Samsung Galaxy Alpha review
Samsung has taken plenty of flack for the plastic design of its high-end smartphones over the years, while other manufacturers have been raking in the praise. With the Samsung Galaxy Alpha, however, that looks set to change.
The company’s second high-end Android smartphone of 2014 finally gives the plastic chassis the boot, and instead comes encased in a svelte aluminium frame, one whose sharp edges and flat sides are more than a little reminiscent of Apple’s iPhone 5 and 5s designs. See also: The 15 best smartphones of 2014
Samsung Galaxy Alpha review: design
Regardless of where it may have drawn its inspiration from, the Galaxy Alpha is Samsung’s best-looking smartphone to date. In an industry where Samsung has a reputation for producing high-end devices with less-than-stellar design, it has taken a step back, had a think, and produced a real stunner. Visit: the best Android phones of 2014 too.
With a grippy soft-touch rear panel to contrast with the sharp styling of that metal frame – instead of a slippery metal or glass back – it makes a design statement all of its own. The rear panel is still removable, and pretty flimsy, but with it clipped in place the Alpha feels as solid and well made as any smartphone we’ve come across.
It’s also impressively compact: a smaller, lighter device overall than the iPhone 6, which has the same-size 4.7in screen. It measures 66mm wide, 132mm tall and a mere 6.7mm thick, and it weighs only 115g. Below the screen are Samsung’s traditional three buttons – home, back and menu – with the inclusion of a PayPal-verified fingerprint scanner.
Other than a slightly unsightly protruding camera housing on the rear, the rest of the Alpha’s design elements are well executed. The power and volume buttons are subtle yet easy to locate; the built-in speaker, microphone and USB charging port located at the bottom of the phone are well hidden and flush with the metal frame; and the panel that hosts the LED flash and heart-rate sensor is also well proportioned.
It isn’t a complete success, however. We’d like to have seen a physical camera button (although there is a shortcut icon located on the lockscreen), and the phone lacks any kind of water- or dust-resistance, where the Galaxy S5 has an IP67 rating.
Despite this, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha is an extremely well-designed phone, and one that hopefully marks a turning point for the company.
Samsung Galaxy Alpha review: display
Look at the screen specifications, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that there was a misprint: a 720p display on a £550 smartphone? It looks out of place where other flagship devices boast 1080p displays and higher.
Remove the price from the equation and look at it objectively, however, and you’ll see that the 720 x 1,280 (312ppi) Super AMOLED screen is more than good enough. Its pixel density of 312ppi is only 15ppi lower than the iPhone 6’s display of the same size.
Theoretically, this means that most people won’t be able to discern individual pixels at a normal viewing distance (around 28cm in this case). And from a real-world perspective, we’d concur: the onscreen text, images and colours are very sharp, with no fuzziness or stair stepping at all.
In our screen tests, it performed well. Its maximum brightness of 335cd/m[sup]2[/sup] can’t compete with the best IPS displays, and means it isn’t quite as easy to read in bright sunlight, but it’s as bright as any AMOLED screen we’ve seen. And there is further compensation in the shape of the perfect contrast that this type of technology always offers. It’s very colour-accurate, too, with an average Delta E of 1.6 and a maximum of 4.94, and it’s capable of displaying an outstanding 98.3% of the sRGB colour gamut.
Samsung Galaxy Alpha review: software
The Galaxy Alpha has Android 4.4.4 (KitKat) onboard, complete with Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay. This comes with a host of extra features – some of which are useful, some less so – and is rammed with preinstalled apps, plus Samsung’s own app store.
One of the more interesting preloads is the much-hyped S Health app, which comprises a number of tools for keeping track of your activity, food intake and general well-being.
It makes use of the accelerometer in the phone to count your steps; will estimate the calories you’ve burned in doing so based on your height, weight, age and sex; and provides a tool to help you track the number of calories you’ve consumed day by day.
These tools all work well, as does the heart-rate monitor, which is located next to the camera at the rear of the phone. However, we did note that it fluctuated by a few beats per minute when we took a number of samples one after another.
It even claims to be able to keep tabs on your stress levels, a feature added quietly to S Health earlier this year. The app takes a number of readings over the course of a minute, and then gives you a percentage rating. This is presumably based on heart-rate variability (HRV) – the variation in the beat-to-beat interval – which is a method medical professionals use to gauge stress levels. We haven’t yet had time to use this long enough to comment on its reliability, but it’s certainly an interesting development.
One of the more impressive features is the calorie counter/Food app in the S Health suite. If, like us, you graze on multiple snacks throughout the day and, also like us, you spend a long time on your smartphone, then spending a few seconds selecting what you’ve eaten from S Health’s impressively well-stocked food library will give you a snapshot of how close to over-/under-eating you are at any given point in the day.
Our major criticism with S Health is there’s no obvious way to enter activity you’ve taken part in that isn’t recorded on the smartphone’s pedometer. Samsung’s workaround is to get you to input how much exercise you do in an average week, but that’s far from ideal.
Samsung Galaxy Alpha review: specifications and performance
The hardware in the Galaxy Alpha is a mixed bag, with the smartphone over-performing in many areas and missing out in others.
Where the Alpha excels is with its eight-core Exynos 5 5430 processor (featuring a quad-core 1.8GHz Cortex-A15 and a lower power quad-core 1.3GHz Cortex-A7) coupled with an ample 2GB of RAM. This combination drives the Alpha swiftly through menial tasks such as flicking around menus and homescreens.
It’s rapid in the benchmarks, too. It scored 470ms in the SunSpider Java browser benchmark, not far behind the Samsung Galaxy S5 on 391ms and the iPhone 6 on 347ms. The Geekbench 3 benchmark also saw the Alpha perform superbly, with a lofty single-core score of 947, and a multi-core score of 3,194 – the fastest we’ve seen. To put this score into context, the iPhone 6 scored 1,631 in the single-core test and 2,913 in the multi-core test, and the S5 scored 957 and 2,960.
The Samsung Galaxy Alpha’s strongest performance came in our final benchmark – the GFXBench T-Rex HD onscreen test – where it posted an impressive score of 41fps, topped only by the iPhone 6 Plus (53) and iPhone 6 (51). This is principally due to its lower-resolution, 720 x 1,280 display.
The device comes with 32GB of internal storage, which is about average for a smartphone in this price range, and represents neither good nor bad value. However, you may be surprised to discover that, although the rear panel can be snapped off and the battery removed, there’s no microSD slot.
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Samsung Galaxy Alpha review: camera
The 12-megapixel rear-facing camera is a solid addition to this high-end phone, but once again Samsung is guilty of holding back; it simply isn’t as good as the 16-megapixel snapper in the S5.
The main camera is still a more than capable shooter, however, performing well in all of our tests (see below). The clarity of images taken in both low-light and natural-light scenes are among the best of any smartphone on the market in 2014, with only the Nokia Lumia 1020, Galaxy S5 and iPhone 6’s cameras outclassing the clarity of its images.
The camera interface is also new and improved, with modes and settings easy to find and use. There’s no physical button to launch the camera, which slows you down a bit, but once you’re in the app focusing and capturing photographs is a speedy affair. Features such as fast burst, panorama, beauty mode and virtual tour mode are straightforward to use, and they mostly work reasonably well. We’re not sure about beauty mode, however; it made this reviewer look (even more) weird.
On the front is a discreet 2-megapixel camera that we found delivered plenty enough clarity for Skype calls and selfies. Video capture is excellent, too, giving you the ability to record in full 4K plus the ability to shoot in slow motion at 1/8 speed (that’s 240fps – the same as the iPhone 6).
Samsung Galaxy Alpha review: battery performance
The 1,860mAh battery in this smartphone is pretty small for a top-end smartphone, and this was reflected in our tests. It gained 2hrs 42mins in the GFXBench battery test, which may sound impressive, but bear in mind that Samsung caps the frame rate in this test. While it gained 41fps in the performance test, the battery test – which uses the same scene – ran at only 24fps. We expect in normal gaming that the battery will last for a considerably shorter length of time.
In our video-rundown test – where we manually set the screen brightness to 120cd/m2 and activate flight mode – the Alpha scored poorly, using 9% of its capacity per hour; the Samsung Galaxy S5, Sony Xperia Z2 and HTC One (M8) used between 5.2% and 6.5%.
Samsung Galaxy Alpha review: verdict
We like the Samsung Galaxy Alpha. It’s fast, it’s the best-looking Android device we’ve come across, it feels great in your hand. It also comes with some worthwhile features, which is an area that Samsung has received criticism for in the past.
What’s disappointing is that, at £549, it’s Samsung’s most expensive smartphone, and yet in many respects it’s inferior to the cheaper Samsung Galaxy S5: the camera isn’t as good, the screen is smaller, there’s no microSD slot nor waterproofing, and battery life is disappointing. If you’re willing to sacrifice all that in return for a smartphone that’s twice as stylish, you should definitely consider the Alpha, but we can’t help being a tad disappointed.
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|Cheapest price on contract||Free|
|Contract monthly charge||£31.00|
|Contract period||24 months|
|Dimensions||66 x 6.7 x 132mm (WDH)|
|Camera megapixel rating||12.0mp|
|Resolution||720 x 1280|
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