(Pocket-lint) - The Samsung A family of phones looks to offer handsets that have many of the company's great features - an AMOLED display for deep blacks, along with slick design and friendly software - without the big price that comes attached to the top-of-the-line flagship Galaxy S family.

As such, the A is often the choice for those wanting a contract that's more affordable or costs less at the outset, while still getting much of that Samsung goodness. But does the Galaxy A51 - which sits in the middle of the Galaxy A family - meet all those needs?

A good-looking design

  • Dimensions: 158.5 x 73.6 x 7.9mm / Weighs: 172g
  • Plastic body and rear design
  • 3.5mm headphones socket

Glance at the Galaxy A51 and there's little that indicates this is from Samsung's mid-range. The front is dominated by that display, flat with a punch-hole in the centre, very much like the Galaxy S20 models.

On the rear of the A51 is what Samsung calls a Prism design, with differing visual textures across the back of the device. That gives some shimmer and interest, the black rectangle of the camera standing proud - something of a Samsung hallmark in 2020.

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However, the phone is finished in plastics - so it doesn't feel quite as slick once you get into the details. The cutout for the SIM tray isn't as seamless as it is on the Galaxy S20. It still looks good, but there's an obvious step-down in overall quality - and as you use the phone you'll catch a sharp edge here and there. 

In reality, given the lower price point, that might not matter - but what you miss out on is higher-end features, such as waterproofing. On the plus side, there is a 3.5mm headphone socket, so if you're holding onto wired headphones then you're in luck.

You might need those headphones, too, because there's only one speaker on this phone at the bottom - so it doesn't offer the glorious sound you get from the Galaxy S10 or Galaxy S20 models - and covering that speaker when playing games in landscape orientation is really easy. 

A dazzling display 

  • 6.5-inch Super AMOLED panel
  • 2400 x 1080 resolution (404ppi)
  • Under display fingerprint scanner

One thing that Samsung has got right on this phone is the display. At 6.5-inches, it's generous in its diagonal size, while the Full HD+ resolution means there's plenty of pixels for a decent quality.

It's an AMOLED display, as you'd expect to find on a Samsung phone, offering very much the experience you'll find on other Samsung devices. That means plenty of pop to colours and nice dark blacks.

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That ensures everything looks good, although this isn't Samsung's most capable display. For starters, there's no high dynamic range (HDR) support, nor does this display stretch to the resolution or refresh rate of Samsung's top 2020 devices - although we don't think that really matters, because what you do get looks great.

We also prefer this display when wearing sunglasses compared to the top-end devices - because the polarised layer is sensibly aligned, avoiding the colour distortion you get on the S20 models. Sure, it's a minor point, until you're trying to look at your phone while outside in the sun and can't see a thing.

The Galaxy A51 also has an under display fingerprint scanner, adding a touch of premium to this device. It's convenient and works pretty well, although we didn't find it quite as reliable as the best and therefore quickest scanners out there.

Hardware and performance 

  • Samsung Exynos 9611 processor, 4GB RAM
  • 128GB storage + microSD (up to 512GB)
  • 4,000mAh battery capacity

What's more noticeable, however, is that the graphic performance of this phone is limited. That's not the fault of the display, it's the fault of the mid-range hardware inside. In this case it's the Samsung Exynos 9611, paired with 4GB of RAM. That's supposed to be comparable to Qualcomm's Snapdragon 600 series hardware, if you're also looking at other similar phone specs.

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While most functions of the A51 are speedy enough, you'll notice the lack of graphic performance, meaning that this isn't a great phone for gaming. On Call of Duty Mobile, for example, textures are stripped to make the game simpler to keep it running smoothly. 

For casual gaming that's not a problem - but there are more powerful phones and better performing phones that fall into the same price bracket, so if you're interested in gaming, you're better off looking elsewhere.

While day-to-day interactions with the phone, like opening apps and using all the different services, run just fine, it's the camera that's fairly slow to launch. Double-press the power button shortcut and there's time for you to wonder if you did it correctly before the camera actually opens. Go to take a photo and the unnecessary camera shutter noise lags behind the actual capture of the photo itself, which doesn't make for a great experience.

This divides the experience of the phone. Push it hard and it can't really keep up, draining the battery fairly quickly, but stick to checking your emails and scanning Instagram and things are fine, with much better resultant performance from the on-board battery. It's a large capacity battery, too, so on average days you'll end up with life left in this phone, which is one thing you needn't worry about at least.

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There is one other oddity we've found: you can easily disrupt the Bluetooth connection by putting your hand over the top of the phone. While this might sound a little abstract, when using Bluetooth headphones, we've often found this happen when adjusting something on the phone, or placing or removing it from a pocket. It suggests that it's slightly too easy to block the Bluetooth antenna.

Camera performance

  • Quad rear cameras:
    • 48MP f/2.0 main
    • 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide
    • 5MP f/2.4 macro
    • 5MP f/2.2 depth
  • 32MP f/2.2 front camera
  • 4K video capture

The Samsung Galaxy A51 is a good example of how companies are overselling cameras on smartphones. The headlines read that there's a quad-camera system, with a 48-megapixel main camera.

In reality, it's a three-camera system - that main, along with an ultra-wide lens, plus macro. Of those three cameras, the ultra-wide is offered from the viewfinder for you to switch over to, while the macro is hidden off in a side menu as though it doesn't matter, so you'll probably forget to use it.

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The fourth depth sensor is really just there for show because you don't really need it - the Google Pixel 3a proves easily enough that a single lens will give perfectly fine results (and in the case of the Pixel, great portrait results). If you cover this sensor you lose the "live focus" or portrait mode that it facilitates.

To be fair it's pretty good at separating foreground and background, enabling some additional effects, like colour pop or swirls you'll find on Samsung's other phones, which is great. You still get those effects on the front camera, too, despite it having only the single lens - partly why we don't believe the depth sensor is all that necessary.

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You can take photos using the full resolution on the main camera by switching to the 4:3H option (that H being for high resolution) at which point you'll be using the full 48-megapixel resolution on the rear (32MP on the front camera) - although you do lose some options in the process, like the digital zoom.

There's 8x digital zoom offered in the default mode (not high-res), although it's not exactly great in quality because the lack of an optical zoom lens is the obvious omission here - it means the camera is really just digitally zooming by "cutting into" the available pixels and performing some clever processing too, no doubt.

You can get some fun shots from the macro lens - if you dig it out of the settings. But out favourite remains the ultra-wide angle, which can be really useful to get a little distortion or to add a little more character to a photo you're taking.

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The cameras on the A51 aren't as capable as those devices in the Galaxy S range, which is most evident when the light drops, as photos can get a little dull, lose colour and appear more grainy. The HDR processing also isn't as powerful as you'll get on the other phones.

But what it all adds up to is a package that's very capable, even if the number of lenses isn't totally needed. It's the main sensor that offers good results when the conditions are good - and that's what's important.

Software refinement 

  • Google Android 10 operating system
  • Samsung One UI software skin

The Samsung Galaxy A51 comes with a lot of the refinement that you get on the company's other phones - because the software is essentially the same. Based on Google's Android 10, it carries Samsung's One UI over the top - version 2.0 at the time of writing - which gives you the same overall functions as options as you get in the Galaxy S20 devices. 

That's one area where this phone really shines: there's no shortage of customisation options and we've long been fans of Samsung's generally clean software approach. That's especially true in the mid-range, where there's a lot of competition from devices running slightly less agreeable systems, such as Xiaomi's MIUI, which we don't think is as refined.

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There are purer phones out there, like the Nokia 7.2 or the Google Pixel 3a, which both have a cleaner take on Android. But in many cases, there's little difference in the day-to-day experience. While there are some obvious limitations caused by the lower-tier hardware powering the Galaxy A51, for most of its normal tasks it's perfectly snappy.

Verdict

There are some strong positives on the Samsung Galaxy A51. Generally this phone exhibits good design - it looks smart and it looks high quality - and the display is excellent and will make your content pop.

Day-to-day use is generally good, with a battery life that will get through most days with ease, but there's an obvious limitation with the power that this phone offers, so in some cases it doesn't match some rivals on comparable Qualcomm hardware - especially when it comes to gaming.

The camera setup is also capable, loaded with some great additional extras, although Samsung has put a lot into pushing big numbers, which really don't bring any real-world benefit.

If you're a fan of Samsung's software that should balance up the pros column in the A51's favour, making this a reasonably polished mid-range choice.

Also consider

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Nokia 7.2

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The Nokia 7.2 offers a premium design and great overall performance, with a respectable camera performance. It has the advantage of nice clean software.

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Google Pixel 3a

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The Google Pixel 3a is one of the best mid-range phones when it comes to photography. Although it only has one camera on the back, it offers exceptional performance thanks to computational photography and AI. Pure Android software means you're at the front of the list for updates, while there's plenty of mid-range power too.

Writing by Chris Hall.