Samsung Galaxy S23 FE review: parts bin revisited

when most things got more expensive, the $599 Galaxy S23 FE is refreshing. That’s much less than its predecessor, the Galaxy S21 FE, cost when it debuted at $699 almost 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 the fans — the FE stands for Fan Edition. But it was priced too close to the standard S21 to make sense, and at the time, the Pixel 6 was a better value for $599. Samsung seems intent on righting this wrong with the S23 FE. As for everything else, the S23 FE checks the right boxes. There’s a capable processor with a healthy 8GB of RAM, a big screen, a dedicated telephoto lens, full IP68 water and dust resistance, wireless charging, and a very good five-year software support policy. That’s a competitive package for $600.

But the S23 FE still feels like it’s stuck in no-man’s-land. Performance is good, but it’s not leaps and bounds better than the $500 Pixel 7A. It’s appropriately priced, but it also doesn’t feel like a screaming deal compared to the $700 and $800 flagships. I’d find it easier to recommend if it stood out in any way at all, but as it is, it feels like it was designed to use up a supply of previous-gen Qualcomm chips before they go stale.The Galaxy S23 FE uses a late 2021 vintage Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chipset — and that’s not the 8 Plus Gen 1, which came out halfway through 2022. The original 8 Gen 1 powered the S22 series flagships, which had a tendency to run hot and come up short on battery life. In the S23 FE, it’s paired with 8GB of RAM, which is more than enough for most daily tasks.The 4,500mAh battery easily lasts a day of moderate use, but you can drain it much faster with some processing-intensive tasks. Add an extra 30 minutes of gaming or extended time away from Wi-Fi, and you’ll want to charge up before the day’s over. The S23 FE supports wireless charging, which is welcome here and by no means guaranteed on a $600 phone. It’s a little thing, but there’s nothing quite like plopping your phone on a charger at the end of the day rather than messing with a charging cable.

This device’s best nod toward fans might be the color options Samsung sells it in. My review unit is an unmistakable purple, and you can find tangerine and mint options, too. I’m not as fond of the curved, smooth edges employed by the S23 FE; they feel too slippery in my hand, and many other device manufacturers have moved to less rounded sides for good reason. Even Samsung moved to a flatter edge on the S23 Ultra.This phone is no lightweight, either — it weighs 209g, a bit more than the 196g Samsung Galaxy S23 Plus, even though they share similar dimensions. I took extra care whenever I picked it up off a table so it wouldn’t fly out of my hands, and it’s a very good candidate for a grippy case.The S23 FE’s 6.4-inch screen is a highlight. It’s big enough to feel like a “big” screen, with just enough resolution at 1080p that it doesn’t look cheap. Sure, the bezels are significant, and you’ll find a slightly thicker “chin” along 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 super smooth. I only struggled with it on one occasion when I couldn’t quite get it bright enough outside — it was a bright but overcast day, and I suspect the high brightness mode wasn’t engaging. Otherwise, it was just as nice and responsive as any flagship phone screen I’ve used in the past year.The S23 FE feels more like an upcycled midrange phone than a simplified flagshipSamsung’s One UI Android skin remains one of my least favorite aspects of the phone. As always, it takes a little effort to de-Samsung it to make sense of the app drawer and install a keyboard that doesn’t make me want to throw my phone in the sea. I got a push notification encouraging me to “Give the gift of Galaxy” with a holiday-themed ad for the S23 Ultra, a phone that costs twice as much as the one I was using. The phone was also missing a calendar and clock app when I set it up, which neither Samsung nor anyone else I asked could explain — Samsung phones usually ship with at least two calendar apps. I’ll chalk that one up to general chaos, but still, Samsung software is Samsung software. The absolute 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. That’s no longer the best policy in the class, but it’s a darn good one.

The camera system is where the S23 FE feels more like an upcycled midrange phone than a simplified flagship. The 50-megapixel main camera is fine — great even! It’s the telephoto camera that feels a touch behind. Its f/2.4 lens is slow, so the camera happily switches to the main sensor in low light, with all the telltale noise-reduction softness of a digitally zoomed image. Portrait mode is just slow in general, too. It always felt a beat behind when I was taking photos of my toddler, even when we were outside in decent lighting. I wish Samsung had cut its losses and skipped the telephoto lens here in favor of a decent 2x crop zoom mode from the main camera — as it is, the 3x telephoto isn’t pulling its weight.

Outside of some missed portrait mode shots, the Galaxy S23 FE didn’t let me down in any particular way during my testing. It kept up well on a long day outside of the house as I scrolled through Instagram, listened to podcasts, and navigated bus routes across town. There’s nothing wrong with this phone, and if the price and feature set speak to you, then I don’t think it will disappoint. Generally speaking, though, 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 would have been seriously tempting. But the midrange class hasn’t been standing 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 the telephoto lens, but I’d be perfectly 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 big 6.7-inch screen, a polished interface, and the newer Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 processor, with all its improvements in battery efficiency. More than that, it feels like a device designed with purpose — not to clear out a parts bin.Samsung found a way to wedge the S23 FE in between the midrange and premium classes, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we have one more good phone on offer between $500 and the $800 flagships. But as for the “fans” this phone is supposedly designed for? They’re better off waiting for the Galaxy S24.

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