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Samsung Galaxy Alpha REVIEW: Beauty Is Only Skin Deep

by Brandon Russell | October 12, 2014October 12, 2014 7:50 am PST

The easiest way to describe the Galaxy Alpha’s design is that it looks a bit like the iPhone 5s, and a bit like the Galaxy S5. That is to say, all of Samsung’s utilitarianism stuffed inside a body worthy of Cupertino’s runway. The chamfered edges shine and glimmer like a beautiful diamond, while the phone’s rear shell is soft and durable (and removable!).

For many Samsung fans, this is just what the doctor ordered. Despite the Korean company’s oblivious insistence on stuffing its devices with more unnecessary features, what a lot of people are really looking for is a premium design. The Galaxy Alpha fits that bill perfectly. Sure, we’ve seen the occasional gem from Samsung over the last several years. But the Alpha is a true natural beauty, something we hope will act as the blueprints for Samsung designs for years to come.

With devices like the Moto X (2014), LG G3, Galaxy S5 and iPhone 6 all on the market, the Galaxy Alpha is an interesting prospect, but ultimately a flawed one. Available exclusively through AT&T for $199 with a two-year contract, the device doesn’t come equipped with the latest specs, nor does it have any groundbreaking features you wouldn’t find on any number of Samsung devices. This time it’s all about the design, and the design only.

But is that alone enough to convince people to buy one?

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Samsung Galaxy Alpha Video Review

Design

Before things get out of hand, let’s address the elephant in the room. The Galaxy Alpha borrows a lot of design ideas from Apple’s iPhone 5/5s, plain and simple. Chamfered edges, rounded corners, aluminum frame and a wafer-thin design that’s barely the thickness of a pencil. The thing is flat-out gorgeous, reflecting light like expensive jewelry. That description alone might fool anyone into thinking you were talking about Apple’s last generation smartphone. But there are a few key differences.

For one, the rear shell of the Galaxy Alpha is textured and soft, more inviting; and, best of all, it can be removed, giving users the ability to swap out the battery at any time. That right there is a huge reason why the Galaxy Alpha design is superior. However, for reasons unknown, Samsung neglected to include microSD support, meaning Alpha owners only get access to 32GB of internal storage—that’s it; there aren’t any other options out there. That’s fine for most people, but this is Android (and Samsung!) we’re talking about. Puzzling.

But it’s hard to complain about something like that when you actually hold the device in your hand, because it feels pretty great. Equipped with a 4.7-inch screen, the Alpha comes in at 115 g (4.06 oz) and 6.7 mm thick—much smaller than, say, Apple’s new iPhone 6, which also sports a 4.7-inch screen. If you’re accustomed to big phones, the Alpha’s size will feel absurdly small; compared to the Galaxy S5, it feels almost like the Galaxy S5 sneezed the Alpha out. But it’s comfortable. And, in what’s become rare by the day for smartphones, it’s pretty easy to use with one hand.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha-6

Samsung Galaxy Alpha-9

Samsung Galaxy Alpha-5

Samsung Galaxy Alpha-10

The power button rests comfortably on the device’s right side, while the volume rocker (which is thin almost to a fault) is a little too high up for comfort. It’s not really an issue, per say, but considering the amount of detail that went into the rest of the phone, it becomes a minor annoyance. Lefties won’t have any issue with the placement, but it’s definitely awkward if you predominantly use devices in your right hand.

On back, the 12-megapixel camera protrude noticeably (it’s much more pronounced than what we saw on the iPhone 6), though for me it’s a non-issue. Beside that is a heart rate sensor, though I used that all of one time during the review period. Meanwhile, there’s a speaker on the bottom of the device, just beside the microUSB slot, and on the front is Samsung’s familiar oval home button. Also on front is a pretty atrocious Samsung logo, which does distract slightly from the device’s sleek design. Sometimes it’s the little touches that end up making the big difference.

For all the fuss over aluminum, I actually like the soft touch plastic; I liked it in the Moto X (2013), and I especially enjoyed the sandstone black OnePlus One. I’d choose it over the HTC One (M8), no question. On the blue model we received, the soft touch plastic repels greasy fingerprints yet it feels sturdy and high-end. Elegant even. It affixes snugly to the back, too, despite being able to snap off, which should give people peace of mind regarding its longevity.

Performance

Similar to the Galaxy S5, the Galaxy Alpha comes brimming with software tweaks, many of which you’ll probably just ignore. That heart rate sensor, for example, or Samsung’s built-in S Voice digital assistant. There’s also a toxic dosage of bloatware—some from Samsung, others from AT&T—that simply takes up space you could otherwise use for pictures, or movies or music. You’ll probably turn off Samsung’s My Magazine feature, too, which can be slow and clunky. If that’s a feature you actually enjoy, I’d recommend Flipboard as a better, more fluid alternative.

That’s pretty much the story with any recent Samsung device (phone and tablet). Where Android 4.4 is a natural beauty, Samsung tries to hide imperfections by adding layer on top of layer of makeup. Or, in this case, software. In the process, some of the experience can be a tad slow, though the Alpha is pretty slick and fluid the majority of the time. With a 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 processor and 2GB of RAM, it better not be slow, and for the most part it’s not.

However, start loading apps, flicking through screens, sending messages, and you’ll start to notice fatigue creep in. Like a lot of Samsung phones, the Galaxy Alpha can at times feel bogged down, unable to consistently hit that sixth gear. Slowdown is most apparent when using Samsung’s cool Multi-Window feature which, let’s face it, makes more sense on a Note or tablet. But the lag is only occasional. Even the iPhone, which regularly punches above its weight, experiences slowdown. Tiny pocket computers tend to do that from time to time.

Samsung Galaxy Alpha-14

That said, the battery does suffer a bit, and that might be because of Samsung’s skin—at 1860mAh, it’s not the largest battery out there, though you can just as easily swap it out thanks to the removable back; that’s something a lot of big flagships can’t do, including Apple’s most recent iPhone 6. I was able to get through a full day’s use, though I’d have to plug it in otherwise it’d be dead in the morning. I charge my devices at night regardless of battery performance, so honestly it wasn’t a big deal. Other users might find this department lacking.

It’s so frustrating that we have to gripe so hard on the software. In another manufacturer’s hands—ahem, Motorola—the Alpha would easily be one of the more compelling device’s available. In and of itself, Samsung’s device is incredibly beautiful, and in a world of big phones, it’s a great size that can easily be wielded with one hand. But, even though it’s plenty quick, TouchWiz is just a beautiful mess. Menus are cluttered, it’s not very attractive, and you get app overload. Sure, you can ignore a lot of Samsung’s services, but we’d rather see the company focus on just a few core tweaks, much like Motorola does with the Moto X. Yet, Samsung’s approach has always been more is better, so we don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.

Finally, the Alpha’s display is… not all that impressive. We’ve seen some terrific displays this year—on the HTC One (M8), Moto X, iPhone 6 Plus, and Galaxy S5, but those are all 1080p. That’s not to say 720p displays are inherently bad, as the Moto G and iPhone 6 have proved. But the Alpha’s screen produces a much cooler tone, and since it uses PenTile technology, it also looks a tad fuzzy. It’s actually one of the first things you notice. I don’t have the strongest eyesight, but it was something that immediately popped into my head.

Camera

If you’ve used one Samsung camera, you’ve used them all. In the Alpha, there are a generous amount of shooting modes, to say the least, and the UI is essentially a straight port of what we saw on the Galaxy S5. In theory, that sounds like a good idea, but just wait until you see the menus in action, and you’ll understand why it can be a problem, especially on the smaller display. This is another instance when Samsung could have shown restraint, but instead just threw every paint color onto the canvas at the same time.

The good news, however, is that the 12-megapixel camera generally takes some good photos. I mean, under the right conditions, you’d have a difficult time telling the difference between Samsung’s Galaxy S5, though in low-light the quality disparity is definitely noticeable. Samsung has offered some of the best mobile camera technology over the past few years, and the Alpha is no different. In well-lit situations, the level of detail is impressive; in low-light, it definitely struggles with blur and noise, but by no means is it the worst we’ve ever seen.

You also get the benefit of 4K video and slow-motion, though neither are particularly strong; the iPhone 6’s slo mo is far superior in execution and quality. One thing we did notice about the Alpha’s camera, though, is that it can be slow to focus, whether you’re shooting a photo or video. And, even worse, the shutter can be slow to react, which means your subject needs to be perfectly still for you to get optimum results. That certainly isn’t ideal for folks who want to shoot faster action.

BUY/WAIT

The Galaxy Alpha sports a beautiful exterior, but it’s ultimately undermined my Samsung’s unpleasant TouchWiz experience.

Although the Galaxy Alpha comes wrapped in a beautiful new package, there really isn’t any compelling reason to pick this over the Galaxy S5, or even the upcoming Galaxy Note 4. (I’m assuming only Samsung fans would be interested in this.) At $199 and exclusive to AT&T in the U.S., it isn’t better than than the Moto X, and certainly isn’t as strong as the LG G3 or the OnePlus One. But I’ll give the Alpha the benefit of the doubt. I look at this as being a litmus test for Samsung’s terrific new design language, and on that note the device is definitely a winner.

But there are some trade-offs here that might sour the experience for Android fans. For one, it comes with TouchWiz, though you can just as easily slap a new launcher on there. Two, it doesn’t have expandable storage, which people tend to make a big deal of (I could care less). If something like that is important to you, then you’ll definitely want to steer clear of the Alpha, which is only available with 32GB of storage. The back does snap off, however, allowing users to swap out the battery.

In a market of big devices, the Alpha is definitely one of the better options out there if you like your phones small, but it’s ultimately not something I’d recommend. Or, put it this way: if none of the other devices I’ve mentioned throughout this review interest you, then yes, sure, the Alpha is a great option. But are you really willing to sign a two-year contract at $199 for one?

If you’re really set on the Galaxy Alpha, I’d say wait to see what Samsung does next; the prospect of a Galaxy S6 with this design is certainly tantalizing. And if Samsung can shape up the software a bit with the imminent arrival of Android L, well, who wouldn’t want that? Ultimately, the Alpha doesn’t excel in any particular aspect, and although it does feature a good design, there’s much more potential here for something greater.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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