feature the same 6.4-inch, 1080 x 2400 AMOLED display with HDR10+ support. They have different refresh rates though.
Pixel 6 can reach up to 90Hz, Samsung goes all the way up to 120Hz, but you'd be hard-pushed to really spot the difference between those two peaks. Especially since there are very few really popular apps that take advantage of the highest refresh rates.
If you were to glide around the user interface, record it at a high frame rate, and watch it back in slow motion, you would 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 colour and contrast. With the Pixel seeing more contrast-heavy, which can help make things look a bit sharper, but then you lose some of the colour and texture of elements. You can - of course - change the tuning somewhat, with Pixel offering two additional colour profiles.
Samsung's screen does seems brighter overall though, and that's quite beneficial when you're watching your favourite HDR shows on Netflix and other services, you'll see the dark scenes more clearly. Pixel struggles a little with those.
On the speaker front, they're both similar. Both offering stereo speaker. There's little discernible difference between the two. They can both be loud, 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: 4500mAh battery - 25W wired/15W wireless charging
- Pixel: 4614mAh 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 - as an example - you'd see it doesn't quite reach the same numbers as the S21 FE which comes in two variants - Snapdragon 888 and Exynos 2100. There's not a huge amount in it though.
This particular S21 FE we had in for review has the SD888, and when you use either phone the feeling is one of speed and fluidity. They'll load the most demanding games quickly, without lag or any stutter. We can't say we found one hugely better than the other here. It feels very fluid on both phones.
From a battery perspective, the interesting thing we found about Pixel is the longer we kept using it, the better the battery performed, as the software became accustomed to our usage patterns. At 4614 mAh, it does have a larger capacity than the 4500mAh in the Samsung, but there's not much in it at all.
Because they're similar, we didn't see a significant difference between the two in regular, every day usage. Neither is quite good enough to make it through two full days with our moderate usage - usually about 2-3 hours of screen time a day - but they'll comfortably make it through a full day and end the day with around 40 per cent left over. Both charge at similar speeds too, offering about 50% charge in 30 minutes. You can even charge them both wirelessly.
On the whole, at least when it comes to speed and fluidity or battery life, it's certainly one area we wouldn't use as a factor to decide which of the two phones you should buy.
- Samsung: Triple camera system
- 12MP f/1.8 primary dual pixel - PDAF/OIS
- 12MP f/2.2 ultrawide
- 8MP f/2.4 telephoto 3x zoom - PDAF/OIS
- Pixel: Dual camera system
- 50MP f/1.9 primary dual pixel - PDAF/Laser AF/OIS
- 12MP f/2.2 ultrawide
- Both: 4K video up to 60fps
When it comes to cameras, the two phones have slightly different make-ups. The most obvious difference being that Pixel 6 doesn't have a dedicated zoom camera like the S21 FE does. But that doesn't make as big a difference as you might think in actual usage. 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 results, particularly in daylight, you'll see the two have different approaches to colour reproduction, but both can give you that vibrant, slightly unnatural result. But of the two, the Pixel seems closer to natural colouring, and has better detail.
The thing we most noticed though was that Google's HDR performance was better, so in the parts of the image where you have bright highlights due to direct light, the Pixel was much better at evening that out and retaining the detail. And it didn't matter if we were using the ultrawide or the main camera, it was the same.
Both feature decent night mode abilities too, offering a way to shoot lowlight, completely handheld shots without any need for stabilisation. There are differences here too, but both are solid. Using the main camera, the Pixel seemed better at lifting detail out of the shadows and evening out highlights, but Samsung's ultrawide seems to lift more light by default. Although, results from both ultrawides at night time can be quite odd and unnatural looking. Oversharpened with over contrasty looks.
- Both: Android 12
- Samsung: One UI 4
- Pixel: Pixel launcher
Oddly enough, it's maybe in 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 big, colourful app icons, and lots of extras Samsung likes to add in. It has adopted Android 12's ability to theme the interface based on colours from wallpapers, 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 dialler and pre-installed keyboard gets themed. And there are - of course - all this new widgets, giving it a much more whimsical feel. It's a redesign that will certainly divide opinion, but I happen to like it a lot. And it's one of the big reasons I'd choose Pixel 6 over most other Android phones, including the S21 FE.
- Both: £599 in the UK
Here's one are where you won't need to base any decision on: the price. Both retail for exactly the same figure. Although they may cost slightly different amounts if you take them on contract with a carrier plan, the two phones are very similar in price.
In the end, we think what it comes down to are a couple of things. Pixel - of course - has that new software experience, which we really like. And, it has the better 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 something to consider as well. Or if you really want a zoom camera, there is that on the Samsung.