In a year where 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 factor in inflation.
The 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 value at $599. Samsung seems determined to correct this problem with the S23 FE.
As for everything else, the S23 FE fits the bill. There’s 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. It’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 much better than the $500 Pixel 7A. It’s priced appropriately, but it also doesn’t seem like a spectacular deal compared to the $700 and $800 flagships. It would be easier to recommend if it stood out from the crowd. somehow, but as it stands, it looks like it was designed to consume a supply of previous-generation Qualcomm chips before they become obsolete.
The Galaxy S23 FE uses an old Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chipset from late 2021, and that’s not the 8 Further Gen 1, which came out in mid-2022. The original 8 Gen 1 powered the S22 series flagships, which had a tendency to heat up and run out of battery. On the S23 FE, it is paired with 8GB of RAM, which is more than enough for most daily tasks.
The 4,500 mAh battery easily lasts a day of moderate use, but you can drain it much faster with some processing-intensive tasks. Add in an extra 30 minutes of gaming or extra time without Wi-Fi and you’ll want to charge it up before the day is over. The S23 FE supports wireless charging, which is welcome here and by no means guaranteed on a $600 phone. It’s a small thing, but there’s nothing like leaving your phone on a charger at the end of the day instead of fiddling with a charging cable.
This device’s best nod to fans might be the color options Samsung sells it in. My review unit is an unmistakable purple color, and you can also find tangerine and mint options. I’m not so fond of the smooth, curved edges used by the S23 FE; They feel too slippery in my hand and many other device manufacturers have opted for less rounded sides for good reason. Even Samsung moved to a flatter edge on the S23 Ultra.
This phone isn’t light either: it weighs 209g, a little more than the 196g of the Samsung Galaxy S23 Plus, although they share similar dimensions. I was very careful every time I picked it up from a table so it didn’t slip out of my hands, and it’s a very good candidate for a grip case.
The S23 FE’s 6.4-inch display is the highlight. It’s big enough to feel like a “big” screen, with just enough 1080p resolution that it doesn’t look cheap. Sure, bezels are important, and if you look for it you’ll find a slightly thicker “chin” along the bottom edge, but these things didn’t bother me. It has a maximum refresh rate of 120Hz, so scrolling is super smooth. I only had problems with it on one occasion where I couldn’t get it to be bright enough outside – it was a bright but cloudy day, and I suspect the high-brightness mode was unappealing. Otherwise, it was as nice and responsive as any flagship phone screen I’ve used in the past year.
The S23 FE looks more like a recycled mid-range phone than a stripped-down flagship
Samsung’s Android One UI skin remains one of my least favorite aspects of the phone. As always, it takes a little effort to uninstall the Samsung to make sense of the app drawer and install a keyboard that doesn’t make me want to throw my phone into the sea. I received a push notification encouraging me to “Give a Galaxy” with a Christmas-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 I asked could explain: Samsung phones usually come with at least two calendar apps. I’ll chalk it up to general chaos, 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 operating system updates and five years of security updates. That’s no longer the best policy in its class, but it’s a very good one.
The camera system is where the S23 FE feels more like a recycled mid-range phone than a stripped-down flagship. The 50 megapixel main camera is okay, even great! It is 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 conditions, with all the telltale noise-reduction smoothness of a digitally upscaled image.
Portrait mode is also slow in general. I always felt a heartbeat behind me 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 stands, the 3x telephoto lens isn’t pulling its weight.
Aside from a few missed portrait mode shots, the Galaxy S23 FE didn’t disappoint me in any particular way during my testing. It held up well on a long day out and about while browsing Instagram, listening to podcasts, and navigating bus routes around town. There’s nothing wrong with this phone, and if the price and feature set convince you, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Overall, though, the S23 FE seems too little, too late. In 2021, a $600 phone with a telephoto lens, wireless charging, and a top-tier chipset would have been very tempting. But the midrange class hasn’t stood still, and in 2023, the $500 Pixel 7A offers many of the same things the S23 FE offers, including wireless charging and a top-tier chipset. It doesn’t have a telephoto lens, but you’d be perfectly satisfied with its camera’s 2x crop zoom and overall photography capabilities compared to the S23 FE.
In 2023, there’s another $599 phone to consider: the Nothing Phone 2. It doesn’t run entirely 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 version newer. Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 processor, with all its improvements in battery efficiency. More than that, it feels like a device designed with a purpose: not to empty a parts bin.
Samsung found a way to slot the S23 FE between the mid-range and premium classes, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we have one more good phone on offer between the $500 and $800 flagships. But as for the “ fans” that this phone is supposedly designed for? They better wait for the Galaxy S24.
Photography by Allison Johnson/The Verge