Imagine what Samsung could do, if it tried.
Earlier this year, we concluded our Galaxy S5 review on a note of optimism about the awesome potential of a well designed Samsung smartphone. It turns out that Samsung was already working on the thing we were asking for, which launches on AT&T today under the title of Galaxy Alpha.
Instead of tacky chrome accents on cheap plastic, the Alpha has a real metal frame. It looks an awful lot like a smaller and thinner Galaxy S5 — because that's what it is — but the way that it feels is dramatically different. I first laid my hands on the Galaxy Alpha at IFA earlier this month and was immediately hooked by its svelte and subtle design. For the first time ever, I was drawn to a Samsung phone because of its design, not in spite of it. The last member of Samsung's expansive smartphone family to even come close to such status was the Galaxy S II, which came out more than three years ago. The Alpha is, therefore, aptly named as the inaugurator of what may be a brave new era for Samsung.
Samsung has built its throne as king of Android devices on a foundation of high specs and low prices. The Galaxy Alpha doesn't fit neatly into that equation, as it's priced like a full flagship phone — costing $199.99 with an AT&T contract in the US — while missing a couple of the major selling points of such devices. As good as last year's Moto X was, Motorola wasn't able to convince everyone that a 4.7-inch 720p display was adequate for their needs, so it upgraded its 2014 model to a larger screen with higher resolution. Samsung's going the opposite way with the Alpha, shrinking most of the guts of the Galaxy S5 into the smaller footprint of a 4.7-inch body. Not everything from the S5 spec sheet makes this transition successfully, as the microSD card slot and infrared remote are lost, the camera is downgraded to a 12-megapixel sensor, and the battery is cut down to 1,860mAh. Still, the new Galaxy phone has a quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage, which is enough to compete with other flagship phones. What Samsung's hoping will make the deciding difference is that hot new design.
Samsung is doing an HTC: selling a phone for its looks more than its specs
If you've been waiting to see Samsung's response to HTC's One M7, 2013's most-praised Android phone design, the Galaxy Alpha is your answer. The chamfers around the metal edges are identical on both handsets, and they also share the same screen size. Samsung's Alpha is leaner, with less bezel around the display and a 20 percent lighter case, but it also lacks the unibody aluminum back that is now the signature of HTC devices. Instead, Samsung retains the subtly textured soft plastic cover of the S5, which I happen to prefer. it's an odd but important distinction: I love the structural rigidity and classic aesthetic that metal adds to a phone's frame, but am not enamored with the idea of encasing the whole thing in it. Plastic's friendlier to the palm and doesn't grow cold and unwelcoming on frosty mornings. The Alpha's rear surface is also matte and doesn't pick up fingerprints easily, plus the choice of plastic allows for the cover to be removable, giving you access to swap the battery.
The Galaxy Alpha is an all-around ergonomic upgrade over the Galaxy S5. Being thinner doesn't make any tangible difference to me, but the smaller screen size absolutely does. The 5.1-inch S5 was always that tiny bit too large to comfortably operate with one hand and the Galaxy Alpha corrects that entirely. The new metal power key and volume rocker on the Alpha are also a big improvement, being perfectly tactile and responsive. Details matter, and for once, Samsung is paying sincere attention to them and getting them right.
By virtue of its price and appearance, the Galaxy Alpha will inevitably be compared to Apple's iPhone. Many will see it as an iPhone 5S scaled up to a 4.7-inch size, which is a fair analogy to make, though Apple already has its alternative in the new and more refined iPhone 6. Samsung desperately wants to be part of the design conversation, but it still has some catching up to do when its latest phone is more comparable to the handsets of last year than today.
Sony's latest phones not only get the white balance right, they also give you the option to customize that setting to your needs. Samsung offers a variety of screen color modes, but none of them neutralize the bluish shift in tone. It's not an absolute tragedy, and it's something I didn't immediately notice in my first time using the Galaxy Alpha, but this kind of improper color reproduction starts to wear on you over time. Particularly if there's someone nearby with a true high-quality display on their phone. It's disappointing to see Samsung trip up on the display front, which is at least as important, if not more, as the physical design of the handset.
Other than the reduction in resolution, there isn't much to distinguish the Galaxy Alpha's camera from that used in the Galaxy S5. Focus is usually fast, though its reliability is undermined for me by the relatively slow shutter speed at which the camera tends to shoot. I found too many instances where either the motion of my hand or that of my subjects resulted in unattractive blurring in the image. More than anything, I want to be able to trust my smartphone camera and I can't really say that the Galaxy Alpha achieved that objective. The camera app isn't the fastest to load up, its animations aren't the most fluid, and its options grid is enormous but not terribly intuitive.
The Alpha is certainly capable of producing sharp and pleasing images, but you can say that about most modern smartphones, and the good cameras stand out for their consistency and versatility. When it comes to low-light situations, the Galaxy Alpha has no versatility: you either have to use the flash or forget about taking a useful photo. The camera struggles to attain proper focus when deprived of good lighting and generates soft and blurry images.
On the plus side, the Alpha's flash is strong and designed not to whitewash nearby subjects, so it's not completely useless in the dark. You just won't be able to capture the dimly lit mood shots that your friends with a better camera might. That's one of the reasons why I continue to favor the LG G2 as my daily driver phone: its optical image stabilization helps me get consistent shots without needing to prepare too much, and its good sensor takes care of the rest. At a time when LG and Apple are raising the bar even higher, Samsung is failing to reach the benchmarks set last year.
Samsung does offer an HDR mode that expands the Galaxy Alpha's rather limited dynamic range, and there are options to shoot 4K or slow-motion video. While the latter are nice to have, I'd have preferred to see more time spent on improving the quality of the actual video recording. Sony's Xperia Z3, for example, has dramatically better video stabilization. Testing it alongside the Galaxy Alpha, I found the Sony phone smoothly adapting to my footsteps while walking and shooting, whereas the Alpha would jump up and down in that familiar jittery manner that gives away the fact that you're using a smartphone camera. Honestly, if you can't advance the basic quality of the video in the way that Sony's trying to, there's no point in ever having 4K recording on your phone.
My immediate worry about the Galaxy Alpha was that its 1,860mAh battery would be insufficient to handle the strains of a proper smartphone's day on the job. Perhaps I was being too pessimistic, because the Alpha ended up consistently lasting through a day's use, though rarely with much left to spare. Most of my time with the Alpha has been spent with the phone idly collecting notifications and syncing services like Gmail and Twitter, but the couple of days where I used it extensively — including shooting photos and videos and navigating with Maps — it still held up from morning till night. That's a positive surprise given its comparatively small battery, but it doesn't exactly cast the Alpha as a leader among its peers. The Xperia Z3 Compact is slightly thicker but otherwise the same size and it pretty much doubles the Galaxy Alpha's battery life while also being significantly cheaper.
The Alpha's packed full of wireless radios, as is Samsung's wont, including NFC, GPS, Bluetooth, and multiple LTE bands. They all performed reliably during my time with the phone. Considering the thinness of this device, I'm also impressed by its integrated loudspeaker, which produces good, clear sound. I'm quite content listening to music from the Alpha even when I have alternative speakers or earphones around.
As to the actual speed of the Alpha in day-to-day use, it's very much a repeat of the Galaxy S5. It does most tasks competently and swiftly. With the maturation of Android and the standardization around Qualcomm's Snapdragon 801 processor this year, it's becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between flagship phones on speed alone. I'm never left feeling like the Alpha's processor or memory are holding me back or delaying anything unduly, though the same can't be said for Samsung's software.
The hardware won't hold you back, but the software will
The notifications window is encumbered with so many toggles, settings, and shortcuts that there's precious little room for the actual notifications. This is a bigger issue on the Alpha's more compact display than it is on the Galaxy S or Galaxy Note. I'm also growing tired of having to spend the first 10 percent of a smartphone's battery life on just disabling unnecessary cosmetic additions like Samsung's My Magazine news aggregator. What's wrong with just giving people a clean slate of Android to customize to their choosing?
As much effort and time as Samsung has poured into delivering a distinctly Samsung user experience on its Android devices, there's just nothing I see in the Alpha's software that makes me want to recommend it ahead of the likes of Motorola, HTC, or Sony. The onscreen keyboard has an extra row of numbers, but its predictive algorithms aren't great so I swapped it for Google's Keyboard. Yes, the one that tracks everything I type. Samsung could have at least saved me from giving Google yet more personal information.
Even the hardware additions that depend on software don't thrill me. I tried using the fingerprint sensor embedded in the home button as my unlocking mechanism. It works, but you need superhuman patience to keep using it. The sensor has to be swiped just the right way, resulting in a bunch of failed unlocks, and even when successful, there's an extra bit of delay before it lets you into your home screen (relative to a pattern unlock), so it ultimately just frustrated me into not using it.
Android is still my operating system of choice. I'm too much of a Gmail and Chrome addict to consider other platforms, and the moment the Galaxy Alpha was announced, I knew there'd be a handsome alternative to the incoming iPhone to help me resist the iOS urge. As my colleague Dan Seifert puts it, the Galaxy Alpha is a one-hand wonder. It's sized just right, and it's so light and tactile that it makes almost everything you do on it feel kind of joyful. The improvement in its construction and feel brought about by that simple metal frame cannot be overstated. Where there once was chrome, now there is class.
Samsung has corrected some major foibles from its past and engineered an impressively capable phone for such an ultra-thin, style-centric device. But the Alpha ultimately starts to feel like a cramped apartment: the battery and speaker may do more than one would expect from their size, but just making them bigger would also have made them better.
The issue for Samsung is how it'll convince people to spend their money on the Galaxy Alpha instead of some seriously compelling competition. In the US, the Alpha is going directly up against the iPhone 6, which is about as tough a fight as you can imagine until you look at its pricing in Europe. The Galaxy Alpha costs as much as the Xperia Z3, which has a better camera, display, and battery while also being waterproof. And then there's the Z3 Compact, which has all those things and costs less.
The Galaxy Alpha is an unusual device for Samsung that augurs well for the future. It combines most of the good things about the Galaxy S5 with the metallic allure of recent competitors from HTC and Apple. It's beautiful. Now Samsung needs to make sure that it's practical too.
Photography by Sean O'Kane