Review: Updated: Samsung Galaxy Alpha

Review: Updated: Samsung Galaxy Alpha

Introduction and design

While Apple is being praised and mocked in unequal measure for launching the "bigger than bigger" iPhone 6 with a 4.7-inch display and the even bigger iPhone 6 Plus – is that a reversing beep I can hear? – Samsung has performed an about-turn of its own with the launch of the Galaxy Alpha.

This is the first Samsung smartphone I can remember using that values attractive design ahead of spec list box-ticking. Whilst it’s not the finished article, it marks a welcome departure in an exciting new direction for the company.

It’s also arguably the most balanced and comfortable-to-use premium phone Samsung has made since the Samsung Galaxy S2.

Make no mistake though – this is unknown, risky territory for Samsung. The Samsung Galaxy Alpha is priced like a flagship phone, but it’s technically out-specced by the Samsung Galaxy S5.

Since its launch there have been a number of price drops, and you can now get the Samsung Galaxy Alpha for under £350 if you shop around. That’s quite a big drop from the £549.99 asking price it launched with.

Really, though, this simply reframes the age-old iOS vs Android argument with none of the platform bias – what makes a premium phone premium?

Design

Let’s get the obvious comment out of the way early doors. The Samsung Galaxy Alpha looks a lot like an iPhone.

While it’s clearly been released to pre-empt the launch of the iPhone 6, though, the Alpha’s design is pure iPhone 4. It’s got a very familiar flat-edged aluminium rim with that same nick-inviting chamfered edge. Even the machined speaker grid on the bottom edge is reminiscent of Apple’s seminal phone.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Of course, the fact that Samsung has borrowed some ideas from Apple is far less noteworthy than the fact that it has finally adopted metal into its design process. Given how well the company has done with its first attempt, I have to ask: what took you so long, Samsung?

This is a lovely phone to hold. It sits in one hand delightfully. As someone with larger-than-average hands, I can just about stretch my thumb to each corner of the 4.7-inch display without needing to shuffle the handset around in my hands.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

That’s facilitated by a nice thin bezel and the Galaxy Alpha’s super-thin body. At 6.7mm, it’s not the thinnest phone in the world, but it’s up there. It’s also 0.2mm thinner than the similarly proportioned iPhone 6.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Like Apple’s new iPhone, Samsung has positioned the Galaxy Alpha’s power button on the top right-hand edge of the phone, so you can reach it easily with thumb or finger. The volume rocker is on the opposite edge, if a little higher up. Both have a satisfying click to them.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

It’s when you look closely at these side buttons that you realise the Galaxy Alpha’s metal rim isn’t quite as unoriginal as it first seems. There’s a subtle outward curve just before you reach the top and bottom edges, which is both nice to look at and offers a useful niche to tuck your little finger into.

You know you’re definitely dealing with a Samsung phone when you turn it over – and we’re not just talking about the Samsung logo or the centrally-mounted, square-rimmed, slightly protruding camera unit.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

The Galaxy Alpha’s dalliance with metal extends only to its outer rim. The rear of the device is the same kind of soft-touch polycarbonate as we’ve seen before.

It’s one of the least objectionable uses for the material yet, though. Perhaps it’s the fact that Samsung has done away with that awful faux-stitching effect, or the fact that it’s framed by elegant metal rather than ugly shiny plastic. I don’t know, but in this case Samsung’s use of plastic is as notable and restrained as its use of metal.

The decision not to opt for an all-metal body has led to a number of other benefits. It makes the Alpha easy to grip and handle, it allows for a removable battery, and it makes the phone remarkably light.

Samsung is evidently pleased with the design of the Samsung Galaxy Alpha as it is basing the look of its new series of handsets on it. The Samsung Galaxy A5, along with the Galaxy A3 and Galaxy A7 have all taken design cues from the Galaxy Alpha, such as the elegant metal body.

After the disappointing design of the Samsung Galaxy S5, we’re also hoping that the Samsung Galaxy S6 will take cues from the Galaxy Alpha’s stylish design.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

At 115 grams, it’s 14 grams lighter than the iPhone 6. In fact, it’s only 3 grams heavier than the 4-inch iPhone 5S. No, it doesn’t quite feel as premium as either, but it’s nowhere near as far off as Samsung’s earlier efforts.

And this introduces one of the most contentious specs of the Samsung Galaxy Alpha – its display. As I’ve already mentioned, this is a 4.7-inch screen, which kind of bucks the trend for recent high-end Android devices. The HTC One M8, the Google Nexus 5, the Sony Xperia Z3, and yes, the Samsung Galaxy S5, have all busted through the 5-inch barrier.

Indeed, the Alpha feels like a blast from the past, going back to the time of the Nexus 4, the HTC One X, and the Samsung Galaxy S3. More pertinently, and as already discussed, this is the size adopted by Apple for its iPhone 6.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

The result is that you’ll probably find the Galaxy Alpha either slightly smaller or slightly bigger than you’re used to. My view? Like Goldilocks and the middle-sized bed, this one feels just right. It offers a clear view of HD video, games and most web pages without sacrificing portability or one-handed usability.

Perhaps even more contentious is the Samsung Galaxy Alpha’s display resolution. It’s only ("only") 720p.

Complaints about this lower resolution are valid – particularly given the Galaxy Alpha’s premium price – but only up to a point. Yes, other Android phones have hit the considerably sharper 1080p resolution standard in recent times, but the vast majority of these have been larger 5-inch displays.

In fact, if we’re talking mainstream phones, only 2013’s HTC One M7 really springs to mind as offering a 4.7-inch 1080p display.

In a sub-5-inch screen like this one, 720p feels perfectly adequate. That’s not to say that you definitely won’t notice the difference in sharpness between the Galaxy Alpha and (for example) the Galaxy S5. But as it is, using the phone in isolation, the Alpha’s display is plenty sharp enough.

Indeed, with Samsung’s expert – and still relatively unique – use of Super AMOLED technology, the Galaxy Alpha’s picture positively pops from the screen. Colours are rich and contrast levels are exemplary, while you won’t be experiencing inky blacks of this kind on any LCD panel.

It still lends some icons and images a slightly false, gaudy appearance, but once you’re attuned to it (or once you’ve tuned it to your liking) other displays can look a little drab by comparison.

Key features

Many would argue that the Samsung Galaxy Alpha’s defining feature is its stunning looks, and that may well be the case. Indeed, even Samsung itself claims that the focus is on "smart aesthetics and a compact frame" here.

But don’t let that fool you into thinking that the Alpha skimps on interesting features. Not all of them are entirely successful, but they’re here.

For one thing, the Finger Scanner from the Samsung Galaxy S5 has made its way into the Alpha. Think of it as Samsung’s version of Apple’s Touch ID, only not as good.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Like Apple’s solution, you can use your finger or thumbprint to access your locked phone from sleep. You can also use it to input registered website passwords, once you’ve fed the initial details in.

This is all well and good, but the reason Touch ID works is that it’s simple to initiate – just press your finger onto the home key – and it works the vast majority of the time.

Samsung’s solution requires you to steadily swipe your finger from the bottom of the screen over the lozenge-shaped home key in a very specific way. Once you’ve perfected the technique, it works more often than not, which isn’t often enough. These factors combine to make it a bit of a pain to use, and after toying with it I switched it off pretty quickly.

Fitness features

Another of the special features to have made its way into the Galaxy Alpha is a heart rate monitor. Combined with the S Health app, it lets you monitor how your heart is doing over a period of time.

This too was present in the Samsung Galaxy S5, and once again it works in much the same way. There’s a little optical reader right where the camera flash is, on the back of the device. Enter the heart rate monitor section of the S Health app and hold your finger up against the reader, and you’ll soon have a seemingly accurate reading.

Of course, it’s a pretty specific function that only certain fitness fanatics will consistently use. For the rest, it’s a bit of a gimmick.

Still, S Health has other functions beyond reading your heart rate. In fact, it’s a one-stop shop for all things health and fitness related.

You can track your calorie intake, and start an exercise routine based on running, walking, cycling or hiking. This will employ the phone’s GPS and music-playing system to send you on your merry way, tracking the distance covered and calories burned along the way.

The feature you’ll most probably encounter the most in general use is the pedometer. Once set up, you’ll get a constant reading of the steps you’ve taken during the day on your lock screen, as well as updates on your progress towards a preset goal.

I was suspicious of how accurate this was given the high number of steps that it registered during a day of my inherently sedentary job. Besides, working towards a set number of steps seems a little arbitrary. But perhaps if you’re semi-serious about getting fitter and don’t plan to splash out on a dedicated fitness tracker, this may be of interest.

Even then, though, there are superior Android fitness applications out there on the Google Play Store, such as Adidas MiCoach and Runkeeper.

4K video

We’ll discuss the Samsung Galaxy Alpha’s camera in general terms in the appropriate section, but I should mention here that it’s capable of recording 4K video.

Yes, this is another feature that can also be found on the Samsung Galaxy S5, but the Samsung Galaxy Alpha isn’t competing with that. It’s competing directly with the iPhone 6, and the iPhone 6 doesn’t do 4K.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Of course, watching UHD video back on the phone itself doesn’t reveal much. You’ll only really see the benefit if you have a 4K TV or monitor, although the footage I shot and played back on my 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (which has a 2,880 x 1,800 resolution) looked plenty smooth enough.

Again, this isn’t really a feature that many people will need, and it’s highly questionable whether taking 4K video on a smartphone is worth the extra storage space overhead – particularly here on the Galaxy Alpha, which doesn’t have expandable storage.

That latter point is a slightly odd one. Yes, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha has a moderately generous 32GB of internal storage as standard. But why is there no microSD slot?

The Sony Xperia Z3 and Xperia Z3 Compact are also able to shoot 4K video. Although both handsets do have their own issues with 4K video, they at least come with a microSD slot that allows the memory to be boosted by up to 128GB.

The Alpha is supposed to be a direct iPhone 6 rival (Apple’s phones never come with expandable storage), but given that the Alpha’s rear panel is removable, why not include a microSD slot?

Was space really that limited?

Interface

Those hoping for a classy software overhaul from Samsung to match its hardware efforts are in for a disappointment. You get the same cluttered, dated-looking TouchWiz UI layered on top of Google’s Android OS – this time Android 4.4.4 KitKat.

As always, I forced myself to live with the default Samsung UI throughout the review period, resisting the temptation to streamline the experience by downloading Google Now Launcher or Apex Launcher, as I would with my own Android phones.

Nowadays, doing so is no longer a sure fire way to get me riled up. Using a modern Samsung phone like the Galaxy Alpha with its default factory settings is pretty okay. Not great, but not bad.

That might sound like damning with faint praise, but it isn’t meant to be. Samsung has undoubtedly made improvements in its software design over the past year or so, and this is the best and most intuitive Samsung UI yet.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha

The latest iteration gives you a main homescreen with a useful and surprisingly understated weather and time widget taking up the top third, with a Google Now box leaving space for four of your favourite app icons. Along the bottom you can squeeze in your four main-use apps alongside an app tray shortcut.

It’s not so dissimilar to stock Android, really. Slide left, however, and you don’t get the Google Now screen as you do in the excellent Google Now Launcher (that’s accessed by pressing and holding the Home key here). Rather, you get Samsung’s My Magazine news story collator, which is a result of the company’s team-up with Flipboard.

My Magazine looks quite nice, but it’s not particularly well executed. It feels sluggish, taking an age to load up a limited range of content. You’re much better served just booting up the Flipboard app itself and getting to precisely the content you’re interested in.

Although there hasn’t been any official word, it is all but guaranteed that the Samsung Galaxy Alpha will be updated to Google’s latest mobile operating system, Android 5.0 Lollipop.

Android Lollipop has now started rolling out to the Samsung Galaxy S5, so hopefully the Samsung Galaxy Alpha will get it soon. Of course it will still be skinned with Samsung’s TouchWiz interface, so don’t expect an experience akin to the one in stock Lollipop.

Menus and settings

Elsewhere, Samsung’s notification menus are gradually getting more functional, but seemingly not much more attractive. They’re presented in a slightly uninspiring range of blue tones, but the circular function toggles are crisp enough.

Having said that, the latest settings menu is simply too spread out for its own good, with the large coloured circular markers too tough to distinguish from one another at a glance.

You can see what Samsung was attempting – to prevent that familiar information overload feeling you get with most modern smartphone settings menus. But this alternative approach makes it even trickier to find the function you want, because the odds are it’ll be several swipes away from where you are, and not necessarily in a logical location.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

On the plus side, I like how Samsung has started dotting thoughtful shortcuts throughout its interface. Bring down the notification menu and you’ll find a dedicated S Finder button, which lets you carry out a system-wide search.

Type in a name, for example, and it’ll search your chosen messaging app (Hangouts or Messages), your contacts, your email app, any stored files containing that name (including images and videos), and even Chrome’s search history. It won’t, however, search your Gmail app, which is a bit of a pain.

Anyway, S Finder is a nice thing to have to hand, as is a Quick Connect option for sharing content to local devices.

Another minor touch I appreciated along these same lines was when I switched on Flight mode when turning in for the night. When you wake the phone next, there’s the option to turn Flight mode off, right there on the lock screen.

It’s seemingly small touches like this that make a smartphone pleasant to use rather than gimmicky biometric readers or finicky gesture controls (which are still here, if you really want them). Samsung seems to be waking up to this fact, which can only be a good thing and hopefully we’ll see more of this sort of thing with the update to Android 5.0 Lollipop.

Performance and battery

Another reason the Samsung Galaxy Alpha is so pleasant to use, and probably why I’m finding the TouchWiz UI so easy to live with, is that everything simply flies on it.

This is one speedy, responsive smartphone. Navigating through the Android menus is super smooth, with nary a glimmer of a stutter.

Besides Samsung’s software optimisation, that’s partly thanks to the speedy Exynos 5 Octa SoC that’s running most versions of the phone. Samsung’s own chip, which switches between four low-power processor cores for light tasks and four supercharged ones for heavier tasks, is quite the performer.

What’s more, with fewer pixels to push around than, say, the Samsung Galaxy S5, there are even more processor resources free at any one time. That’s borne out with our usual GeekBench 3 benchmark test.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

An average multi-core score of 3,132 pitches the Alpha’s performance level slightly ahead of the Galaxy S5, which managed 2,909 in our test.

There still aren’t enough top-performing compact phones like the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact for my liking. Here’s another to add to that tiny pile.

Battery

For a phone that favours a slim, compact design above all else, battery life was always going to be a concern. Indeed, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha’s 1,860mAh battery seems a little slight by modern standards. Compare it to the Galaxy S5 and its 2,800mAh battery, and it looks alarmingly small – regardless of its less demanding display.

Sure enough, the Alpha only just lasted through a full day of moderate usage, and required a nightly charge. Introduce a little gaming and HD video watching, and the percentage plummeted.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Of course, that in itself is not unusual for a modern high-end smartphone. Our regular battery test, which involves running a 90 minute 720p video with the display cranked up to full brightness, left 84 percent left in the tank, which isn’t bad by any means.

That’s the same level of performance as the Galaxy S5 and the iPhone 5S, and is well ahead of the HTC One M8. Hopefully the battery performance will improve too with the optimisations of Android 5.0 Lollipop when that lands on the phone.

This being a Samsung phone, you also get the benefits of Ultra power saving mode. This is way more extreme than your average power saving mode, switching the display to greyscale, providing a simplified homescreen, restricting app usage to the bare essentials, cutting mobile data when the screen turns off, and limiting connectivity.

It’s so bare bones that it wouldn’t even let me take a screen grab for this section.

The result, though, is that your usage time will increase dramatically. I sat and watched as the stated battery percentage ticked up by 10 percent, such is the mode’s miraculous restorative power. It’s perfect for those emergency situations when you’re low on juice and far away from a charger, though at this point it’s worth remembering that your £350 – £500 smartphone is essentially less useful than a 10-year-old feature phone.

The essentials

This is a Samsung phone, which means that it’s very strong at simply making and receiving calls. While I was concerned at the relatively low and erratic signal strength that often appeared in the notification bar on my test unit, that didn’t seem to reflect on the call quality in those locations.

In fact, call quality was of a consistently high standard during my time with the phone – clear, crisp, and plenty loud enough.

Samsung’s Contacts menu and related Phone app may not be the prettiest around, but they’re powerful and effective. Going to a contact brings up all of the ways in which you’re connected, including any installed third party communication apps like WhatsApp.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

You also get a little reminder of the last time you spoke to someone when you call them up, which is particularly handy for those business calls.

Messaging

In terms of messaging, you get the now typical choice between Samsung’s own Messages app and Google’s Hangouts app.

As with making calls, Samsung’s messaging app is a little ugly but deeply functional. I particularly like the ability to add "priority senders" to the top row of the app, giving you quick access to those few contacts that you message all the time.

Meanwhile, using the volume buttons in the Samsung Messages app performs the rather unusual – but strangely appealing – function of increasing the size of the fonts, so you can quickly squeeze more messages in or make them easier to read.

Of course, Google’s Hangouts has its own allure. It’s much more stylish and pleasant to look at and use, and it smartly integrates SMS messages with data-based chats. It also automatically pushes your favourite contacts to the top of the pile.

That being said, it’s one of those apps where you feel Google is still trying to hit upon the ideal layout and design, which doesn’t always make for a fluid, intuitive experience and that continues to be the case in the updated Android 5.0 version. The current one’s pretty good, though, so here’s hoping Google runs with it.

Keyboard

Samsung’s keyboard isn’t particularly great, though. Once again, it’s functional rather than attractive, but it simply lacks the effortless appeal of something like SwiftKey or even Google’s own Keyboard.

What’s more, if you’re a regular comma user like me, you’ll have to touch and hold on the full stop key to bring up a menu and select it from there. That gets old pretty quickly.

The predictive word suggestion system works pretty well, though, and there is a slide-to-type option – but it needs to be activated from the keyboard settings menu.

Both of the aforementioned alternatives are available on the Google Play Store – Google’s for free – and both feature a comma key and integrated swipe-typing, as well as a more attractive design. Download one of those instead, unless you like to have dedicated numerical keys.

Browser

Just like the choice of messaging app, Samsung continues to offer two web browser apps here on the Galaxy Alpha. It’s still a decidedly messy state of affairs that you have both Google’s Chrome and Samsung’s own internet app available here – particularly to those ignorant of the differences.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Of course, Chrome will be the favourite of most for its unbeatable ability to sync up with the popular Chrome desktop browser. Having said that, Samsung’s own internet browser isn’t bad by any means. In fact, it has a couple of features that Chrome doesn’t.

I really like the little magnifying glass effect that appears when you hold and drag on text, making copying and pasting sections of text a doddle. Dare I say it’s markedly better than Chrome’s fiddly text-selection function? Yes, I think I would.

Samsung’s browser also has a Safari-like Reader option that renders desktop-based web sites in nice, simple, mobile-friendly text-only form. These can then be saved for later offline reading. It’s not the best implementation of this feature, but at least it’s there and it works.

Both browsers are fast, though, and both seem eager to get out of your way and offer a full-screen web browsing experience. I just don’t think it’s an ideal state of affairs to have them both here at once.

Camera

It might seem as if Samsung has compromised with the Samsung Galaxy Alpha’s 12-megapixel camera. After all, the Samsung Galaxy S5 has a 16-megapixel example.

That may well be the case, but the Galaxy Alpha still turns out some truly excellent images. Just as importantly, it’s a joy to handle. Not only is it fast to focus and snap, but you don’t have to work hard or fiddle with settings to get decent results either – just point and shoot.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Of course, when you do delve into the Alpha’s camera settings, you’ll find plenty to play with. Ever-present on the main camera interface is a toggle for an accomplished HDR mode, for those high-contrast or shady images. You also get a selective focus mode that accentuates a close-up (50cm or less) object by blurring out the background.

The mode even lets you switch between focusing on the foreground or background after the picture has been taken. In truth, you can get a decent enough depth of focus effect in general use without needing to switch to this artificial method, which takes a little too much framing and a considerable amount of time to process. That’s more a testament to the Alpha’s fine camera than it is a criticism of a gimmicky mode, though.

Elsewhere you get the same extras as the Galaxy S5 and others in the Samsung range, including Beauty face (for smoothing off those wrinkles and spots) and a streamlined Shot & More mode. The latter is where you can apply various effects and post-processing options such as Best photo, Best face, erasing unwanted objects and merging multiple shots into an action photo.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

As with elsewhere in its TouchWiz UI, Samsung has cleaned up and simplified its camera UI significantly to the point where it’s actually quite intuitive to use.

As noted above, you also get 4K video recording here, which provides footage with four times the pixel count of 1080p Full HD. The Galaxy Alpha handles this without batting an eyelid, although you lose the ability to do extra things like taking still snaps while you’re recording, so Samsung has understandably stuck with the more flexible 1080p mode as the default.

Sample images

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

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Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

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Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

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Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

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Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

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Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

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Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

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YouTube : http://youtu.be/H_Gm_xNl2ewYouTube : http://youtu.be/h4O3Qnw1XOA

Media

Samsung devices are always highly capable media players, and the Galaxy Alpha isn’t going to be the first phone to let the side down.

While it still only has a single speaker (on the bottom of the handset), making for mono playback across all media, that’s about the only thing that’s lacking here. And besides, you should be using a decent set of headphones anyway.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Samsung bundles its own music player in here, as always, and it’s fine for those who simply want to drag and drop their existing MP3 collection the old fashioned way.

However, Google’s Play Music – also bundled – is a much better choice for anything further. Not only does Google offer its own well-stocked MP3 store, but you can also sign up to a Spotify-like music subscription service and upload your existing tracks to the cloud.

Sound quality is just fine regardless of the service you choose. You also get a nice piece of full-screen album artwork for the lock screen music widget, alongside the expected control shortcuts.

You also get a smaller music widget in the notification menu. Speaking of which, whenever you plug in your headphones, you’ll be presented with a row of commonly associated app shortcuts within the drag-down menu. It’s a nice touch.

Video playback is similarly accomplished. OK, so the Samsung Galaxy Alpha’s 720p display won’t show off 1080p Full HD video in its full glory, but all of the HD footage we tested – through Google Play Movies & TV, YouTube, and the Netflix app – looked plenty sharp enough. Held next to a larger 1080p handset you’ll notice the difference in sharpness, but in isolation it looks great.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Thanks to that Super AMOLED technology, colours and blacks look particularly striking – there’s a real sense of depth to movie content in particular.

Perhaps the strongest media-related area for the Samsung Galaxy Alpha is gaming. Almost everything we tried here positively flew, from complex 3D fare like Dead Trigger 2 to vibrant 2D games like Badland (which feels like it was made to show off Super AMOLED technology).

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

This strong performance is doubtless thanks to that nippy Exynos 5 CPU and a 720p display that doesn’t siphon too much of its power off for pushing extra pixels around. Anything that didn’t fly during my time with the Alpha seemed to be down to a lack of optimisation on the game developer’s part – still not an uncommon state of affairs on Android, sadly.

The Competition

iPhone 6

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

The iPhone 6 is clearly the smartphone Samsung had in mind when it launched the Samsung Galaxy Alpha. It’s got the same-sized 4.7-inch display, a similarly slim metal-heavy design and a similar price point.

Samsung has the slight edge on size and weight, but the iPhone 6 retains Apple’s premium design edge with its all-metal construction. We’d also take Apple’s classy iOS 8 software over Samsung’s slightly clunky TouchWiz UI any day.

After our full review of the iPhone, it’s definitely the superior phone in myriad ways, but it’s also more expensive and this is Samsung’s most focused attempt at taking on Apple directly in a single premium handset yet.

Sony Xperia Z3 Compact

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

The Sony Xperia Z3 Compact its clearly the most direct rival to the Galaxy Alpha after the iPhone 6.

It’s got a similar 4.6-inch 720p display, and a similarly high-end Snapdragon 801 CPU powering it. In the Sony Xperia 3 Compact’s favour it has a tasty-looking 20.3-megapixel camera.

Like the Galaxy Alpha, the Xperia Z3 Compact can also film 4K video but this time with a microSD slot that allows you to store a decent amount of 4K footage.

One thing the Xperia Z3 Compact doesn’t have is a classy metal design, but on the flip side its tough plastic shell means that it’s dust and water resistant. The Galaxy Alpha certainly isn’t.

HTC One M7

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

You can’t talk about premium metal Android phones without mentioning one of HTC’s recent efforts.
While the HTC One M8 is the most recent and impressive effort, however, I feel that last year’s HTC One M7 – which is still being sold as new by HTC – is a more apt Galaxy Alpha competitor.

After all, it too has a premium metal design and a 4.7-inch display. In fact, the HTC One M7 arguably has the superior examples of both. Its body is ALL metal, and distinctive to boot (no raiding of the Apple design book here).

Meanwhile the One M7’s display has a much higher 1080p resolution, not to mention a well under £400 price tag for those prepared to shop around.

Of course, last year’s HTC flagship also has an older, less capable Snapdragon 600 CPU, which means it’s not as good a performer as the Alpha, nor is it as future-proof. Its 4-megapixel UltraPixel camera isn’t as good an all-round snapper as the Alpha’s 12-megapixel unit, either.

Hands on gallery

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Samsung Galaxy Alpha review

Verdict

It’s taken a while, but Samsung has finally come up with a premium metal design for one of its phones – and it’s pretty darned good for a first attempt. True, the company has sacrificed a little of its box-ticking cutting edge allure in the process, but the result is the most balanced and pleasant-to-use handset in the range.

We liked

While it borrows liberally from the Apple design playbook, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha still feels like a notable progression for the company – and it still feels like a Samsung phone. Just a particularly classy one.

In scaling back to a 4.7-inch display, and framing it in a super-slim chassis, the Alpha takes its place as the nicest Samsung phone to wield – particularly in one hand.

Indeed, the Galaxy Alpha is brilliant in day-to-day use thanks to blazing performance and an accomplished 12-megapixel camera.

We disliked

While Samsung’s TouchWiz UI is the leanest it’s ever been, it’s still a glaring weak point when you compare it to rival efforts. It should be next on the list for a radical overhaul by Samsung’s designers.

Meanwhile, Samsung has evidently had to make certain compromises to facilitate that slim, premium design. One takes the form of a slightly less-than-premium 720p display. So-so battery life is the other notable downside to such a slinky handset design.

These shortfalls make the Samsung Galaxy Alpha’s premium price point feel very steep – or at least it does if you don’t value high-end external design as highly as cutting edge internal technology. It’s a lot, lot more expensive than the S5, which has a much more impressive spec list.

Verdict

Samsung has created a truly desirable smartphone for the first time in… well, ever. Those who were fine with Samsung’s plastic-heavy approach in the past may frown at perceived compromises in the Galaxy Alpha’s spec list, but I’d encourage you to hold one in your hand before making any snap judgements.

This is a phone that’s pleasant to use in a variety of situations, thanks to its lightweight design, just-right size, and impressively swift performance.

I’d have liked a 1080p display and stronger battery life, and ultimately Samsung’s software design is holding the Alpha back from being a true iPhone 6 toppler. But this is a solid first step on a bold new path for Samsung – it’s just hard to understand why on earth it’s so expensive.

First reviewed: September 2014



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