Samsung Galaxy A5 and A3: Sleek, slim, fully metal (hands-on)

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Side by side on a table, the two nearly identical rectangular handsets look innocuous enough and extremely familiar. Yet two things quietly make the Samsung Galaxy A3 and A5 stand out: their all-aluminum material and their unibody construction. Following the metal-framed (and plastic-backed) Samsung Galaxy Alpha and Galaxy Note 4, the A5 and A3 represent Samsung's first stab at an all-metal build, and the first of its smartphones to seal in the battery completely.

The square-sided handsets look and feel good, similar to the Alpha, or like smaller, more maneuverable versions of the Note 4. They're also on the light side and are noticeably slim -- in fact, they're the most svelte Galaxy phones yet. Don't look for any real standout textures or design elements to show off the move to metal; these smooth-backed specimens are understated as far as that goes.

Since the back cover isn't removable, you'll find the SIM-card and microSD-card slots on the right edge. In some countries, a hybrid slot will accommodate either a second SIM or a storage card, just not both at the same time. As midrange phones, you won't find a heart-rate monitor built in with the camera module; Samsung says that sensor is reserved for more premium phones like the Galaxy S5 , Galaxy Note 4, and Galaxy Alpha.

Midrange specs

You might think that luxe metal casings like these would house equally high-end specs, but the A series is actually defined by midrange specs that target a more youthful demographic. Samsung's market studies revealed that this group isn't fussy about top-flight hardware, but is turning toward the metal trend in a serious way.

Samsung Galaxy A3, A5 specs

A5 A3
Operating system Android 4.4 KitKat Android 4.4 KitKat
Screen size 5-inch AMOLED 4.5-inch AMOLED
Resolution 1,280x720; 294ppi 960x540; 245ppi
Dimensions 5.5 x 2.7 x 0.26-inch; 139.3mm x 69.7mm x 6.7mm 5.1 x 2.6 x 0.27-inch; 130.1 x 65.5 x 6.9mm
Weight 4.3 ounces (123 grams) 3.9 ounces (110.3 grams)
Cameras (back/front) 13-megapixel; 5-megapixel 8-megapixel; 5-megapixel
Processor 1.2GHz quad-core 1.2GHz quad-core
Storage 16GB 16GB
Expandable storage Up to 64GB Up to 64GB
RAM 2GB 1GB
Battery 2,300mAh 1,900mAh
Bluetooth 4.0 4.0
4G LTE Yes, Category 4 Yes, Category 4

Samsung also points out that the A5 ad A3 emphasize sound quality, with adjustable audio that increases volume when it detects competing background noise. Another feature, called Wise Voice, helps keep volume levels constant for the receiver even if you're holding the phone away from your face. Sounds good in theory, though I didn't get a chance to test out either enhancement.

In terms of color, both the A3 and A5 will come in six shades. There's the usual black and white, gold and silver metallics, and the same blossom pink and light blue as the Note 4. As usual, not every color will be available in every country.

Extra themes

Android 4.4 KitKat is the OS standard for these phones, with Samsung's TouchWiz interface on top. In a nod to self-expression, a new take on the UI lets you apply four new themes -- such as "nature" -- that applies pre-selected images and ringtones. The A3 and A5 also have their own unique touch sounds that other Galaxy phones don't.

Supercharged selfies

The A3 and A5 may fall in the middle of the hardware spectrum, but they have a few fun new camera features dedicated to selfies, another huge trend we're seeing in smartphones.

The Note 4's rear-camera selfie mode is alive and well on the A3 and A5. Josh Miller/CNET

It all starts with wide-angle selfies that shoot up to 100 degrees in portrait and a 120-degree landscape/panorama mode. The A3 and A5 also get the same rear-camera selfie feature first seen on the Note 4 (I really like this one). In addition, the airbrushing Beauty mode found in pretty much every Samsung and LG front-facing camera goes a step further here with effects to correct your skin tone and slim your face, plus one to enlarge your eyes. If you prefer to send your selfies au naturel, you'll have the option to turn this off.

You can trigger selfies with a voice prompt as before, and Samsung also adds the ability to launch a count-down by holding your hand in front of the camera. You'll have 3 seconds to get your palm out of the way before the shutter snaps to life.

Also brand-new is an animated GIF mode, which combines up to 20 pictures you capture by pressing and holding the shutter button. You can adjust the frame rate for 1-to-10 frames per second, and also tweak the GIF quality using a sliding scale. You'll also be able to reorder frames and adjust the settings before saving your animated GIF.

Its unibody design gives the A5, pictured, Samsung's slimmest smartphone depth. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

It's a cute idea, but one that's clearly still in its infancy. Quality on my GIF was choppy in my hands-on demo, and that's because it caps off at a 640x480-pixel video resolution. Sharing is also limited. While animated GIFS are shareable through a messaging app, it wasn't clear if you could upload them to social networks like Facebook.

Where can you get the A5 and A3, and for how much?

The Galaxy A3 and A5 will launch in Asia first in November (including China), followed by rest of the world. While Samsung hasn't released pricing or distribution details yet (carriers will likely do that on their own), look for costs of unlocked models to come in significantly lower than the Note 4.

Outlook

Once again, Samsung's approach of aiming its first fully metal devices to the middle of the market rather than the tippy-top is a different strategy than I'd have expected from the smartphone leader. It isn't an unreasonable position, however. Appearances matter, and with midrange specs largely on par with competing devices, the more premium metal may very well help the A3 and A5 stand out against rival phones.

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