Three years and running, the South Korean multi-conglomerate Samsung, have kept themselves glued atop the smartphone regime. When tracking technology, that’s more or less of an eternity. But the rule hasn’t been devoid of resentments, for almost as many years, they have constantly been shunned for substituting ‘cheap’ polycarbonate in place of premium materials, even in the high end offerings. They have taken spite for the same, not only from their haters and critiques, but even from many longtime fans, who after constant disappointments, jumped ship to HTC and the likes. Numbers reveal that in the FY2014, Samsung recorded a drop of 15%, its biggest in 2 years.
Samsung is a company that has its business, built around unmatched customer value and satisfaction. Sooner or later they had to address the customer want for a premium build smartphone, and that’s exactly what they had in plans for this fall. Thus, the galaxy alpha is born.
The Galaxy alpha is the first smartphone from Samsung that touts aloud, premium materials for its construction. It bears expectations that are gigantic for a commodity of its size. After all, it needs to kick the S series, its superior brethren, back into the unparalleled mainstream, owing to the underwhelming performance of the flagship S5. Further it’s supposed to usher in a new era for Samsung, as with the Alpha, they lay down blueprints for their future smartphone aesthetics. The Alpha is tasked to achieve all of this while at the same time, expected to retain its own identity as well, i.e. for its own breed to flourish in the coming years. Thus, as a single product, its importance cannot be further exemplified.
So how this metal clad wonder from Samsung fare in this big wide world? Let’s find out
HORSEPOWER: ‘For the want to excel comes from within’
DESIGN AESTHETICS: ‘For a thing of beauty is a joy forever’
For most of the consumers, this would form the most essential part of this write-up. And rightly so, for more than 90% of the changes are to be found here, and more specifically in that gorgeous metal frame around the chassis.
The metal that runs along the entire length of the corners, is the real deal with this smartphone. And with the frame, so much more ‘feels’ changed.
The dimensions of the alpha are symbolic of an architectural marvel from Samsung. For they somehow managed to squeeze in a 4.7’ inch HD display into a chassis that is extremely small and light for its kind. With a profile that’s kept super slim at 6.7mm, the 115 gram Alpha feels almost nonexistent in the hand. These numbers are pretty impressive, given the firepower it packs along.
After playing around with the demo unit for a couple of minutes, we were immediately drawn towards the Alpha. And it’s a compliment that is ‘now’ unusual for a Samsung. The in hand grip is amazing, apparently owing to the metal frame which accommodates the majority of one’s hand estate. The buttons, which again are cold metal, are extremely tactile and scream out premium. The back of the smartphone, which is again a plastic shell, seems much more dense and durable than those donning its predecessors. It gives an illusion of sporting the same dotted indents first seen on the S5, but is actually soft to the touch. We prefer the Alpha’s back panel to the S5’s not only because it feels better, but also because it looks way better. But once taken off, the back panel ultimately behaves in the same unpleasant, flimsy manner that now seems synonymous with Samsung battery covers.
THOUGHTS: The Galaxy Alpha is hands down the best looking Samsung smartphone to date. It looks gorgeous and feels just right in the hand. Further the decision to stick with plastic on the back allows user access to the battery, keeping it swappable with a spare one. And since there isn’t any large unibody sheet running across its back, there aren’t going to be any problems with bendgates as well, much to the disappointment of social media!
SOFTWARE: ‘For, you’re only as good as you perform’
There isn’t much to talk about the software, for most of it has been kept untouched from the GS5. But somehow the device performs better than almost all Samsung phones till date. During our time with the Alpha, we were hard-pressed to find lags or software crashes, even after deliberate attempts to make the device falter. The device doesn’t stutter or drop frames like its predecessors did. Overall the software although the same one as on the S5, feels way more fluid and responsive on the Alpha. But as with every iteration, there are a few cosmetic changes on board.
So, What’s new?
- There are 8 new wallpapers and a new screen unlock effect. Most of them carry the usual colorful flare that is reminiscent of Samsung
- The weather widget finally offers widget transparency. It was much needed and the home screen looks so much better with this
- There is a new file manager that looks and performs in a much more subtle manner than the previous versions of the same
- The browser has been updated with a new interface that looks way more refined
- Samsung Studio
Yet even after all the above productive modifications, the software experience is hindered by tons of bloatware that Samsung packs along with its Touchwiz UI. Plus much to our dismay, the poorly organized settings menu is left unattended.
Undoubtedly the touchwiz UI is the most feature rich skin in the android world, but most of these are still half baked nonfunctional additions that deter from the overall good that touchwiz has to offer. But on a positive note, the various software refinements seen on the Alpha are subtle and detailed at the same time. Samsung seems to be finally paying greater attention to minute details.
A latest report brings forth to light, the most common uses for a smartphone of our age. Going down a descending order, we tested the Galaxy Alpha on each of these categories, and limelight only that information which matters the most to you folks, the consumers. No technical mumbo jumbo here!
Web Browsing: ‘The most used feature on a smartphone’
The stock browser from Samsung has received a few neat updates with the Alpha. The Organization of the tabs and quick dial menus has been changed for the better, with a much more refined and clean look than ever. Browsing sessions are also more reliable than ever, signalling refinements in the already good RAM management undertaken by the browser. Flash support has been long withdrawn from the stock browser, posing difficulties for many users. Overall the browser, although far from being the best option, is good and, ‘now’ reliable enough for casual browsing endeavours.
GAMING: ‘Work hard, play harder’
The Octa core new generation Exynos 5430 chipset from Samsung (1.8 GHz + 1.3 GHZ) is bound to perform better than previous generations of the chip. That’s primarily because it finally allows heterogeneous multi-processing i.e. all 8 cores can fire up together. Further, ‘Samsung claims’ that their new chip is optimized for balanced energy consumption making it as efficient as the Snapdragon 810 Soc that powers the Alpha in select markets, a claim that needs testing over time.
There are many pointers that signal great gaming performance on the Alpha:
- Efficient CPU’s and GPU’s on both the variants (as claimed by Samsung)
- The presence of a 720p display panel instead of a 1080p Full HD. As is the reciprocal rule with games: The higher the screen resolution, the lower the frames churned out by the CPU
- The Galaxy alpha finally does away with rear mounted speakers. These are loud enough and provide greater immersion as compared to their back firing units
But the battery life of the new handset is questionable and the device doesn’t shy away from heating up quickly. Both of which deter from the actual potential the hardware holds.
ENTERTAINMENT: ‘Where the differentiation kicks in’
As is usual with Samsung offerings, the Galaxy alpha comes brimming with entertainment additions. The Studio suite of applications that were previously hidden for optional use inside the gallery, now are up and front in the app drawer itself. It is essentially a collection of photo editing and enhancement apps that feature apps like a collage maker, photo editor, a video trimmer and so forth. These work well, are fun and add on an eye candy to the pictures, just the way Samsung loves it with everything they do.
The default music player is kept untouched. But that’s not a bad thing at all. With equalizer support, and many sound alive presets, it is one of the most capable stock player in Android, though there are even better third better alternatives available on the Play store. Refinements to the video player have also been overlooked. Apart from providing great support for multiple subtitle files, there’s nothing striking about it at all.
The down firing single speaker unit on the Alpha is surprisingly loud and clear. But its placement, coupled with the extra slim profile on the Alpha muffles it more often than not when watching video. Still it’s an improvement over the previous generations of rear mounted speakers, both in terms of the placement as well as the output.
Although no hardware improvements have been made to the back mounted heart rate sensor, it performs much more accurately and reliably on the Alpha somehow. Perhaps because of the bigger grip attributed by the smaller chassis. We rather find the sensor as a means of entertainment (competitions among friends, and other obvious romantic purposes) than as a productivity feature, because only a small proportion of flagship galaxy users actually use the sensor as intended. Samsung acclaimed S Health app also didn’t receive any touch ups. Further, the lack of an IR port is a glaring omission, particularly because the Samsung Watch on app for the same is excellent and actually adds on to productivity.
From comically useless gimmicks to industry leading productivity features, the galaxy Alpha packs it all in a form factor that’s a marvel of sorts. Further the great looking display makes everything that we do on the Alpha super enjoyable. And, thanks to the battery being swappable, its super easy to gain back power as and when it runs out, which it does pretty quickly on the Alpha. All in all, if it’s a combination of style and entertainment you’re looking for, The Galaxy Alpha is a package with a punch!
COMMUNICATION: ‘It’s about how you improve the core experience’
Apart from a better performing keyboard, there are no changes whatsoever to the Dialer, contacts as well as the messaging application. Even after so many upgrades to Touchwiz, these still are found cluttering the homescreen separately instead in the form of a suite, which would look way more sophisticated and refined. Not to mention an ease in the core functioning as well.
If the exclusion of the useful IR blaster and the lesser known DLNA codecs is taken out of the equation, Samsung packs in all high end connectivity options on the Alpha. The smartphone provides a bevy of Bluetooth 4.0 profiles and the latest Wi-Fi standards for greater signal strength and super speedy wireless downloads.
Cellular reception needs adequate testing over time before we pass our comments, but the inclusion of both FDD and LDD 4G LTE standards on the Alpha signal towards solid reception capabilities, plus greater uniformity as well. Samsung has even partnered with many carriers across the world and are offering free data plans to their buyers.
For example in India, Samsung promises their Airtel customers 5 Gigabytes of 4G data or 2 Gigabytes of 3G data, free for 2 months.
CAMERA: ‘A better pair of eyes initiate a better experience’
The Camera unit on the Galaxy Alpha is almost identical to that on the GS5. The resolution is down to 12 MP’s but apart from that almost everything is kept intact, ranging from the available tweaking’s, the editing suites as well as the highly comparable camera performance.
Thus, the Alpha’s camera enjoys similar advantages and suffers from the similar drawbacks as the flagship GS5, irrespective of the six month late launch of the Alpha. But its not a bad thing at all, for we found the galaxy S5’s camera to be an excellent one, and it still ranks among the best in business, especially when it comes to broad daylight. Both still shots and videos are rich in resolution and color, with great color re production and audio capture. OIS has been once again overlooked by Samsung on yet another flagship, but video recording is supported by the somewhat functional digital image stabilization.
There is inbuilt support for 4K recording, but since there is no digital stabilisation offered for the same, the results are labelled as being not much useable, not to mention the crazy big file sizes of over 150 MB’s for 15 seconds. Samsung also provides selective focus as a spare lens that is built under the main lens, but getting it right is as difficult as it was with the S5. We tested the same a number of times, but the results weren’t consistent and neither were they as good as the one’s produced by HTC’s depth lens for the same.
Low light performance, as with the GS5 is bound to take a hit, courtesy the smaller pixel size and exclusion of OIS. The shots taken the Alpha were so very comparable to our GS5 that we thought that the same ISOCELL technology has passed on to the Alpha, which is priced at much lower launch rates than what the S5 retailed for. We have asked Samsung for enlightenment on the same, and are still waiting for a revert. In our early testings, the camera produced great vibrant shots reminiscent of all 2014 flagship standards. Stay tuned for a detailed picture gallery on the same.
TEST NOTES: ‘Cause knowledge is based on experience’
In our time with the Galaxy Alpha, we came across a few intriguing points:
- Amazing Display: We expected the Display to be our major gripe with the Alpha. After all there has been a lot of controversies surrounding the color accuracy and readability of 720p pentile displays. But since 2 years now, most of Samsung’s flagships had been using 1080p panels, this problem more or less subsided. But with the news that the Alpha would be sporting a 4.7’ 720p Super Amoled panel, we expected the display to pose problems, not only for color reproduction and visible pixels, but we even feared the blue-ish green-ish tinge that plagued such displays.But to our surprise, we came across none of the above. The display looks amazing with great brightness-contrast ratios in all lightning conditions. Colors pop out and its difficult to spot individual pixels. Our apprehensions about the display were thus proved unjustified
- Better Optimization: Samsung’s claims regarding a better CPU management in the Alpha seem to hold true. Lags and jitters were fewer than ever for a touchwiz based OS, and there was no extraordinary heating experienced as well. All this indicates a better memory management by Samsung this time around, for the Alpha performs and executes task with lightning speeds with the least amount of hiccups
- Mixed Battery performance: Probably right next to the gorgeous metal frame, the Galaxy Alpha is making news for its small 1860 mAh battery. With so many functions to support, the battery on paper dwarfs out. We do understand the improved efficiency of the 20 nanometer Exynos chip and a lower res display, but the sleuth of software additions that the Alpha packs coupled with touch wiz’s poor track record in the same made everyone cast doubts over the battery life of the Alpha. But in our initial testings, we came across mixed results. For greater details on the battery life, stay tuned for we’ll soon be updating this section with detailed tests undertaken regarding the same.
- Better sensor performance: We found the finger print as well as the heart rate sensors to be working much better on the Alpha than they worked on the S5. Since there is no improvement in the actual sensors, the more sizable dimensions and reliable performance of the hardware might hold the key here.
Thumbs up for
- Beautiful, ergonomic design
- Placement of buttons and their tactile feedback
- Improved performance of the finger print and the heart rate sensors
- Subtle software refinements
- Greater uniformity among chipset performance
- Removable battery
- A brilliant private mode that makes optimum use of the fingerprint scanner
Thumbs down for
- A single speaker unit
- Pixel density owing to the 720p panel does not match flagship standards
- Software experience needs to be further improved
- Average battery life (needs citations)
- Lack of IR blaster and micro SD card slots
- Initial price very high in many parts of the world
Stay tuned with Gadgetadda as we keep on updating the review with time!