Outside of that nice aluminum frame, the Alpha’s boldest bullet point is that it’s a relatively small phone that runs just about as well the more physically imposing devices in its price range. Along with Sony’s Xperia Z3 Compact and the iPhone 6, it’s a welcome change to the line of thinking that says sub 5-inch phones and higher-end specs can’t be compatible.
Officially, the Alpha is powered by the same guts as the Galaxy S5: a quad-core 2.5 GHz Snapdragon 801 chipset, an Adreno 330 GPU, and 2 GB of RAM. That’s now a rung below the Snapdragon 805 found in newer flagships like the Nexus 6, and on a granular level, the Alpha is indeed a bit slower than the beefiest of handsets. It doesn’t have as much speed to spare.
With common use, though, it flies. Good-looking games like Dead Trigger 2 and Real Racing 3 zipped on reliably, web browsing was constantly smooth, apps opened quickly, and flipping through Samsung’s TouchWiz UI brought nary a hiccup or stutter in our testing. This is one instance where the Alpha’s 720p display benefits the device as a whole — less pixels to push mean more room for that SoC to flex its might. Again, the point of diminishing returns and all that.
The Alpha is an AT&T exclusive here in the States, and Ma Bell generally holds its weight as far as the phone’s network performance is concerned. We didn’t have any dropped calls here in the Boston area, and LTE speeds were almost always fast and available. There wasn’t much to complain about when it came to call quality either, as the earpiece is supported by plenty of volume.
The main negative here involves the Alpha’s storage space — it’s got 32 GB by default, which is a good bit of room, but it doesn’t have a microSD slot to expand that any further. This is especially puzzling considering that the Alpha’s back cover is already removable. It’s likely that you’ll have to delete some apps or offload some photos before the end of a two-year contract with this thing.
The Alpha’s 1,860 mAh battery is more ordinary. It’s significantly smaller than the pack inside the Galaxy S5, which is understandable given its more compact frame, but it’s a slight drop-off in longevity either way. We were able to get through most workdays (about 10 hours) with a full charge, which is good, but we usually only had a sliver of life left to spare.
Although it only has to power a 720p display, the battery here can’t afford the same kind of obvious comfort you get on most other modern flagships. It most definitely requires a charge every evening, and more intense tasks like gaming will kill it quicker than competing phones.
All of this doesn’t bode well for the battery’s prospects over time, but thankfully it can be removed and replaced whenever you see fit. And if you really get into a bind, Samsung’s nifty “Ultra Power Saving” mode can still strip TouchWiz down to its bare essentials and pull several hours out of a few percentage points of juice.
The Alpha runs Android 4.4.4 underneath the usual TouchWiz skin, the same setup found on the Galaxy S5 earlier this year. We’ve covered our issues with Samsung’s UI numerous times in the past, so we won’t dwell on it too much here, but suffice it to say that most forms of Android without TouchWiz are still easier to use than any form of Android with it.
The song remains the same: This skin can do a whole lot, but only a portion of its capabilities are genuinely necessary. Things like the S Health fitness software or the aforementioned battery saving mode can come in handy, but for every helpful feature you get three pointless and/or dysfunctional ones, such as the clumsy heart rate monitor and fingerprint scanner, the third-rate MyMagazine news aggregator (which is thankfully removable now), or the large suite of finicky gesture controls.
TouchWiz’s settings menu is still an overwhelming mess, there are still redundant apps everywhere (AT&T mostly keeps its paws off, at least), and some parts of the UI still create visual inconsistency by lifting icons from Tizen. On top of that, some normally helpful features like Multi-Window (which lets you run two apps side-by-side) have become more frustrating to use with the Alpha’s diminished display. TouchWiz is simple enough to use at its most basic level, only going between the app drawer and the home screen, but so is every other Android skin on the market.
Design issues have only been one of the Galaxy brand’s bugbears, so the fact that the Alpha carries the same bloat as its predecessors only furthers the feeling that it’s a first step towards improvement, not a giant leap. TouchWiz is far from unusable, and it looks fine, but it’s still sloppier than it should be. Stock Android, Motorola’s super-light skin, or the relatively pared down efforts of Sony and HTC find a better balance of function and utility.
The Alpha’s 12-megapixel main camera is a step down from the Galaxy S5’s 16-megapixel unit in terms of resolution, but the overall quality of its images isn’t too far off in practice. That’s mostly a good thing. In daylight, the shooter is capable of taking some excellent shots, especially with HDR up and running. Photos are generally sharp, with accurate colors and plenty of detail. The app itself captures quickly, and it’s loaded with all the options you’d expect from a modern phone camera, with toggles for things like 4K recording and slow-motion video.
Take it into the dark, though, and most of those positives go out the window. In low-light or dimly-lit surroundings, shots were usually marred by excessive noise, blur, and washed out tones. Samsung omitted the Galaxy S5’s optical image stabilization here, which only handicaps its abilities. The Alpha’s flash is good, but it’s pretty much always necessary if you want an acceptable photo at night.
And while the app does have plenty of settings, it’s still a part of TouchWiz, so naturally it’s enormous and difficult to get a grasp of right away. The 2.1-megapixel front camera, meanwhile, is as mediocre as its resolution would suggest, a far cry from the more robust selfie cams we’ve seen in recent months. Like much of the Alpha in general, the cameras here are capable of great things, but bogged down by bouts of inconsistency.