Affordable smartphones are all the rage right now, with the iPhone SE shining a light on it in recent months. But if you haven’t been paying attention, most of the companies have been putting out midrange devices for some time now, some with great sales numbers. The Samsung Galaxy A51 is the latest in a line of phones that actually outsells the highly marketed flagship Galaxy S line, so let’s see how it stacks up against Apple’s resurrection act. This is iPhone SE vs Samsung Galaxy A51.
Easy does it
The first striking detail between these two phones deals with the size — look how much the midrange Galaxy A51 line still dwarfs the iPhone SE. There are no other sizes for the iPhone, just this easy to grasp throwback to the days of the iPhone 7 and 8. There’s a lot more bezel at the top and bottom, specifically making room for the Touch ID home button. And the screen is just diminutive, coming in at 4.7 inches which makes handling a breeze but viewing experiences are literally shrunken down compared to all the smartphones that go big or go home.
The A51 isn’t too big, thankfully — its 6.5 inch Super AMOLED display is a treat that Samsung users enjoy in pretty much every one of their smartphones. It’s also basically in line with what we expect from 2020 smartphones, right down to the hole punch camera at the top. Samsung really tries to use up as much of the screen real estate as possible, though, making content render right at the line. The result is a minimal bezel since the fingerprint reader is in the display. Face unlock using that front facing camera works just as well, putting a notch in the Samsung camp for biometric options. Then again, Touch ID did return to the iPhone SE just in time for the exclusion of Face ID to make some sense.
I commend the A51 for being pretty thin and light, with the curved backing further helping its handling. That backing has a nice prism design to it as well, so there’s a bit of eye candy there as well. I find this size to be pretty spot on for my tastes — just right for easy handling without making me squint during viewing. Not to say the iPhone screen is bad, it’s just small and not an AMOLED display that includes an always on display. If I just wanted my daily to be easy on the eyes, the A51 is definitely the go-to for things like YouTube and Netflix.
In all honesty, however, the all plastic build of the Galaxy A51 is its main design detriment. I understand that Samsung had to find ways of getting the cost down, but when you’re looking at the landscape of sub-$400 phones, better build quality will always be a plus. This is not to say the iPhone can withstand constant punishment, which is why we have these protective cases from Supcase on hand.
Jack of all trades or master of one?
So you can already see where the chips may fall in this comparison — the Galaxy A51 is able to provide many of the amenities that Samsung users are already used to, just tailored to the lower price point. Meanwhile, Apple tried to put the majority of its current high end specs in a different shell altogether. It should really come as no surprise here that the Bionic A13, underclocked as it might be, provides the smooth and easy iOS experience that Apple users are accustomed to. Getting around the interface is arguably even easier now that there’s a home button again because tactility is sorely underrated. What Apple has done with the SE is provide an everyday smartphone experience that works for pretty much everyone — people who are new to the iOS ecosystem and people who might need a backup phone if their flagship level iPhone suddenly needs a replacement. Despite the dialing back of the bells and whistles, the core experience is really what Apple wanted to provide and they succeeded.
Not to say all the bells and whistles are gone, though — wireless charging and fast 18W charging are here, but I’d argue they were necessary to include for this small battery. There won’t be any day-and-a-half battery life stories with the SE, and even before the end of the day you’ll be looking for a place to set it down or plug it in.
Samsung, on the other hand, managed to keep many of their experiences running in the midrange Exynos processor of the Galaxy A51. We talked about biometrics with the in-display fingerprint reader and face unlock, but there’s also the always useful always on display, the Edge Panel, and further features in Samsung One UI. Say what you will about Android vs iOS, it’s just the truth that Android and One UI have more customization and daily navigation options. But while you can really cater the daily experience, it doesn’t mean it’ll be super snappy — the Exynos 9611 is the major compromise that unfortunately trickles down to every other part of this Android experience.
Apps, games in particular, take more time to load up and visual stutters are pretty frequent even when going to places like the Samsung Briefing screen or to the recent apps screen. This could be helped with the higher RAM options but then you’re paying more money, just like with the higher storage options in the iPhone SE. Oh and speaking of which, the A51 has a microSD card slot so storage isn’t definitely less of an issue there.
Another bright spot is how the Galaxy A51 can easily get through a full day of work due to that 4000mAh battery. There’s no wireless charging, however, and wired charging is a pretty standard 18W. Samsung’s own Fast Charge would have really been a nice addition here. While I applaud the reliably smooth experience of iOS on the iPhone SE, it’s also largely the same as any other iPhone in any other person’s hand. There’s value in that so I tip the hat to Apple in that respect. I do like having the extra features like the always on display and the better battery life even if it means a tiny bit more waiting time for some stuff to load. I’m not one of those people that gets immediately enraged at the sight of some stutter — if you can get past that, the Galaxy A51 is capable of being a go-to daily device.
One VS many
Options. That’s the central theme of this comparison. And you don’t have to look much further than the cameras on the rear to see that playing out. The single 12MP shooter of the iPhone SE is enhanced by what the Bionic A13 provides, but when you want to capture the scene in different ways, you’re kind of stuck. Enter the multiple lenses of the Galaxy A51, providing some ultrawide action and some zoom action when you need it. But it wouldn’t matter if the pictures come out terrible anyway.
This is where we come to an impasse. Taking the 12MP iPhone sensor alone against the pixel binned results of the 48MP main sensor on the Galaxy A51, it’s hard to pick a winner. The iPhone still excels in the video department, with Smart HDR enhancing the iPhone’s capture for better dynamic range. The iPhone also one ups the Galaxy by having 4K 60fps recording. It’s a bit of a cliche at this point to call the iPhone the go-to video camera, but you can’t argue with the results. Apple really got it right in that department on a phone at this price.
But in photos there are plenty of toss ups. Samsung’s signature saturation is usually considered very pleasing and that continues on the main sensor and the ultrawide in particular, while the iPhone is less aggressive with it while maintaining good HDR results. But then you can literally see what Samsung provides that the iPhone does not — an ultrawide, a macro lens, a depth lens to help with portraits, and a night mode. The iPhone just isn’t a shooter you can use in a dark situation.
Another thing that I enjoy with the Galaxy A51 in particular is the 32MP front shooter, which simply dwarfs the 7MP selfie cam of the iPhone. (Front facing video a-roll here)
In all honesty, even if the iPhone can put out some great quality stuff from its very limited toolset, having versatility in the Galaxy A51 means there are more ways to capture memories, which I think make it a bit more fun.
Value or compromise?
Honestly, this is a great experiment in what is considered essential for a midrange phone. Where do these phones cut the fat needed to make that slim price? Midrange is even a hard descriptor to use because in the case of the iPhone you get specs needed to tackle everyday tasks but with the Galaxy A51 you get a taste of all features that are usually reserved for more expensive phones. If your hard earned money feels better spent on a simple but great quality of life, any iPhone is an easy recommendation. In fact, the iPhone SE at its price point might be the most accessible Apple product of all time. But if you want the freedom to do more when the desire strikes you, the Galaxy A51 has all of the tools at the ready — it just needs a little extra elbow grease from time to time. And just speaking personally here, I’d be happy to put the time into learning those tools rather than not having them at all.