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Galaxy A52 5G review: Samsung's best budget phone with flagship features

CNET logo CNET 7/23/2021 Patrick Holland
© Sarah Tew/CNET

With the Galaxy A52 5G, Samsung found an appealing balance between price, features and making smart compromises. It's the latest good sub-$500 5G phone and joins the nearly half a dozen phones from Motorola, OnePlus and TCL. The Galaxy A52 5G costs $500 or £399 (it isn't sold in Australia but that converts to AU$740). That's at the higher end of what's considered an affordable phone. The A52 5G also straddles the line between being a good affordable 5G phone and a fantastic one. The only other sub-$500 phones that do that are the iPhone SE, which doesn't have 5G, and the Google Pixel 4A 5G, which is now almost a year old.

The A52 5G has a high refresh rate display, years of OS and security support, a good main camera and good battery life. It has features that the more expensive Galaxy S21 and S21 Ultra lack like: a headphone jack, expandable storage and the inclusion of a wall charger in the box.

Read more: The best USB-C PD chargers of 2021

As with any phone, even a good one, not everything is roses and sunshine. The in-screen fingerprint reader is so annoying to use that I preferred to enter my PIN to unlock the phone. The mediocre macro camera seems like a frivolous add-on that is only there to boost the total number of cameras on the phone. More is definitely not better. There are many duplicate apps like Samsung's version of an internet browser and photo gallery app in addition to the ones from Google.

But after two months, when I step back and consider everything, the Galaxy A52 5G is an all-around good phone with some great features and a few minor and annoying flaws. It's a solid buy for $500, but as I write this review, you can get a Galaxy A52 5G unlocked on Samsung's website for $425, which makes it even harder to pass up.

graphical user interface: Sarah Tew/CNET © Provided by CNET Sarah Tew/CNET

Galaxy S21 Ultra-inspired looks in a plastic reality

The build is good. It's not premium and that's fine, because it feels good. When you tap on the back you can definitely tell it's plastic. (So don't tap on the back.) The look of the phone is clean. It has curved plastic edges, symmetrical thin bezels around the screen and a matte finish. The camera bump loosely echoes the one on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, in the same way my haircut does Kit Harrington's.

Over two months, the phone collected its share of nicks along the sides. The matte finish back definitely doesn't look fresh or new. Most people will inevitably put the phone in a case, so that shouldn't be an issue.

The A52 5G is rated IP67 for water and dust resistance and can be submerged under three feet of water for up to 30 minutes.

Samsung Galaxy A52 5G: $500 looks pretty damn slick

shape: The Samsung Galaxy A52 5G is an all-around good phone with some great features and a few minor and annoying flaws. It's a solid buy for $500

The Samsung Galaxy A52 5G is an all-around good phone with some great features and a few minor and annoying flaws. It's a solid buy for $500
© Provided by CNET

Galaxy A52 5G has a 120Hz high refresh rate display

On the front is a 6.5-inch full-HD display with a hole-punch cutout for the selfie camera. The display is high-refresh rate and can be set to either 120Hz or 60Hz. At 120Hz, animations look smooth, gaming feels more immersive and even mundane things like scrolling through a feed look crisp. The display is without a doubt the best feature on the phone.

Brightness is good. Most displays on budget phones have horrible brightness, especially outdoors. Topping it all off is a slab of Gorilla Glass 5. Beware if you leave your phone screen down on a table and unattended. The coating will make it slide off a seemingly flat surface all on its own.

Let me level some expectations. This display isn't as good as the one on the Galaxy S21. But it is really good for $500.

The biggest downside to the design and display is the in-screen optical fingerprint sensor. The position of it feels low for one-handed use. I can rarely get the fingerprint reader to unlock the phone on the first attempt. I find it easier to just swipe up and enter a PIN.

a close up of a remote control: There are four cameras on the rear of the Galaxy A52 5G: A main wide-angle camera, an ultrawide camera, a macro camera and a depth camera. Sarah Tew/CNET © Provided by CNET There are four cameras on the rear of the Galaxy A52 5G: A main wide-angle camera, an ultrawide camera, a macro camera and a depth camera. Sarah Tew/CNET

The Galaxy A52 5G has four rear cameras, but only the main one is good

There are four rear cameras on the A52 5G, one of which is a depth-sensor that works with the main camera to give you some absolutely fun and ridiculous AR effects and decent portrait mode photos.

a close up of a beverage: The macro camera is a bit of an odd duck. It allows you to focus close like on the foam of a cortado. But the margin of error between your subject being in-focus and out-of-focus is incredibly thin. I wish there was focus peaking available to see when you have focus on your subject. Patrick Holland/CNET © Provided by CNET The macro camera is a bit of an odd duck. It allows you to focus close like on the foam of a cortado. But the margin of error between your subject being in-focus and out-of-focus is incredibly thin. I wish there was focus peaking available to see when you have focus on your subject. Patrick Holland/CNET

There's a macro camera. And (sigh) we've seen this from other phone companies. It's not that most people probably won't use a macro camera on a phone, it's that compared to the main camera on the A52 5G, the macro camera isn't great. It allows you to focus closer, but you need to be steady. You're just a handshake or breath away from being out of focus. I wish there was focus peaking on the macro camera to help you see when your subject is in focus and when it's not. Pro Mode offers focus peaking but for the main camera only.

a green train that is sitting on a track: The ultrawide camera is fun. It gives you a great exaggerated perspective. Patrick Holland/CNET © Provided by CNET The ultrawide camera is fun. It gives you a great exaggerated perspective. Patrick Holland/CNET

The A52 5G has a decent ultrawide-angle camera. The main camera has optical image stabilization and a 64-megapixel sensor that combines pixels for a 16-megapixel photo with good detail and brightness.

a group of people in a room: In good light, image quality from the ultrawide camera is decent. It's still a step behind the main camera in terms of dynamic range and image noise. Patrick Holland/CNET © Provided by CNET In good light, image quality from the ultrawide camera is decent. It's still a step behind the main camera in terms of dynamic range and image noise. Patrick Holland/CNET

Photos from the main camera are good. Your personal taste will vary when it comes to the amount of color saturation. To me, it's a touch oversaturated but still looks good.

a car parked in a parking lot: Red cars go faster, right? Colors from the A52 5G are punchy. Patrick Holland/CNET

Red cars go faster, right? Colors from the A52 5G are punchy. Patrick Holland/CNET
© Provided by CNET

In lower light situations, you start to see the main camera's weakness. There is a Night mode to help, and photos look decent but you're not going to get the same results as Night mode on the Galaxy S21.

a group of people sitting at a table in a restaurant: In mixed lighting, the main camera does OK. Details start to look soft and noise correction starts to make skin tones smudge. Patrick Holland/CNET

In mixed lighting, the main camera does OK. Details start to look soft and noise correction starts to make skin tones smudge. Patrick Holland/CNET
© Provided by CNET

The A52 5G can record 4K video which in good light is good but as it gets darker, image noise and artifacts become more apparent. Curiously, you can't use the optical image stabilization when recording 4K video. But if you drop down in resolution to 1,080P video, you can use Super Steady which works very well. Take a look at the video below to see sample clips shot with the Galaxy A52 5G.

Replay Video

The selfie camera has a 32-megapixel sensor and Samsung's full-arsenal of face-smoothing, jawline-defining and eye-enlarging tools. And then there's Fun mode that lets you use Snapchat AR filters without using Snapchat. You can use Fun mode with the main and depth cameras on the back or the selfie camera. Fun mode actually lives up to its name.

a close up of a person wearing a hat and sunglasses: With Fun mode, I can finally be the brunette with cat-eye glasses I've always wanted to be. Patrick Holland/CNET © Provided by CNET With Fun mode, I can finally be the brunette with cat-eye glasses I've always wanted to be. Patrick Holland/CNET

To put this all into perspective, both the iPhone SE and Google Pixel 4A 5G have better overall camera systems for photos and videos -- both also have fewer cameras. That speaks less about the A52 5G's camera prowess and more about what Apple and Google are able to put into their phones.

Peppy Android performance for the price

The A52 5G has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 750G chip with 6GB of RAM. It runs Android 11 and at the time I'm writing this, runs the July 2021 software update. Performance is good. It's not blazing fast which is apparent with the small delay that occurs when I open the camera from the lock screen, or rotate the phone between portrait and landscape.

In benchmark tests it scored ahead of the Google Pixel 4A 5G and just behind the Motorola One Ace 5G. See the results of our benchmark tests below.

It has Samsung's OneUI 3 interface, which I enjoy using. It's clean and friendly to one-handed use. There are several duplicate apps, which is annoying. But all Samsung phones, no matter the price, do as well. One of the best parts of the Galaxy A52 5G is that you get three generations of Android OS updates and at least four years of security updates. This is still a rarity for Android budget phones.

5G for less than $500 and good battery life

As the name indicates, this is a 5G phone that works on sub-6 5G networks in the US. I tested it in Greenville, South Carolina on T-Mobile and speeds were just OK. Despite an onscreen 5G indicator, many times the phone was actually connected to 4G LTE. This has everything to do with T-Mobile's coverage as the same thing happened when I tested other phones on T-Mobile here.

The A52 5G has a 4,500-mAh battery. Samsung claims two days of use when fully charged. I reliably got one day with the display at 120Hz. On days with lighter use or when the display was set to 60Hz, it easily lasted a day and a half.

a hand holding a flower: Even with the screen's refresh rate set to 120Hz, the Galaxy A52 5G lasted 17 hours and 40 minutes in our battery tests. Sarah Tew/CNET © Provided by CNET Even with the screen's refresh rate set to 120Hz, the Galaxy A52 5G lasted 17 hours and 40 minutes in our battery tests. Sarah Tew/CNET

In our CNET battery tests with continuous video playback in airplane mode, it lasted a respectable 17 hours, 40 minutes and that was with the display set to 120Hz. That's longer than the OnePlus 9 Pro and the iPhone SE. In the same test, Motorola and its budget phones scored four of the five longest times of any phone this year. Keep in mind, none of these Motorola phones have a high refresh rate display.

It doesn't have wireless charging which is a wise omission, but it does support 25-watt fast charging. It's just that the included charger is only 15 watts.

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