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Samsung Galaxy Alpha Review: In Depth

4

The Good

  • Strong, lightweight design
  • Good performance
  • Great battery life
  • Compact

The Bad

  • Expensive
  • Non-expandable memory
  • Plastic back cheapens design
  • Temperamental fingerprint sensor

What’s this, metal, on a Samsung? Surely not! But that’s exactly what old Sammy has finally decided to do.

It’s taken the plunge and given the Galaxy Alpha a smart metal jacket, but what else is new?

Samsung Galaxy Alpha - Design: Full metal jacket

The Alpha is the embodiment of Samsung testing the waters. Whilst the company’s built its reputation on producing very capable, powerful, high-end smartphones, until this point one key element has placed them behind many of their top rivals – materials.

Even last year’s Galaxy Note 3 and this year’s flagship, the Galaxy S5 feature bodywork hewn nearly entirely from plastic and in the current market that just isn’t going to cut it anymore, especially considering their £500+ price tags. Step forward the Galaxy Alpha to change Samsung’s status quo.

 

The first to set a new trend in the high-end smartphone space for the company, the Alpha’s standout feature is its high-precision milled aluminium frame. Despite sporting the same sized display as Apple’s iPhone 6, the Alpha’s bodywork gives it smaller proportions all round, not to mention it feels impeccably lightweight at just 115 grams.

From the moment you pick up the Alpha, you have an immediate appreciation for the superior build quality the metal frame offers. Aesthetically it’s more distinctive than any previous Galaxys and reminds us of the straight chamfered edges of two of Apple’s older iPhones: the 5 and 5S. The hardware controls along the sides are small, but expertly crafted and as a result the phone is a joy to pick up and play with.

Despite the more premium feel the Alpha boasts however, there is one inescapable Samsung inclusion that rears its head – the bendy, removable plastic back. Whilst we appreciate the ability to swap out the phone’s 1860mAh battery and the fact the back plate’s texture provides excellent levels of grip, it just cheapens an otherwise sterling piece of design work.

One other glaring omission for what is one of Samsung’s top handsets is the lack of waterproofing. Having been spoilt by the IP certification enjoyed by the S5 and S5 Mini, we we’re surprised to learn that the Alpha loses this ability.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha - Screen: Overflowing with colour

Like we said, the Alpha’s dimensions are governed by its 4.7-inch 720p HD display, the same size as an iPhone 6’s. The biggest difference is Samsung’s preference towards Super AMOLED technology over rival LCD panels and the one on they’ve used here boasts some seriously punchy colours.

The choice of AMOLED ensures wonderfully deep blacks, a good level of contrast and in this instance a strong backlight when you’re maxing out the brightness in sunlight. It wouldn’t however be disingenuous to say that the whites are a little less accurate than on other screens and imagery overall looks over-saturated. Whether that’s an issue for you is a matter of personal preference.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha - OS: Small changes, small improvement

It’s not just a metal framework that makes its debut on the Galaxy Alpha; Samsung’s latest TouchWiz skin features some tweaked visual elements that give it a cleaner overall feel. Iconography is flatter and many of the native widgets adopt greater levels of transparency so you can better enjoy your wallpaper. These are small, but welcome alterations to an otherwise busy user experience.

  

Samsung has also packed the Alpha with a wealth of preinstalled services like My Magazine – a skinned Flipboard-powered news feed, not unlike HTC’s Blinkfeed, and access to the Samsung Apps store. Whilst doubling up on apps stores is a little annoying, keep your eyes peeled and you might bag a discounted app now and then.

Health nuts will appreciate the fitness tracking capabilities of the Alpha, which, like the Galaxy S5, tie into the heart rate sensor mounted on the phone’s back. You can keep tabs on your steps from the lock screen, tweak tracking data based on the exercise you’re doing and, thanks to the ability to install additional fitness components through S Health, you even have the ability to download full workouts.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha - Performance: Hard(octa)core

At the heart of the Alpha beats the company’s own octa-core processor (1.8GHz quad + 1.3GHz quad), which is somewhat of a stranger in our part of the world. We usually see Qualcomm-powered alternatives, but in practice this chipset twinned with 2GB of RAM and the modest 720p HD resolution ensures buttery smooth operation, whatever the task.

It turns out that metal is rather costly for Samsung, or at least that’s what they’d have you believe. Despite a removable back the two-day battery is the only thing you’ll be able to get at. For some reason Samsung didn’t instil the Alpha with expandable storage like practically every other handset it offers and we’re not sure why. There’s still 32GBs of inbuilt storage to keep you going and various cloud options too, but like the loss of waterproofing, it seems like an odd omission, particularly when you consider the phone’s price.

 

Another piece of the design that lives a double life is the home button. As with the S5, swiping your finger over it can be used as a password substitute letting you unlock the device or commit to a PayPal purchase. It’s a lot more hit and miss than Apple’s Touch ID sensor, particularly as it involves swiping rather than just pressing your thumb or finger against the sensor, but it’s convenient nonetheless.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha - Camera: Argh, my eyes!

Based on the hardware the Galaxy Alpha’s been equipped with, it slots in just underneath the flagship S5, a fact highlighted by its smaller 12-megapixel sensor it’s packing. That said it provides a robust imaging experience in a number of ways.

If you’re a sucker for selfies, you’ll appreciate the phone’s always-on beauty mode. Simply by switching to the front-facing 2.1–megapixel camera you can dial up or down the level of ‘beautification’ your face undergoes (zero is the equivalent of off). On the back the automatic shooting mode can cover most situations and the insanely bright LED flash does a good job of capturing subjects in poorly lit conditions too. Details isn’t the highest around, but it’s more than usable for social butterflies looking to share their latest outfit, meal or kitten pic.

On the video front there are a number of options, including fast and slow motion video capture and UHD (ultra-high definition) shooting too; making this one of the smallest phones able to capture 4K footage.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha - Verdict: The price of metal

Whilst there are certainly problems with the Alpha it’s a sort of sidestep in the right direction for Samsung - a well-balanced performance smartphone that serves as another fantastic Android alternative to Apple’s iPhone 6 alongside the likes of the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact.

The Galaxy Alpha's standout feature is its attractive metal bodywork
The Galaxy Alpha's standout feature is its attractive metal bodywork

On paper it may not have the best camera, offer the best feature set or even boast the best build quality of the current smartphone crop, but there’s no denying that this is one of the most considered smartphones Samsung has ever made. Some might balk at the £539 SIM free price tag, and that’s understandable, but this handset doesn’t go bigger for the sake of it; it focuses more on delivering quality and consistency that’s hard to fault.

The Samsung Galaxy Alpha may not be the top dog, but it’s certainly near the head of the pack.

Key Specs

  • 4.7-inches
  • 720p HD (1280x720)
  • 115 grams
  • Android 4.4 KitKat
  • 12-megapixel
  • 2.1-megapixel
  • 1.8GHz + 1.3GHz Exynos 5 Octa 5430
  • 2GB RAM
  • 32GB. Non-expandable
  • Yes
  • Heart rate sensor, fingerprint scanner, 4K video recording

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