Technology obsession can border on the pornographic. Extreme close-ups capture every detail, gush over every curve. People describe soulless bits of plastic and metal as "attractive" and "stunning." (We draw the line at "sexy.") For a premium smartphone to make it in this vain consumer world, it needs to look the part. That's what Samsung's Galaxy Alpha is all about.
Arriving exclusively on AT&T for $200, the same price as the company's flagship Galaxy S5, the new 4.7-inch Galaxy Alpha doesn't try to cram all the world's best specs under its hood. It's definitely high-end, but it's more about building a good-looking phone that easily fits your hands and pockets. Wrapped in an aluminum frame with chamfered edges instead of Samsung's traditional plastics, the Alpha is Samsung's attempt to finally join the "metal means premium" world and hang tough with the iPhone.
If you ask me, it's the best looking smartphone Samsung has ever made. But it's not enough to make me want to buy one.
Aluminum frame, chamfered edges, a thin chassis, rounded 90-degree corners with tiny breaks for the antennas. Sound familiar? Many have charged Samsung with deliberately trying to copy the Apple iPhone's design, and the Alpha looks more like an iPhone than ever. But crucially, it looks like an iPhone 5, not the new iPhone 6. Did Samsung skate to where the puck was instead of where it was going to to be?
But it's hard for me to complain about who plagiarized who when I'm actually holding the thing. Combining its thin design and re-imagined trim, this is the most comfortable Samsung smartphone I've ever held. For one, it's incredibly light. Compared to the iPhone 5, which actually received complaints for how light it was, the Galaxy Alpha is only 3 grams heavier at 4.06 oz, yet it comes with a larger 4.7-inch screen. It's like Samsung took a rolling pin to the iPhone 5's chassis. For me, the size is a perfect fit: my thumb's able to reach all corners of the screen one-handed.
Still, I'm not a fan of the volume rocker's location. In my dominant right hand, I had to really reach for the button anytime I wanted to adjust the volume, especially if I was in need of more decibels. If you use your phone with your left hand, though, your thumb will naturally fall on the keys.
If you do care about how the Galaxy Alpha stacks up to the new iPhone 6 — which you very much might if you're shopping for a smaller phone — they're both about the same size now! Both have 4.7-inch screens, though the iPhone 6 stretches a bit taller because of the room needed for its circular home button. Both are very thin, though the Galaxy Alpha's a practically imperceptible 0.2mm slimmer. And both have slightly protruding cameras, though I couldn't care less.
At the $200 base price, the Alpha wins out on the storage front with 32GB compared to the iPhone 6's 16GB, but you're stuck with that amount: though you can buy a higher-capacity iPhone or stick a microSD card into your Galaxy S5, the Alpha doesn't have a microSD slot. There is indeed a removable back so you can swap out the 1860mAh battery, though, and that stippled back cover is less egregious than Samsung's previous Band-Aid look. Dare I say, it's actually elegant.
For a week, I used the Samsung Galaxy Alpha as my main smartphone, only switching to my Nexus 5 for the occasional text. And every time I was forced to reach for my year-old Google phone, I somehow found it bulky and awkward even though I've never felt that way before. You know how after a bit of weight training, running and jumping and lifting suddenly doesn't seem so hard? This felt like just the opposite.
The ubiquitous reaction from anyone I handed this phone to was one of genuine surprise. "Wow, this is Samsung? It's so light."
Then they'd actually turn it on. Compared to the delightful 1080p (and up) panels you're probably used to in today's top-tier phones, the Alpha only has a 1280x720 Super AMOLED display, and it uses PenTile subpixel technology to boot. That boils down to a screen that's not as sharp and noticeably more bluish-green than other displays out there. On the S5 and other Galaxy devices with high pixel counts, it's not such a big deal, but with only 312 ppi the aquamarine tint is hard to ignore. This wasn't something I magically discovered when comparing to an iPhone, either: the very first time I booted it up, my reaction was an immediate "what… is going on here?"
The Galaxy Alpha runs Android 4.4.4 with its own TouchWiz UI. Much like the Galaxy S5, it comes with a PeeWee's Playhouse list of features including a heart rate sensor, fingerprint scanner, and the Samsung's S Voice digital assistant. All these features work pretty well. Sure, every once in a while the heart rate sensor wouldn't pick up anything, and as Google Now gets better and better S Voice feels like redundant software, but none of it is by any means terrible. Except for the TouchWiz news reader My Magazine that's annoyingly just a swipe away from your home screen. I still hate that thing. Luckily, you can turn it off.
One TouchWiz feature I've always enjoyed is the Multi Window mode which lets you run multiple apps in separate windows simultaneously. I've now realized that I really only like it on the Note 3's giant screen. On the 4.7-inch Alpha, its utility significantly diminishes. My favorite, and maybe only, use case I had for the feature was a pairing of Chrome and Google Maps. But I soon got tired of dealing with the dinky screen size.
At least the Alpha doesn't skimp on horsepower: in the United States, you'll find the same 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 chip and 2GB of RAM from the Galaxy S5. Despite TouchWiz being a mess of features and icons and redundant services, the experience was incredibly fluid. Not once did a I see a hiccup, stutter or delay.
When I reviewed the new Moto G, I loved the layout of its camera app. Everything was tucked out of the way, ready to be summoned at a moment's notice, but hidden so that you could actually see the photo you're taking. The Moto G had two softkey buttons to switch to the front facing lens or record video. That's it. The Galaxy Alpha has ten, including settings, HDR, selective focus, a "mode" key, a gallery button, a capture button, and on, and on, and on. It's a microcosm of what Samsung needs to fix across its entire TouchWiz user interface.
Once you're actually taking pictures, the Alpha's 12-megapixel shooter performs decently well. It's not quite a Galaxy S5 camera, but it impressed me with the amount of detail it captured in well-lit images and how it retained definition even after a healthy amount of pinch-and-zoom. In low light, though, I ran into noise and blur. Indoors turned out noisy and low-light shots were pretty dark and blurry without the Galaxy S5's optical image stabilization to assist. Still, I captured a couple shots in a shadowy club that I was pretty happy with, so it's not impossible to use.
The Galaxy Alpha may take design cues from Apple's last-gen handset, but Samsung refines them here. It's the meeting of design and comfort that many manufacturers tend to botch one way or another. If this is what we can expect from Samsung design going forward, I'm excited.
The performance also doesn't disappoint. It's fast and fluid.
An 1860 mAh battery may not sound large enough for a premium smartphone, but I still got a full day (8am to midnight) on a single charge. That includes 16 hours of phone calls, listening to music, checking notifications, taking pictures and video at said shadowy club, and streaming Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.
The screen is irksome. It's not horrendous: in fact, watching movies wasn't too bad at all, but the pixel density and color quality just don't compare to other smartphones you can buy for $200 on contract.
TouchWiz is still cluttered and the problem only gets worse on a 4.7-inch screen. Busy notification windows and tons of Samsung specific apps with varying usefulness make me long for stock Android.
No expandable storage. 32GB is more than you get with a similarly priced iPhone 6, but it'd be nice to have a 128GB microSD card riding shotgun when capturing videos in 4K.
Should You Buy It
If you're OS agnostic? No, buy an iPhone 6. iOS 8 is a much more pleasant experience than TouchWiz.
Do you basically want an iPhone running Android? The Alpha is about as close as you'll get. That's by no means a knock against Samsung's design chops. The company took what people loved about the iPhone 5's look, added some Samsung personality, and came up with a phone that looks great. But it's not the no-compromise mini flagship smartphone you're probably looking for.
Do you need more storage? You might consider the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Note 4, which starts with 32GB and has a microSD slot for 64GB more. If phablets aren't your thing, even the generously sized 5-inch HTC One (M8) will give you 64GB of goodness. There's also always the Galaxy S5 if you don't mind a return to a primarily plastic existence.
The Alpha feels like a precursor of what's coming, the internal concept before a much more robust "Beta" comes along. Whether that next phone is simply the Galaxy S6 or another phone altogether doesn't really matter. The Alpha holds undeniable promise, but it's promise that has yet to be realized.
Samsung Galaxy Alpha Specs:
- Network: AT&T
- OS: Android 4.4.4 with TouchWiz UI
- CPU: 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801
- Screen: 4.7-inch 1280x72o Super AMOLED (312 PPI)
- RAM: 2GB
- Storage: 32GB (no microSD expansion)
- Camera: 12MP rear / 2.1MP front
- Battery: 1860 mAh Li-Ion
- Dimensions: 5.21 x 2.58 x 0.26 inches
- Weight: 4.06 ounces
- Price: Starts at $200 with a two-year contract