In 2020, Apple and Samsung have both beefed up their budget-friendly smartphone offerings with the iPhone SE and the Galaxy A51. Both companies globally do well at the mid-range but there is a lot of market share to be taken. There seems to be a lot of appetite from consumers for the look of a premium looking smartphone that has some of the same features that usually only come within a more expensive model. I have previously written about each of these devices in separate articles which you can access here and here. For budget-conscious customers, it may be beneficial to see the similarities and differences between the two smartphones in a single article. For this review, I am going to spend some time comparing these two smartphones based on their design, display, performance, battery life, cameras, price, and software. It is worth noting that the two models that I tested were the entry-level smartphones at around the $399 price point. I should point out that Samsung has trade-in offers and I have seen some carrier deals on both phones.
Design – Samsung Win, but kudos to Apple for tiny design and wireless charging
One of the starkest contrasts between these two phones is the design. The two devices could not look or feel any different. The iPhone SE is small at 4.8 inches and has the same nostalgic design we have seen in previous generations of iPhones. Since the iPhone SE is a smaller form factor it fits well within the hand. The SE also comes with a single 12MP camera on the back and a 7MP camera on the front. It has the physical home button that was eliminated several generations ago on iPhone models. I have gotten very used to not using a physical home button on my iPhones, but I will leave it up to the personal preference of the user to decide whether they like the home button or not. The front of the device is constructed of Ion-strengthened glass which is a custom version of Gorilla Glass. Thanks to the back panel also being glass the iPhone SE supports wireless charging while the Galaxy A51 does not. The standard version of the SE ships with 64GB of storage. The focus of the SE’s design is on compactness and simplicity.
The Samsung Galaxy A51 is the larger of the two devices at 6.5 inches. It is wider and longer than the SE but boasts a much larger and notably sharper display. The glass on the A51’s display is made of tough Gorilla Glass 3. The design of the A51 from the front looks like the much more premium Galaxy S20 Ultra… until you touch it and realize the back of the device is constructed of plastic. The A51 has a Quad-Lens camera with a 48MP Main, 12MP Ultra-Wide, 5MP Macro, and 5MP Depth with a 32MP front-facing camera. The standard version of the Galaxy A51 ships with 128GB of storage and has a MicroSD slot that gives you the ability to quickly add more storage to the device. The Galaxy A51 also supports a headphone jack while the iPhone SE does not.
Display- Samsung Win
The iPhone SE comes standard with a 4.8” 326 PPI HD retina display. While the Samsung Galaxy A51 has a much larger 6.5” 405 PPI display that is noticeably sharper than the SE thanks to the higher pixel density. I switched between these two phones often while in the reviewing process and the higher quality display on the A51 was noticeable to me. I would’ve like to at least see a 1080p resolution display for the iPhone SE considering the current model is just 1,334 x 750 resolution. It is also unfortunate that the iPhone SE has brought back the nostalgic huge bezels on the chin and forehead of the device. The chin leaves room for the return of TouchID. The iPhone SE brings back to bezel-full display that we have seen in previous generations.
The Samsung Galaxy A51 display expands to all edges of the devices and closely resembles the display of more premium Samsung devices like the Galaxy S20 Ultra. The display gave more real estate to stay productive and more detail for streaming videos. The display also has an On-Display fingerprint scanner instead of a rear fingerprint scanner which is awesome.
When comparing the display of the Galaxy A51 to the iPhone SE, the SE leaves a lot to be desired.
Performance- Apple Win
Apple crammed a lot of performance bandwidth into the iPhone SE with the A13 Bionic chip. This is the same chip that powers the flagship iPhone 11 Pro Max. The A13 Bionic chip has a lot to do with the great performance that the 11 Pro Max produced including fast responsiveness, long battery life, and the “Pro” camera quality. One of the compelling reasons to put such a powerful chip in Apple's smallest form factor would be the ability to support future features without worrying about needing to increase performance. To me, the addition of this chip seems like a bit overkill. Especially when considering the hit it could render to the already small battery. I reached out to Apple to get insights on why it chose the A13 but I did not receive a response.
The Exynos 9611 embedded within the Galaxy A51 is an adequate chip for a mid-range smartphone with today’s software. I believe it will handle whatever a typical user in this segment expects of it. I will admit there was a little lag or stutter while I was browsing the web but nothing I would not expect to see on a phone at this price point.
The iPhone SE wins vs. the Galaxy A51 in terms of performance. But I would argue that both devices are going to pack enough punch to handle whatever a user in this segment throws at them today. When using the phones, I found it tough to quantify meaningful differences in user experience between the iPhone SE and the Galaxy A51. Sure, I could have run benchmarks and the iPhone would have run up the score, but to what end?
Battery Life- Samsung Win
The Galaxy A51 has a much larger battery at 4,000 mAh when compared to just 1,821 mAh in the iPhone SE. The iPhone SE is advertised at 13 hours of battery life of video playback while the Galaxy A51 should last about 14.5 hours. In my experience, both devices will easily get you through a normal day of checking email, sending texts, answering calls, or scrolling through social media. But the differences in battery size and efficiency becomes apparent while watching a video like I did on the web and through the YouTube and Netflix apps. The Galaxy A51 seemed to “sip” battery while the iPhone SE and powerful A13 chip seemed to “chug” battery at a much faster pace. If video playback does not matter to you and you plan on using your phone strictly for productivity, both devices will suffice.
Keep in mind the A51 has a much larger display and this is what consumes most of the power. This makes the battery life win by Samsung more meaningful.
I also tested the fast charging capabilities of both smartphones and was pleased with the results. The iPhone SE charged up to ~50% battery life in 30 minutes while the Galaxy A51 charged to ~40% battery life in the same time frame. The A51 seemed to be more efficient in battery consumption and that makes up for the slower fast charging due to larger battery in my mind.
The iOS 13 and Android 10 operating systems both provided a smooth and private user experience when I was testing the devices. The iOS vs. Android debate goes much deeper than I care to dig into here. But I will say at this price point both operating systems are going to serve their budget-conscious customers well. I have noticed that Apple seems to offer software updates at a faster cadence than Samsung as of late.
A big point of value that the iPhone SE offers is the ability to sync and use it with previously purchased Apple hardware. Apple does a good job of removing friction for iPhone users to connect with other devices within the ecosystem.
If you are locked into iMessage, you probably will not be reading this review because you are locked into iPhones. If you are an iPhone user and have your life invested into the Apple ecosystem, Samsung has an app that makes it easy which brings over all your photos and apps. Apple was even nice enough to make Apple Music and Beats app for Android. iCloud is easy enough to get out of with Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive as I have done it many times.
Kudos to Samsung for upping its software game with One UI. I had the chance to talk to the development team and wrote about it here.
Cameras- Samsung Win but kudos to iPhone for video
The camera solutions on these two smartphones are quite different. The iPhone SE has a single 7MP front camera and a single 12MP back camera. While the A51 has a Quad-Lens camera with a 48MP Main, 12MP Ultra-Wide, 5MP Macro, and 5MP Depth with a 32MP front-facing camera. Right out of the gate you can see that the A51 gives those who love to take photos more flexibility by supporting more photo style options. Both cameras take comparable photos with vibrant colors in standard shooting mode. But when it comes to ultrawide shots and macro shots there is no question that the A51 takes the cake. The ultrawide camera is useful when you do not have the room to back up and get a wider view of a scene. With adequate lighting, the A51 can also produce some great looking up-close macro shots. Both phones perform well in low light, but the SE outperforms the A51 slightly with a lower f1.8 aperture vs. f2.2.
For video, the iPhone SE is better suited than the Galaxy A51. The SE can shoot 4K at 30 fps and 60 fps and has more dynamic range with greater detail thanks to the A13 Bionic chip and the camera sensor. The Galaxy A51 also shoots great video with 4K at 30 fps but lacks optical image stabilization (OIS) while the SE supports OIS.
Overall, both devices support great photo and video capabilities. I prefer the flexibility of the four-camera solution on the A51, but others may put more weight on the video capabilities of the iPhone SE.
Price and storage- Samsung win at $399, $449, $549
Both entry-level models of the iPhone SE and the Galaxy A51 that I tested come in at $399. The iPhone SE comes standard with 64GB of storage vs. 128GB of the Galaxy A51. So, for $399 you get twice the storage on the A51. That means twice the apps, photos or apps and would save you from iCloud storage costs, too, of $2.99 per month for 200GB of storage.
The 64GB version of the iPhone SE costs $399, the 128GB version costs $449, and the 256GB version costs $549.
The Galaxy A51 supports upgradable storage solutions with MicroSD. To get to 256GB you would need to spend $25 for a 128GB card that gets to $449, $100 less than the 256GB iPhone SE.
The Galaxy A51 and the iPhone SE operate in the same price range and target similar budget-conscious customers. While both phones offer great value at this price point, the Galaxy A51 to me is a clear winner. The Galaxy A51 has a better display, has a bigger battery, and has more camera options while not sacrificing a ton of performance. Not to mention that you can get twice the storage at the same price and the same storage with an SD card for $100 less. If smaller size or iMessage matter, then the iPhone SE is your best bet.
All in all, it is good to see competition in this segment of the market. It drives the prices of smartphones down and helps pack more performance and features into entry-level smartphone models which better serves the end customer.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.