When everyone complains about a phone it sometimes seems like no-one’s listening. But Samsung has clearly taken on-board the thousands of voices saying the Samsung Galaxy S5 feels, y’know, a bit cheap.
And it’s come up with the Samsung Galaxy Alpha by way of a retort. It’s roughly the same size as the Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini – just to make sure it’s not trying to upstage the S5 – but has a metal band that runs around its outside.
Could the Alpha be just the start for a whole new range of metal-tinged Samsung phones? Probably, yes. Plus it’s a bit snazzier and a lot more powerful than the Galaxy S5 Mini if you are after a smaller phone.
READ MORE: Samsung Galaxy S5 reviewed in detail
Samsung has thrown off the shackles of its standard phones and come up with something truly revolutionary in the Galaxy Alpha.
Not really. What it has done is to take a fairly familiar Samsung phone blueprint, get rid of the rubbish-looking chrome plastic around the sides and replace it with a band of honest-to-goodness metal.
It’s aluminium, with the same sort of anodised finish you see on the back of the iPhone 6. So rather nice. It gives the Galaxy Alpha the cool and hard feel that is largely behind why metal phones feel more expensive than plastic ones. We’re simple creatures.
As far as design experiments go, it’s a pretty successful one. The edges are quite severe and sharp (but bevelled), rather like the iPhone 5S, but as the 4.7in Galaxy Alpha isn’t too large, handling it is dead easy.
Get over the nice feel of that band of metal and things come back down to earth. The back plate is still a flimsy piece of plastic as is the inner frame. The band of metal is just that – a thin border that sits around the phone.
It’s not the most coherent phone design we’ve ever seen either. A bit like the Nokia Lumia 930, the mix of metal and plastic means it doesn’t have the design purity of the most jaw-dropping phones. The Alpha is Samsung doing pretty, not gallery-worthy.
You also lose out on water resistance while gaining the extra bit of metal. Where the Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini has treated ports and a rubber seal on the inside of its back cover so you can dunk it in water, the Alpha is not designed to withstand apple-bobbing. It’s a bummer, and shows that Samsung hasn’t really put its all into the phone. It’s just er, testing the waters.
That said, waterproofing is the only hardware extra we really missed. You still get a fingerprint scanner under the Home button, and a heart rate sensor on the back. We’d probably trade away both to have a phone you can use in the bath, though.
READ MORE: Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini tested
There are some compromises in the Galaxy Alpha’s screen too. It’s a 4.7in display – smaller than the Galaxy S5 but a perfectly good size if you’re after a slightly smaller phone.
What’s not as great is the resolution. The Galaxy Alpha has a 720p screen when most phones at the price have 1080p ones. Shop around online and you can even get an LG G3 for not much more – and that phone has an even higher-res 2K screen.
In the Alpha, the limits of a 720p screen are quite obvious if you go looking for them, more so than an LCD screen. Why? It’s all down to the kind of display the phone uses. It’s a Super AMOLED display, one that uses a PenTile subpixel arrangement. Without getting too techy, this uses a pixel array that makes areas of block white look a little fuzzy, and text a bit less sharp. As a result the Galaxy Alpha looks a fair bit less sharp than even the S$318 4.5in Moto G.
Top brightness isn’t quite at the same level as the Galaxy S5. While you can see the Alpha display in bright sunlight, it’s not as clear as the S5.
It still looks very good, though, and the Alpha offers you loads of control over how vivid the colours are. Fresh out of the box they’re a bit too lively – many people love them like this – but switch the screen to ‘basic’ and you get a similar sort of colour accuracy the Galaxy S5 is capable of. Like your colours truly overblown? That’s an option too. Like other OLED screens, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha also gets you incredibly deep blacks, perfect blacks in fact, and contrast is top-notch. Just a shame about that resolution, then.
Screen: 4.7in LCD Super AMOLED (1280X720)OS: Android 4.4.4Processor: Exynos 5 Octa 5430 1.8GHz processorRAM: 2GBStorage: 32GBBluetooth: 4.0Water & Dust Resistance: NoneBattery: Li-Polymer 1860mAhDimensions: 132.4 X 65.5 X 6.7mmWeight: 115g
OS: all the fours
Again, there are a few little cuts compared to the Galaxy S5, but the software is very similar. You get Android 4.4.4 at launch, and Samsung’s latest custom Android interface.
In the last year, Samsung has done a lot to try and make its Android UI a bit more streamlined, a bit less like juggling a bag of features that keeps on spilling over. And it’s mostly successful. The basics are clean and simple, and it doesn’t waggle all of its extra bits in your face.
However, there’s plenty under the surface, and that does mean the Settings menu is absolutely gargantuan. It looks nothing like the regular Android menu and newbies may get phased.
Samsung packs a bunch of extra apps into the Alpha too. Some of these have been around for years, like the S Planner calendar, but others like S Health are needed to make use of the phone’s actual hardware. S Health is where you monitor your heart rate using the sensor on the back, and it’s also the app that tracks your steps each day – if you want the Alpha to act as a fitness tracker. Samsung has a habit of making things less simple than they could be, and there are plenty of ways to clean the phone up if you don’t get on with these apps. Some can be uninstalled, but you can also hide those you can’t.
You get 32GB storage as standard, so app storage space isn’t much of an issue.
Unlike some other Samsung devices we’ve tested in the last year or so, the Galaxy Alpha doesn’t suffer from any major performance stuttering. This seems more likely to be down to Samsung tightening-up its software rather than improvements in hardware, but the engine running here is very, very fast too.
Wiggle my joystick, luv
Performance is the one area the Alpha just doesn’t compromise.
It uses a Samsung Exynos 5430 Octa-core processor, which has four Cortex-A15 cores and four Cortex-A7 ones. In the Geekbench 3 benchmark it scores an extremely impressive 3086 points – even more than the 2800-odd points you might get from a Galaxy S5. For a phone with ‘only’ a 720p screen, this is masses of power.
Gaming performance is excellent, and you get the extra little graphical flashy bits in top-end games like Dead Trigger 2 that were missing when we used the Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini. It’s a surprise powerhouse, and has 2GB RAM too.
Those gaming skills do make us wish the internal speaker was a little better, though. Sound quality and top volume are pretty impressive for a phone this thin – although the sound is a little harsh at top volume – but the output is very much mono, and it’s too easy to block the speaker when you’re doing a bit of landscape gaming.
There is one benefit to a bottom-firing speaker, though. It means the back of the Alpha doesn’t vibrate like a nightclub subwoofer when the volume’s turned up as it does in the Galaxy S5 and the S5 Mini.
We did also notice that the Galaxy Alpha seems to suffer from the old problem of some metal-coated phones – signal issues. It’s decent enough in normal use, but if you cover too much of the phone’s sides your signal level will drop like a stone. It never totally killed the signal, but is a sign that the plastic inlays in the metal frame haven’t been implemented quite well enough.
See the little white bits in the metal surround? These are usually used to improve signal for things like Wi-FI and mobile signal when the sides of a phone are largely metal. Aside from this, though, actual call quality is perfectly fine. You just need to be a bit careful about how you handle the Galaxy Alpha at times.
The Samsung Galaxy Alpha camera sits somewhere between the Galaxy S5 and S5 Mini in terms of image quality. But it certainly has the shooting performance we’ve come to expect from Samsung’s top-end phones.
Focusing and shooting speed are excellent. In daylight you can shoot 2-3 photos a second without even using one of the burst shot modes. Samsung really is a master in this field, and it makes taking photos with your phone so much fun – not to mention making action shots easier to catch.
Camera resolution is a bit worse than the S5 – the Alpha has a 12-megapixel sensor instead of a 16-megapixel one. However, you can still get loads of detail out of the Alpha and we’re pretty impressed by its shooting consistency. It’s simply dead easy to get good shots out of this little camera.
HDRs are fast to take and super-effective, and as long as lighting is decent, colour accuracy is good. Non-flash night or indoors shots do start looking a little undersaturated, but they do in most phones. It’s good enough to replace a basic compact camera, in other words. Like the S5, shooting gets a fair bit slower in low lighting thanks to the way the low-light Picture Stabilisation mode works, but even that’s not too bad.
The Alpha is also equipped with a single-LED flash and a front camera for those selfie moments. And the range of extra modes is much the same as the S5. So you get background-blurring Selective Focus and loads of smart burst modes. You can even shoot video in Ultra HD resolution.
Short on Stamina
One bit that has been chopped down a bit in the Alpha is the battery. Its 1,860mAh unit is actually a fair bit smaller than even the Galaxy S5 Mini, which has a 2100mAh battery.
Given quite how small the battery is, the Galaxy Alpha’s stamina is respectable, but it’s not as good as Samsung’s best. We got 10 hours of 720p MP4 video from a charge where the S5 Mini lasted for 11 hours 54 minutes. The phone’s processor is efficient, but it’s not a miracle worker.
In general use, we found that the Galaxy Alpha comfortably lasts the day with charge to spare, but you really do have to cut your use significantly to get anywhere near two days, or even a full day and a half. We have a feeling Samsung may have sacrificed the battery size a bit to get the design of the phone exactly as it wanted. But just think, you’ll probably care more about stamina three months in.
Samsung Galaxy Alpha Verdict
Like the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact, the Alpha also gets you absolutely loads of power for a smaller phone, and a very accomplished camera.
A few elements could really be improved, though. Battery life is fine but better in several of Samsung’s other phones, the Alpha is not waterproof and it needs to keep an eye on aerial performance if it wants to avoid an “Antennagate" style scandal in the Galaxy S6.
Ultimately, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha is a neat experiment in Samsung’s phone designs that tells us a lot about the way its mobiles are probably headed. Less plastic that’s meant to look like metal and more of the real stuff is a good thing.