When did mid-range phones get good? When did they get waterproof, with good cameras, great battery life, and design that looks just about as high-end as anything else you can buy?
In so many different ways, the Galaxy A5 and A7 are a cheaper and more restrained version of Samsung's own chart-topping Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge from last year.
What Is It?
The $649 5.2-inch Galaxy A5 and $799 5.7-inch Galaxy A7 are Samsung's latest — but not greatest — entrants into a crowded smartphone market. In both pricing and specs they sit around the middle of the range of phones you might be looking at; they're not cheap and cheerful $200 handsets, but not $1300 iPhone 7 Plus or Galaxy Note7-grade monsters either.
Both phones are built around 1080p Super AMOLED displays, with the smaller Galaxy A5 fitting in a nonremovable 3000mAh battery and the A7 a 3600mAh cell behind. Processing power on each comes from a octa-core Samsung Exynos 7880 with 3GB of RAM, while both phones also have 32GB of internal flash storage and microSD card slots that will accept up to 256GB of expandable space.
Running Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow out of the box, the user interface of the Galaxy A5 and A7 will be instantly familiar to anyone that's used a Samsung phone in the recent past, but gone are the days of bloated TouchWiz skins and unnecessary frippery. The A5 and A7 use a skin that's far closer to the smooth, refined Grace UX of the Galaxy Note7.
What's It Good At?
This level of build quality is not something I expected to find in a phone of the Galaxy A5 and A7's position in the market. It's water-resistant and dustproof to the highest IP68 standard, it uses the powerful and reversible USB Type-C connector for charging and data, it has scratch- and shatter-resistant Gorilla Glass 4 on both front and back. It's very well put together, and honestly feels even better to hold than Samsung's also-excellent S7 and S7 edge flagships from mid-2016. Just about the only low point is that the A7 uses a single side-firing speaker, rather than a stereo or forward-firing setup.
You also get NFC and a fingerprint reader on the Galaxy A5 and A7, which wouldn't normally be worth high praise — but when they combine to make Samsung Pay a no-brainer, you start to realise that for almost all practical uses, the Galaxy A5 and A7 are effectively last year's Galaxy S7 in a shiny new shell.
Battery life is, again, not something I expected to be a high point of a phone that sells itself as sitting in the middle of Samsung's Galaxy smartphone range but well, here we are. There are few phones that I can comfortably use for two full days of use — a full day's use, forget to charge again overnight, and another day's use after that — but the Galaxy A7 and its capacious 3600mAh cell sit very comfortably in the illustrious company of the Huawei Mate 9 and the Google Pixel XL.
What's It Not Good At?
Probably the biggest potential issue with the Galaxy A5 and A7's long-term usefulness to any buyer is the fact that the phone ships with Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow out of the box, rather than 7.0 Nougat. Nougat does good things for battery life and processing efficiency and so many other aspects of the Android operating system, but the biggest is its contribution to a phone's security. In the middle of 2017, I'd be wary of buying a phone that wasn't running the latest version of Android.
Running Samsungs's mid-weight Exynos 7880 octa-core processor rather than a top-of-the-line quad-core like Samsung's own Exynos 8 series or a Snapdragon 650 or 821 from last year, sometimes the Galaxy A7 can be a bit sluggish to load apps out of memory, and in my late-stage games of Egg Inc it can get a little bit laggy when there are a lot of birds on screen. It's adequate for almost all uses, but if you're particularly demanding of your phones you might want to consider stepping up to a more powerful device.
The new Samsung Galaxy S7 is out noww, in electronics stores all across Australia. It's $1149, and you'll pay $1249 for the larger S7 edge. What do you get for all that money? Is this new phone worth it?
Yes, it's worth it. The Galaxy S7 and S7 edge are — equally — two of the best phones Samsung has ever made.
The camera on the Galaxy A5 and A7 are just good, rather than great. The rear camera is a 16-megapixel sensor with a wide-angle (27mm) fast (f/1.9) lens, but the phone's middling processing power means it sometimes struggles with detail in low light settings. The front camera, to be fair, is exceptional for the class of phone that the A7 in particular is: its 16-megapixel resolution means your selfies are crisp, and given the leaps and bounds that apps like Snapchat are making with Android's camera API having a good front-facing camera is more important than ever.
And yes, for a technically mid-range handset, the Galaxy A5 and A7 are reasonably expensive. The 5.2-inch Galaxy A5 is quite reasonable at a $649 asking price, but the A7 is edging into actual flagship smartphone dollars at $799. You get a lot of high-end specs for the price, but particularly in the realm of camera you might find something better for a similar price if you're prepared to pick one of last year's best phones at a run-out price.
Should You Buy It?
If you're looking for a new phone, and if you don't want to shell out the $1000-plus that Samsung, Apple and other smartphone makers charge for their best handsets, then you're necessarily going to be looking at a mid-range phone. And as mid-range phones go, the Galaxy A5 and its larger A7 variant are seriously impressive.
They certainly aren't for everyone. As a power user — I install a lot of apps, use all of them, and generally ask a lot from my phone on a daily basis — I'd prefer a phone with a more powerful processor and a higher-resolution display and a better camera. But for the average user, the A5 and A7 have just about everything going for them.