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Technology: Samsung's A Series, the perfect phones for pandemic times, get the spotlight at Unpacked

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Samsung tends to use its splashy Unpacked events to show off the newest high-end gadgets in its Galaxy S, Galaxy Note and Galaxy Z families of phones. But it's the company's midrange A Series, which last year started at $110, that'll take center stage at its next big product event.

graphical user interface, application: Samsung's Galaxy A series, including the A51, has been popular with buyers. Sarah Tew/CNET © Provided by CNET Samsung's Galaxy A series, including the A51, has been popular with buyers. Sarah Tew/CNET

On Wednesday at 7 a.m. PT, Samsung is scheduled to hold its second virtual Unpacked event of 2021. Samsung called Wednesday's event "Galaxy Awesome Unpacked" and said it'll explain how it's "bringing Awesome to everyone." (Yes, capital "A" Awesome). Its first Unpacked, in mid-January, marked the introduction of Samsung's flagship phones for the year, the Galaxy S21, S21 Plus and S21 Ultra. All came with 5G, and the devices started at $800, which is $200 less than their predecessors.

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The Galaxy S may be Samsung's most high-profile flagship lineup, and the Galaxy Z foldables are its future, but neither are the most popular devices the South Korean giant sells. That title goes to the Galaxy A, which represented more than three out of every four Samsung phones shipped around the world last year, according to Strategy Analytics. The line's quiet rise as a major contributor to sales for Samsung underscores the notion that while high-end specs and cutting-edge features are nice for attention and buzz, people still care about what they're spending on phones -- especially in these times.

Samsung will bring more attention to the lineup than ever when it makes the Galaxy A the focus of Wednesday's Unpacked.

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When Samsung first jumped into the Android market in 2010, it was with its Galaxy S devices, which propelled the Korean company to the position of world's biggest phone vendor, a title it's held for most of the past decade. Similarly, the Galaxy Note ignited a trend for jumbo phones and the Galaxy Fold touched off a new wave of foldables.

Generating much less fanfare is the Galaxy A lineup. The phones have been viewed as devices for people who are more price sensitive  -- if anyone thought about the A Series at all. They've been sold internationally for years but didn't come to the US as a full lineup until 2020.

In the past, "every time [Samsung] rolled out the S series, even after carrier subsidies disappeared, that was what sold," Strategy Analytics analyst Ken Hyers said. "Things like the A Series or equivalent product, those were for the people who didn't have the money for a premium phone."

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Last year's Galaxy A lineup included four 4G LTE phones and two 5G models. They ranged from $110 for the Galaxy A10 to $650 for the Galaxy A71 5G on Verizon's network (it's $600 at other carriers without super-fast 5G millimeter-wave connectivity). All came with some high-end features, though they weren't nearly as premium as the specs found in the Galaxy S, Note and foldables. And none came close to the price tag for Samsung's premium phones, which started at $1,000 for the Galaxy S20. Though the Galaxy A lineup may not have the flash of Samsung's high-end phones, what it does have is a lot of buyers across the world.

graphical user interface, application: Samsung's Galaxy A series, including the A51, have been popular with buyers.  © Sarah Tew/CNET

Samsung's Galaxy A series, including the A51, have been popular with buyers.

In the US, where there's often a bigger market for pricey phones than many other regions, the A Series' shipments surpassed the S Series, 26% to 19%, according to Strategy Analytics. In the key fourth quarter of the year, nearly half of Samsung's phone shipments in the US came from the A Series. That included models like the $180 Galaxy A11, $250 Galaxy A21 and $500 Galaxy A51 5G.

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People are increasingly choosing less expensive phones, even if they can afford the pricier models like the Galaxy S, Strategy Analytics' Hyers said.

Today's phone market looks very different from the industry a few years ago. In the past, many consumers bought the latest and greatest on a regular two-year cadence, and Apple and Samsung made $1,000 the standard starting price for high-end phones. Now people in the US are content holding onto their phones an additional year, and when they upgrade, they're often seeking out less expensive phones. Today's mainstream devices ship with many higher-end features -- like fast processors, big screens and several camera lenses -- that consumers deem to be good enough, especially for the price. Samsung even cut the starting price of its Galaxy S lineup by $200 for this year's S21 models.

"The price of premium products has gotten out of whack with what people think is justifiable for a smartphone," Hyers said. "And midtier phones like the A51 ... don't feel like you're making a compromise."

Samsung declined to comment ahead of Wednesday's event.

The new A Series

This year, Samsung is expected to introduce Galaxy A52 and A72 phones, successors to last year's A51 and A71. The devices likely will come with 4G and 5G variants right away (last year's 5G models arrived after the 4G versions) and several improvements over the older models.

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The A52 is rumored to sport a bigger battery, a better processor and more RAM, while keeping the 6.5-inch Super AMOLED display found in the A51. And the A72 is believed to feature a new camera design, with five back lenses, a first for any Samsung device. It also may become the first midrange phone with optical image stabilization to improve shots.

Refreshing the higher end of the A Series could have a lower boost on Samsung's unit sales than introducing newer cheap models. It's the company's least expensive Galaxy A models that have proved to be the most popular with consumers, said Mark Bachman, lead tech and telecom analyst at M Science. His firm tracks how well phone models sell.

Looking at the first 20 weeks of sales for each device, the data analytics provider found that the budget models, like the $180 Galaxy A10e and A11 or the $250 A20 and A21, sold in higher numbers than the higher priced $500 A51 5G and $600 A71 5G (or $650 at Verizon). US consumers bought nearly 2.5 million units of the A11 in its first five months of sales, while they purchased only about 300,000 Galaxy A51 5G units.

"While the launch of the A52/A72 series will refresh Samsung's midrange offerings, we believe these phones will have less impact to Samsung's sales in the US when compared to their budget A series and premium priced S series handsets," Bachman said.

Still, Samsung hasn't yet said what its new A Series devices will cost. It could lower the prices for the models, like how it cut Galaxy S pricing.

Hitting the 'sweet spot'

Samsung highlighting its less expensive phones follows a trend found across the mobile industry. The first 5G devices on the market in 2019 cost significantly more than their 4G counterparts. Samsung's Galaxy S10 5G and Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G both retailed for $1,300. That's $400 and $200 more than the 4G variants, respectively.

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But the coronavirus pandemic has forced companies to reevaluate their launch plans and drop pricing for 5G phones much more quickly than expected. In September, Samsung introduced its Galaxy S20 FE for $300 less than its S20 sibling. Then in January, Samsung said its new Galaxy S21 models would cost $200 less than their Galaxy S20 sibling from a year earlier. It's partly because component costs have fallen but also recognition that it's getting harder to convince people to shell out $1,000 for a phone.

The Galaxy S21 lineup meets "sweet spots" in the market when it comes to pricing and features, Drew Blackard, Samsung Electronics America's vice president of product management, said in an interview ahead of January's Unpacked event. And he said the lower starting point is likely here to stay.

The Galaxy A devices are even more affordable, without having to sacrifice features like strong cameras.

A new smartphone that won't drain your bank account may be worth the trouble of all that Unpacked fanfare after all.

How to watch Samsung's April Unpacked 2021 event on Wednesday .
It's not yet clear what Samsung will unveil, but the company teased the arrival of "the most powerful Galaxy."Samsung will hold another Unpacked event on April 28.

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