On the table top it might look like just another Samsung, but pick it up turn it over in your hand and suddenly you understand that its the beginning of the alphabet name that implies a fresh start. This is the Galaxy Alpha review, the phone may not be a total rethinking of the company’s design direction, but it’s fit and finish alone make it the flagship we wish the Galaxy s5 had been.
The Galaxy Alpha with the iPhone 5
Holding the Galaxy Alpha is key to understanding it, only then does the cool aluminum side rail register. It’s sharp chamfered edge and antenna fitting is a recollection of Apple’s iPhone 5 in all the good ways. At just over 6.5 mm thick it doesn’t take so much weight for this little device to seem substantial, so its 115 grams feel just right in the hand. The back cover is broken up by a pattern that is more understated here than on other devices. The pits are much smaller, and here there are tiny crosses instead of golf dimples found on the Galaxy s5. And although it looks seamless, stick a finger nail in the tiny groove on top left and the cover will pop off, proving that beautiful design and removable batteries aren’t always mutually exclusive.
Under the cover you will find a few of the scarifies Samsung has made to get the Alpha to it’s pocket friendly dimensions. Yes, the battery is removable but it’s capacity is puny compared to the most modern flagships. Also while Samsung was still able to make room for a heart rate sensor, it opted not to include micro-SD expansion. This means the on-board 32GB is all you get. On the plus side, the older micro-SIM slot has been upgraded to the more modern nano-SIM standard and the speaker phone has been relocated to the phone’s bottom edge.
With the Galaxy Alpha Samsung joins the likes of Sony and Blackberry in offering top tier specs on a mid-sized phone. Depending on region it ships with either Samsung’s Exynos 5 Octa (Quadcore A15 with 1.8GHz and Quadcore A7 1.3 GHz) or Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 801 (Quadcore 2.5GHz with Adreno 330 GPU), we have the Qualcomm version here. Both offer 2GB of RAM and our version was able to connect to LTE 800 on Orange/Africell, but can also handle all 2G and 3G networks used in Uganda.
Sadly for the couch potatoes there is no IR port for remote control, but Samsung’s finger print scanner remains built into the home button. Even though it works better here than it did on the S5 we are still not the biggest fans of it’s swipe to unlock technology. The Alpha’s most polarizing compromise is probably it’s display. At 4.7 inches with very narrow bezels, its perfectly sized for the phone’s smaller chassis and it’s Super AMOLED technology shows off all the reeving blacks and brilliant colors we’ve come to expect. The reason it might loose points in some eyes it’s 720p HD resolution (at 321 ppi) which is lower than most of the flagships. But between me and you, I don’t see the point of packing more pixels in a 4.7 inch footprint as this is a high enough pixel density for most folks and a higher resolution will only serve to degrade the Alpha’s already impaired endurance.
The Galaxy Alpha ships with Android 4.4.4 Kitkat, painted over with a thick coat of Samsung’s third party interface. We’ve talked about Samsung’s software in several reviews so a full length review of Samsung’s UI we’ll direct you to our Galaxy S5 review from back last year. Now, what differences do exist on the Alpha are driven primarily by that screen size. The quarks are more tolerable just by being able to use the phone with one hand quickly on this smaller screen.
The numerous toggles on the notification shade are more accessible and multi-window remains one of our favorite parts on the Samsung Android experience. The settings menu is just a confusing as ever but being able to search exactly for what you are hunting for is a really nice convenience. Speed lovers would probably like to run a custom ROM or at least another launcher on the Alpha, since a significant part of the 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 into it. We’ve even found ourselves waiting for the keyboard a few times, despite the fact that we replaced Samsung’s Keyboard with Swiftkey almost immediately. We’ll look forward to Samsung’s continued modernization of it’s User Interface. As it stands now, Samsung’s software on top of Android is mostly an impediment on an otherwise powerful smartphone.
The Alpha’s camera is a 12 Megapixel sensor with an LED flash, phase detection auto-focus and the feature packed Samsung view finder that we’ve come to know an tolerate. Where the camera shines is an HDR mode, which is so good at bringing out highlights in dark areas. In our tests we’ve taken to leaving it on more than often not. Daylight photos showcase Samsung’s love for vibrant colors and high contrast. Focus isn’t always as fast as we would like, so some shots inevitably come out blurry. And that only gets worse in low light when the software stabilization kicks in to salvage every last photon. Just like it’s predecessors, the Alpha performs only adequately in near darkness, it really prefers those brightly lit colorful scenes where Samsung’s affinity for high contrast and saturation can shine.
Camera Sample photo from the Alpha
If you are a fan of selfies don’t expect any miracles from the 2.1 Megapixel front facing shooter, even in great lighting it’s colors appear washed out. It has plenty of digital noise and very little dynamic range but at the end of the day its a selfie camera. Video mode sticks to the same basic truths as before — the persistent video trigger is great — and we like how Samsung tell you how much storage you are eating up on a per second basis while you shooting. In well lit scenes, color is reproduced beautifully in 1080p, the camera offers 4k mode as well if you fancy but we wouldn’t recommend shooting too much of that footage on a 32 GB phone. This a fine video camera for most occasions.
The Galaxy Alpha was never intended to cater to the performance buff, but we found it more than capable of handling our favorite smartphone stressing games. After binge playing Dead Trigger 2, Modern combat 4 and 5 till the battery was dead, the Galaxy Alpha didn’t skip a bit. Unfortunately, it didn’t take too long for the battery to go dead. The 1860 mAh (1.17 Wh) pack isn’t up to the task of lasting a full day of truly heavy use. On one of those heavy days, we blasted through over three-quarters of the battery life within 5 hours off the charger. It will be hard for you to get up to 4.5 hours of screen on time. Thankfully, the Alpha is a fast charger and takes about 1 hour and 40 minutes to fill up the battery. This is clearly not a great phone for travelers.
Galaxy Alpha speaker position at the bottom
Talking on the Alpha isn’t the most comfortable experience ever thanks to those beveled aluminum trims above the ear piece. But it offered fine voice quality on the Orange network in Kampala in our tests. The speaker phone’s new position on the bottom of the phone is a little tough for gaming because its easier to accidentally block the port with your finger and we are willing to forgive all that because its no longer sequestered on the back cover like on every other Samsung phone.