Galaxy Alpha: Samsung's stealth flagship smartphone?

The long-rumored, metal-banded Galaxy Alpha debuts, but the launch lacks the typical Samsung fanfare.

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The metal-banded Galaxy Alpha. Samsung

This was not the usual Samsung smartphone launch.

The Galaxy Alpha, one of two high-end smartphones that Samsung has been teasing this summer, made a quiet debut early Wednesday. Samsung announced the phone in a press release posted on its website.

While the Galaxy Alpha had the usual run-up of rumors and speculation befitting any high-profile smartphone, notably missing was any kind of fanfare from Samsung. There was no splashy launch event, no triumphant speech from a top-level exec, and no information on which carrier will sell the handset. The release was a far cry from the massive convention center Samsung rented out in Barcelona for its Galaxy S5 launch in February.

The metal-banded Galaxy Alpha is clearly designed to address the complaints that customers have expressed about the cheaper plastic feel of Samsung's smartphones. But it's a confusing product that doesn't cleanly fit into the Korean conglomerate's portfolio. Its metal construction suggests a flagship smartphone position, but its weaker specifications relative to the Galaxy S5 place it closer to the mid-tier category.

"It feels very much like an experiment to me, like so many other Samsung devices in the past," said Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson.

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Samsung
So is it a flagship product or not? This is still unclear.

A Samsung spokesman said the materials and feature are what can be found on a flagship Galaxy mobile device. He declined to comment on the price, although he confirmed it would be lower than the GS5.

Samsung can use the help. The company posted disappointing results for the second quarter on lighter smartphone sales and warned that the rest of the year would be weak as well. Credit rating agency Fitch Ratings said Tuesday that Samsung is poised to lose market share next year due to competition in emerging markets. The company will face new competition in established markets as well, with Apple expected to unveil a new iPhone in September.

The Galaxy Alpha features a 4.7-inch display, smaller than the 5.1-inch display of the Galaxy S5. The resolution is a little less sharp too. The 12-megapixel camera is also inferior to the GS5's 16-megapixel shooter. It doesn't have an expandable microSD slot, relying solely on its internal 32 gigabytes of storage. Its battery is also weaker than the GS5's, and the new phone isn't water resistant. But it does have marquee features such as a fingerprint scanner and ultra-power-saving mode.

From an aesthetic point of view, the Galaxy Alpha is a step up from the Galaxy S5. The Galaxy Alpha's front and back features a dimpled texture -- it's unclear for now exactly what the material is. But it is clearly ringed by a metal band. Its chamfered edges -- beveled and polished -- and its bottom speaker holes look virtually identical to the design of the iPhone.

Samsung's quiet debut of the Galaxy Alpha may serve as the company's attempt to test the use of metal without the commitment of a full-blown flagship smartphone launch. The company has previously been reluctant to use metal because of interference issues, the high cost of material, and the inability to quickly mass produce such a device. The company said the smartphone would hit the market in September, but a spokesman declined to comment on US availability.

The Galaxy Alpha's mere existence, though, suggests it is the first step toward Samsung integrating metal into more of its devices. As such, the Galaxy Alpha is likely an important stepping stone in Samsung's development plans and is a flagship smartphone in the sense that it is driving the company's thoughts on future design.

Given the lack of fanfare, Samsung doesn't appear to have the same high hopes it has for the GS5 in terms of sales. But sales sometimes don't matter for a company known to release a number of one-off products for the sake of testing a new design or feature -- the curved Galaxy Round, for one.

The Galaxy Alpha "likely won't be a big seller, but Samsung's all about throwing things at the wall to see what sticks," Dawson said.

In case you think Samsung's approach with this new phone may mark a new, more subtle stance, don't worry. The company will turn the massive marketing machine back on for its next event on September 3 in Berlin, New York, and Beijing ahead of the IFA technology trade show, which will likely see the debut of the Galaxy Note 4 smartphone/tablet and possibly other devices as well.

Samsung just needs to make sure the Galaxy Alpha doesn't get lost in the hype.

Updated at 7 a.m. and 9:19 am PT with an analyst and company comment.

 

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