Last year, according to Counterpoint Research, three of the five best-selling phones worldwide were Samsung phones, which ranked third, fourth and fifth after the iPhone XR and 11. If you live in the US when you think of Samsung, you probably think of the Galaxy S or Note – but the Samsung phones that sold so well were mid-range phones from the Galaxy A series.
Samsung is making great efforts to sell more of these phones in the U.S. with the $ 399 Galaxy A51. With this price, it is in direct competition with the iPhone SE, but there are many other Android phones that are under $ 500. What sets the A51 apart is Samsung's marketing budget and partnerships. It is available unlocked on the Amazon and Samsung websites that matter to a mid-range Samsung device, as well as on AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and Xfinity Mobile.
Compared to the iPhone SE, the screen, a large 6.5-inch OLED, is the main attraction of the A51. Samsung says the phone is "fantastic" in three specs: screen, camera, and battery life. An ad filled with Bonker's meme was even created to bring these points home. (You should watch it because the display is really great.) Unfortunately, the Galaxy A51 is not quite as good.
- Great 6.5-inch OLED screen
- Headphone jack
- Good build quality
- Camera is nothing special
- The battery life is not what it could be
The Galaxy A51 doesn't look or feel like a cheap phone at all. It is large and well put together. Samsung says the material it's made of is called "Glasstic," which sounds a lot chintier than it feels. It almost feels like glass, but it only has a bit of the hollow feeling you can get from plastic.
It comes with 128 GB of internal storage, which is very generous at $ 399. You can also expand it with microSD storage. There's also a headphone jack that's welcome at any price, but a little more important than usual.
My favorite part of the Galaxy A51 is the screen. It is simply a successful 6.5-inch OLED that is bright even in sunlight. If you're looking for advanced screen technology – like colors that adapt to ambient light, high refresh rates, or even super-high resolution – look elsewhere. At 1080 x 2400, however, there are more than enough pixels even with this screen size. I have seen many large, low-rent screens on Android phones, and this is not one of them.
Every phone has compromises, and $ 399 phones have more than $ 1,000. So phone manufacturers have to choose their priorities, and Samsung has clearly chosen the screen. Given that that's what people look at and interact with hundreds of times a day, making a choice is a good thing.
But I can't peck – not on the screen, but what is underneath – especially the hole-punch selfie camera. I have no problem with pinhole cameras. In fact, I generally prefer notches of any size. For reasons beyond understanding, Samsung placed a small chrome ring around the camera. It catches at certain angles when the light hits it the same way, and then it's hard not to see it. It is bizarre.
The other one under the screen is an optical fingerprint sensor. I'm not sure if Samsung doesn't have enough reps or something with these sensors, but it's awfully slow. It may take up to a second for the green animation to blow out so you know the phone is unlocked. It is also not the most accurate sensor, especially in direct sunlight.
So the screen is … great. The things under the screen are not.
Unfortunately, this assessment also extends to the processor and the RAM. In the U.S., most popular Samsung phones use Qualcomm processors, but this A51 uses a Samsung Exynos 9611, a midrange chip that isn't quite up to the task of making this phone snappy. It takes a long time to load apps – especially if they have not been opened recently and are therefore not yet active in the 4 GB RAM.
Once you're in a browser or app, things move with a good enough clip. But every now and then it struggles to render a screen or load the next item in your feed.
As I said, different phone manufacturers have to set their priorities for these cheaper phones. For example, Apple kept the same old iPhone 8 case with a smaller screen and massive bezels for the iPhone SE, but used the fastest mobile processor available: the A13 Bionic. Samsung chose differently.
The battery life is okay, but it doesn't quite match Samsung's claim that it is "long-lasting". I'll be a little over a day – better than I could for sure on iPhone SE. But with a 4,000 mAh cell and a 1080p screen, I was a little surprised that I didn't get much better. Theoretically, these specifications should have led to something a lot more impressive, and I wonder if the Exynos processor might be partly to blame.
Finally, there is the camera system, which consists of more lenses than necessary. The main lens has a 48-megapixel sensor that outputs 12-megapixel images as standard. Like almost every camera these days, these pictures are decent enough in good lighting. I was pleasantly surprised to see a good white balance that Samsung sometimes misses. However, Samsung's other bad tendency to cast unnatural shadows remains.
You probably know what's coming: it falls down in low light – worse than the iPhone SE. And if you really enlarge the details of the A51, there is a lot more clutter than with other smartphone cameras – even with 48 megapixels.
There's a 12-megapixel ultrawide and a 5-megapixel macro camera that's more fun than great shots. Fun is good! I enjoyed using these cameras. There's also a 5-megapixel depth camera that didn't seem to do anything useful, at least in portrait mode. Finally, the selfie camera has 32 megapixels and creates photos that often look overworked.
Finally the software. Samsung's One UI customizations over Android continue to make using a large screen phone more enjoyable. However, Samsung's willingness to allow cellphone operators to contaminate their phones with crapware also persists: my Verizon-based test device was full of games and services that nobody wanted. I also wish I could say that I trust this phone to get software updates for more than two or three years.
In my opinion, the Galaxy A51 only hits one and a half of the three “great” things that Samsung has promised. The screen is fantastic, the battery life is pretty good and the camera doesn't impress. The Pixel 3A (and probably the upcoming 4A) and the iPhone SE were shocked by how good their cameras are for $ 399. But the photos of the A51 definitely look like they come from a mid-tier phone.
It's hard to make a good $ 400 phone, and none of them can be awesome in every possible metric. But you want at least some parts of the phone to feel like they're from something much more expensive. Aside from the screen, not enough of the Galaxy A51 is fantastic.