The three phones at hand have surprisingly different designs for being rounded rectangles. The Samsung Galaxy Alpha and the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact are more similar than it seems at first, both have metal frames with components sandwiched between two panels of glass/plastic.
The Apple iPhone 6 uses an aluminum unibody with a glass panel sealing the components inside. That gives it the biggest exposed metal surface, which adds a lot of "premium" weight. We have to dock it a few points for the bezels though, it's the biggest device here by some margin (a full centimeter taller than the Z3 Compact).
Samsung became known for its plastic phones, despite brief flirtations with metal like in the now defunct Wave series. The Galaxy Alpha replaces the silver plastic rim with a proper aluminum frame. It doesn't cover nearly as much surface as the iPhone and the plastic on the back is not the best even by Samsung standards. Still, the phone feels more premium than the Galaxy S5 and the sparing use of metal kept the Alpha light, at 115g it weighs as much as the old 4" iPhone 5s.
Sony had a similar design for the upper Xperia range but for the Z3 Compact the company covered the metal frame in soft-touch, semi-transparent plastic. The edges are separate pieces, which should absorb some of the force if the phone lands on edge (the worst case scenario). Still, the glass back is impractical - not as cool as metal, as easy to scratch as plastic and it shatters too (unlike metal and plastic).
A premium feel is certainly important but the other key factor we're looking for is compactness. After all, we can have all the premium we can stomach in the large-screen segment we're trying to get away from. Here are the dimensions for direct comparison.
|iPhone 6||Galaxy Alpha||Xperia Z3 Compact|
Sony's phones are usually bigger on average than devices with similarly-sized screen. The Sony Xperia Z3 Compact surprised everyone with just how little bezel there is - it has a slightly smaller screen sure, but it's easily the most compact device here. And Sony still found room for two speakers at the front.
The Samsung Galaxy Alpha doesn't have speakers but it does have hardware buttons, which do add some bulk. As a result the Alpha is half a centimeter taller than the Xperia.
The Apple iPhone 6 has the thickest bezels of the three - it's 11mm taller than the Sony and it's slightly wider than the two Androids. It's not even the thinnest in this comparison, iPhones usually had that advantage. Sure, the Galaxy Alpha's camera protrudes from the back but we're not sure this is an argument Apple wants to make.
Despite what Apple may have claimed in the past, a handset the size of an iPhone 6 is perfectly usable with one hand. Still, for the most expensive smartphone (and we don't mean just in this article) we think it's fair to expect excellence and we're not quite getting the best out of it here.
The Sony is the thickest of the three but its camera is flush with the back and has a significant advantage in battery capacity (to which will come up later). Speaking of batteries, the one in the Galaxy Alpha is user-replaceable, while the other two are sealed.
It's time for Sony to pull out the ace from its sleeve - the Xperia Z3 Compact has an IP68 rating, making it completely dust tight and able to dive beyond 1 meter of water. To achieve that Sony has had to protect most ports and slots with flaps (not the 3.5mm audio jack though).
The only real problem with this is that the microUSB port is covered, so you have to open the flap every time you want to charge the device or transfer files with a cable (which isn't as common as it used to be). You can buy a magnetic charger stand from Sony and avoid the hassle of opening the flap to charge but the stand is sold separately.
One of the flaps covers a microSD card slot, making the Xperia Z3 Compact the only phone with expandable storage here. It starts off with 16GB internal storage (as does the iPhone) and there are no other options, but memory cards are dirt cheap these days.
The Samsung Galaxy Alpha could have had an IP rating as well, the Galaxy S5 has it by default. It has a flap too, but we still feel it's a bit of a missed opportunity. iPhones, iPads and iPods never had water resistance so we weren't expecting it either (though there were some rumors).
While we're on the topic of practicality, we should cover the hardware keys offered by each device. Apple uses only one on the front - the Home key - that also contains a fingerprint reader. On the left are easy to use volume controls (volume rocker and dedicated ring/silent switch), on the right is the Power key. All keys are big and comfortable to use.
The Samsung Galaxy Alpha has a similar arrangement, including a fingerprint sensor on the Home key. You have to swipe your finger though, not just put it on the key, which takes some getting used to. The volume rocker and the Power key are on the thin side and not as easy to use.
The Sony Xperia Z3 Compact keys are somewhere in the middle with a trademark round aluminum power key. There's a hardware two-stage shutter key, too, which some prefer over on-screen keys. It also serves to launch the camera from a locked phone as quick as possible. What it lacks is a fingerprint sensor, which reduces the security options for screen lock and money transactions.
The Galaxy Alpha has something so far exclusive to a few Samsung phones - a heart monitor. It does sound as if it turns the Alpha into the better exercise assistant by allowing it to measure your heart rate but in reality, it's nowhere as convenient as it sounds, and an external sensor is always easier to use and more accurate.
Winner: Apple iPhone 6. No, it's not the most compact 4.7" phone but the aluminum unibody feels crafted rather than assembled. Despite the bezels, the iPhone 6 is perfectly usable with one hand and it's beautiful (though we could have done without the plastic lines on the back).
Runner up: Sony Xperia Z3 Compact. We're not too happy that Sony covered up the metal rim but it makes the phone more durable so we can live with it. The Xperia Z3 Compact is the most practical of the three with an IP68 rating and a card slot, plus it's the most compact.
Third place: Samsung Galaxy Alpha. The metal rim makes the phone feel more expensive but parts of it still look like a midrange Galaxy. It's thin and light but the plastic on the back isn't the best even by Samsung standards. The user-accessible battery is nice but we change microSD cards more often than we change batteries.