Samsung Galaxy Alpha review: Samsung’s most beautiful phone yet

When a company names one of their products after the first letter of
the Greek alphabet, it means business. Take Samsung’s Galaxy Alpha: The
name alone exudes confidence. Although the term typically signifies the
first in a series, the Alpha obviously isn’t Samsung’s inaugural Android
phone; rather, it ushers in a completely new design direction for the
company. It’s not a top-of-the-line flagship device on the inside, but
what matters is that it actually looks like one on the outside,
thanks to its premium aesthetics, metal frame and sleek body. Samsung
has every reason to be confident in the Alpha’s design. As always,
however, there’s more to a device than meets the eye.

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Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Samsung

Galaxy Alpha

Summary
The Alpha is Samsung’s first phone with a metal frame, and it’s the
most aesthetically pleasing Galaxy phone we’ve ever seen.
Unfortunately, it’s priced at a premium and doesn’t have the same set of
features that you can get on the Galaxy S5 for the same price.

Hardware

The Galaxy Alpha is the most beautiful Samsung device I’ve ever
handled. It’s the very first device to take advantage of the company’s
brand-new design language, which features polished aluminum sides,
chamfered edges, a thin profile and a polycarbonate (plastic) back; the
same design is used on the Galaxy Note 4 and Galaxy Note Edge (and
arguably, the iPhone 5/5s and last year’s HTC One), but the Alpha is the
first to actually make it off the production line. It’s simple, yet
elegant; minimal, yet profuse. Featuring a 4.7-inch frame and 6.7mm
thickness, the Alpha is more than sufficiently sleek and svelte.

Thanks to its slim, compact frame, I had absolutely no problem
hanging onto the Alpha. Not only can I wrap my hand around the whole
thing, but also its straight sides offer my fingers plenty of space to
grip. It’s also incredibly light, weighing 4.06 ounces (115g); that’s
half an ounce lighter than the iPhone 6. In fact, it almost feels like
it isn’t substantial enough; in my palms, I’m often reminded of a dummy phone — fake versions of the real thing that manufacturers send to retail stores.

I’d be tempted to think of the Galaxy Alpha as a GS5 mini, if the
name weren’t already taken; in many respects, it’s a smaller version of
Samsung’s current 5.1-inch flagship smartphone. It packs the same
Snapdragon 801 chipset (though an Exynos option is also available in
certain markets), so it should be similarly powerful, and it also comes
with a fingerprint scanner, heart rate monitor and Samsung’s TouchWiz
UI. But while the Alpha easily beats the GS5 in style (while matching it
in oomph), the rest of the spec sheet isn’t as impressive. It’s not
waterproof; it lacks a microSD slot; the battery is smaller; it uses a
lower-res camera; and it doesn’t come with an IR blaster. It also
features a lower-res 720p Super AMOLED display.

Since it’s not designed to simply be a miniature GS5, these omissions
theoretically shouldn’t be a big issue. It still packs plenty of a
punch, after all, and even the 720p display is considered
top-of-the-line for similarly sized devices. (Also, with smaller phones,
manufacturers don’t have as much space to cram in extra components.)
The problem is that you’re paying a premium price for the premium look;
you can get the Alpha on AT&T in the US for $200 on-contract, or
$613 with no contract attached. This is the same on-contract price as
the GS5, and only $37 cheaper at full retail. To be fair, AT&T’s
Galaxy S5 only comes with 16GB internal storage, whereas the Alpha gets
32GB, so that explains some of the difference. Even so, the GS5 at least
has a microSD slot for expandable memory.

What’s even weirder is that while the Alpha doesn’t come with any waterproofing or water-resistance of any kind, iFixit
did a teardown of the phone and discovered that it comes with many of
the gaskets and other internal parts necessary for keeping water out. In
other words, Samsung didn’t finish what it started.

The bottom edge of the device houses a micro-USB 2.0 connector —
Samsung’s moved away from the unsightly 3.0 ports that take up extra
room — along with a speaker grille and mic. On the left is a volume
rocker, which appears to have received the same amount of attention to
design as the rest of the phone. There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack on top
and a power button on the right. Additionally, the top and bottom of the
phone feature a pair of antenna stripes, which are common on metal
phones because they provide a place to send and receive cellular and
wireless signals.

The Alpha also comes with a removable back cover with a textured
polycarbonate back that’s similar to what you’ll find on the Galaxy S5.
On the Alpha, however, the dimples are much tinier and the matte surface
doesn’t feel as slick; the Alpha definitely offers more friction.
There’s a 12-megapixel camera in the top-center, and since the module is
thicker than the phone itself, there’s a hump to make the transition
between the camera and back cover seem a bit more gradual. (One of my
biggest issues with the iPhone 6’s design is that the camera abruptly
sticks out from the rest of the frame.) The LED flash and heart rate
monitor are to the camera’s left, arranged in a vertical fashion, and
the logos include just the AT&T globe near the top and the phone’s
name near the bottom. Underneath the back cover, you’ll find a removable
1,860mAh battery and nano-SIM slot.

The new location of the heart rate monitor works out okay if you hold
the phone in your right hand, but it can be troublesome if you prefer
your left; the camera hump gets in the way, and I had to keep looking at
my finger to make sure it was in the right place. Which brings me to
another point: The Galaxy S5’s sensor was placed at the bottom of a
cavity, while the Alpha’s version is nearly flush with the rest of the
back. This makes it more difficult to find the sensor without peeking
around the phone to make sure I’m actually in the right spot.

An aluminum frame comes with trade-offs. Sure, it looks great, feels
robust and has an aura of high quality, but as I saw with the iPhone 6,
the material isn’t immune to blemishes; after just a few days, I started
seeing scratches and even a couple dings along the chamfered edges.
This means that how it looks after a year of use will depend on how you
treat it. If it’s constantly rubbing up against other hard materials,
it’s not going to fare well.

As mentioned earlier, the Alpha has a 4.7-inch 720p Super AMOLED
panel. On paper, this doesn’t sound very good since many new flagships
have Quad HD displays. For a handset of its size, however, 720p is still
acceptable: The first Moto X was of the same quality. Ditto for the
Sony Xperia Z3 Compact, which is one-tenth of an inch smaller. The
iPhone 6, meanwhile, is slightly better at 1,334 x 750 (326 pixels per
inch). With the Alpha, you’ll get a pixel density of 312 ppi, which is
still respectable. Of course, the Super AMOLED panel ensures that colors
are more saturated than most IPS options, and the viewing angles are
simply average and nothing special. If you’re looking for a compact
phone, the display will neither make nor break the decision for you —
it’s perfectly fine, as long as you don’t mind some slightly inaccurate
colors.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha Apple iPhone 6
Pricing $200 (on-contract), $613 (off-contract) Starts at $200 (on-contract); $650 (off-contract)
Dimensions 132.4 x 65.5 x 6.7 mm (5.21 x 2.58 x 0.26 in) 138.1 x 67 x 6.9 mm (5.44 x 2.64 x 0.27 in)
Weight 115 g (4.06 oz) 129 g (4.55 oz)
Screen size 4.7 inches 4.7 inches
Screen resolution 1,280 x 720 (312 ppi) 1,334 x 750 (326 ppi)
Screen type Super AMOLED IPS LCD (Retina HD)
Battery 1,860mAh 1,810mAh
Internal storage 32GB 16/64/128GB
External storage None None
Rear camera 12MP, f/2.2, AF, single LED flash 8MP, f/2.2, PDAF, dual LED flash
Front-facing cam 2.1MP 1.2MP
Video capture UHD (2160p) 1080p
NFC Yes Yes (with restrictions)
Bluetooth 4.0+LE 4.0+LE
SoC 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801, Adreno 330 1.4GHz dual-core Apple A8 “Cyclone”, PowerVR GX6450
RAM 2GB 1GB
Connectivity NFC, DLNA, WiFi Direct NFC
WiFi Dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
Operating system Android 4.4, TouchWiz UI iOS 8.0

Software

Admittedly, the software section is going to be as small as the
device itself, since there’s very little to differentiate it from the
Galaxy S5. The variance in screen size doesn’t impact the user
experience, nor does it mean you’ll enjoy fewer features. The Alpha uses
TouchWiz layered on top of Android 4.4.4 KitKat, which is still
technically the latest consumer-facing version of Google’s mobile OS
(it’ll soon be replaced by Android L, but Samsung’s lineup should get
the new update not too long after it becomes publicly available to the
masses).

This version of TouchWiz is what you’d expect: It’s consistent with
every other version of TouchWiz. The UI is exactly the same as on the
Galaxy S5, with a vast notification panel, bubbly settings menu and
suite of preinstalled Google and Samsung apps. There’s also My Magazine,
which is a feature that’s been on several Galaxy devices over the last
two years. (You can also remove it, if you don’t want to use it.) It’s
essentially an extra home screen panel that provides real-time news and
social feeds, and looks a lot like Flipboard and HTC’s BlinkFeed. Multi
Window is also present, so you can still view two apps at once in a
split-screen mode, despite having such a small screen. You’ll also get
Air View, which lets you check out extra details about calendar
appointments and larger thumbnails for pictures and videos just by
hovering your finger over the display.

Lastly, you’ll get other common Samsung features like Easy mode,
Blocking mode and Private mode (the latter of which hides and secures
sensitive information so your random friends won’t find it), as well as
Smart stay and the ever-present toolbox of customized app shortcuts that
continuously floats on top of the screen.

Camera

The Alpha is thinner than the GS5, which means the camera module
isn’t quite as large. Instead of a 16-megapixel sensor, you’ll get a
12MP shooter on the back with an aperture of f/2.2 and focal length of
4.8mm (the same as on the GS5). So, don’t expect a radically different
imaging experience here. The user interface hasn’t changed, either:
Separate shutter buttons for stills and video sit alongside the
mode-selection button and gallery link, and settings and shortcuts
reside on the opposite sidebar. You get the same default modes here as
you do on the GS5 — the usual Panorama, Dual Camera, Beauty Face and
Shot & more modes — and you can download extra modes, like Animated
Photo (add animation to your pictures), Surround Shot (Samsung’s
version of Photo Sphere), Sports, and Sound & shot (audio
accompanies the image). The GS5 gets an extra mode for sequence shots,
while the Alpha lets you choose which modes actually show up in your
menu — if you only use one or two, you can get rid of the extra
clutter.

The settings here are identical as well. HDR, selective focus (in
which you can choose to focus on the foreground, background or both),
ISO (up to 800), audio zoom and plenty of effects are featured, although
there’s no way to manually change white balance, exposure or shutter
speed.

Just like on the GS5, the Alpha has multiple resolution options.
Whichever you choose will have an impact on the aspect ratio. If you
want the highest resolution possible, you’re going to have to settle for
16:9 (widescreen), while the best standard 4:3 shots you can get will
come out at eight megapixels.

The camera sports Samsung’s ISOCELL tech, which I detailed in my GS5
review. In short, it’s designed to improve sharpness and deliver better
low-light performance and more accurate colors. On the GS5, I noted that
performance was indeed better, albeit slightly, and I got nearly the
same kind of results from the Alpha. In fact, aside from the difference
in resolution (and thus, fewer details and less leeway for digital
zoom), the Alpha’s images were very similar to ones I took with the
flagship. It does well in daylight and produces realistic colors, and is
overall a reliable camera, but it’s not very good at taking pictures of
moving things. I had a difficult time snapping shots of cars or people
without blurring.

It’s also not very good in low-light situations, but this is nothing
new for Samsung phones — the company’s struggled with this for a long
time, and ISOCELL is designed to make it better. Sadly, there’s been no
improvement here from the GS5; on the contrary, it’s a bit worse. Even
when my night shots turned out (I say “when” since quite a few were
hopelessly dark), they were noisy, lacking in sharpness and not worth
sharing with friends or family. I’m not saying it’s impossible to get a
solid low-light shot, but it’s not as easy as it should be. (Click here for a gallery of all my sample shots.)

Performance and battery life

The US version of the Alpha uses the same Snapdragon 801 chipset as
the one found on the GS5, which is comprised of a quad-core 2.5GHz Krait
400 CPU, Adreno 330 GPU and 2GB of RAM. Before I began testing the
device, I expected to see the same kind of performance that I’ve enjoyed
on its big brother. Sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed: Most apps
loaded up quickly, and games like Asphalt 8 and Beach Buggy Racing
ran smoothly. I did notice the occasional frame skip, but this was the
exception, not the rule. When you look at the benchmarks, it’s clear
there’s very little difference between the two in terms of overall
performance.

Galaxy Alpha Galaxy S5 Galaxy Note 3 iPhone 6
Quadrant 2.0 24,235 24,714 22,828 N/A
Vellamo 3.0 (Multicore) 1,686 1,656 1,994 N/A
3DMark IS Ultimate 13,697 17,954 18,933 16,689
SunSpider 1.0.2 (ms) 788 820 840 351
GFXBench 3.0 1080p Offscreen (fps) 11.8 11.5 10.1 17.4
CF-Bench 32,150 33,351 38,020 N/A
SunSpider: Lower scores are better.

The Alpha also has a small 1,860mAh battery, which was my primary
concern going into the review. Could it handle my everyday demands and
still get me through the day? After all, if I can’t go a full day
without worrying about finding an outlet before I can get home, it’s not
worth using as my daily driver — especially when plenty of other
devices are up to the task. The Alpha barely makes it to the end of the
day with moderate usage; on heavier days when I’m streaming music,
reading e-books, taking pictures, staying social and keeping up with
nonstop emails, I get around 13 hours.

With the Alpha, Samsung included the same fingerprint sensor that it
used on the GS5, and it requires the same swipe-down action. Its
performance on the flagship was mediocre at best — it often took me
multiple swipes to get the phone to recognize my prints, and was even
worse when I tried to do it at an angle. Unfortunately, I only saw minor
improvements here, despite the fact that Samsung has had six months to
improve the sensor and its integration with software. Admittedly, it’s a
little better when I swipe from different angles, but it still takes
multiple attempts even when my fingers and thumbs are straight on.
There’s certainly some practice involved, and it does get better over
time as you learn the sensor’s quirks (you have to do it at a certain
speed, and you have to make sure you’ve covered the sensor with the
right parts of your finger).

When making phone calls, I had no trouble hearing the other end of
the line, but the external speaker didn’t fare well. I pitted the Alpha
against BoomSound on the HTC One M8, which produced a much louder and
fuller audio performance; I could hear more bass and mids on HTC’s
flagship than I could on the Alpha. The GS5 was also slightly louder,
though the difference between the two was marginal — the audio just
wasn’t impressive on either Galaxy.

Cellular connectivity will vary by market and operator. The AT&T
model I reviewed comes with nine-band LTE support (for bands 1, 2, 3, 4,
5, 7, 12, 17 and 29), tri-band HSPA+ (850/1900/2100) and quad-band
GSM/EDGE. You’ll also get NFC, DLNA, WiFi Direct, Bluetooth 4.0+LE and
dual-band 802.11ac support (along with a/b/g/n as well).

The competition

It wasn’t long ago that most phone makers used 4.7-inch screens on
their flagships, but now any top-of-the-line phone going smaller than
five inches is just unthinkable — unless, of course, you’re Apple. For
that reason, it’s great to see Samsung come out with a premium-looking
device whose specs aren’t too far removed from the same-sized iPhone 6,
which is available in 16GB for $200 on-contract and $650 off. (If you’re
looking for extra storage space, the Alpha tops the iPhone at the same
price point.)

But these two phones aren’t the only options in the sub-5-inch space.
The Sony Xperia Z3 Compact is a 4.6-inch 720p handset that features
many of the same specs as its bigger flagship brother, and actually
bests the Alpha in pixel density, battery, camera resolution and
external storage capacity. As of this writing, the phone isn’t available
in the US, so it’s only an option for our readers in Europe and Asia —
that is, unless you choose to go through online importers. You’ll find
that the Z3 Compact is a good deal cheaper than the Alpha: On Expansys,
the Z3 Compact goes for £420 ($530), while the Alpha is available for
£515 ($650). Despite the Alpha’s great looks, it’s difficult to justify
it over the Compact.

Wrap-up

As beautiful as the Galaxy Alpha may be, its price leads to its
ultimate downfall. The only reason you’d want to pick this over the
Galaxy S5, which is available for a similar price, is that you prefer a
smaller size or more solid build. But even then, this design isn’t a
one-and-done; you’ll be able to get the same fit and finish on the Note 4
and Note Edge (albeit with larger screens). Furthermore, it’s not the
best sub-5-inch Android device on the market, thanks to the Sony Z3
Compact, which comes with better battery life, camera and external
storage.

More important is what this new design direction means to Samsung’s
future. Even though the aluminum build isn’t perfect, Samsung’s latest
smartphones are the best-looking handsets the manufacturer has produced
in years. For a company suffering from slowing sales
and looking for new ways to compete with the iPhone, devices like the
Alpha are essential. This makes it all the more unfortunate that the
fantastic design is one of few things that helps it stand out from the
crowd. On the upside, though, this is just the beginning; more
good-looking Samsung phones are on the way.

: Samsung’s most beautiful phone yet

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