Samsung's first truly premium quality phone, the Galaxy Alpha, has arrived. Has Samsung got everything perfect for those people looking for a bit more luxury in their smartphone? Could it even be the replacement for the S5 flagship smartphone?
We've been spending time living with the Samsung Galaxy Alpha to see if a quality build also means this is a top-end handset all round. It's clear Samsung has a certain fruit-named giant in its sights. But does the Alpha hit the mark?
The first and most obvious thing that jumps out about the Galaxy Alpha when in the hand is its weight. Or the lack of it, given it weighs just 115g. When we first held it, and when anyone else we know has held it, the first words are "wow, that's so light".
The outer frame is metal and, visually, is a bit like that of the iPhone 4S in construction. The Alpha's flat edge is brushed and looks matte with the chamfered polished for a finish that shines. The power button and the volume rocker are also made of quality metal and feel solid.
But it's not perfect for everyone because, in true Samsung style, the back is still plastic. It's more premium than the Galaxy S5 though, with a more rubberised, leather-esque feel - but for many the presence of plastic on a premium phone is a no-no. It's not a patch on the HTC One M8's full metal body for example.
READ: HTC One M8 review
The advantage on Samsung's side is that the rear panel can be removed, meaning battery access for swap outs should you want. Plus its grippy to the point where you can hold it against your fingers upright and it won't slip out of the hand, which can't be said of HTC's all-metal bodywork.
What it boils down to is personal preference. Since the plastic rear feels matte and sits flush within the metal frame, it still appears premium. You may prefer this and the ability to remove the rear, while maintaining the lightweight design, than a heavier and potentially hotter metal rear of some competitors. The glass-sandwich Sony Xperia Z3 Compact, for example, which this phone goes head-to-head with.
Another upgrade to quality is found in the speaker setup, which has now moved to the bottom of the handset, rather than sitting on the back. The speaker grille is drilled into the metal frame for a seamless finish. This also appears to offer more reinforcement that, compared to the Samsung Galaxy S5, delivers slightly more bass but isn't quite as loud. The vibrations can be felt somewhat throughout the rear cover too - but only at full volume.
The Galaxy Alpha's front is otherwise much like the Galaxy S5 or the Note 4 on a smaller scale, with Samsung's slim home button doubling as a fingerprint reader, a screen that fills the face, and a dot-finish bezel.
The Samsung Galaxy Alpha does not compromise on power, which is one of the appealing things about this compact handset. The model we tested featured the Exynos 5 octa-core with a 1.8GHz Cortex-A15 quad-core and a 1.3GHz Cortex-A7 quad-core running in unison. All that is backed by 2GB of RAM which equates to a completely smooth user experience and decent power efficiency that goes easy on the battery life.
We've been testing it against the Galaxy S5 and the two match up almost exactly - although the houses a Qualcomm chipset. Where the browser might open a micro second quicker on the S5, Google Maps can open a little faster on the Alpha - there's really nothing between them in terms of performance.
The European model of the Alpha we reviewed comes with Cat 6 4G LTE which will mean it can work extra fast on 4G networks in the future. Not just yet for most of the country, though, as there's a lack of compatibility in the UK. Think of it as future-proofing, as it is capable of speeds up to 300Mbps, something that will become more mainstream soon as EE leads the way with this faster 4G.
From using apps to making calls we've had no problems with the phone - callers we spoke to reported that the call quality from the Alpha was very good.
Despite the premium build, the Galaxy Alpha's screen specification isn't so hot. It has a 1280 x 720 resolution screen despite being a 4.7-inch Super AMOLED panel. This is an area that we thought would be the downfall of the Alpha now that we're so accustomed to 1920 x 1080 screen resolutions and beyond, even at 4.7-inches, like the HTC One (M7) from 2013.
But we stand corrected. That resolution equates to a 317ppi density, and we didn't find it to be a huge issue at all. It's the same resolution as the Xperia Z3 Compact (although that display is fractionally smaller at 4.6 inches). The Super AMOLED panel means colours are still vibrant, while refresh rates are near instant.
The resolution won't make a difference when doing something like watching a movie - because the source is probably only 720p. However, when not watching moving images the Alpha isn't as noticeably sharp as the SGS5, where font definition and the like can be seen more clearly.
The point is this screen isn't as top spec as it should be for a flagship device at this price. But it still looks great, despite what the numbers might make you presume. There will always be those who won't settle for anything less than the best money can buy, but we didn't find the resolution of the Alpha to be a huge problem.
The Samsung Galaxy Alpha packs a 12-megapixel autofocus camera with 2.1-inch LED flash to its rear, while a 2.1-megapixel selfie camera leads the front.
Unfortunately the main camera doesn't come with optical image stabilisation, but the results are still impressive. The most notable thing about this camera is the speed, from opening the app through to shooting it's all instant. Use a finger to adjust the focus point with ease and the depth of focus is impressive.
The Live HDR is useful for photos where the light varies. We found this to adapt milliseconds after the camera was moved between varying light. The photos with HDR Auto switched on were definitely better in most cases and didn't appear to take any longer to process, so we'd leave this on most of the time.
The selfie camera isn't as high resolution as some out there but it does the job. It's also got Samsung's Beauty Face feature which you can use to soften the skin and appear more like a plastic doll, machine, or airbrushed celeb, if that's what you want. The ability to snap that shot using the volume button really helps, especially with that solid frame and button as a base to press against.
Shooting 4K video was as easy and as fast as shooting 1080p footage, so why not? Available space would perhaps be one issue but another is the lack of extra options that shooting UHD results in. Things like Dual camera mode, HDR, video effects, remote viewfinder and taking a picture while recording are all no longer options if you opt to record in that 3840 x 2160 resolution. It does mean this camera is future-proofed, however.
Voice controls were really helpful and work well. One example is saying "smile" or one of a few other command options to take a photo.
Since the Alpha's new metal frame allows the phone to be stood on its side this could be useful when lining up a group shot to be taken from far away. You can also use someone else's device, paired via NFC, as a viewfinder to snap remotely.
The Samsung Galaxy Alpha comes with a 1,850mAh battery. This might sound like it's a limited capacity offering - and in comparison to a lot of other phone's juice-boxes it is. But that means the handset remains light and slim and thanks to the efficiency of that octa-core processor it actually means decent battery performance.
In our use we found the Samsung Galaxy Alpha gave at least a day of use, even up to a day and a half before needing to plug it in. Then there's Samsung Ultra Power Saving Mode which can deliver up to another day's use on just 10 per cent battery.
So despite the battery capacity sounding low, the combination of restrained screen resolution along with the efficiency of the octa-core processor mean you shouldn't have problems making it last through an average day.
The Samsung Galaxy Alpha runs on the latest Android 4.4 KitKat with Samsung's TouchWiz interface over the top. Everything runs smoothly and efficiently, and the experience is very much like the Galaxy S5.
READ: Samsung Galaxy S5 review
Samsung offers what is calls a My Magazine page via a left swipe of the homepage, that pulls in news and personalised feeds from Flipboard. For the full ins and outs about how TouchWiz, My Magazine, notifications and so forth function take a look at our original S5 review.
A healthy heart
Another newer Samsung staple is S Health 3.0. There's a heart-rate sensor positioned to the rear for quick checks rather than acting as a sustained measure - for true sporty activities the Gear Fit wearable or similar is more likely the way people will sync health data between devices.
The heart rate sensor works well enough and we've found that the results are comparable to those we've measured on other devices. You will need to have your finger well placed on the sensor, however, or it will fail.
You can feed information into S Health 3.0, as well as have the app record your steps or other types of exercise, with the ability to set targets or goals (time, distance) and then do those workouts. You can also log your food intake and monitor your profile in an attempt to have that healthier lifestyle.
At present S Health has room to evolve because it's a straight logging system rather than a fully interactive one. But there's plenty of scope for that to change in the future - and we fully expect it to grow and expand. It has to make the Samsung-only software and hardware tie-in worthwhile, because if you want to sync the Alpha with a smartwatch then it has to be a Samsung Gear device.
Admittedly, we like the built-in pedometer functions, and the thing we like the most is the inclusion of your steps on the lock screen of your phone. Setting everything else aside, this is one small but mighty detail that we found really useful on the earlier SGS5 model. Every time you look at your phone, you'll be reminded of just how active you've been.
There's a lot more nuance to the S Health system. If you want to know more, take a read of our What Is S Health? feature for all the deep dive information.
The Galaxy Alpha is the highest quality smartphone from Samsung yet thanks to its metal frame, lightweight build and slim design. Some will find the plastic back and 720p resolution screen too inferior compared to the competition, even if the £549 price tag is decidedly flagship. Setting this in context, the similarly-specced Sony Xperia Z3 Compact is selling for £429, although the Alpha has 32GB of storage, the Sony only 16GB.
What it really comes down to is what you're looking for. If it's a quality build that looks and feels good in the hand and avoids the larger-than-5-inch screen size then the Alpha is a fine example of an Android handset, especially if you want all those Samsung extras.
However with phones such as the HTC One M8 offering an even more premium all-metal build and stronger specs, there are obvious competitors that will put the Alpha into a questionable position for some.
Overall the Galaxy Alpha is an attractive smartphone that's powerful enough to handle anything you care to throw at it. Compared to any Samsung smartphone that's come before it, it's also a lot more premium in build quality. That makes it a significant step forward in the range and one we hope to see further develop in future devices.
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