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The Samsung Galaxy S5 has everything you'd demand from a top-end phone -- a stunning full-HD display, powerful quad-core processor and an awesome camera. It's constructed entirely out of plastic however, which often draws criticism for feeling cheap, particularly when compared to the all metal HTC One M8 or the glass-and-aluminium Sony Xperia Z3 .
The Galaxy Alpha is Samsung's way of shutting up those moaners by packing an octa-core or quad-core processor, the latest Android KitKat software and a great camera -- not to mention the heart-rate and fingerprint scanners lifted from the S5 -- into a compact, 4.7-inch body with a luxurious metal frame.
It's the first time we've seen metal on one of Samsung's Galaxy phones, and the mobile giant says it's the first example of a new design philosophy, so you can expect similar materials to be used in future phones.
The Alpha doesn't come cheap, though. In the UK, its £550, SIM-free, direct-from-Samsung cost is roughly the same price as the Galaxy S5. In the US, AT&T will sell it to you for $200 on-contract, and a little over $600 off-contract through various installment plans spread out over 24 months.
The metal design is the reason to be excited about the Galaxy Alpha. It feels like a very different level of device to the Galaxy S5. While the S5 feels rather plasticky to hold -- and in fact will creak a little when you squeeze it -- the Alpha feels satisfyingly solid and luxurious. Although the back panel is still plastic, it has no gap between it and the chassis, meaning there's no flex when you press it, which helps it feel like it's a one-piece design.
I was instantly struck by the difference in the feel of quality between the two devices, but the degree to which you feel it will depend on what you're used to. I have been using the S5 as my main device since it launched, so the solid-metal feeling of the Alpha was a big shift. CNET's UK director of content, Jason Jenkins, being used to the all-metal, solid chassis of the iPhone 5S, was less impressed, remarking that it does feel "a bit nicer," but that it still "looks like another Galaxy phone." I suggest going for a hands-on in a shop to make up your own mind.
It's true that the Alpha's design doesn't differ much from the S5's. It has a metal edge, sure, but you will need to get up close with the phone to really see that -- from a distance, it could just be shiny plastic like you'll find on the S5. The back panel has a similar rubberised, dotted pattern too, and the Samsung logo and silver-edged home button are identical on both phones.
Once you do get up close, however, the differences are more obvious. The corners of the metal edge have been milled away, leaving a shiny edge, speaker holes have been neatly drilled in the bottom, and the metal dips in slight on the sides between the corners. I definitely feel it has a more premium and professional aesthetic than the S5. It's unquestionably a phone you need to physically hold to fully appreciate, however.
It's physically quite a bit smaller, measuring 132mm long and 65m wide. I found it very comfortable to hold in one hand -- thanks also to its slim 6.7mm thickness -- and was able to reach across the whole screen with my thumb, which I struggle to do on the S5 without having to shift the phone's position in my hand. Its 115g weight also helps it sit unnoticed in your pocket.
The downside of the metal, however, is that the Galaxy Alpha has lost the water resistance you'll get from the S5. That means you'll need to be as careful around drinks, the bath, and in the rain as ever. You also won't find a microSD card slot -- although I doubt that's because of the choice of build materials. It's annoying not being able to expand the storage, but the phone does at least come with 32GB of space as standard.
The Alpha's display is for me the most disappointing aspect of the phone. It has a 1,280x720-pixel resolution, which is a step down from the full HD of the S5 and way below the 2K screens we're starting to see knocking around. While 2K would absolutely be overkill, I'd like to have seen a 1,080p display. The HTC One's 4.7-inch display had a full-HD resolution which made everything extremely crisp and it's a shame not to see similar on the Alpha, particularly given the high price.
It actually has a pixel density of 312 pixels per inch, which is lower even than the midrange Galaxy S5 Mini's 326ppi screen. Although icons and text are far from fuzzy, the edges lack the sort of crisp clarity I'd hope to see from a phone at this price. It really is a shame that Samsung didn't plump for a higher resolution panel.
On the plus side, the screen is very bright and has extremely rich colours, which helps make Netflix shows or YouTube clips of kittens look vivid, and you can change screen modes if you prefer a more natural screen tone.
The latest Android 4.4.4 KitKat software comes as standard on the Alpha (I'd expect nothing less at this price) which Samsung has given the same TouchWiz skin as you'll get on the S5. I'm not too keen on Samsung's interface, mostly because it makes everything far too complicated.
Almost every aspect of the phone can be tweaked which, while great for techy types, does mean that the settings menu is so vast it's easy to be overwhelmed and can be difficult to find that one setting you need in a hurry. Samsung also loads on its own web browser, calendar, app store, and email client, which sit alongside Google's versions of all those things. Having multiple versions of the same feature can make it tough to know which one you should be using, especially if you're new to Android. This isn't a phone for beginners.
It does come with some handy features, like Private Mode, which lets you protect files behind a password or fingerprint security measure -- I'd use the former as the fingerprint recognition can be hit and miss, although the Alpha's seemed more reliable than the S5's. You'll also find Samsung's health tracker S Health which will track your footsteps and, using the sensor on the back, your heart rate.
In the UK, the Alpha packs in an octa-core processor. That's eight cores in total, but it's actually made up of two quad-core processors -- one clocked at 1.3GHz for basic tasks and one clocked at 1.8GHz for when more power is required.
Although at no point does it use all eight cores for monster power, it's still an extremely capable phone. It achieved 4,350 on the Geekbench benchmark test and 23,729 on Quadrant, putting it marginally above both the Galaxy S5 and LG G3 .
Meanwhile, the US variant makes use of the ever-present 2.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset that you find in many of the top-end phones.
General operation of the phone was very slick on both UK and US models, with no noticeable lag at all while navigating around the TouchWiz interface. Apps opened quickly and the camera can be ready to fire in under two seconds. Gaming was tackled perfectly well too with Shadowgun: Deadzone, Riptide GP 2, and Asphalt 8 all playing with high frame rates. Safe to say there's very little you can throw at this phone that it will struggle with.
The phone has an 1,860mAh battery, which is a fair bit smaller than the Galaxy S5's cell, but it's powering a smaller, lower-definition display, which is less power demanding. Samsung reckons you can get up to 11 hours of talk time, which I'd say is a little ambitious. On my own tests, I found the battery held its charge well in standby, but demanding tasks like gaming drained it extremely quickly, particularly with the screen brightness on max.
After a little over two hours of video looping over Wi-Fi, the battery had dropped from full to only 65 percent remaining, which isn't particularly impressive. During our battery test for continuous video playback, it lasted 13 hours and 59 minutes. If you're a careful user, then you should be able to get a day out of it (but no more), although if you use the camera a lot, send a lot of texts and emails and stream music and video, you can expect the power to dwindle long before. Like most smartphones, you'll need to charge it every night.
In the EU, testing bodies measured a digital SAR radiation rating of 0.37 watts per kilogram; in the US, that number is 1.18.
We tested US call quality in San Francisco using AT&T's network. Audio quality was good on the whole: rich, with rounded vocal characteristics on both ends of the line. On the tester's end, the phone did produce lispy, breathy qualities at the ends of sounds, like a loud puff of air. Volume was stronger than most Samsung phones, but if it's very loud out, you may still have a hard time hearing.
Speakerphone likewise sounded good on both sides as well, with barely any noticeable drop-off in quality for the listening party when we switched between the speaker and the standard earpiece. We testers identified a tiny amount of echo and a little vocal muffling. On the whole, volume was good in a relatively quiet room. We'd use the Alpha for conference calls taken from home, for example, or talking while cooking, but would have a hard time hearing clearly among clatter and hubbub.
The Alpha has a 12-megapixel camera stuck to its back, instead of the 16-megapixel camera found on the S5. Yes, yes, boo and hiss, but keep in mind that more megapixels do not mean better phones. In fact, the Alpha is capable of taking some brilliant photos, helped by the always-on HDR feature taken from the S5.
I found the HDR mode on the S5 to be pretty critical as it's not always great at taking a well-exposed shot without it and the Alpha seems to be similar. Turn HDR on, though, and you can get some really stunning images.
These rough walls behind London's OXO tower are a bit lost to the shadows without HDR enabled, but with it turned on, the image is a lot brighter and more evenly exposed (if a little unrealistic).
The same goes for this shot overlooking Gabriel's Wharf. Without HDR, the whole bottom half of the image is barely visible; turn it on and it becomes a great picture.
Even shooting into the light is possible, as the HDR mode will brighten up the areas that would otherwise be lost to darkness.
It captured this scene overlooking London well -- there's plenty of detail in the picture and nice colours too.
And here's just a silhouette picture, because I think it looks ace.
The Galaxy Alpha gets a lot of things right. Its metal frame easily makes it the most luxurious Galaxy phone around and its smaller size makes it very comfortable to hold. It's got plenty of power stuffed inside and the camera can take some brilliant shots. Its big letdown is undoubtedly its screen, which needs to pack in more pixels in order to match both the premium design and high price tag.
If you can pick the Alpha up on a good deal from your network provider, then it's definitely worth checking out. If you're just excited about a metal Android phone, then check out the HTC One M8, which has a gorgeous all-metal body.