Is it possible to create something new simply by adding a few key changes to what is already a proven winning formula? We have a feeling that this is the question that Samsung set out to answer when it came up with the idea for the Galaxy Alpha smartphone. It’s an Android handset unlike any other from Samsung’s past (in some ways), and yet it feels right at home in the company’s now-extensive product line. Allow us to tell you what it’s like to use it, and if it deserves its status as a new flagship product, in this Galaxy Alpha review.
The Galaxy Alpha was born out of necessity. Faced with slowing sales of its aging Galaxy smartphone line, Samsung had to take action. For the hugely successful Note series, the key differentiator was the large touchscreen display. For the Galaxy Alpha, Samsung decided to go in the opposite direction: they made the screen smaller, resulting in a much more portable phone. They go back to basics here, somewhat, and it’s actually kind of refreshing.
All metal everything — almost
The first thing we noticed upon seeing the Galaxy Alpha first-hand was its similarity to the Note 4 in terms of looks. It’s like a mini-Note 4, in fact, minus the integrated stylus and large screen, of course. The Galaxy Alpha uses a 4.7-inch AMOLED HD touchscreen on a body that measures 6.7mm thin. It’s not the thinnest phone that we’ve seen yet, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s still one sexy product.
Compared with most smartphones nowadays, the Galaxy Alpha can be deceptively small. At first you might even think that it can’t do as much as some older Samsung flagship models. But when you first pick it up, your perception of it might quickly change.
What we first realized when we finally started using it is how light it is in the hand. Samsung says it only weighs 115g, which is astonishingly light. We’ve seen bags of take-out fries that weigh heavier than that. The light weight definitely makes for easy one-handed usage.
Display and audio quality
The other big change in the Galaxy Alpha is the smaller display. If we’re not mistaken, this is the first time in a long time that Samsung has used a sub-5-inch screen on a phone that’s not intended to be a “mini” version of some other model.
The display quality here is excellent. Whether we were using the phone indoors or outdoors, colors looked vivid and the icons looked crisp on the HD-resolution screen. The brightness could have been better in some situations, especially when using the Galaxy Alpha under direct sunlight, but the overall performance is definitely acceptable.
For audio, the Galaxy Alpha offers a speaker and a 3.5mm headphone jack. You can also use it to beam audio wirelessly through either Bluetooth A2DP or NFC technology.
In terms of sound quality, the Galaxy Alpha passes the test for clarity and detail resolution. For loudness, not so much. But then that’s why you have the option to connect to external loudspeakers and standard headsets.
One thing we liked about this phone is the placement of the built-in speaker. It’s located at the bottom, right next to the micro USB port. So the speaker will remain unobstructed whether you place the phone down on its face or down on its back. This is a good thing for those who enjoy using the speakers to play music or even watch movies on the go.
Comms and wireless connectivity
When it comes to communications and wireless connectivity, the Galaxy Alpha is well-equipped to to compete with pretty much anything that’s out on the market right now. You name it, the Galaxy Alpha has got it. It supports both 3G/HSPA+ and 4G LTE data, plus it comes with a whole list of internal wireless antennas which include the aforementioned Bluetooth and NFC, GPS, and as you might have guessed, 802.11 b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi.
But there are some things that this phone lacks. For one thing, it doesn’t have a second SIM card slot. The Galaxy Alpha is single-SIM only, so if you’re currently using a dual-SIM phone, this is something worth remembering. And not only that, it only accepts nano SIM cards. So to use this phone, you can either spring for a new SIM like we did, or visit a shop and have your old SIM cut up to work on nano SIM card slots.
Another thing that the Galaxy Alpha lacks is a built-in microSD card slot. It does come with 32GB of internal memory, however, so there should be plenty of room for your files. Unless you plan on using your phone as a sort of external hard drive with large chunks of data, that is. Still, the lack of higher storage options can and will be problematic for some users.
Camera features and software extras
The cameras on Samsung’s Galaxy series phones have always been known to be exceptional. We’re happy to report that the one on the Galaxy Alpha doesn’t break the tradition.
Both the rear and front-facing cameras are extra light sensitive. We saw this immediately after launching the camera app for a selfie in a closed and not-so-well-lit room. As you can imagine, the camera performance is superb especially in well-lit environments.
Quick 12MP snap
After a bit of testing, we found that the rear camera had no problems with shooting regular 12-megapixel photos. So we tried the different camera modes onboard, and they all left us quite impressed.
If you ask us for our favorite feature, it’s a tie between dual camera mode and the slow-mo video capture. Both of these really show the power of the processor that quietly runs inside of this phone.
These sorts of extras, as you might call them, are scattered all over the menus. For the cameras, there are literally more than a dozen different options available for tweaking. And for the phone itself, you can pick and choose the settings options that you want simply by navigating the screen.
Android 4.4.4 KitKat runs as the default OS, so anyone who has ever used Android will feel right at home. TouchWiz may be running on top as a custom UI, but everything should be familiar to most users and intuitive enough even for first-time smartphone owners.
Battery and overall performance
Speaking of first-time owners, using the Galaxy Alpha is easy enough that you don’t actually need to read the user manual to get the hang of it. And even if you have used other Android phones before, using this one might make you feel like you’re entering a whole new world as far as hardware and software capabilities are concerned.
Not once did we ever encounter any freeze-ups or lag while using the Galaxy Alpha during our tests. It’s a mobile powerhouse through and through, and despite its small size, it really does have the ability to pack everything that you might need. It even has a built-in LED notification light near the front cam. That’s a feature that often goes missing even in more premium high-end models. Here, it’s a welcome addition.
And the battery life on the Galaxy Alpha is like icing on a cake; it consistently lasted us more than two days of heavy usage before needing a recharge. We would switch between 4G LTE and Wi-Fi at times, but we would always be online. And the Galaxy Alpha happily kept chugging along right there with us through our daily grind.
So what’s our verdict on this phone? If Samsung were in the business of selling coffee, then we would think of the Galaxy Alpha as a much-needed espresso shot, something extra that makes things overall just a little bit more special.
It offers a much-needed change in the long-running Galaxy smartphone line, in that it finally follows the design suggestions of long-time Samsung fans. They switched out the plastic for metal where it counts, made the screen smaller to appeal to more prospective customers (not just women), and they kept the performance from the bigger models despite the reduction in size.
All in all, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha is a winner. But with the likes of the iPhone 6, Xperia Z3, and vastly more affordable offerings from local outfits, there are questions of whether it may have arrived a bit too late in the game. We personally like it, but the market will have to speak for itself.