Samsung's Galaxy A series represents a vast portion of the market spectrum, ranging from the lower end of the mid-range to somewhat premium experiences. The Galaxy A51, first announced last December, sits squarely in the middle of that spectrum, and it already includes some elements we've gotten used to seeing in flagship smartphones.
There are four cameras on the back, a setup that, at first glance, might appear similar to the new Galaxy S20 flagships, plus a punch-hole cutout on the display for the front-facing camera. That display is also a pretty big one, and it's using Samsung's Super AMOLED panel. It's running on Samsung's own Exynos 9611 chipset, with four Cortex-A73 cores and four Cortex-A53 cores.
|CPU||Exynos 9611, four Cortex-A73 cores up to 2.3GHz, four Cortex-A53 cores up to 1.7GHz|
|Body||158.5 X 73.6 X 7.9 mm (6.24x2.90x0.31in), 172g (6.07oz)|
|Display||6.5 inches, 1080x2400, 20:9, 405ppi, Super AMOLED|
|Camera||48MP with Quad Bayer technology, 12MP wide-angle, 5MP depth sensor, 5MP macro lens; Front - 32MP|
|Video||4K - 30fps, 240fps Slow Motion; Front - 4K - 30fps|
|Aperture||Main: f/2.0, Wide-angle: f/2.2, Macro: f/2.4; Front - f/2.2|
|Battery||4,000mAh, 15W fast charging|
|Price||€369 - €399|
The Samsung Galaxy A51 is a fairly standard-looking smartphone, but I did make a couple of mistakes in my initial hands-on video when I assumed the frame of the phone is metal and the back is glass. In fact, they're both plastic. My initial assumption doesn't so much come from the fact that the materials feel premium, but more so the fact that I didn't expect it to not be made of glass and metal at this price point. Of course, you might prefer plastic, so whether this is a downside or not is really up to you. I was a little disappointed when I realized it, though.
Regardless of that, though, I do still think the Galaxy A51 is a beautiful phone. That's in large part thanks to the color I got sent, which is a gorgeous light blue on both the back plate and the frame. It also has this prism pattern on the back, and though it's a little subtle, it definitely helps the phone stand out a bit more. The back also houses the rectangular module with all four cameras and the LED flash. It's a style you may need to get used to, but I don't dislike it.
Going around the edges of the phone, the top and left sides are both pretty boring. There's a microphone at the top and a SIM card slot on the left.
On the right side, there's the volume rocker and the power button, which can also be used to summon Bixby. Thankfully, the Bixby functionality can be disabled altogether, so you can just use it as a power button.
The bottom edge houses the USB Type-C port that's used for charging, a 3.5mm headphone jack that's increasingly rare, and a bottom-firing speaker, which is, by the way, the only speaker on this phone.
Finally, there's the 6.5-inch display up front, with a centered punch-hole cutout housing the front-facing camera, which also sits flush with the display. At the top, there's the earpiece, which isn't amplified for stereo sound.
Display and sound
As I mentioned above, the display on the Galaxy A51 is 6.5 inches diagonally, and it's using Samsung's Super AMOLED panels. It's also a Full HD+ display, with a 2400 by 1080 resolution, and that 20:9 aspect ratio kinda makes the screen appear bigger than it actually is, which I like. The punch-hole cutout has also become my favorite approach to incorporate front-facing cameras, at least until they can be hidden behind the screen somehow.
It's also just a beautiful display, and it's probably the best thing about this phone. The colors are bright and vivid, the screen is clear, it's big, and it gets more than bright enough for any use case I have had for it. It's really hard to complain about it. it gets even better when the glass covering the screen is so smooth, and gliding my fingers across this screen just feels great.
I always have some issues with AMOLED displays, where in very low-light environments and with low screen brightness, there's some uneven colors towards the edges of the display. I've seen it so often and on so many phones that I'm willing to accept I'm just imagining it, but I also wouldn't feel right if I didn't at least mention it.
As for sound, there's only a single speaker on the bottom side of the phone's frame, so not only are you not getting stereo sound, it's also really easy to cover the speaker. When it's not covered, it can actually get pretty loud, but once you cover the speaker, it gets very quiet, very quickly. It doesn't seem to have enough power to handle being blocked at all, so if you're holding the phone horizontally, you're definitely going to be missing out.
Another thing worth mentioning is that the microphone on this phone isn't great, with Skype calls apparently sounding much worse compared to my usual daily driver, the OPPO Reno Z.
My biggest disappointments with the Galaxy A51 started with the camera setup. A quad-camera setup seems to indicate that a lot of work was put into their performance, but right off the bat, one of the cameras is a depth sensor - which I really don't care for - and another is a 5MP macro lens - a feature that we've seen built into the ultra-wide lens on many other phones. I don't have anything against these dedicated cameras, I just feel like if a company is putting that many sensors on a phone, they should have a clearer, more significant purpose. A telephoto lens would have been nice, for example.
This wouldn't be such a big problem, though, if the cameras that you do use were really good, but I came away somewhat unimpressed. The camera tends to deliver saturated colors, and usually, I'm a fan of that look, but that's just because I like the shots to be close to real life. This camera tends to produce colors that are significantly more saturated than what your eyes see, and it feels very unrealistic.
Another issue I've had with the camera is that shots tend to appear sharp when you look at them without zooming in, but they very quickly start looking noisy around the edges of objects as soon as you zoom in. This situation seems to have been somewhat improved with a software update I got during the review, but it can still show up, especially if you're dealing with poorly shaven facial hair.
Things don't change much with the ultra-wide-angle camera, and I still appreciate the versatility it provides. Colors are slightly different from the main camera, but not too much, as we can see in the last few samples above. The front-facing camera is also pretty decent, though it can suffer from the same issue with sharpness.
One thing that's also frustrating about this camera is that the night mode just isn't very good. In some shots, sure, it helps, but in others, I've sometimes had trouble remembering which pictures were taken with night mode on or off. Even when it does help, it's not much. In the samples below, the first picture of each pair has night mode off, the second has it on.
Video from this phone can look pretty sharp, too, but the colors can once again be a problem. I initially tried recording my hands-on with the OPPO Find X2 Pro with this camera, but it highlighted the color of my desk too much and made the phone's box look too dark, so I just gave up and used my regular phone.
In general, I was pretty disappointed with this camera, even if it's not exactly terrible. It's just that I've seen cameras perform better on cheaper phones.
Performance, battery life
Performance is another area where the Samsung Galaxy A51 let me down significantly. It comes with Samsung's in-house Exynos 9611 chipset, and that had four Cortex-A73 cores for tasks that require more performance and four Cortex-A53 cores for things that can be more power-efficient. I think it's interesting that these aren't Cortex-A75 and A55, which is what we see in other modern chipsets like Qualcomm's Snapdragon 675.
I don't know exactly if that's the reason why performance is so disappointing, but the fact is that it is. It's little things you might not always notice, but it adds up. The phone takes a little longer to boot than I expect it to. When you get a call, it can take a bit of time between the time when your phone starts ringing and the time you actually see a notification, especially if you're doing something relatively intensive like watching a YouTube video. And getting Skype calls with multiple devices is almost comical - I'll sometimes answer the call on my PC, and only after that will my phone ring, while I'm on the call. And it won't stop until I accept the call (that I'm already on using my PC) on my phone.
Oh, and using Bluetooth on this phone has easily been the worst experience I've had with Bluetooth audio on any phone. Audio cuts out for more than a second at a time, and it does it more frequently than most phones I've used, too.
This poor performance is backed up by benchmarks, with AnTuTu Benchmark scoring it at 182,873, well below the 217,174 score of the TCL Plex I reviewed at the end of last year - and that's a significantly cheaper phone. It's actually much closer to the OPPO Reno Z I reviewed in the summer, but keep in mind that sometime between that review and this one, AnTuTu changed the scoring system and phones now score higher than they used to.
I also ran benchmarks using GeekBench 5 and GFXbench. GeekBench tests the CPU performance:
GFXBench tests the GPU:
Battery life, at least, has been good. With the exception of a longer day where I spent a few hours watching YouTube videos on the train, I've never had the phone last less than one day, though it's not easy to make it to two days, either. I'm usually alright with charging overnight, though I would appreciate the extra confidence of knowing it will last me two days if I need it to. This has been with pretty light usage, though, revolving mostly around texting with Telegram, watching YouTube occasionally, and browsing Twitter's PWA.
In terms of software, the Galaxy A51 comes with Android 10 and Samsung's One UI 2.0 running on top of it. An update during the review period also brought the security patch version to the February 2020 release, so it's not too far behind. I think it's worth mentioning that Samsung packs a lot of features into its Android skin, ranging from useful to questionable.
On the useful side, Samsung's Link to Windows integration is pretty great, and it's certainly the best use I've had for the Your Phone app on Windows 10. The ability to mirror my screen to the computer is pretty useful, especially because it actually allows me to use my phone without touching it, even when the phone is locked. I've mostly found myself using this to access the Google Assistant voice commands, which the phone can still pick up if it's in my pocket or across the room.
The ability to open apps in pop-up windows - that can be collapsed into bubbles when not in use - is also pretty great, and you can resize the windows and even adjust the pop-up transparency. I've found that apps can sometimes forget how to scale their text for the window size, but in general, I really like it. There are other things you might appreciate about OneUI, like the ability to set themes, not only for your launcher but also for many aspects of the UI, including the system apps like Phone and Messages. Being able to do this without rooting your device is pretty cool.
On the questionable side, Edge lighting seems like a feature designed for phones with curved edges, but it's been kept around for some reason. It lights up your screen with a pattern of your choice when you get a notification and the phone is locked, but I don't see a practical benefit for this over other notifications that wake the screen. It's especially annoying because one of the gestures you can use - swiping down from the notification top open the app in a pop-up window - doesn't work when the phone is locked. It just makes the notification disappear, and then you have to manually unlock the phone to find the pop-up window waiting for you.
The Samsung Galaxy A51 isn't necessarily a bad phone, but it's a phone that I feel does very little to justify the €369 (€399 in Portugal) price tag that it commands. In my (admittedly short) experience with reviewing phones, I've never been so thoroughly disappointed with so many aspects of a phone.
The camera setup wasn't nearly as good as I had hoped and the performance was extremely disappointing, too. The build quality leaves something to be desired when so many phones in this price range are using metal and glass, and some phones, like the OPPO Reno Z, also have stereo speakers at this price.
There are certainly positives to this phone, like some of the software features of OneUI and the display, but I only have to go a few months back to my review of the TCL Plex to find a reason not to buy the Galaxy A51. At just €329, the TCL Plex still has a great display (though it is IPS LCD), much better performance, a more interesting design (with glass and metal), and a camera setup that, while flawed, at least feels more intentional, with the dedicated low-light video camera have a clear purpose and doing its job fairly well. Not to mention, it didn't give me any issues with Bluetooth audio. I would undoubtedly spend my money on that instead.