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The timing of the new iPhone SE — which goes on preorder today and arrives April 24 — could not have been better for Apple. As the coronavirus puts millions of people out of work around the world, a $400 iPhone (£419, AU$749) will appeal to people in search of a budget device that does it all. But Samsung has a $400 competitor already on sale (£329, converts to AU$645) — the Galaxy A51 — and on paper at least, Samsung’s chances look good. 

The Galaxy A line is new to the US, though Samsung itself has a long legacy, and it isn’t clear how buyers will respond to the budget and midrange phones. Samsung announced six Galaxy A models coming to the US between now and summer, a step up or perhaps replacement for the Galaxy J series. The real test for Samsung’s reputation is if buyers will actually notice the A51 or if the iPhone SE will scoop the wind from Samsung’s sails. 

That $400 price tag is crucial for both the Galaxy A51 and iPhone SE. Smartphone shipments were already down 38% in February as a result of the pandemic and are expected to plunge to a 10-year low by the end of the year. Low-cost phones are likely to sell far better than pricey handsets like Apple’s $1,100 iPhone 11 Pro Max and Samsung’s $1,400 Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Read on for Samsung’s secret weapon, Apple’s not-so-secret weapon and how the rival phones’ specs compare.

Read also: Why the iPhone SE is the perfect iPhone for the times.

Now playing: Apple’s new iPhone SE is basically an iPhone 11 in a… 5:46

Size matters: Small versus huge

The two phones cost the same, but only the iPhone SE appeals to people looking for a pocket-size device. It’s small by current standards, with just a 4.7 inch display, which is almost unheard of these days. Meanwhile, the Galaxy A51 goes supersize, with a 6.5 inch screen that targets media consumption like videos, photography and online reading. 

In many cases, screen size is a good stand-in for dimensions, but in this case, the iPhone SE appears to have thicker bezels. Most phones today have screens that take up most of the phone face, so the 5.8-inch Galaxy S10e, a “small” Samsung phone, is only a smidge larger than Apple’s new phone — yet with a much larger screen (note that we haven’t seen the iPhone SE in person yet.)

Here are the dimensions:

  • iPhone SE: 5.45 by 2.65 by 0.29 inches
  • Galaxy S10e: 5.6 by 2.8 by 0.27 inches

Even at a discount ($600 at Verizon versus a $750 original retail price), the S10e costs significantly more than the iPhone SE, which makes Apple’s phone the better budget “small phone” choice.

iPhone SE
The iPhone SE has a physical fingerprint reader and power button, which shrinks the available screen space.Apple

Apple has the upper hand with carrier support

Back to the $400 phones. Between the Galaxy A51 and the iPhone SE, the iPhone is the more widely available device. 

During quarantine, shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders, you can’t go to a carrier or other retail store to check them out in person, but when the iPhone SE goes on preorder April 17 and on sale April 24, it’ll be sold through all major US networks. But the Galaxy A51 currently sells only with Verizon and Sprint. Though it eventually will come to other carriers and retailers, a more limited availability puts it behind the SE for now.

Samsung’s secret weapon

Perhaps the biggest difference is storage. The fine print is that the iPhone SE starts at $400 ($399 if you want to be precise) for 64GB of internal storage. Meanwhile, the Galaxy A51 gives you double that (128GB) for the same price. If you want the 128GB iPhone SE option, which is the configuration I’d suggest, you’ll pay $449.

To top it off, the Galaxy A51 accepts up to 512GB in expandable storage. Yes, you’ll have to buy that yourself, but a 128GB microSD card will set you back maybe $20. Meanwhile, the 256GB iPhone SE costs you $549.

  • Galaxy A51 (128GB) plus 128GB microSD card: $420
  • 256GB iPhone SE: $549

If you store your large photos and videos online, your total onboard storage might not matter to you. If you prefer to keep your media on hand, then Samsung’s A51 is the far bigger value.

samsung-galaxy-a51
Samsung’s new A51 phone costs $400, has an on-display fingerprint sensor and four cameras. Samsung

Apple’s not-so-secret weapon

The allure of the iPhone SE comes from the same DNA that makes Apple fanboys so devoted to their cause: Apple’s “it” factor. Maybe it’s the tight integration with MacOS or the look and feel of the phones themselves. Perhaps a buyer is already locked into Apple’s ecosystem or derives some sort of identity from being an iPhone “person.”

Apple’s less obvious leverage is its messaging, which gives the iPhone SE the impression of being a premium device with the same core innards as the iPhone 11 — the processor, software and main camera. Yes, it’s missing Face ID (it uses the legacy home button) and several camera lenses. By comparison, the Galaxy A51’s quad cameras scream “more!” But Apple’s value proposition is clear: this is an iPhone through and through, just modestly. 

The iPhone SE is also water resistant and has wireless charging support — two features that the distinctly midrange Galaxy A51 lacks.

Samsung’s perception ‘problem’

Samsung seeded the Galaxy A phones with US carriers at a time when the appetite for expensive, premium handsets is already dwindling. But with an unknown portfolio that hasn’t reached all the carriers, it isn’t clear that the Galaxy A51 will make the dent that Samsung surely hopes it will during these uncertain financial times — especially against such an established player as the iPhone SE.

So why cast your lot with the Galaxy A line instead of creating a Galaxy S20e to replace last year’s Galaxy S10e? Perhaps Samsung wanted to let the Galaxy S20 line stand out as the premium product while building up the Galaxy A portfolio to become its own thing. We reached out for comment.

Here’s another take:

“[The Galaxy A51] adds further defense against the iPhone SE and also locks out that part of the market to other Android players for customers that want a well-known brand of midtier smartphone,” Ben Wood, chief of research for CCS Insight, told CNET.

So even if the iPhone SE does outsell the Galaxy A51, a future battle among midprice Android phones could yet be at hand.


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