Samsung Ativ S Review
A Samsung Windows Phone: the best of both worlds?
The Samsung Ativ S is the thinking man's Windows Phone.
Nokia’s mammoth marketing campaign for its Lumia 920 gave the impression that it was the sole Windows 8 Phone handset to own. However HTC produced remarkably good WP8 smartphones with the HTC 8X and 8S and now Samsung has delivered a low-key but high spec version of its own.
Samsung is the undisputed king of the Android handset market and has consistently produced mobile phones that sell in huge volumes. However it’s not just the Google-run OS that it’s looking to dominate, with a Tizen smartphone announced for 2013 and this, the Ativ S, is its first attempt at a Windows Phone 8 handset.
So does Samsung transfer its magic touch to the Windows phone? I think it does. It’s a no-nonsense smartphone that concentrates on quality over gimmicks and results in a quick phone, strong on features and powerful with performance.
Review by Damian Carvill
The Ativ S takes on Samsung’s now familiar shape, with its smoothed curves reminiscent of the Galaxy Note 2. As with most smartphones these days, the 4.8-inch Super AMOLED screen dominates. In fact, it’s usurped the Nokia Lumia 920 as the Windows Phone with the largest screen. With the same resolution and display as the Galaxy S3, the display is fantastic – crisp, bright and makes the Windows 8 tiles look great.
While this is most definitely a Windows phone, it hasn’t followed the same colourful slabs that you get from Nokia’s range and the HTC 8X and 8S. Instead, this is a more serious, grown up and confident handset. Samsung must have assumed that without a colourful appearance, we may get it mixed up with Android handsets, so it positioned the Windows symbol in the centre of the home button, at the bottom of the unit. Handy!
Either side of this is the back button on the left and to the right is a magnifying glass icon. This takes you to a screen with Bing’s search bar at the top, their colourful image of the day and then three main navigation buttons at the bottom. These are links to your Local Scout app, the Windows Phone version of Shazam, the music listening app, and a QR/barcode scanner.
I found these quick links pretty useful, although whether they demand a dedicated button on the phone’s main navigation is up for debate.
On the left hand side as you look at the phone is your volume rocker, with the on/off button opposite this on the right and the camera operation button below this in the bottom right hand corner. Along with the charging point and headphone jack, there’s minimal fuss and all buttons sit smoothly within the bezel.
One criticism often levelled at Samsung is that their mobile phones feel quite ‘plasticy’ – with the Samsung Galaxy S3 being a prime example. However I didn’t get the same impression with the Ativ S.
Despite the back being made out of a thin removable layer of plastic, the Samsung design team has, rather cleverly, given this a metallic looking surface. This provides the impression of something more durable and of higher value and works quite well, although remains prone to showing up scratches and is rather slippery.
A key benefit of having this removable rear panel is that it allows you to change the battery and add extra storage – increasing the 16/32GB of memory up to an extra 32GB. This is all available on the thinnest Windows Phone handset available. At 8.7mm deep, this is trimmer than the Lumia 920 at 10.7mm and HTC 8x at 10.1mm. It’s also a touch shorter than the 920, despite having a larger screen.
I think it goes without saying that the Ativ S is much lighter than Nokia’s Lumia 920 and is only a touch heavier than the 8X at 135g.
All in all, Samsung has produced a tidy, smart looking handset, transferring all the quality build features you would expect from their Android range.
Phone Set Up
One difference between the S3 and Ativ S is that it isn’t quad-core. Instead, it’s being powered by a 1.5 GHz dual-core processor, however there’s no lack of zip here. With 1GB of RAM on board, the phone packs a fair bit of punch and stands up to any other Windows Phone on the market.
The chances are that if you’re seriously looking at The Samsung Ativ S as your next mobile phone, you’re already sold on the Windows Phone (WP) operating system. However if not, you may want to check out what this has in store for you first.
It’s not a difficult OS to use by any stretch, however it may take a bit of getting used to. Your home screen is one long vertical scrolling mass of live tiles, with your app tray a scroll away to the right. Tiles can be added or removed, sized and resized to fit your own colourful jigsaw. The live tiles are windows into your app, dynamically updating in real time and producing shortcuts into the full version.
The Windows Phone OS is fun and offers something different to the familiar Android or Apple's iOS. However it is let down by a lack of downloadable apps. This is growing all the time, however doesn’t offer anywhere near the same range that you get from the Play or App stores.
One thing that frustrates me more than anything with Windows Phones is the teeny tiny spacebar offered on the keyboard. Regardless of how long I spend with a WP phone, I can’t get my stubby fingers around it. With the comma button positioned immediately to its right, my text messages and emails come out looking like this: please,increase,the,width,of,the,spacebar.
Having said that, the keyboard and built-in dictionary is intelligent and will learn your language as you use it more often. It’s not as good as the version on Samsung’s Galaxy S3, but it’s not bad.
With Windows Phone handsets offering a largely standardised experience with the OS, features are either familiar or not mind blowing enough to mention. That’s not to say that the phone isn’t feature-packed - there’s a lot to like.
Local Scout is a firm Windows Phone favourite of mine. This app provides you with all the local knowledge you’ll need when it comes to finding your way around. Easily find places to eat and drink or shop as well as things to see and do. Linking in nicely with the Drive sat nav app as well as Maps, I found this one of the more useful apps available.
Talking of Maps, the standalone app is consistently the best on any of the operating systems. Quick to load and find your location and rapid when zooming in or out, the Maps app is also easy to use when after directions.
The beauty of any Microsoft device is that it will be hooked up and tied-in nicely to its own services. This means that Office is integrated, with full access to Word, Excel and PowerPoint as well as access to SkyDrive.
Xbox Live is also built into the phone, allowing you to connect with your existing profile and play games across the Xbox Live network. Games can be downloaded through the app store. Games are largely reasonably priced and the gaming experience is good thanks to the Ativ S’s large crisp screen and its processor handling games without crashes.
Camera & Video
The main camera on the Ativ S is 8-megapixels and is very similar to that on the Galaxy S3. I found it to be a very good camera, handling colours and different environments well, although it does suffer from familiar smartphone camera issues.
It can struggle taking photos in low-light levels without the flash and then with the flash we’re looking at largely washed-out images. However this isn’t anything to put you off. If you’re after more advice on getting the most out of your mobile phone’s camera, you can read our tips to improve your smartphone photos.
One thing that I noted in my HTC 8X review was how much I disliked the touch screen focus and shoot feature on Windows Phone cameras. In order to take a shot, you simply press on the area that you’d like to focus on, the camera than auto-focuses and takes the snap. This means that you may have set up your shot, pressed the screen to shot and the focus will have changed. Having said this, there is a dedicated shooter button on the side of the phone.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating and you can see the quality of the images by cycling through the gallery in the top left.
With proper app and feature management, you can make most smartphone batteries last for a decent amount of time. The iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S3 will keep their juice from dawn to dusk for example, however in heavy-use cases I have found both to lose their charge before the work day is out.
In fact with light use, I have the S3 to display the warning light to me long before the day is done. Not so with the Ativ S. With push settings, wifi, GPS and Bluetooth all turned on and with moderate use of apps, I could easily and consistently get 36 hours + usage from the phone without needing a charge. Not bad at all.