What is the Samsung Galaxy Alpha?

The Samsung Galaxy Alpha is a 4.7-inch Android _phone_ and more importantly the company's first ever metal phone. It's not all metal in the same way that the HTC One M8 or the HTC One Mini 2 are, but it's a welcome move after a long series of plastic-only phones.

Sitting between the S5 Mini and the Galaxy S5, the Alpha costs the same as the iPhone 6 and clearly comes with ambitions to bite into some of those potential Apple sales. In its own right, this is a great 'small' Android phone, but we can't help feeling disappointed that new look aside it doesn't offer a great deal more than the larger S5.

Watch our Samsung Galaxy Alpha video review


Samsung Galaxy Alpha: Design

Inevitably the metal frame is the major talking point here, but it’s the weight or lack of it, that really makes the strongest first impression. It weighs just 115g, making it lighter than the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 (129g), the S5 Mini (120g) and only slightly heavier than the iPhone 5S (112g). That has a lot to do with the fact that there's still plenty of plastic to balance out the more expensive materials.

Samsung still uses a dimpled soft touch back, although the dotted pattern is more discreet and is softer than it is on the S5 and the S5 Mini. Here's where you'll find the heart rate sensor, next to a 12-megapixel camera sensor and LED flash.

Up front, the bezel around the sides of the screen are nice and slim while the dotted theme from the back continues on the front as and it's more prominent than it is on other Galaxy smartphones. Most will probably not notice it, but we couldn't help feeling it was slightly naff and would have been better left plain. The home button with metal trim is a familiar sight and also supports the fingerprint recognition technology first introduced with the S5.


Left: Galaxy Alpha, Right: HTC One Mini 2

And so to the metal. Samsung uses an aluminium frame around the edges of the Alpha, including the buttons and volume rocker, replacing the metallic-looking plastic trim. It's difficult not to immediately think of the iPhone when you get your hands on it. The metal has a cold, flat feel with an anodised finish to give it a similar metallic sheen as Apple's smartphone. The corners are gently raised to help gripping it in landscape mode and it really does the trick of making this a much more attractive phone.

The problem, however, is that there’s still a great deal of plastic here and next to HTC’s metal phones, it's not really in the same league. It's a lovely _phone_ to grip, though, and 4.7-inches appears to be the magic number for a so-called ‘smaller’ phone. In that respect, the Alpha is more manageable in one hand although the corners can dig in ever so slightly.

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The comparisons with the iPhone don’t end there. The volume rocker is on the left edge and the speaker is on the bottom edge next to the micro USB charging port. Like the S5 Mini, the Galaxy Alpha misses out on USB 3.0 support.The Alpha is just 6.7mm thick, so it’s a slim phone as well, but it's not water and dust resistant like the S5 and the S5 Mini.

The back is still removable, as is the smaller capacity battery, although there’s no micro SD card slot and now you’ll need a nano SIM. It’s those kinds of design consistencies across the Galaxy phones that can be really frustrating at times, though it does make it easier to switch from an iPhone which is perhaps Samsung's aim here.

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Samsung Galaxy Alpha: Screen

The Galaxy Alpha features a 4.7-inch 720p HD screen, so it doesn’t match the S5’s Full HD screen resolution and has more in common with the 4.5-inch S5 Mini. The 312ppi pixel density is short of the 326ppi squeezed of the S5 Mini, though the difference is negligible and it's about the same as the iPhone 6.

Samsung still employs a Super AMOLED panel with the same PenTile array, which as explained in our S5 Mini review can lead to some fuzziness up close. You can still expect an exceptionally bright screen, impressively deep blacks, though colours and contrast tend to look a more erratic on the Alpha.

Running a video comparison next to the S5 and the S5 Mini, the Alpha still delivers a sharp 720p HD display, with good brightness and sharp, detailed images. The differences with the 1080p screen on the S5 are more noticeable. The faces in the episode of Justifed we tested show more detail and colours in the faces look more natural. Colours are more accurate and richer on the S5 as well. The differences between the S5 Mini are not as apparent and there's very little to choose between the two smaller Samsung phones.

This is a solid-performing 720p HD screen on the whole, it’s just a shame Samsung didn’t give it the same Full HD treatment as the Galaxy S5, especially when you consider the difference in price.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha: Software

The Alpha runs on Android 4.4.4 KitKat with Samsung’s TouchWiz UI, which has evolved into a much cleaner and not so bloatware-filled place in recent years. Swiping left reveals the new My Magazine UX, which is essentially a Flipboard rip-off and the new-look, jam-packed Settings menu is also in place. It’s always good to have full control over as many aspects of the phone as possible, but some will find it an overwhelming place to hunt around initially.

Samsung still manages to squeeze in some of its own apps to accompany the selection of Google and Google Play apps already pre-installed. S Planner, the My Galaxy app store, Siri-rival S Voice and S Health are all present. Some are invariably more useful than others, but the key is that they are not thrust upon you. In the 32GB model, 6GB of that storage is taken up by software required to run the phone so without a micro SD slot, there's really around 26GB to play with.

Similarly, as is the case with the S5 Mini, not all of the software features make it onto the Alpha. Most are gesture-based, which you can live without, and modes that take full advantage of a bigger screen. This is largely the same experience as other Galaxy phones. Things run slick and you’d be hard pressed to feel like you were greatly missing out on anything.

Galaxy Alpha gaming

Samsung Galaxy Alpha: Performance

One thing the Galaxy Alpha is not short of is power. It’s the first Samsung phone to include a Exynos 5430 Octa-core processor made up of a quad-core 1.8GHz Cortex A15 core configuration and a 1.3GHz Cortex A7 core. Essentially, four of those core are there to handle more demanding tasks like gaming and the other four are there to help use the power more efficiently. It’s equipped to handle higher resolution 2K displays although that’s not relevant for the Alpha, and handle 4K video shooting, something the Alpha can do.

There’s a Mali T628MP6 GPU accompany it and 2GB RAM, so it’s well equipped for most tasks and a bit more. General navigation and getting around has a nice zip to it and gaming runs without any hitches.

The benchmark scores back up just how much power is on board here. In the Geekbench 3 benchmark test, the Alpha delivers a blistering 3,124 multi core score, putting it way ahead of the S5 Mini (1,134) and the Galaxy S5 (2,830). When you match that with how it works in real terms, there’s probably more power than the Alpha actually needs and it doesn’t really tap into its full potential.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha: Camera

The Samsung Galaxy S5 has one of the best all-round smartphone cameras and the Galaxy Alpha is more or less as good.

There's a 12-megapixel main camera sensor based on Samsung's own ISOCELL technology with an accompanying LED flash. That's down from the 16-megapixel one on the S5. There's a decent 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera, which you can shoot full HD 1080p video when you are not snapping selfies. The main sensor, like the S5, can shoot 4K quality video, which is handy if you have a 4K TV or laptop to review the ultra high definition footage.

Adopting the same new camera features means the Alpha also includes phase detection autofocus. We've gone into greater detail about this means for smartphone cameras in our Galaxy S5 review, but to sum it up it means the Alpha should focus faster than phones with contrast detection.

Core camera settings all appear to be in tact, so you still have access to the new selective focus mode and manual features like adjusting white balance and exposure levels. You can still capture Panorama pictures and add more shooting modes by downloading additional ones from the Galaxy Apps store.

As you can see from the photo sample below, shooting in Auto mode delivers bright, sharp image quality with nice natural colours. Up close, quality is not far off what the S5 is capable of either. There's just a hint of more sharpness from the bigger Galaxy phone. You are not getting Nokia Lumia 1020-style results but in the right light, you can get some well balanced images.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha photo samples 1
12-megapixel photo sample produces sharp, detailed images


Samsung Galaxy Alpha photo samples 3

Samsung Galaxy Alpha photo sample up close


Samsung Galaxy Alpha photo samples

The same shot with the Galaxy S5. It's very hard to tell the difference; if anything the Alpha has slightly superior depth of field.

HDR mode is where the Galaxy Alpha excels. Its ability to brighten up shadowy elements in otherwise brightly lit shots really impresses. The two samples below give you an idea of how much the processing in HDR mode goes to work. The bridge in the first photo is very dark and colours are particularly drab. When you switch to HDR mode, the difference is immediately obvious.

HDR off

HDR mode off

HDR on

HDR mode on

For low-light photography, there's a pretty standard LED flash and Samsung's software-based picture stabilization to help shooting in darker conditions without having to heavily rely on the flash. In practice, the image quality isn't on par when conditions are more accommodating.

Noise is more apparent than it is for daylight shooting and turning on the stabilization only marginally improves matters. Colour accuracy is one of the more positive elements of taking pictures at night but on the whole, it doesn't really match the One M8 in this particular department.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha photo samples 7

Shooting indoors in low-light is more of a challenge for the Galaxy Alpha


Galaxy alpha low light

Taking pictures outdoors at night, the camera also struggles for sharpness

One place where the Alpha is on par with the S5 is video recording. You get all of the same modes and the ability to shoot up 3,840 x 2,160 Ultra High Definition resolution in 16:9 screen ratio or drop down to 1080p, 720p and a more share-friendly 680 x 480 VGA quality.

There's video stabilization on board to help keep footage from becoming a jittery mess. You can also shoot in slow motion or fast motion if you want to be a bit more creative. Video quality is not entirely free from some shakiness and audio pick up is not fantastic, but it produces colourful, sharp footage.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha: Battery Life

One thing the Galaxy Alpha doesn’t inherit from the Galaxy S5 or even the S5 Mini is the battery life. There’s a removable 1,860mAh battery, which is smaller than the one inside the cheaper S5 Mini (2,100mAh) no doubt to accommodate the more slimline design. While it’s capable of getting you through a day, it struggles to match the S5’s two-day stamina.

Samsung does still include the useful Ultra Power Saving mode to push things further, but it doesn’t take a too long a gaming or streaming video session to bite into the battery life.

In general use, browsing the web, gaming, checking in on Twitter and watching video, the Alpha can safely make it into the evening and can max out at a day and a half. In more extreme testing, running a HD video on loop, it manages on average 10 hours, which is about an hour less than the S5 Mini in the same test environment and about the same as the iPhone 5S manages.

From a 30-minute charge when the battery is entirely flat, it will top up by around 25% so it is at least a reasonably swift charger.

When you know what Samsung is capable of delivering, it’s a shame the Alpha doesn’t quite give you the same excellent battery life.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha: Call and Sound Quality

Call quality average: not bad, not great, either. Samsung does include a noise reduction feature in the Call Settings to supress background noise during calls and things are reasonably clear and without any dropouts.

Samsung has mixed things up on the speaker front, moving it from the rear to the bottom edge next to the charging port, much like it is on the iPhone. Holding it in landscape mode does mean there's still a tendency to cover it and muffle some of the sound. What's more disappointing is that it doesn't show any real improvements on the S5 or the S5 Mini. It's still loud above anything else, but doesn't come close to HTC's Boomsound speakers for warmth or bass.


Should I buy the Samsung Galaxy Alpha?

The Samsung Galaxy Alpha conjures up some mixed feelings. This is undeniably the best-looking phone Samsung has come up with and is clearly a direct rival for the 4.7-inch iPhone 6. The metal frame is beautifully integrated into a still predominantly plastic design and on that front it's a step in the right direction. It's something that should have happened a long time ago.

The big problem here is that despite costing more than the Galaxy S5, it doesn't supersede the larger Samsung phone in any way. It doesn't have a Full HD 1080p screen, you can't dip it in the bath, there's no micro SD card slot and it can't match the Galaxy S5 for battery life. When you compare it to the cheaper S5 Mini, it's only the camera and the metal frame that really separate the two phones.

If you are sold on Samsung's Android approach and want a more attractive, smaller phone then the Galaxy Alpha is more appealing than the S5 Mini. If you are hoping for the best experience on a Samsung Galaxy phone, then the S5 is still the one to go for.

Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy Alpha is a beautiful-looking phone, it's just a shame it misses out on some of the S5's most impressive features.

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