Samsung Galaxy Alpha review: Galaxy reboot
The Samsung Galaxy Alpha comes with a 12MP camera. Samsung hasn't had a 12MP shooter in its lineup for ages so the Alpha isn't just borrowing the camera of another Galaxy. The image sensor has 16:9 aspect ratio, meaning it shoots widescreen photos natively.
The interface has been lifted directly from the Galaxy S5. The right column holds the essential keys - still and video shutter keys, the Mode button and the gallery shortcut. The left column has the front/back camera toggle, selective focus, HDR and settings shortcut.
The middle two shortcuts are customizable, the top and bottom ones are not. The Mode button is the other place you can quickly access shooting modes, including Panorama, Shot & more, Virtual tour, Dual Camera and Beauty face.
Shot & more combines Best photo, Best face, Drama shot, Eraser and Panning shot. Dual Camera takes a photo with both front and back cameras simultaneously.
Virtual tour shot is similar to panoramas except you can move forward, turn left or right, move some more. Selective Focus takes two shots and processes them so you can photograph a close-up subject and blur the background or blur the object and keep the background in focus. The third option is everything in focus, here's how those options look.
You can download new camera modes from the Galaxy App store (like Surround shot, a spherical panorama mode).
The image quality of the photos is very impressive. Noise is kept low and the amount of fine detail is in abundance. Samsung's traditional oversharpening has been toned down but images are still sharp. Colors are slightly oversaturated by otherwise accurate.
The camera tends to underexpose shadows but you can enable HDR mode to help with high-contrast scenes. The mode brightens shadowy areas and to a lesser extent reigns in bright areas. The overall effect doesn't come on too strong.
The panorama mode creates images around 3,000px tall if you hold the phone vertically and around 1,700px if you hold it horizontally. In either case it will go the full 360° circle for very high resolution results. The stitching is very good, barring the usual issues with moving objects.
Photo quality comparison
There aren't a lot of recent 12MP shooters but the camera on the Galaxy Alpha has a 16:9 sensor making it more suitable for showing off photos on widescreens. Note that we took 4:3 photos to make the comparison with other phones easier.
The Samsung Galaxy Alpha joins the elite club of 2160p shooters. It can also capture 1080p video at both 30fps and 60fps and slow motion is available at 720p resolution. Note that the slowest option (8x) drops the framerate of the resulting video to 15fps, use 4x if you want to keep it at 30fps.
For 2160p videos the Alpha camera records at 48Mbps bitrate, matching the Galaxy S5. Interestingly, audio recording is done at 256Kbps, double the bitrate the S5 uses and matching the venerable Nokia Lumia 1020.
Total bitrates go down from there - 28Mbps for 1080p @ 60fps and 17Mbps for 1080p @ 30fps. The audio bitrate remains unchanged.
An important thing to note is that switching to 2160p video mode puts an upper limit on video length - 4 minutes (instead of the usual 5) - and disables certain features like Dual Camera, HDR, video effects, taking photos during video capture and video effects.
The quality of 2160p videos is great with no noise and plenty of detail. Compression does tend to take away detail in places though. Colors are (again) oversaturated but there are no other noticeable issues. The quality of 1080p videos is identical though of course you only get a quarter of the pixels.
The continuous autofocus can get a little trigger happy at times so you can just tap on the part of the frame to lock the focus on it. An AF button appears to re-enable continuous autofocus.
Video quality comparison
The Samsung Galaxy Alpha is among the 2160p-capable flagships (something minis including the Xperia Z1 Compact and Galaxy S5 mini miss out on).
And here it is in 1080p mode, which for now is more practical (especially if you don't have a 4K TV).