For the last couple of months the rumor mill has touted the “metal” Galaxy Alpha as Samsung’s effort to compete directly with the next iPhone. The logic was that both have metal chassis, both have 4.7″ screens, neither have micro SD cards, and both have, theoretically, premium build quality, however that’s defined.
Samsung has finally announced the Galaxy Alpha, and we know what it brings to the table. We still don’t know for sure what the iPhone 6 will offer, but we have lots of rumors. So let’s play along with the game. How does the Alpha compare to the most frequently rumored specs for the iPhone 6?
Both have a 4.7″ screen, but that’s where the similarity ends. The Alpha has Samsung’s by now traditional Super AMOLED display, the iPhone will likely have an IPS Liquid Crystal Display (LCD). The SAMOLED screen on the Galaxy S5 is thought by many to be the best mobile screen in the business, with very saturated colors (which can be toned down in settings, if you prefer a more natural look), an extremely wide viewing angle, and great visibility in bright sunlight. The iPhone’s LCD won’t match Samsung’s saturation or viewing angle, and probably not it’s brightness, but will likely offer more realistic colors and a viewing angle that’s more than adequate. Pick your poison.
The difference that most people will latch onto is resolution. The Galaxy Alpha ships with “only” a 1080 x 720 pixel display, while the iPhone is rumored to offer a 1704 x 960 pixel screen. (What is it with Apple and it’s refusal to adopt ANYONE else’s standards? If Apple ever builds a TV, it probably won’t be HD or 4K, but some weird value in between.) That gives the next iPhone 416 pixels per inch, while the Alpha has to make do with “only” 320 ppi. But it wasn’t long ago that Steve Jobs was telling us that 326 ppi was the most the human eye could discern, so the real world difference may not be significant. Of course, that won’t stop the same iPhone acolytes who said the Galaxy S5’s 432 ppi was unnecessary from now claiming that 416 ppi is the new sweet spot. The real question, in our minds, isn’t whether 320 ppi is enough, but whether the Alpha’s screen uses Samsung’s latest technology, or whether it’s a rehash of the Galaxy S3’s screen.
Build Quality / Premium “feel”
We actually hate to use the term “build quality” in this discussion. The implication is that Samsung’s plastic-bodied phones have “poor” build quality, and nothing could be further from the truth. They may not have the premium feel that some other phones provide, but they are as solid, well-made and reliable as any phone offered. And Samsung’s plastic is tough as nails. It doesn’t dent (unlike many metal phones), the finish doesn’t chip or wear away (ditto), and the flexibility of the plastic may actually absorb some impact if you drop the phone, protecting the screen and internals from damage. So this isn’t really a question of quality, but of feel, image, and maybe a bit of snob appeal.
While we don’t know what the final construction of the next iPhone will look like, we have a pretty good idea of what it will be made from. And that’s metal, and lots of it. Reports out of Asia indicate that Apple has just about locked up the manufacturing capacity for an all metal, unibody chassis. While Samsung hasn’t provided any images of the Alpha with the back removed, leaked images show a largely plastic device with a metal frame or rim and a removable plastic back. It’s still unknown whether that metal is really the frame of the phone, which should make it much more rigid, or simply a decorative band around a traditional Samsung plastic chassis. In either case, though, it’s pretty clear that the iPhone will have the edge in terms of rigidity, style, and “cool” factor. On the other hand, the Alpha should have a better feel that previous Samsung phones, and offers the advantage of an interchangeable battery. I do wish Samsung would lose the dimples on the back, though.
On the front of the phone, there has been much speculation that the iPhone 6 will have a synthetic sapphire display, but the most recent rumors are backing away from this. There have been some reports that the Sapphire, while very scratch resistant, is also very prone to shattering. The Alpha uses Corning Gorilla Glass 3 which, while not indestructible, is very scratch resistant. We’ll have to wait to see what Apple actually provides, but neither screen should present the typical user with any issues.
Design & Style
Sorry, Samsung, but even without seeing the new iPhone Apple has you beat. The metal edges add a little style, but the front looks like every other Samsung phone sold in the last 3 years, and the back just looks like your phone has measles. Dull and boring, at best. On the other hand, based on the renders seen to date, the iPhone 6 will have positively huge bezels, in large part because of Apple’s insistence on the round physical button. That bezel pushes the screen further from the user’s fingers, and will make reaching the top of the display much more difficult. The iPhone 6 is likely to be a two-handed device, whereas the Galaxy is likely to be much easier to use one-handed.
This is a broad category, covering everything from benchmarks, how smooth the user interface is and how well apps perform, to battery life. The Galaxy’s Exynos Octa Core chipset will be no slouch. Neither will Apple’s new A8 chipset. Apple’s control of the entire product, enabling them to optimize the OS to the hardware, generally provides very good performance, but there probably won’t be any complaints about the Galaxy in this regard, either. Samsung claims the Exynos chip performs better than the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 chipset, which is notably faster than the 801 found in the Galaxy S5. The processor in the Alpha is Samsung’s first to be built on a new 20 nanometer process, which Samsung claims allows the chip to be 25% more efficient than chips made on the older 28 nm process. That should help battery life.
The iPhone 5S is notoriously poor in this regard. Both phones will have batteries in the 1800 mAh range, but that higher resolution screen and older chip technology (the A8 is built on the 28 nm process) puts the iPhone at a disadvantage here. And, of course, the Galaxy has Samsung’s ultra power-saving mode, and will let you swap in another battery at any time. The Alpha is likely to trump the iPhone in this area.
Sadly, Samsung has not seen fit to equip the Alpha with a micro SD card. Your only choice is 2 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage. The iPhone is likely to come in both 32 GB and 64 GB versions, also without removable storage, and also with 2 GB of RAM. For most, 32 GB is probably enough, especially with cloud storage readily available. But if you like to carry lots of music or movies with you, and have deep pockets, 64 GB is enticing.
The Alpha drops to 12 MP, down from the S5’s 16 MP shooter, which will probably improve low-light shots, the S5’s weakness. The iPhone is expected to come with Sony’s latest 13 MP sensor. Neither offers OIS. Sony does wonderful thing with sensors, so I expect the iPhone to be a bit better here, but both are likely to be very good.
Flexibility, Customizability and Usability
Here’s where the Galaxy really shines. There’s simply no comparison in the user’s ability to customize the phone and make it look, and act, just the way you want it. From dozens, or maybe hundreds, of custom launchers, to widgets, to themes, Android is simply far more flexible and customizable than iOS. And while iOS is still somewhat ahead in terms of simplicity, Android has gotten much easier to use and configure. You need to jailbreak an iPhone to even come close to the freedom and flexibility that Android offers, and if you’re willing to do that you can also root an Android phone and go much further.
Availability and Price
No official word on price, but it’s rumored that Samsung will price the Alpha comparably to the iPhone. If so, I think Samsung will find themselves with a slow seller. But prices can always be lowered, while it’s hard to raise them. In terms of availability, Samsung may have stolen the lead on Apple. The Galaxy Alpha should go on sale about the same time Apple announces the iPhone 6, giving them a small lead among early adopters.
But the truth is that many millions who live and die by Apple products won’t care which phone is better, or which comes first, or even how much they cost. And Apple is likely to gain back some customers who switched to Android because they got tired of the iPhone’s tiny screen. In the end, Android phones will continue to outsell iPhones world-wide, and the iPhone will continue to outsell any individual Android phone, including the Samsung Galaxy Alpha.
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