Samsung Galaxy Alpha full review
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Samsung hopes to appeal to the masses with its Galaxy Alpha smartphone, which is something of a cross between your typical Samsung Android phone and an iPhone. But can it appeal to the reluctant iPhone fan thinking of switching to Android? Also see: Best smartphones 2015 and Best Android phones 2015.
Samsung Galaxy Alpha review: The Samsung iPhone
Back in the summer of 2014 when the Galaxy Alpha was released it was accused of copying the then-current Apple flagship, the iPhone 5s. It's not difficult to see why. Also see: Samsung Galaxy Alpha vs iPhone 5s comparison.
If I were an iPhone diehard, I'd be pretty annoyed with Apple right now. I would have waited all year for a shiny new smartphone, and then Apple went ahead and unveiled the much bigger iPhone 6 and gigantic iPhone 6 Plus. And that really makes the iPhone 5s the only choice for those who prefer smaller phones - unless they are prepared to look elsewhere.
Android is more than a match for iOS these days, and Samsung is one of its biggest players. Its compact Galaxy Alpha presents the perfect compromise for those torn between iPhone and Android. It even uses a nano-SIM, easing that transition. With a sleek metal chassis and shiny bevelled edge that finally tackles a long history of plastic-build-quality criticism, the Galaxy Alpha follows an iPhone-esque premium design. This is the best-looking Samsung phone we've ever handled, and marks a turning point for the company: finally, it is placing build before specs. Also see: Samsung Galaxy Alpha vs Samsung Galaxy S5.
Samsung's giveaway plastic cover is still found at the rear, but that's not a bad thing when you consider that this makes it less fragile, plus it allows you to access the Galaxy Alpha's battery and swap in a spare. But it is a shame that, like Apple, Samsung didn't use the opportunity to add support for removable storage.
Also at the back is a heart-rate monitor, which you won't find on the iPhone. Both pack a fingerprint scanner for secure access.
Despite a larger iPhone 6-matching 4.7in screen over the iPhone 5s' 4in panel, there's very little difference in these phones' size and weight. The Samsung Galaxy Alpha is sized right in the middle of 5s and 6, a little bigger than the 5s but only 3g heavier and admirably thinner. In the hand it feels good. Better than good. And it's perfectly proportioned for one-handed use.
Both have HD screens, with the 326ppi iPhone boasting a pixel density only slightly higher than the Samsung's 312ppi. At this price we'd hope to see a full- or even quad-HD screen (think LG G3, now just £299), but HD works just fine for movies and games.
A key difference is found in the display technology they use: while the IPS tech employed by Apple tends to be sharper, brighter and with better viewing angles, Samsung's Super AMOLED reigns supreme on contrast and energy-efficiency, plus we quite like the more heavily saturated colours it produces.
Price is an important factor, too. Although the Galaxy Alpha's £529 RRP quoted by Samsung is £30 higher than the £499 32GB iPhone 5s, you can now pick up a SIM-free Samsung Galaxy Alpha from £342 at Amazon. That makes it almost £160 less expensive than the iPhone 5s, and the cheapest 'premium' phone we've seen.
As we'll discuss below, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha is also able to take on the iPhone 5s in raw performance, photography, connectivity and battery life. The deciding vote surely comes down to your preference of mobile operating system - iOS or Android - and that makes this Galaxy Alpha the perfect Android phone to tempt iPhone users thinking of making the switch. If the Galaxy Alpha ran iOS, one might even argue that Samsung can do iPhone better than Apple.
Samsung Galaxy Alpha review: Hardware & performance
It might look small and delicate, but the Samsung Galaxy Alpha packs a punch in the hardware department. It houses an octa-core (1.8GHz Cortex-A15 quad + 1.3GHz Cortex A-7 quad) processor, ARM Mali-T628 MP6 graphics and 2GB of RAM. Samsung has admittedly been accused of using benchmark boosters in the past, but this phone stormed our benchmarks and turned in some of the best scores we've seen. We'd suggest taking these benchmarks with a pinch of salt, yet the Alpha really does feel fast in use.
In Geekbench 3.0 multicore we recorded 3184 points, putting the Galaxy Alpha behind only the Google Nexus 6 and Samsung Galaxy Note 4, and miles ahead of the Apple competition.
More interesting was its SunSpider performance. The iPhones have always ruled this benchmark and, yes, they still do. But the Galaxy Alpha sits on the iPhone 5s' heels with its 438.9ms result, a better result than any other Android phone to date (in PC Advisor's testing experience).
Graphics performance is phenomenal. The Samsung Galaxy Alpha's 26fps in GFXBench 3.0 Manhattan matches that of the iPhone 6, tying the two in joint-first place. Its 31fps in T-Rex is beaten only by the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact, iPhone 5s, 6 and 6 Plus.
Compare these scores to the competition in our article What's the fastest smartphone 2015.
Samsung Galaxy Alpha review: Storage & connectivity
As we mentioned above, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha doesn't support storage expansion via microSD. That's a shame, since it's one of the things we love about Android phones. It does offer 32GB as standard, though. That'll be plenty for most users, and those who run low should look to the cloud.
The connectivity specs are strong, with the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi with 2x2 MIMO and Samsung's 4G LTE (Cat 6) and Wi-Fi pairing Download Booster technology, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and GPS. All the Galaxy Alpha lacks is an IR booster.
Samsung Galaxy Alpha review: Cameras
It doesn't sound very exciting for a premium smartphone, but the 12Mp camera built into the rear of the Samsung Galaxy Alpha supports 4K UHD video at 30fps and real-time HDR for use in tricky lighting, and it takes a decent picture. It's a miserable day in London, but you can see our test shot below.
You'll find the usual camera additions here, too - Beauty Face, Dual Camera, Panorama, Selective Focus, Shot & More and Virtual Tour.
At the front is a 2.1Mp camera that's all you need for video chat.
Samsung Galaxy Alpha review: Software
Samsung's Galaxy Alpha runs Android KitKat with Samsung's own TouchWiz software,. KitKat with TouchWiz is notably different from vanilla Android, but we think it's reasonably intuitive in use.
In the Settings menu you'll find TouchWiz most obviously different. Rather than a standard list you'll find rounded icons arranged into new categories such as Network connections, Connect and share, and Sound and display.
The drop-down Notifications bar has also been revamped by Samsung, offering shortcuts to S Finder and Quick connect, plus a few useful toggles for such things as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Expand the options on offer here and you'll find several unique to Samsung, including the aforementioned Download Booster, plus Multi window, Smart stay, Smart pause and Ultra power saving. Multi window is especially cool, letting you run two apps onscreen at once.
Samsung, as ever, preinstalls a lot of software, but in the Galaxy Alpha you are at least able to hide shortcuts to those in which you're not interested in the app tray. Some software is more useful than others, and much of it doubles up on what Google's own apps offer. S Voice is a key example, and we're not sure why you might use both S Voice and Google Now. You'll also find Samsung's own media-playback apps such as Music in addition to Play Music, plus access to a whole load more apps in the Galaxy Apps store, just in case you didn't find what you wanted in Google Play.
However, S Health is useful as a health- and activity tracker when paired with the Galaxy Alpha's heart-rate monitor, and also offers a pedometer. My Galaxy might also present you with some useful tutorials, offers, apps and articles that Samsung believes are relevant to you, too.
The Galaxy Alpha features Samsung's Magazine software, which is a content aggregator very much like HTC's BlinkFeed. In fact, just like BlinkFeed it's a swipe to the left from the main home screen, and you can remove it if it's not to your taste.
We're big fans of Android, even with Samsung's meddling. If you're wondering how Android compares to the iPhone's iOS, however, read up on Android Lollipop vs iOS 8. The Samsung Galaxy Alpha will be updated to the latest Android OS within the next couple of months. (Also see: Android Lollipop release date - when will my phone get Lollipop?)
Samsung Galaxy Alpha review: Battery life
The Galaxy Alpha has a 1860mAh battery inside (a whole 50mAh higher in capacity than that of the iPhone 6) that, in our experience, you'll likely need to charge every night. However, the Ultra Power Saving mode introduced with the Samsung Galaxy S5, which can significantly prolong the last little bit of juice by turning off inessential functions and entering a greyscale screen mode, is also present.
Samsung Galaxy Alpha: Specs
- 4.7in HD (1280x720, 312ppi) Super AMOLED display
- Android 4.4.4 KitKat
- Samsung Exynos 5430 octa-core (1.8GHz Cortex-A15 quad + 1.3GHz Cortex-A7 quad) processor
- 2GB RAM
- 32GB storage (no microSD support)
- 4G LTE Cat 6
- 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi with 2x2 MIMO and Download Booster
- Bluetooth 4.0
- USB 2.0
- 12Mp rear camera, supports 4K UHD video at 30fps
- 2.1Mp front camera
- fingerprint scanner
- heart-rate monitor
- 1860mAh battery with Ultra Power Saving mode