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Don't get me wrong, the $599 Android phone is a solid deal; a lot of its best features are also present in phones that are double the price. But its design feels uninspiring, its late-year release feels like an afterthought, and Samsung no longer sticking to its "Fan Edition" branding removes some of the "for the people" luster that the original model introduced.
So, why does the Galaxy S23 FE exist? After much deliberation and a few too many crazy walls, I've come up with the definitive list of reasons why you should buy Samsung's latest smartphone above all else, even if it's the company's most confusing release this year.
First, let's talk design. There are some elements to like here, and some others that are not as appealing to me. For example, I love the flat, 6.4-inch AMOLED display that refreshes at 120Hz. This screen, in most lighting conditions, is more vibrant and brighter than any other sub-$600 phone I've tested. And the absence of a curved display -- which the industry as a whole seems to finally be moving away from -- means it's much easier to apply a screen protector.
On the other hand, the aluminum sides, though polished and seemingly durable enough to take a drop or two, don't curve into the back glass as smoothly as I'd prefer. This makes the Galaxy S23 FE feel rougher on the edges, especially when it's pressed against your palm. The bezels are also obnoxiously thick for a 2023 phone, but I digress.
Speaking of durability, this model comes with a Gorilla Glass 5 front panel, a downgrade on paper compared to the Gorilla Glass Victus found on more expensive phones, but secretly better for day-to-day use.
That's because while Gorilla Glass 5 is not as shatterproof as its successor, the lower level of hardness means that the display is also less likely to get scratches and scuffs. I may not drop my phone every day, but I do carry it around in a pants pocket that may have coins, keys, and other small trinkets that can leave marks on the screen.
Smartphone colors are getting boring, but not here. Samsung, much like it has with previous FE models, offers the Galaxy S23 FE in Cream, Graphite, Mint, and Purple (pictured below). It's more of a Barney-purple than anything else and helps the device pop in a sea of dark-colored slabs. If you typically use your phone without a case -- or with one of the clear TPU ones -- then you'll be in for a treat.
A $599 phone can only give you so much, and the compromises that you should be aware of with the Galaxy S23 FE mainly stem from the processor and camera system. A Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chip powers the device, and it's plenty capable of handling more strenuous tasks like video editing and running game emulators.
But, it only takes a few minutes before the phone starts to warm up, leading to the eventual framerate drop and app freeze. Had Samsung gone with a more power-efficient chipset, such as the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 Plus that came out just months after the 8 Gen 1, the Galaxy S23 FE would be in a much, much better place.
As for the cameras, I'm mostly impressed by the 50MP main sensor, which captures photos that are surprisingly color-accurate and will certainly pass the eye test. The shutter speed is also better than I expected, pacing well with the $900 iPhone 15 Plus and $1,700 OnePlus Open that I was also testing at the time. Where the triple camera system falls short is in the 12MP ultrawide and 8MP telephoto lenses, both of which -- as much as I enjoy the versatility of -- can't produce as much detail and clarity as the main sensor.
ZDNET's buying advice
To summarize, here's the list of reasons why you should buy the Galaxy S23 FE, including some extras that are subtle but make a notable difference:
One of the best displays in the sub-$600 market, ideal for streaming and gaming on the go.
Gorilla Glass 5 is low-key beneficial for users who don't drop their phones often but frequently experience scratches and scuffs.
The Mint and Purple colors make other phones look boring.
An IP68 rating and wireless charging support are often missing from phones in this price range. Not here.
Samsung is promising up to five years of security patches and four years of operating system updates.
That said, while the Galaxy S23 FE sits between the Galaxy A54 and S23 in the Samsung hierarchy, it doesn't necessarily make either one any less valuable. In fact, you're more likely to find the two older Samsung phones on sale this holiday shopping season than the S23 FE, which launched only a few weeks ago.
If retailers end up slashing $100-$200 off the Galaxy S23 model, much like how they did during July's Prime Day event, the S23 FE will be a hard sell -- and Samsung can only blame itself for that.