June 16, 2024

Mikayla Macfarlane

Serving technology better

Samsung Galaxy S23 FE Review: Flagship Essentials for $600

11 min read
Samsung Galaxy S23 FE Review: Flagship Essentials for $600


Like


  • Fast performance

  • Lower price for higher-end features

  • Lowlight photography

Don’t like


  • Battery life

  • Feels similar to the Galaxy S22, for better and worse

After a week spent using the $600 (£599, AU$999) Samsung Galaxy S23 FE, I decided that the company’s “FE” should now stand for “Flagship Essentials.” That’s not a bad thing, as the S23 FE includes many of the features that Samsung only includes in its Galaxy S23 phones, while scaling back areas that help it hit a price that’s $200 less. It fills a gap in Samsung’s lineup between the $450 Galaxy A54 and the $800 Galaxy S23 quite well. A Samsung representative has also confirmed that FE no longer stands for “Fan Edition” as it did in the past, with the FE label now standing on its own.

When I first got the phone, I was pleasantly surprised to see how fast it ran through setting up my apps, settings and web pages. That’s largely thanks to the phone’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor, which despite being almost two years old is still faster than the Galaxy A54 5G’s Exynos 1380 chip. Internationally, the Galaxy S23 FE includes Samsung’s Exynos 2200 processor, but my review unit is the US model with the Qualcomm chip.

When I took the S23 FE to my parents’ house over the weekend, I learned firsthand how valuable it can be to spend a little extra on a phone that has more-premium features like reverse wireless charging. I forgot my USB-C power adapter, but the S23 FE helped me power up my other devices until I was able to get to a Best Buy. That’s something I wouldn’t have been able to do on the cheaper Galaxy A54 5G.

Samsung Galaxy S23 FE

The Galaxy S23 FE is on the same processor as the Galaxy S22, which is still fast even if it isn’t new.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

The S23 FE includes a 50-megapixel main camera and 12-megapixel ultrawide camera, similar to what’s included on the $800 Galaxy S23, which worked like a charm during my cousin’s nighttime wedding held on Roosevelt Island. The phone also includes a telephoto camera, another feature normally seen only on Samsung’s more expensive phones, which came in handy for taking zoomed-in photos.

To be clear, this isn’t the Galaxy S23 model to buy if you’re looking for the latest and greatest specs at a discounted price. But if you’re considering springing for a cheaper Android phone, the Galaxy S23 FE is an excellent starter flagship that gets you access to Samsung’s higher-end features without the price to match.

Samsung Galaxy S23 FE

My review unit is the purple model of the Galaxy S23 FE.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

Samsung Galaxy S23 FE design, specs, battery

The Samsung Galaxy S23 FE reminds me of Apple’s iPhone 5C from a decade ago. That year, Apple took the internals of the iPhone 5 and placed them inside a colorful polycarbonate body, and dropped the price to $100 less than the new-for-2013 iPhone 5S. In this case, Samsung repackaged many of the Galaxy S22’s specs and features, put them into a colorful aluminum body and made the price $200 less than the Galaxy S23. Since Samsung didn’t end up releasing a Galaxy S22 FE, this is the first phone between midrange and flagship price that the company has released in a couple of years.

My review device is the purple model, but the Galaxy S23 FE comes in a rainbow of colors, including Tangerine, Indigo, Cream, Graphite and Mint. The back of the phone is a bit of a fingerprint magnet, but the colorful style is otherwise welcome.

The phone’s 6.4-inch 1,080p display also hits a sweet spot between the smaller 6.1-inch display on the base Galaxy S23 and the 6.6-inch display on the Galaxy S23 Plus. I personally prefer phones this size because the expanded screen provides plenty of room to view media without the phone’s body fully occupying my pants pocket. The S23 FE’s display runs at a variable refresh rate up to 120Hz, and includes an option to turn on an always-on display.

Samsung Galaxy S23 FE

The 6.4-inch display feels big for media, but it doesn’t overwhelm like a 6.7-inch screen might.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

Even though we’re now on the cusp of seeing phones that include Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 3, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 is still a very capable chip. In my Geekbench 6 and 3DMark testing, the phone compares equivalently to the new $699 Pixel 8 that runs on Google’s new Tensor G3 chip. It also matches up with the $599 Nothing Phone 2 and the $999 Motorola Razr Plus, both of which run on the slightly newer Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1. Unlike Samsung’s other Galaxy S23 phones, this Qualcomm chip isn’t specifically optimized “For Galaxy,” but it still keeps up with many other 2023 phones.

The phone ships with Android 13 and Samsung’s One UI 5.1 skin, and includes DeX mode, the desktop-optimized view for connecting the S23 FE to a monitor, which isn’t available on the $450 Galaxy A54. Like other Galaxy S phones, it’ll receive four years of Android software updates along with five years of security updates.

Though the Galaxy S23 FE includes a larger 4,500mAh battery than the regular Galaxy S23’s 3,900mAh one, I found that the battery drained faster than I expected. I was able to make it a full day without recharging, but I usually ended my days with the phone between 12% and 20% left of battery life. On a typical day I would keep the phone off its charger for roughly 13 to 14 hours, and I would actively use the phone for about 3 hours and 30 minutes each day as measured by the Digital Wellbeing section found within the phone’s settings.

Galaxy S23 FE front

The Galaxy S23 FE uses an optical fingerprint sensor for unlocking.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

During our YouTube streaming drain test, in which I played a video for three hours at full brightness, the S23 FE depleted to 94% after the first hour, 85% by the second and 77% by the third. This makes the phone’s results roughly equivalent to those of the Pixel 8 — which finished at 79% by the third hour. However, most other 2023 phones on which we’ve run this test retained over 80% of their battery life by the third hour. 

In a 45-minute battery endurance test in which I played 20 minutes of a game followed by 20 minutes of a video while scrolling websites, the phone dropped from 96% to 85%, which is also on the higher side. The original Galaxy S22 had a similar result during a similar endurance test, and my colleague Lisa Eadicicco noted in her review that battery life was an issue.

Though I do wish the Galaxy S23 FE’s battery life was longer, its 25W charging was able to take the battery from 5% to 59% during my 30-minute charging test, which bodes well should you need to give the phone a midday charge. This is also the same charging speed that’s offered on the base Galaxy S22 and Galaxy S23.

The Galaxy S23 FE cameras

The Samsung Galaxy S23 FE includes three cameras: a 50-megapixel main camera, a 12-megapixel ultrawide lens and an 8-megapixel telephoto lens.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

Samsung Galaxy S23 FE cameras

The Samsung Galaxy S23 FE’s cameras perform quite well in a variety of daytime and nighttime settings. I was able to get some jaw-dropping photos of New York City’s skyline from Roosevelt Island at night, detailed puppy photos, and some nice photos of a colorful charcuterie birthday dinner with my friend Mark.

Nighttime photo of New York

Nighttime photo taken on the Galaxy S23 from New York’s Roosevelt Island.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

Dinner photo taken on the Galaxy S23 FE.

My friend Mark and I dug into all the cheese.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

The S23 FE scales back slightly with its 8-megapixel telephoto camera, compared with the 10-megapixel telephoto lens offered on the more expensive Galaxy S23 phones. But that lens still helps with its 3x optical zoom. I tested this zoom lens outside in Astor Place and inside at Astoria Bier and Cheese, finding the 3x zoom to keep a nice amount of detail.

Astor Place photo taken on wide camera

Taken on the 50-megapixel main camera.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

Zoomed in photo of Astor Place

Taken at 3x optical zoom on the 8-megapixel telephoto camera.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

Side by side of food shelf taken by wide and telephoto lenses

A side-by-side taken at Astoria Bier and Cheese. On the left is a food shelf taken on the main camera of the S23 FE, and the right is the food shelf at 3x zoom, taking advantage of the telephoto camera.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

The S23 FE can zoom up to 30x digitally, but quality dips substantially — digital zoom crops into what the camera can see, often leading to a noisier image. My photos at a puppy show fundraiser didn’t come out great when using that digital zoom.

Dog walking on two legs

Taken using the digital zoom, which results in a lot more image noise.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

However, it’s worth noting that the Galaxy S23 FE is $100 more than Google’s Pixel 7A — and that latter phone offers a lot of camera features despite lacking a telephoto lens. I took both phones with me for some comparison shooting, and found that in many settings the S23 FE compares quite favorably to the Pixel 7A.

During a visit to the new Wegmans grocery store in Astor Place, I took photos of a Japanese fish stand. Both cameras take in a lot of the different colors of fish on display. It’s only when I start zooming into the photos that I start finding how the S23 FE captured more of the writing on the small signs than the 7A did.

The fish stand at Wegman’s taken on the Galaxy S23 FE.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

The fish stand taken on the Pixel 7A.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

In these photos of Reis the puppy, both phones captured her furriness while struggling with her constantly wagging tail. Notice the motion blur on Reis’ tail.

Reis the puppy

Reis the puppy as taken on the Galaxy S23 FE.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

Reis the puppy

Reis as taken on the Pixel 7A.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

Night mode is where the Galaxy S23 FE pulls ahead of the 7A, though. I took both phones to a very dark pond, and the S23 FE captured a substantially clearer shot, considering it was taken in the dead of night. The S23 FE’s photo has less image noise and appears to show more of the pond’s surroundings.

Pond at night

Pond at night taken on the Galaxy S23 FE.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

Pond at night

Pond at night taken on the Pixel 7A.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

The S23 FE’s 8-megapixel front-facing camera also is a slight scale back from the standard S23’s 10-megapixel camera. However, in my comparison testing against the Pixel 7A’s 13-megapixel front-facing camera, the S23 FE got more detail in my hair and face. This could come down to a matter of preference, since Google’s photo processing tends to favor more realistic colors over the more saturated look in Samsung’s photos. Samsung’s camera app has presets for natural or vivid processing, but I had the natural option selected for these.

I can see the ways that the Galaxy S23 FE’s camera outperforms the Pixel 7A, but for some people the quality difference might not be worth the extra $100. Both cameras are quite capable in daylight and lowlight situations. They also include a variety of processing options for getting the most out of those images. 

The S23 FE can record 4K video at 60 frames per second (fps) and 8K at 24 fps. The 7A’s highest setting is 4K at 30 fps.

Samsung Galaxy S23 FE

The Samsung Galaxy S23 FE.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

Samsung Galaxy S23 FE bottom line

The Galaxy S23 FE is an excellent option for someone who wants a nicer Samsung phone without having to pay $800 or more. It would be a particularly noticeable upgrade for someone coming from a 2- or 3-year-old phone from Samsung’s Galaxy A line or the Pixel 4A. The FE’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chip will feel like a speed boost, and the photography will be a noticeable step forward.

On the other hand, this phone won’t satisfy people who typically buy the newest phone on the market. The more-expensive $800 Galaxy S23 still offers plenty of step-up features to differentiate itself fully from the S23 FE, but it’s quite likely we’ll be seeing a Galaxy S24 early next year with even newer specs.

Someone considering the Galaxy S23 FE should compare it to Google’s $499 Pixel 7A. Both phones include capable processors, wireless charging, excellent image processing and include most of the features seen on their more-expensive counterparts, at a lower price. The main elements that separate the two are the S23 FE’s telephoto camera, larger display and slightly faster performance.

Google also still sells the Pixel 7 for $599, which adds reverse wireless charging. The phone also matches up with the $599 Nothing Phone 2, whose glyph LED lights add its own sense of style. We haven’t yet reviewed the $600 Motorola Edge, but that phone is including 256GB of space at that price, along with fast 68W charging, and it’s similar to the Lenovo ThinkPhone by Motorola.

But the Galaxy S23 FE includes just enough power to provide access to all of Samsung’s higher-end features, and the compromises Samsung makes to achieve a lower price will largely go unnoticed. Just be aware that depending on your usage, you may want to keep a power cord nearby to recharge that battery.

Samsung Galaxy S23 FE vs. Google Pixel 7A vs. Nothing Phone 2

Samsung Galaxy S23 FE Google Pixel 7A Nothing Phone 2
Display size, resolution 6.4-inch FHD+ AMOLED display, (2,340×1,080 pixels) adaptive 120Hz refresh rate (60Hz to 120Hz) 6.1-inch OLED; 2,400×1,080 pixels; 60/90Hz 6.7-inch OLED; 2,412×1,080 pixels; HDR10+, 120Hz adaptive
Pixel density 466 ppi 361 ppi 394 ppi
Dimensions (inches) 6.22×3.01×0.32 inches 6×2.87×0.35 inches 6.38x3x0.33 inches
Dimensions (millimeters) 157.9×76.4×8.1mm 73x152x9mm 162x76x8.6mm
Weight (ounces, grams) 209 grams (7.4 oz) 193 grams (6.81 oz) 201.2 grams (7.1 oz)
Mobile software Android 13 Android 13 Android 13
Camera 50 megapixel (wide), 12 megapixel (ultrawide), 8 megapixel (telephoto) 64 megapixel (main), 13 megapixel (ultrawide) 50 megapixel (main), 50 megapixel (ultrawide)
Front-facing camera 10 megapixel 13 megapixel, 4K @ 30fps 32 megapixel
Video capture 8K at 24fps, 4K at 60fps 4K at 30/60fps 4K at 60fps
Processor Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 Tensor G2 Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1
RAM/Storage 8GB + 128GB, 256GB 8GB/128GB 8+128GB; 12+256GB
Expandable storage None None None
Battery/charger 4,500 mAh (25W wired charging) 4,385 mAh (18W fast charging 7.5W wireless charging) 4,700 mAh
Fingerprint sensor In-display Side In-display
Connector USB-C USB-C USB-C
Headphone jack None None None
Special features Wireless PowerShare, Fast Wireless Charging 2.0, Samsung Knox with Samsung Knox Vault, IP68 water resistance 5G (5G sub6/mmWave), IP67 rating, 18W fast charging, 7.5W wireless charging 5G-enabled, IP54 water resistance, 45W wired charging, flashing rear lights

How we test phones

Every phone tested by CNET’s reviews team was actually used in the real world. We test a phone’s features, play games, and take photos. We examine the display to see if it’s bright, sharp and vibrant. We analyze the design and build to see how it is to hold and whether it has an IP-rating for water-resistance. We push the processor’s performance to the extremes, using standardized benchmark tools like GeekBench and 3DMark as well as our own anecdotal observations navigating the interface, recording high-resolution videos and playing graphically intense games at high refresh rates.

All the cameras are tested in a variety of conditions, from bright sunlight to dark indoor scenes. We try out special features like night mode and portrait mode and compare our findings against similarly priced competing phones. We also check out the battery life by using the phone daily as well as running a series of battery drain tests.

We take into account additional features, like support for 5G; satellite connectivity; fingerprint and face sensors; stylus support; fast charging speeds; and foldable displays, among others that can be useful. And we balance all this against the price to give you the verdict on whether that phone, whatever price it is, actually represents good value. Though these tests may not always be reflected in CNET’s initial review, we conduct follow-up and long-term testing in most circumstances.





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