Home > Android Phone Reviews > Samsung Galaxy Alpha (SM-G850A)
Samsung Galaxy Alpha
|Editor's rating (1-5):
What's Hot: 4.7" size is hand and pocket friendly, attractive design with aluminum frame, fast CPU, very good camera, pleasing Super AMOLED display.
What's Not: Some specs are lower than the Samsung Galaxy S5, yet the price is similar.
Reviewed October 2, 2014 by Lisa Gade, Editor
in Chief (twitter: @lisagade)
Poor Samsung Galaxy Alpha: it's actually a lovely compact version of the Galaxy S5 but it won't get the attention it deserves in the US. Why not? It launched within a week of the iPhone 6, Samsung's gadget spamming means shoppers are weary of so many Galaxy variants and lastly it's exclusive to just one US carrier. Granted that carrier is AT&T, with an excellent network and very large customer base, but exclusives take the shine off of even very good smartphones. Overseas, you'll find greater carrier choice, and the Alpha may thus do better outside the US.
The name Alpha implies top dog status, but the Galaxy Alpha is a bit of a mixed message: it's the first Samsung Galaxy to have a metal frame around the edges (the Galaxy Note 4 will soon join it) and it's meant to be the classy model. It's also downsized and with those straight metal edges like the iPhone 5s, it's designed to compete with the 4.7" iPhone 6 that ironically uses a completely new design. The Alpha, like the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact, downsizes the standard sized flagship (the Galaxy S5 in this case) without dumbing down the specs too much. Thus the Alpha has a 4.7" Super AMOLED display, the same 2.5GHz quad core Snapdragon 801, 2 gigs of RAM and 32 gigs of storage. It has a 12MP camera that takes photos and videos that are nearly indistinguishable from the 16MP GS5 and it has a fingerprint scanner embedded in the home button. Sounds lovely if you prefer a more manageable size phone and better looks than the Galaxy S5. The specs and design are certainly above the Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini, which is the 4.5" reduced spec version of the GS5.
So what are you giving up? The Galaxy Alpha, unlike most Samsung Android Galaxy phones, has no microSD card slot. Samsung somewhat makes up for that with double the storage from the GS5, but those of you who carry extremely large video and music libraries might not like the Alpha. The back camera resolution drops, but given the same excellent features and quality as the GS5, I'm not bothered. The display is 1280 x 720 rather than 1920 x 1080. Android phones 4.7" and under don't get 1080p displays (the LCD-equipped HTC One M7 is the exception), and honestly it's not terribly worthwhile to move up to full HD when most eyes won't see the difference. The display is that wildly saturated and contrasty Super AMOLED that Samsung fans love, but at 720p, the diamond PenTile matrix does cause a bit of haloing around text here and there. It's not easy to spot, but Android folks are obsessed with specs and have already condemned the poor Galaxy Alpha, sight unseen. We here at MobileTechReview have obviously not only seen the display in person, we've used it for a week, and I can tell you overall it's a really lovely screen. The IR blaster and AV remote control found on the Galaxy S5 and Galaxy Note 3 isn't here either, nor is the GS5's water resistance. What are you left with? A pocket and smaller hand-friendly Android 4.4.4 KitKat phone with the same CPU found on the big flagships, a bright and very colorful display and a very good camera.
In the US, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha sells for the same $199 with 2 year contract as the Samsung Galaxy S5 and iPhone 6. That hurts since most folks will notice the lower spec items on the Alpha and expect a lower price tag. The full retail price is $612.99, which is a bit lower than the $650 full retail for the 16 gig GS5 and iPhone 6, but at $599 or less it would attract more buyers.
Design and Ergonomics
From the side and front angles, it's hard to not notice the similarity to the iPhone 5 and 5s: those straight anodized aluminum sides with chamfered edges bear a strong resemblance to Apple's phone. But from the full frontal or rear views, it's all Samsung. In fact, I've observed that at first glance most folks haven't noticed that the metal sides are real metal rather than some more tasteful variation of Samsung's faux trim. The elongated home button, big Samsung logo above the display and curved corners say "I'm a Galaxy" clearly. The back is still stippled plastic, made to look somewhat like leather at first glance (at least the soft touch black model, the white pearlescent and shiny bright gold backs don't look the least bit like leather). Given the usual glass front and plastic back, it would be wrong to call this Samsung's first metal body or metal chassis phone: the metal is simply the edging material. That doesn't mean it isn't an attractive phone; it's definitely the best looking Samsung phone yet.
The 4.7" size is the sweet spot for hand and pocket comfort. The past year has been a race to make phone screens bigger, and phablets are even going mainstream thanks to the Samsung Galaxy Note and now iPhone 6 Plus. But for those of you who love the size and feel of the first gen Moto X and the new iPhone 6, pickings are slim if you want a high quality smaller phone. The phone is incredibly light at 4.03 ounces (the iPhone 6 is 4.55 ounces) and slim at 0.26" (the iPhone 6 is 0.27"). It's small enough to use one-handed and doesn't require super-sized pockets.
Samsung continues to use a physical home button, and as with the Galaxy S5 that button doubles as the fingerprint scanner. We noted improvements in the Alpha over the Galaxy S5 in terms of accuracy (it works the first time 90% of the time) and it now supports swiping your thumb sideways, which is handy when unlocking the phone using one hand. Given the required swipe gesture and still not perfect accuracy, it's not as pleasant to use as Apple's Touch ID, but it's a big step in the right direction.
The Samsung Galaxy Alpha and Samsung Galaxy S5.
The home button is flanked by capacitive multi-tasking and back buttons, and I found these harder to accidentally activate compared to the GS5. The home button is stiffer compared to the GS 5 and Note 3, and the metal side buttons are firm with a nice tactile click when actuated. The volume controls are on the left and the power button is on the right. The headphone jack is up top and the single speaker is on the bottom edge, just like the iPhone 5 and 6. The smartphone has a micro USB 2.0 port rather than the 3.0 port on the GS5 and Note 3 (I doubt many of you will care).
The wafer-thin plastic back cover is removable, which is quite a feat with a phone this slim. The back cover doesn't scream quality, but it's not bad looking either. I'm not a fan of the gold back because it looks like gold spray paint, but the slightly iridescent white isn't bad. The black is matte and soft touch, and it looks the most like leather and is the least slippery. Thanks to the straight sides, the phone isn't slippery by design, so the back material is less of a concern. Under the back cover you'll find the removable 1860 mAh battery and nano SIM card slot (this is the first Samsung Galaxy we've seen with a nano rather than micro SIM). Out of the box, the Alpha doesn't support wireless charging, but overseas there are Qi wireless charging backs for sale.
Deals and Shopping:
Samsung Galaxy Alpha Video Review
Here's the make it or break it part for many of you. Some folks won't buy anything that isn't full HD 1920 x 1080 anymore, be it a smartphone, tablet or TV. The fact is, phones this small don't get 1080p displays because the difference wouldn't be that visually apparent and higher resolutions eat into power reserves on these necessarily smaller battery phones. I don't believe Samsung ever developed a Super AMOLED display that was full HD and less than 5". At 312 PPI, just shy of the iPhone 6 Retina Display 326 PPI, I don't think many folks will find this display grainy or pixelated. In fact, it's quite sharp and as with most Super AMOLED displays, looks best when watching videos or looking at photos. It has the usual better than sRGB color gamut, deep blacks and extremely high contrast that are hallmarks of Super AMOLED. It's fairly bright too, and is visible outdoors at higher brightness or auto-brightness settings. The panel uses a diamond PenTile matrix layout, and keen-eyed folks may see some haloing around text. This is the same display technology used in the Note 3, which has a higher pixel density to reduce such artifacts. That said, text is sharp and clear, and it's not unpleasant for reading. Whites have a pinkish cast compared to better IPS panels and the Galaxy S5 that has the best Super AMOLED display we've seen on a Samsung phone.
As usual, Samsung offers a few color settings including an AMOLED photo mode that's closest to accurate in terms of colors. The active mode changes the display depending on the app used, so colors and contrast are boosted when playing movies and white backgrounds are toned down in Google Play Books.
Performance and Software
Though smaller than the flagship pack, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha runs on the same 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad core CPU with Adreno 330 graphics and 2 gigs of RAM as today's top smartphones. It thus performs the same in synthetic benchmarks, including 3D tests (we thought the lower resolution display might boost 3D graphics numbers but it doesn't). The phone feels fast and responsive, despite the added load of Samsung's TouchWiz UI and features. Some features like multi-window where you can have apps running in 2 windows, are turned off by default, likely because the screen is a bit small for that feature. You can enable it if you wish, and other Samsung staples like Smart Stay are here and were on by default our phone.
The smartphone runs Android 4.4.4 KitKat, currently the latest version of Android. It's protected by Knox, so those of you who wish to unlock the bootloader to install custom ROMs will trip the Knox counter (if you don't know what I'm even talking about, then don't worry--it's geeky stuff for those who like to do extreme tinkering). The Alpha comes with the full version of Polaris Office to create, view and edit MS Office documents, and both the Android webkit and Chrome web browsers. Our AT&T review unit is littered with the usual AT&T bloatware, which you can disable but not uninstall.
The phone has 32 gigs of internal storage with 25 gigs available for your use. That's enough for several big 3D games, HD movies and a music library. Should you wish to augment that with microSD cards, you're out of luck since there's no card slot.
||3DMark Ice Storm
|Samsung Galaxy Alpha
|Sony Xperia Z3 Compact
|Samsung Galaxy Note 4
|Samsung Galaxy S5
|Moto X (2nd gen)
|Moto X (first gen)
|HTC One M8
|Sony Xperia Z1S
|Samsung Galaxy Note 3
|Samsung Galaxy S4
|HTC One M7
|LG Optimus G Pro
|Samsung Galaxy S III
Calling and Data
Samsung makes good voice phones, and the Galaxy Alpha sounded clear and natural for both incoming and outgoing voice. Not surprisingly, call quality mirrors the GS5. Data speeds are generally very good on Samsung phones too, and on AT&T's LTE network in Dallas, we saw speeds from 18 to 54 Mbps down and an average of 7.5Mbps up according to the Speedtest.net app. The phone has LTE 4G on bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 12, 17, and 29, so it's a capable world traveller and it will work on T-Mobile's LTE network if you unlock it. Despite the metal sides where the antennas live and the smaller size, reception was equal to that of our Samsung Galaxy S5.
The 12 megapixel rear camera has the same wide range of features as the Galaxy S5 including a backside illuminated sensor, HDR, panorama and fast/slow motion video recording. The ISOCELL camera uses both traditional contrast detection autofocus and phase detection autofocus (a combo that's found on some DSLRs and the Galaxy S5, iPhone 6 and 6 Plus). Samsung claims this results in very fast focus times, and the camera indeed focuses quickly. Photo detail is slightly less than on the 16MP GS5, but you won't notice unless you zoom in to 100% and look very, very carefully. Honestly a good 8MP camera takes superior photos to a mediocre 20MP camera, so megapixels aren't everything. The camera takes excellent photos in good lighting, but as with the GS5, it's slow to focus and produces noisy shots in very low light situations like dark restaurants and bars. The camera can shoot 1080p and 4k video and the camera app uses the same UI as the GS5.
The front 2.1 MP camera's quality is good and it can capture 1080p video and delivers clear video chat footage. It can't compete with the HTC One M8's 5MP front camera, but it's above average and you won't look like a cubist nightmare.
Smaller phones generally mean smaller batteries, though Sony did manage to fit quite a large battery in the Xperia Z3 Compact. The Galaxy Alpha has an 1860 mAh Lithium Ion battery that's removable. That competes favorably with the iPhone 6's 1810 mAh that's sealed inside, but is obviously less than the 2800 mAh Galaxy S5's battery. Fortunately, the smaller and lower resolution display help and despite the nearly one third less battery capacity, battery life is only 15% to 20% less than the Galaxy S5. That might sound like a disaster, but the Galaxy S5 is one of the longest life phones on the market that often lasts me 2 days on a charge with moderate use. The Galaxy Alpha managed 1.5 days with light to moderate use and with intentionally heavier use meant to mimic moderate use that included streaming an episode of Mad Men via Netflix, browsing the web for 50 minutes total, playing music with the screen off for an hour and playing Real Racing 3 for 30 minutes, the phone lasted from 7am to 11pm with 18% remaining. It's not the best but it's a solid 1 day phone unless you use the GPS for trips of 30 minutes or more and play 3D games for an hour or three.
The Samsung Galaxy Alpha is Samsung's most attractive phone to date, and more pocket friendly than most phones. The 4.7" Super AMOLED display is actually very attractive in person and performance is top notch. If you want a smaller, classier but every bit as fast alternative to the Galaxy S5 you'll give up the IR blaster and microSD card slot, but you'll get double the storage as a consolation. Will the Galaxy Alpha make a huge dent in the Galaxy S5's sales numbers? I doubt it, but it's there for those who want a smaller phone with elegant looks without resorting to the GS 5 mini's lower end specs. If that's you, the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact (not readily available in the US as of this writing) and the iPhone 6 are the Alpha's only competitors at the moment.
Price: $199 with 2 year contract, $612.99 full retail
Websites: www.samsung.com, wireless.att.com
Sony Xperia Z3 Compact Review
Samsung Galaxy S5 Review
Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Review
Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Review
iPhone 6 Review
iPhone 5s Review
Moto X (2014, 2nd gen) Review
Moto X (first gen) Review
HTC One M8 Review
HTC One E8 Review
Above: the Samsung Galaxy Alpha and iPhone 6.
Display: 4.7" Super AMOLED display. Resolution:
1280 x 720. Has ambient light sensor, accelerometer and proximity sensor.
Battery: 1860 mAh Lithium
Ion Polymer rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.
Performance: 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad core CPU. 2 gigs RAM and 32 gigs of internal storage.
x 2.58 x 0.26 inches. Weight: 4.03 ounces.
Phone: GSM quad band world phone with 3G HSPA+ and 4G LTE.
Camera: 2.1MP front camera and rear 12MP rear camera with BSI, HDR, LED flash, 1080p and 4k video recording.
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
Networking: Integrated dual band
WiFi 802.11b/g/n/ac, NFC and Bluetooth 4.0 LE.
Software: Android OS 4.4.4 KitKat with Samsung TouchWiz.