(Pocket-lint) - In this job we are constantly jostling between different phones. Often they're the latest and greatest handsets, so when a mid-range model such as the Samsung Galaxy A5 comes along we tend to cross our fingers and hope there will be something standout to get excited about.
Only to call the Galaxy A5 out-and-out mid-range is to do it a disservice. We've been using its bigger brother, the flagship (and soon-to-be-replaced) Galaxy S5, for a few weeks in the run up to this review - and we can confidently say that, on looks alone, the more affordable A5 is the better designed phone. What gives?
Samsung is undergoing something of an internal revolution at the moment. It doesn't want to be left in the dust behind the design chic of its nearest competitors, and with the S6 incoming, the A5 is a nod to that more advanced design, but at a more affordable price point for those non-plussed about having every feature under the sun crammed into a phone.
Do its abilities match its exterior? We've been living with the Galaxy A5, provided by outr friends at O2, for a few days to see.
About six months ago we got our hands on the Galaxy Alpha, Samsung's first dip into a metal bodied phone - well, almost, as it still has a plastic rear panel. In essence the Galaxy A5 is a tweaked version of this concept.
And it's hot. Blue Steel hot (yes, we've been watching too much Zoolander of late). At 6.7mm thick it's a slender slice of metal, here shown in its "midnight black" finish which, in the case of the plastic rear panel, has a more than a hint of deep blue to its look. The dark colour really highlights the chamfered metal edge, so it stands out a lot more than the "champagne" or "pearl" colour options.
The A5, as its name hints, has a 5-inch Super AMOLED screen nestled under a layer of Corning Gorilla Glass 4 to the front. Its little brother model, the Galaxy A3, as its name conversely doesn't hint, has a 4.5-inch screen instead.
To the side of the A5 there's a port for a nano SIM (not micro SIM this time around) and a second slot for a microSD should you want to expand the available storage capacity. Although there's no fingerprint scanner or waterproofing, as per the SGS5, which is reflective of the price point and product position in the Galaxy hierarchy.
It's slim, it's light, it's about as good looking as 5-inch phones come. Yes the back is plastic, and non-removable, which some Samsung fans will lament, but we think it's the absolute right look and feel. There's 4G connectivity too, so the latest and greatest speeds are available for browsing, and we've found the phone effective.
And all this for £349. That's a good chunk of cash less than the Sony Z3 Compact's retail price at launch, but given that precious thing called time both handsets now fall to within around a £50 difference. Which might make for a taxing purchase decision.
Because where the Galaxy A5 is more mid-range is in its processor's capability. The quad-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 chipset is no match for the Z3 Compact's use of quad-core 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 by comparison. But does that mean much in the real world?
Having used Samsung devices on Android KitKat - version 4.4.4, as found in the A5, which is the same version the SGS5 was running when we reviewed it - and Android Lollipop (v5.0.2), we do have to call into question the handling of the earlier software when mingled with Samsung's TouchWiz user interface. Now there are no major pull-your-hair-out gripes, just the occasional and slightest stutter or hang.
READ: Samsung Galaxy S5 review
For example, when scrolling down in the British Airways app there's an animation that's joltier on the A5 than we've experienced on a number of other flagship phones. Swiping down on the main interface to bring up settings wasn't always 100 per cent responsive, while switching between apps on some (but not all) occasions would briefly hang. But we must emphasise: it's so slight.
By contrast we've seen a smoother experience from Samsung devices running Android Lollipop (v5.0), as in our now up-to-date SGS5. So it's a shame the latest and greatest version of Google's operating system isn't yet available in the A5 (fingers crossed for an update soon, it is incoming), as it might make for an altogether slicker experience. However, for most users this probably won't matter - or if you don't spend hours and days staring at different phones for a living, then probably something you won't even notice in the first place.
These days even a £109 Motorola Moto E can run games like Angry Birds Go! with few to zero genuine issues, and while the likes of the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact might be quicker to load such a game, the Samsung device isn't far behind in reality. We've been playing away with no problems; once an app is fully loaded and running the A5 handles things just fine, with smooth animations and responsive controls. And with the screen only delivering a 720 x 1280 resolution, that processor needn't be handling as many pixels as some of the flagship devices out there, which is why, pound for pound, games can run without a hitch.
We did call the original Galaxy Alpha into question over its use of a middling resolution, but that's a £550 phone. At the Galaxy A5's £350 price point (or even less if you shop around), the 720p panel is in line with expectation, often exceeding what the digits may suggest.
Screen highs and lows
We've been staring at images side by side on the Galaxy A5 and flagship Galaxy S5, the latter with a 1920 x 1080 resolution AMOLED panel. The flagship device has a cleaner white balance than the slightly red cast of the A5. However, for photos, particularly those with skin tones, this means the A5 delivers the more pleasing visuals - colour-wise, anyway.
The resolution difference between the two isn't always as significant as it may sound, although the Pentile display isn't always the crispest. There are around half the number of pixels on the A5's screen compared to the S5, so it's mainly with text that a lack of finer definition is visible. Look extra close and you'll see the individual pixels, something that's almost not discernible on the flagship device.
As the A5 has an AMOLED panel there's plenty of punch to colours, and even if it's not as neutrally balanced as some panels, there's plenty of brightness and the viewing angles mean watching from even the steepest points of view is possible. Four screen mode options - adaptive, cinema, photo and basic - cater for different looks, with photo and basic offering less contrast and a warmer yet display balance.
We've watched YouTube clips and the like, which look quality when expanded to full screen. The sound, however, is projected from a single speaker on the rear of the device, which when covered almost entirely mutes the sound. It's not bad sound, but at this scale it's hardly the rounded, bass-laden audio you may want to hear. Pop some headphones on - despite the 3.5mm jack being oddly placed at the bottom of the device, not the top - and things sound much richer.
Overall the Galaxy A5's screen does all that it needs to do, even if it lacks the pixel-packed resolution of its peers. On balance, though, it stands up well against the Sony Z3 Compact.
Camera ability is an increasingly important phone feature, and the Galaxy A5 does an ok job in this department. The sensor under the hood is the same 13-megapixel one as found in the earlier SGS4, albeit minus the image stabilisation, which sets it in good stead. It also shows just how far some cameras have come in the last couple of years.
Outside in the sun of the (long awaited) UK spring and results on screen appear fine. Move over to a computer, however, and the colours can look somewhat odd, while clarity at 100 per cent scale isn't as detailed as we would like.
As the light fades so does the ability to get the best possible images. We shot our trusty Samsung giant panda portable charger in a darkened room early evening and, although acceptably sharp, the level of processing further diminishes overall detail and introduces colour noise. Poor panda.
The camera interface is typical of Samsung, and while at this level there's an absence of real-time HDR (high dynamic range) to balance the shadow and highlight detail, the mode does exist in a different after-the-fact format among the available modes. The ability to touch on screen to focus and snap away nice and easily works just as we would expect, although close-up focus isn't particularly great.
If you're after a camera replacement for critical detail shots then the Galaxy A5 might not quite cut it, but as a mid-range snapper it's easy to use, responsive and has enough modes to tick all the necessary boxes.
In the weeks of use with the flagship SGS5 we've not been particularly impressed with the battery life - often struggling to get through a day of normal use. That phone has a 2800mAh battery, so the Galaxy A5's 2300mAh capacity made us gulp a little.
But that was prior to use. Although we wouldn't say the A5 has great battery life, there's enough to just about cater for a full day's use in a similar manner, if not better than the flagship device. It's the balance of processing power and screen resolution that keeps things ticking over compared to the more power hungry SGS5. We didn't notice the A5 getting as hot, either, which is a benefit.
If things do get a little desperate then there's power saving mode to restrict background data use, performance and, if you want, switch the screen to grayscale. Ultra Power Saver mode goes a step further by switching the home screen into a basic access point with a limited number of functions available.
As a nod to where Samsung is heading with design, the Galaxy A5 is a great example of quality. Indeed, we'd rather have one in the pocket than the flagship Galaxy S5 - but that's just about to be replaced with the S6 come April, which fuses the best of both design and power worlds together.
If you're looking for a slender, attractive phone that has the main necessary feature set on board then the Galaxy A5 does a grand job. Although the particularly savvy will shop around, and with the likes of the more capable Sony Xperia Z3 Compact now available around a similar price point that might work against Samsung's favour.
After three days with the Galaxy A5 our criticisms are few and far between: we'd like Android Lollipop on board for a more slick overall user experience, the battery life could be even better yet, and the camera is befitting of the mid-range price point rather than being exceptional - but that's to be expected.
It's the marvellous exterior where the Galaxy A5 really wins points, acting as a hint of things to come from future Samsung phones. As a lesser powerful Android alternative to the Apple iPhone 6 this handset will turn heads, without costing a fortune to buy in the first place.