We get pretty worked up when a new, premium smartphone shows up. And I’d be lying if I said playing with expensive hardware wasn’t one of the best parts of this job. It’s especially nice because, more often than not, the last thing I want to do is pay for some of the things we test.
Which brings me to an important question: how much should anyone actually shell out for a new smartphone? The short answer is “as much as you’re comfortable with.” Thankfully, companies are working to make their more affordable devices flashier than ever. Case in point: I’ve spent a few days with Samsung’s new A52 5G, and while it might not satisfy those with flagship tastes, it gets pretty close sometimes.
You’d expect a $500 smartphone to be rife with compromises, and you’d be right. While Samsung’s cringe-worthy launch event showed off the A52 5G in a handful of “awesome” hues, only the plain black model is coming to the US, and its mostly plastic body doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence. Granted, it packs a polished aluminum frame and it’s rated IP67 for water and dust resistance, but that matte black finish picks up fingerprints like no one’s business. And I’ve already put a few distracting nicks into its cover glass. There’s no wireless charging here either, and the pack-in power adapter is limited to charging speeds of 15W. That’s not bad, but you’re in for a wait when you plug this thing into the wall.
But in other ways, the A52 5G manages to punch above its weight. For one, it has a proper headphone jack, a feature all but extinct in more expensive models. The clearest example here, though, is Samsung’s choice of screen: a 6.5-inch Super AMOLED panel running at 1080x2400. Beyond the immediate benefits a big screen offers, it was generally bright enough to be visible under the harsh Oakland sun. That said, this screen is super-reflective, so some people will have trouble seeing it well regardless of brightness.
Like some of Samsung’s more expensive displays, it features a maximum refresh rate of 120Hz for ultra-smooth action on screen. That said, it doesn’t pack the same clever on-the-fly refresh rate switching you’ll find in devices like the Galaxy S21 series. It’s set to the full 120Hz out of the box, but you can manually dial it down to a more commonplace 60Hz for improved battery life. Oh, and there’s not much to worry about if you’re wary of big cut-outs for front-facing cameras either; the hole Samsung used to accommodate its 32-megapixel sensor is pleasantly tiny.
Speaking of cameras, the A52 also has a flexible quad-sensor array sitting high on its back. You’ll probably spend most of your time with the 64-megapixel main sensor which, in typical Samsung fashion, produces vivid, eye-catching 16-megapixel stills when shooting in bright conditions. (If you really wanted to, you could shoot 4:3 photos at 32-megapixels but it’s usually not worth it unless you plan to tweak the image in post and print it out.) Thankfully, low-light performance has been surprisingly solid too, and Samsung’s Night mode generally does a good job combating noise.
Now, I didn’t have my full complement of comparison devices to test the A52’s, and that’s partially why I don’t consider this a full-fledged review. Still, considering its mid-range ambitions, the A52’s primary sensor hasn’t left me wanting. Of course, a lot of that boils down to personal preference.
Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate Samsung’s aggressive approach to colors, and as usual, the A52’s photos are punchier and more contrasty than real life. Photographers who’d prefer a more neutral approach may walk away disappointed, but I suspect most people shopping for phones on a budget won’t mind too much.
That said, there are still a few other cameras we need to talk about. The 12-megapixel ultra-wide does a commendable job capturing more expansive scenes, but the sensor’s limited resolution means you probably won’t find much in the way of fine detail. It’s especially bad in low-light. Samsung’s image processing expertise couldn’t prevent noise from creeping into images shot at night.
Rounding out the package is a solid 5-megapixel macro camera for shooting exceptionally close images (though, I don’t know anyone who uses features like this regularly) and a 5-megapixel sensor for capturing depth data. You can’t shoot directly with that depth camera; instead, Samsung uses it to better isolate people from the background for portrait photos. It also plays an important role in the camera’s “Fun” mode, which you can use to paint people in photos with layers of virtual makeup and accessories. All of the Snapchat-developer filters I’ve tried so far do exactly what they promise, but let’s be real — this feature is clearly for the young and young-at-heart. (Unfortunately, I am neither.)
Ultimately, none of this would matter if the A52 ran like a dog, but Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 750G chipset does a respectable job keeping everything running at a solid clip. That said, I suspect the 6GB of RAM Samsung went with here holds things back a bit. Jumping between apps and minimizing YouTube videos is sometimes interrupted by noticeable lag. On the whole, though, the A52 has been more than competent at keeping up with my frenzied Slacking and prolonged periods of playing Lichtspeer poorly.
With that in mind, Samsung’s software continues to be a source of confusion. I don’t mean that One UI is difficult to wrap your head around — it isn’t. Really, it’s the little things that continue to feel unpleasant and weird. No one wants ads in their stock weather app, for instance, but Samsung shoves them in there anyway. And while using the A52’s big screen to its fullest all but demands gesture navigation, it isn’t on by default — you’ll have to jump into the phone’s settings to switch away from Samsung’s classic (and arguably dated) three-button navigation scheme.
Normally, this is where I’d moan about Samsung’s lackluster long-term software support, but at least that is changing. The company confirmed earlier this month that, like its portfolio of premium phones, the A52 5G will get three years of full Android updates — that means this Android 11 phone should get the Android 14 update. Well, eventually anyway. (Compared to other smartphone makers, Samsung is still pretty slow at producing those updates and getting them certified and distributed.)
Now, because I’ve only had the A52 for a few days, there are some things I haven’t been able to test as thoroughly as I’d like. For one, the phone’s 4,500mAh battery has been more than enough to get through full working days — even with the screen’s refresh rate set to its full 120Hz — but I’m waiting to get a better sense of how far I can push the phone before it conks out. And if I’m honest, testing 5G in the Bay Area hasn’t been great either. This is a purely sub-6 5G device, which isn’t unusual for phones in this price range, but more than a few times I struggled to find a 5G signal outside San Francisco proper.
Ultimately, how impressive the A52 5G really is kind of depends on what you’re comparing it against. Apple’s answer to these kinds of high-powered, low-cost Android phones is the 2020 iPhone SE, which pairs a design straight out of 2016 with one of the company’s most powerful mobile chipsets, the A13 Bionic. What the iPhone SE lacks in style it makes up for with nearly flagship-grade performance that the A52 5G simply can’t match. Then again, it’s hard to argue with Samsung’s big, excellent screen and the bevy of cameras around back. It’s a very flexible package for the price, and worthy of serious consideration if you’re of the Android persuasion.
And of course, there’s our favorite inexpensive Android phone of the moment, Google’s $350 Pixel 4a. It too is quite a bit smaller than the A52 5G, but its pair of rear cameras still shines thanks to Google’s well-honed computational photography chops. If it were me, I’d personally stick with a Pixel because of its remarkably clean software, but there’s still a lot to like in Samsung’s maximal approach to its One UI interface.
So, based on these first impressions, would I actually buy an A52 5G? Honestly, probably not — and that’s all because of Samsung. I really enjoyed last year’s S20 Fan Edition, with its high-powered Snapdragon 865 chipset and a camera setup copied almost directly from the rest of the S20 lineup. The A52 would be a whole lot more tantalizing if deals on that higher-performance device were hard to come by, but they’re not. As I write this, the comparable unlocked S20 FE sells for just $100 more than the A52 on Amazon, and you could score even more significant savings if you had an old phone you don’t mind trading in. Like I mentioned much earlier, it's worth buying the best phone you can comfortably afford, and in this case the S20 FE's extra performance is almost certainly worth the splurge.
All told, the A52 is one of Samsung’s strongest mid-range options to date, and is certainly worthy of your attention if you still shudder at the idea of dropping four figures on a phone. If you're fairly sure this phone is going to be your next purchase, just remember that time is your friend — the A52 is a solid value buy now, but that deal will only get sweeter over time.
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