Samsung was the first manufacturer to officially announce a Windows Phone 8 device, but has since been suspiciously quiet about its plans. Plagued by delays and a missed launch period with HTC and Nokia, Samsung’s carrier deals, release dates, and exact pricing haven’t been forthcoming. Microsoft rarely mentions the company's devices in marketing materials, and it feels like Samsung's Windows Phone 8 efforts have been all but forgotten.
Samsung might seem like an afterthought for Microsoft and Windows Phone, but now the Ativ S comes thundering onto the scene with the same 4.8-inch display as the company’s flagship Galaxy S III. The Ativ S is a huge Windows Phone handset, but it's also only 8.7mm thick, making this both the largest and the thinnest Windows Phone 8 device available. Is this a true competitor to the Galaxy S III and the current crop of Windows Phone devices, or is it just another rebadged Android phone with some software additions that will soon be forgotten? Read on to find out.
Hardware / Design
Thin and light thanks to Samsung's infamous use of plastic
I was always a fan of Samsung's original Windows Phone handset, the Focus. It was fairly unique against the company's Android designs, and it marked the beginning of Windows Phone as its own viable platform. Lately though, Samsung hasn't put a whole lot of effort into its Windows Phone range. The Focus S was my daily driver for a couple of months, but it was essentially a rebadged Galaxy S II — and the Focus 2 takes a lot of design cues from the S III as well. The Ativ S is more of a mix — it has the same display as the S III, but a similar design to the S II.
I was immediately impressed with the look and feel of the Ativ S. The rear of the device is adorned with a faux brushed aluminium effect, but like many other Samsung devices it's simply a thin piece of plastic that covers the battery. A dark grey plastic at the front of the device wraps around the 4.8-inch display, with a 1.9-megapixel forward facing camera up the top. The usual capacitive Windows Phone buttons are located at the bottom, but Samsung has chosen to make the Windows key a physical button rather than a capacitive one. It's odd if you're used to using capacitive buttons, but I soon got used to it, and it's nice to be able to wake the device using the button where your thumb comfortably sits rather than having to hunt for the power button.
On the right hand-side of the device are the power and two-stage camera buttons, and Samsung has placed the volume rocker by itself on the left hand-side. The side placement for the power button is important on a device of this size to make it usable with one hand, so it's good to see that Samsung didn't follow HTC and place the power button at the top. A 3.5mm headphone jack is available up top, and the Micro USB port is centered at the bottom of the device.
The 8-megapixel camera with LED flash is located alongside the brushed-metal finish on the rear of the Ativ S. Samsung has placed the speaker at the bottom of the back panel, and I found that the output was a little tinny at high volumes. There's little else on the rear of the device, but unlike its rivals the Ativ S’s back is removable, peeling off to reveal a battery and the microSD and Micro SIM slots. It's unusual to see a microSD slot on a high-end Windows Phone, but it's certainly a welcome addition to the Ativ S’s 16GB of built-in storage. You can't install Windows Phone apps to the microSD, but Microsoft allows you to store music, pictures, and videos there.
A 4.8-inch giant that's the same as the Galaxy S III
Samsung’s 4.8-inch Super AMOLED display on the Ativ S really stands out. This is the most important aspect to any smartphone and Samsung's offering is the best the company has right now. Instead of a Super AMOLED Plus panel, Samsung has opted for a 1280 x 720 PenTile AMOLED display. Samsung hasn't managed to produce a phone with an AMOLED Plus display at 720p and it's a little disappointing this hasn't changed for the Ativ S. Despite this, the viewing angles are decent here, but they’re inferior to the Lumia 920 and HTC 8X LCD 2 displays.
Samsung's Ativ S AMOLED PenTile display has the usual blue tint when you view the screen at certain angles, which isn't a major problem in daily use but it's noticeable on occasions. On a sunny day I found the display was reasonable enough, providing you're using the automatic brightness setting or it's set to high. Overall, the colors from Windows Phone 8's UI pop on the AMOLED display and blacks look great. At 306ppi it's not quite as dense as the 8X and 920 (which are smaller but have the same resolution), but I barely noticed any fuzziness. The size of the display means you will need to readjust your grip occasionally to hit fiddly parts of the Windows Phone 8 UI like the vibrate / ringer toggle, but overall I didn't find the interface that cumbersome on the 4.8-inch display thanks to the large Live Tiles in Windows Phone, which make hit targets particularly easy on a big screen.
Samsung basically just lifted both of the cameras from its Galaxy S III, and placed them in the Ativ S. At the front there's a 1.9-megapixel shooter that provides perfectly adequate images. It's not quite as good as HTC's 8X forward-facing camera, but if you're out and want to capture a moment without the assistance of a passer-by then you'll be pleased with the results.
At the rear there's an 8-megapixel camera. As you'd expect, you can produce some excellent daytime images with the Ativ S. Photos are sharp and detailed with no signs of blurriness. Like Vlad noted in our S III review, there's limited dynamic range with these optics; the Ativ S suffers the same issues as the S III, but in most shooting conditions the image will be exactly what you want from your smartphone. There are settings to alter ISO, white balance, and exposure, but Windows Phone doesn't make it particularly easy — forcing you to swap in and out of menus each time.
These settings are where Samsung's camera support ends for Windows Phone. Disappointingly, the company hasn't included any additional modes like burst or panorama and there are no Samsung-made Lenses, a new feature in Windows Phone 8. It's an easy way for OEMs and third-party developers to extend the functionality of the camera, but Samsung has simply overlooked this. The usual tap-to-focus support is present, and a two-stage camera button, but overall it feels like Samsung should have made more effort to extend the camera functionality.
On the video side of things Samsung has made a wise choice, offering 1080p recording by default. I've reviewed a number of Windows Phones and far too often the HD modes simply aren't set as default. This might be healthy for device storage, but it's not great if the average consumer never changes the setting and records in non-HD for the entire life of the device. It's refreshing to see Samsung make this minor, but important, change.
Decent image results, but a lack of settings
No Samsung-made Windows Phone Lenses
Samsung needs to do a lot more on the software side
The Ativ S might look like a hybrid of Samsung's Android devices, but this is very much a Windows Phone. Microsoft doesn't allow for most of the customization afforded by Google and Android, but the company has opened up some additional features that Samsung appears to have ignored. As mentioned, there's no built-in camera lenses and Samsung hasn't really optimized its Windows Phone 8 apps here either. A fast resume feature of Windows Phone 8 allows developers to let apps quickly resume after they’re launched, providing similar functionality to iOS and Android — Samsung's apps simply load from fresh which is a frustrating experience.
There's a Samsung-made ChatOn app on the Ativ S that's also available on a number of mobile operating systems, including Android, BlackBerry OS, iOS, and Samsung's bada. It's similar to WhatsApp, allowing you to initiate group chats and messaging with friends by a user ID or just a phone number. I have around 500 contacts in my address book and most of them aren't actively using this service, so it was rather useless for me personally. A Family Story app, which lets you share notes and photos to groups, is very similar to the Family Room feature that's built into Windows Phone 8. One app I found useful was Samsung's Live Wallpaper: it allows you to pick a number of photos that will work as a slideshow on the lock screen, but it makes you wonder why Microsoft only offers static images or ones from Bing as a standard Lock Screen setting in Windows Phone 8. There's also a Photo Editor app and MiniDiary for taking notes with drawings, audio, and pictures. Like HTC's own app, Samsung has a Now app that provides weather, news, and stock information in a Live Tile on the Start screen.
Other than that, it's all the same Windows Phone 8 you'd expect — see our full review for a more in-depth look at the OS. It feels repetitive saying this, but with better notification support and more investment from third-party app developers Windows Phone 8 would really shine on these high-end devices. The ecosystem is lacking the same quality you see on iOS and it feels like you have to search around for apps with weird names that replace the functionality of official apps. The apps are getting better, though, with a recent Facebook app update taking it close to feature and performance parity with its Android and iOS equivalents. I feel like I used to complain about the lack of solid hardware for Windows Phone, but that’s certainly changed with the Ativ S, Lumia 920, and 8X. It’s now up to Microsoft to plug some of the feature holes and push for quality over quantity on the app front.
Battery life, reception, and performance
In my day-to-day usage with the Ativ S I had no complaints about call quality or reception. The only time I experienced dropped calls were when I entered a typical black spot near my home on Vodafone’s UK network. Friends and family never complained they couldn’t hear me, so it’s safe to say the microphone placement is solid on the Ativ S. Data was surprisingly fast for me on several occasions using HSDPA+, and it held up despite being on a train journey. I was unable to test LTE coverage and performance here in the UK as most major carriers do not support it yet.
General phone performance is identical to that of similar high-end Windows Phone 8 devices. I played several popular Windows Phone games and never noticed any performance issues with apps or games. One issue I did notice is that the screen touch sensitivity seems to take an extra second to kick in after it wakes up from sleep. If you’re quick at pressing the power button and swiping up straight afterwards, then you might find you’re stopped in your tracks until touch kicks in. The Ativ S uses the same dual-core 1.5GHz S4 processor as the Lumia 920 and HTC 8X. It’s equipped with 1GB of RAM, and I didn’t need any additional speed or memory here as Windows Phone 8 doesn’t demand too much from the hardware it runs on. Windows Phone handles multitasking well in for memory management, although I’d like to see improvements in games and apps to take advantage of the new fast resume capabilities.
Battery life is fairly standard here for a modern smartphone. Samsung has packed in a 2300 mAh battery, but I found it lasted around the same time as my Lumia 920 — around a full day's use. Although the capacity is higher than Nokia’s flagship, the 4.8-inch display likely sucks more power from the device during day-to-day use.
Standard Windows Phone performance with solid battery life
A sturdy device that can challenge the 8X and Lumia 920
Admittedly I was expecting a lot worse from Samsung’s Ativ S going into this review and I am pleasantly surprised by the handset. Although it’s plasticy and has a cheesy faux aluminum effect, it works well in practice. The device is very comfortable thanks to the lightweight and slim build, despite the large display. I don’t typically like large screens on a smartphone, but Samsung has the right mix here that makes me want to use this as my daily smartphone. I honestly wasn’t expecting to say that given that I switch between an 8X and iPhone 5 for my daily smartphone use.
There’s some drawbacks to Samsung’s offering, some of which are out of the company’s control. Microsoft still needs to address notification support in Windows Phone 8 and perhaps add some additional customization features. However, Samsung needs to pay more attention to its Windows Phone apps. They’re basic and there’s a clear opportunity to do a whole lot more here, especially given the API and app model improvements in Windows Phone 8.
I’d happily recommend the Ativ S over the Lumia 920 if it had the same level of commitment as Nokia’s device. The software on Nokia’s Lumia range of Windows Phones is a lot more impressive than what HTC or Samsung offer, with apps like Nokia Maps, Cinemagraph, and Nokia Drive. However, the Finnish firm is relying on Windows Phone to pull it through tough times and you can hardly blame Samsung and other OEMs if they’re a little hesitant to invest time in building software for Windows Phone. I’m still searching for my perfect Windows Phone and I’m still waiting for the software improvements, games, and apps that will allow me to switch and truly feel like I’m getting an experience that rivals iOS or Android. Microsoft is balancing out the controlled ecosystem of iOS against the customization of Android and it’s doing it slowly.