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Samsung Galaxy A5 (2017) review: It’s a good phone, but…

Close but no potato

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Oh ho, how I scoffed at people who bought mid-range smartphones from big brands like Samsung. For the money, I could easily get a phone with twice the performance! Or so I thought but that’s the thing about buying smartphones based on their spec sheet: You don’t get the whole picture. That’s why Samsung’s new Galaxy A5 is an interesting device. Not only does it look pretty decent on paper, it’s also quite a nice phone to use in practice.

Has Samsung finally made a budget smartphone that’s more compelling than those from budget kings like Xiaomi, honor and OnePlus?

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For me, the least attractive aspects of the Galaxy A5’s spec list is its processor as it’s powered by an Exynos 7880 which isn’t top-of-the-line. It settles with performance that’s similar to the Snapdragon 625 so it’s not really flagship-level material.

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But I liked the Snapdragon 625. It was powerful enough to run smoothly and frugal enough to keep my battery lasting all day — something Samsung’s Exynos chip did just as well. Now, it’s not a super fast chip but it’s fast enough.

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For daily tasks, the whole experience felt smooth and fluid but not exceptionally rapid because you spend some time watching the animation run. It’s a lot like the iPhone 6s Plus I was using alongside it which isn’t a bad thing at all. The Galaxy A5 will also handle most games relatively fluidly, with occasional stutters in something like Hearthstone.

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In terms of memory, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage is OK. Nothing to shout about but you do get a dedicated MicroSD card slot on this dual SIM phone instead of that hybrid SIM nonsense. What I do find annoying is that both SIMs don’t occupy the same tray. Instead, you get a SIM in one and a SIM + MicroSD in the other. This means you’ll have to remove both trays if you want to swap both SIMs.

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Battery life was excellent too. I was averaging four hours of screen on time (easily lasting a day) from that 3,000 mAh cell. I was honestly quite surprised since it sports a beautiful 5.2-inch Full HD Super AMOLED panel (it’s got great viewing angles and brightness too) and a tiny battery. What’s more, it’s got Samsung’s Adaptive Fast Charging technology so you’ll get a 41% charge in 30 minutes and a full charge in under two hours. It also works with my Quick Charge 3.0 powerbank which is an awesome respite from all this proprietary fast-charging nonsense I have had to deal with (I’m looking at you Huawei, Oppo and OnePlus).

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Although I never thought I’d say this in a Samsung smartphone review, I actually liked the software experience quite a fair bit too. This new TouchWiz looks good and is very functional. It’s got the super useful Always-On-Display from Samsung’s Android Nougat update (though at the time of this writing it’s still on Marshmallow), a nice way of grouping notifications and a user-friendly settings (and quick settings) menu. I’m still a little irked that I can’t move the app drawer icon to the middle of the tray, but that’s just a minor complaint.

I have to give major props to Samsung for cleaning up one of their biggest weaknesses to date.

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Finally, on the software and usability end, I’m happy to report the Galaxy A5’s fingerprint scanner is a big improvement over the Galaxy S7 edge’s I reviewed awhile back. Not only is it more consistently accurate, it’ll also read your finger and unlock the phone through touch. This means you won’t have to fully depress the physical home key to wake the screen, leave your finger there to have it scan and then wait for it to unlock the screen. The A5 will also support Samsung Pay (when it hits Malaysia) which is awesome if you’re like me and dislike archaic payment methods.

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Now, we move on to the Galaxy A5’s build — easily the best part about this phone. It feels super good — like S7 levels of good. The metal frame is super rigid and the curved glass back is subtle but works wonders with ergonomics. Every button feels clicky and well engineered, and if you get the black version, the metal band is also anodised black which gives it a stealthy look. Samsung then took it a step further and gave this phone IP68 dust and water resistance too. They definitely outdid themselves with the Galaxy A5’s build and almost everyone I met was surprised that it wasn’t a Galaxy S.

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Samsung even shaved off the camera bump at the back so it can lay flat on the table without any bits protruding out. But that flat camera module comes with one of the biggest compromises on this smartphone yet — its camera performance.

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Looking at the specs, this should be a solid shooter. A 16-megapixel sensor with an f/1.9 aperture lens on both the front and back? That sounds awesome. Unfortunately, the truth is far from it. Let’s just say that I was woefully underwhelmed with the Galaxy A5’s camera performance.

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Initially, I chalked it down to the lack of optical image stabilisation. No stabilisation usually means shakier handheld shots and poorer low-light performance — both of which are apparent on the Galaxy A5. But then you try and focus on something and not only is it slow to focus, it also occasionally hunts for the point you tap on. Bring the device into a low light condition and things get even worse.

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The camera feels sluggish and the images don’t turn out particularly well either. As a smartphone camera, where 99% of the time it’ll used for running and gunning, this camera just isn’t up to snuff. The honor 8 is better. The OPPO R9s is better. The OnePlus 3 is better. Almost every other smartphone camera I’ve used at or around this price point gave me a better experience. Perhaps it can be improved with a firmware update but there’s no real guarantee.

For video recording, I passed it over to our video guy to shoot some footage. After some testing, he found that it’s shaky when shooting handled and focuses rather slowly. However, he said low-light performance was pretty good and he’d rate the camera’s video capabilities as “OK”.

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On the selfie end of things, it works like your bog-standard selfie shooter plus some beautification features like skin smoothing, eye enlargement and face slimming, but I’ve never been a fan of that. I’ll attach more selfies in the gallery section of this review so you can check them out and judge the quality for yourself.

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And I guess that sums up the Galaxy A5 for me. It’s a good phone overall except for the fact that it has a fatal flaw. If you’re going to spend RM1,699 on this or any smartphone, I’m sure you’d want at least a good smartphone camera too and I just don’t think the Galaxy A5’s camera can give you that experience.

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Yeah, there are other annoyances like the poor speaker that’s also located, weirdly enough, on the right side of the phone making it difficult to cup and the fingerprint sensor isn’t very accurate when your finger is wet, but that’s just me nitpicking.

If, however, you’re someone who isn’t particularly bothered with a smartphone’s camera, then the Galaxy A5 should definitely be on your shortlist. I was genuinely impressed with this phone’s overall performance. The fact that Samsung added water resistance is just a really sweet cherry on top of an already delicious cupcake.

If you want to know even more stuff about how the phone performs and how it stacks up against one of its biggest rivals, check out my detailed comparison post.

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