CNN —  

This year may very well end up being the year budget-friendly smartphones find their stride. Just in the last few weeks we’ve seen Samsung’s Galaxy A51 and Apple’s new iPhone SE hit the market, both priced at $399, and both offering features and capabilities that rival flagship phones from the same companies.

For example, have you seen the display on the A51? It’s nearly as brilliant as the Galaxy S20. Or what about the performance of the iPhone SE? It’s on par with the iPhone 11 Pro Max, a phone that starts at $1,099. Yes, really.

Samsung and Apple both have competitive mid-range smartphones, sure to attract customers looking to save some cash, but that leaves you trying to figure out which one is right for you. We’ll try to help you decide.


Jacob Krol/CNN

The iPhone SE is familiar, matching that of the iPhone 8, complete with a home button and thick borders above and below the 4.7-inch display. On the bottom is Apple’s Lightning port for charging and transferring data. You won’t find a headphone jack on the SE. Apple is all-in on wireless earbuds. The iPhone SE comes with a water and dust resistance rating of IP67, meaning it should survive in one meter of water for up to thirty minutes.

The A51 looks familiar when compared to other Galaxy phones, but it has its own unique design. The 6.5-inch display spans nearly the entire front of the phone, with thin bezels on all sides. There’s a hole-punch cutout, which is where the front-facing camera is found. On the bottom of the A51 is a USB-C port, and a headphone jack. On the left side of the housing is where you’ll find the SIM card and MicroSD card tray, allowing you to add up to 512GB of extra storage. Samsung didn’t include any sort of IP rating for the A51, so you’ll have to do your best to avoid accidental splashes and drops in the pool.

Jason Cipriani/CNN

Samsung’s offering is a larger phone with a stunning display, whereas Apple is using its tried and true design to cut costs and, perhaps, spark some nostalgia for iPhone enthusiasts.

If you’re not a fan of large phones, then the A51 is one you’ll want to avoid. There’s something to be said about the size of the iPhone SE and the ease of which it slides into your pocket.


Jacob Krol/CNN

Apple went with a single, 12-megapixel camera on the iPhone SE, relying instead on software to make more advanced features like Portrait Mode possible.

The A51, on the other hand, has four rear-facing cameras. There’s a 48-megapixel main camera, 12-megapixel ultra-wide camera, and a 5-megapixel macro shooter. The fourth sensor is a 5-megapixel depth camera that’s used for Live Focus, Samsung’s name for portrait mode, photos.

Jason Cipriani/CNN

The iPhone SE’s camera may be outnumbered when compared to the A51, but the number of cameras doesn’t tell the entire story. Apple has done a lot of work on the software and processing side of the camera equation, giving the iPhone SE’s camera a fighting chance. Images are clear, crisp, and have a life-like look to them. Portrait Mode photos have an accurate sense of depth.

Beyond multiple cameras, the A51’s camera has software features of its own. For example, Scene Optimizer will automatically identify what’s in the photo and attempt to capture the best photo possible.

At the end of the day, these two phones’ cameras are very competitive and ultimately come down to personal preference. We’d be happy to take photos with either the iPhone SE or Galaxy A51.

Performance and battery life

Jacob Krol/CNN

Performance is one area where there’s a clear cut winner: The iPhone SE. Apple used the same A13 Bionic processor that the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro has in the iPhone SE. The end result is a phone that never stutters or lags, and is able to keep up with common tasks and gaming without a hitch.

The Galaxy A51, however, uses Samsung’s Exynos 9611 processor, and our experience has been mixed. Most of the time, the A51 performs as one would expect; apps open without issue, and switching between apps is a breeze. However, there are times when apps take far too long to open, leaving you with the feeling that the phone froze, for no apparent reason. Something as simple as opening the Gallery app after taking a couple of pictures can bog down the phone. It’s confusing and frustrating.

It’s not just our personal experience. Popular benchmarking app Geekbench 5 also shows there’s a significant difference. Geekbench 5 runs intense processes that mimic real-life use cases and provides a score based on the phone’s performance.

Jason Cipriani/CNN

The Galaxy A51’s Geekbench 5 single-core score is 345, with a multi-core score of 1,301. The iPhone SE scored 1,330 and 2,434 in the same tests. Those scores aren’t even close, and our personal experience matches them.

As for battery life, the A51’s 4,000 mAh battery outlasts the iPhone SE’s 1,821 mAh battery, but not by much. The A51 powered through 12 hours and 31 minutes of our battery drain test. The iPhone SE lasted nine hours and 20 minutes in the same test.

In real-world use, either phone has more than enough power to get through a full day of use — just don’t expect multiple-day battery life with either one.

Bottom line

Deciding between the A51 or SE can’t be distilled down to whether you want an Android phone or an iPhone. There are some valid differences between the two phones, outside of their underlying operating system.

The A51’s camera has more features and an impressive display, but the overall performance isn’t impressive. The iPhone SE’s performance is reliable and fast, and the camera does a fine job, but when you look at the display next to the A51, you’re going to feel a bit of envy.

All of that said, we’re inclined to recommend the iPhone SE over the A51 because it’s a better deal at this price. You’re truly getting a flagship-caliber experience at a fraction of the cost. Although, if you’re an Android fan through and through and are set on the A51 — we can only suggest trying to find it on sale.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer’s listed prices at the time of publication.