The Samsung Galaxy Alpha is an odd handset that comes at an odd time in Samsung’s history. Back in 2013 Samsung could do no wrong and had begun to look like the natural heir to Apple’s throne, outselling everybody across the board, and showing no signs of slowing down. But then 2014 happened, and gaps in Samsung’s armour began to appear, calling into question its previous successes and, in some circles, its whole approach to design.
A lot of 2011-2013’s success, as many have already pointed out, was built on the back of record marketing/advertising spending (something that could not continue ad infinitum) and not, necessarily, truly great products –– was the Galaxy S4 THAT much better than the HTC One or LG G2… or did Samsung just have more available resources to convince people it was? I’m more inclined to agree with the latter after testing all three. But that’s just my opinion.
With worse-than-expected Galaxy S5 sales and the now very real threat of two very strong iPhone handsets to do battle with in Q4, Samsung –– more so than ever before –– MUST raise its game if it wishes to remain a serious thorn in Apple’s side in the foreseeable future. Apple, by the way, is expected to shift 100 million iPhones before the close of the year. And in order to do this, Samsung has come into Q4 armed with two new devices: the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and, the focus of this review, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha.
Samsung Galaxy Alpha Review: Design
The Samsung Galaxy Alpha is really all about Samsung’s new approach to design which sees the company break the habit of a lifetime and switch out the gross, cheap-feeling plastics of old in favour or something, well, a little bit more premium. Yes, we’re talking about THAT aluminium frame, which, as you can see below, really does add a certain je ne sais quoi to the whole thing.
A LOT of people have said the new metallic frame used on the Galaxy Alpha, with its chamfered edging, looks a little too similar to the design Apple championed on its iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s in 2012 and 2013, respectively. And there is more than a grain of truth to these claims; the Galaxy Alpha does look rather similar to the iPhone 5s. But the real question here is: should this bother you? And the answer is simple: absolutely not.
If we take the Galaxy Alpha as a standalone handset, one could argue that Samsung has attempted to reimagine its existing flagship, the Galaxy S5, with a smaller, more premium design in a bid to offer a viable Android alternative to Apple’s long-rumoured 4.7in iPhone 6. And in the hand the Alpha really is a big leap forward from the squiffy, plastic-fantastic Galaxy S5 of early 2014. I prefer everything about this device (the size, the display, the feel, and the chassis). It FEELS like a flagship, whereas the Galaxy S5 just felt, well, dull.
And this is where things gets weird, because the Galaxy S5 –– which ever way you look at it –– is supposed to be the better of the two. It’s the FLAGSHIP and has a better display, a larger battery, more processing power and superior imaging technology to prove it. But here’s the thing: if I had to choose between these two handsets right this second, I’d pick the Alpha every single time. That says a lot about the state of Samsung’s Galaxy line, and is perhaps why the company seems more focussed on its Note series these days.
And this brings me around to my initial point: the Galaxy Alpha is an odd handset that has appeared at an odd time for the company. I mean, realistically, who is going to choose this handset over the suitably excellent and soon to be widely available Galaxy Note 4? If Samsung’s your thing then the decision seems like a no brainer: the Note 4 wins out every time.
And if you view it as a move by Samsung to give consumers another option to Apple’s iPhone 6, then the Galaxy Alpha seems all the more weird. Had Samsung included all the hardware and specs one finds inside its current Galaxy S5, as Sony does with its Compact series of devices, then it might have seemed like a shrewed strategic move, but without these attributes it feels, increasingly, like a rushed afterthought, much like the company’s growing number of Gear wearables.
At least it seems that way on paper, but once you spend some time with the handset and dig a little deeper into its nuances and quirks, something weird starts to happen –– you begin to realise that Samsung has actually created something quite special here, and all of sudden you forget about the dip from 16MP to 12MP for the camera and it no longer having a 1080p display.
Samsung Galaxy Alpha Review: Display
The Alpha’s 4.7in Super AMOLED 720p display is a satisfying setup to use in all manner of settings, being perfectly proportioned for one-handed use (making calls and IM), as well as other, more modern things like gaming and media consumption. It is a 720p panel and not quite as sharp as the Galaxy S5’s 1080p setup, but the results are superb across the board with crystal clear detail, near-perfect blacks and excellent brightness levels. You literally won’t notice the difference.
I’ve long suspected 4.7in to be the sweet spot for smartphone displays and after using the Alpha for a week or two it now seems that, for companies designing a true mass-appeal handset, this is indeed the way forward. Why else would Apple, a company renowned for its borderline-OCD approach to consumer research, opt for this EXACT size on its iPhone 6? I rest my case.
The added benefit of having a 720p display is to do with battery. All these upcoming QHD panels are all well and good, but their affect on battery life is HUGE and in order to really negate that impact you need a equally sizeable battery cell in your handset –– that’s why we only ever see QHD panels inside phablet devices (and, most likely, why Apple gave it a miss on its iPhone 6 Plus). The battery inside the Alpha is smaller than the one inside the Galaxy S5, so showing some restraint in this regard was definitely sensible. Speaking from experience, as a Nexus 5 user, I know all too well about the pitfalls of 1080p displays and small battery cells.
Samsung Galaxy Alpha Review: CPU, RAM and Connectivity
The Android community is obsessed with specs, and that poses something of a problem for the Galaxy Alpha as its spec sheet isn’t quite as impressive as some of its peers’; however, as Apple has shown us time and time again, specs aren’t everything when it comes to performance – and the Galaxy Alpha is a prime example of this.
Inside you’ll find Samsung’s very own Exynos 5 Octa 5430 chipset running alongside 2GB of RAM and, BOY, does it pack a PUNCH! A lot of this is to do with ARM’s big.LITTLE technology, whereby you have the main quad-core 1.8GHz CPU doing all the demanding stuff (gaming, video, imaging) and a smaller, 1.3GHz quad-core CPU taking care of less demanding business.
How this setup compares to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 801 (and the newer 805) is fairly superfluous in the grand scheme of things, so we won’t go into too much technical detail here, other than to say the Galaxy Alpha positively FLIES, handling pretty much anything you can throw at it (high-end gaming, imaging processing and multi-tasking) with quite a bit of surplus left over.
In this respect, modern CPUs are bit like supercars. They’re all insanely powerful but it is very rare that you’ll actually get to use all their latent power in everyday use "on the road", so to speak. Interestingly, this is the first Exynos handset I’ve tested and, as you can probably gather, I am extremely impressed with the level of performance it offers.
The Galaxy Alpha ships with 32GB of internal storage and no SD-card support which is kind of an odd move for Samsung, given that nearly all of its handsets to date have featured expandable storage. Still, 32GB should be more than enough for most (especially with the 50GB Dropbox space you get when activating the handset), giving you ample room for apps, games and videos. A 64GB option would have been nice, sure, but given the cost of this model (£549) and the fact that 64GB versions of Samsung's actual flagships have, in the past, simply stagnated on shelves, it’s easy to see why that option doesn’t exist.
The Galaxy Alpha runs the usual gamut of Wi-Fi options (a/b/g/n/ac, dual-band, Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA, Wi-Fi hotspot) as well as LTE (CAT 4) and HSPA+, meaning you’re covered for both 4G and HSPA+ mobile data with speeds topping out at 150mbps on LTE.
Android 4.4.4 KitKat is the OS of choice here and there will no doubt be an update to Android L at some point before the close of the year. Powering everything along is an 1860mAh (removable) battery cell. You also get Samsung’s largely useless fingerprint scanner and heart-rate monitor, as seen aboard the Samsung Galaxy S5, too.
And that’s about it for the key specs.
Samsung Galaxy Alpha Review: Camera
Samsung has always been one of the best OEMs on the planet with regards to a balanced imaging experience, and the Galaxy Alpha is no exception. Again, the setup you get here isn’t quite as compelling as the gear packed into the Galaxy S5 (or the forthcoming Galaxy Note 4, for that matter), but as a simple, point-and-shoot unit (i.e. what 99.9% of punters want) it’s pretty damn solid, as you can see in the image samples below:
Exact specifications are as follows: 12MP sensor on the rear, complete with LED flash, and Samsung’s now-standard, blink-and-you-miss-it autofocus. It also benefits from Live HDR (as seen aboard the Galaxy S5) and Samsung’s excellent Camera app that really is one of the best setups in the business, with its combination of useful features and its easy-to-use nature.
Oh… and the Galaxy Alpha can also shoot 4K video which, you know, is a pretty decent party trick (now you just need to find something with a 4K display to watch them on).
Samsung Galaxy Alpha Review: Battery
If you look at the size of the battery inside the Galaxy Alpha, you’d assume that performance might leave quite a bit to be desired; 1850mAh is teeny by modern standards, even for a similarly sized handset. And Samsung could have included a bigger battery in the Alpha too, it just opted not to because –– as I said in the opening paragraph –– this handset is ALL about design, so it has to be super, super slim.
Thankfully, Samsung’s attention to other areas of the device –– namely the choice of CPU and the display size and resolution –– mean that this size battery, although small, offers the same level of performance, pound for pound, as the larger cell found inside the Samsung Galaxy S5. I didn’t believe this would be the case myself, but after testing it for a week I cannot, for the life of me, run this thing down in a single working day. Compared to my Nexus 5, which can get down to around 14% by 2:30pm, the Galaxy Alpha is in another league entirely. And the reason for this is Samsung’s careful hardware choices and its now-excellent mastery of Google’s Android OS.
I won’t go into the details of Samsung’s proprietary Android overlay, Nature UX, here for the sake of brevity. But should you wish to find out more about its features, USPs and design, be sure to check out our Samsung Galaxy S5 review, which covers off everything from S-Health right down to the design changes Samsung made in order to make the software more lightweight.
Samsung Galaxy Alpha Review: Conclusion
To sum up in one sentence: the Samsung Galaxy Alpha, despite my preconceptions, really does live up its name. The device looks better, feels better and in many respects appears to perform better than its larger, flagship brethren, the Galaxy S5.
Whether I’d be tempted to buy this handset over the soon to be available Galaxy Note 4 (or the iPhone 6, for that matter) is another thing entirely… compared to the Galaxy S5, however, there really is no competition and if this is a sign of things to come from Samsung, then the future looks very bright indeed for the world’s second biggest technology brand.
Excellent Design; Gorgeous Display; Plenty of power; Lots of storage; Decent camera; Impressive battery (for its size)