After swearing that the smartphone should always be a piece of fantastic plastic, Samsung has finally taken a page out of Apple and HTC’s book by suiting up its Galaxy Alpha in a metal body, and it’s a lot better for it.
The Galaxy Alpha is a new beast for Samsung. It almost feels like a prototype let loose, a tester for the South Korean brand to gauge the reaction to it ditching slimy plastic and instead constructing a much more premium device, headlined by a metal rim.
With a 4.7-inch display, the Galaxy Alpha firmly has Apple’s iPhone 6 and Sony’s Xperia Z3 Compact in its sights, but its also looking for a bit of the love given to HTC for its beautifully designed One M8
Is the Alpha the sign of things to come from Samsung? Well, the Note 4 and Asia-based (for now) A-range seem to be following suit, so it’s likely. Do we like the new direction? Most certainly… but sadly the Alpha is far from the perfect smartphone.
Samsung suits up
The whole point of the Galaxy Alpha is to show off Samsung’s new design language. Gone is the faux-metal rim, replaced by real aluminium and an iPhone-esque chamfered edge. Ditching the plastic is something we’ve been hoping Samsung would do for ages now and the change is obvious as soon as you pick the svelte Alpha up.
Metal adds a whole new level of sturdiness and it just feels so much better. The volume and standby buttons are clickier than those on the Galaxy S5 and having slightly raised corners adds a nice element of design, although the flat sides and chamfered edges are definitely straight out of the Cupertino based company’s playbook.
It feels great in the hand too: light, comfortable and surprisingly compact for a phone that matches the iPhone 6’s screen size. At 115g, it’s considerably the lighter than the 129g iPhone 6, plus it’s also marginally thinner, coming in at 6.7mm as opposed to 6.9mm. In real life testing though, the difference is minimal.
With a top end price tag, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha needs to not only impress in the looks department, but also by packing a load of great features.
For the most part it succeeds, though as with any Samsung device there are a certain amount of extras that could easily have been left on the cutting room floor.
Powering the Alpha is Samsung’s very own Exynos 5 Octa-core chipset paired with a roomy 2GB of RAM. These combine to create a snappy phone, where apps open almost instantly and lag is something you’ll almost never have to deal with.
The only issues with performance we found were due to Samsung’s still overbearing TouchWiz UI, but even these little niggles, which mainly consisted often slow scrolling in the settings menu, were few and far between.
Gaming was a fluid experience and even graphically intense titles like Real Racing 3 or Dead Trigger 2 didn’t cause the phone to struggle.
Packed under the back is the trademark Samsung removable battery, which comes in at 1,860 mAh, though there is no way to increase the 32GB of internal storage through a microSD card.
Call quality is along the lines of what you’d expect from high end phones, so you’ll have no trouble speaking to someone on the end of the line, but you won’t be blown away by the quality.
Jammed into the Galaxy Alpha is a vast assortment of sensors and additional features that are hit and miss in equal measure.
Situated next to the 12-megapixel shooter on the back is a heart-rate sensor, which tracks your heartbeat when you lay your finger over the top. Samsung’s S-Health takes in the data, but the accuracy seems to be all over the place. Testing the sensor ten times in a row, we found our BPM was changing by as much as 20 each time - that doesn’t sound accurate unless we should be on the phone to NHS Direct.
There’s the same fingerprint scanner as the Galaxy S5 buried under the home button. Unlike Apple’s TouchID, Samsung’s version requires you to swipe your finger down, instead of just touching it. While it does work, we often had to try multiple times for it to successfully unlock and it’s overall slower than Apple’s implementation.
While Android has grown into a very attractive and well designed operating system, Samsung still makes it almost unrecognisable thanks the TouchWiz skin. We’ve complained about TouchWiz in almost every Samsung review over the past few years and our qualms are still here.
From the painfully annoying sound effects to the endless streams of options in the settings menu to the downright ugly native apps, Samsung may have turned around its hardware design, but it’s still got a lot of work to do when it comes to software.
Thankfully, Android is great for customisation and if you want to avoid using Samsung’s own apps, there are plenty of alternatives in the Google Play Store.
Coming in at 4.7-inch, the display on the Galaxy Alpha may be looked on by many as small, especially when you think some flagship phones have screens reaching 5.5-inches. Even Sony’s Xperia Z3 Compact, a phone headlined by its small display, packs a 4.6-inch screen.
We’re not too fussed though as having the Alpha packing a lot of power and still a pocketable size makes it great for those who want something smaller, but don’t want to sacrifice performance.
While we’re fans of the size, we’re not sold on tech powering the display. The 720p resolution almost matches that of the iPhone 6 and is normally perfectly serviceable on a device of this size, but when paired with the Pentile screen formation it leaves a lot to be desired. Pixels are easily visible and text is often jaggedy, making it a pain to read on for extended periods of time.
Samsung’s Super AMOLED display is great on the colour reproduction and contrast ratios, but the viewing angles just aren’t anywhere near as good as we expected, with any tilt turning things a distinct shade of yellow.
Good job the battery is removable
Battery life is normally impressive on Samsung’s handsets, with both the Galaxy S5 and the Note 4 performing admirably. Things are not quite as impressive on the Galaxy Alpha. The 1,860 mAh battery sounds small and it got us worrying about making it through a full day without reaching for the charger. We were right to be worried.
The main problem with the battery here though is how inconsistent it is. One day we’d happily go from 7am to midnight without hitting the red, but the next we’d be dipping below 20% moments after tucking into our lunch. This wayward performance continued through about two weeks of using the device.
Watching a 50-minute TV episode on Netflix ate through 13%, spending an hour binging on YouTube clips in HD took it down another 10%.
But, thanks to the removable battery you can keep a spare in your bag and chuck it in when you’re out and about and running low. It also charges quickly too, about 40% in just under thirty minutes – plus Ultra Power Saving Mode does help in a pinch, as long as you don’t want to actually use the phone much.
The 12-megapixel snapper on the back of the Samsung Galaxy Alpha both impresses and disappoints in equal measures, taking detailed pictures that can often look too over-saturated and over-processed.
While colours pop and day time photos are really quite nice, they all tend to look like they’ve been put through a heavy editing app and been sharpened to the maximum.
Turn the lights down and the camera really struggles. Shots tended to lack any detail and often it couldn’t even pick out facial features in low light. Turn on the flash and things improve, but you’ll get that typical overexposed flash style.
UHD and slo-mo video recording both make an appearance, giving you extra options for shooting footage. UHD (or 4K) video does look pin-sharp, though unless you have a compatible monitor that packs the high resolution, the extra space needed to store the clips is probably not worth it.
There might not be another be Galaxy Alpha, but the changes Samsung started to incorporate into its design language with its release will be seen in headline devices for the next few years.
As you can imagine it’s the design that really stands out here. The Alpha is slim, light and feels great in the hand, yet the metal band adds in extra durability and a premium finish.
Instead of making a smaller device that lacks the grunt and power of top end phones, the Alpha boasts a processor that churns through tasks with ease and a camera that, if looking a little over processed, takes good pictures.
If you’re looking for a Android phone that doesn’t come with a screen ranging from 5-6 inches, but that still can perform like the big boys, the Galaxy Alpha is, along with Sony’s fantastic Z3 Compact, a good, if not perfect, choice.
In reality it makes us very excited about the Galaxy S6 – if only Samsung can improve TouchWiz to be more accessible and less, well, all over the place.