The Samsung Galaxy Alpha ($199 with contract from AT&T) is currently the only smaller flagship Android phone in the U.S., but Samsung isn't letting it really compete. While the Galaxy Alpha costs the same up front as Samsung's celebrated Galaxy S5, everything's been cut down here, not just the size. That makes the Alpha a slightly frustrating alternative to the Editor's Choice Apple iPhone 6, the larger Samsung Galaxy S5, the more elegant Moto X, or even the less-expensive HTC One Remix on Verizon.
//Compare Similar ProductsCompare
Physical Features and Call Quality
The Galaxy Alpha is Samsung's high-quality, one-handed device. At 5.2 by 2.57 by 0.26 inches (HWD), it's narrower and slimmer than the iPhone 6, and the same width as Motorola's cult-classic 2013 Moto X. This being Samsung, the phone has a large physical home button below the screen and two capacitive touch buttons next to it.
Samsung clearly took cues from Apple's iPhone 5 when designing this one, most notably in the smooth aluminum frame with shiny chamfered edges, and the bottom-ported speaker. This isn't a pure design clone, though. The back is textured Samsung faux-leather, and it peels off to expose a removable battery. The metal frame neatly defuses my major complaint about the Galaxy S5's design, the ridiculous ridged-chrome-plastic accents which makes the whole thing look cheap; Samsung succeeded in making a device whose body feels premium here. We did a slideshow all about how the Galaxy Alpha is made, and it's pretty cool; take a look.
The screen is the same Super AMOLED panel as on the Galaxy S5, just marked down to a 4.7-inch, 1,280-by-720 size. Why Samsung didn't take the opportunity to give us 1080p on this phone will forever be a frustrating mystery. If you like color saturation, though, you'll love this screen; it defaults to a nearly psychedelic level of hyper-color, although you can turn that down in the settings. It's gorgeous, and it makes the iPhone 6 screen look staid.
Call quality and battery life here are both very good—better than the iPhone 6, but not as good as the Galaxy S5. In our high-intensity LTE video streaming test, we got 6 hours, 33 minutes on the Alpha, as compared with 7 hours, 9 minutes on the Galaxy S5 and 4 hours, 33 minutes on the iPhone 6. Our test keeps the screen on the whole time, and the power-sipping OLED screen makes a big difference here when compared with LCD-packing phones like the iPhone and LG G3.
Voice call quality was also excellent, and I recommend this handset heartily as a voice phone. The earpiece and speakerphone were both unusually sharp for an AT&T model, similar to the great results I got on the Galaxy S5 and clearer than on the iPhone 6. Transmissions through the microphone, speakerphone, and a Bluetooth headset were all very sharp, with excellent noise cancellation. Only the BlackBerry Passport has better voice quality than these phones.
The Galaxy Alpha is designed for the AT&T network, and it won't work well on any other U.S. network. It's only tri-band 3G, missing the AWS band used heavily by T-Mobile. Its LTE bands (1/2/3/4/5/7/17) include AT&T, T-Mobile, and some international bands, but not Sprint or Verizon. So you shouldn't anticipate this phone coming out on other carriers.
The Galaxy Alpha has GPS, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, and Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/n/ac. Wi-Fi performance against our Meraki MR16 router was slightly better than the iPhone 6 until we got more than about 75 feet away, at which point it became slightly worse.
Processor and Apps
The Galaxy Alpha uses a 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 (MSM8974) processor. That's the same processor as the Galaxy S5, but it's tracking behind both the Apple iPhone 6 (with Apple's A8) and the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (with Qualcomm's 805) in performance.
The Alpha rated as slightly slower than both the S5 and the Galaxy Note 3 on almost all of our benchmarks. It did a little better with on-screen frame rates in the GFXBench gaming benchmark, which makes sense as it's pushing fewer pixels than the S5 and Note 3 were. There, it rated about the same as the iPhone 5s, with lower frame rates than the iPhone 6. It also came in slower than the iPhone on the Sunspider browser benchmark.
Let me pause to say this doesn't mean the Alpha has performance. Its benchmark performance is . It's just not class-leading.
The Galaxy Alpha runs Android 4.4.4 with heavy Samsung overlays and 14 preloaded AT&T bloatware apps. The bloatware (some of it truly nonsensical, like AT&T Mail) can be disabled and hidden, but not actually deleted. This is the same skin as on the Galaxy S5, which simplified the interface from the S4 and hid some of Samsung's more aggressive customizations. You can bring them back, though, for instance swiping left for Samsung's "My Magazine" Flipboard-like interface.
It isn't a calm or elegant interface, but that's what you get with Samsung: lots of sounds, complicated animations, water-drop effects, redesigned icons, and widgets like Geo News (which purports to tell you if there's an earthquake coming). If you want a quality Android phone with a quieter, sparer interface, go for a Moto X instead.
The Galaxy Alpha comes with 32GB of storage, of which 23.9GB is free. There is no memory card slot, and there is no larger model. While you get 16GB more storage than the iPhone 6 here at the same price point, both the iPhone and the Galaxy S5 offer more storage options (64GB and 128GB models in the iPhone's case, and a microSD card slot in the S5's).
Samsung brought the S5's 16-megapixel camera down to 12 megapixels here and kept the 2-megapixel front camera. The two cameras are a lot like the S5's, just not quite as good.
Compared with the iPhone 6, the Galaxy Alpha has slightly sharper pictures in bright light outdoors, but really struggles in low light. In very low light, you have two dissatisfying choices: blurry photos or a Stabilized mode which requires you to hold your phone still for several seconds. Focus lock takes longer than either the S5 or the iPhone 6, at about a second. Photos taken with the front camera also get very soft indoors, even with the default Beauty Face filter turned off.
Video recording is a strength here, though. Like the S5, the Alpha can record 4K video; it can also do up to 8-times slow motion or fast motion. It can do HDR video, and it can do 1080p video with the front camera. All of these types of videos run at 30 frames per second (or more, if necessary). In low light, though, videos get very soft, with almost an Impressionistic effect.
The Galaxy Alpha includes codecs for pretty much every kind of video you'd want to play, and third-party apps on the Google Play store have no trouble filling in the blanks. Videos look vibrant on the Super AMOLED screen. There was no hiss or other issue when used with headphones or a Bluetooth headset, and music through headphones sounds rich and deep.
Samsung seems to be at its best when it embraces excess, with high-res screens, high-megapixel cameras and super-fast processors. The Galaxy Alpha is the company's attempt to play the taste game, and it's not altogether successful. I get the feeling Samsung doesn't want to take this form factor seriously.
With Motorola out of the smaller-phone market and Sony's Z3 Compact apparently never coming to a U.S. carrier, though, your choices are limited for a one-handed, high-quality Android phone on AT&T. Verizon subscribers get the HTC One Remix, which has a slower processor, but at least it's much less expensive. I'd consider the Remix a better value for the money than the Alpha.
Against flagships, the Galaxy Alpha doesn't quite measure up to the iPhone 6 in the 4.7-inch space—or in general, to Samsung's own S5 or to the new Moto X. Smaller shouldn't have to mean second-rate. While the Galaxy Alpha has solid four-star specs, especially considering its bright screen and solid battery life, I'm marking it down half a point for being less than it could be.