Samsung’s new Galaxy Alpha Android smartphone finally demonstrates that the South Korean company can do high-quality design and fantastic quality, posing the question: why wait till now to do it?
The 4.7in Galaxy Alpha is the smallest flagship smartphone in Samsung’s large range of devices. It sits under the 5.1in Galaxy S5 as the “design” smartphone, for people who want a smaller, better designed smartphone that does not have to have all the latest technology packed in. Or at least that’s how Samsung puts it.
In reality it is the first of a range of Samsung smartphones with metal bodies created in response to criticism over its plastic construction. The second metal smartphone will be the 5.7in Galaxy Note 4, due for release at the end of September or early October.
Premium design, build and feel
The Galaxy Alpha is the most attractive smartphone Samsung has made and the best built. The metal sides with chamfered edges feel great in the hand and the plastic back has a soft-touch quality to it feeling a bit like a cat’s ear in texture.
It is also very light at 114g – that’s 2g heavier than the 112g iPhone 5S, 15g lighter than the iPhone 6 and 31g lighter than the 145g Galaxy S5. It is solidly built with no give or twist in the body at all.
The smaller size of the phone compared to most 5in Android and Windows Phone smartphones makes it easier to hold and use in one hand.
The 4.7in screen is colour rich and vibrant with good contrast and wide viewing angles. It has a 720p resolution resulting in a pixel density of 312 pixels per inch (ppi). While it is certainly sharp for reading text and viewing photos, it is noticeably less crisp than the Galaxy S5’s 5.1in 1080p screen with 432 ppi. For comparison the iPhone 5S has a 4in 326ppi screen and the incoming iPhone 6 a 4.7in 326ppi screen.
- Screen: 4.7in 720p Super AMOLED
- Processor: Samsung Exynos 5 octa-core processor
- RAM: 2GB of RAM
- Storage: 32GB
- Operating system: Android 4.4.4 “Kitkat”
- Camera: 12MP rear camera, 2.1MP front-facing camera
- Connectivity: LTE, Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 with BLE, USB 2.0 and GPS
- Dimensions: 132.4 x 65.5 x 6.7mm
- Weight: 114g
Eight cores of power
The Alpha uses Samsung’s Exynos 5 octa-core processor, which has four low-power cores combined with four more powerful cores. Only four cores are used at any one time, with the lower power cores used until something demanding like playing a game or producing video is required to save battery.
The phone feels snappy, apps load instantly with no hint of lag and it handled blasting through graphically intensive games like Asphalt 8 without issue.
The Alpha has a smaller 1,860 milliampere-hour (mAh) battery than Samsung’s other flagship phones with batteries larger than 2,800mAh. The battery lasts about one day of solid use, with constant push email, three hours of listening to music over Bluetooth, two hours of browsing and 30 minutes of playing games. It will have to be charged every night, however. The Galaxy S5 with the 2,800mAh battery can last a day and half without a charge under similar usage.
Samsung’s Ultra Power Saving mode, which was praised in the Galaxy S5, works well, shutting down features, turning the screen black and white and limiting the number of apps available to a small handful, dramatically extending the battery life by days, with 10% battery listing around 24 hours of standby.
Unlike most other Samsung phones the Alpha has 32GB of built-in storage for apps, games, music, photos and movies, but no microSD card slot for further expansion.
Android customisations that you’ll have to live with
The Alpha uses the same version of customised Android as the Galaxy S5, and I have the same complaints. Known as TouchWiz, the customisations add clutter to the already good standard Android experience, duplicate experiences like Samsung’s S-Voice which performs most of the same jobs as Google’s built-in voice search, and has a less than premium look.
Samsung’s My Magazine social news app, which sits on the home screen furthest left and is powered by the Flipboard app, is slow and a turn-off for most. Users can remove it from their home screens.
Some Samsung fans will love TouchWiz and anyone who has used an Android phone before will know how to use it. There are a few good additions like the aforementioned Ultra Power Saving mode.
The Galaxy Alpha has the same swipe-over fingerprint scanner under the home button as the Galaxy S5 and Note 4. Samsung has spent a lot of time improving it and the difference is noticeable. You can register three separate fingers, but with each finger you can also record an associated thumb, which is the digit most people will use to unlock the phone.
The fingerprint scanner has a success rate of more than 95% for me, making it a useful and convenient way to unlock the phone or authenticate a purchase through PayPal and others. The improvements were recently pushed to the Galaxy S5 via a software update boosting my finger swipe success rate from 75% to above 95%.
Heart rate sensor
There is an optical heart rate sensor beside the camera on the back. It works fine, feeding data into Samsung’s S Health app, but I’m unconvinced about whether it would be useful for most people.
The 12-megapixel camera is a step down from the 16-megapixel camera in the Galaxy S5, but it is still a solid camera with good colour saturation, crisp details and fast auto-focus. Photos in good lighting conditions look great, those snapped in lower light levels can look a bit grainy when enlarged beyond the size of the screen.
The Galaxy Alpha will be similarly priced to the Galaxy S5, available for around £500 without a mobile phone contract from 12 September.
The screen is noticeably less sharp compared to phones with 1080p screens while the lack of microSD card slot hampers how much music, movies and photos users can store, despite having 32GB of built-in storage.
The Alpha is the best smaller smartphone Samsung has ever made and a solid competitor to the upcoming iPhone 6, which has the same size screen, similar weight and thickness.
Pros: Metal frame, solid build, super thin, decent camera, snappy performance, all-day battery life, easy one-hand use
Cons: Screen less sharp than the competition, low-light camera performance could be better, no microSD card slot
• HTC One M8 review: a lightning-quick, five-star phone
• Samsung Galaxy S5 review: bigger, faster – but still plastic
• Sony Xperia Z2 review: powerful, waterproof but just a tad too big
• Google Nexus 5 review: a flagship smartphone that costs the same as a mid-range device
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