In a year when most things have become more expensive, the $599 Galaxy S23 FE is refreshing. That’s a lot less than its predecessor, the Galaxy S21 FE, which cost $699 nearly two years ago — especially when you consider inflation.
Price was one of the main problems with the Galaxy S21 FE. It was supposed to be an “accessible” flagship for fans – FE stands for Fan Edition. But its price was too close to the standard S21 to make sense, and at the time, the Pixel 6 was a better price at $599. It seems that Samsung intends to correct this mistake with the S23 FE.
For everything else, the S23 FE checks the right boxes. It has a capable processor with 8GB of RAM, a large screen, a dedicated telephoto lens, full IP68 water and dust resistance, wireless charging, and a very good five-year software support policy. This is a competitive package for $600.
But the S23 FE still feels like it’s stuck in no-man’s-land. The performance is good, but it’s not much better than the $500 Pixel 7A. It’s priced reasonably, but compared to $700 and $800 flagships it doesn’t seem like a hot deal. If it looked different in any way it would be easier for me to recommend it, but as it is, it feels like it was designed to be used before the supply of older generation Qualcomm chips wore out.
The Galaxy S23 FE uses a late 2021 vintage Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chipset – and it’s not an 8 Plus Gen 1, which comes out in mid-2022. The original 8 Gen 1 powered the S22 series of flagships, which had a tendency to run hot and have short battery life. In the S23 FE, it is paired with 8GB of RAM, which is enough for most daily tasks.
The 4,500mAh battery easily lasts a day with moderate use, but you may deplete it much faster with some processing-intensive tasks. Add an extra 30 minutes of gaming or extended periods of time away from Wi-Fi, and you’ll want to charge before the day is over. The S23 FE supports wireless charging, which is welcome here and not guaranteed on a $600 phone. It’s a small thing, but there’s nothing like plugging your phone into a charger at the end of the day instead of messing with the charging cable.
The best sign of this device for fans may be the color options in which Samsung sells it. My review unit is an unmistakable purple, and you can also get tangerine and mint options. I’m not as fond of the curved, smooth edges employed by the S23 FE; They feel very slippery in my hand, and many other device makers have moved to less rounded edges for good reasons. Even Samsung has gained ground on the S23 Ultra.
This phone isn’t light either – it weighs 209 grams, which is slightly more than the 196 gram Samsung Galaxy S23 Plus, even though they share the same dimensions. I took extra caution whenever I picked it up from the table so it wouldn’t fly out of my hand, and it’s a very good candidate for a serious case.
The S23 FE’s 6.4-inch screen is a highlight. It’s big enough to feel like a “big” screen, with enough resolution at 1080p that it doesn’t feel cheap. Sure, the bezels are significant, and you’ll find a slightly thick “chin” on the bottom border if you look for it, but these things didn’t bother me. It has a top refresh rate of 120Hz, so scrolling is very smooth. I only had to struggle with it on one occasion when I couldn’t get it bright enough outside – it was a bright but cloudy day, and I suspect the high brightness mode wasn’t attractive. Otherwise, it was as good and responsive as any flagship phone screen I’ve used in the last year.
The S23 FE feels more like an upcycled midrange phone than a simplistic flagship
Samsung’s One UI Android skin is one of my least favorite aspects of the phone. As usual, it takes a little effort to de-Samsung it to figure out the app drawer and install a keyboard, which doesn’t make me feel like throwing my phone in the ocean. I received a push notification encouraging me to “give the gift of a Galaxy” with a holiday-themed ad for the S23 Ultra, a phone that costs twice as much as the phone I’m using.
The phone also didn’t have a Calendar and Clock app when I set it up, which neither Samsung nor anyone else I asked could explain – Samsung phones usually come with at least two calendar apps. I’d chalk it up to general clutter, but still, Samsung software is Samsung software. The best news here is that the company’s strongest software support policy applies here – it comes with four years of OS updates and five years of security updates. It’s no longer the best policy in this class, but it’s a very good policy.
The camera system is where the S23 FE feels more like an upcycled midrange phone than a simplistic flagship. A 50-megapixel main camera is fine – even better! This is a telephoto camera which is felt when touched from the back. Its f/2.4 lens is slow, so with all the obvious noise-reduction softness of a digitally zoomed image, the camera happily switches to the main sensor in low light.
Portrait mode is also generally slow. I always felt the throbbing of the back when I was taking pictures of my baby, even when we were outside in good lighting. I wish Samsung had cut its losses and ditched the telephoto lens here in favor of a nice 2x crop zoom mode from the main camera – as it is, the 3x telephoto isn’t pulling its weight.
Apart from a few missed portrait mode shots, the Galaxy S23 FE didn’t disappoint me in any particular way during my testing. It lasted well for a long day outdoors as I scrolled through Instagram, listened to podcasts, and navigated bus routes across the city. There’s nothing wrong with this phone, and if the price and feature set appeal to you, I don’t think it will disappoint.
However, generally speaking, the S23 FE feels like too little, too late. In 2021, a $600 phone with a telephoto lens, wireless charging, and a top-tier chipset might have been really attractive. But the midrange class hasn’t stood still, and in 2023, the $500 Pixel 7A offers a lot of the things the S23 FE does, including wireless charging and a top-tier chipset. It doesn’t have a telephoto lens, but I’m completely satisfied with its camera’s 2x crop zoom and overall photo capabilities compared to the S23 FE.
In 2023, there’s another $599 phone to consider: the Nothing Phone 2. It doesn’t fully work on Verizon, so it’s not an option for everyone, but it comes with a larger 6.7-inch screen, a polished interface, and new features. Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 processor, with all the improvements in battery efficiency. What’s more, it feels like a tool designed for purpose – not for cleaning out a parts bin.
Samsung has found a way to position the S23 FE between the midrange and premium class, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we have another good phone on offer between the $500 and $800 flagships. But as far as the “fans” this phone is designed for? It is better for them to wait for the Galaxy S24.
Photography by Alison Johnson/The Verge