While Apple went big with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, Samsung is going small--well, smaller--with the Galaxy Alpha. Sporting a 4.7-inch display, the same size as the iPhone 6, the Alpha for AT&T ($200 with two-year contract) features an aluminum frame, giving this Android 4.4 KitKat smartphone a much sturdier feel than the Galaxy S5. It also has the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, and 2GB of RAM found on its larger brother. However, some sacrifices had to be made to attain the Alpha's good looks. Is the Alpha's beauty more than just skin deep?
Let's get it out of the way first: The Samsung Galaxy Alpha has some definite similarities to the iPhone 5s, but that doesn't mean Samsung has forgotten to bring some of its own signature style as well. The most eye-catching aspect of the Alpha's design is its polished aluminum frame, with reinforced corners and sharper lines. This is a departure from older plastic Samsungs, which many felt gave phones like the Galaxy S5 and Galaxy Note 3 a less-than-premium feel.
The chamfered sides give the Alpha a minimalist compact design, making it one of the smallest phones with a 4.7-inch screen. My only complaint -- and I'm nitpicking with this one -- is that the aluminum edges are almost too sharp, like the Alpha could have used one more round of polishing. The lock button and volume rocker are also aluminum, and the discrete home button is flanked on both sides by capacitive touch buttons for menu and back.
The back has the same soft-touch plastic as the GS5, and can be removed, giving you access to the battery and micro SIM card.
The new design improvements are a welcome change to Samsung's formula, and the Alpha is Samsung's best-looking phone to date. Samsung has said it will incorporate these changes into future phones, as seen by the metal frame on the Galaxy Note 4.
Click to EnlargeUnfortunately, the Alpha's beautiful new appearance doesn't come without some sacrifices. While the fingerprint reader and heart rate sensor from the GS5 are still there, gone is the microSD slot, meaning you're stuck with the 32 GB of onboard flash memory. Also missing is the IP-67 rating for dust and water resistance, making the Alpha more susceptible to the elements than its bigger brother.
Measuring 5.21 x 2.58 x 0.26-inches and weighing 4.06 ounces, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha is smaller and lighter than the 5.1-inch Galaxy S5 (5.6 x 2.9 x 0.31 inches and 5.1 ounces), the 5-inch HTC One M8 (5.8 x 2.8 x 0.37 inches and 5.6 ounces) and even the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 (5.4 x 2.6 x 0.27 inches and 4.55 ounces).
Click to EnlargeOne difference between the GS5 and the Alpha is its smaller 4.7-inch, 1280 x 720p AMOLED display. The resolution is somewhat disappointing because at $200 (with contract), it doesn't match the quality seen on other flagship phones. Even last year's HTC One M7 came with a 1080p display, and it has the exact same 4.7-inch screen size. Compared side-by-side with the GS5 and HTC One M8, movies and pictures on the Alpha just didn't have the same level of sharpness and detail
Another issue with the AMOLED screen is its bluish tint. When I watched the trailer for John Wick, indoor scenes looked unusually cool, although I did enjoy the Alpha's strong contrast and deep blacks. The bluish tint is exacerbated by off- angle viewing (just 20 degrees up, down, left or right), which can turn white backgrounds to a shade of robin's egg blue.
Using our light meter we measured an average brightness of 371 nits for the Alpha, which is similar to the GS5 (373 nits), the HTC One M8 (368 nits) and the smartphone average of 368 nits. All were far below the iPhone 6's 559 nits.
The Alpha recreates 151.7 percent (closer to 100 percent is better) of the sRGB spectrum. This means it over-represents certain colors, which is supported by the overly bluish tint seen in everyday use. By comparison, the HTC One M8 (115 percent) and iPhone 6 (96.8) are lower, while the GS5 has a similar gamut of 158.4 percent.
The Alpha's color accuracy is good but not great. It registered a Delta-E score of 3.7 (closer to zero is better). This is better than the HTC One M8 (4.1) and similar to the iPhone 6 (3.6), but worse than the GS5's score of 0.9.
The Alpha's single speaker sits on the bottom edge of the phone next to the microUSB port. This means the speakers can become completely obstructed by accident, such as when holding the phone in landscape mode to watch a movie. (The iPhone 6 has a similar design.)
When I listened to Van Morrison's "Moondance," audio sounded flat and shallow while Morrison's powerful vocals overwhelmed the accompanying brass instruments. By comparison, the front facing Boom Sound speakers on the HTC One M8 provided a much richer audio experience and deeper sound for the background instruments.
The Alpha produced 82 decibels of volume, which is very similar to the HTC One M8 (83 dB) and the iPhone 6 (81 dB), but significantly louder than the Samsung Galaxy S5 (73 dB).
Click to EnlargeThe Alpha comes with the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chip found on the GS5. This means it has a 2.5 GHz quad-core Krait 400 CPU and Adreno 330 GPU. The CPU is complemented by 2GB of RAM and 32 GB of flash memory. I had no problems playing graphically intense games such as N.O.V.A. 3 or retro shoot-em-ups like Strikers 1945 II.
Overall, the Alpha turned in better performance scores than the 5.1-inch, 1920 x 1080 Galaxy S5, because with fewer pixels to push the Alpha is less taxed during tests.
On Geekbench 3, which tests overall system performance, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha scored 3,027, beating out the iPhone 6 (2,931), the GS5 (2,927) and the HTC One M8 (2,480).
The Alpha also performed well in the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited graphics test notching a score of 20,359, better than the GS5 (18,024) and iPhone 6 (16,558), but behind the HTC One M8 (20,965).
We used Vidtrim to convert a 204 MB 1080p movie to 480p. The Alpha finished with a time of 4 minutes and 26 seconds, faster than both the GS5 (5:07) and the HTC One M8 (4:47).
The Alpha loaded the N.O.V.A. 3 game in 15 seconds, faster than the GS5 (19 seconds) and HTC One M8 (17 seconds), but slower than the iPhone 6 (4.6 seconds).
OS and Interface
Click to EnlargeThe Galaxy Alpha comes loaded with Android 4.4.4, which is naturally customized with Samsung's Touch Wiz skin. Touch Wiz gives users a lot of options but at the cost of somewhat bloated menus. There are some nice touches, like animated transitions when unlocking the phone, but you may get a little annoyed when every action is accompanied by the sound of dripping water (thankfully, this can be turned off).
Samsung's SwiftKey-powered keyboard has a handy extra number row on top, but word prediction isn't quite as good as what the standard Google keyboard provides. Samsung also included Multi Window mode for running two apps on-screen at once. However, the Alpha's smaller screen makes this feature less useful than on the S5 or Note 4.
Click to EnlargeWhile the GS5 features a 16-MP rear camera, the Alpha is fitted with a rear 12-MP camera paired with a 2.1-MP camera upfront. The camera features a 4.8mm f/2.2 lens and has modes such as Panorama, Beauty Face and Virtual Tour, with more available for download. It also has the same selective focus and real-time HDR features found on the GS5.
My photos using the rear camera in Times Square shows the difference HDR makes. In the non-HDR photo, exposure is good, capturing a lot of detail in the tourists and buildings. But the HDR photo has much more range, most noticeably in the electronic billboards, which were washed out in the non-HDR picture.
Click to EnlargeSelf-portraits using the 2.1-MP front cam delivered decent detail, but distortion makes photos looked stretched from top to bottom.
The rear cam can also shoot UHD videos (3840 x 2160) with options for fast, slow and smooth motion and optional video stabilization. My 1080p videos of New York City traffic looked sharp, although there was occasional wobble when the camera tried to refocus.
Click to EnlargeThe Galaxy Alpha is loaded with Samsung's usual app suite, such as S Health and S Voice. One missing app is Smart Remote, as the Alpha lacks the IR blaster needed to make it work. The Alpha is also bloated with a ton of AT&T apps, which you'll probably want to hide or remove.
Like the Galaxy S5, the most useful app is S Health, which includes a pedometer, exercise tracker, heart rate monitor and the ability to download more health-centric programs to suit your needs. You can also download companion apps for a wide range of fitness bands for integration with S Health.
With its 1860 mAh battery, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha lasted 7 hours and 37 minutes on the Laptop Mag battery test (continuous 4G Web surfing at 150 nits of screen brightness). This is more than two hours less than the HTC One M8 (9:52) and the Samsung Galaxy S5 (9:42) and an hour less than the smartphone average of 8:22. Still, the Alpha outlasted the iPhone 6 (7:27).
When juice is running low, you can activate Ultra Power Saving Mode on the Alpha. This switches the display to black and white while disabling unneeded features like Bluetooth and restricting mobile data.
4G LTE Speeds
I experienced decent speeds when testing the Galaxy Alpha in both Manhattan's Flatiron District and in East Harlem. Download speeds averaged 10.4 Mbps and uploads 5 Mbps. While this isn't quite the industry-leading speeds AT&T claims, I was still able to watch 720p videos on YouTube without a hitch.
Click to EnlargeI applaud Samsung for improving the design of its Galaxy line, and the Alpha makes me excited to see its upcoming phones. I love the elegant and one-hand-friendly design, as well as the swift performance this handset offers. But in the end, the Galaxy Alpha is just a prettier, more compact version of the Galaxy S5 with fewer features and less battery life. You trade some important perks for the thin-and-light design, as the Alpha lacks the microSD slot and 1920 x 1080 display of its bigger brother. If aesthetics are your thing, then the Alpha might be the phone for you. For everyone else, the GS5 is a better value. I'll likely have to wait for the Galaxy S6 to get the best of both worlds.