Samsung. For the longest time, the world’s biggest Android smartphone maker has faced criticism over its Galaxy line of smartphones over its lack of imagination in design and worse, an over-reliance on cheap plastic materials for quicker manufacturing processes. As the competition produced sleeker, more handsome Android devices that made use of more premium materials, Samsung began to feel the heat.
Suddenly, it feels like the Korean giants isn’t the top dog anymore.
But, Samsung did not make its way to the top by chance. This is a company known for rapid iterations, and responds to industry changes quicker than most companies do. The result? The Galaxy Alpha, the first Galaxy device to use a metal frame. Announced officially only last month, it will make its debut to the world at next week’s IFA trade show…but we’ve had the opportunity for a quick peek.
The Galaxy Alpha is home to a few firsts. Besides being the first Galaxy device with a new metal frame, it will also mark what Samsung calls an “evolution” to the Galaxy design language – which seemingly means Samsung is in for the long haul with using premium materials for its higher-end devices. On top of that, the Galaxy Alpha is also the first smartphone in the world to use a chipset built on the 20nm manufacturing process, the Samsung Exynos 5430 Octa. This chipset features an eight-core processor (4x 1.8GHz and 4x 1.3GHz) which is paired with 2GB of RAM.
A look at the rest of the spec sheet also reveals more interesting items. The display, for example, is a 4.7-inch 720p Super AMOLED display – one of the smallest to be featured in a mid- to high-end device from Samsung. Other aspects of the Galaxy Alpha hardware include 12MP rear and 2.1MP front-facing cameras, 32GB of non-expandable storage, heart rate monitor, LTE Cat 6 support and a surprisingly small 1860mAh battery.
One aspect that frankly really surprised me was the weight. Despite the metal frame, the Galaxy Alpha weighs only 115g – if that sounds light on paper, you’ll be even more surprised when you actually hold it in your hands. It feels astonishingly light, and yet much sturdier than the previous-gen Galaxy smartphones such as the S4. In fact, some may even argue this phone feels even better than the Galaxy S5. It’s not only lighter (115g vs 145g), thinner (6.7mm vs 8.1mm) and the smaller display means it is a lot easier to hold with one hand.
Round the back, it was disappointing to see Samsung retaining the perforated back cover from the S5 on the Galaxy Alpha. But a closer look will reveal that Samsung has also tweaked the design of the back to actually make it look – dare I say it – classy and understated. Instead of dimpled dots across the entire back like the S5, the Alpha’s dimples are in the shape of tiny “+”, and are less prominent than the S5’s dots. We can’t confirm it now, but the Alpha’s back also feels like it is made from a more grippy substance than the S5’s.
Previously, it was so easy to criticise Samsung’s devices. With the Alpha, I found it rather difficult to find any faults with the exterior – except for one aspect: the corners.
Each of the four corners of the device has an extended metal bump in the frame. Samsung says that this is to ensure that it can withstand knocks better and protect the device more when it is accidentally dropped, but…it does hurt the aesthetics of the device by quite a bit.
Moving to the software, the Galaxy Alpha will be the first Samsung device to run on the latest Android 4.4.4, with the TouchWiz interface. And again, I was pleasantly surprised to note that there was no visible lag that so often prevailed in previous TouchWiz devices. Then again, the device in my hand was pretty bare – only one Google account connected, and a few user-installed apps were present.
However, I think one major reason behind the Alpha’s lack of lag is with the new Exynos chipset. It blazes through the benchmarking apps – those which worked, anyway. GFXBench and Quadrant did not recognise the device, and the benchmark data could not be synced. Antutu and 3DMark, however, worked. Both posted very impressive scores, with the new Samsung device even performing better in Antutu than the Xiaomi Mi 4 in Balanced Mode.
Scrolling through the expansive Settings page of the Galaxy Alpha and Galaxy S5 side by side also revealed some interesting finds. Firstly, the Galaxy Alpha does not have the “One-Handed Operation” mode like on the larger S5 and Note 3, presumably because it doesn’t need to have one. Next, the integrated Finger Scanner now also lets you sign in to websites with a swipe of the finger instead of keying in a password. Finally, that ridiculously gimmicky Air Browse feature in the suite of supported motions and gestures has been removed on the Galaxy Alpha.
Then, it was time to try out the camera. For all it was hyped up to be, the Galaxy S5’s camera was consistently disappointing, and so I wasn’t expecting too much from the Galaxy Alpha’s new 12MP sensor. Perhaps that was why I was pleasantly surprised by how it performed. While I did not manage to test it out further in low light conditions, here are five sample images taken on the Galaxy Alpha in various lighting and modes.
Click on each image to view full resolution
After my very brief time with the Galaxy Alpha, I was genuinely excited. This is no high-end device, and already it looks like Samsung is finally realising it needs to put more effort into a smartphone’s aesthetics instead of just raw performance.
The Galaxy Alpha is likely just a market-tester that could use more polish in its execution, as how the Galaxy Tab 3 Kids was to see the consumer response for a Kids Mode. But with that in mind, it really does set the tone for what’s to come in future Galaxy devices.
Thank you to the little bird who lent us this device!