Samsung Galaxy Alpha review - still a desirable smartphone
Processor: Quad-core 1.8GHz Exynos 5 Octa 5430 (+ quad-core 1.3GHz), Screen Size: 4.7in, Screen resolution: 1,280x720, Rear camera: 12 megapixels, Storage: 32GB, Wireless data: 4G, Size: 132.4x65.5x6.7mm, Weight: 114g, Operating system: Android 5.0.2
We always suspected that the little Galaxy Alpha might be a trailblazer for things to come at Samsung. It was announced to little fanfare in 2014 but would go on to have a big impact on Samsung and how it designed its phones. With a 4.7in display it was smaller than typical flagship handsets, even of its time, but the metal frame made it stand out from Samsung's previous all-plastic efforts. It was obviously an attempt to move the top-end of the Galaxy brand to something closer to Apple's own material choices.
It was obviously an attempt to move the top-end of the Galaxy brand to something closer to Apple's own material choices. As a handset it didn't prove hugely popular at the time, too expensive and underspecified being the main complaints. It did set the direction for future handsets to come, with the Flagship S-range moving to metal frames and an entirely new 'A' range being created in the Alpha's footsteps, see the new Galaxy A3 2016 review for the latest version.
As for the Alpha itself it was quickly withdrawn from sale and it's hard to find a new one at a reasonable price these days - we certainly wouldn't pay £275 for the ones we can find. However, if you see a secondhand model for under £150 in good condition it's a nice alternative to the plastic handsets you usually find at that sort of price.
Design and build quality
With a tougher body and the strip of aluminium running round the side, the Alpha certainly looks like a high-end smartphone. The front, as you'd expect, is a single sheet of Gorilla glass, protecting the screen and touch-sensitive Back and Task switcher buttons. Around the bezel and under the glass is a patterned texture, which we think looks great and adds to the premium feel of the phone.
Samsung hasn't made a metal rear for the Alpha, sticking with the dimpled soft-touch plastic it introduced with the S5. We don't mind this at all. First, the plastic is very grippy, making the phone feel secure in the hand. Secondly, the rear panel is removable, allowing Samsung to sell the phone in more colours (Charcoal Black, Scuba Blue, Frosted Gold, Sleek Silver and Dazzling White). More importantly, it also makes the battery user-replaceable.
Impressively, Samsung has managed to make the phone super slim. At just 6.7mm thick, it's 0.2mm thinner than the iPhone 6. It's light, too, at just 115g. This makes the handset everything a good smartphone should be: thin, light and great to look at.
The one area where Samsung hasn't managed to beat the plastic-bodied Galaxy S5 is in its dust and water protection. While the S5 carries IP67 certification (it can withstand water depths of up to 1m for up to 30m, and is dust resistant), the Alpha does not. Although the Alpha has the premium build quality and is, by far, the more attractive handset, if you need a phone that can take a dusty environment, or a smartphone that you need to use where it will get splashed with water, the S5 remains the phone for you.
Screen size and quality
While Samsung has been known to put bigger-and-bigger screens in its top smartphones, the Galaxy Alpha is reassuringly a little bit smaller, with a 4.7in display. To us, this size makes a lot of sense, as it's comfortably big enough to see easily, yet it makes the phone small enough to slip into a pocket and carry around all day. It definitely feels like the right choice for the market Samsung is aiming the phone at.
With the smaller screen comes less resolution, as the Alpha only has a 1,280x720 Super AMOLED display. With a pixel density of 312ppi, the phone is slightly behind the identically-sized iPhone 6, which as a 326ppi screen. On paper that should mean that Apple's handset is a little sharper, but in practice you'd be hard-pushed to notice the difference.
We think that Samsung's made the right resolution choice for this handset. Putting a Full HD display might have made the display a little sharper, but you wouldn't fit any more on the screen, unless you made everything too small to use. While we're not quite past the point where resolution makes any difference, we're definitely at the point of deminishing returns: 720p is a perfectly decent resolution on a screen this size. Besides, a screen is about more than resolution, it's about quality, too.
Quality is something that this screen has in spades. We used our colour calibrator to test the phone's screen and were impressed with the results. It produced 100% of the sRGB colour gamut and produced perfect blacks, meaning contrast is amazing. This was held-up by our subjective tests, which showed fine detail and vibrant colours in all of our test images. Brightness at 325cd/m2 isn't bad, although LCD displays tend to be a little bit brighter. Even so, we had no problems using the Alpha outside.
Performance and battery life
Graphics performance was similarly as good, with the Alpha managing a high score of 17,271 (or 73.1fps) in the Ice Storm Unlimited test. Again, the S5 was slightly faster, but when the screen can only show 60fps anyway, any extra frames beyond this is unnecessary. Finally, we ran the Epic Citadel benchmark, where the handset managed 51.6fps at the phone's full resolution and using Ultra High Quality settings.
In order to keep the size of the phone down, Samsung has fitted a 1,860mAh battery, rather than the 2,800mAh batteries it uses in its bigger phones. This means slightly less battery life, although the 11h 31m we measured in our video playback tests means that the Alpha has enough juice for a full day's worth of use. In fact, it's not far off the new Galaxy S6, which only managed 13h 37m in the same test, and that has a bigger 2,550mAh battery. The S6 Edge, meanwhile, lasted 15h 33m.
As with the S5, the Alpha has an Ultra Power Saving mode, which switches the handset to use a greyscale theme and restricts which apps can run. It can dramatically extend battery life, eking out the last few percentages of battery life on your phone. Of course, as we mentioned before, the back comes off, so you can replace the battery with a second, fully-charged one easily. Continues on Page 2.