Samsung’s midrange A54 is lovely, but users won't feel seen
Mostly indistinguishable from a premium handset, but the moments it misses may leave you miffed
First look A confession: I have learned that the iPhone 13's facial recognition facility can successfully identify me while I brush my teeth.
There I stand, brush protruding from a gaping jaw, foam flecked about my lips, and Apple logs me in without a moment's pause. It also identifies me in the dark, in broad daylight, and at all hours of variable brightness in between.
Samsung's Galaxy A54, by contrast, struggled to recognize my mug in most conditions. Ablutions defeated it, as did bright sunlight. My home office, lit naturally on one side of my desk and artificially on the other, confused its facial recognition powers completely. Wearing a hoodie gave me the kind of anonymity suggested by the worst clichés of infosec practitioners' preferred apparel.
I mention this because in most other areas of operation, the experience of using the mid-range A54 is almost indistinguishable from using a premium smartphone – be it Samsung's own Galaxy S range or an iPhone.
I found the A54 pleasingly zippy, with no discernible lag between operations. It has a 5nm Samsung Exynos 1380 chipset with an eight-core CPU cluster (four Arm Cortex-A78s at 2.4 GHz and four A55s at 2 GHz), Arm's Mali graphics, 6 to 8GB of RAM, and 128 to 256GB of storage. It's powered by a non-removable LiPo 5000 mAh battery.
Crucially, this Android 13 handset, which came out in March this year, kept up with the demands I placed upon it when surfing, mailing, gaming, or Zooming. Data flowed swiftly over Wi-Fi and 5G, and it perhaps picked up more of the latter's signal than some phones I've tried.
The machine was unperturbed by indignities such as being bounced along during bicycle rides on cold foggy mornings, or being stood up in a hot and foggy bathroom to play streamed radio or podcasts.
It ended up in the latter location because another of my bad habits is placing phones upside down on a shelf or vanity in the bathroom, so the sound of their speakers bounces off tiles. I find this amplifies phones nicely, so I can listen to streamed audio as I go about my business. A bathroom's surfaces don't noticeably worsen the inevitably unsubtle emissions of a smartphone's tiny speakers and the A54 sounded no better or worse in that mode than any other phone I've recently tried.
I always feel that midrange handsets like the A54 deserve a 3.5mm headphone port, because the kind of price-conscious buyer that considers these models may feel the need to acquire wireless headphones an unwelcome impost. Samsung hasn't included the port in this machine, but can at least point to the presence of a USB-C slot as an option for wired headphones. I found the machine behaved well when linking to non-Samsung Bluetooth buds.
The handset's 6.4-inch, 1080 x 2340 Super AMOLED screen distinguishes colors nicely, and never produced notably unpleasant artifacts when streaming video or displaying gaming graphics.
The camera produces slightly cruder output than the Galaxy Ultra. To my eye, details emerge a little less precise and colors veered between a little too pastel and a little too vivid when I shot the same fence and football stadium using the Ultra, even allowing for the advancing seasons and different shots at the footy.
Overall, it's a fine package – other than for those few moments when you gaze at it and aren't sure whether the handset will welcome you by springing to life or challenge you to identify yourself by other means. That uncertainty means that every time I picked up the A54 it reminded me other products offer a better overall experience.
But at $449.99 outright from Samsung, though you can find it cheaper elsewhere or on a plan, its flaws are easy to overlook.
And in the developing world, where Samsung's A-series does huge business, the A54 brings a near-premium experience to millions for whom a Galaxy S or iPhone aren't within financial reach. Samsung cleans up in those markets and the A54 won't hurt its prospects in the slightest. ®