Samsung Ativ S
24th Dec 2012 | 17:00
A lack of 4G holds back an otherwise stellar Windows Phone.
Introduction and design
Producing powerful and balanced devices like the Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note 2, Samsung is a force to be reckoned with in the Android smartphone market. Not one to be rushed, the Korean manufacturer has taken its sweet time producing a Windows Phone 8 device.
After some delay, the Samsung Ativ S has emerged. With its big and bright display, it shows just how lovely those Windows Phone 8 Live Tiles can be. With the Ativ moniker, it stands among the Ativ Smart PC, Ativ Smart PC Pro, and Ativ Tab as Samsung devices built to use the latest Windows 8 and Windows RT software.
While Microsoft's mobile OS is still young and the Windows app store is still being populated, store shelves are filling up with WP8 devices. Both HTC and Nokia have substantial offerings, the HTC 8X and HTC 8S and the Lumia 822 and Lumia 920, respectively.
Just as Microsoft's mobile platform is finding its legs, competition is heating up for the title of flagship WP8 device. However, for many customers the Ativ S may not even be in the running due to uneven carrier treatment. In Australia, the U.S. and in the U.K., the Ativ S is only a 3G device. You'll have to be a lucky Canadian on Bell to experience 4G LTE speeds with the Ativ S.
While we loved the Ativ S's big display, and found it a subdued alternative to colorful handsets like the 8X and Lumia lineup, it suffers the same limitations as other WP8 devices. Also, the lack of 4G support in most places should have power users hesitant to jump in. In the U.S., they'll want to wait for Verizon's rumored Ativ Odyssey, which could end up being the 4G version of the Ativ S we so desire.
While Samsung has crafted a handsome, reliable device, the hunt for the ultimate WP8 device is still on. Read on to find out what great touches the Korean manufacturer has brought to the WP8 space, and the reasons why consumers should still be a tad hesitant to embrace the Ativ S.
Samsung's Ativ S bears a very strong resemblance to both the Galaxy SII and SIII, to the point where it feels like one of those phones retrofitted with WP8 software.
Physically, the Ativ S has two major accomplishments under its belt: it's the thinnest build of any Windows Phone 8 device and it has the largest screen. This alone makes it deserving of attention from consumers.
That AMOLED display is 4.8-inches, just a little bit bigger than the WP8 device with the second largest screen, the Nokia Lumia 920 at 4.5-inches. At 306 pixels per inch, the display is actually less dense than the HTC and Nokia competition, but you'd never know it with your naked eye. This large, well-lit display really makes those Live Tiles sing, and the viewing angles are nothing short of spectacular. Even in bright sunlight we had no trouble looking at the Ativ S.
The body of the Ativ S isn't bad to look at either. It has a long, brushed metallic exterior, like a Galaxy S3. Don't let that chromed appearance fool you though, just like the S3 the Ativ S is all plastic.
The Ativ S's slim body and metallic design give it a mature, subdued appearance that we find appealing. Consumers who found the candy-colored HTC 8X too playful or the Lumia 920 too obviously plastic will be delighted with it.
However, the Ativ S is so slick it's downright slippery. It almost slid out of our hands on a number of occasions. That's not something that would ever happen with a grippy HTC 8X or 8S. Hopefully there will be stylish flip covers for the Ativ S, just like the S3.
Inside, the Ativ S packs power. It doesn't have an S3's quad-core, but its 1.5 GHz dual-core is nothing to sneeze at. There's also 1GB of RAM, and the option of 16 or 32GB of internal memory.
Fans of removable batteries and micro-SD cards rejoice, the Ativ S has both. Just like an S3, the thin backplate is removable, revealing a 2,300 mAh battery, micro-SIM and SD card slot. That, combined with ample internal memory, makes it ideal photos and videos.
As with the S3, the backplate is shockingly thin. Taking it off always made us feel like we might break it, but it held up well to multiple removals, and the bending we subjected it to.
On the rear you'll also spy an 8-megapixel lense and LED flash. There's also the long, thin speaker grill we often see on Samsung phones.
The top right side of the Ativ S has the lock/power button used for waking the phone and turning it off. On the bottom right lies a dedicated camera button, a signature of Windows Phone 8 design. It's a choice we agree with, as it's very convenient for grabbing a quick shot.
On the left side is your standard volume rocker. It should be noted that all three of the buttons sit somewhat loosely in their sockets. You can feel them move around as you press them, and hear them click if you shake the phone. As with the iPhone 5, it's a small detail that detracts just the tiniest bit from overall premium feel of the phone.
Overall, the Ativ S is a very handsome, smartly designed phone. While long, thin and metallic has become something of a standard design for Android devices, this is a new look for the revamped Windows Phone. It sets it apart from the more colorful competition, and while some consumers may balk at its size, a subdued, thin look plus removable storage and battery make it a very viable option.
Thanks to Windows 8, Microsoft's OS has become an entirely different beast as of late, at least from an aesthetics and interface point of view. Windows Phone 8 introduced a ton of new features that make the Ativ S a phone that's just plain fun to look at and customize.
On the surface the interface is simple, attractive and offers a nice range of pleasing color combinations. The stars of the show are the Live Tiles, a hybrid of icons and Android-style Widgets that offer up-to-date information and scrolling photos.
Samsung has put only the tiniest marks on the Windows Phone 8 OS. You'll notice them from the moment you wake up your Ativ S and see the nature-inspired lock screen. Locking and unlocking the phone produces the raindrop sound that Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note 2 lovers will instantly recognize.
The lock screen displays pertinent information like current calendar events, a missed call and new email marker as well as battery and signal strength.
Swipe up on the lock screen and you've pretty much seen the end of Samsung's touches on the WP8 OS.
Once you've passed the lock screen you're in Live Tile country. These are icons that feed live information right to your start screen. For example, the calendar icon not only displays the date, but whatever events and reminders you may have scheduled for the day.
A long press on a tile allows you to move it, unpin it from the start screen, or change its size. Arranging and adjusting these tiles goes beyond just aesthetics. Most tiles come in three sizes, and the larger you make one, the more information it can offer.
For example, enlarging the messaging application gives you a preview of incoming texts. Also, bumping up the Facebook icon to it's largest size will use your cover photo to decorate the Live Tile.
Like Android and unlike iOS 6, not every app on your phone has to have an icon on the main screen. You can jump to a list of all your apps by swiping to the right in the start screen.
From here, a long press on an app presents four options: pin to start, rate and review, share and uninstall. Pin to start drops the application on the start screen, but there's no need to pin lesser used apps, you can simply launch them from here if you like.
When you start amassing a lot of apps be prepared for a big scroll, but the fact that they're alphabetized helps. You can also find them using the magnifying glass at the top, which opens a search field.
There is a dedicated search button at the bottom right of the Ativ S, but it's primarily a web search, powered by Microsoft's own Bing, of course. As a web search it works very well, but for digging up items on your phone it's rather inconsistent.
Sometimes we got results that were almost as complete as the powerful search on a Google-powered Android phone. Searching for Facebook, we got both web results and the app installed on our Ativ S. When we searched for Settings, we got web results and third-party apps, but not the menu we were looking for on the phone.
The Bing powered search is convenient but inconsistent. The Google search on Android blows it out of the water, and the one on Apple's iOS 6 one-ups it as well.
Like the aforementioned iOS 6 and Android, the WP8 OS has voice recognition. While its not as powerful as Google Now or Siri when it comes to recognizing commands and performing complex functions, it does speech-to-text with very few errors.
Email, text messages and Bing searches all accept dictated text. If the phone misunderstands, there's an easy correction function. Just touch the erroneous word and other possible answers pop up to be swapped in.
When it comes to voice commands, the WP8 software understands well, but is rather limited in the functions it can perform. For example, you can tell it to "open Calendar," but not to schedule an appointment.
It also requires you stick with simple syntax. Telling it to "find coffee" gets a handy local map search, but saying "find coffee shop nearby" gets you a straight web search of the phrase 'coffee shop nearby.'
Bottom line, WP8 voice functions are there, but lack the nuance of its competitors.
We've mentioned how the Ativ S's display makes those Windows 8 Live Tiles sing. Well there's top of the line hardware on the inside as well, and it makes for a very smooth WP8 experience.
Microsoft's mobile platform is all about scrolling, usually with lots of live info, as with the Start Screen. There's a lot of live information being processed there, and the 1.5 GHz dual-core keeps it all moving nicely. We never suffered slow downs or stutters going from Start to apps and vice versa.
The Ativ S has the Galaxy SIII's looks, but not its quad-core, but proves dual-core processors can still provide a great mobile experience.
Contacts and calling
The People app is your one stop shop for any and all information about your address book. From its attractive photo-flipping Live Tile to the way it displays contact info and social network activity, it's one of the best features of a Windows Phone 8 device.
Visiting a friend's page in People show's the basics like their email and phone number, as well as recent social network activity.
There's also a tab called What's New which is basically a Facebook feed. It's no replacement for everyone's favorite social network, but it's very attractive and lets you make a quick check of what's up with your friends without having to dive into a seperate app.
Contact importing is all very well executed. Thanks to WP8, the Ativ S plays nice with Outlook, Facebook and Google contacts. Everything ends up nicely merged without annoying duplicates.
From our previous experience with Windows Phones, we already had a Live ID, so setting up our Ativ S took no time at all. It even imported our text message history.
Android fans may bemoan the lack of smart dialing, where entering a number or two brings up a prediction of possible contacts you may be trying to reach. Nicely integrated contacts, history and a fast search function more than make up for it, though.
The dial pad is stark and attractive, and we especially liked how Recent People tab didn't just show people we'd called, but people we had been looking at in the People app. It makes sense that if you're seeing what someone is up to you might be calling them soon.
When you get a call, the callers profile pictures bounces on the screen, vying for your attention.
There's also visual voice mail, with a nice layout that makes it easy to scrub through messages and get to the important bits.
Thanks to the fantastic social media integration and People app, texting and messaging on the Ativ S is excellent. Whether you're communicating through MMS, Facebook or Google chat, it all feels like one tidy, seamless experience.
It's all done through the Messaging app. Big time texters might want to run this app with the biggest Live Tile possible. This gives you a preview of any incoming messages right on the start screen.
Within the Messaging app you'll find two tabs, Threads and Online. Threads are where your texting conversations will assemble. As we mentioned, if you're coming from a previous Windows Phone, your old conversation with be imported through Live ID.
When you receive a message, you'll see an alert in a number of place. First, the Live Tile will either show a preview or a number indicating unread messages, depending in its size. Second, you'll also have that same number on the lock screen. Lastly, a banner displaying the incoming messages will briefly display at the top of the screen.
If your phone is awake and unlocked at this time, you can touch the banner to jump to Threads and respond. It works a lot like the banners on iOS 6, making it easy to respond immediately or ignore it.
Also like iOS 6, the WP8 OS lets you choose to have delivery confirmation, so you can know exactly when a friend received your message, then sit and wonder why they haven't responded yet.
When it comes to incoming texts, even though there are two little dots at the top of the handset, the Ativ S has no notification light. It's easy enough to see what's new simply by hitting the wake or Windows button and looking at the lock screen, but it's odd that the phone seems to have lights that simply aren't activated.
Next we come to email. While Outlook and Hotmail jump to front as Microsoft products and therefore the preferred WP8 email method, the Ativ S plays ball with any and all competitors. We synced our GMail account and within minutes had all of our contacts, communications and GChat friends looking great.
As with Messaging, Email has an adjustable Live Tile that can offer more or less information, depending on how you size it. It also displays your emails by date received, highlighting unread ones in a bright color and those you've checked in a dull tone.
When it comes to formatting and showing image heavy emails, the WP8 Email app isn't the best. Images never load by default, you have to give a quick touch get them to come through. This is nice for privacy and data plan concerns, but a few more options to tweak would be preferable. How about a safe sender list, or allowing images to come through over WiFi by default? Not a deal breaker, but something to push out in the next update, eh Microsoft?
Also, Apple remains the king of formatting emails. While Android still makes users pan around on images, WP8 zooms out by default to get the whole image in frame. This makes for a lot of adjusting when trying to read text in an image-filled email. Again, not a deal breaker, but a place for improvement.
Finally, there's the keyboard. While Apple's iPhone 5 has a nicely sized keyboard, Android is the winner here for allowing third-party keyboards. Sadly, Microsoft went the Apple route and doesn't allow users to install different keyboards. That means no Swiftkey or Swype, both of which we sorely missed on out Ativ S.
We also found the skinny keys of the WP8 keyboard made for a rather cramped typing experience. Thankfully, the predictive text is quite good, and almost always cleaned up our errors. It also learned our common phrases quite quickly, and would suggest a word like "ticket" after we typed "movie."
The voice dictation was also quite accurate. It would take down our email or text messages with only the occasional error. Even then suggestions came to the rescue. After dictating, you can touch a word, and the Ativ S will offer context based and sound alike suggestions for replacements. It's not on the level of Siri here, but close to Android 4.1: Jelly Bean. We were impressed.
Right out of the box, the Ativ S is a big behind the times since it's not a 4G LTE device. Perhaps that privilege is being reserved for the rumored Verizon version, the Samsung Odyssey, but as of this time, we don't know. However, there are distinct advantages to not having 4G. As a 3G HSPA+ device, the Ativ S can offer better battery life and a lower monthly bill than 4G Windows Phones.
Our review unit was on T-Mobile, whose service tended to rise and dip across the San Francisco Bay Area. We rarely had full bars of service, except in the most populous areas of the city.
Over network browsing speeds were routinely disappointing. At this time it's unknown which other carriers will be getting the Ativ S, but we'll update this review when that information is made public.
Over WiFi though, the Ativ S offered snappy Internet Explorer browsing. The TechRadar homepage consistently loaded in about three seconds, and the mobile site formatted perfectly. If you generally dislike mobile sites, there's a nice option to automatically request the desktop version.
It's not as adept as the iOS 6 or Android browser though. You have to choose between having a refresh button, tab button or favorites access on the adress bar. Otherwise you have to get to those option through a scrolling menu.
It's not so bad, this is coming from someone who has been spoiled by the mobile version of Chrome, which does an excellent job of bringing your history and preferences from multiple devices.
There are some third-party browsers for Windows Phone 8, but none of the big guys like Chrome, Safari or Mozilla Firefox. Also, as with iOS 6, there's no way to change your default browser, so you'd better just warm up to Internet Explorer.
Web browsing is one place where the Ativ S's big screen really comes through. Having a big display to show page and make touch selection a little easier makes for a good online user experience. Image heavy sites really pop on the big, bright screen.
When it comes to entering data, like in a search field, it's disappointing, and surprising, that voice dictation isn't supported. It's odd since we found talking to our Ativ S to be quite reliable, and a nice alternative to typing on that cramped keyboard.
The Ativ S bears a strong resemble to Samsung's Galaxy S3, and the two seem to have the exact same camera. The rear camera is an 8-megapixel snapper with autofocus and an LED flash. While it falls just a little bit behind the lense of Lumia 920, its a wholly adequate camera capable of taking good indoor and outdoor shots.
The camera is complemented by a dedicated camera button, a smart feature that all Windows Phone 8 devices share. Pressing it takes you directly into picture taking mode, when the phone is locked.
Unfortunately, it has one WP8 camera feature we dislike, which a touch to focus and shoot. That means that to take a picture, you touch the focal point of the picture, the focus changes and the picture is taken. That means that if you have a photo focused just the way you like it, it may change when you actually take the picture. This loss of control probably won't bother most, but if you're a dedicated cell phone photographer, you might find it annoying.
Maps and apps
While the Ativ S has a basic loadout of apps with enough functionality to support day-to-day activities, third-party support is one place where Windows Phone 8 is struggling. Even the Microsoft owned Skype took a little while to arrive, so its no surprise that apps like Facebook and Twitter feel rather behind the competition.
Perhaps its to drive users to onboard software like the People app? We're not sure, but it's nice to have them, because the third-party stuff is rather unreliable.
There's also no Google Maps, and now that the world's most popular navigation system is back on the iPhone, WP8 is only one without it. The proprietary Bing powered Maps app works well and provides solid, reliable directions, but it can be a bit of a dummy when it comes to context based search.
For example, searching for Future US, the San Francisco headquarters of TechRadar in North America, got us a map of the United States. Searching for the address, 4000 Shoreline CT gave us a map of Connecticut. Maps seems to run with the one thing it recognizes in a search.
At least the maps are accurate, detailed and attractive, more so than that disaster Apple Maps. When zoomed out you're given an illustrated map. Zoom enough and it turns into handsome satellite photography.
When it comes to actually getting directions, Maps is solid. It offers straightforward, logical walking or driving direction. However, there are no alternate route options for, say, avoiding traffic or tolls. There's also no public transportation support. As with Apple Maps, you'll have to venture in third-party territory for that.
Frequent drivers will really be disappointed by the lack of spoken turn-by-turn directions. Since this feature is available in both iOS 6 and Android devices, as well as on the Lumia 920 thanks to Nokia Drive, its absence is a real sore spot for us.
Battery and connectivity
Samsung's flagship Android phone, the Galaxy S3, is known for being stellar in the battery life department. This is one place where the Ativ S doesn't live up to the reputation of the brand. While it can easily edge out the underperforming battery of HTC 8X, it doesn't come anywhere near the life of the S3.
This is especially surprising since the Ativ S actually has a 2,300 mAh battery, as opposed to the S3's 2,100 mAh cell. Chalk it up to Android engineering, we suppose.
Beginning a day at 8AM with a full charge, the Ativ S was generally at about 60% battery life by nightfall. This is with a day of moderate use, with push notifications enabled, frequent email checking and writing, trips to Facebook, web browsing, and a bit of gaming and call making.
That's nothing to be ashamed of. The Ativ S is easily an all day phone, and the fact that the battery is removable means carrying an extra is a viable option, if not exactly necessary.
Heavy use is enough to get the battery very close to dead before end of day, though. Extended gaming, watching Netflix and snapping lots of pictures will take a chunk out of your charge. We also suspect that all those lovely Live Tiles might be to blame as well. Android Widgets are known for tapping smartphone fuel, so big tiles that report information likely take their toll too.
The Ativ S has the usual assortment of connectivity options, minus 4G. As we've mentioned, it's an 3G HSPA+ phone. Failing that, you'll be on an Edge network with speeds near dial-up. WiFi is dual band a/b/g/n, and there's also Bluetooth 3.0, NFC, A-GPS and Glonass.
It's rumored that the Ativ Odyssey, a Verizon exclusive, will have 4G LTE. If the fastest available data rates are important to you, then you may want to hold off until more is known about that phone.
The Ativ S is a very good Windows Phone 8 device, offering several things competition from HTC and Nokia does not: a slim build, large screen, removable batter and microSD support. Unfortunately, its held back from being the complete package due to being a 3G phone. Here's how it stacks up in our mind.
The overall build of the Ativ S is great. It may be plastic, but it sure looks like metal, and it has a more mature design than the colorful HTC 8X and HTC 8S. It also doesn't feel cheap like a Lumia 920 (sorry Nokia but your Windows Phones feel hollow to us).
It's also so light and slim. Given the size of the handset, the weight and dimensions genuinely surprised us when we picked one up. At 5.4-inches, it's already the sort of phone that may poke out of your pocket, so the skinny design is much appreciated.
Not only is it thinner than any other WP8 device, its also got a the biggest screen. 4.8-inches is plenty of rumor for those gorgeous Live Tiles, and their colors pop against on a subdued, silver device.
We're also starting to quite like the WP8 OS, mainly thanks to its fun color combinations and those useful, playful Live Tiles. It's not just a vanity thing, being able to get at-a-glance information from them reminds us why we like Android, and the thing we miss most when using an iPhone 5.
Finally, Samsung has really one-upped the competition by including a removable battery, and more importantly, microSD storage. One of our biggest complaints with the HTC 8X was its paltry 16GB of space and lack of removable storage. For this fact alone, the Ativ S could have been the ultimate WP8 device, if not for its lack of 4G.
The lack of 4G is a real bummer. While there are advantages to not having it, better battery life and lower monthly rates come to mind, the Ativ S blows its chance at the being the best WP8 by sticking to 3G.
While we have grown to like the WP8 OS, the lack of third-party apps really hurts. We know the storefront is growing by the day, but the fact that Google has said it won't be developing for Microsoft phones doesn't give us a ton of faith. Facebook is slow, and the lack of compelling third-party browsers stings too.
The Ativ S could really use Google Maps. The Bing-powered Map solution is adequate, but not great. It's the lack of spoken turn-by-turn directions that really bugs us. The fact that the Nokia WP8 devices have this feature thanks to Nokia Drive makes it hard to say that the Ativ S is better than the Lumia 920.
Thanks to an excellent build, good specs, beefy storage and an open body design, the Ativ S is an excellent WP8 option. However, its downright frustrating how close it comes to being the ultimate Windows Phone device, only to see it fall short in key places.
While HSPA+ 3G is nothing to sneeze at, it'll never touch 4G LTE. Therefore we can't fully recommend it over an 8X or Lumia 920 when it comes to data speeds. There's also the rumored Ativ Odyssey, which is said to have 4G LTE on Verizon. That makes us want to hold off altogether until that device comes into the spotlight.
Then when you compare it to an Android phone, or the iPhone 5, it's defintely wanting in the app department. There's also the lack of turn-by-turn directions, which every other phone ecosystem has.
Ultimately, the Ativ S is good, but painfully held back from greatness. The hunt for the ultimate Windows Phone continues, but if you want a device that's subdued but stylish, and will have a cheaper data rate than an LTE phone, the Ativ S is right for you.