If you’ve known the history of Samsung’s smartphone portfolio, you would know that it used to be a jumbo-sized mess of different devices that occupy even a microscopically different market segment, even down to different phones with different hardware using an identical name (Galaxy S4, S4 Mini, S4 Zoom, S4 Active).
As of recent years, Samsung has consolidated its lineup (mostly, with exceptions like the Galaxy On and Galaxy C) into 3 categories; the flagship (occupied by the Galaxy S and Note), the midrange (occupied by the Galaxy A) and the budget (occupied by the Galaxy J).
Samsung’s known for their flagships, and they usually get all the attention, while their cheaper offerings just sit by the spotlight, seemingly getting little attention. That was the notion when this Galaxy A5 2016 ended up in my house to replace my dad’s Redmi Note 2014. However, after over 1.5 years of using it, I have to say that I am rather surprised.
One of the big things that I liked about the 2016 iteration of the Galaxy A5 was its design.
Minus the chipped, non-fitting screen protector, it has aged really well. The 2016 iteration’s design took several pages off the Galaxy S6 and it’s not hard to see the resemblance between the 2, with its aluminum frame, very clicky buttons and full-glass back panel. It is actually more comfortable to hold thanks to its thicker construction, and the additional heft actually contributes to an ever-so-slightly more “premium” feel compared to its flagship sibling.
The phone hasn’t experience any serious drops or kinks, although the aluminum frame is starting to fade a little and the screen protector is (obviously) chipped. Aside from that, the device has aged quite well.
The phone has also aged surprisingly well in software. The device initially came loaded with Android 5.1.1 “Lollipop”, and that older OS did show some age. Marshmallow came much later than expected, in Q3 2016, but Samsung has surprisingly kept up with security patches, delivering them on the same month almost every time. Of course, I would have preferred it if they had done so in a consistent manner, so Samsung has some work to do still.
Almost certainly the thing I did not expect was Android Nougat arriving so soon. While the Nougat rollout for the S7 was seemingly off-schedule due to the Galaxy Note7 debacle, its arrival to the Galaxy A was actually earlier than expected in my case.
Together with the Nougat upgrade was the arrival of the new Grace UX interface, and minus a few features, it feels very identical to that on the S7, with a much cleaner look and less-garish overall feel. Compared with the initial Lollipop build, the Galaxy A5 really feels like a better phone now than what it was at launch, and I was pleasantly surprised at how it managed to keep up over time as trends change.
A couple of other stuff that I liked during my time with the Galaxy A5 (2016);
- It may not be the glorious QHD Super AMOLED panels that gracefully adorned its flagships, but the panel on the A5 is still a nice display, with pleasant saturation, good amounts of accuracy in Basic (sRGB) mode, good outdoor visibility (although it pales predictably behind its flagships) and wicked contrast. The 1080p PenTile display is a disadvantage when it comes to effective resolution, but for daily use, it’s kinda hard to notice unless you really squint.
- Battery life was good. Even on a 28nm Exynos 7570, the 2900mAh battery coupled with the lower-power processor driving a perfectly-matched FHD AMOLED display resulted in a phone that could easily last a day on moderate to heavy use, with around 5 hours of screen-on-time, sometimes more.
- The fingerprint sensor was a nice addition to the Galaxy A lineup, although at launch, it was slow and sometimes prone to misfiring. The current Nougat build has since sped it up a little and it’s less prone to misfires now.
- Samsung Pay is great
- Having the ability to use 2 SIM cards and a microSD card to add secondary storage without sacrificing one or the other is seriously useful, and made it an effective travel phone.
But of course, nothing is perfect, and throughout the course of using the Galaxy A5, there were some things that stuck out to me.
While Samsung touted its f/1.9 aperture and OIS in its marketing material, the camera came out as alright but also not that great. Now, that might seem like a thing you’d associate with midrangers, but the A5 2016 arrived just before the time when really good midrange options exist. It also didn’t help that Samsung gained a good rep due to the exceptionally positive response to the camera on the Galaxy S6.
It’s not that it’s bad, it’s not all that great, with highlights that can get blown out at times and pretty smudgy low-light performance. Not too long ago, we would have considered that acceptable as we were not expecting nice optics on a midranger. But when seriously great options around the A5’s price-tier popped up around the phone’s launch, with even more popping up later, which had better optical performance as well as more features such as a proper manual shooting mode and slow-motion video, it does feel rather underwhelming.
Again, it’s not bad per se, and you can definitely get some great ones with some coaxing (I’ve personally managed a few wedding shots with this and many came out fine, albeit in good conditions) and it will look more than fine for your typical social media photo collection, but it just felt underwhelming in regards to its competition.
The selfie camera, however, fared better.
There are also a couple of pain points when it came to the A5, such as sluggish performance over time until you perform a reboot (it wasn’t as bad as earlier Samsungs but it would’ve been nice to see Samsung properly addressing their software performance in the future. EMUI proved that heavy skins and great performance aren’t mutually exclusive), a speaker that’s merely functional but is otherwise nothing special and a very slippery feel without a case. In the end, depending on where you land, they may not really affect you, but they’re worth mentioning.
In the end though, the Galaxy A5 has given me quite a number of good surprises that I ended up really liking it over the past year and so. While it definitely isn’t flawless, I’ve come to like its design and was pleasantly surprised at the support the device has received. Traditionally, non-flagship Samsung products tend to have pretty poor support. The Galaxy A5 2016 has since changed my mindset on that.
Even more so was how the device seemed to not want to die. A couple of weeks ago, my dad accidentally spilled a latte all over it before we flew off on vacation. And the phone was covered in it. Although we did wipe it off cleanly, the phone wasn’t completely unscathed as the capacitive back and recents keys did not work at all, although the really tight-fitting case (different from the one pictured earlier) seemed to have helped mitigate the potential damage still. When we sent it off to Samsung when we returned, they deduced that they just needed to replace the bottom module which including the capacitive buttons and charging port, and since the battery was starting to bulge, they offered to replace the battery, which we agreed to since the phone was opened up anyway. $85 later (out of warranty due to age) and the phone is back in business.
Its history and surprises are why I’ve come to actually like it. Would I recommend it to anyone who wants the absolute best bang for buck at the time? Well, actually no, and I would recommend you get an Honor 8, Axon 7 or OnePlus 3 if you could wait. But my first experience with a non-flagship Samsung over a long-term has been nice. The 2017 iteration of the A5 has seen some improvements, many of which seemed to address my criticisms, along with rated water + dust resistance, and I’m curious to see how the midrange line will evolve, with the S8 being a thing for a few months now.