- Solid, durable design
- Decent battery life
- Bright, attractive display
- Feature light
- Weak HDR on camera
We review the Samsung Galaxy A5, a 5-inch mid-range phone boasting premium design and performance.
At the end of 2014, something bizarre happened. Maybe it was a tear in the space-time continuum, or maybe it was a crossing of streams, but for whatever reason, Samsung suddenly started to get really good at smartphone design.
First came the Galaxy Alpha, the first Samsung phone packing a metal body, which looked and felt a hell of a lot more premium than the disappointing plasticky Galaxy S5. Then came the Galaxy Note 4, one of our favourite phablets of all time which again sported a sleek metal finish.
And now we have the Galaxy A range, a trio of handsets (Galaxy A3, Galaxy A5 and Galaxy A7) which look, feel and act to all intents and purposes like premium handsets, but with a neat little twist - they all sport a deliciously mid-range price tag. The Galaxy A5 is the piggy in the middle, in terms of size as well as specs, and here’s what we think after using it as our full-time handset…
Design: Another solid hero
At precisely 5-inches, the Galaxy A5 hits a sweet spot for the average hand thanks to its slender build and narrow bezels. I found I could just about use it one-handed in most cases, with only the far upper corner proving an impossible reach for my thumb. It’s also pleasingly light at a shade over 120g, making it effortless to handle.
And as you may have guessed from the intro, Samsung has once again produced an attractive portable pal. The Galaxy A5 is essentially another Note 4, but slimmed down and without the stylus lodged in its behind. From the identical front panel to those brushed metal edges, these phones could pretty much be siblings, and considering the huge drop in cost, the Galaxy A5 feels more premium than it has any right to.
Unlike the Note 4, however, you can’t prise off the back to access the SIM and memory card slots and battery. Instead, you need a pokey pin thing to get into the two drawers housed on the right edge, just beneath the power button.
Flip the Galaxy A5 over and you’ll find the camera lens jutting from the surface, square in the middle of the back panel. However, I still found that I could lay the phone flat on a desk and use it one-handed, without the thing wobbling all over the place. There’s no heart rate scanner unlike the Galaxy S5 - indeed, S Health is entirely missing in action - but I didn’t find that I missed it at all. Besides, pulse monitoring is a feature found on pretty much every wearable these days, if you’re that keen to track your ticker.
There’s no fingerprint scanner on the Galaxy A5 either, just a sticky-out home button. That’s more of a shame as I actually really liked the scanner on the Note 4, which was pleasingly accurate and could be used to authorise online payments as well as secure the handset. Given Samsung’s obvious interest in mobile payment, the lack of a scanner might prove a serious miss in the future.
Screen and media: Who needs Full HD
Following on from the premium design, Samsung has bolted a seriously good 5-inch display onto the Galaxy A5. It isn’t the sharpest screen around, packing a 720p resolution rather than Full HD, but it hardly matters as high-def movies look absolutely gorgeous.
Samsung seems to have shunned the eyeball-poundingly vibrant displays of yesteryear, in favour of more realistic tones. Which you prefer is a personal choice, but I’m a fan of the Galaxy A5’s Super AMOLED screen. Fast-paced action movies look fantastic, both crisp and blur-free, while the panel is more than spacious enough to comfortably watch for extended periods. If you’re after a phone to keep your entertained on the move, the Galaxy A5 will more than satisfy.
The single speaker is unfortunately housed on the back of the phone next to the camera, rather than aimed at your ears like HTC’s BoomSound blasters on the One M8. So while it puts out a powerful slice of audio (the entire phone actually rumbles when the bass kicks in on top volume), the overall effect is dampened.
Features and user experience: Stripped back
As well as taming the screen, Samsung has gone against all of its earlier instincts and refrained from cramming a gajillion billion crazy features into the Galaxy A5. As a result, it’s a more streamlined user experience that handles the basics very well.
You don’t need a manual the size of a house brick to learn your way around the handset. Instead, Samsung’s TouchWiz interface has been stripped back and is a lot more intuitive as a result. The Korean giant seems to have listened to feedback on earlier models too, so for instance you can now completely remove the Magazine widget which streams Flipboard content to your desktop if you don’t want it.
Fitness fans may be disappointed in the missing S Health and heart rate monitor, but it’s easy to hook up a wearable and there are plenty of solid trainer/tracker apps on Google Play. However, that lack of a fingerprint scanner is a real shame given how Samsung finally nailed it on the Note 4.
A few trademark Samsung staples are pushed away in the menus for you to find, including split-screen multi-tasking with apps (see photo above), a privacy mode for those do-not-disturb moments, and the usual gesture functions. Samsung has also included plenty of security features as usual, including encryption and remote access.
If you want to download loads of apps or carry around a sizeable media collection, you should be reasonably well catered for by the 16GB of on-board storage, expandable via micro SD up to a further 64GB.
Performance and battery life: Coming out punching
I love the glorious smoothness of the Galaxy A5 experience, provided by a 1.2GHz Snapdragon 410 backed up by a respectable 2GB of RAM. Zipping through desktops, menus, apps and everything else is a slick, stutter-free experience pretty much all of the time, the way it really should be. The latest games are bursting with detail, with no skipped frames or other experience killers, while the 4G support means you can stream HD video and everything runs perfectly.
However, I did notice a couple of funnies when using the Galaxy A5 - little quirks that will no doubt be caught and squashed in an imminent update. For instance, occasionally when swiping down from the top of the screen, the notification bar simply wouldn’t appear. And a fair few times, I had Android error boxes flashing up on screen - although these seemed to completely vanish after two full days of use.
For the first couple of days, the Galaxy A5’s battery life was woeful when the handset was in use, most likely thanks to the myriad of updates. Thankfully the phone calmed down after this and I found I could easily make it through a full day on a single charge, even with regular web browsing, email checks, messaging and the odd bit of camera action.
Start to punish the Galaxy A5 with a bit of gaming or media streaming and it obviously dies much more rapidly. However, you’ll still get around six to seven hours of non-stop entertainment, which is better than the average (roughly five hours) for modern phones.
Cameras: Solid snappers
The Galaxy A5’s 13-megapixel rear camera is a step up from the dinkier Galaxy A3’s 8-megapixel effort and it’s more than up to the job for everyday shots. With the right lighting, my photos of city skylines and simple family snaps were sharp enough to view back on a TV, even without cranking the resolution up to maximum. The camera’s also well up to the task of macro shots, with the lens quickly finding that sweet spot and capturing plenty of detail.
When you have to deal with dimly-lit interiors such as bars and restaurants, you’ll want to make full use of the powerful LED flash. Without it, snaps look typically grainy and flat. Don’t get too close to your subject though, or they’ll look washed out in your shot and will probably be momentarily blinded. Sadly the HDR mode isn't very good, making little difference when shooting mixed-light environments, and you need to select it as a separate mode rather than simply turning it on in the settings, as it 'cheats' by taking lots of different snaps and stitching them together.
You’ll find a fair few special camera modes tucked away in the Galaxy A5, for when you want to break free of the auto mode. As well as the obligatory panorama and continuous shot modes, you’ll also find a rear camera selfie mode (the phone automatically detects your face and vibrates when it’s about to take the shot), plus an animated GIF mode which the kids will love to get creative with. You can also shoot Full HD 1080p video, which again looks grand when viewed back on a telly.
Rounding off the optics for selfie fans is the 5-megapixel front-facing lens, which captures a solid ego-stroking shot (beauty mode optional for freaky eye action).
Samsung's Galaxy A5 already has us excited about the upcoming Galaxy S6 flagship, further proving that the Korean giant can produce a smartphone with gorgeous and solid design and resist from cramming it full of pointless features. It's a shame that the likes of the fingerprint scanner are missing in action, but for a respectable price you get a slick and dependable smartphone that's great for everyday action.
- Android 4.4 KitKat
- 1.2GHz Snapdragon 410