Samsung has significantly closed the design gap between its top and mid-range phones with the new Samsung Galaxy A3 2017. But it’s not the only manufacturer making desirable phones for an affordable price.
At £279 (roughly $350, AU$455) this 2017 iteration of the Samsung Galaxy A3 is a little more than half the price of the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge. This price point puts it in direct competition with a host of impressive Chinese mid-rangers, such as the Oppo F1 Plus.
At this price, the Galaxy A3 2017 manages to avoid a direct scrap with the £399/$439 (around AU$580) OnePlus 3T and other strong phones that are taking the fight directly to the big flagships.
Perhaps of more concern to Samsung is the host of £200/$250/AU$300 (or thereabouts) handsets that are doing everything in their power to convince you that you’re using a much more expensive phone, such as the Wileyfox Swift 2 X and the Moto G4 Plus.
These are increasingly shark-infested waters Samsung finds itself swimming in, but it manages to survive intact - albeit with a few noticeable bite marks.
Dressed to impress
- A premium design
- Water and dust resistance
Samsung’s biggest achievement with the Galaxy A3 2017 has been to make a phone that looks and feels a lot like the Samsung Galaxy S7 for a couple of hundred pounds less.
We’ll go into the specifics of the A3’s design in the following section. Suffice to say that it follows the design language of its premium brother to a quite impressive degree.
It’s got an all-metal rim, a familiar curved ‘3D Glass’ back, and even a slightly shimmery effect to its front bezels. Anyone who’s used a Samsung Galaxy S6 or Galaxy S7 for an extended period will be able to detect the differences, but it’s a creditable approximation regardless.
You even get IP68 certification, which means that the Samsung Galaxy A3 2017 is as resistant to water and dust ingress as its big brother. That’s not something we’re accustomed to seeing on cheaper phones, so it’s a notable bragging point for the new A3.
Samsung seems determined that you won’t easily spot the difference through a cursory glance of the Galaxy A3’s spec sheet either, with the presence of a custom Exynos 7870 CPU, a 13MP main camera, and a front-mounted fingerprint sensor all suggestive of higher end thrills.
Closer scrutiny of those components affirms their mid-range status, but they’re not found wanting at this price point.
One forward-looking component the Samsung Galaxy S7 doesn’t have that the Samsung Galaxy A3 2017 does is a USB-C port. It’s not a massive bragging point, but it’s certainly the standard we’re expecting to see all mid to high-end Android phones adopting in 2017.
From a practical perspective it’s much easier to plug in a charger or cable without looking, thanks to USB-C’s reversible nature.
Design and display
- Design mimics Galaxy S7 nicely
- Bright and colourful 4.7-inch AMOLED display
- 720p resolution doesn’t seem sufficient
We’ve already acknowledged that the Samsung Galaxy A3 2017 does a great job appropriating the design language of the Samsung Galaxy S7 with relatively few compromises. But more importantly, it simply feels great in the hand.
At 7.9mm thick and weighing 138g, and combined with that metal and glass build, it has a similar ‘just-so’ heft to the one you get with Apple’s iPhones. You know you’re holding something of quality, but it won’t remind you of the fact when it’s sat in your pocket.
Meanwhile, that 3D Glass back is more than just a visual flourish - it ensures that the phone sits nicely in the curve of your hand.
We’re still not convinced that an all-glass back is a particularly practical idea in a phone, though. In fact, we’re pretty sure it isn’t.
It makes the phone feel precariously slippery when you’re fishing it out of your pocket, and we suspect it will be extra-prone to scuffing and cracking should that evasiveness ever manifest itself and it heads for the floor.
We’re not massively enamored with the Gold Sand color our test unit came in, but that’s obviously a subjective matter. There are Black Sky and Blue Mist options for those who like their phones to be a little more understated, and a Peach Cloud option for those who, well, like pink.
We have decidedly mixed feelings about the Samsung Galaxy A3 2017’s display. On paper, its 4.7-inch Super AMOLED screen with 720p resolution might sound like the kind of compact screen that can give the iPhone 7 a run for its money. But it just doesn’t.
OK, so it’s got that super-saturated look that AMOLED panels are known for. And you also get Samsung’s usual display options, so you can tweak it according to your preference (tip: choose Basic if you want to tone things down). But that 720p resolution doesn’t seem to do this AMOLED panel any favours on the sharpness count.
It’s far from bad, but anyone who’s grown used to 1080p screens - as long-time Android users no doubt have - will probably notice the drop in detail, even with the smaller-than-usual screen size.
We moved straight to the A3 from using an iPhone 6S as our daily driver, which has exactly the same sized screen with a similar number of pixels, but even then the Samsung felt decidedly fuzzy and lacking a certain clarity.
We would feel churlish complaining about this perfectly adequate resolution if it weren’t for the simple fact that many sub-£200/$250/AU$300 Android phones come with 1080p screens.
The difference in experience may have a genuine impact if you’re an avid mobile media consumer, which we’ll discuss later.
One major advantage of the Galaxy A3’s AMOLED display is that Samsung has been able to implement its Always On Display feature.
This means you can have a little clock or calendar permanently displayed in plain, dim lettering, complete with small icons for incoming notifications. It’s great for a surreptitious glance when you’re in a meeting or watching a movie.
- Thanks to Carphone Warehouse for providing us with a Samsung Galaxy A5 for review
Interface and reliability
- Android 6.0.1 is a little old, but still capable
- TouchWiz UI is still here in all its busyness
- Physical home key has useful shortcuts
Straight out of the box you’ll find Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow installed on the Samsung Galaxy A3 2017. That’s not the latest version, as Google officially released Android 7.0 Nougat back in August 2016. But in the achingly sluggish world of Android updates, it’s still relatively fresh.
Especially when you consider that Samsung, as always, has spread its gloopy TouchWiz UI on top. Cards on the table: we’ve never been a massive fan, particularly ever since stock Android started getting really good a few versions ago.
TouchWiz has always felt too cluttered and artlessly constructed, and it tends to clog up Samsung’s otherwise highly capable hardware.
To Samsung’s credit, it has slowly but traceably listened to such criticisms of TouchWiz over the years, and what we have on the latest Galaxy A3 is much less obnoxious than the UI used to be.
There are just two home screens from the off, and of the three default widgets one is a Google search bar and another is an unassuming weather tool. The third widget is a wholly unnecessary and oversized link to the Galaxy Essentials store for all those Samsung-specific apps you almost certainly don’t need. But as ever, you’re free to remove it.
Samsung’s own take on the drop-down notification bar is still too busy, but it provides all the settings toggles and core functions of stock Android, plus a few more. There’s a Finder bar up there that lets you search for native apps and files stored on the phone, as well as scanning for nearby devices.
We would question why it’s shaped like a search bar when it’s actually a link to a dedicated Finder app, but you come to expect such decisions in TouchWiz, and it’s not a massive hinderance.
Another rather unwelcome provision is the dedicated Upday screen, located to the left of the main homescreen. Upday is a news aggregator service, pulling together stories from around the web and presenting them in a magazine-like format. These stories are apparently selected according to your interests.
We say ‘apparently’ because we don’t recall ever showing the slightest interest in news of the world’s fattest woman, or in Trinny Woodall’s latest wardrobe malfunction.
This can be rectified by going through and hiding news from unwanted sources and marking individual stories as uninteresting or interesting, so that the app learns more about your tastes.
Alternatively, you can switch Upday off by pressing and holding on an empty area of the home screen and scrolling across to it, which was our preference. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an option to replace it with the ever-useful Google Now. You’ll have to use the aforementioned Google widget instead.
You can access Google Now On Tap with a press and hold of the home button. This provides contextual information based on what’s on the screen at that particular time - though it’s still a somewhat hit and miss offering from Google.
Our favorite Samsung interface choice actually relates to that physical home button. Pressing it twice quickly will jump you straight to the camera, even from the lock screen. It’s a brilliantly snappy and reliable way to grab a picture in a pinch, and we wish every manufacturer with a physical home button did the same thing (hear that Apple?).
Speaking of the home button, it contains a fingerprint sensor for secure access and mobile payments. It works quite well, if not as quickly as the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the iPhone 7 - which you’d expect. The point is that it’s sufficiently reliable, so we didn’t once consider turning the feature off, as we often do with such a feature on cheaper phones.
Having said that, the lozenge shape Samsung goes with ensures you have to be a little more precise with your finger placement than you do with Apple’s phones.
We still much prefer this over rear-mounted Android alternatives, as you can quickly unlock the phone even when it’s on a desk or table rather than in your hand.
Movies, music and gaming
- More than capable media performance
- Screen doesn’t show video or games at their best
- Speaker weirdly placed
- 16GB storage isn’t a lot even at this price
The Samsung Galaxy A3 2017 will handle all media comfortably, but that’s really not the focus with this phone. If you’re really into watching videos or playing games on the go, in particular, there are better options for the money.
It’s not that the Galaxy A3 struggles to output such content - its Exynos 7870 CPU is more than up to the task. We’ll discuss this more in the following section, suffice to say that gaming performance is rock solid.
We managed to play demanding 3D games like Dead Trigger 2 and Reckless Racing 3 on high graphical settings with only the odd stutter.
As gamers, we also found Samsung’s Game Tools function to be genuinely useful. This enables you to do things like block notifications and lock the phone’s capacitive back and recent keys while you’re playing.
However, the main issue with the phone’s gaming and video performance is down to that 4.7-inch 720p display, which doesn’t show visual media at its best.
Netflix and YouTube content looks just fine on the display, with colours that pop and absolutely no performance issues. But as we’ve already touched upon, there’s a certain softness and fuzziness to the edges if you hold the phone close to your face.
Which, thanks to its size, you’ll probably be naturally inclined to do more than your average 5.5-inch Android phone.
Another thing that limits the phone’s effectiveness as a media player is its weedy and oddly placed speaker. It’s just a small, solitary unit placed peculiarly just above the power button on the right-hand edge.
When watching or playing landscape content, we found that we would frequently cover this speaker with either our right thumb or left forefinger, depending on the phone’s orientation.
What’s more, if the speaker was pointing up, the sound would tend to get lost as it was naturally directed away from our face.
Plug in a set of earphones, of course, and the problem goes away. As a personal audio player, the Galaxy A3 2017 is as accomplished as any other modern mid-range phone. You get Google Play Music as your default audio player, which is as pleasant to use as ever, whether dealing with your own locally stored files or a Play Music streaming account.
Talking of storage, the phone comes with 16GB as standard. That’s not an awful lot in truth, and there are phones out there that provide more for less money, like the Wileyfox Swift 2 X with 32GB and the Bush Spira E3X with 64GB.
Still, there is ample room for expansion in the A3, with a microSD card slot permitting up to 256GB of extra storage to be added on.
Performance and benchmarks
- Exynos 7870 CPU yields middling benchmark results
- Real world performance, however, can’t be faulted
Samsung has gone with its own custom Exynos 7870 CPU for the Galaxy A3 2017, which makes an interesting change from all those mid-range Snapdragons that have flooded the market. In raw stat-crunching terms, however, it hasn’t led to a massive leap.
An average Geekbench 4 multicore score of 3347 is just fine, but it’s far from impressive. In fact, that places it roughly in the ballpark of slightly cheaper phones like the Honor 6X (which scored 3275) and the Moto G4 Plus (on 3047). What’s more, both of those phones are having to drive crisper 1080p displays.
That score may have something to do with the A3’s somewhat meagre memory allotment. Just 2GB of RAM seems somewhat stingy when there are £200/$250/AU$300 phones out there with 3GB or more.
Of course, a phone’s performance is about a lot more than benchmarking results and raw specs. Far more important is how it feels and responds in the hand, and in that regard we had few complaints with the 2017 Galaxy A3.
As we’ve just mentioned, gaming performance was perfectly decent, with 3D games like Reckless Racing 3 and PinOut running at a decent lick without distracting frame rate issues.
By using its own chip, Samsung has evidently been able to optimize the experience to a large extent. Sure enough, flicking through the A3’s home screens, browsing the internet, and opening apps was a largely lag-free experience.
Jumping to the phone’s camera through that double-press shortcut, meanwhile, wasn’t exactly instantaneous, but it was appreciably swift.
- 2,350mAh battery lasts two days of moderate usage
- Unusually fast drain in airplane mode
The Samsung Galaxy A3 2017’s 2,350mAh battery might not sound all that mighty - especially when you consider that its big brother, the Samsung Galaxy S7, has a 3,000mAh unit.
But of course, the Galaxy A3 has a smaller and much less pixel-packed display and a lower power CPU. The result of this is some truly impressive levels of stamina.
In general usage, we were frequently getting through to bed time with 50% or more left in the tank. This was with what we’d term moderate use - so a few calls, texts, and instant messages, a fair amount of web browsing, and some light gaming.
That means it’s good for two days of usage, while even heavy users will get through a full day with power to spare.
The Galaxy A3 bears up well under strain, too. Ten minutes of Dead Trigger 2 running on high graphical settings sapped 4% of the battery, which isn’t bad at all.
Video doesn’t take its toll either. When we put the Samsung Galaxy A3 2017 through the standard TechRadar battery test, which is a 90 minute looping 720p video with the screen brightness cranked right up to full, it sapped just 8% of a full battery.
One slight anomaly was the phone’s overnight battery performance. During eight hours of airplane mode time, we found that the A3 lost 11% of its juice.
That’s not a deal-breaker - particularly as this is usually when most people charge their phones anyway - but it suggests a little inefficiency during off periods.
- 13MP camera struggles on Auto in low and mixed lighting
- HDR mode very accomplished
- 8MP selfie cam is fine, but beauty options are gimmicky
Samsung has fitted the Galaxy A3 2017 out with a 13MP main camera and an impressive-sounding f/1.9 aperture lens. Technically, the latter should capture more light than many lower and mid-range phones are capable of.
This has obvious potential with low-light shots, where shutter times can usually be kept a little briefer, resulting in less motion blur.
Frankly, though, we didn’t see the full benefit of that during our time with the phone. Shooting in anything less than optimal lighting often resulted in blurry, grainy shots.
The A3’s camera seemed to struggle with dynamic range in its regular Auto mode, as is often the case with anything less than a flagship phone. There is an HDR Rich tone mode, however, which requires you to slide left and manually select it.
You also need to be sure to hold the phone steady while shooting in this mode.
But once activated, we found this HDR mode to be very effective at evening out the extremes of light in certain images. There was none of the weird ‘fake reality’ effect that most cheap phones seem to create with their HDR modes - perhaps the surest sign of Samsung’s considerable camera expertise at play in the A3.
Indeed, even outside of the HDR mode we managed to grab the odd impressive shot on the standard Auto setting. Some of our landscape shots captured the warm light of an unseasonably sunny winter’s day very well, while snaps of a family playing table tennis captured the ball in mid air without any motion blur.
Give the Galaxy A3 2017 camera the ideal conditions and you’ll be able to grab some decent shots. But in less than optimal lighting conditions, the default Auto mode will struggle. And that’s precisely how the vast majority of people buying a mid-range smartphone will be shooting, almost exclusively.
There’s also a Pro mode on offer here, though it limits you to tweaking the white balance, ISO, and exposure compensation. It’s not as comprehensive as Pro modes in more expensive phones.
Samsung has fitted the A3 2017 with an 8MP front camera, which isn’t quite as impressive in a mid-range phone as it might have been a year or two ago. After all, the Oppo F1 Plus features a 16MP selfie cam. But that’s still plenty of pixels for your self shot.
Theres also a floating Beauty button that lets you ‘enhance’ your features by evening out your skin tone, making your face slimmer, and increasing the size of your eyes. That’s the idea anyway. In practice we found it tends to make you look like an alien.
Samsung has constructed a well-balanced phone in the Samsung Galaxy A3 2017. It gets surprisingly close to the look and feel of the Samsung Galaxy S7, despite costing around half the price.
The A3 even shares its big brother’s water and dust resistance rating, which is pretty impressive in a mid-ranger. Elements like a solid fingerprint sensor and Samsung’s Always On Display have also been carried across successfully.
Those expecting Samsung to bring its camera and display excellence to the mid-range will be somewhat disappointed, however, while the TouchWiz UI won’t be winning over any new fans.
All in all, this is an assured effort from Samsung, but it’s sometimes hard to make a clear distinction between this offering and that of classy sub-£200/$250/AU$300 phones like the Wileyfox Swift 2 Plus.
Who's this for?
The Samsung Galaxy A3 2017 is ideal for those who want the classy look and feel of the Samsung Galaxy S7, but aren’t prepared to pay the premium price.
Its small 720p display and modest CPU mean it’s not for power users or big media consumers, but it does the smartphone basics with some poise and style.
Should you buy it?
Once-premium design elements have been creeping into the more affordable end of the smartphone market over the past year or two, and the Galaxy A3 continues that trend.
Its metal and glass construction suggests a level of exclusiveness beyond its price tag, while its IP68 rating means that this quality isn’t merely skin deep.
Use the Samsung Galaxy A3 2017 extensively, and the cracks will begin to appear - an underwhelming display here, a hit-and-miss camera there. For casual users looking to make a stylish statement, however, it’s well worth considering.
The Samsung Galaxy A3 2017 is a solid upgrade on its predecessor and an accomplished mid-range phone, but there are other strong options too, such as the following three handsets.
Oppo F1 Plus
Oppo has gone with a similar blend of premium design and middling performance to Samsung, with a similar price tag to match. While it’s not quite as cohesively designed as the Galaxy A3, the F1 Plus has a couple of distinct advantages.
It has a larger, sharper 5.5-inch 1080p AMOLED display, a significantly more capacious 64GB of storage, double the RAM, and a more impressive 16MP front-facing camera.
Of course, you also get Oppo’s custom Color OS, which if anything is even fussier than TouchWiz.
- Read our full Oppo F1 Plus review
Here’s another high-value Chinese handset offering a premium (more or less) design and a range of seemingly high-end features for not a lot of money. In fact, the Honor 6X is a good chunk cheaper than the Galaxy A3 at £230/$250 (around AU$390).
It too has a metal body and speedy fingerprint sensor, but it also has the benefit of a dual-sensor camera, which allows you to attain a pronounced depth of field effect on your shots.
Again, you get a larger and sharper 5.5-inch 1080p display and a competitive chipset. But you have to put up with a clunky custom UI and considerably less brand cachet.
- Read our full Honor 6X review
Wileyfox Swift 2 X
British upstart Wileyfox has clearly found the knack for creating beautifully designed phones that undercut established rivals on price. The Wileyfox Swift 2 X has a 5.2-inch 1080p display, 32GB of storage, and a 16MP camera to complement its sharp metal body - all for £220 (around $275/AU$360).
It’s not as powerful as the Galaxy A3 2017, and its battery life isn’t anywhere near as good, but the Swift 2 X has a much slicker custom Cyanogen UI, so TouchWiz haters should take note.
There are cases to be made for both phones, but the Wileyfox Swift 2 X definitely feels like the better value proposition of the two.
- Read our full Wileyfox Swift 2 X review
First reviewed: February 2017
- Thanks to Carphone Warehouse for providing us with a Samsung Galaxy A5 for review