Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Samsung Galaxy Alpha from AT&T (Review)


It feels like hardly ever does a month go by without another Samsung release of some kind. It could be a tablet, a smartwatch, or a smartphone, but Samsung continues to throw options out into the playing field that is the mobile tech world. And it's not without good reason to expect Samsung to try and hit every aspect of the market. There is the high end where their "Galaxy S" and "Galaxy Note" series fall, and then the low end where they have other "Galaxy" models that rarely tend to repeat themselves. This year, Samsung introduces a bit of a surprise with the introduction of the "Galaxy Alpha" line, not yet a series as it is the first of its kind, but cleverly named, I'm sure, as an alpha test of sorts into a mixed realm of low and high specifications in hopes to find a seat somewhere in the middle of it all. AT&T has generously provided me with a few weeks time with the Samsung Galaxy Alpha, and I bring to you all of the reaped benefits and some guilty frustrations of this metallic device.

To begin with one of the most obvious differences of this Samsung device, let me point out that this is the first smartphone that Samsung will use to venture away from the realm of plastic and out into the world of metal. Surrounding this device with an aluminum trim is a long awaited adventure from most if not all Samsung enthusiasts. The trim itself has a beveled edge to make it more comfortable to grip. The metal does go around the entire frame of the phone and there are cut outs for the speaker and micro USB port at the bottom, and a headphone jack along the top. The buttons on either side are also metal and protrude slightly with their own rounded edges, again, to reduce sharpness and maximize comfort. 


The Samsung Galaxy Alpha is available on contract only from AT&T and it comes in three flavors: Frosted Gold, Dazzling White, and Charcoal Black. When purchased with a 2 year contract, you can buy the Galaxy Alpha in any of these colors for $199. On AT&T's Next plan you could pay monthly installments of $30.65, $25.55 or $20.44 when you choose 12, 18 or 24 months respectively. However, without either of these options, it will cost you a whopping $612.99. That's only $37 cheaper than the Samsung Galaxy S5. Keep that in mind as you read this review. It will help you determine at the end whether the extra $37 would be worth it. Oh, and also note that the Galaxy S5 is the same $199 on a 2 year contract. Special note: If you're in the UK, there are two other colors to choose from if you purchase directly from Samsung for £549: Scuba Blue and Sleek Silver.

Moving right along to the back of the Galaxy Alpha, you will notice a familiar piece of plastic being used to cover the battery. Samsung doesn't seem to want to give up on their removeable battery option so they had to leave this part of the plastic in tact. The cover has a "plus sign" texture design, which visually speaking is a nice change from the "dimple" or "band-aid" design on the Galaxy S5. Plastic does have other benefits too it besides just an easy way to get to battery. How about the fact that unlike metal (looking at you HTC One M8) it's much easier to hold. The soft touch coating on the plastic back cover of the Galaxy Alpha grips easier as you wrap your fingers around the phone. No sliding around going on here.


Judging this book by its cover, the Samsung Galaxy Alpha appears to be able to play ball in the big leagues, but its some of the minor internals differences that are keeping this phone really stepping out on to the field. Things like a 720p display, no SD card memory expansion slot, a smaller megapixel count in the camera sensor, no optical image stabilization, and the lack of wireless charging. It's short a gig o RAM from it's older brothers, and the speed of the processor is clocked down to be a little slower than the competition.

The Alpha does look up to it's S5 and Note 3 bigger brothers and it knows that it has some big shoes to fill. It comes close to doing it too. Here is how it tries to pull it off:
  • 4.7 inch 720p Amoled display
  • 16 MP rear facing camera / 2.1 MP front camera
  • Qualcomm SnapDragon 801 Quad core processor
  • 32 GB of on board storage
  • 2 GB of RAM
  • Bluetooth 4.0 technology
  • NFC (Near field communication)
  • Heart rate sensor
  • Finger print scanner (in the home button).
Half of that list rivals the competitors major flagship devices released earlier this year, including it's own big brother the Galaxy S5. For example, let's look at that processor. The four major manufacturers in the US today are Samsung, LG, Motorola, and HTC. Every one of their flagship devices donned the SnapDragon 801 Quad Core processor, just like the Alpha, they just turned theirs up a little bit higher. Now Samsung, LG, and HTC each released theirs in the first half of the year, and Qualcomm has since announced a speedier chip called the 805. We'll see that chip later in 2014 and early 2015.

So why is the Alpha considered a mid tier device and not a flagship? If you're asking me for my honest with no fluff reason. I say it's because they don't want to out do their own flagship line of devices. The S5 didn't sale as well as Samsung had hoped this year. It's no secret that their profits are down quarter after quarter in 2014. They didn't spend the marketing money on this device therefore no one walked into a store asking for it by name as they would have done for the S5 or the Note.


When talking about the camera on the Alpha, you have to lower your expectations, but just a little bit. If you are used to the glorious standards of the S or Note series, your feelings will ever so gently be let down. That's not to say the Alpha doesn't take great pictures, because it does, but don't buy it hoping to get the same exact results. The 16 MP camera on the back of the Alpha did fairly well in regular lighting situations. Colors are clear, but they didn't pop. The 4x's zoom was a bit shaky while attempting to use. This is probably due to there not being any optical image stabilization (or OIS) in the camera sensor. You'll notice that in the close up picture of the purple flowers below. 



The many camera settings can easily overwhelm you. It literally has a grid of options to scroll through. And some are hidden at first, if you don't know to actually scroll. On the contrary, there is only a handful of modes to choose from out of the box. This is pleasing to see as Samsung has had a reputation of drowning you in those features. Those who wish to download additional modes can do so from the Samsung Store, not the Google Play Store. Most of them are not free and will cost you a few bucks. If you turn off most of the motion focus and other settings, you can get a very quick picture taking experience. The auto-focus works well, but tries to hard and usually over compensates. It won't focus and then stay put long enough before it wants to auto-focus again. Then right when you are about to push the shutter button, it does it one more time. But when you do get a chance to push that shutter button, it captures the moment rapidly.

It was the lower light conditions that were a bit more challenging for the Alpha. Now, I don't go clubbin' so I'm never able to pull off a shot of the city and it's night life which would be idle low light camera testing conditions, so a picture of my dog and daughter after the sun goes down will have to suffice. One with the flash, and some without. The colors are dull. Hardly any detail at all and there are several surfaces that had texture such as the concrete, the sand, or the hair on the dog. I don't count the dog running away as a viable shooting mode, but that along with her moving hand does show how poorly it handles action shots.



Taking some tips out of the playbook of the S5, the Galaxy Alpha also sports a heart rate sensor on the back near the camera, and a fingerprint scanner which is embedded in the ring around the home button on the front. Both of which are just as good, or should I say no better than, it's big brother, nor do either of them have a real practical use of application. Neither of which should make them the determining factor for buying this phone. The heart rate sensor is pretty much a gimmick. Proven to be so when released on the S5. It's application is tedious because it can only be used by the one and only Samsung S Health app. If you already have a fitness app you like and use often, it couldn't use this built in sensor because Samsung has closed it's use to all developers and their applications. Also, there are a handful of other apps that are able to achieve the same result by simply using the LED flash on any other smartphone. Not to mention the debatable question of accuracy. While testing the heart rate sensor on the Galaxy Alpha, the test results were inconsistent and at times inoperable when S Health continued to tell me to "stand still" or "be quiet" and I can assure you, I was neither moving nor talking.

The fingerprint sensor does seem, at face value, to be a bit more appetizing. The thought of the added biometric security reminds me of technology reminiscent of your favorite sci-fi or spy movie. However, the Samsung version does not help you feel like the new James Bond. While the iPhone has just about nailed the execution of fingerprint scanning by simply placing your finger on the home button, Samsung (and most other Android manufacturers) make you swipe your fingerprints in a downward motion. Having to swipe makes it difficult to complete with one hand and it significantly reduces the percentage of accuracy. The settings allow you to register up to three different fingerprints. In order to register each of them you have to make 8 successful swipes, each swipe receiving a "red for fail" or a "green for pass" indication.

I wanted to be able to register my thumb and then use that same thumb to unlock the phone while holding it with one hand. It was practically impossible. It doesn't like you swiping in any direction other than straight down, over the top of the home button. In addition, choosing "fingerprint" as the security unlock option, then actually unlocking your phone with your fingerprint, will keep the phone unlocked for up to five minutes. This means it doesn't force you (or the person who just stole your phone) to use your fingerprint to unlock it again leaving your information vulnerable to hacks and thieves.



Those aren't the only home grown Samsung applications that come with this device either. Pretty much everything you may have heard about or grown used to with the S5 are also crammed into the Alpha. My Magazine which is on the far left of the homescreen and takes a few extra seconds to load. The toolbox which is a handy bubble of apps which you custom load and allow it to float atop all other screens for easy access. S Voice and it's no comparison to Google Now search or Moto Voice on the Moto X. Dual Window, which as the name suggests, allows you to open two different applications at once for some true multi-tasking heros.

Quick note about S Voice: You can access S Voice by double tapping the home button. I originally made the mistake and attributed noticeable response issues to the use of the home button, but I learned later on that it wasn't unresponsive so much as it was waiting an extra second (or two) for the second tap. If it didn't get that extra tap, then it would go to the homescreen. You can avoid this all together and disable S Voice in the settings and just use Google Now search. Which is very easy. Go to the homescreen and say out loud "OK, Google Now" and watch it chirp up, listening for your next command.


Battery life on the Galaxy Alpha is nothing short of atrocious. With a mere 1860 mAh battery inside, you will be thankful that the back is removable and you'll have to get use to carrying around a spare. Starting each day with a full charge, I was able to squeeze an average of 10 hours from the battery, while practically not using it any more than 2 hours each day. If I tried to push the limits by watching YouTube or playing games, I learned quickly that I wouldn't make it home before desperately needing to find an outlet to plug into. If you have personally already invested in a car charger, the Galaxy Alpha will certainly put it to good use.

And of course the sound. I mean after all it is a phone isn't it? Callers on the other end say the sound was always crisp and clear. Never was there a scenario of talking through a tube or tunnel. The speaker quality was not loud by any means, but it wasn't dull or quiet either. Using your hand to cup the sound from the bottom of the phone to the front is always a useful trick to help project it properly.

Final Thoughts
In a world where there are so many custom options to change your Android device, I feel I would personally use and could recommend this phone,  but only to those friends who know how to install and use custom applications such as a homescreen launcher or a better camera experience (one with less settings and modes). The 4.7 inch screen option is a perfect size for a one handed experience, minus the use of the fingerprint scanner. The 720p resolution is adequate for a crisp display of this size, and I don't think anyone can beat the amoled quality in a Samsung device. The price of the phone both on contract and off are a bit high. I'd wait for that to come down. Especially since you aren't paying for good enough battery life. The new aluminum metal trim is appreciated and nicely executed on this device. The beveled edges make it easy to grasp and hold on to along with the soft grip feel of the back cover. I am not a personal fan of physical home button like the one found on any Samsung device, be it a tablet or a phone (now some smartwatches), but I do understand how it makes a lot of users feel comfortable and "at home", because I'm sure Samsung is proud of the number of iPhone conversions it has attributed to. The type of users that the Galaxy Alpha is best for would be new smartphone owners who don't use it for anything more than socializing, web browsing and the occasional picture taking, and maybe doesn't have any other Android experiences. Thought the settings menu on this device could easily turn you off from Samsung in a heartbeat.


How about you? Hace you had an opportunity to use or own the Samsung galaxy Alpha? What do you like or dislike about this phone? Sound off in the comments and let me know if I got this one right.

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