Samsung has seen incredible success with its Android devices over the years. The Korean OEM didn't have to change much from one year to the next, but still the smartphone-consuming public was practically begging to trade up to the latest and greatest Galaxy S. Then something changed with the Galaxy S5—despite being a competent phone in almost every way, sales were below projections. Samsung's profits declined when they should have been skyrocketing. It's time for a change, and the Galaxy Alpha is the first stage.
The Galaxy Alpha is not a replacement for the Galaxy S5, but the two devices have a lot in common. In fact, the Galaxy Alpha is basically what you probably wish the Galaxy S5 Mini had been.
Design And Hardware
Just looking at this phone you will undoubtedly notice a strong resemblance to the iPhone 5/5s. It has the same aluminum band around the edge, rounded-off corners, and even the polished chamfers all the way around. Considering the size, the Galaxy Alpha would be a dead ringer for the iPhone 6 if Apple hadn't switched to a more rounded frame. Setting that aside, the Galaxy Alpha is a beautiful phone. It's easily the most attractive Samsung device I've ever seen, and it looks even better in person.
The metal frame does make the phone feel a lot more sturdy in the hand. The Galaxy S5 didn't feel insubstantial, but even with the water-resistant design it seemed a bit too flexible. The entire midframe was made of plastic, so that's what you'd expect. The Galaxy Alpha, on the other hand, is completely without creaks or bending. It's also quite a bit lighter than other phones at 115g.
On the front is Samsung's traditional physical home button flanked by the back and multitasking button. I could complain all day about the back and multitasking buttons being on the wrong sides, or that the home button shouldn't be a physical pressable button, or that Samsung needs to stop with the physical buttons in general. Instead, I'm so relieved that Samsung isn't putting menu buttons on phones anymore that I'm willing to overlook this. If you fancy it, there's a fingerprint scanner behind the home button, just like the Galaxy S5. it doesn't work any better, but it's there.
For some reason, the Galaxy Alpha doesn't turn on the backlight for the buttons unless you press one of them, which is supremely annoying. Most Galaxy devices will activate the backlight for the pre-determined length of time when you touch the screen, but not this device. There doesn't appear to be a software setting for this, but I'm using the European version. It's possible the US variant will have different behavior (I hope).
When you flip the phone around, the illusion begins to fall apart—this is still a Samsung device, and the company hasn't pulled a complete 180 on design. The back panel is made of the same thin plastic we saw on the Galaxy S5. It's maybe a little smoother and somewhat grippy, but the cover is even thinner than the one on the GS5. Basically, it feels cheap. The disconnect between the sturdy aluminum frame and the plastic back cover it borders makes the plastic seem even cheaper. I'm not saying Samsung needs to mill a solid piece of aluminum into a phone body a la HTC, but you can do plastic that doesn't feel like it came from a flip phone circa 2005.
Toward the top of the back is the 12MP camera and flash (more on that shortly), but there's yet another holdover from the Galaxy S5—yes, the heart rate sensor. This time it's along side the camera rather than below it, which does make the sensor easier to use. I still don't see the point of having a heart rate sensor on the back of your phone, but okay.
The speaker is on the bottom edge of the phone right next to the microUSB port (sorry, no USB 3.0 this time). It sounds okay. It's tinny but gets reasonably loud. The placement is not ideal, but it's better than pointing the sound away from you on the back of the phone.
Nowhere on this device will you find a microSD card slot, which is extremely bizarre for Samsung. Maybe this is its way of making clear this is not supposed to be a replacement for the Galaxy S5. I'm not particularly bothered by it—the Alpha has 32GB of built-in storage by default. The device internals also include a new 20nm Exynos 5 Octa processor and 2GB of RAM. Note, the US version will be a Snapdragon-based device.
As you are probably aware, the Galaxy Alpha has a 4.7-inch Super AMOLED display. That'll make a lot of people quite happy, as this is widely regarded as a great size for one-handed use. It's the same size as the last generation Moto X, and about 0.4-inches smaller in diagonal than the Galaxy S5. This, combined with the light weight and slim 6.7mm thick frame, makes the Alpha extremely comfortable to use. The overall shape of the device isn't exactly hand-friendly, but you can get away with that when a device is on the smaller side.
As for the resolution, you're going to take a step down from the flagship GS5. The Galaxy Alpha is rocking a 720p Super AMOLED, which is less than ideal. But what about the Moto X? That phone was the same size with a 720p AMOLED and it looked fine. The difference is in the sub-pixels. Motorola went out of its way to use a 720p AMOLED with a full RGB matrix, but like Samsung's other devices, this screen uses PenTile.
The furor over PenTile sub-pixels has died down a lot in the last year or two as 1080p screens took over the market. At that resolution, you simply don't notice any of the odd patterns common with PenTile. At 720p you do, though. There's definite fringing around the edges of icons and text, but the overall quality of this screen is much higher than the 720p screens Samsung was using a few years ago.
I suspect that has a lot to do with the shape and arrangement of the sub-pixels, which are in a diamond formation similar to what's used on the newer 1080p screens. The Alpha's screen is probably very similar to the Galaxy S5 Mini AMOLED, just a touch bigger.
Being an AMOLED, the colors are very good, if perhaps a little oversaturated at the default levels. There are several different screen modes with more accurate colors, though. I suspect this panel is utilizing the same technology as the Galaxy S5's screen at a lower resolution. It gets blindingly bright at the max level and very dim at the lowest. It's great for use in a dark room, and is perfectly visible outdoors.
The screen on the Galaxy Alpha is fine, but that's all. If you're picky, the PenTile matrix will probably bother you, but the effects are minimal at normal viewing distances.
The image sensor on the Galaxy Alpha is 12MP, a step down from the 16MP camera in the Galaxy S5. This is probably Samsung reminding us once again that the Alpha is not an S series replacement. It seems like Samsung could have crammed the GS5's sensor in there—the cover is about the same size and it protrudes from the back of the phone several millimeters just like the Galaxy S5's camera.
Indoors: medium and low light
This seems like a step down from the Galaxy S5 camera in most respects. Performance in outdoor light is good, and HDR shots look awesome with good detail. That's the case with a lot of cameras, though. The colors do look a bit more muted compared to the Galaxy S5 with ideal lighting.
Low light was an issue with the GS5, and that same is true for the Galaxy Alpha. Photos taken with poor lighting are noisy and just sort of okay—they might be a little brighter than the GS5, but still not great. The Alpha also gets a little noisy in average indoor lighting. However, this doesn't happen every time. Some shots taken inside look better than others, so there may be a software component to this.
I'd place the Galaxy Alpha's camera is slightly above average. It's not a budget device, but it's not a match for flagship devices like the Galaxy S5 or LG G3 either.
One of the selling points of the Galaxy S5 is that big honkin' 2800mAh battery. That device can easily make it through two days of moderate usage and peaks somewhere around 5-6 hours of screen-on time. One of the worries everyone expressed after the Galaxy Alpha was announced is the comparatively puny battery—it's nearly 1000 mAh smaller at 1860 mAh. However, the screen is smaller and lower resolution. The processor is also a new version of the Exynos 5 Octa with a 20nm manufacturing process, which should be more efficient.
In my testing, the battery life is average for an Android phone. I suppose that's impressive when you consider the battery is quite a bit smaller than the most modern smartphones. I can make a day and then some on a charge with moderate usage and get a little over 3 hours of screen-on. With less standby time it can get almost 4 hours of screen time before begging for a charger. Again, I don't have LTE access on this device, so I'm on WiFi and HSPA+. The AT&T variant with LTE might suck down a little more power.
If you need a phone with exceptional battery life, that's the Galaxy S5 or similar phones. The Galaxy Alpha is a step below that.
As I previously noted, the version of the Galaxy Alpha that I have for review is the European device. That means no LTE in the US. The upcoming AT&T unit will, of course, support Ma Bell's LTE bands. It will probably also have a Snapdragon processor of some kind standing in for the Exynos in the international variant. As such, I can't speak too much to performance characteristics of the device to which most US consumers will have access. The phone I have been testing has no performance issues at all, though. There are a few benchmarks below for your information.
As for the software, the Galaxy Alpha ships with Android 4.4.4 and all the tweaks and features introduced with the Galaxy S5. I won't go into exhaustive detail about this version of TouchWiz—if you want that, you can read our review of the GS5 as the basic setup is the same. There are, however, still some points to go over.
I would not have gone anywhere near a TouchWiz phone a year or two ago, but the version of the skin that debuted on the Galaxy S5 isn't bad. Samsung listened to reason and ditched a lot of those superfluous gesture features, or at least shut them off by default. The Galaxy Alpha's lineup of software features is almost the same as that phone, though it does appear to be missing Air View. That's fine by me—it only works in Samsung's apps and wasn't very reliable on the GS5.
The Galaxy Alpha has Smart Stay, Smart Pause, the floating toolbox, Multi Windows, Private Mode, and Ultra Power Saving Mode. So basically, almost all of Samsung's premiere features, some of which even work. I kid, I kid. Most of what remains in TouchWiz works as intended, but I doubt most people are using features like Smart Pause. I am extremely happy to see Ultra Power Saving Mode included on this device. That was a debut feature on the Galaxy S5 that can stretch your battery to days of standby, and it really works.
For the most part, I quite like Samsung's TouchWiz launcher. I await the Nexus gods to strike me down at any moment, but it's probably my favorite non-stock launcher on Android. It's miles better than LG's launcher, and beats out HTC Sense by a narrow margin (in my opinion). The app drawer is clean and the widgets have taken their place in the long-press menu. The way Samsung groups widgets should really be standard for Android. Each app gets an entry which you open to get the individual widgets. It's much better than scrolling through two pages of widgets for a single app.
The only unforgivable issue with Samsung's launcher is My Magazine. This atrocity is to the left of the primary home screen panel, and it's every bit as useless as it was on the Galaxy S5. It's essentially a stripped down full screen Flipboard experience—a cheap knockoff of BlinkFeed. Even sliding over to My Magazine from the home screen is sluggish and profoundly unpleasant. Luckily, you can shut My Magazine off.
TouchWiz is a more cohesive interface than it once was. The bluish UI and round icons are sprinkled throughout the OS to remind you this is Samsung. Say what you will about its level of attractiveness, at least TouchWiz knows what it is.
The more I use the Galaxy Alpha, the more I have to admit to myself that I like it. I lean more toward the phablet end of the spectrum for personal use, but I can see a lot of people going wild for a device like this—on the small side with solid specs and classy design. Samsung cheaps out on the "Mini" variants of its flagships (less RAM, crappier design), but the Alpha fills that gap nicely. I can even forgive that crummy back cover.
The overall shape is a little too iPhone-y, and it's not ergonomic by design. The Galaxy Alpha is comfortable to use simply because it's so light and has a screen right in that usability sweet spot. I genuinely like using this phone. Is it great? No, but it's very good.
As for whether or not you should buy it, that's a tricky question. Expansys lists the European model at $700, which is too much for a device that doesn't get LTE in North America. With the AT&T version shipping soon, I imagine they'll offer that one too. AT&T itself wants $200 on-contract for this device ($612.99 without), which is the same as the Galaxy S5. That doesn't strike me as a good deal either.
The Galaxy Alpha does have a lot in common with the Galaxy S5, but the screen is lower resolution, the battery is much smaller, the camera isn't quite as good, and there's no microSD card slot. Apparently AT&T feels the more premium design is worth boosting the price to match that of the Galaxy S5. You could still justify getting this phone over the GS5, but only if you want to stick stubbornly to that 4.7-inch form factor and the attractiveness of a phone is high on your list of priorities.