Samsung Galaxy A51 Review – The Best Selling Android Phone Is BACK!
This is the Galaxy A51, which is Samsung’s answer to the mid-range smartphone market in 2020. If you recall, last year at about the same time I got the chance to check out the Galaxy A50, which was this phone’s pretty predecessor.
It had a beautiful display, the battery life was also really good, and most importantly it was priced at $350 USD. In some cases you were able to pick it up for $300, which was a steal in my opinion. In fact, the A50 was one of the top selling smartphones around the world, surpassed only by the iPhone 11 and iPhone XR. That conveys a strong message, which is that most people just don’t care about having the fastest flagship smartphone, they just want something basic. They don’t care about the million features that brands use as marketing points to sell their $1000 phones.
Price & Design
The launch price of the A51 is $399 USD, so it’s a $50 premium compared to the Galaxy A50 when it was launched. However, these phones can be picked up for less, depending on sales events and all that kind of stuff so watch out for that. That being said, compromises had to be made by these brands to hit that price point, and that certainly affects the overall user experience. Some of the issues I had with the A50 were the lackluster performance and the cameras weren’t the greatest, especially when compared to the Pixel 3a which had a similar price point. Has Samsung addressed or at least tried to improve some of the issues from the A50? Let’s find out.
From a physical aspect, they haven’t made any major changes. You are still getting a plastic back with metal side railings, just like the A50. It is not as scratch-proof as a glass back, but it’s less likely to crack than glass, which is a benefit. I would still rock a case just to be safe.
The display has received a bit of an upgrade, it’s not substantial, but they made it look like a modern flagship smartphone. They have expanded the screen by 0.1 inches to 6.5 inches, eliminated the notch on the A50 in favour of an Infinity-O design, or in other words you get a punch-hole camera. They are also using the same AMOLED display than on the A50, rocking the same 1080P resolution, albeit you get extra pixels vertically because of that screen expansion, and that’s it. Does it have a high refresh rate? No. Does it have support for HDR+ video? No. Does it even look good? Yes, absolutely. It’s still a beautiful screen with great colour vibrancy and deeper blacks. It looks just as good as a flagship smartphone, and I appreciate the fact that it’s a flat screen without any curves. The display is the most important factor of any smartphone and I’m glad Samsung hasn’t cut any corners here.
Unfortunately, Samsung has still kept the single mono speaker at the bottom, which can easily be blocked with your finger when you are holding it in landscape mode. It sounds okay, it certainly doesn’t get particularly loud. I would have preferred a dual speaker setup on the A51, that would have been a nice upgrade over the A50, but we are not getting that with this phone. On the positive side we still get a headphone jack, and I’m glad that they have still kept it.
The in-display fingerprint sensor is still here, unfortunately just like the A50 I haven’t had the best luck when it comes to unlocking the device successfully. It refuses to work like 4 times and then the 5th time it works just fine. In some cases it locks me out and it asks me to try again in 30 seconds, so I had to force myself to use the swipe pattern unlock, which is the second way of unlocking the device. I have had better luck with the Pixel 3a and of course the Galaxy S20, which is a much more expensive smartphone. I really want to know your thoughts about this, would you rather have an in-display fingerprint sensor on a cheap smartphone or a dedicated one at the back that’s actually easily accessible and that actually works most of the time. I feel like this is certainly one of the areas that is hit or miss on a lot of mid-range smartphones, so I’m curious to know about your thoughts.
As for the rest of the features, well there isn’t anything new compared to the A50. They have still kept the microSD card slot for storage expansion, which I’m sure a lot of you would appreciate. There is no support for wireless charging, nor does it even have an official IP rating, which all makes sense because those certifications and tech cost money. Overall, the specs are pretty similar to the A50. It has an Exynos 9611 versus the Exynos 9610, but these SoC’s are essentially the same, except for the fact that the 9611 can record high resolution video. They also have the same amount of RAM, but in some regions Samsung is offering 6GB to 8GB of RAM, which should significantly help with performance. Storage also remains the same, battery size hasn’t changed either.
Perhaps my biggest frustration with this phone is the performance. Now I need to be completely transparent with you, as a content creator I am fortunate to get my hands on the latest greatest flagship smartphones, featuring the fastest specs and all the bells and whistles that come with the package. I’m also to an extent spoiled by the displays that come with high refresh rate, more RAM, fast SoC, etc. And so the switch to the A51, almost felt like I had to trade a Lamborghini for a Toyota Yaris, if that makes sense. Basic things like launching Gmail, Spotify, YouTube, Instagram, take at least 2 to 3 seconds to load. That might not sound like a lot, but coming from a flagship smartphone it is a lot to me personally. The animations are jittery, scrolling through Twitter and my Instagram feed was really not that smooth as the page took a few seconds to catch up. If you use Google Maps extensively you have to be really patient with the content to load up.
Multitasking performance is also not the greatest, and there is a good reason for that. My sample comes with 4GB of RAM, and my average usage is around 3GB, which really pushes this phone to its limits. Now there are a few workarounds to this, you could enable Developer Options through the settings and then reduce the animation speeds or completely turn them off. This should help the apps load instantly, and it should take away the jitteriness that you will experience with this phone when you set it up out of the box. Keep in mind that content still takes time to load up, and it also doesn’t help with memory management either.
As much as I would love to say that specs don’t matter on phones these days, they kind of do on the A51 because this phone is running Android 10 with Samsung’s One UI. It’s the exact same software experience as what you will get with the Galaxy S20, S20+, and the S20 Ultra. Samsung hasn’t made any software enhancements to make sure that the operating system runs efficiently on this lower spec hardware. Think of it like a gamer, if you are looking to play the most demanding titles at the highest possible frame rates to get a smooth experience, you would invest in an expensive high-end GPU. However, if you play those most demanding titles on a low-end GPU, your experience will be pretty terrible. You get the point. I really think that software is the bottleneck on the A51, perhaps a lighter version of Android that is less resource hungry would yield a better experience. I would actually recommend picking up the 6GB or 8GB variant if you can find one, because that should significantly help with multitasking performance on this phone.
On the positive side, battery life has been phenomenal on the A51. I had a great experience with the A50, and the same story continues with this smartphone. You shouldn’t worry about battery life whatsoever. You can easily push this phone to maybe 2 days worth of use and to me that is a win-win.
The last thing that I want to cover is the camera performance. The A51 comes with a quad camera setup, however the only two cameras you would actually care about are the 12MP ultra-wide angle and the 48MP standard wide angle. You don’t get a telephoto lens, but there is a 5MP depth sensor for portrait mode and a 5MP macro camera.
Let’s start with the ultra-wide, something that you need to be aware of is that there is absolutely no focus control when you use this lens, which is disappointing. Thankfully you can still adjust exposure and the images coming out of the sensor look pretty good. Most of the images lack detail and Samsung applies that smoothing filter in post. Keep in mind that I have seen optimizer turned off and everything you are seeing here is shot in auto mode with HDR turned on. I also noticed that the shutter lag was way too long. If you are trying to take a photo you have to stay stable for at least 3 seconds for it to process, it can get really annoying sometimes. HDR is hit or miss, in some cases it works out really well, but I need to point out that the colour science is completely out of whack. The tone shifts a lot towards magenta and the low-light performance is not that great.
The main 48MP wide sensor is noticeably better than the one found on the A50. There is good detail, dynamic range, and contrast, but like I said earlier the colours are just not true to life for the most part. In some cases it tends to overexpose shots, but if you are patient enough with trial and error you can end up with some pretty good results. I have also noticed that Samsung has toned down the saturation on their recent phones, and I appreciate that. Here is an example of the weird colours it captures. Above you can see the charging cable for OnePlus devices, if you own a OnePlus device you know for a fact that it’s a vibrant red cable, but this phone for some reason thinks that it’s pink. I shot the same subject on my Pixel 4 for comparison to show you what it actually looks like. As you can see, the difference is night and day.
Portrait mode or live focus is okay, but don’t expect to be blown away because once again this sensor just can’t process colours accurately. The 5MP macro camera was surprisingly really good. You can be really creative with this lens if you give it more light. It’s way better than the 2MP sensor that we are seeing on other phones these days.
Above you can see the quality of the front facing camera on the Galaxy A51. One of the cool things about the Exynos 9611 CPU is that it can allow the camera to shoot at a higher resolution and process that, which is what you are seeing. The dynamic range is pretty terrible, it’s obviously not close to what you will get with the S-series phones, but it is passable.
I switched over to the rear camera on the A51, and it can shoot 4K video, which is nice. You can also use the ultra-wide angle lens to shoot video. There is obviously no image stabilization so footage is definitely going to be a little bit jerky. The dynamic range is pretty good, I’m impressed at what this phone can offer, especially for the price point. I’m also surprised by the microphone quality as well, it’s surprisingly better than some of the flagships out there.
Here is my takeaway of the Galaxy A51, I think the only improvement that I see over the A50 is the slightly improved camera performance. However, you still have to be very patient with the processing, and you can’t really care about colours, detail, contrast, and low-light performance. If all those shortcomings are okay with you, then this phone might meet your criteria. If you value the display the most on a smartphone then the A51 should be at the top of your list, because it is a gorgeous display for the price. I’m still blown away by that.
Overall, this is a basic phone that gets some of the essentials right. For most people that is a selling feature. Unfortunately, when you look at the rest of the picture, things do tend to fall apart. The cameras are not that great and the performance is one of the biggest issues with the smartphone, especially when you compare it to the Pixel 3a, which is about the same price. It’s a year old and it still has a phenomenal camera, software support, and a really good display. There is also the iPhone SE, which is the same price as the A51, it has a great camera, the performance is rock solid, and most importantly you get software updates for at least 5 years. Lastly, I should mention that the Pixel 4a is right around the corner, and it is rumored to be priced around $350 USD. If you are in the market for a mid-range smartphone you should probably take out a piece of paper and write down these five major factors that make a smartphone: Display, Camera, Performance, Software, and Battery life. Once you have that written down narrow them down to your preference because there are great options out there at affordable prices, but chances are you won’t be able to excel in all 5 of those areas, so you do have to make tough choices.