Samsung's Galaxy A51 gets a lot right, but performance is a mixed experience

Jason Cipriani, CNN Underscored
Sat May 16, 2020

The process of buying a new phone during normal times can feel like a daunting process. Prices for flagship phones like Apple's iPhone 11 Pro or Samsung's Galaxy S20 continue to climb, as companies add in features and capabilities that many of us aren't entirely sure we'll ever need.

However, the process of buying a phone during a pandemic when millions of people are suddenly out of work trying to save money, while simultaneously needing a reliable way to communicate with friends and loved ones, feels almost impossible.

Call it fate, or just good timing, but over the past few months, smartphone makers have announced and released some budget-friendly phones that mix high-end features with affordability.

Apple's $399 iPhone SE is a prime example, as is Samsung's $399 Galaxy A51, a phone Samsung announced alongside a whole slew of affordable phones in early April. We've been testing the A51 for a couple of weeks now, and have found it to be a worthy successor to the Galaxy A50 we loved so much last year. It's a stunning device, but it's not flawless.

Design

When we first unboxed the A51, we were immediately impressed by its overall design. From the 6.5-inch FHD+ display to the back of the phone that at times looks like a prism reflecting light, the A51 looks nothing like what mid-range phones used to look like. The A51 looks just as shiny and impressive as the Galaxy S20.

The Samsung Infinity-O Super AMOLED display has a resolution of 1080x2400. All that marketing lingo just means there's a hole punch cutout near the top of the display, providing a spot for the 32-megapixel front-facing camera. The AMOLED display has darker and truer blacks, as well as a wide spectrum of color reproduction. The display on the A51 is by far its crown jewel -- it's stunning on its own, but even more impressive when you factor in the price.

On the right side edge of the A51 is a power button, along with the volume rocker. On the bottom is a USB-C port for charging and data transfer and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The left side of the phone is bare, save for the SIM card/microSD card tray.

On the back is the rectangular camera array that houses a 5-megapixel depth camera, 48-megapixel main camera, 12-megapixel ultra-wide camera, and a 5-megapixel macro shooter. The ultra-wide camera lets you zoom out on a shot without having to back up, while the macro camera takes extreme closeups. You can record 4k video at up to 30 frames per second.

There's an optical fingerprint sensor under the display that is used to unlock the phone and or approve Samsung Pay transactions.

Included in the box is a 15W charger and a USB Type-A to USB Type-C cable.

Performance and battery life

Powering the A51 is Samsung's Exynos 9611 octa-core processor, 4GB of memory, 128GB of storage, and a 4,000 mAh battery. You can increase the storage amount thanks to the MicroSD card that will accept up to 512GB cards. Out of the box, the A51 runs Android 10 with Samsung's One UI customizations.

We had high hopes for the A51's performance after our experience with the A50. And, at times, the A51 lived up to our expectations. But our experience as a whole was plagued with random instances of apps taking far too long to open. For example, after taking our first few photos in the Camera app, we selected the Gallery icon to view the pictures and had to wait for three or four seconds before it made the switch. Other times, when launching Chrome or Gmail, we would experience a similar delay.

In-between the road bumps, the A51's performance was exactly what we hoped for. It's been a confusing, if not frustrating, journey.

As with every Underscored review, we conducted benchmark testing to set a standard to compare quantitative testing of multiple devices alongside our daily use, testing, and perceptions. We used GeekBench 5 for testing the A51. This benchmarking app tests the devices by running intense processes that mimic real-life use cases.

The A51 scored 345 on the single-core test and 1,301 on the multi-core test. As expected, that score is several hundred points lower than flagship phones running Qualcomm's latest high-end processor. We recently reviewed the TCL 10 Pro, powered by the Snapdragon 675 processor, and it also outperformed the A51. To be exact, the TCL 10 Pro scored 489 and 1,550 on the same tests, respectively.

Using our standard battery test of looping the same video with the display brightness set to 50%, with Airplane mode turned on. The A51's 4,000mAh battery lasted for twelve hours and thirty-one minutes. That's just shy of the fourteen hours and nine minutes that the 10 Pro powered through with a 4,500mAh battery.

In daily use, the battery is more than enough to get through a day's worth of use, but not a minute longer. In other words, you're going to have to charge it every night.

The in-display fingerprint sensor is another area that we had a mixed experience with. When it worked, it was quick and seamless. But if the sensor failed, it would repeatedly fail to the point that we'd just enter our PIN code to unlock the phone.

Macro is the new telephoto

Right now, it feels like every smartphone maker is following the same blueprint for a camera setup on their phones. Usually, there's a telephoto camera, ultra-wide camera, and the main camera. But with the A51, Samsung ditched the telephoto camera and opted to put in a macro camera.

We could debate which one is more useful, but it's clear the macro camera is incredibly fun to have. Taking close up photos of random objects, like a coin or an electronics board, adds an element to smartphone photography that isn't all that common.

Outside of getting creative with macro photography, the A51 takes typical Samsung-like photos. That is to say, slightly oversaturated and vibrant. The Camera app has a scene optimizer built in that will detect what's in the shot and adjust accordingly. For instance, when taking the above photo of the tree and sky, the phone recognized there was a tree in the frame. The end result is a good looking photo, with a sky that's slightly bluer and leaves that are slightly greener than they are in real life. Whether or not that's a welcomed trait is up to personal preference.

The A51's camera setup isn't going to net the same results as the Galaxy S20, but it's more than good enough to capture photos and videos for your personal use and sharing on Instagram or Twitter.

Bottom line

Despite any qualms we have about the A51's overall performance, it's an attractive phone. And we're not only talking about its design. For $400, you get a stunning display, premium design, and a respectable camera. In turn, you have to deal with the occasional, and always frustrating, performance hiccup.

When it comes to smartphones at this price point the clear winner is Apple's new iPhone SE. It's a complete package, and Apple has set the bar for all mid tier smartphones in 2020. Still, Samsung's Galaxy A51 is sure to make Android users happy as long as they go into it with proper expectations.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed prices at the time of publication.