Despite the new approach taken with the Galaxy Alpha's hardware, the phone's software follows a well-worn path: Samsung's TouchWiz UI atop the latest Android 4.4.4 KitKat. And for the most part, it's identical to the software you'll find on the Galaxy S5.
For the most part, the software experience is a repeat performance of the Galaxy S5.
So what's different? Well, the weather widget has been tweaked to remove the background graphics present in earlier versions. (Though you can re-enable this in the settings.) There's a new screen unlock effect. There are eight new stock wallpaper backgrounds, as explosively colorful as we've come to expect from Samsung. And that's really about it.
It feels a little like TouchWiz is between versions here. You don't get the fancy new multitasking features of the Galaxy Note 4, though Multiwindow itself is intact, letting you run two apps on-screen at once. Subtle visual tweaks have made TouchWiz more modern-looking and generally less objectionable than in years past — nevertheless, Samsung's UI is still something that's just kinda there. The overall experience isn't quite as coherent as stock Android or HTC Sense.
We have no complaints as far as performance goes, though. As previously mentioned, TouchWiz on the Galaxy Alpha is consistently smooth and responsive — easily as fast as the Galaxy S5 with the latest performance updates.
For the uninitiated, TouchWiz delivers a bewildering array of features — some useful, some comically useless — and the Alpha's labyrinthine Settings menu presents a clear picture of just how much stuff this phone has going on. A maze of multicolored balls is your window into everything from Download Booster, the feature that accelerates downloads in some apps by combining LTE and Wifi, to Air View, which lets you hover a finger over the screen to view previews of certain things. Mercifully, not everything is enabled out of the box, but that in itself presents a discoverability problems for some of the more obscure features. In any case, if you can imagine a smartphone doing it, chances are it's a feature on the Galaxy Alpha.
Standout features include Samsung's S Health app, which links into the built-in heart rate sensor on the rear of the phone, allowing you to track your calorie intake, pulse, steps taken and other kinds of exercise. S Health's feature set has expanded considerably over the past year, and it'll grow even more in the upcoming Galaxy Note 4. Questions remain over whether the heart rate sensor is actually worth. Regardless, in the Alpha seemed to track my heart rate more competently than either the Galaxy S5 or GS5 Mini — readings were more consistent, and the phone completed its scans more quickly with fewer failures.
The Galaxy Alpha's home button houses another headline feature, the built-in fingerprint scanner. As before, this can be used to unlock your device, authenticate PayPal payments, Samsung services and certain websites, and the feature seemed easier to use on the Galaxy Alpha than previous Samsung devices, perhaps due to its smaller footprint. The Alpha's fingerprint scanner also seemed more reliable than the GS5's, though the size difference may have something to do with that as well.
Samsung's also broken its "Studio" features out into their own app. This collection of photo-editing and enhancement tricks was previously buried in an overflow menu in the Gallery app; now it's front and center in the app drawer, giving easy access to editing capabilities in "Shot & More," the shooting mode that lets take a burst of photos and apply different effects after the fact.
And that's just a small cross-section of everything Samsung's software can do. You'll find a more extensive rundown of all the new features in the current version of TouchWiz in our Samsung Galaxy S5 review.