Samsung has been paying more attention to the design of their smartphones lately. Just a few weeks ago I was reviewing the Galaxy Note 4, which packs a fantastic aluminium-magnesium alloy edge that gives the high-end handset the premium feel it deserves. But the Note 4 wasn’t the company's first device to use the metal-clad design; that award goes to the Galaxy Alpha.
The Galaxy Alpha accompanies the Galaxy S5 at the top of Samsung’s line-up. The 4.7-inch device is a smaller alternative to their popular flagship, designed for people who place form at the top of their priority list. It’s also an experiment with metal, to see just how well it fits into the rest of a typical Samsung design.
The choice to focus on design has left the Alpha with slightly downgraded specs compared to the S5. You do get a powerful Snapdragon 801 or Exynos 5 Octa SoC with 2 GB of RAM, but the 12-megapixel camera, 720p display resolution and 1,860 mAh (7.17 Wh) battery are all weaker on paper than its bigger brother. Is the hardware trade-off worth it to gain the part-metal design?
While it’s not the first time I’ve used a metal-clad handset from Samsung, the Alpha’s design is a massive step up from similar smartphones Samsung has released over the past three years. Premium materials deserve to be integrated into a device that costs more than $600, and that’s exactly what Samsung has finally realized: cheap plastic just doesn’t cut it anymore.
The aluminium alloy rim replaces the faux-metal (read: painted plastic) strip that has run around the edges of Samsung’s flagships for several generations. The difference in texture is immediately noticeable from the moment you first touch the Alpha, with the metal giving the handset a stronger, more impressive feel. Not to mention it looks better, as metal has a genuine shimmer to it that simply can’t be replicated with plastic.
Metal isn’t the only material the Galaxy Alpha is constructed from. The back panel is a removable piece of plastic that has been textured to feel like glossy rubber. The coating is actually quite interesting: it’s more rubberized than the Galaxy S5 or Note 4, which gives it more grip, but at the same time it feels greasier than other rubberized plastic devices like the Moto G. I’m not completely sold on this material choice, though it’s a definite upgrade on the glossy plastic and obviously-fake-leather of old.
The front panel is protected by Gorilla Glass, which is coated in such a way that makes your fingers glide across while operating the touchscreen. There’s very little separation between the glass and the AMOLED panel beneath, making the display feel like it’s truly at your fingertips. Below the display Samsung has included the ineffective fingerprint sensor, alongside capacitive navigation buttons, while the top sees the usual placement of a speaker, camera, sensors and RGB notification LED.
Although Samsung’s legal department will try to avoid admitting as much, it’s pretty clear that the basic design of the Galaxy Alpha is inspired by the iPhone 5s. I don’t think the products look identical, but there are some definite similarities when they are placed side by side. The Alpha is being placed as an Android alternative to Apple’s latest batch of handsets, complete with a similar screen size and premium design. The back panels of both devices may be vastly different, though Samsung is still treading a fine line.
Around the edges of the Alpha, Samsung has used extremely solid metal buttons that feel great to use, thanks to near-perfect travel. The volume rocker is on the left, and on the opposite side is the power button in an ergonomic position. The bottom has a micro-USB 2.0 port and the speaker grill, while the top has a 3.5mm audio jack. There’s no infrared LED on the Alpha, unlike the Galaxy S5 and Note 4.
Although many of the design elements and features are similar to the Galaxy S5, the Galaxy Alpha is not water resistant. For me this isn’t a huge deal, as I never found water resistance to be a particularly important feature to have in a phone. However, if you’re tossing up between the S5 and the Alpha, it’s worth noting that you won’t be able to take underwater selfies or game in the shower.
Aside from the part-metal construction, the aspect of the Alpha’s design that impressed me most is how slim and lightweight it is. The majority of the handset’s body is 6.7mm thick (up to 8.0mm at the protruding camera), and it clocks in 115 grams heavy: 30 grams lighter than the Galaxy S5. Not only does this make the Alpha marginally slimmer and lighter than the iPhone 6, but it keeps the handset extremely portable.
Compared more closely to Samsung’s current standard-sized flagship, the Galaxy S5, the Alpha is around 30% smaller. It may not appear this way when looking at the devices side-by-side, but as soon as the Alpha gets in your hands, it’s immediately noticeable. Even though the S5 wasn’t a cumbersome device to use by any means, the Alpha is easier to use, especially one-handed.
One aspect of the Galaxy Alpha that wasn’t easier to use is the heart rate monitor. Located next to the protruding camera array on the back panel, and below the LED flash, the sensor can be hard to activate when you’re not looking at it. This is because the heart rate monitor is flush with the rest of the back panel, and unlike with the slightly indented position on the Note 4 and S5, this makes it harder to locate with your finger.
Like most Samsung devices the thin plastic back cover can be removed to reveal a swappable battery and the nano-SIM slot. While the battery does take up a significant portion of the device’s overall volume, the focus on keeping the Alpha slim has resulted in a less-than-impressive total capacity of 7.17 Wh. This is a full 34% smaller than the Galaxy S5, which understandably affects battery life. More on that later in this review.
It is also important to note that there is no microSD card slot beneath the removable back cover. To be honest, I’m not sure why Samsung decided to remove the microSD slot when the back cover is still removable. Surely there’s enough space underneath the hood to keep a feature that a lot of people want, especially when the internal storage tops out at 32 GB.