Samsung Galaxy Alpha review: the phone the Galaxy S5 should have been (almost)
“It’s not necessarily unattractive … it just kind of exists.”
Thats how we described Samsung’s Galaxy S5 in our full review back in April, lamenting the lack of aesthetic flair in a flagship ostentatiously marketed as a “glam” device. While we appreciated its durability and top-notch spec sheet, what we wanted was a product that actually felt like a $650 smartphone – and the Galaxy S5 didn’t really fit the bill.
Samsung’s new Galaxy Alpha, launching later this month on AT&T, is a very different story indeed. With its aluminum frame, toned-down texturing and deliciously small footprint, the Galaxy Alpha is the best-looking smartphone we’ve seen from Samsung in years. Has the company made sacrifices to achieve that look? Absolutely. Were they worth it?
We think so.
Our review device is an SM-G850S Galaxy Alpha from 28Mobile, an online retailer offering the most sought-after devices in the world. If you want an Alpha like this one, pay them a visit at 28Mobile.com, and tell ’em Pocketnow sent you!
Software · Camera · Performance · Pros/Cons
Samsung Galaxy Alpha Review Video
Specs & Hardware
It’s tough to convey in pictures just how different the Galaxy Alpha really feels in the hand. At first glance it looks like just another stark Samsung, a rectangular cuboid with an earpiece at the top and a button at the bottom. Only upon picking it up does the cool aluminum side rail register, its sharp chamfered edge and subtle antenna inlays summoning recollections of Apple’s iPhone 5. At 6.7mm thick, it doesn’t take much for this little device to seem substantial, so its 115g mass feels just right in the hand.
Following Samsung’s new design push, the back cover is broken up by a divot pattern that’s more understated here than on other devices: the pits are much smaller than on the S5, and here they’re tiny crosses instead of golf-ball dimples. The whole panel is done up in a soft-touch paint job that’s gummier than we’ve encountered before, which not everyone likes but which we find helps the phone stay stuck to our fingers. And though it looks seamlessly integrated into the phone’s chassis, stick a fingernail into the tiny groove alongside the camera and the cover pops right off, proving that beautiful design and removable batteries aren’t always mutually exclusive.
Under that cover, you’ll find a few of the sacrifices Samsung has made to get the Alpha to its pocket-friendly dimensions. The battery is still removable, but its capacity is puny at just 1860 mAh/7.17Wh – that’s 34% smaller than the Galaxy S5’s 2800 mAh/10.78 Wh pack. Also, while Samsung was still able to make room for a heart rate sensor, it opted not to include its usual MicroSD expansion: the onboard 32GB is all you get. On the plus side, the older microSIM slot has been replaced by a more modern nanoSIM dock, and the speakerphone has been relocated from Samsung’s customary rear-firing position to the phone’s bottom edge.
With the Galaxy Alpha, Samsung joins the ranks of the very few manufacturers offering top-tier specs in a midsize format. Under the hood, the Alpha ships with either Samsung’s Exynos 5 Octa (1.8GHz Cortex A15 + 1.3GHz Cortex A7) or Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 801 (quad MSM8974AC Krait 400 at 2.5GHz), depending on region. Both builds offer 2GB of RAM, WiFi b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.0 LE and NFC, and LTE support is of course onboard and region-dependent. Sadly for couch potatoes, there’s no IR port for TV control, but Samsung’s fingerprint scanner remains built into the home button for whatever that’s worth.
The Alpha’s least visible “compromise” –at least to our eyeballs– is its display. At 4.7 inches with very narrow bezels, it’s perfectly sized for the phone’s smaller chassis, and its Super AMOLED technology affords all the raven blacks and brilliant colors we’ve come to expect from Samsung displays. The reason it might lose points in some (very sharp) eyes is its 720p resolution, which is lower than most other flagships on the market. But just as we said of last year’s Moto X, there’s no real point in packing more pixels into a 4.7-inch footprint; 312ppi is a high enough pixel density for most folks, and a higher resolution would only serve to degrade the Alpha’s already-impaired endurance. If you want to complain about anything, make it AMOLED’s blueish white reproduction – which still isn’t enough to make us flinch. Your mileage will vary.
The Galaxy Alpha ships with Android version 4.4.4, painted over with a few generous layers of Samsung’s (in)famous third-party interface. We’ve given the skin formerly known as TouchWiz plenty of coverage over the years, and almost nothing has changed since its newest iteration launched with the Galaxy S5 back in April. As such, we direct you to that review for a full rundown of Samsung’s software, and confine our analysis here to a few quick impressions.
If anything makes the Samsung experience different on the Alpha, it’s the screen size. At 4.7 inches, the software’s quirks are more tolerable just because they can be dismissed with a thumb more easily. The innumerable toggles in the notification shade are more accessible, and Multi Window multitasking remains one of our favorite elements of the Samsung experience despite the reduced screen real estate. The more compact form factor also helps with proper use of the fingerprint scanner, which works better here than it did on the S5 (though swiping across a bottom-mounted button will never feel entirely right).
Still, for all its recent improvements, Samsung’s skin remains one of our least favorite. A significant part of the Alpha experience is spent waiting: for the multitasking ribbon to appear; for apps to restore from standby; for the clunky My Magazine app to load every time you accidentally swipe to the leftmost homescreen – and then waiting for the magazine to finish loading, just so you can escape it. During lightning-fast typing sessions, we’ve even found ourselves waiting for the keyboard – despite the fact that we replaced Samsung’s with the stock Android version halfway through our review period.
Some of our issues might be due to the Exynos processor on our review device –its superiority on benchmarks notwithstanding, we’ve often found Samsung’s silicon inferior to Qualcomm’s in day-to-day responsiveness– but we’ve seen similar slowdowns even on Snapdragon-powered devices. At some point, you’ve just got to say it: TouchWiz is slow. And even when you’re not waiting, you’re wincing: at the continuous pop-up prompts meant to be helpful; at the lackluster out-of-box keyboard; at the splishy-splashy Nature UX sound effects that stopped making sense a generation ago. Samsung’s efforts to modernize its software are appreciated, and we can’t wait to see what the company comes up with for the next Galaxy S. On the Alpha though, it’s too often an impediment to an otherwise-powerful smartphone.
The Galaxy Alpha’s camera is a 12MP sensor with an LED flash, phase-detection autofocus, and the feature-packed Samsung viewfinder that we’ve come to know and … tolerate. Everything from Dual Camera to Selective Focus to Beauty Face is offered in the stock shooting modes, along with a slew of manual controls for those who want a bit more granularity. Of particular note is Samsung’s HDR mode, which is so aggressive at bringing out highlights in darkened areas that we took to leaving it on by default for much of our shooting.
Daylight shots showcase Samsung’s predilection for vibrant colors and high contrast, though as we demonstrated in a recent comparison, the Alpha is less blatant about this than the Galaxy S5. Focus isn’t always as fast as we’d like, and so some shots came out blurry during our test period – an issue compounded in low light when software stabilization kicks in to salvage every last photon from the scene. Just like its predecessors, the Alpha performs only adequately in near-darkness; it really comes into its own in brightly-lit, colorful scenes.
Don’t expect any miracles from the 2.1MP front-facing camera. Even in excellent lighting, its colors appear washed-out, with plenty of digital noise and very little dynamic range. These problems only grow more severe after sundown, with night shots almost unusable.
Camcorder mode offers similar results. The persistent recording trigger is handy for capturing video with a quickness, and we like Samsung’s decision to show you how much storage you’re eating up on a per-second basis, so you can decide for yourself if that 4-minute video of ducks paddling in a pond is really worth not being able to download the next episode of your favorite podcast. In well-lit scenes, color is represented beautifully in 1080p (the camera offers UHD mode as well, if you’re fancy). The frame gets pretty shaky if you opt to go without video stabilization, and there’s plenty of noise in dimmer scenes; otherwise, this is a fine video camera for most occasions.
The Galaxy Alpha was obviously never intended to cater to the performance buff, but we’ve found it more than capable of handling our favorite smartphone-stressing games. On day six of our weeklong review period, we binge-played Asphalt 8, Modern Combat 5, Sparkle 2, and Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy until the battery was depleted (truly, a tech blogger’s life is a tough one). The Galaxy Alpha didn’t skip a beat.
Unfortunately, that binge-gaming episode was … brief. Like every power-intensive activity on the Galaxy Alpha, gaming only goes on as long as the battery holds out – and the Galaxy Alpha’s 7.17Wh pack just isn’t up to the task of lasting a full day of heavy use. On one of those heavy days, we blew through 75% of the battery’s capacity after only about five hours off the charger. Battery life improved marginally once we turned off Android Wear, but we never managed to hit 4 hours of screen-on time with the phone (the closest we got was 3 hours and 38 minutes of screen-on time over 13 hours). Thankfully the Galaxy Alpha is a fast charger: about an hour and 40 minutes from empty to full. What’s more, our SK Telecom review unit came with a spare battery and a spare charger in the box, something that we wish AT&T mirrored with its unit (it doesn’t). So if you’re not averse to carrying a battery in your wallet or staying within range of a wall plug, the Alpha could be the phone for you – but road warriors need not apply.
Talking on the Alpha isn’t the most comfortable experience ever thanks to that beveled aluminum trim above the earpiece, but it offers fine voice quality on AT&T here in the Greater Boston area. As mentioned above, we applaud the speakerphone’s new position on the bottom edge of the device, even if it is a little easy to accidentally cover up with a thumb while gaming. We wish it could be a little throatier and less tinny; Apple managed to deliver an excellent speakerphone in the same position on the new iPhone 6, after all, and we’ve heard Samsung deliver awesome sound before. Small phones, like their larger counterparts, can’t always be perfect.
+ Best-looking Samsung smartphone in years
+ Removable battery despite tight hardware
+ Top-shelf processor
+ Rare power-to-size ratio
– Poor battery life
– Lacks features found on comparable Samsung devices
– Overwrought, sluggish software
Pricing and Availability
The Galaxy Alpha is an AT&T exclusive in the United States, available for $612.99 at full retail or with subsidized options ranging from $199 on a two-year contract to $25.55 per month on AT&T’s Next installment plan.
Keep in mind that the above refers to the AT&T-locked Snapdragon 801 variant. If you’re looking for the Exynos-powered version that’s the subject of this review, do what we did: hit up a retailer like 28Mobile, currently selling the Alpha for $777 unlocked.
American buyers should keep in mind the LTE band differences across devices: the version we have in-house only supports LTE 1800/2100/2600 and some TD-LTE bands not used in the States, meaning your 4G experience in North America will be essentially nonexistent. By contrast, the AT&T version packs all the necessary bands for full AT&T 4G compatibility (LTE 800 / 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900 / 2100 / 2600).
That pricing puts the Galaxy Alpha right in line with the top-tier Galaxy S5, a bold move on Samsung’s part. Obviously the company is counting on the phone’s fit and finish to mask its spec-sheet sacrifices. And as we said in our Alpha vs S5 comparison, if you’re cosmetically inclined, this will probably seem like a perfectly fine exchange. If you’re the more pragmatic type, then not so much.
It’s worth noting that we’re very likely looking at the future of Samsung design in the Alpha. The forthcoming Galaxy Note 4 includes many of these physical upgrades, and it’s likely we’ll see them in more phones going forward. So this is hardly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Still, it bears repeating: the Galaxy Alpha is the first really beautiful Samsung smartphone we’ve handled in years – and maybe ever. In many ways, it’s the product the Galaxy S5 should have been, and we wish it hadn’t taken the company so long to release it. If you’re dead-set on a Samsung smartphone, and you appreciate form at least as much as function, the Galaxy Alpha is one of the best you can find today. Just make sure you factor the cost of an extra battery into your budget.