Sunday, 26 February 2017 10:16

Samsung’s Galaxy A5/7 – A Galaxy not very far away (review)

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Samsung trickles down the features from its premium Galaxy S series to next year’s mid-range A series. There is a lot on offer in the 2017 Galaxy A5 and A7 – feature for feature it is not too far from the popular Galaxy S6.

I admit to being spoilt in the smartphone stakes – most of my reviews are premium flagships and sometimes it is hard to come back to earth. But less than 10% of Samsung’s sales are for the premium Galaxy S class series. A massive 84% of the population buy lower cost devices as proven by OPPO, ZTE, Huawei and the strong sales of last year’s flagship models at lower prices.

Not that $649 for the A5 or $799 for the A7 could be considered cheap but it does fit into iTWire’s test paradigms as a mid-range phone and should be rated accordingly.

You probably need to assign a “mental” premium on the Samsung brand over some others because of its amazing local Australian support, it’s ISO-certified manufacturing, extremely low fault rates, longevity, and frankly everything works well – it is a class act.

Out of the box

I was provided with the smaller, 5.2” A5 to test. As you will see from the specifications the only real difference between it and the 5.7” A7 is a larger battery.

Interestingly, Samsung Australia did not bring the previous Galaxy A 2016 model here because the Galaxy J series (lower specified) was doing so well and Australia has a larger middle class that can afford to buy the Galaxy S series.

The A5 comes in a typical Samsung cream box with a fast charger (5V/2A and 9V/1.67A), a USB-C to USB-A cable, a pair of Samsung standard buds/mic, and both USB-A female to USB-C and micro-USB to USB-C adaptors (to assist in data transfer).

SS Galaxy A box

Set-up is easy. It can clone any Google accounts (or avoid them). It includes Samsung Smart Switch that will effortlessly copy almost everything from another Android, iOS, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile either by NFC Bluetooth, direct cable, or via Windows or Mac. In my experience, this is an amazing app – even transferring iTunes over.

The A5 has separate slots for the single SIM and microSD card – that scores heavily over typical multi-use dual SIM slots.

It has access to a range of interesting “Galaxy” apps that other brands cannot access.

Looks-wise, it is a typical black (or gold) glass slab with rounded edges and a fingerprint magnet gloss back. The back has no camera protrusion and sits flat on the desk. Capacitive back/home keys don’t eat into the screen – they are in the bottom bezel, so top marks here too.

Unlike most phones, there are no ungainly plastic antenna bars evident. Samsung has followed the S8 design cues by placing the main antenna in the lower bezel. Build and materials quality are top class and it has a nice feel in the hands.

Specifications

  Galaxy A5 2017 Galaxy A7 2017
Model No SM-A520F SM-A720F
Australian website http://www.samsung.com/au/smartphones/galaxy-a5-a520f/SM-A520FZKAXSA/ http://www.samsung.com/au/smartphones/galaxy-a7-a720f/SM-A720FZKAXSA/
Screen 5.2” Super AMOLED, 1920 x 1080, 424ppi, 71.5% screen-to-body-ratio, Gorilla Glass 4, Always-on-display 5.7” Super AMOLED, 1920 x 1080, 386ppi, 73.6% screen-to-body-ratio, Gorilla Glass 4, Always-on-display
Processor Exynos 7880 Octa 1.9GHz same
RAM/Storage/microSD 3GB LPDDR3/32GB (23GB free) and microSD dedicated slot to 256GB same
Rear Camera 16MP (4928 × 3264), f/1.9, 27mm, autofocus (contrast detect), single LED flash, HDR, 1080 @30fps, EIS on video only, Food mode and other filters. Hyperlapse and Slowmo. same
Front camera 16MP, f/1.9, 1080p with beauty effects, screen flash, and wide selfie mode same
Sensors etc Wi-Fi AC, dual band, MIMO; Wi-Di; Hotspot; NFC; FM radio; Bluetooth 4.2; GPS; USB-C; OTG same
Comms

LTE Cat 6 (300/50Mbps)

Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, B8, B17, 20, 28, 38, 40, 41

same
Fingerprint Front bottom bezel sensor same
Audio 3.5mm jack (on bottom), active noise cancellation via 2 mics, mono side firing speaker, S Voice control same
Battery 3000mAh, non-removable, USB-C, fast charge (zero to 100% in 1.5hours), 95hr endurance 3600mAh, non-removable, USB-C, fast charge, Unknown endurance
IP rating IP68 dust and water resistant 1.5 meters for 30 minutes same
Payment Samsung Pay with NFC and MST same
OS Android 6.01 with 7.x upgrade coming soon same
Size/weight 146.1 x 71.4 x 7.9 mm x 157g 156.8 x 77.6 x 7.9 mm x 186g
What is it missing (in comparison to competitors?

Wireless charging
MHL screen output but has Wi-Di

4K video record, OIS

same
Colours Black Sky or Gold Sand same
Price A$649 A$799

Camera

The camera is a reasonable all-around performer, but a little lacking if compared to the brilliant GS6 and GS7. That is not meant to be too critical – most users will be very happy with it, but if you want better photography look around for a bargain on a superseded Galaxy S6.

In daylight to early evening, it took competent, colourful shots, but manual HDR, lack of optical image stabilisation, slower autofocus, and smaller pixels (than the GS6/7) meant low light shots were not to the Galaxy standard I expect.

HDR is manual. It must be turned on – swipe left - and turned off by swiping left again and selecting auto. It will not work if flash is set to on, or auto. Pro mode is limited and there is no RAW option. Again, not as intuitive as the GS6/GS7.

The focus is a little slower – it uses a Samsung GH96-10461A CMOS sensor (not a BSI) and contrast detection system (not PADF). Still, it is acceptable.

All reference shots were set to Auto. Manual HDR was selected for second comparative shots.

Outdoors, normal light: Excellent shots, good colour and white balance, crisp image and good focus times. HDR made little difference to shadows or highlights except for longer exposure times and lack of OIS meant more often blurry shots than not.

Outdoors, early evening: Creditable shots, especially as I tested during a very overcast day with thin sunlight. HDR did enhance shadows and give better sky definition but at the expense of exposure time.

Indoors, good ambient office style light: HDR produced the best shots bringing up otherwise muted colours but with longer exposure times.

Indoors, low light (no HDR): The single LED flash gave good even light to 2.5 metres, but exposure times were longer than expected requiring a very steady hand.

Selfies: Excellent potential with auto screen flash, but the lack of OIS and autofocus means take care to get better results.

Panorama: Good 1800-pixel height provided the scene is still – evidence of stitching over moving objects.

Video: 1080p @30fps at 17Mbps producing a 127MB file every minute. Daylight and early evening videos were good but lower light produced muted colours.

Display

AMOLED is the class leader and it uses a diamond pentile (RGBG - 1 x full-sized red and blue and two x half-sized green) for maximum brightness. In fact, side by side with the S7 Edge it is a tad whiter/brighter/cleaner but that could be the new Grace UX that we first briefly saw on the Note 7.

It has black blacks, infinite contrast, and good colour with a choice of cinema, photo, adaptive and basic modes as well as colour balance – as good as it gets for an HD screen.

Sunlight readability is a given for AMOLED and its adaptive mode is great for night use too. It has a blue light mode for night use.

Performance/RAM/Storage

The Exynos 7880 with eight x 1.9GHz cores is roughly equivalent to a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625. It is no powerhouse with performance coming in the midrange of similarly equipped phones.

Do you need the power? It is not aimed at game players but at those who want a great AMOLED screen, and up to two days’ battery life, and in everyday use there is no lag.

Fingerprint reader/security

It has a fingerprint reader and a Web sign-in feature that remembers passwords that can be completed with a fingerprint – time-saving.

Samsung supply Knox as a way of securing and customising its Galaxy smartphones. This manifests as a secure folder (secure container or workspace) to encrypt and protect data, pictures, apps and more. Once you enter the secure folder and take a photo it goes there – not the gallery. Knox is not a substitute for paid anti-malware apps, but it is very good for privacy and app security.

I have started to use it for storing passwords and personally identifiable information – all secured with my fingerprint.

Comms/sound

The Samsung phone app is one of the better ones that picks up caller ID from contacts, MS Outlook, the Telco and other contact managers. In tests around Sydney on the Telstra 4GX network, it was bit-for-bit the with the Galaxy S7 Edge – that is more of a measure of the network speed than the phone.

It has the Direct call feature to make and receive make a voice call by picking up and holding the device near your ear while viewing call, message, or contact details.

The ringtone was loud enough but it's mono, side-firing speaker was, at best, shrill. Hands-free was clear on both ends and the two active noise-cancelling mics (one top and bottom) did a great job. Calls were clear.

Ironically, there is a 7-band equaliser and UHQ up-scaler but it makes little difference to the tiny, tinny speaker.

Pure audio output is excellent. I hooked it up to a Pioneer AV amp and ramped up the volume to test if the audio input is up to scratch – it was. In Bluetooth tests using a Sennheiser PXC-550 headset (for my reference sound), it was excellent.

It will do VoLTE but there is no mention of Wi-Fi calling.

Battery

The A5/A7 has a 3000/3600mAH battery that powers an always-on-display except when it is in your pocket. The theoretical endurance test is 95 hours. I found that in heavy testing use (first couple of days) there was at least 60% left before bed time. It would stretch to two days of average use.

Conclusion

As an affordable flagship, it is not too far off the mark. As a midrange, it would score 4.5 out of 5 and as flagship 7 out 10 (maybe more with Android 7 and some camera tweaks).

Pros

  • IP68.
  • Battery life is excellent as is quick charge – it has stamina.
  • Grace UX is nice and clean and allows for Google OTA Android updates.
  • HD screen is bright and colourful and Always on display is very useful.
  • Build quality is tops.
  • Android 7 is coming.
  • Good audio including 7-band equaliser (for Bluetooth and amplifier).

Cons

  • Back panel and screen are fingerprint magnets.
  • Mono loudspeaker is not great for music.
  • Camera is good in daylight but lack of OIS and auto HDR limit its low-light capability - not its strongest point like the GS6 or GS7.
  • Not really for VR as it has an HD screen.
  • I love wireless charging, but you pay more to get it on the S series.

Would I buy it?

If I could not afford the Galaxy S7, sure! Some 84% of the population purchase mid-range or lower cost handsets. But then I would look seriously at the Galaxy S6 that is selling from $499 to $699 (provided it is the genuine Australian model SM-G920IZKEXSA).

That is not to take away from the A5/A7 – there is a lot to recommend. IP68, battery life and AMOLED screen for starters. Perhaps I expected too much from the camera — after all a Galaxy class should have the best camera — but it is fine for average happy snaps.

Make sure you buy the 2017 Australian model – there are A5 and A7 grey imports and earlier models selling from around $400, and while they are decent phones, they are not a patch on this model.

Samsung Galaxy A lifestyle

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw [email protected]  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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