With the Galaxy S20 series starting a thousand dollars, many cash-strapped Samsung fans are probably considering more affordable upgrade options this year. And apparently, Samsung anticipated this (and if it didn't, it sure knows now), as it's making more of its low-end and mid-range lineup available in the US than ever before. Not only did it give last year's S10 series a price cut while continuing to keep it on sale alongside the S20, but it also debuted the Galaxy S10 Lite in America, adding yet more choices to its growing smartphone portfolio.

But Samsung has dug even deeper into bag o' phones, with the mid-range and mid-range-plus Galaxy A51 and A71. I received the $400 Galaxy A51 for review, and I think it might be one of the strongest budget devices you can buy right now.

Specs

Chipset Samsung Exynos 9611
RAM 4GB
Storage 128GB, supports microSD cards up to 512GB
Software Android 10, One UI 2.1
Display 6.5-inch 1080 x 2400 Super AMOLED
Battery 4,000mAh
Rear cameras 48MP F2.0 Primary
12MP F2.2 Wide-Angle
5MP F2.4 Macro
5MP F2.2 Depth Sensor
Front camera 32MP F2.2
Connectivity 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0 + LE, USB Type-C, 3.5mm Audio, NFC
Colors Prism Crush Black
Dimensions 6.24" x 2.89" x 0.31", 6.07 oz
Price $400

The Good

Display The screen is massive, and it's an AMOLED panel. You can't ask for much more on a mid-range phone.
Performance The Exynos processor with 4GB RAM handled my usual apps and games just fine.
Carrier compatibility While the Galaxy A51 is available directly from carriers like AT&T and Verizon, the unlocked version is compatible with all major U.S. carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile).

The Not So Good

Cameras The main camera produces muddy photos, and the other two lenses aren't any better.
Design While the Galaxy A51 is generally designed well, the glossy plastic back attracts fingerprints and smudges much easier than glass.

Design, hardware, what's in the box

From the outside, most people would be hard-pressed to notice a difference between this and the Galaxy S20 series. The large 6.5-inch AMOLED screen is larger than the Galaxy S20's, but smaller than the display found on the S20+. There's a camera hole-punch at the top center of the display, and even the camera array looks similar to the S20's.

The large display is probably the Galaxy A51's best feature. It has a high enough resolution for a $400 phone, and the AMOLED panel means blacks are completely black and colors are vivid. I'm not terribly picky when it comes to AMOLED panel quality and color balance, but I think most will agree the screen looks good. There's also an in-display fingerprint scanner, which appears to use an optical sensor instead of the ultrasonic sensors on the S20 series, but it still worked fine in my testing.

However, there are a few key differences in the design. The Galaxy A51's exterior is entirely plastic, which I'm usually a fan of (I hate big heavy glass phones), but Samsung has opted for a glossy coating that absolutely loves fingerprints. When the back isn't completely disgusting, it does give off a slight aura effect — a bit like the Note10, but not quite to that extent. There's no support for wireless charging, or IP68 water/dust protection, but you still get NFC support.

The OnePlus 7 Pro (left) next to the Galaxy A51 (right)

Another departure from Samsung's flagship is the presence of a headphone jack. Most budget phones haven't sacrificed the 3.55 connector yet, but I'm still happy to see it here.

Moving onto the internal hardware, the Galaxy A51 uses Samsung's own Exynos 9611 SoC, instead of the Qualcomm or MediaTek chips most other phones in this price range use. It's paired with 4GB RAM and 128GB of internal storage, and you can add microSD cards up to 512GB in size on top of that. That's right, this $400 phone has more internal storage than the cheapest Pixel 4.

In the box, you get the phone, a USB Type-A-to-C charging cable, and a 15W wall charger.

Software, performance, battery

The software experience on the Galaxy A51 is very similar to what you would find on Samsung's recent flagships: Android 10 with the custom One UI 2.1 skin on top. That means you get a system-wide dark mode, tight integration with Windows 10 PCs, (limited) automation with Bixby Routines, and all of Samsung's custom applications. However, I did notice that the screen recorder found on other One UI 2.0 devices is missing here.

One UI isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I don't have many complaints — it adds useful functionality for those who want it, but doesn't break core functionality of Android like some other manufacturer skins. I do wish it was possible to disable or uninstall some of Samsung's alternatives to Google applications, though. I don't need two calendar apps.

Speaking of apps I don't need, the Verizon unit I received for review came with a lot of preinstalled apps and games. On top of the usual Microsoft apps that Samsung always bundles with its devices, Verizon has included a handful of account management tools, Disney+, Candy Crush Soda, various Yahoo apps, Apple Music, eBay, and others. All told, my Verizon A51 came with four email applications: Gmail, Samsung Mail, Outlook, and Yahoo Mail. This shouldn't be an issue on the unlocked models, though.

Carrier bloatware is, unfortunately, still a thing

Performance, at least, is good. The 10nm Exynos 9611 processor in this model is roughly as fast as Qualcomm's recent Snapdragon 600-series chips, so apps open quickly, and the 4GB RAM means switching between applications isn't much of an issue. While the Galaxy A51 and Pixel 3a are closely matched in raw performance, animations aren't quite as buttery-smooth on the A51 as they are on the Pixel 3a.

Battery life is also a high point for the Galaxy A51. While it's hard to accurately test smartphone battery life with the current coronavirus lockdowns, I usually ended every day with around 50% battery remaining with my usual mix of checking social media, responding to emails/messages, and watching YouTube videos. The large 4,000mAh battery definitely comes in handy.

Cameras

The Galaxy A51 has a total of three rear cameras (plus one depth sensor), and a 32MP front-facing lens. The main camera is 48MP, with an aperture of F2.0, and generally produces okay results. Photos look fine when viewed on a phone screen, but Samsung's image processing causes photos to look like watercolor paintings when zoomed in — any fine detail is lost entirely. The Pixel 3a is definitely the winner here.

There's also a wide-angle camera, but as with most dedicated wide-angle lenses on smartphones, it's a quality downgrade from the main lens (12MP vs 48MP). You can get some okay photos if used outdoors, but anything else results in a muddy image.

Main camera (left) vs wide-angle (right)

Finally, there's a 5MP macro lens, which I had no idea existed until I went to Samsung's website to check some details — the button for it is hidden by default in the Camera app. I love macro photography, so I did have some fun here, but the macro lens on this phone is not great. The fixed focus is extremely narrow (around 3-5mm), so you have to get very close up to your subject.

Should you buy it?

Samsung Galaxy A51
8/10
It depends. The Galaxy A51 is a very good budget phone, and I think anyone who buys it will be happy with it. However, the market for mid-range Android devices is highly competitive.

The Pixel 3a is $30 less than the A51 right now, but offers better primary camera performance and monthly security updates for the next two years (though the screen is smaller and there is less storage). There's also the Moto G Stylus to consider, which costs $100 less than the Galaxy A51 and has a similar feature set, and the Pixel 4a is close to release.

If you know you want a Samsung phone, and your budget is tight, the Galaxy A51 is a great option. However, the Pixel 3a remains my personal favorite mid-range Android phone.

Buy it if:

  • You want a new Samsung phone, but can't/don't want to pay for an S10 or S20 device.
  • You're looking for a midrange phone with a huge AMOLED screen.

Don't buy it if:

  • You want the best-looking photos possible — get a Pixel 3a instead.
  • You like small phones.