Introduction and design
Last year’s Galaxy Alpha and Note 4 signified the beginning of the end for all plastic, high-end Samsung smartphones. While the inclusion of a metal frame on both devices was certainly welcome, the Korean firm wasn’t ready to forgo its beloved plastic entirely.
With the more affordable A Series, Samsung has bowed to consumer pressure, opting for a metal unibody design, waving goodbye to the company’s signature removable rear cover and battery.
Being the least expensive of Samsung’s new mid-range line-up, it’s unsurprising that the Galaxy A3 is neither the most powerful nor the most feature-rich smartphone on the market. Yet it aims to offer consumers a viable compact option, with build quality comparable to handsets costing twice as much. And Samsung’s reputation as a manufacturer is another point in the A3’s favour.
The Galaxy A3 can be snapped up SIM free for around £225 (roughly $350, AU$440). Those in the UK who’d prefer to purchase the Galaxy A3 on a subsidised deal can do so, with handsets available on a 24-month contract available for as little as £17.50 per month.
This pricetag puts the Galaxy A3 up against some tough mid-range competitors, including the mighty OnePlus One and the capable Honor 6. Yet due to the increasing dominance of big-screen smartphones, the A3 could be a standout option for users who crave premium build quality and a sub 5-inch display, but cannot afford a costly device like the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact.
On paper, the specs of the Galaxy A3 look rather run-of-the-mill, with Samsung’s diminutive offering only packing a 4.5-inch qHD display and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 quad-core processor, backed up by 1.5GB RAM.
Providing the juice is a 1900mAh non-removable battery, and as you’d expect there’s 4G LTE and NFC connectivity on board. Plenty of storage is available, with 16GB of internal storage and the option to add a further 64GB via a microSD card.
Arguably the externals are the real draw here, with the Galaxy A3’s metal unibody design looking and feeling far more refined than many previous Samsung smartphones. At just 110g, the A3 is extremely lightweight (possibly too light for some), but this doesn’t detract from the impressive overall build quality.
On the front the Galaxy A3 retains the typical Samsung design language with a prominent physical home button sitting in the centre below the display, flanked by the usual recent apps and back keys. Located up top above the bold Samsung branding is a silver earpiece, along with proximity and ambient light sensors and a 5MP front-facing shooter.
Surprisingly Samsung opted not to include an LED notification light. This is quite disappointing considering the A3’s mid-range price, although the screen does wake from sleep when a notification from a stock app is received.
Samsung’s choice to go with a qHD (quarter HD) Super AMOLED display for the mid-range Galaxy A3 does initially sound a tad bizarre, especially when many devices costing half as much are packing HD panels.
However in everyday use the resolution of a mere 960 x 540 is perfectly acceptable on the A3’s modest 4.5-inch screen. For the most part, text and images look sharp and detailed. Upon first inspection you’d probably assume that the A3’s display was of the 720P variety, as the low 245 PPI pixel density is only really noticeable when consuming lots of media.
Colours are punchy, contrast is superb and viewing angles are incredibly wide thanks to the Super AMOLED technology. The A3’s screen also has a decent maximum brightness level and is very responsive to touch.
Along with its larger A Series siblings, the Galaxy A3 is one of the first smartphones to use Corning’s latest Gorilla Glass 4. As well as providing more protection than previous versions, the glass is super thin with a diameter of just 0.4mm. This allows the A3 to retain a slim and light design, without compromising durability.
Much like the Samsung Galaxy S6, both the volume rocker on the left and the power button on the right of the Galaxy A3 feel great thanks to their metallic finish. They offer great tactile feedback and feel far sturdier than the metal keys found on the mid-range Huawei Ascend G7.
MicroSD and NanoSIM card trays are situated under the power button and blend almost seamlessly into the A3’s slender frame.
The combination of the 4.5-inch screen, relatively thin bezels and overall slim profile help make the Galaxy A3 an extremely compact device. Reaching all corners of the screen is a doddle, even for those with small hands, and the perfectly positioned power and volume keys can be accessed without any hand gymnastics.
Despite the unibody metal construction, no doubt a vast improvement over plastic, the rather plain rear of the Galaxy A3 still lacks the refined look of metal flagships such as the HTC One M9.
Up top there’s an 8MP rear-facing shooter taking up a central position, with a single LED flash to the left and speaker to the right. The protruding camera is a minor gripe, and can make typing while the A3 is resting on a flat surface a pretty wobbly affair.
The matte finish of the rear is welcome, keeping the Galaxy A3 free from unsightly fingerprints and smudges. While the metal rear is smooth and a little slippery, the A3’s frame is comfortable to grip and the rounded edges conform nicely to the palm.
For an affordable mid-range smartphone the Galaxy A3 offers incredible build quality and the absence of flexing and creaking is really quite satisfying.
White, platinum silver, midnight black and champagne gold variants of the Galaxy A3 are available, and all carry the same inexpensive price tag.
Key features and interface
Design and build quality are the Galaxy A3’s biggest strengths and probably the two main features that differentiate it from other affordable smartphones. The vibrant 4.5-inch Super AMOLED display is also a highlight, despite only featuring qHD resolution, with fantastic viewing angles and contrast.
That being said, these features have already been discussed at large in the first section of the review and there are a number of other key features which are certainly noteworthy.
Samsung has included numerous software enhancements for the Galaxy A3’s 5MP front-facing camera, with the Korean firm looking to target social networking enthusiasts.
Five shooting modes are accessible from within the camera app while using the A3’s front-facing camera. The usual Samsung offerings such as Continuous Shot and Sound & Shot are present, and work as well as you’d expect them to.
The ‘Animated GIF’ mode is a little gimmicky but fun nevertheless, allowing the user to continuously shoot up to 20 photos and combine them together to make a moving image.
Selfie lovers will appreciate the inclusion of a Wide Selfie option, but the mode does take some time to master. Like the panorama shooting mode on most smartphone cameras, Wide Selfie works by merging three photos together, in order to create a wider shot.
Swivelling the Galaxy A3 to the correct grid positions either side of the central image can be extremely tricky, especially if you don’t have a very steady hand, and I’d say around half of my attempts ended in errors. Yet when you do manage to get it right, results look excellent and the mode is definitely worth persevering with if you enjoy the occasional group selfie.
You have the power
Despite the Galaxy A3 only packing a small qHD display and a frugal processing package, there may be times where you find yourself in the red and needing to conserve power. Ultra Power Saving Mode saves large amounts of juice by applying a simplified greyscale theme and limiting the majority of smartphone functions.
Core apps (phone, messages, email and internet) still function perfectly well and while this battery-saving mode will not be needed on a daily basis, it is a reassuring and possibly crucial feature.
Ultra Power Saving mode has often been buried deep in the settings menu of Samsung’s very bloated (and at times frustrating) TouchWiz UI. Thankfully the Korean giant now seems to have learned that sometimes less is more.
The Galaxy A3 comes equipped with Samsung’s new and improved TouchWiz UI, running above Android 4.4.4 KitKat. Although it doesn’t currently feature the Lollipop material design tweaks, such as those found on the Galaxy S6, the UI does look and feel far more refined than previous iterations.
Yes the cartoonish app icons are still present, though slightly flatter-looking, but the overall interface is less cluttered and in-your-face than before.
Homescreens are rather minimal by Samsung’s standards, with stock widgets, such as weather, employing a thin and semi-transparent design. Flipboard briefing makes an appearance to the left of the main homescreen but unfortunately suffers from the same lag that plagued the previous My Magazines feature. Thankfully it can easily be disabled from the homescreens settings menu.
Lag and stutter are now non-existent in the app drawer and useful options such as Create folder and Hide Apps remain accessible in the top right-hand corner.
That being said, you probably won’t need to hide many apps, as Samsung have at last removed the majority of bloatware. The likes of Chat On and Samsung Hub are now distant memories, although the much maligned S Voice app is still hanging on in there.
Samsung smartphones have always offered a decent number of pre-installed Google apps and the Galaxy A3 is no exception. Other than Google Keep and Calendar, which have stock alternatives, nearly all of the essentials are here including Play Store, Play Music, Maps, Gmail and of course Chrome.
This is definitely an area where the Galaxy A3 has an advantage over some of the competing smartphones from neighbouring China, as trying to get Google services working perfectly on an import device can be a bit of a challenge.
However, Chinese devices tend to offer a great deal of customisation, which is a major pull for many users. The Galaxy A3 is one of the first Samsung smartphones to come with theme options, and it’s a welcome advance.
The implementation is somewhat primitive, with only five default themes to choose from. Only the icon and wallpaper style can be changed and there’s no option to mix and match elements from different themes. I’m sure more themes and functionality will arrive in due course, but as of now it makes for rather poor viewing.
What Samsung lacks in the theme department, it makes up for with other personalisation options. Easy Mode can be activated in the settings menu to simplify the homescreen layout and present selected apps in a clearer format – a potentially handy feature for first-time smartphone users.
A newly launched Private Mode is also available within the Galaxy A3’s settings, allowing users to keep content (in the Gallery, Video, Music, Voice Recorder and My Files apps) hidden and secure.
Like the majority of other Samsung smartphones currently on the market, Motions and Gestures is included on the Galaxy A3, but unfortunately there’s no double tap to wake or screen off gestures such as those found on the LG G4 and OnePlus One. Arguably the only gesture I feel inclined to use on the Galaxy A3 is flipping the phone over to Mute/Pause, as the Smart Alert and Palm Swipe to Capture functions seem rather trivial.
Performance and battery
With a modest 1.2GHz Snapdragon 410 quad-core processor and Adreno 306 GPU, backed up by just 1.5GB RAM, you’d probably expect performance to be a major weaknesses of the Samsung Galaxy A3.
Compared to similarly priced smartphones such as the Honor 6 and Oneplus One, the Galaxy A3 is far less powerful on paper and it certainly can’t hold a candle to high-end flagships like the Galaxy S6 Edge.
As we all know, benchmarking results often don’t tell the whole story and that’s certainly the case here. The Galaxy A3 only scored an average of 1,458 on the Geekbench 3 multi-core test, which puts it firmly between budget devices such as the Moto G (2014) (1,142) and the Honor 4X (1,705).
Yet in everyday use the Galaxy A3 feels satisfyingly snappy and smooth, with very little lag. Navigating through the new TouchWiz UI is remarkably fluid, app opening times are fair and multitasking is handled without a hitch, despite the Galaxy A3 packing only 1.5GB RAM.
Avid gamers are unlikely to gravitate towards the Galaxy A3 due to small, low-resolution screen. However Samsung’s pocket-friendly handset is perfectly adequate for those who enjoy a bit of light gaming on the go. Crossy Road and Sonic Jump Fever run without a hiccup, although dropped frames are a common occurrence in more demanding games such as Dead Trigger.
Performance may see an increase with the imminent arrival of a 5.0.2 Lollipop update that is fully optimised for 64-bit architecture. At present the Galaxy A3 ships with 4.4.4 KitKat and while this is a stable option given Lollipop’s recent woes, it does not take full advantage of the 64-bit Snapdragon 410 processor.
Unlike the majority of previous affordable Samsung smartphones, the Galaxy A3 features a non-removable battery.The included 19,00mAh unit is a little on the small side, but sheer capacity had to be sacrificed in order to keep a slim profile and compact form factor.
Samsung’s decision to include an energy efficient qHD Super AMOLED display and less power-hungry internals really pays dividends here. Battery life on the whole is impressive considering the small capacity power pack.
Light-to-moderate users will comfortably get a days worth of battery life out of the Galaxy A3 and potentially a little more. Like the similarly sized Moto G (2013) there’s often some juice left in the tank at the end of the day, which is enough to see you through until lunchtime the following day (and sometimes even further).
Results from the standard TechRadar video test were very encouraging. After playing the 90-minute video, with brightness and volume levels set to maximum, the Galaxy A3 still had 78% of its juice remaining.
That’s a notable feat considering the low-capacity battery and the Galaxy A3 only loses 5% more juice during the test than the mid-range king, the OnePlus One. In comparison to smartphones of a similar size, the Galaxy A3 once again fairs well, conserving 1% more battery over the course of the video than the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact and HTC One Mini 2.
This result translates into superb everyday battery performance and over the course of the review period, when I was vigorously testing the handset, I was easily able to obtain four to five hours of screen-on time per charge.
Power Saving and Ultra Power Saving modes are available in the Galaxy A3’s settings menu if you need to eek out some more power from the battery. Although using the latter is probably only advisable for those desperate to save juice, as the feature limits most smartphone functions.
Heavy users who consume a lot of media and play graphically intensive games probably won’t want to use these performance-sapping modes, and will more-than-likely end up needing to charge the Galaxy A3 overnight.
Like many Samsung smartphones that have gone before it, the Galaxy A3 handles the essentials competently.
Making and receiving calls with the Galaxy A3 is thoroughly enjoyable and overall call quality is excellent. The earpiece consistently delivers detailed sound during conversations and the primary microphone at the base does a brilliant job of clearly relaying your voice.
Loud environments pose little problem to the Galaxy A3, with the secondary microphone on the top edge blocking out a considerable amount of unwanted background noise.
The core apps present on the Galaxy A3 are simple and functional, ideal for first-time smartphone users. Separate phone and contacts icons in the app drawer for example allow you to jump directly into the phone dialler or contacts list. Yet once in either, you’ll realise that the two functions are combined together in the same app, with a tab bar up top also allowing access to your call log and favourites.
Swipe to call/message is available in the contacts list and call log, as well as in the messaging app. Although not essential, it’s without doubt a time-saver and a feature that I miss when not using a Samsung device.
Two messaging options are present on the Galaxy A3, the default Messages app and Google Hangouts. Samsung’s stock offering is slightly prettier than in previous versions of TouchWiz and still includes a decent level of functionality.
Priority senders allows you to add contacts to the top of the app screen, so you can quickly fire a message their way without having to dig through your entire contacts list. Font size in messages can also be increased/decreased via the volume up and down keys, which is particularly useful considering the Galaxy A3’s small screen.
Typing on the 4.5-inch display is surprisingly less troublesome than anticipated thanks to the pre-installed ‘Samsung Keyboard’. Keys are far better spaced than on other boards such as ‘Google Keyboard’ and auto correct seems pretty reliable. A plethora of different languages are available and once enabled, can easily be accessed while typing with a simple swipe across the space bar.
The only real gripe I have with the stock keyboard is that it looks rather dull. The drab grey background to the board is not in keeping with the rest of the colourful TouchWiz UI and it looks quite out of place. Unfortunately there’s no option in the keyboard settings to change the colour or theme and thus if you really can’t hack the aesthetics you’ll have to install another board.
Web browsing on the Galaxy A3 is a decent experience but there are some obvious limitations. Mobile and desktop websites load within just a few seconds on 4G LTE or Wi-Fi, using the stock browser or Google Chrome, and scrolling is smooth for the most part.
Due to the Galaxy A3’s small 4.5-inch display you will be forced to do a fair amount of zooming in, especially when trying to view text and images on full desktop sites. Furthermore the low qHD (quarter HD) resolution is noticeable when closely inspecting website elements, and text and images do not look as sharp as they would do on full HD screens.
The low resolution of the Galaxy A3’s display is also apparent when watching videos or playing games, and for many people the 4.5-inch screen will seem too small for regular media consumption. However the combination of a vibrant Super AMOLED display and great battery life can still help deliver a long-lasting and enjoyable viewing experience.
While the Galaxy A3’s rear-facing speaker isn’t particularly easy to muffle with your palm and can get reasonably loud, sound quality is just average. Luckily output through the 3.5mm headphone jack is better, so if you want satisfying audio quality it’s advisable to throw on a pair of headphones.
For a mid-range smartphone the Samsung Galaxy A3 delivers mediocre camera performance with the 8MP primary camera around back and the 5MP front snapper producing acceptable but far from detailed results.
Akin to many smartphones on the market, you’ll have to tweak the default settings in order to get the most out of the Galaxy A3’s camera. Luckily this is a rather easy task thanks to Samsung’s simplified camera software, and with a quick tap on the settings cog in the top left of the viewfinder you can crank up the resolution to the full 8MP.
Unfortunately the resulting 4:3 aspect ratio will bring with it some ugly black bars at the top and bottom of the viewfinder, although it is a small price to pay for improved image quality.
Much like the rest of the new TouchWiz UI on the Galaxy A3, the camera software has been simplified at the expense of some functionality. That’s not to say that the included camera software is feature impoverished – far from it – but it does lack options such as pro mode and selective focus that are present on the Galaxy S6.
Overall the simpler layout lends itself well to the Galaxy A3’s small display, and navigating through the camera software is a breeze.
Basic shooting modes can be accessed via a dedicated key next to the shutter button. Although there are fewer preferences available than on the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact, the modes provided seem polished and should cater for the needs of most users.
As well as being able to select the same continuous shot, animated GIF and sound and shot options that are available when using the 5MP front snapper, the essential HDR (rich tone), panorama and night modes are also present. Additional modes such as beauty face, rear-cam selfie and sports will appeal to a niche groups of users, although I personally didn’t find them particularly beneficial.
I did find the option to use the volume buttons as a shutter keys rather more useful however, and even though the Galaxy A3 is far from unwieldy it feels far more natural to use the volume keys (rather than the onscreen button) when snapping shots in landscape orientation.
Taking photos using the Galaxy A3 is a swift affair overall. There’s little to no shutter lag, and auto-focus speeds are fairly rapid. If you can’t wait the couple of seconds it takes for the Galaxy A3 to lock onto a subject automatically, tap to focus is available and proves very reliable.
In well-lit environments you can capture some respectable images with the Galaxy A3’s rear shooter. Colours appear well saturated yet natural, and images are well exposed. Yet even photos taken in good light suffer from a lack of sharpness and detail, with noise becoming increasingly apparent upon closer inspection.
More detail can be captured in close-up or macro shots and colours are once again vivid. Thanks to the shallow depth of field, backgrounds are satisfyingly blurred creating a prominent subject matter.
In low-light situations the Galaxy A3’s camera tends to struggle. In auto mode the f/2.4 lens fails to let enough light in and thus high ISO values are used, leading to grainy results, although Samsung’s night mode does improves things somewhat, making shots lighter and a little less noisy.
The Galaxy A3’s rear camera is capable of shooting 1080P video, at 30 frames per second, and the quality is superb. Much like the photos the Galaxy A3 captures, colours are bright and changes in light intensity are handled competently.
As discussed in the key features section of the review, Samsung have included a number of additional software tweaks for the Galaxy A3’s front camera in order to attract social media fanatics.
These additions aside, photos taken with the 5MP front snapper look quite unremarkable. Results are comparable to those of other mid-range smartphones, displaying a fair amount of noise. Full HD video recording is a welcome inclusion, and the ability to expand the Galaxy A3’s storage via microSD card will be appreciated by those who like to store a lot of recordings on their device.
Despite stiff competition from more powerful handsets, the Samsung Galaxy A3 proves to be a worthy contender in the mid-range smartphone market thanks to its solid performance, superb battery life, small footprint and premium build quality.
In terms of build quality and design, there are very few affordable smartphones that can compete with the Galaxy A3. The all-metal unibody design feels incredibly premium for the price, with the small screen, slim profile and thin bezels combining to produce a great in-hand feel.
Neatly tucked away within the metallic frame is a tray allowing you to expand the 16GB of internal storage by up to 64GB via a microSD card. This option is not always included in unibody smartphones and will be welcomed by users wishing to store a large number of photos and videos on the Galaxy A3.
Despite Samsung only packing a 1,900mAh power pack into the Galaxy A3’s slender body, battery life is fantastic. Even with heavy usage the battery will provide a day’s worth of juice, and those who use their smartphone more lightly can expect to go around a day-and-a-half between charges. Ultra power saving mode is also an extremely useful feature if you desperately need to conserve juice and allows the Galaxy A3’s battery to last even longer.
Everyday performance is really solid, regardless of the fact that the Galaxy A3 features far less powerful internals than many of its rivals. The new TouchWiz UI feels far snappier and refined than previous iterations and lag is almost non-existent. Multitasking is also handled efficiently, even with just 1.5GB RAM available.
In general use the 4.5-inch qHD (quarter HD) Super AMOLED display on the Galaxy A3 is a strong performer, showcasing vivid colours and brilliant viewing angles. Yet when consuming media the low resolution is quite noticeable and the screen may seem too small for some.
Camera performance on the whole was a little disappointing, with both the 8MP primary camera and 5MP front-facing shooter producing grainy results. The camera software provides a decent shooting experience but some advanced options have been removed in favour of more selfie-oriented features.
The lack of an LED notification light is also a minor inconvenience. Notifications from default apps such as ‘Messages’ will light up the Galaxy A3’s display when it’s sleeping, yet in order to check your notifications from third-party apps you’ll have to physically turn on the screen.
With the Galaxy A3, Samsung has proved many doubters wrong, showcasing the Korean firm’s ability to produce an incredibly well-made and premium-feeling all-metal smartphone.
Unlike many bland mid-range options currently available, the Galaxy A3 truly offers something different, and while the compact design will not appeal to everyone, especially users who consume a lot of media, it does contribute towards a great in-hand feel.
What the Galaxy A3 does offer however, is a solid smartphone experience that easily fits in your pocket or bag and in the palm of your hand. It’s ideal for those on a budget who crave premium build quality and wish to purchase a smartphone from a well-known, reputable brand.
First reviewed: June 2015
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