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The ATIV S is the first Windows Phone 8 device released by Samsung, featuring quite the same hardware specifications as the Galaxy SIII and the look of the Galaxy Note 2 in a smaller and lighter chassis. The ATIV S gets the same 4.8” 720p display and the Snapdragon S4 processor as its Android-powered alter ego. On the market, this smartphone is going head to head with the Nokia Lumia 920, the Windows Phone 8 current flagship, and the HTC 8X, which delivers a slightly lower build-quality than both contenders.

The ATIV S main advantage over the Lumia 920 is its light weight and its compact form factor alongside its larger 4.8” display. However, the Lumia 920 has great advantages of its own, including the low-light camera and exclusive Nokia software. In this review, we will test the Samsung Ativ S in real-world conditions and look at the most important aspects of the phone. We will compare it to other Windows 8 phones, and we will tell you how it stands against the Nokia Lumia 920.

Technical highlights

iPhone 5 Galaxy S3 (U.S) Samsung ATIV S Lumia 920 HTC 8X
OS iOS6 A4.0 WP8 WP8 WP8
Display Size “ 4 4.8 4.8 4.5 4.3
Display Resolution 1366×640 1280×720 HD 1280×720 1280×768 1280×720
Display Type IPS AMOLED Super AMOLED IPS Super LCD 2
Main chip Apple A6 Snapdragon S4 1.5 Ghz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Snapdragon S4 Snapdragon S4
Battery capacity 1430mAh 2100mAh 2300 mAh 2000mAh 1800 mAh
Micro SD No Yes Yes No no
Back Camera (MP) 8 8 8 8.7 8
Front Camera (MP) 1.2 1.9 1.9 1.3 2.1
Internal Storage (GB) 16,32,64 16,32,64 16/32 32 16
Weight (oz) 3.95 4.69 4.76 6.52 4.58
Width 2.31 2.51 2.78 2.78 2.606299
Height 0.3 0.34 0.34 0.4 0.3984
Length 4.87 5.47 5.4 5.1 5.21

Context

We all use smartphones differently, so it’s important that we tell you what we do with our smartphone(s): we typically check email often with the built-in email app (via Microsoft Exchange), and reply moderately because typing on the virtual keyboard is tedious. We browse the web several times a day to check on news sites, but rarely watch movies or play music. We don’t call much – maybe 10mn a day, if at all.

On the “apps” side, we have a couple of social networks (FB, G+), a receipts manager (not available on WP8) and random apps (<20), but we rarely play games or do something super-intensive like video editing. This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful. Now you know where we’re coming from.

Industrial design

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Left Samsung Galaxy Note 2 – Right: Samsung ATIV S

Product design and aesthetics is obviously a matter of personal preferences, but for those who will order this smartphone based on what they’ve seen online, I’m going to provide my best shot at covering the important points.

Check the gallery below  for comparison pictures of the Samsung ATIV S and the Galaxy Note 2 and the ATIV S and the Nokia Lumia 920

The Samsung ATIV S delivers a similar textured silver finish to the Galaxy Note 2, but with a lighter color. The form factor looks quite like the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 but smaller, which differentiates it from the Galaxy S3 which features curvier corners. The hardware specifications however, are similar to the (American) Galaxy S3.

Back side

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Although the ATIV’s design language is consistent with the Galaxy series, there are subtle differences in the shapes and color that helps the Samsung Windows Phone 8 device get its own visual identity.

For instance, the lense of the rear camera is a little more angular than the ones found in the Galaxy S3 and the Galaxy Note 2, and the LED flash sits on its left side, while it is located on the right side on the Note 2.

Sadly, Samsung printed “8.0 Mega”on the right side of the lens, and I do not see why this was so necessary. Usually, most users know which type of camera they get in a smartphone when they sign up for a data plan, and the ones who do not care will not read the tiny mention on the back.

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Left: Ativ S – Middle: Galaxy Note 2 – Right: Galaxy S3

Additionally, Samsung printed its own logo and the Windows Phone logo on the back, thankfully, we were spared from seeing the T-Mobile branding. Not because I do not like the carrier, but too much branding tends to spoil a good looking product.

I prefer minimalistic designs for the backside of smartphones, and when that space is filled with printed word and logos it loses its elegance. For that matter, the rear face of the Nokia Lumia 920 is a great example of style and minimalism.

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The speaker grill, which is larger than the speaker itself, runs across the bottom of the backside, another difference with the Galaxy Note 2 whose tiny speaker grill is located at the bottom left on the back.

The back cover is easily removable, to access the battery, the microSIM and the microSD card slot, a feature that is not available in the Lumia 920 or the HTC 8X.

Front side

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The front looks like a smaller version of the Galaxy Note 2 except for the physical button and the two capacitive buttons below the display that are different.The dark gray color is also lighter than the one featured on the front of the Note 2. The ear speaker, the proximity sensor and the front facing camera located at the top above the Samsung logo have a similar design and placement as their counterparts on the Note 2.

Similarly to the Note 2, a silver colored metallic frame runs around the edges, but on the ATIV S, it continues on the back side, just below the speaker.

Sides and connectors

On the sides, you can find the power control (top right), physical shutter button (bottom right), volume controls (top left), a microUSB connector (bottom, middle) and the classic 3.5mm audio jack (at the top). The buttons are appropriately placed for ease of use, when holding the phone, each of them perfectly lands on the right finger.

Overall

The Samsung ATIV S feels good in the hand and its light weight does bring a lot of value as far as I’m concerned. This phone is much lighter than the Lumia 920. If that’s important to you, then this is an edge against which the Lumia 920 is pretty much defenseless. The ATIV S features a great build-quality with good ergonomics.

Display (very good)

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The 4.8” Super AMOLED touch screen has a HD 1280×720 resolution, and produces bright and well contrasted colors that could be compared to the Super AMOLED display of the the Galaxy S3, which delivers a comparable pixel density of about 306 ppi. The brightness is also very good and should be sufficient in most situations.

Some people would argue that AMOLED does not deliver accurate colors, which is true, however, as a designer, I like the saturated effect, and I am not too concerned with getting ultra realistic images (as long as I don’t work on Design). This is merely a matter of taste, so I advise you to check few AMOLED and IPS displays on various phones to make your own decision. The AMOLED technology has a slight disavantage over IPS when it comes direct sunlight,  it is a little harder to read on an AMOLED screen  than on an IPS display under those conditions.

Killer apps

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Virtual keyboard (very good)

Surprisingly, despite having hundreds of thousands of apps at their disposal, most users still refer to text-based communication as being the “critical” application for them. That’s why you must not underestimate the importance of a virtual keyboard. The more productive you want to be, and the more likely this element may get in the way.

As we have wrote in the past, the Windows Phone keyboard is extremely responsive, and it is very good at guessing which key you are trying to type, which reduces the error rate. The built-in words suggestions is also fairly good, and can accelerate typing even further. The ATIV S’ display has the perfect size for the keyboard (4.8”), and I found the keyboard to be very good, even if I prefer an even larger screen, since I am now mostly used to the 5.5” form factor.

Still, depending on your own habits, you may be able to find even more productive keyboards. For instance the Galaxy Note 2’s virtual keyboard is not as responsive, but it has an additional row with the numeric characters, support press and hold special character access, and the dictionary suggestions can be made in more than one language.

We really LOVE the responsiveness of the Windows Phone 8 keyboard, but we think that Microsoft should make word suggestions appear faster (there is a near 1-second lag right now), and add support for multiple, simultaneous dictionaries/language for multilingual users.

Voice dictation (regular): Windows Phone 8 has a voice dictation feature in case you don’t want to type.

I like the fact that the voice dictation command is directly available from the icons row below the keyboard, this feature is less accessible in the Galaxy Note 2, you have to press on the “T/pen” key and then select the voice dictation icon that pops up in the menu. In the Nexus 4 that features Android Jelly Bean stock, the voice dictation command gets its own key and is accessible in only one click.

It works reasonably well, and we felt that results are close to what can be obtained on the iPhone’s dictation. Google’s Android 4.1+ remain by far the king of the hill for this feature. Not only the voice recognition is noticeably better, but it is also available offline, which makes the dictation fast enough for near real time voice to text. We hope that Microsoft will push this further.

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Email (excellent): The email experience is excellent. The overall readability of Windows Phone 8 is amazing, and you should find that in every Windows Phone, so this is not an ATIV S “added value”. However, the ATIV’s 720p display makes the text look much better than on previous Windows Phones (800×600).

In terms of productivity, the overall responsiveness lends itself to doing more things, like flagging a bunch of emails for move/deletion, or flag emails by the bulk for later read. However I find the flagging feature easier to use in Android devices, since the flag icon is directly available at the right side of each email title. With Windows Phone 8 you need to press and hold on each title to access the same feature.

Surprisingly, the Email Search is very fast and accessible in one click, unlike the email app in the Galaxy Note 2 (this can be a major frustration point on other smartphone OSes…). We always search for an address in an invite when getting into a cab, so waiting for a search can be painful. Finally, the ability to quickly switch from different email filtered views (Unread, Flagged and Urgent) is awesome. We typically don’t use this feature much on other platforms, but in Windows Phone 8, it rocks.

Calendar (very good): Calendar applications in mobile devices are usually not very appealing except for Windows Phone. The calendar in the Galaxy Smartphone series is particularly visually unappealing, which is very disappointing in regard of the great hardware quality. The calendar is easy to read, thanks to the large fonts used for titles and event descriptions, compared to other applications. Additionally, the beautifully designed layout makes the experience visually enjoyable. The “I’m late” icon is awesome, it basically allows to send an email in one click when you are running late to a meeting.

Facebook (very good – a bit slow)

The Facebook integration in the People Hub is really well done, you can follow the latest news in your feed and post your status directly from there, without the need to download the free Facebook application. From the People Hub, you can invite people in “your room” via SMS or create groups.

The Facebook application is well designed, but you need to get used to the “Metro” navigation system inside the app. Unlike in other operating systems’ apps, there is no icon at the top left, accessible from most screens in the app, to go back to the main menu where you find the top sections: News Feed , Profile, Friends, Messages, Places, Groups, Events, Photos, Chat…

The only thing that I dislike about the Facebook experience is the performance: the Facebook app is much faster on the iPhone 5, and I have the general feeling that the Windows Phone 8 version is slower than the Android version…

Maps (very good for offline usage – regular for the user interface)

all Windows Phone 8 handsets will come with a robust mapping service that allows map browsing, basic directions and more importantly: maps stored on the device. This means that you don’t need to use wireless data to access your maps, which is great when traveling to areas where reception is sparse, or down.

It took me roughly 2 minutes and a half over Wifi to download the map of the state of California.
International travelers will appreciate this as well because it is often when you need a map the most, yet data is often not available when you want it.

The Windows Phone offline mapping goes way beyond anything that Google and Apple offer today.With Google, you can download an area to the local storage. However, you cannot download a state, let alone the whole country, or the world.

The map application in the ATIV is the generic one that you will find in other WP8 handsets, most likely powered by Bing with the location data from Nokia. The Lumia 920 features custom map and navigation applications, namely Nokia Maps, Nokia Drive+ (Beta) and Nokia City Lens.

The default Windows Phone 8 map does well, but the Nokia Lumia 920 has a definitive advantage, thanks to Nokia Drive, an app that makes the Lumia 920 act and feel like a real personal navigation device (PND) that provides voice directions and indoors maps for a number of malls and popular locations.

Skype (good video quality, but very poor user experience – why can’t we log out???)

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Skype call from the ATIV S > image on the PC

Tested over WiFi, the video call quality was surprisingly good with the Skype app in Windows Phone 8, the image resolution and quality is very good even in low-light conditions. The compression is well done, since the video is fluid and the image does not pixelate. It is significantly better than many Android phones equipped with the same Snapdragon chip.

skype on ATIV SOn the other hand Skype has been a source of frustration for me. First of all it is impossible to sign out or switch user without uninstalling the application, this is confirmed in the Skype support page for Windows Phone 8. This is crazy!

Secondly, there is no “search” function — really? I have 50-70 contacts or so, and scrolling around to search them is unacceptable. Skype is a very cool service, but the Windows Phone implementation needs a lot more work. I am really disappointed with the bad user experience because I really love the look and feel of the “Metro” style user interface of the Skype application.

From our experience, we have noticed that Skype is slightly slower when used from WP8 handsets compared to Android phones. Simple actions like calling and handing can be very laggy at times. However, when tested with the Samsung ATIV S, the speed was pretty good.

Entertainment

Video: Playing 1080p video is pretty easy for the Snapdragon S4 processor that powers the ATIV S, so this isn’t much of a challenge. In practical terms, this means that you should be able to enjoy the full quality of the 720p movie, if you find content to load on your phone… right now, there is no way to rent or buy movies on Windows Phone 8…  too bad because it works quite well on the Microsoft Surface RT tablet.

Gaming: Windows Phone has a good shot at establishing itself as a great gaming platform, but right now, we can’t say that it is the case. We’ve tested XBox live games like AE 3D Motor which is a 2D game (in standard definition) and Top Truck, which is also 2D and physics based. They don’t exactly push the hardware envelope. If there’s a title that you would recommend to us, drop a comment below. In the meantime, we know that the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 hardware has great potential for gaming, but that this has yet to be realized.

Speaker quality: the speaker of the ATIV S is located at the lower-back of the handset. This is a common placement that is often used in phone designs. It’s not optimum because a lot of energy is spent blasting the sound backwards to get enough. The audio is surprisingly powerful for such a slim chassis.

The downside of the speaker placement is that the nature of the sound does change drastically depending on whether you are holding the phone, or lay it on a table. That’s because the sound bounces off completely different surface at different distances. In general, I find the sound to be better when the ATIV S is NOT resting onto a surface. In comparison, the sound quality in the HTC 8X is slightly better, and delivers a similar volume.

Digital Imaging (very good)

In terms of photography the ATIV S is very good. I have compared it with the Lumia 920 and the Galaxy Note 2 (for video). This is a tough group to beat, and they are recognized as having very good or excellent photo capabilities. I will lay it out for you:

  • The Galaxy Note 2 produces photos with similar good quality, the pictures and videos tend to be a bit overexposed in the bright areas of a picture, but get very good results in the dark areas.
  • The Lumia 920 beats everyone in low-light photography, and now, after its recent software update, gets the color balance right. The camera delivers slightly darker and more contrasted images in bright light.
  • The Samsung ATIV S delivers good image quality although it tends to overexpose the bright areas of a picture. This probably allows the sensor to provide very good performance in low light.

The Lumia 920 gets incredible low-light performance, and I was happy to see that the color balance is more realistic now after the latest firmware update. However, it still shifts white/blue when it’s supposed to be a bit yellow (we tried in a controlled environment with a yellow light).

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Photo shot by the ATIV S – NOT ORIGINAL RESOLUTION > go to our Flickr to see it full size

 

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Photo shot by the Nokia Lumia 920 – NOT ORIGINAL RESOLUTION > go to our Flickr to see it full size

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Photo shot by the ATIV S – NOT ORIGINAL RESOLUTION > go to our Flickr to see it full size

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Photo shot by the Nokia Lumia 920 – NOT ORIGINAL RESOLUTION > go to our Flickr to see it full size

Video recording: unfortunately for the Samsung ATIV S, the Lumia 920 is currently the best video recording device in this particular test (Note 2, Lumia 920, HTC 8X and ATIV S), as it got the color-balance and saturation perfectly right in the bright setting. The video looks smooth as well. Don’t get me wrong, the Samsung ATIV S and the The Galaxy Note 2 do well, but don’t quite capture the brightness of the scene in full light, and have a tendency to over-expose (it’s too bright) this type of bright scenes. Finally, the video from the Lumia 920 is a bit less shaky, thanks to its stabilization mechanism.

I have uploaded the full-size images and videos to our Ubergizo Flickr account if you want to look at the small details in their full glory. Enjoy!

Performance (Very good)

The Samsung ATIV S uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, which is similar if not identical to the ones used in the HTC 8X and the Lumia 920. As such, I don’t expect any major difference with the Lumia 920 and the ATIV S. I certainly did not “feel” any notable performance difference.

I was going to compare the result obtained with the Antutu benchmark on this smartphone with Android-based results, but I noticed that the score were higher by almost 50% when compared to Android smartphones using a similar same chip. I have to look into this before using those numbers because as it stands, I don’t see a particular reason why Windows Phone 8 handsets would be 50% faster using the same hardware. Maybe there were some changes, or maybe Antutu for Windows Phone 8 isn’t completely the same…

If you are not familiar with it, Antutu is an overall system performance benchmark (CPU, graphics, storage), and what it shows is that overall, most recent phones land in a comparable performance footprint. This means that unless you do something very specific (like “gaming” or “downloads”), those phones should provide a similar overall performance.

Here, the Samsung ATIV S has a slight lead over the HTC 8X. Given that both use a very similar (if not identical chip), the difference can be cause by faster clock, memory or Flash storage, all of which play a role in the overall score.

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There is also SunSpider, which is probably the least representative of pretty much anything that matters to the end-user. SunSpider is a Javascript test that mostly measures how good the Javascript engine is. Performance jump of 100% have been witnessed after software updates, so keep in mind that this may not be a great CPU test. It also uses a single-core, so it won’t be able to differentiate much between single and multicore architectures. Also, please don’t consider it to be a “web performance” test, because it is not. Most of the perceived web performance is felt during the load time and rendering time, both of which often have nothing to do with Javascript performance.

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We’re throwing the numbers out there because you may hear about this, but we recommend not paying too much attention to those.

In terms of perceived performance, the user interface is extremely smooth, and that has been a hallmark of Windows Phone since the beginning. The only exception is when we browse user interface elements that need network access (Social Media apps…). but we can hardly blame the software for the network performance. Internet access would slow down any apps on any platforms.

Battery Life (Excellent)

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Overnight depletion (excellent): The overnight battery depletion (8hrs) is very minimal, with the GPS and the Wifi turned on it was only 2%!

Battery life – low intensity usage (excellent): Additionally, the phone used only 40% of its charge with minimal usage (email checking, tried a few apps, shot a few photos and played video for less than 15 minutes) over a 24 hours period. It tooks 42 hours to drain the battery to 3% charge, with minimal to very minimal usage (with WiFi and location on). It is fair to say that the Samsung Ativ S has a best-in-class battery life. The Ativ S is the only Windows Phone that has excellent battery life with the Location feature ON.

Battery life – high intensity usage (excellent): To test the battery life under high intensity usage, we played a Youtube video streamed over WiFi for one hour, and the the battery depleted only by 10%! Amazingly, it looks like the ATIV S could stream video roughly for 10 hours on a single charge. We have never seen such great power consumption performance in a recent smartphone.

Charging time (good): I started to charge the smartphone when the battery was at 2%, and after an hour it was 47% full. After 2 hours, it was almost fully charged at 88%. It will take about two hours and fifteen minutes to get the device completely charged, which is a good time frame in comparison to other smartphones.

Conclusion (Very Good)

Design-wise, the Samsung ATIV S looks like a smaller version of the Galaxy Note 2 with Windows Phone 8 inside. Samsung designed a few elements slightly differently, probably to differentiate the ATIV S from its larger Android-powered sibling, however it really feels like owning a Galaxy-series device, in fact, the specifications are very similar to the Galaxy S3 (4.8” 720p Super AMOLED display / Snapdragon S4).

The Korean manufacturer is probably trying to ride on the success of its flagship product’s branding to gain more market share with its Windows Phone 8 alter ego. Additionally, it surely cost-efficient to design several similar chassis than reinventing the wheel each time.

Personally, I would rather see Samsung coming up with a very different look and feel for its Windows Phone 8 devices.  The Microsoft-powered lineup deserves a strong concept that can match the visual quality of the Lumia Series to better complement the unique (Metro) software design style.

The ATIV S features a great build-quality in a lightweight chassis and delivers extensive battery life (including with Location ON) and powerful performance. Unless you are attracted by the state-of-the art camera and the unique minimalist design of the Lumia 920 (minus the weight), the Samsung ATIV S is certainly the best overall Windows Phone 8 to date.


Filed in Cellphones >Featured >Reviews. Read more about ativ s, Phone Reviews, Samsung, Samsung Reviews, Windows Phone and windows phone 8.

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