Review: Samsung Galaxy Alpha (SM-G850K)
While other companies have adopted metal frames or even metal unibodies for their smartphones, Samsung has stuck with its not-so-popular polycarbonate bodies. Some say the company has done that for far too long; we’ve always though plastic has its advantages, but the community kept screaming for more premium builds on Samsung’s flagships. Then the rumors cropped up that Samsung was working on a metal-framed device called the Alpha. We managed to get a hold of a few prototype pictures that confirmed Samsung was working on a phone with a premium build, and this week, we received a retail unit of the Galaxy Alpha from our friends over at www.28mobile.com (a Swedish-owned, Hong Kong-based retailer. If you want the Alpha, Galaxy S5 LTE-A or even the Galaxy Note 4, don’t forget to head over to their website.)
We put the Galaxy Alpha through its paces over a week, so let’s see just how premium the smartphone is and whether it lives up to expectations.
Year after year, Samsung has used plastic builds for all their Android smartphones, while other vendors were shifting to more premium materials. Being the first metallic Android phone from Samsung we were expecting a lot from the Galaxy Alpha, and we can tell you that Samsung delivered big time. The Alpha just screams premium with its chamfered aluminum edges that surround the phone. As we have seen with the Galaxy Note 4, we are certain this will be Samsung’s new design language. What strikes us the most is the weight of the phone and how thin it is; that and the overall size makes it very comfortable to hold the phone in hand. It feels sturdy and compact – it’s a perfect mixture of metal and plastic, with the latter ensuring the phone is not slippery at all.
Let’s discuss the entire phone from side to side. At the front, you get a typical Samsung phone – there’s a hardware home button that also houses a fingerprint sensor, and touch buttons for going back and switching apps on each side. The back of the phone has a plastic cover with a very soft-touch feeling to it. It has the same dimpled back as the Galaxy S5, but the dots are closer together, giving it a more sophisticated appearance. There’s a protruding 12-megapixel ISOCELL camera on the back, and on the left of the camera we find the LED flash and heart rate monitor. On the lower part of the back cover, we get the typical Samsung logo.
Coming back to the front, we see the speaker grill at the top, with the usual sensors on its right and a 2.1-megapixel camera on the left. The right side of the phone houses the power button, while the volume rockers are on the left. The top of the phone houses the 3.5 mm headphone jack and a microphone for noise cancellation; there’s another microphone at the bottom, alongside the loudspeaker and a microUSB 2.0 port. The chamfered metal edges are interrupted by little plastic stripes for improving antenna reception – these look cool and only help the Galaxy Alpha in being the most beautiful phone ever designed by Samsung.
The Galaxy Alpha comes preloaded with Samsung’s TouchWiz UX, which is the same in look and feel as on the Galaxy S5. It’s the same old boring TouchWiz homescreen, with the only thing different being the weather widget which is now transparent. We have a feeling Samsung can’t decide what to do with their OS overlay. They’re slowly shifting but at the same time, losing direction. That isn’t a good thing, as their launcher lacks inspiration and everything is way too cluttered. Speaking of cluttered, the Alpha has some features that most will never use but are still present.
The phone packs a fingerprint scanner, which in our findings is a lot more accurate that the one on the Galaxy S5. The is maybe due to the fact that the phone is much easier to handle. What users need to know is that they should start swiping for the fingerprint sensor from the screen and on to the home button as the sensor is made out of two parts: one under the screen and the other in the home button. So, to get the best results, you will need to swipe down from the dots shown on the screen in a downward manner. We think Samsung could do a much better job explaining this to users, and maybe then the reviews of Samsung’s fingerprint implementation wouldn’t be as bad as they are now.
The so-called Toolbox from the Galaxy S5 is present here as well, which is basically a small sub menu that ensures you can quickly access your favorite apps. It’s a nice addition and barely takes space on the screen because of its small bubble shape, and it can be customized to set your own shortcuts. Then there’s Download Booster, which lets you download large files by downloading through the Wi-Fi and 3G/LTE connection at the same time, though it’s not a feature everyone will use every day. Ultra Power Saving mode is there as well, which will come in quite handy due to the small battery size on the device, but more on that later. Last but not the least, as all recent Samsung devices, the Alpha has My Magazine preloaded, a feature that
can’t be turned off (unless you’re rooted), if wanted, can be turned off under home screen settings. It slows down TouchWiz a little but as does S Voice, which can be opened through the home button. We would suggest turning it off as otherwise the phone takes some time to go to the homescreen.
For a more detailed description on the “new” TouchWiz, have a look at our Galaxy S5 review.
Performance/ Sound quality
The Galaxy Alpha will come in two versions depending on the region it is released in, one with the Snapdragon 801 CPU and the other with Samsung’s Exynos 5430. We received the latter variant, which features four Cortex-A15 cores clocked at 1.8GHz and four Cortex-A7 cores clocked at 1.3GHz in big.LITTLE HMP (heterogeneous multiprocessing) configuration.
The HMP configuration means that all eight cores can word at once and independently from each other, unlike the Galaxy S4’s Exynos 5410 CPU where the cores worked in a way that you could only use the A15 or A7 cores at any given time. The GPU backing the CPU is the ARM Mali T628, and there’s 2GB of RAM on-board.
The Galaxy Alpha is running the latest build of Android, namely 4.4.4 KitKat, and the overall performance of the phone is quite good. It’s speedy and flies through menus with ease; we did not notice any lag and performance is on par with current flagships. Two updates that improved performance and stability helped, and the 720p resolution of the display also added to the fast performance, as the processor and GPU didn’t have to push as many pixels. The only two things that take a second to load are the settings apps and the app switcher, though both open instantly the next time you open them, leaving little to complain about.
SamMobile reviews don’t include any benchmarks as they do not reflect real-life usage.
The Galaxy Alpha sports a Cortex-A5-based Seiren audio co-processor for the audio side of things. The sound through its down-facing speaker is not too loud but is very clear. The call quality on the Alpha is much better than on the Galaxy S5; the Galaxy S5 uses a membrane to waterproof its speaker, which isn’t the case on the Galaxy Alpha, resulting in clear and crisp sound. Playing music through the in-ear headphones almost made my eardrums pop – the output is insanely loud, but even at the highest volumes the sound quality is very clear (I tested this on the Sound Magic E10 earphones.)
The Galaxy Alpha packs a 4.7-inch Super AMOLED display with a resolution of 720×1280 pixels, structured in a Diamond (PenTile) matrix. This makes for a 312 PPI pixel density, which is enough for a screen of this size. The colors are vibrant and vivid and they seem to pop out of the screen. This is mostly due to the default display setting, which is called Adaptive Display and is oversaturated. Putting the display on basic mode makes it a lot more realistic with colors that are closer to real life. Samsung uses the Adaptive Display setting to showcase why its AMOLED screens are so great and how vivid they can be, but it always feels a bit too unnatural.
Viewing angles are great, but outdoors, performance of the display under direct sunlight is a disappointment. The screen can’t get too bright, unlike the Galaxy S5, meaning you will sometimes need to hunt for the shade to see who’s calling you or to properly read something on the phone.
The Galaxy Alpha produces great pictures in daylight and well-lit conditions, just like the Galaxy S5. Rumors were that the Alpha would have the same ISOCELL technology on-board as the S5, but instead of a 16-megapixel sensor, the Alpha features a 12MP ISOCELL sensor, as you can see in the picture below.
ISP Ver: SLSI means a Samsung made camera module.
Well, this is both good and bad news. Just like the Galaxy S5, the Alpha performs great in conditions with ample lighting and out in the sun, offering great detail and good color reproduction. But when it comes to low-light performance, the Alpha lacks detail and shots often come out very blurry and out of focus. Software stabilization doesn’t help here either; for example, in the dusk you need to hold your phone still for almost 20 seconds for it shoot the picture, which results in you shooting the picture too late or just giving up on trying to take one.
The camera has fast autofocus, and 9 out of 10 times it gets the focusing right. It occasionally missed its target but it’s not an issue that will irritate you in daily usage.
When you open the camera app, you will feel right at home as the Alpha has the same camera app that Samsung uses on all its latest devices. You will see buttons for HDR (with live preview), Selective Focus, and settings. Pressing the settings button will bring up the customization grid, and like the Galaxy S5, there are a plethora of options. There are different modes, including auto, beauty face, Sound and Shot, and Panorama, and you can download more camera modes from the Samsung store.
The Alpha’s camcorder capabilities are quite good. It ca shoot videos at 4K resolution with a bitrate of around 49 Mbps. If you want to use options like digital stabilization, you will need to scale down to 1080p mode, though the camera still captures enough detail meaning the drop in resolution won’t matter too much.
Unfortunately, the battery life of the Galaxy Alpha is its Achilles heel. The phone has an 1,860 mAh battery, which is not that big for a flagship. We have a feeling Samsung made a compromise here to make the device as thin as it is; with moderate use you will probably make it through the day, but will barely have 10 percent left by 11 PM. Thankfully, Samsung has decided to stick to its tradition of removable back covers, which means you can order a spare battery online and swap it in for those days when you heavily use your phone. (Our Korean review unit came with a second battery in the box, allowing me to use the phone extensively when reviewing it.)
The Galaxy Alpha is almost the complete package for, but that’s also a shame given it doesn’t live up to its full potential, as there are some positives and a few negatives.
It’s a good thing to see Samsung finally shifting to a more premium feel for its devices, with those gorgeous chamfered edges and a size that feels just right. It took them a long time, but Samsung has made a beautiful phone that deserves all the praise it has been getting. Its performance is on par with current flagships; it’s screen is not great but is certainly good enough, being vivid but not so bright, making it hard to read outside in direct sunlight.
If you only have one battery and are a heavy user like me, you will need to charge the phone every day in the evening, though we suggest you buy a spare battery or keep a portable charger with you to avoid the annoyance of running out battery when you really need it. Which brings us to the second negative: its price. At the time of this review, the Galaxy Alpha has a retail price of €589, which is a bit hefty for this phone, as good and high-end as it is.
All in all this is the most beautiful phone Samsung has ever made, and to a great extent its design makes up for its flaws. Not all of them, but can I live with those flaws?
The answer to that question would a yes. The bottom line is that I love using the Galaxy Alpha more and more each day, though it certainly took Samsung a while to get me there.