This is the kind of phone you consider if you like the look of the Galaxy S6 and other pricey phones, but can’t afford them or don’t need their features. What the Galaxy A3 lacks, it makes up for in stylish, attractive design. Its 4.5-inch screen is ideal if you’re switching from an old iPhone, too.
But the A3 doesn’t stand out in any particular way. You can find better phones for less and really great ones for a similar price. It’s worth considering if you really love the size and design, but it shouldn’t be at the top of your shortlist.
Smartphones Buyers Guide
This is a great-looking phone. Durable, hard plastic at the rear and smart, metal bevelled edges mean it looks and feels as good as many more expensive phones. Its 4.5-inch screen makes it more compact than most and it’s very slim and light. It’s certainly better looking than its most immediate rival, the 4.6-inch Sony Xperia Z3 Compact.
The bright, colourful screen has some plus points. It’s an AMOLED display, which means it produces richer colours and deeper blacks than other phones that use LCD tech. Photos and videos look great as a result, and I had few problems viewing the A3 in bright outdoor light.
Related: 5 Best Budget Smartphones
The Galaxy A3 doesn’t lack for features, either. You get NFC, 4G and a microSD card slot, and there’s 16GB of onboard storage anyway, so many people won’t even need a microSD card provided they don't download much music or video.
This isn’t a hugely expensive phone, but it isn't superb value. It’s available for free on contracts from around £17.50 a month and only £150 on pay-as-you-go, although its £200 SIM-free price pushes it close to some rather more impressive phones such as last year’s LG G3 and Huawei Ascend G7.
It’s very disappointing that the A3 ships with an out-of-date version of the Android operating system – Android 4.4 KitKat. This means you miss out on the latest Android Lollipop 5.0 features, but also the improvements and refinements of the latest version of Samsung’s TouchWiz interface.
The Galaxy A3 can feel tired as a result. TouchWiz has never been the most attractive or contemporary interface, but the latest version adds several meaningful improvements you can’t enjoy here. Samsung has promised an Android 5.0 update in future, but we don’t know when, and it would be better if it shipped with the update as Samsung’s higher-end phones do.
Related: 13 Best Android Phones in 2015
This version of TouchWiz doesn’t seem as well optimised, either. The A3’s Snapdragon 410 processor is perfectly good – it handles gaming and everyday tasks without complaint – but there are occasional stutters and lag that other phones with the same software don’t suffer. The super-cheap Motorola Moto E (2015) runs like a dream on the same hardware.
While the screen is bright, rich and colourful, it’s rather fuzzy. At 244ppi (pixels per inch), it’s noticeably grainier than even some cheaper phones like the Moto G (293ppi). This is because AMOLED screens generally appear less sharp than similar-resolution LCD screens – read our OLED vs LCD guide for why.
You’ll notice this most when viewing web pages, as text doesn’t appear as well-defined, while icons on the homescreen lack the crisp edges of sharper phones. Excellent colours and contrast compensate for this weakness somewhat, but the fuzziness of the A3 is very obvious when viewed next to rivals.
Battery life isn’t terrible, but it isn’t outstanding either. A small 1,900mAh battery means it’s sometimes hard to get a full day without employing the two separate power-saving modes. I typically had less than 30% left by 8pm on most days, and sometimes earlier than that if I used mapping or the camera extensively. Most people won’t have a problem, but heavy users should probably look elsewhere.
It’s a reasonably fast charger, though – an hour-long charge adds around 60 to 70% and a full charge takes just over two hours. The Ultra power-saving mode is useful, too. It uses much less power by turning off non-essential functions and turning the screen monochrome, although it means you can only use very basic features like calls and text messages.
Finally, while call quality is fine, the built-in speaker is puny. It’s at the back next to the camera and sounds thin and lifeless – it’s useless for music and even phone calls on speakerphone sound forced and distorted.
The A3 can take good photos, but it’s an inconsistent performer. The camera app loads quickly enough and it’s easy to use if you don’t want to fiddle around too much. There are ample ways to fiddle, though, including several scene modes and even a decent selection of manual controls if you know what you’re doing.
This shot is typical of the A3. It takes a good photos, but there are some parts of the sky that look harsh and overexposed. View more Samsung Galaxy A3 camera samples
The 8-megapixel main camera produces nice, colourful and accurate photos in good light and the HDR mode is outstanding – shots in HDR mode balance highlights and shadows very well. But even shots in good light can look a little noisy and oversharpened. This means shots lack a little detail and you can’t crop into them easily to focus on a specific area.
The A3 doesn't always handle motion well
What’s frustrating is how any small, subtle movement often renders your photos a blurry mess. This is especially true of shots taken indoors, even when the lighting is good and no flash is needed. Even a small amount of movement is enough to throw the camera off sometimes.
Shots in low light are a mixed bag and you really need to activate the night mode to get good results, which really slows down your shooting and doesn't handle motion at all well. On the plus side, the built-in flash does a decent job of brightening subjects in gloomy light.
You can record 1080p video and the footage is decent for a phone this price, but the single mic lacks the dynamic range to capture faithful audio. Audio has little bottom-end to it and loud backgrounds can sound harsh. There’s no HDR mode in video, either, though this is rare in phones at this price.
The front-facing 5-megapixel camera is above average and has a wide-angle lens that’s great for group photos. Skin tones and texture can appear a little flat and compressed, but generally selfies look good.
The A3 is available in three colours – blue, white and gold. The blue version looks great, but you’ll probably want to have a look at the white and gold versions first if you’re unsure.
Unlike most cheaper phones, the battery on the Galaxy A3 isn’t user replaceable. That’s a slight issue given battery life isn’t great to begin with and the battery’s capacity will get worse over time.
It’s a perfectly competent phone and there are few better at this price if you prefer your phones smaller and easier to handle. It might be a good option if you’re switching from an older iPhone and don’t want to go bigger – that’s probably why Samsung made it.
But there plenty of better options in and around this price. The 4G version of the 2014 Motorola Moto G costs less on most contracts and considerably less SIM-free, has a sharper 5-inch screen and runs faster on a cleaner, more up-to-date version of Android.
If size isn't an issue then the 5.5-inch Huawei Ascend G7 is worth considering, and anyone buying SIM-free would do well to consider the LG G3 as well. Head to our best cheap phones and best android phones round-ups for even more alternatives.
The Galaxy A3 is a good-looking but unexceptional phone, worth considering if you prefer smaller phones.