Samsung ATIV S Review

7.6

Daniel Bader

December 27, 2012 9:08 pm


Samsung’s ATIV S was the first Windows Phone 8 device to be announced. Since then the hype for Microsoft’s overhauled mobile OS has subsided, but the battle rages on. Apps are beginning to be updated; users are starting to take notice. Despite impressive showings from Nokia and HTC, Samsung is a trusted name in smartphones today, and could be the very thing the ecosystem needs to thrive.

A clear descendent of the Samsung Galaxy S III, the ATIV S is more a Focus S successor than a direct crib of its Android counterpart. Nevertheless, it’s an attractive and surprisingly elegant handset, and stands to do quite well for the company. But can it draw attention away from the incumbent Lumia 920 and HTC 8X? And, most importantly, can the Samsung name do for Windows Phone what it’s been able to accomplish for Android? Let’s take a look.

Build and Screen

When the ATIV S was announced back in August, it was thought that Samsung was about to transition its long-criticized plastic melange to a hardier, and ultimately heavier, metal exterior. Alas, it didn’t work out that way, although Samsung made it appear so. The ATIV S maintains the chrome-like plastic heritage of the Galaxy S III and Note II, although the battery cover does look, at first glance, to be made of aluminum. That the phone has a removable cover, in addition to a replaceable battery, is a first among Windows Phone 8 handsets, though, as a result, the ATIV lacks the solidness of the Lumia or 8X.

Samsung has done a lot of things right here, though. The phone feels welcome in the hand, and the tactile home button is preferable to the easily-brush capacitive areas of the Lumia 920. The screen is bright, well saturated and the largest available on a Windows Phone 8 phone, which is sure to please any Android converts. But, unlike six months ago, there is little remarkable about the HD Super AMOLED display; not only has its PenTile heritage been surpassed in clarity by the Note II, but the Super LCD 2 display on the Windows Phone 8X is preferable in every day use.

It’s hard not to think that Samsung, like it does with its Android line, pivoted on an axis here. The company typically only makes one radical design change per generation, and felt that its Galaxy S III template had not yet overstayed its welcome. But saying the ATIV S is the Lumia 920 to the Galaxy S III’s Lumia 900 misses the point entirely. The Lumia line is inherently unique; it is also objectively beautiful. The ATIV S feels like a fresh coat of paint on an aging sports car: it’s got a great engine, but at some point its design will fall out of style.

Performance and Software

The ATIV S doesn’t stray far from what we’ve already shown you on the Lumia 920 and Windows Phone 8X. If you’re partial to Windows Phone 8, you’ll love the big, welcoming red tiles on the Rogers version. But Samsung, unlike Nokia, seems satisfied providing a minimum in additional functionality.

The company has pre-installed a number of apps to get users started, including ports of Android’s ChatON, its multi-platform messaging service, and Music Hub, its 7Digital-powered music store. There’s a diary app and a photo editor, too, though they’re simple and ultimately replaceable. We forgive these largely-superfluous additions on Android because the third-party app choice is second only to iOS in diversity and quality. Here, Samsung needs to make a much better show of itself to outdo Nokia at its own app game, and unfortunately does not.

The good news is that the device is performant and stable, and Windows Phone 8 really shines on the big screen. Live tiles can be arrayed in three sizes, and the keyboard, which we found to be slightly problematic on the Lumia 920 due to its oversized bottom bezel, works incredibly well on the ATIV S. Indeed, this particular device could offer the best typing experience I’ve ever had on a mobile device, and that’s enormous praise. The combination of a spacious 4.8-inch display and Microsoft’s unparalleled next-word prediction means that you spend less time correcting and more time typing, and when you are correcting, it’s usually a one-tap solution.

Similarly, watching video on a service like Rogers Anyplace TV Live, which is included on the device, is a treat. The PenTile aberrations that are apparent in Microsoft’s minimalist, monochrome text rendering are invisible when watching video. The sound from the rear speaker is good, too, but you’ll want to bring your own pair of headphones for a truly immersive multimedia experience.

Because the internal hardware — a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor and 1GB of RAM — is the same as its Lumia 920 and 8X peers, there is little to differentiate the performance of the ATIV S from other high-end Windows Phone 8 devices. But the addition of a removable battery and possibility of expanded storage through microSD is a huge benefit to consumers.

Camera

Good news for fans of mobile photography: the ATIV S takes fantastic photos. Utilizing the same 8MP rear/1.9MP front sensor combo as the Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II, you’re in for a superlative experience. Windows Phone 8 provides a sparse but usable canvas on which to take stills and video, though the phone’s shutter isn’t quite as quick as its Android counterpart. The benefit comes from a hardware button which allows for more accurate staging, in addition to tactile feedback.

Windows Phone 8 also bridges the gap between first- and third-party camera apps with Lenses, which provide access to various esoteric capabilities straight from the camera app itself. In the case of the ATIV S, this means you can download the official CNN app and submit an iReport in two taps.

Video quality is also quite good, though the phone lacks the image stabilization of the Lumia 920. Since the Lumia received its PR1.1 update it has retaken the lead in the WP8 camera quality department — daylight shots are no longer soft — and puts the ATIV S to shame in the low-light department. The large phone benefits in this regard from being lightweight as it’s easier than the slightly-awkward Lumia to keep stable with one hand.

The phone also splits the front-facing camera win with the Windows Phone 8X. HTC implemented a 2MP wide-angle front-facing camera capable of shooting HD video, and though the ATIV S produces excellent results it does not manage to outdo the HTC for sheer versatility.

Battery Life and Network Speeds

The removable 2300mAh battery in the ATIV S is large enough that, when combined with Windows Phone 8’s excellent power management, it can last two days on a single charge. In regular use on the Rogers LTE network I was able to eke between 18 and 28 hours before hitting the red.

The ability to replace the cell with another is perhaps the biggest benefit of the ATIV S, and forgives the plastic battery cover. Enlarging the existing 11GB of free space with a 32 or 64GB microSD card — newly supported on Windows Phone 8 — is another advantage of the ATIV S over the Lumia 920 or 8X, especially if you’re into heavy media consumption.

Samsung’s device performed as expected on the Rogers LTE network. We consistently achieved between 12 and 40Mbps down and 6-20Mbps up depending on network conditions and time of day.

Conclusions

The Samsung ATIV S is a good phone. It’s an appropriate device to sum up the year; its consummate performance, build quality and design feel very much a product of 2012, whereas the Lumia 920 and Windows Phone 8X embody forward-facing designs and next-year technology. Available on Rogers, TELUS and Bell, the ATIV S isn’t quite what it should have been, but maintains Samsung’s position as a competitive and reliable smartphone maker.

7.6

Final Score

7.6

Overall

  • Meh

    They still trying to make WP8 phones?

  • Rich

    Would love to see RIM license BB10 so Samsung can build hardware for that platform.

  • Dillionu

    I’ve had this phone since release on Rogers. Having been frustrated by my last two Lumiaa having flaws that screamed devices not ready to be released (chronic overheating on the 920 was the killer for me) I was excited for the ATIV as a large phone alternative. To me the look and feel of the WP8 OS is a real winner and since I am not into gaming apps are a non-issue for the most part – I can render essentially everything but Flash through EI beautifully.

    I agree with the entire review. This is a great, but over-priced device that’s been a pleasure to use with no issues. My only longer term concern is whether Samsung will properly support it with updates as may and will be available.

    • DaRazorback

      Microsoft has come out and said all WP8 devices will be supported, via software updates, for a min. of 18 months. That is much longer support than almost all Androids will ever see,

  • 2c

    Great review. RIP RIM!!!!! :D :D

  • Hugues

    I’ve had it since launch day on Telus. I absolutely love it, and even though the battery is good, it’s nowhere as good as what’s described above. At least not if you plan to use it more than just o check time, email, SMS and weather.

  • philip

    Haven’t had any issues with over heating or any other issues with my Lumia 920. I love the Nokia apps and since its update (unlike android, within weeks of coming out) the great camera is now even better! Oh and the screen…. Best on the market

  • HighClassFrenchCricket

    app grouping on wp8 is terrible, such a disorganized mess

  • jellmoo

    Hmm… I have to question the score a little. Considering how similar this device is to the Galaxy S3, some of the discrepancies are a little high. Build quality here is a 7 vs an 8.5 on the S3. Not much has really changed in the world of build quality in the 6 or so months between releases.

    The Ativ S gets a 7.5 for display, even though it is the same display as in the S3. Again, while there have been improvements in that time, are they enough to warrant the difference with the S3 having a 9?

    And of course the design gets a 7, while the S3 gets a 9.5. True, there is little innovative in the design of the Ativ, but is 6 months really enough time to warrant such a difference?

    • hoo dat

      Agreed. Perhaps a re-evaluation of the S3’s score is called for rather than adjusting the score for the ATIV.

  • GlassBackBadIdea

    in my opinioin, Samsung quality is going down hill and their implementation is horrible. Telll me why does it take my Brand new galaxy S2 exactly one second from the time I hit the home button till it actually go there? and this is not just my phone, Galaxy SIII has the same issue, and Ace IIx and noteII. Also, when talking on the phone and move away the phone, it takes it also one second for the display to turn back on. why the hell there is a delay? I have older LG Optimus phone with android 2.3 that was way more snappier and faster than all of samsung offerings. I am fedup with Samsung and their shitty quality. I guarantee you that all of you samsung owners have the same issue. what’s the solution?

    • sage

      “Brand new galaxy S2″?

      I am so sorry

  • bembol

    I completely agree with the review which is why I sold it after a few days.

    Like RIM, Windows is not ready and lack of Apps, I can’t believe I’m saying but that how bad it is again just like RIM. It finally caught up and they reason why I also no longer own the BEST tablet out there, PlayBook.

    • crystal_planet

      You probably got it because you were amused by the blinking live tiles and other shiny objects, but took it back because it didn’t have instagram. Grrrrr!

  • GlassBackBadIdea

    sage, I am the one who is sorry, for you. if you know what I paid for it and how much I pay for my plan you will go home crying. oh, and I am not in any silly 3 year or 2 year or 1 year contract. also, I don’t want a giant a*s screen phone to put on my face like all of you morons. mind as well make a laptop your phone and hold it to your face.
    hey, at least it would be then a flip phone, hahahahhaha

  • blackkey

    I’ve had an 8X since about a month ago and I have to say its the best windows phone experience that I have tried. I’m not a fan of the huge displays/phone size of the ativ or even the 920, and so for me the 4.3 inch display hit the sweet spot. The camera is also quite good… I strongly suggest anyone considering a WP8 but not a fan of big phones, or even anyone considering, give this baby a shot.

  • phreezerburn

    What’s not said? This has the same antenna & broadcast engine setup as the S3 and Note II which are themselves just behind the league leading iPhone 5(yeah, pains me too but praise for the iPhone 5 in this respect is both due and earned). Anyone living outside of the major cities where transmission is a matter of antenna, broadcast engine and available power needs to give each of the big Samsung phones a look see. For someone wanting a Windows phone, that means the ATIV S is your next handset if you want to be using the thing in places away from towers and transmission lines.

    • crystal_planet

      Perhaps we are “holding it wrong”.

  • sinkiller

    noticed that your 920 was connected to Bell. Did you get a unlocked version.