In English, the word “alpha” is used as a synonym for “first”, “start” or “beginning”. I hope Samsung have named their latest flagship with that in mind as they’ve recently launched the new Samsung Galaxy Alpha. In a change from tradition, the handset has arrived out of the blue just a few weeks before the iPhone. We typically don’t see Samsung flagship devices released at this time of year. The Alpha is seemingly designed to finally prove that Samsung can do design when it wants to. This is something it absolutely succeeds in, it’s one of the best looking Android phones ever made. I certainly hope that the alpha is the start of something new for Samsung, with looks that good; it’s certainly a promising one. It just needs a few slight tweaks to make it shine.
“Apple, take note”
This phone’s design really is a story of two halves. The side and the back. With the Alpha, Samsung finally proves it can create an attractive phone that’s also functional. With it’s (slightly too) chamfered edges; it provides a luxury feel that really makes you think you just paid a high end price for a high end phone. The design isn’t too far away from the iPhone 5s, but for me? It’s perfectly proportioned, it’s smaller than the iPhone 6 and it has the same screen size. Apple, take note. However, this raises the issue of the fingerprint scanner that Samsung have included this year. It simply doesn’t work well.
You have to swipe your finger down on the small home button and compared to the iPhone’s TouchID, it does not work as well. When you press the home button on an iPhone, by it’s circular nature it’s capturing most of your thumbprint. One tap, you’re done. The Alpha makes you swipe down on it as it’s a flat rectangular button. This means that on the Alpha, 8 times out of 10, it won’t be recognised as it’s just too awkward an angle, or you swiped too quickly or you held the phone wrong… Ideally, Samsung should have placed this reader on the back as that’s where your finger naturally rests when you hold the phone, but that might be something to look into for the Alpha 2. My advice? Keep to a strong passcode.
“It’s a Samsung phone that finally looks high-end; it just needs to feel it”
The big problem I have with this phone’s hardware? The back. It’s very hard to describe but the texture of the back panel looks and really does feel like a band-aid. It turns a device that looks like you want to hold it into a device that really doesn’t feel nice to hold in the hand. Trust me, you’ll want to pick up a replacement back panel for the phone. That being said, the phone’s fits well in the hand, everything on the screen is easily reachable and the buttons are perfectly placed. It’s a Samsung phone that finally looks high-end; it just needs to feel it.
The 12MP camera impressed providing perfectly good shots in most situations (bar low light).
Interestingly, the phone can record in 4K using it’s 12MP camera but given the screen is only 720p, you won’t really notice the difference. In fact, you’re not going to notice it on anything with 4K devices being incredibly rare in Ireland. It feels like a feature tacked on to get an upper hand in a spec-sheet, not something 99% of users will use.
The display is one of my favourite things about this phone. It’s the first thing everyone noticed when I showed the Alpha to them, it’s got a huge WOW factor about it. It’s pin sharp, looks great and really feels like a step up even from the Samsung Galaxy S5. It’s even more impressive considering the display is 720p.
The phone screams performance wise, inside is a quad-core Exynos / Snapdragon 801 processor (depending on where you buy the phone in the world) and 2GB RAM. In terms of real-world performance wise the phone blasts through most tasks, rendering was quick when scrolling and you can feel confident that the phone will be just as fast in a year’s time. It handled any game I threw at it absolutely fine, from a quick game of Flappy Bird to Asphalt Overdrive. Thanks to the ability to record video in 4K, storage has been bumped up to 32GB too. However, not everything gets an upgrade. The Samsung Galaxy S5’s camera has been downgraded from 16MP to 12MP, battery to 1,860mAh and the microSD card slot is gone in the Alpha.
“I just wish that Samsung wasn’t obsessed with thinness”
What made it hard for me to love this smartphone? Two things. Firstly? The battery. I didn’t use a cellular data connection (4G/3G/E) on the device, I only used it on Wifi and to be honest, even then it would struggle to make it through a day, even with normal usage. You will need a battery case or a few chargers handy to make it through the day. It’s the biggest downside to the device and I just wish that Samsung wasn’t obsessed with thinness as the phone really needs something bigger than it’s 1,860mAh battery. I don’t think the phone would suffer if it was that little bit bigger. That ultra power-saving mode really will come in useful.
Secondly (and predictably), TouchWiz, Samsung’s OS-layer on top of Android 4.4 KitCat. Given how many years TouchWiz has been around, you would think it would be a modern OS skin that makes a genuine difference between a Samsung device and any other Android phone. It should be that ‘sticky’ factor that locks you into a brand. I previously was the proud owner of a Samsung Galaxy S4, TouchWiz was quite unintuitive on that and it’s really not changed that much bar a lick of iOS7-themed paint on the Alpha. Menus are flatter, colours are brighter but those little-used features like smart stay or multi-window are still there. They don’t work that well, they take up space and bloat an otherwise fine piece of software.
“It’s the small details”
It brings two sets of app stores to the device (Samsung and Google Play) with two sets of accounts and it just provides an extra layer of complexity that you just don’t want to deal with. When you first get the device, you will spend at least two hours agreeing to terms of conditions in each Samsung app, updating, transferring data.. etc. Some apps are updated in the Samsung store, some in the Google Play Store. Samsung really need to take a leaf out of the iPhone’s book. A few setup screens and that’s it. In the next Alpha, I’d really love an option to get a Google Play edition; the Alpha would be a much easier sell without Touchwiz .
Ultimately, software wise, TouchWiz has been created to keep people using Samsung phones. It’s turned into something that complicates and uglifies an OS that was fine in the first place. I really hope Samsung can rethink what TouchWiz needs to be. Software needs to either solve a problem or fade into the background. It does neither on the alpha. It’s enough, day-to-day, to make you reconsider getting another Galaxy when you’re upgrading next. As Apple says, it’s the small details.
For those looking for a small Android flagship (a rarity these days) then this is probably a good choice for you, the only real competition for it is the Sony Z3 Compact. The Alpha is not the best at ‘anything’ it competes in but if you purchase one, you’ll find a solid 2014 smartphone, a classy look and a great screen. It’s a tough decision to make, do you go for the class and steel of the Alpha or the better camera, display, and battery of the cheaper Z3 Compact?
“A smaller S5 in a snazzier suit”
Ultimately, I think Samsung with this device didn’t set out to break the mould or move smartphones forward. It’s a smaller S5 in a snazzier suit. I think it’s the perfect phone for business; it’s not going to look out of place on the meeting room table. I loved the device’s screen, the health apps and features like heart rate monitoring is great, the phone is a really solid phone.
It’s the best-looking Samsung phone ever made, no doubt about it. It could be the best looking Android phone too. The only things that let this phone down are really easily fixable things and its frustrating that they are there, they really bring the experience down. I think next time Samsung will really crack it, strip Touchwiz away or make it really matter, improve the battery and the back and you’re really got your hands on a winner. With enough of an effort, it really could become an iPhone killer. I own an iPhone and if Samsung sorted out what was wrong with this phone, I’d find few reasons not to pick one up. Right now? The Alpha just feels like a compromise that only works for a few sadly.
The Samsung Galaxy Alpha is available now on contract (from free) and from €559 on pre-pay on Three, O2, Vodafone, Meteor and eMobile.
What I liked:
- Looks beautiful
- Perfect screen-size and proportioned body.
- Fantastic display
- Sharp Camera
What I disliked:
- It still doesn’t feel nice in the hand – the back feels cheap.
- TouchWiz still isn’t improving Android, it provides a layer of complexity that it doesn’t need.
- Time to get the phone set up is still too long.
- The fingerprint scanner.
What I’d recommend for the Samsung Galaxy Alpha 2:
- Make the battery better, even without cellular activated and using moderately, the phone was down to 60% by my afternoon coffee
- Strip away the many hints, sign-ups and T&Cs you have to complete when you try to use Samsung apps.
- Sell a Google Play Edition.
Additional image sources: Sammobile