Galaxy A51 review: Samsung beats the iPhone SE in these important ways

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The Galaxy A51’s 6.5-inch screen won’t wash out in direct sunlight.


Juan Garzon/CNET

How good can a $400 phone really be? When the device in question is the Samsung Galaxy A51, the answer is simple: very good. As the first real representative of the Galaxy A family in the US, the A51 is a convincing effort that proves Samsung can make a good midprice phone that’s worth buying. In fact, Samsung’s budget phone (£329 in the UK and AU$599 in Australia) even bests the iPhone SE (which starts at $399, £419 and AU$749), in some specific, and significant, ways. When it comes to screen size and clarity, phone features, camera quality and performance, the Galaxy A51 delivers where it counts, with one exception.

Like

  • 6.5-inch screen is detailed and bright
  • Wide-angle camera option
  • Headphone jack

Don’t Like

  • Processor speed drags
  • No water resistance

The Galaxy A51 is sold at Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, Amazon and as part of a package bundle at Samsung.com

It’s the speed of its Samsung-made Exynos 9611 processor that’s the Galaxy A51’s Achilles’ heel. Performance feels sluggish handling day-to-day activities such as waiting for a website to load or for apps to refresh. Benchmarking tests support that real-world observation. 

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Camera performance between these two rivals is closer than you might think.


Lexy Savvides/CNET

The Galaxy A51 certainly lags compared to top-tier phones such as the Galaxy S20, but also when held up against the A51’s main rival. That’s because Apple gave the iPhone SE the same A13 Bionic chipset as its most expensive iPhone 11, so Apple’s budget device moves fast. The iPhone SE also leapfrogs the A51 when it comes to water resistance and wireless charging, both features that Samsung’s cheaper phone lacks. (For a full comparison of the Galaxy A51 and iPhone SE’s specs, see the table at the end of this review.)

But the Galaxy A51 has its own charms. It doubles the iPhone SE’s on-board storage for the SE’s starting price, giving you 128GB out of the gate compared to the SE’s 64GB for its cheapest model — and it supports external storage, too. The Samsung screen is much larger, with slim bezels that make the phone feel modern and committed to little wasted space. Battery life is also on par between the two phones. Both come to around 16 hours in a looping video test in airplane mode, with more lab tests on their way. The Galaxy A51 lasted about 20 minutes longer than the SE in this test.

The Galaxy A51 also stands its ground on the camera front in the typical ways that Samsung phones and iPhones compare: Galaxy photos are more saturated compared to the iPhone’s more natural tones. The iPhone SE benefits from optical image stabilization, but the A51’s four cameras also give you more shooting options than the iPhone SE. Wide-angle lens is the one I care about most, which is absent from the SE. But in all other respects, photo quality is fairly close, with one edging the other in this or that scenario. For more, my colleague, Lexy Savvides, created this wonderful and in-depth Galaxy A51 versus iPhone SE camera comparison.


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Galaxy A51 vs. Galaxy S20

Remove the iPhone SE from the equation and the A51 is akin to the Galaxy S20 Plus for a third of the price. Considering the A51 is substantially cheaper than any phone in the Galaxy S20 family, it’s an impressive overall package.

Side by side it’s hard to tell the two large phones apart at first glance, except that the A51’s front-facing camera is more obvious and the A51 uses an optical in-screen fingerprint reader. Incidentally, the fingerprint reader’s been more accurate than the Galaxy S20’s ultrasonic sensor for me.  

The A51 is slightly lighter, too, since it has a plastic backing rather than a glass one. When I put the two side by side and watched the same Netflix show at the same frame, the A51’s screen was almost as bright, detailed and richly colored as the Galaxy S20 Plus. Outdoor legibility in the noon sun was also pretty even.

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The Galaxy A51 did a beautiful job photographing this iris, shot outdoors in natural light.


Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Photos and videos look much better on the Galaxy S20, mostly because photo resolution is sharper on the pricier model, and because it has OIS, which makes for smoother, steadier images and video. You can take advantage of core Samsung software on the Galaxy A51’s camera, including night mode, and the phone has settings such as macro and HDR. You can shoot a 48-megapixel photo by selecting the camera setting. When I compare the same zoomed-in photos taken with both phones on my laptop screen, it’s easy to see where the Galaxy S20 is superior. In other photos, pictures of local flowers along my walk or the dinner I made look just as good.

I appreciate that the Galaxy A51 has macro photography where the Galaxy S20 blurs out when you get too close. In some cases, it was too easy to get an out of focus macro with the A51. Selfies are much better on the Galaxy S20 but perfectly usable on the A51. Plus, you can use portrait mode and beauty mode to soften the scene.

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The 5-megapixel macro lens captured this shot.


Lexy Savvides/CNET

It’s disappointing that the Galaxy A51 lacks water resistance. Most modern phones have it, though it’s typical for budget devices to have no waterproofing or simply be “splash resistant.” The A51’s all-day battery life takes it from morning to night, and it lasted an average of 16 hours, 10 minutes after three looping video tests in airplane mode. I’ll update this review with the results of our steaming lab tests over Wi-Fi when they’re complete. 

Luckily, the A51 also includes a 15-watt fast charger in the box, but unlike the Galaxy S20 phones, you’ll need to supply your own headphones and any USB-C to USB-C cables you may want. It does come with a USB-A to USB-C cord, however.

Although phone releases have slowed down, the Galaxy A51 is one of at least 16 phones coming out in 2020. Samsung has also confirmed plans to make another foldable phone.

Galaxy A51 vs iPhone SE

Samsung Galaxy A51 (4G) Apple iPhone SE (2020)
Display size, resolution 6.5-inch FHD AMOLED; 2,400×1,080 pixels 4.7-inch Retina HD; 1,334×750 pixels
Pixel density 405ppi 326ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6.24×2.90×0.31 inches 5.45×2.65×0.29 inches
Dimensions (Millimeters) 158.5×73.6×7.9 mm 138.4×67.3×7.3 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.07 oz; 172g 5.22 oz; 148g
Mobile software Android 10 iOS 13
Camera 48-megapizel (standard), 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 5-megapixel (macro), 5-megapixel (depth sensing) 12-megapixel
Front-facing camera 32-megapixel 7-megapixel
Video capture 4K 4K
Processor Samsung Exynos 9611 processor (Octa-core) Apple A13 Bionic
Storage 128GB 64GB, 128GB, 256GB
RAM 4GB Not disclosed
Expandable storage Up to 512GB No
Battery 4,000 mAh Not disclosed, but Apple claims it has the same battery life as iPhone 8
Fingerprint sensor In-screen optical reader Home button
Connector USB-C Lightning
Headphone jack Yes No
Special features 15W fast charging Water resistant (IP67); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wireless charging
Price off-contract (USD) $400 $399 (64GB), $449 (128GB), $549 (256GB)
Price (GBP) £329 £419 (64GB), £469 (128GB), £569 (256GB)
Price (AUD) AU$599 AU$749 (64GB), AU$829 (128GB), AU$999 (256GB)

First published on May 6.