The Galaxy Alpha is the most beautiful Samsung device I've ever handled. It's the very first device to take advantage of the company's brand-new design language, which features polished aluminum sides, chamfered edges, a thin profile and a polycarbonate (plastic) back; the same design is used on the Galaxy Note 4 and Galaxy Note Edge (and arguably, the iPhone 5/5s and last year's HTC One), but the Alpha is the first to actually make it off the production line. It's simple, yet elegant; minimal, yet profuse. Featuring a 4.7-inch frame and 6.7mm thickness, the Alpha is more than sufficiently sleek and svelte.
Thanks to its slim, compact frame, I had absolutely no problem hanging onto the Alpha. Not only can I wrap my hand around the whole thing, but also its straight sides offer my fingers plenty of space to grip. It's also incredibly light, weighing 4.06 ounces (115g); that's half an ounce lighter than the iPhone 6. In fact, it almost feels like it isn't substantial enough; in my palms, I'm often reminded of a dummy phone -- fake versions of the real thing that manufacturers send to retail stores.
I'd be tempted to think of the Galaxy Alpha as a GS5 mini, if the name weren't already taken; in many respects, it's a smaller version of Samsung's current 5.1-inch flagship smartphone. It packs the same Snapdragon 801 chipset (though an Exynos option is also available in certain markets), so it should be similarly powerful, and it also comes with a fingerprint scanner, heart rate monitor and Samsung's TouchWiz UI. But while the Alpha easily beats the GS5 in style (while matching it in oomph), the rest of the spec sheet isn't as impressive. It's not waterproof; it lacks a microSD slot; the battery is smaller; it uses a lower-res camera; and it doesn't come with an IR blaster. It also features a lower-res 720p Super AMOLED display.
Since it's not designed to simply be a miniature GS5, these omissions theoretically shouldn't be a big issue. It still packs plenty of a punch, after all, and even the 720p display is considered top-of-the-line for similarly sized devices. (Also, with smaller phones, manufacturers don't have as much space to cram in extra components.) The problem is that you're paying a premium price for the premium look; you can get the Alpha on AT&T in the US for $200 on-contract, or $613 with no contract attached. This is the same on-contract price as the GS5, and only $37 cheaper at full retail. To be fair, AT&T's Galaxy S5 only comes with 16GB internal storage, whereas the Alpha gets 32GB, so that explains some of the difference. Even so, the GS5 at least has a microSD slot for expandable memory.
What's even weirder is that while the Alpha doesn't come with any waterproofing or water-resistance of any kind, iFixit did a teardown of the phone and discovered that it comes with many of the gaskets and other internal parts necessary for keeping water out. In other words, Samsung didn't finish what it started.
The bottom edge of the device houses a micro-USB 2.0 connector -- Samsung's moved away from the unsightly 3.0 ports that take up extra room -- along with a speaker grille and mic. On the left is a volume rocker, which appears to have received the same amount of attention to design as the rest of the phone. There's a 3.5mm headphone jack on top and a power button on the right. Additionally, the top and bottom of the phone feature a pair of antenna stripes, which are common on metal phones because they provide a place to send and receive cellular and wireless signals.
The Alpha also comes with a removable back cover with a textured polycarbonate back that's similar to what you'll find on the Galaxy S5. On the Alpha, however, the dimples are much tinier and the matte surface doesn't feel as slick; the Alpha definitely offers more friction. There's a 12-megapixel camera in the top-center, and since the module is thicker than the phone itself, there's a hump to make the transition between the camera and back cover seem a bit more gradual. (One of my biggest issues with the iPhone 6's design is that the camera abruptly sticks out from the rest of the frame.) The LED flash and heart rate monitor are to the camera's left, arranged in a vertical fashion, and the logos include just the AT&T globe near the top and the phone's name near the bottom. Underneath the back cover, you'll find a removable 1,860mAh battery and nano-SIM slot.
The new location of the heart rate monitor works out okay if you hold the phone in your right hand, but it can be troublesome if you prefer your left; the camera hump gets in the way, and I had to keep looking at my finger to make sure it was in the right place. Which brings me to another point: The Galaxy S5's sensor was placed at the bottom of a cavity, while the Alpha's version is nearly flush with the rest of the back. This makes it more difficult to find the sensor without peeking around the phone to make sure I'm actually in the right spot.
An aluminum frame comes with trade-offs. Sure, it looks great, feels robust and has an aura of high quality, but as I saw with the iPhone 6, the material isn't immune to blemishes; after just a few days, I started seeing scratches and even a couple dings along the chamfered edges. This means that how it looks after a year of use will depend on how you treat it. If it's constantly rubbing up against other hard materials, it's not going to fare well.
As mentioned earlier, the Alpha has a 4.7-inch 720p Super AMOLED panel. On paper, this doesn't sound very good since many new flagships have Quad HD displays. For a handset of its size, however, 720p is still acceptable: The first Moto X was of the same quality. Ditto for the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact, which is one-tenth of an inch smaller. The iPhone 6, meanwhile, is slightly better at 1,334 x 750 (326 pixels per inch). With the Alpha, you'll get a pixel density of 312 ppi, which is still respectable. Of course, the Super AMOLED panel ensures that colors are more saturated than most IPS options, and the viewing angles are simply average and nothing special. If you're looking for a compact phone, the display will neither make nor break the decision for you -- it's perfectly fine, as long as you don't mind some slightly inaccurate colors.
Admittedly, the software section is going to be as small as the device itself, since there's very little to differentiate it from the Galaxy S5. The variance in screen size doesn't impact the user experience, nor does it mean you'll enjoy fewer features. The Alpha uses TouchWiz layered on top of Android 4.4.4 KitKat, which is still technically the latest consumer-facing version of Google's mobile OS (it'll soon be replaced by Android L, but Samsung's lineup should get the new update not too long after it becomes publicly available to the masses).
This version of TouchWiz is what you'd expect: It's consistent with every other version of TouchWiz. The UI is exactly the same as on the Galaxy S5, with a vast notification panel, bubbly settings menu and suite of preinstalled Google and Samsung apps. There's also My Magazine, which is a feature that's been on several Galaxy devices over the last two years. (You can also remove it, if you don't want to use it.) It's essentially an extra home screen panel that provides real-time news and social feeds, and looks a lot like Flipboard and HTC's BlinkFeed. Multi Window is also present, so you can still view two apps at once in a split-screen mode, despite having such a small screen. You'll also get Air View, which lets you check out extra details about calendar appointments and larger thumbnails for pictures and videos just by hovering your finger over the display.
Lastly, you'll get other common Samsung features like Easy mode, Blocking mode and Private mode (the latter of which hides and secures sensitive information so your random friends won't find it), as well as Smart stay and the ever-present toolbox of customized app shortcuts that continuously floats on top of the screen.
The Alpha is thinner than the GS5, which means the camera module isn't quite as large. Instead of a 16-megapixel sensor, you'll get a 12MP shooter on the back with an aperture of f/2.2 and focal length of 4.8mm (the same as on the GS5). So, don't expect a radically different imaging experience here. The user interface hasn't changed, either: Separate shutter buttons for stills and video sit alongside the mode-selection button and gallery link, and settings and shortcuts reside on the opposite sidebar. You get the same default modes here as you do on the GS5 -- the usual Panorama, Dual Camera, Beauty Face and Shot & more modes -- and you can download extra modes, like Animated Photo (add animation to your pictures), Surround Shot (Samsung's version of Photo Sphere), Sports, and Sound & shot (audio accompanies the image). The GS5 gets an extra mode for sequence shots, while the Alpha lets you choose which modes actually show up in your menu -- if you only use one or two, you can get rid of the extra clutter.
The settings here are identical as well. HDR, selective focus (in which you can choose to focus on the foreground, background or both), ISO (up to 800), audio zoom and plenty of effects are featured, although there's no way to manually change white balance, exposure or shutter speed.
Just like on the GS5, the Alpha has multiple resolution options. Whichever you choose will have an impact on the aspect ratio. If you want the highest resolution possible, you're going to have to settle for 16:9 (widescreen), while the best standard 4:3 shots you can get will come out at eight megapixels.
The camera sports Samsung's ISOCELL tech, which I detailed in my GS5 review. In short, it's designed to improve sharpness and deliver better low-light performance and more accurate colors. On the GS5, I noted that performance was indeed better, albeit slightly, and I got nearly the same kind of results from the Alpha. In fact, aside from the difference in resolution (and thus, fewer details and less leeway for digital zoom), the Alpha's images were very similar to ones I took with the flagship. It does well in daylight and produces realistic colors, and is overall a reliable camera, but it's not very good at taking pictures of moving things. I had a difficult time snapping shots of cars or people without blurring.
It's also not very good in low-light situations, but this is nothing new for Samsung phones -- the company's struggled with this for a long time, and ISOCELL is designed to make it better. Sadly, there's been no improvement here from the GS5; on the contrary, it's a bit worse. Even when my night shots turned out (I say "when" since quite a few were hopelessly dark), they were noisy, lacking in sharpness and not worth sharing with friends or family. I'm not saying it's impossible to get a solid low-light shot, but it's not as easy as it should be. (Click here for a gallery of all my sample shots.)
Performance and battery life
The US version of the Alpha uses the same Snapdragon 801 chipset as the one found on the GS5, which is comprised of a quad-core 2.5GHz Krait 400 CPU, Adreno 330 GPU and 2GB of RAM. Before I began testing the device, I expected to see the same kind of performance that I've enjoyed on its big brother. Sure enough, I wasn't disappointed: Most apps loaded up quickly, and games like Asphalt 8 and Beach Buggy Racing ran smoothly. I did notice the occasional frame skip, but this was the exception, not the rule. When you look at the benchmarks, it's clear there's very little difference between the two in terms of overall performance.
The Alpha also has a small 1,860mAh battery, which was my primary concern going into the review. Could it handle my everyday demands and still get me through the day? After all, if I can't go a full day without worrying about finding an outlet before I can get home, it's not worth using as my daily driver -- especially when plenty of other devices are up to the task. The Alpha barely makes it to the end of the day with moderate usage; on heavier days when I'm streaming music, reading e-books, taking pictures, staying social and keeping up with nonstop emails, I get around 13 hours.
With the Alpha, Samsung included the same fingerprint sensor that it used on the GS5, and it requires the same swipe-down action. Its performance on the flagship was mediocre at best -- it often took me multiple swipes to get the phone to recognize my prints, and was even worse when I tried to do it at an angle. Unfortunately, I only saw minor improvements here, despite the fact that Samsung has had six months to improve the sensor and its integration with software. Admittedly, it's a little better when I swipe from different angles, but it still takes multiple attempts even when my fingers and thumbs are straight on. There's certainly some practice involved, and it does get better over time as you learn the sensor's quirks (you have to do it at a certain speed, and you have to make sure you've covered the sensor with the right parts of your finger).
When making phone calls, I had no trouble hearing the other end of the line, but the external speaker didn't fare well. I pitted the Alpha against BoomSound on the HTC One M8, which produced a much louder and fuller audio performance; I could hear more bass and mids on HTC's flagship than I could on the Alpha. The GS5 was also slightly louder, though the difference between the two was marginal -- the audio just wasn't impressive on either Galaxy.
Cellular connectivity will vary by market and operator. The AT&T model I reviewed comes with nine-band LTE support (for bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 12, 17 and 29), tri-band HSPA+ (850/1900/2100) and quad-band GSM/EDGE. You'll also get NFC, DLNA, WiFi Direct, Bluetooth 4.0+LE and dual-band 802.11ac support (along with a/b/g/n as well).
It wasn't long ago that most phone makers used 4.7-inch screens on their flagships, but now any top-of-the-line phone going smaller than five inches is just unthinkable -- unless, of course, you're Apple. For that reason, it's great to see Samsung come out with a premium-looking device whose specs aren't too far removed from the same-sized iPhone 6, which is available in 16GB for $200 on-contract and $650 off. (If you're looking for extra storage space, the Alpha tops the iPhone at the same price point.)
But these two phones aren't the only options in the sub-5-inch space. The Sony Xperia Z3 Compact is a 4.6-inch 720p handset that features many of the same specs as its bigger flagship brother, and actually bests the Alpha in pixel density, battery, camera resolution and external storage capacity. As of this writing, the phone isn't available in the US, so it's only an option for our readers in Europe and Asia -- that is, unless you choose to go through online importers. You'll find that the Z3 Compact is a good deal cheaper than the Alpha: On Expansys, the Z3 Compact goes for £420 ($530), while the Alpha is available for £515 ($650). Despite the Alpha's great looks, it's difficult to justify it over the Compact.
As beautiful as the Galaxy Alpha may be, its price leads to its ultimate downfall. The only reason you'd want to pick this over the Galaxy S5, which is available for a similar price, is that you prefer a smaller size or more solid build. But even then, this design isn't a one-and-done; you'll be able to get the same fit and finish on the Note 4 and Note Edge (albeit with larger screens). Furthermore, it's not the best sub-5-inch Android device on the market, thanks to the Sony Z3 Compact, which comes with better battery life, camera and external storage.
More important is what this new design direction means to Samsung's future. Even though the aluminum build isn't perfect, Samsung's latest smartphones are the best-looking handsets the manufacturer has produced in years. For a company suffering from slowing sales and looking for new ways to compete with the iPhone, devices like the Alpha are essential. This makes it all the more unfortunate that the fantastic design is one of few things that helps it stand out from the crowd. On the upside, though, this is just the beginning; more good-looking Samsung phones are on the way.