Empty Nest: Samsung ATIV S

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I’ve learned that there are two things about being a mobile-phone reviewer.

The first thing: you get to handle awesome gadgetry days or weeks ahead of its official release date, and you’re not just allowed to use the heck out of it; you need to, in order to do your job. That’s the awesome thing.

The other, less-awesome thing: you eventually have to give it all back.

“Empty Nest” is a recurring column discussing what I miss -and what I don’t- about the devices I’ve had to return.

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The Samsung ATIV S was a wily sucker. It was announced way back at IFA in August, actually the first Windows Phone 8 device to see an official announcement, but it was the last high-end Windows Phone 8 smartphone to see the light of day in 2012, having been beaten to market by the more-colorful Windows Phone 8X from HTC, and the much-talked about Nokia Lumia 920.

In contrast to those blockbuster releases, the ATIV S rollout seemed more like a soft-launch; the device hit some international carriers without much fanfare, accompanied only by an instructional video or two from Samsung, and only the barest hint of marketing and advertising support. To date, the ATIV S still hasn’t seen a U.S. launch, with Samsung touting its forthcoming ATIV Odyssey as its “first U.S. Windows Phone 8 device.” The availability of an ATIV S review unit was announced to us here at Pocketnow late one afternoon, the tone of the email suggesting its arrival was a surprise even to our Samsung contacts. I quickly replied that yes, I’d love to review the oversized Windows Phone 8 device, but privately I had my doubts that this Galaxy S III lookalike would turn my engine.

To my great surprise, the ATIV S proved not just an able smartphone, but an excellent one, outscoring even the Nokia Lumia 920 in our full review. That people were skeptical of my final score is understandable given the device’s near-invisibility and seemingly unimpressive feature set, but the fact remains that Samsung has a nice piece of work on its hands with the ATIV S. Now that the review unit is packaged for return, here’s what I miss, and what I’m happy to say goodbye to.

It’s Good To See You

One of the first things I noticed when powering on the ATIV S is also one of the things I miss most keenly. Not only is that 4.8-inch display the biggest available on Windows Phone 8, but it’s Super AMOLED. That means not only added screen real estate for the new, smaller live tiles, but bright, sharp accent colors and the deepest blacks available on a display – a big deal if you’re using the platform’s “dark” theme setting. Both of these attributes are somewhat lacking on my Lumia 920, which uses a polarization filter on its LCD to deepen the blacks, but doesn’t quite achieve the ATIV S’s deep-space-like absence of light.

The good memories continue across the hardware, which I found felt surprisingly good in the hand during my time with the phone. The emboldened midplate/bezel used a higher-quality “chrome” finish than on the Galaxy S III, and the faux brushed metal on the battery door remains the best fake aluminum I’ve ever seen. These combined with the lightweight build and classic, subtle visual accents gave the ATIV S a timeless quality that I miss. That low-profile look might give the unit some trouble standing out on the store shelves, as I recently speculated might be the case for Sony’s similarly-subtle Xperia Z, but in concert with little touches like good physical response from the home key and strong (but not overbearing) haptic feedback overall, it made the ATIV S feel more expensive than it actually was.

Finally, there’s the one-two punch that gave the ATIV S its scoring edge over the Lumia 920: the removable 2300 mAh battery and the MicroSD card slot right above it. Even without battery swaps, the ATIV S’s endurance outclassed other Windows Phones I’ve carried, and knowing I could carry a spare battery to quickly swap in was a significant comfort. Also, it was a pleasure porting my music collection over to the ATIV S with a simple click of a memory card, rather than via cable- or cloud-syncing. In these areas, the Samsung phone still enjoys a leg up over its competition, and I find myself already missing that convenience.

It’s Good to See You Go

If you’re going to carry a device on an underdog platform like Windows Phone, you expect some form of compensation in return. There’s a reason you opted for the less-popular platform, with its commensurate lack of apps and widespread support. Is it the UI? Integration with Outlook or Xbox? Existence beyond the reach of Google’s long arm?

For me, who carries a Lumia 920 as his daily driver, the Windows Phone tradeoff hasn’t all been fun and games. I was too scared to abandon Google’s ecosystem to leave it completely behind -I still carry a Note II as a backup device- but the Nokia is still my preferred daily partner. In exchange for the hardships imposed by using a less-popular platform, my Lumia 920 gives me certain things in exchange: a camera with optical image stabilization and excellent low-light performance, a suite of Nokia-exclusive apps that add real value to the Windows Phone experience, and Lumia-only freebies like free accessories and free Pandora One membership (if the app ever makes it to Windows Phone).

Some might say that entire paragraph is irrelevant to the ATIV S experience, but it’s not. Because buyers considering Windows Phone as a platform are going to weigh the pros and cons of the various devices available on that platform – and the ATIV S offers none of that. The “Samsung Zone” apps aren’t worthless, but they’re far less valuable -and numerous- than Nokia’s. The Samsung camera is quite good, but it’s nothing you can’t find on Android devices (in fact, it’s literally the same exact hardware as found on the Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II). And we haven’t heard anything about special incentives for buying an ATIV S over any other WP8-based smartphone. So while there aren’t many aspects of the phone itself that I’ve enjoyed saying “good riddance” to, I will say that I’m glad not to have to face the question of why I bought the ATIV S over a Nokia Lumia device. Because -unless I really needed the removable battery and memory- I’m not sure how I’d answer.

Till Next Time

I’ve said this hundreds of times and I’ll say it hundreds more: in the end, it all comes down to your own needs and wants. For me, a wider selection of custom apps and a sharper focus on unique hardware makes me prefer my Lumia 920 over the ATIV S, but those priorities are by no means common to all smartphone buyers.

That long list of things I miss up above is no illusion, and some time away from the device has given me valuable perspective about where it sits in Microsoft’s lineup. It may lack a few visual differentiators, but the ATIV S is a solid product, and as we said in our full review, it’s “a great Windows Phone that we don’t hesitate to recommend.” I’m very much looking forward to what Samsung might deliver further down the road, as Windows Phone 8’s marketshare inevitably grows. In the meantime, I’ll always look fondly back on the weeks I spent with the ATIV S.

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More ATIV S Content from Pocketnow

Is the ATIV S Worth Waiting For? (Editorial)

Samsung ATIV S Unboxing & Hardware Tour (Video)

Samsung ATIV S vs Nokia Lumia 920 (Video)

Samsung ATIV S vs Samsung Galaxy S III (Video)

Pocketnow Weekly Episode 023: ATIV S (Podcast)

Pocketnow Daily: ATIV S (Video)

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!