Every year Samsung releases a flagship device and without fail there are always knocks about the construction and quality of the device. Personally, I've only handled three Galaxy devices (Galaxy S, S2, and S4) in my time and I can honestly say that I have enjoyed the feel of each of them. While they don't exude the decadence of an iPhone or HTC M8 that uses premium materials, I think for what they are, they are perfectly acceptable. But maybe that's just it, being acceptable is not good enough anymore when you are producing a top-tier flagship device.

In 2014, Samsung has finally heeded the criticism and released the Samsung Galaxy Alpha. Although this device doesn't perform a full about-face in terms of build quality, it does take a step in the right direction. The Galaxy Alpha shares some of the design cues from existing Samsung devices, but adds a very distinct chamfered metal bezel around the edge of the device.

But, where does this all fit in?

Samsung has been known to release experimental devices, and although these devices might not sell well, they pioneer a movement and begin conversations. The Galaxy Alpha might be another experiment, but the timing of the release coupled with the specifications of the device, coincide all too perfectly with the release of Apple's iPhone 6. While it's no secret that Apple and Samsung are fierce competitors, Samsung has never produced a handset that could physically compete with Apple's flagship. I don’t know if this is Samsung’s ultimate intention, but I do think that Samsung could be on to something with the Galaxy Alpha.

Specifications

  Samsung Galaxy Alpha 
Product Codes SM-G850A (AT&T version)
GSM Bands 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900
3G/4G Bands 850/1900/2100MHz / LTE on Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, and 17
Display 4.7"
1280 x 720
Super AMOLED HD Display
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 801
2.5GHz quad-core
RAM 2GB
Storage 32GB
Connectivity 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
Bluetooth 4.0 LE
GPS
NFC
Camera 12MP rear camera
2.1MP front-facing
4K / 1080p
Ports 3.5mm headphone jack, microUSB
Sensors Accelerometer
Magnetometer
Gyroscope
Light sensor
Proximity sensor
Heart rate sensor
Battery 1860mAh
Launch OS Android 4.4.4 with TouchWiz
Launch Date September 2014
Size & Weight 5.23x2.58x0.26in
4.03 ounces
Price $612.99 USD / $199.99 2-year contract
 

 

Design

The Galaxy Alpha is a lot of the old, mixed with a little bit of the new. The front of the device looks almost identical to the Note 3, but has a much smaller display coming in at 4.7-inches. The front has the typical array of ambient light and proximity sensors, along with a 2.1MP front-facing camera. In typical Samsung fashion there is a physical home button with a finger print scanner that is sandwiched between a capacitive 'recents' and 'back' button. 

The back of the device deviates from the quirky band-aid like divots of the Galaxy S5 in favor of a tight crosshatch design. The plastic panel has texture, similar to the feel of a soft touch plastic; but the back of the device is not completely flat, as there is a small hump for the camera. The rear camera on the device is a 12MP shooter that has a  single LED flash.

Next to the LED flash module, there is Samsung's reoccurring heart rate monitor. This nifty sensor can provide you with your heart rate by simply pressing your finger against it. We can assume that this will continue to be a trend until health stops being a hot topic, or they find a better way to integrate the sensor itself. 

Alas, none of this is new. If I had left out the specifications of the screen, camera, and glossed over some of the finer design details like the back cover, this could easily describe most, if not all, of Samsung's devices that have launched within the past two years. But what differentiates the Galaxy Alpha from the plethora of other Samsung devices, is the unique metal frame that surrounds the exterior of the device.

The chamfered metal bezel encases the plastic, and for the first time gives a Samsung device a premium feel. While we have seen this before, prior models used a faux metallic trim that emulated the look of metal. For years, it seems like people and critics have requested / demanded this in a Samsung device, as it was an evident pain point in the design when it came to Samsung owners and reviewers alike.

So now that this is finally here, how much does it impact the overall experience or feel of the device? In reality, it adds very little. Again, I had no issues with previous iterations of Galaxy and Note devices. By Samsung adding a metal trim to this device, they have only dipped their toes in the water. While it may look nice and feel good, it's very subtle. 

That being said, I do like it and I think this is only the start of where Samsung could be headed in the near future. While I don’t think we will see a fully metallic premium version of the Galaxy or Note series anytime soon, I do think that with the proper design and precision crafting, Samsung could create a handset that is a genuine rival to other premium handsets from the likes of HTC and Apple.

In daily use, I found that the device would almost disappear when in my pocket. Even after using it for several days, I still found myself double checking my pockets to make sure the device was still there. What adds to this effect is the Galaxy Alpha's ridiculously low weight, measuring in at 4.03 ounces or 114 grams. The device is also extremely thin measuring in at 6.6mm. 

Due to its size, the ergonomics of the device are superb. The button positioning is excellent with power and volume buttons being able to be reached fairly easily. Samsung is not deviating too much from the standard formula, and also makes the battery accessible via a removable back cover. The cover easily peels off and is firm when it is returned to its enclosed position.

However, the cover itself is flimsy; once the battery cover is removed, there are two things that will become apparent with the Galaxy Alpha: One is the absence of Samsung's traditional inclusion of a microSD slot. Although Samsung has included it on almost every Galaxy and Note device for the past couple of years, on the Alpha it is absent. Instead, Samsung has opted to include 32GB of built-in storage memory, which is still a fairly good amount. Personally I think this is the sweet spot for devices, but those that take a large amount of 4K video or pictures might find the absence of the memory slot a little unnerving.

The second thing that you will notice is the change from a microSIM to a nanoSIM. While this isn’t a major issue, if you intend to switch from device to device, you will require a SIM adapter.

Overall, the device is light, solid, and consistent. While I will say that this is probably one of the best Samsung devices to date, it doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself from other options in Samsung's lineup. But if this is an indicator of where Samsung is headed, I look forward to releases in the future and hope that they can produce something truly exquisite.

Display

The Galaxy Alpha utilizes what Samsung is calling a Super AMOLED HD display. Essentially this is a 4.7” AMOLED panel that has a resolution of 720p. Although it might not be as large as those on flagship models for 2014, the 4.7” display works well for the size of the device. As for durability, the device utilizes the ever-popular Corning Gorilla Glass 3 that can be found on most flagship devices. While I didn’t have it for an extended period of time, the time I did have with it, I didn’t experience any types of scratches or scuffs on the screen.

As for color reproduction, like most AMOLED panels the color is absolutely astounding. I won’t say that it’s the most realistic, but the colors are bright making everything "pop". Although some might be disappointed with the resolution of the display, I think that 720p on a 4.7” display looks good. It’s difficult to distinguish pixels and I had no issues when browsing the web or reading texts. Like most AMOLED panels, the blacks are deep and rich, being able to maintain the vibrant colors even at the sharpest viewing angles and under the brightest conditions. 

On the software side, Samsung has packed in a world of different options to maximize the display. While some of the options might not be for everyone, Samsung has included them to make sure that they cover a wide range of device users. Similar to previous models, Samsung has included its usual bag of gimmicky options like allowing the screen to stay on while you are looking at it, there are also other options like the adaptive display that seem to be quite useful. For those unfamiliar, the adaptive display mode allows the display to automatically optimize the color range, saturation, and sharpness while you are using the display. If you couple this with the option to automatically adjust the screen tone (adjusts the brightness based on the image on screen) and you have a couple of powerful worthwhile solutions that can actually give you a better picture while reducing your battery usage. 

However, AMOLED isn't for everyone and it is an acquired preference. Although most of the devices I own have had an LCD, I have a soft spot in my heart for AMOLED panels. While I love the vibrant look, some might think that it looks a bit extreme and inaccurate and I would have to agree. There is an unnatural glow that is emitted, that just doesn't quite represent things accurately; despite this, there is just something about AMOLED panels that has its allure. 

Overall, this is a great display. The colors are punchy, the viewing angles are excellent, and it is clear, but I think where Samsung fails, is in its execution. While there is nothing wrong with how the panel operates, it seems like they should have included a higher resolution panel for a phone priced at $600 USD. 

Software

The Galaxy Alpha is running Android 4.4.4 with the latest iteration of TouchWiz. Samsung, like most manufacturers, has also chosen to follow the philosophy of trying to cram as much as possible to satisfy the largest group of people . While on paper this seems like the most logical option, in execution it is a convoluted mess. When you open the general settings option, you are presented with what could be the longest list of options available on a device. For a first user, there will be a lot to pour through and it will be overwhelming. 

Luckily, Samsung gives you the option of changing how the user will view these options. You can sort the monstrous list by grid, list, or tab view. Personally I found the 'list view' being the most accessible method to navigate. It allows me to keep my bearings when diving through the menu and changing and customizing things to my preference. While I won’t dive deep into the menu system and OS, I will say that there are some unique features included that will allow users to create an Android experience for themselves that is unique to their device.

For example, 'MultiWindows' allows users to have multiple applications open on the same screen. This allows for better multi-tasking, but is restricted to certain applications that are supported. The options can be selected from taskbar that pops up from the left hand side and new windows can be added to the existing screen. For example, you can browse the web while also texting at the same time. With this option there isn't a need to switch between applications because they are both on the screen at the same time. There is also the ability to customize the notification panel that can be pulled down from the top of the screen. The customization will give you the option to sort out tools that you might need quick access to; this is particularly handy for those that like to change or turn off certain functions of the device on the fly.

While the settings menu and other added options might seem daunting at first, once you get the hang of it and set up the things that you access most, it becomes a welcome tool. Honestly, since things can change so drastically over the course of a couple months, it is better to have options, than none at all. Naturally, the theme and TouchWiz will always most likely stay the same, but hopefully with each iteration, Samsung will improve the UI and interface making it more accessible to an everyday user.  

Performance

While the Samsung Galaxy Alpha might come in a small package, that definitely does not reflect the kind of power that is under the hood. The Galaxy Alpha packs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor with 2GB of memory. So it comes as no surprise that the device is no slouch when it comes to day-to-day tasks. While using the the handset, things were impressively smooth. Even during multi-tasking and opening multi-windows, the unit still powered through tasks without issue. 

As always, just to have some concrete numbers, I ran the Galaxy Alpha through 3D Mark's graphics test using Ice Storm Unlimited. It's no surprise that the device scored incredibly high and came very close to matching scores with its flagship sibling the Galaxy S5. Overall, there isn't a thing to worry about when using the device, it performs like a flagship and blows through everything with relative ease. There is no doubt that the smaller screen size aids in the performance, as it has less pixels when compared to other flagship devices. 

Camera

I’m a little bit torn about the camera on the Galaxy Alpha. While it works in most scenarios, it just doesn’t produce the most accurate images and videos. Don't get me wrong, I like the results, but consistency in color seems to be a major issue when it comes to the camera. Regardless of the environment, day or night, the images and videos seemed to always look a little off. 

The Galaxy Alpha packs a 12MP camera with LED flash. Although it's fast to focus and take photos, it does take a couple of seconds for it to initialize when the application is activated. Once you have the camera app open, pictures and video are quick to shoot. For the purpose of testing, all of the photos have been shot in full auto mode. I did not utilize any of the manual functions in the images or video.

Much like Samsung’s custom Android interface, the camera also has a plethora of options when it comes to taking photos and videos. There are the standard options for scene modes, but Samsung takes it a little further by having options for HDR, face detection, selective focus, and more. Perhaps the setting that people might find a bit aggravating at first is the picture stabilization. When you have this enabled the camera will prompt you to keep the camera still. This in turn creates an additional couple of seconds in between shots. Typically, this mode is used when you want to take brighter and clearer pictures in low light scenarios. Luckily, you can disable this and shoot images without delay. 

The Galaxy Alpha also offers the ability to shoot video in 4K. Overall, the quality of the video is satisfactory. Although it has the same inconsistent issue with colors, it also doesn't always focus as quickly as I would like. This is especially apparent when shooting video at night. But, for the most part the videos look clear and the sound is okay. 

Overall, the results from the Galaxy Alpha are mixed. When it chooses to, the device can produce superb (yet not always color accurate) photos; what I mean by this is that the photos look good, but they just aren’t accurate to scene. The colors seem overly saturated and the night shots look brighter than they actually are. Naturally, this is a good thing in some scenarios, but when you want to capture the moment how it is, the camera tends to fail at this time and time again. I would be okay if these results were consistent, then I would know what to expect and I could adjust and compensate, but the camera is unpredictable, often shooting photos and video that are hit and miss.

As we know, this can't happen. If there is one thing that can completely destroy the experience of a camera, it is inconsistency. When you are relying on this to shoot pictures of your children, friends, and those precious moments, it has to be consistent. I can liken the experience to shooting with a Polaroid, you just never know if you are going to get an accurate picture, or if the shots you have taken will be made more vivid and extreme. Hopefully, Samsung will address this in a future update, as I don't think this is an issue with the sensor or lens itself, but the software needs some fine tuning. 

Battery Life

The Galaxy Alpha has a relatively small battery coming in at 1860mAh, but surprisingly, it lasted about a day and a half with normal use. This included a 20-40 minutes worth of phone calls, a good amount of texting, Google Voice, and light browsing of the web for 10-30 minutes. I won’t say that this is a beastly device when it comes to battery, but for my day-to-day use, it was fine. I’m sure for a heavy user, the battery can be easily killed in a full day. I would use about 60% on the first day and then the remaining 40% on the second day. For those that require more battery life out of the device, can dive into the world of “ultra power saving mode.” This mode only allows you to use a couple of select features of the phone and transitions the display in to a black and white state. Although I wasn’t able to test this mode to its fullest, the battery meter in this mode states that it can last up to 11 days.

However, using it for the better part of the day, I highly doubt that this is possible. Perhaps if you use it for just texting, it might be possible, but when you starting browsing the web and making calls, the battery quickly depletes just like any other device. It is an interesting idea from Samsung and I would gladly use this mode for a majority of the day. It would be nice if Samsung added a couple more apps to the mix like Twitter or Facebook, but at the end of the day, you can use the browser to navigate these sites in this mode, which still works perfectly normal. One thing to note is that during this “ultra power saving mode” things did seem to stutter a bit more than when used in the normal mode. I suspect that when this mode is activated the powerful Qualcomm 801 processor is reduced to something a bit more economical.

At the end of the day, the Galaxy Alpha performs reasonably well considering the size of the device and the battery. I can't complain about a device that gives me a day and a half of battery life with GPS and Wi-Fi enabled. This is a world of difference from my daily driver (Nexus 5) that I used  to use that would barely make it through a day with general use. 

Conclusion

The Galaxy Alpha is an interesting device. It's essentially a flagship device with a mid-tier display and a flagship price tag. Although I did enjoy the metallic bezel, I don’t think Samsung went far enough. It is a good first attempt however, and I’m sure there will be many more iterations and variants in the near future. But, when it comes down to it, I don’t think this is what people have been asking for. A majority of the exterior on the Galaxy Alpha is still plastic, and although it feels a bit more solid and the accents give you a sense that you are holding a premium device, in reality, it still feels like a Samsung.

So where does the Galaxy Alpha fit into the Samsung device portfolio? Is this merely an experiment like the Note Edge or is this a handset crafted exclusively for some other purpose? While it's tough to tell, I think the answer might be a bit of both. I wish I could say that the Galaxy Alpha is Samsung's latest flagship device, but it clearly isn't. It is certainly the highest quality device Samsung has built to date, but some of the features of the device relieve it of a flagship title. 

Also there is the problem of who or what this device is catering too. Looking at all the specifications, it just doesn't really fit in the Samsung lineup. It looks more like Samsung created this device as a direct competitor to the iPhone 6. The only quarrel I have with this is that since they already have a two flagships with the Galaxy S5 and an upcoming Note 4, why even create a whole new device that deviates from its existing product lines? Why not just improve on the existing flagship devices and build something without compromises. 

But, that’s the beauty of Samsung, they aren’t afraid to experiment, they are in a position where they can afford to lose money on a product and learn from it. Samsung's dominating position in the market allows them to create one-off devices to gauge the markets interest. While I think this is a fairly decent device, I don’t know if I would spend my own money buying this over a Galaxy S5. Sure, there is a small size difference, but the S5 hits the sweet spot with size, power, and price.

Then there is the issue with the camera which I think Samsung could improve through future software updates. As I mentioned previously, I don't mind having a bad camera (since I'll know what to expect), but having an inconsistent camera is even worse. While I wanted to like this device, in the end I would pass on this in favor of the S5 or probably even a Motorola G 2014 edition. But, for Samsung this is the beginning of something special. Although this isn't what people had envisioned when Samsung announced it was creating a premium device, but it a step in the right direction when it comes to creating a premium flagship device that everyone is still waiting for. 

 

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