2020 might just go down in history as the year of the midrange smartphone. Apple’s new $399 iPhone SE is our highest-rated non-flagship model in some time, and we’re expecting about a dozen or so more similarly priced offerings to hit US carriers this year. First up is the $399.99 Samsung Galaxy A51. It offers plenty of value for its price in the form of a handsome design, long battery life, good camera quality, and a gorgeous display. But it’s no competitor to the iPhone SE in the power department.
Design, Display, and Durability
Put simply, the Galaxy A51 looks good. It measures 6.24 by
2.90 by 0.31 inches (HWD) and comes in at 6.06 ounces. It’s light and just narrow
enough to hold and use in one hand without any big issues. In the US it’s available
in black with an attractive prismatic finish. In other parts of the world
there are blue and white options available as well.
The front of phone is dominated by a near bezel-less 6.5-inch
AMOLED display with a 20:9 aspect ratio and a small hole for the front-facing camera. Resolution comes in at 2,400 by 1,080, for a higher pixel density (405ppi) than the iPhone SE (326ppi). Colors are vivid and warm by default, but you can customize them to your liking in the settings menu. The display itself is bright and crisp, and you’ll have no problem seeing it in direct sunlight.
There’s also an in-display optical fingerprint sensor, but it isn’t very good. In daily use, it only worked properly about 40 percent
of the time. If you’re not overly worried about security, I’d opt for the facial
recognition feature to unlock instead.
On the back of the phone you’ll find a wide rectangular
camera stack in the top left corner. Unlike glass or metal flagship models, the A51’s back panel is made of sturdy plastic with a glass-like finish, which you probably wouldn’t even realize is plastic without looking closely. That said, it became covered in fingerprints within minutes of taking the phone out of the box.
The top edge of the A51 is bare, while the bottom is home to a headphone
jack, a USB-C port, and a speaker. On the left side you’ll find a hybrid SIM/microSD slot,
and on the right are power and volume buttons. If you have small
hands, you might fumble a bit with the volume rocker.
While the new iPhone SE features an IP67 rating, the A51 carries no such formal durability assurance. While the plastic back panel can likely withstand an accidental drop without much damage, the display is made of Gorilla Glass 3, an
older, more brittle hardened glass that stands up well against scratches, but
not so much to hard drops. Your best bet is to put the phone in a good case.
Audio, Call, and Network Quality
The Galaxy A51 is available both unlocked and through all the major US carriers. Unlocked, it supports LTE bands 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/13/14/20/25/26/28/29/30/66/71.
Network speeds are solid. We tested the phone on Verizon and clocked average speeds of 76.9Mbps down and 14.6Mbps up.
Call quality is excellent. Maximum earpiece volume
comes in at 84dB, which is loud enough to hear on a busy street. Our test calls
were clear and noise cancellation worked well, even when using the phone
in an area with loud construction.
Other audio quality is acceptable. Peak volume is 88dB, which is loud
enough to fill a room. Timbre is thin at higher volumes, with noticeable clipping. Bass is nonexistent and treble is spotty. In short, it’s fine for a conference
call or to scroll through videos TikTok, but you’ll want to take advantage of the 3.5mm headphone
jack if your plans include a Netflix binge.
The A51 supports dual-band Wi-Fi and has Bluetooth 5.0 for wearable connectivity. There’s also NFC for mobile payments and
The Galaxy A51 sports a fairly serious camera
stack. On the back of the phone you’ll find four sensors: a 48MP wide-angle
lens with an f/2.0 aperture, a 12MP ultrawide lens with an f/2.2 aperture, a 5MP
depth lens with an f/2.2 aperture, and another 5MP macro lens with an f/2.4
In daylight testing, nearly all of our shots looked crisp, with excellent depth of field. Colors are a little oversaturated across the board, but this tends to be the case with Samsung phones. Upon close examination, I observed some minor edge distortion with the ultrawide lens, but it’s not something you’ll easily
notice with the naked eye.
The A51 offers solid performance in low light
as well. I tested the wide and ultrawide sensors in several different low-light
scenarios, and there was some edge noise and minor loss of fine
detail, but photos still had excellent depth of field and
there were no light flares.
On the front, you’ll find a 32MP wide-angle lens with an f/2.2
aperture. For the most part, the selfie camera is solid in just about any lighting
scenario. In good light, test shots looked crisp, with excellent color
accuracy. Wide-angle mode made for some edge blurring in a few shots, but not consistently.
Specs and Performance
The Galaxy A51 ships with Samsung’s Exynos 9611 chipset and 4GB
of RAM. There’s 128GB of storage, of which 105GB is available out of
the box. It can accommodate up to an additional 512GB of storage with a microSD
Performance is on the slow side compared with the similarly priced iPhone SE and Google Pixel 3a, and even the $249 Moto G Power. Apps and
websites take a little longer to load than you’d expect, and we noticed some caching
when more than a dozen apps were open simultaneously.
Gaming is also underwhelming, though a Game Booster mode seems to help speed things up a little. During our tests we noticed long load times for Asphalt 9, and PUBG: Mobile crashed twice. If Candy Crush or Bejeweled is more
your speed, the A51 will suit your needs just fine.
Benchmark tests support our experiential usage. On PCMark 2.0
work, a suite of tests that emulates typical smartphone tasks, the A51 scored
5,429, trailing behind the Moto G Power (6,751) and the Pixel 3a (7,378).
See How We Test Phones
On Geekbech 5, a benchmark that measures raw processor
power, the A51 garnered scores of 347 (single-core) and 1,340 (multi-core). For comparison, the Moto G Power came in at 310 SC and 1,289 MC, while
the iPhone SE blasted past with scores of 1,331 SC and 3,299 MC.
The Galaxy A51 is powered by a 4,00mAh battery that can easily get
you through the day. In our battery drain test, which streams HD video over
Wi-Fi at full brightness, the phone lasted 11 hours and 29 minutes. There’s a 15W charger in the box, and you
can activate the fast charging mode in the settings menu. Unlike the iPhone SE, it doesn’t support wireless charging.
The Galaxy A51 ships with Android 10 along with Samsung’s
One UI 2. While many manufacturers have gravitated toward a near-stock Android experience,
Samsung’s UI remains heavy-handed. That’s not to say it’s bad, but just about everything is a little different, from the navigation
bar to the settings menu.
If you purchase the unlocked version of the A51, Samsung’s
suite of productivity apps come preloaded. They seem superfluous, since Android already has the same apps baked in. My Verizon review unit also had
nearly a dozen extra apps preinstalled, though fortunately you can delete most of them.
Samsung’s latest OTA update with
One UI 2.1 and the April 2020 security patch brings AR
Emoji, Music Share, and Quick Share, as well as updated Gallery and Samsung Keyboard
apps. That said, I didn’t receive the update while writing this review in May, so I
can’t comment on the changes.
Since Google has yet to announce Android 11, Samsung has
yet to confirm whether the A51 will receive an update. I think there’s
a good chance the phone will see Android 11 at some point in the future, but if fast OS
updates are important to you, you should go for the Pixel 3a or the iPhone SE.
At $400, the Samsung Galaxy A51 is a perfectly good Android phone for many users. It has a big, crisp AMOLED display, long battery life, and sharp cameras. If it had a faster processor, you’d be seeing a higher score here. If you’re not a diehard Android fan and don’t mind a smaller display, the iPhone SE is a significantly more powerful phone, and it’s guaranteed to receive software updates for years to come. For Android enthusiasts, meanwhile, the Pixel 3a gets you more power and reliable software updates, while the Moto G Power offers longer battery life than the A51 for $150 less.