- Good mix of sturdiness, comfort and compactness
- Fast and powerful
- Camera capable of great photos
- Underwhelming display
- TouchWiz needs an overhaul
Quick TakeThe Alpha deserves praise for being a capable Android phone that’s eminently usable with one hand, but its promise is ultimately better than its product.
There have been lots of phones like the Samsung Galaxy Alpha. Phones designed to be not too small but not too big. Phones built with smooth metal around chamfered edges. Even phones made to signify a sea change for a given company.
The difference is that none of those other devices come from Samsung, a manufacturer that, despite some recent struggles, has still staked its claim in more pockets than any other phone maker in the world. When an entity that massive even tinkers with its fundamental design philosophies the way Samsung has here, people are forced to take notice.
And so we get the particular sense of excitement that surrounds the Galaxy Alpha, a phone that poses a question long held by many tech enthusiasts: What if Samsung, with its infinite reach and resources, actually cared?
What if it cared about its phones’ build quality as much as their ad campaigns? Why can’t it launch a flagship whose design is as laudable as its performance and functionality? How would such a device affect what its millions of customers expect from their devices? Wouldn’t it force its many competitors to meet a higher standard?
The Galaxy Alpha only hints at answering such questions. Its tighter, metal-infused body is an improvement over the plastic-ridden Galaxy S5, but it doesn’t commit to its ideas fully. It’s strong and fast enough to stand with most other flagships, but its display and battery are rooted in other 4.7-inch devices that are $200 cheaper. And it still runs TouchWiz, which is as bloated as it’s always been.
The result is a phone that seems less like a final destination than a test run for something better to come. Let’s dig deeper into the Galaxy Alpha, an AT&T exclusive that’s available now and runs for $200 with a two-year contract or $613 without.
Build & Design
To be blunt, the Galaxy Alpha is what would happen if a Galaxy S5 had a child with an iPhone 5s. It’s a splendidly light (4.06 oz.), thin (6.7mm), and flat rectangle with aluminum sides, rounded corners, rear-mounted speaker grilles, and those aforementioned chamfered edges. Samsung’s inspiration here is no secret, but that’s hard to complain about given how well-constructed and easy to use the Alpha is.
The metal trim is an instant upgrade on the loose and airy chrome plastic that made past Galaxy phones feel more toy-ish than a $600 life tool should, and it gives off a chilly, industrial feeling that just screams higher quality. It keeps the buttons on the sides tight and clicky, and it’s joined by nicely thin bezels around the display. HTC did something similar with the One (M8) earlier this year, and the Alpha’s aluminum addition succeeds in much the same way.
With Apple relenting to the big screen craze with the iPhone 6, the Alpha is also as “compact” as any mainstream phone these days. That notion is ridiculous, but this is one of the rare new phones that’s always genuinely usable with one hand. The volume rocker on the left side is pushed up a bit too high for our liking, but nothing is ever out of reach, and the lightness of the whole thing keeps extended use from ever being a chore. The fact that you can comfortably wrap the Alpha in one hand also keeps the aluminum’s inherent slipperiness from becoming too much of a problem, an issue many One (M8) owners can probably attest to.
The Galaxy Alpha is more satisfying to hold than any phone Samsung has put together, but “amazing for Samsung” isn’t the same as simply “amazing.” The design here is a little overactive in spots, with odd bumps around the microUSB port and headphone jack, and unnecessary grooves around its rounded corners. Its 13-megapixel main camera is also too fat, which keeps the phone from ever lying flat on its back. None of this really affects how you use or hold the device, but from a pure design standpoint, it makes the Alpha seem uneven.
Less avoidable is the fact that the Alpha still very much looks like a traditional Galaxy phone. It’s colored a dull shade of navy blue, the usual logos, sensors, and keys are in their familiar spots on the front, and the back is covered in yet another coat of plastic faux leather. It’s not ugly, just distinctly unremarkable.
That matte fleather (our word) is especially out of place here. It’s tighter than the creaky back of the Galaxy S5, and it keeps the overall weight down, but it retains some of the sliminess that made past Galaxy phones feel gross. It’s certainly less cheap than what’s come before — it even avoids looking like a large bandage — but again, we can’t judge the Alpha solely in relative terms. (It also loses the water resistance of the Galaxy S5.) We’d much rather have the Sony Xperia Z3’s glass, the One (M8)’s metal, the OnePlus One’s “sandstone” fabric, or even the less greasy plastic of a Moto X or LG G3 instead of this.
The truth is that design matters more in today’s phone market, because the specs and feature sets of most high-end devices are growing increasingly homogeneous. What separates these things is how they look and feel. It’s great that Samsung has taken a tangible, positive step forward in this regard. But it’s only taken one step. Its smaller size and aluminum trim give it more mature and professional feel, but the Alpha still has one foot firmly planted in a humdrum formula.
The Alpha’s OLED display is more uniformly disappointing. It’s a 4.7-inch, 720p panel, which equates to a pixel density of about 312 pixels per inch. As is the case with the iPhone 6, that’s not as big a deal as it sounds — at least in its own right. It’s very difficult for the naked eye to notice any lack of sharpness in practice, and the margins between this and a 1080p 4.7-inch screen, in a vacuum, are mostly minimal.
That said, “full HD” is the standard for most other $600 phones now. Even if that’d mostly be overkill on a screen this size, the Alpha is content with only meeting expectations here.
The actual problem with the Alpha’s display is its reliance on Samsung’s PenTile subpixel tech, which has long been terrible, but here doesn’t have the super-high pixel count of a Galaxy S5 to mask its issues. It distorts the Alpha with a bluish-green hue that permeates every white tone on the display. It’s no accident that the Alpha’s default wallpaper is colored with a similar mix of purple and teal — the effect is immediately noticeable as soon as you start exploring the device, and it’s persistent even when you flip through Samsung’s handful of screen color modes.
This particularly wrecks the Alpha’s viewing angles; tilt this phone in even the slightest way and anything onscreen gets washed in a gnarly smokescreen. It’s more or less the same issue of older Sony phones: Look at it dead-on and the Alpha’s display is just fine, with sufficient brightness, deep and lively colors, and excellent contrast ratios — all of which are typical of Samsung’s displays. Do anything else, though, and all of that becomes difficult to appreciate. It’s a decided drop from the advancements so many panels (the Galaxy S5’s included) have made over the past year.
Finally, a minor gripe: This screen is narrower than we’d prefer. If you don’t have skinny thumbs, prepare to make plenty of typos on the phone’s inherently cramped keyboards. Something like the fatter 4.7-inch panel of a Nexus 4 is more accommodating for everyday utility.