Sometimes, as a tech reviewer, you encounter a smartphone so good that you don’t want to send it back to the manufacturer at the end of the review period. Other times, you can’t wait to drop it in the mail and scurry back to the safety of your daily driver.
For this reviewer, Samsung’s ATIV S Neo is, unfortunately, an example of the latter. Not because it does much wrong, necessarily, but because it’s almost totally unremarkable – and it fails to live up to a promise Sprint made its users back in January not to relaunch its Windows Phone lineup on six-month-old hardware. Indeed, the Neo is based rather heavily on Samsung’s nearly year-old ATIV S, and the modifications that have been made are not all for the better.
But the Neo is indeed the higher-end of Sprint’s shiny new Windows Phone 8 lineup (such as it is), and given the rough performance of its lone competitor on the Now Network, the Samsung phone will doubtless be the first choice of many customers unwilling to switch carriers. Should you be among them? Read on to see how the ATIV S Neo fared over nine days of testing in the Pocketnow review chamber.
Video Review · Specs/Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance
Specs & Hardware
If you’re at all familiar with the Galaxy S III, Galaxy Note II, Galaxy S 4, or really any Samsung smartphone churned out in the past year, you already know the fit and finish of the ATIV S Neo: shiny faux metal meets glossy glazed plastic meets slightly curved lightweight chassis. Almost nothing about this device’s build is new, with the exception of minor details like the blue backlighting behind the capacitive softkeys flanking the home button, and the repositioned power/standby key on the phone’s right side.
The few touches that made the original ATIV S notable have given way to more mediocre alternatives here: the fancy hairline metallic finish of the battery door has succumbed to a too-subtle Tetris pattern available only in blue. The battery itself has taken a step down from 2300 mAh to 2000 mAh, and the 4.8-inch display, while still 720p, is no longer AMOLED but a TFT-LCD. We rather like the added “punch” that saturated colors and deep blacks give to Microsoft’s Modern UI, so this isn’t exactly a step up in our book.
But there’s good to be found here, too. Like most Samsung devices, the Neo goes above and beyond what many Windows Phones offer, making that downsized battery removable for swapping on the fly. Its 16GB of onboard storage is expandable via microSD, as well – another Samsung trademark that will come as welcome news to anyone planning on loading up his or her Neo with tunes or flicks. Under the hood, a dual-core Snapdragon 400 hums along at 1.4GHz, helped along by a gig of RAM.
In sum, the ATIV S Neo’s hardware paints the picture of a phone that’s not meant to stand out in any meaningful way. It feels heavier and thicker than its 144g and 9mm dimensions suggest, probably due to some trick of the brain as it struggles to find something -anything- interesting about the device. It falls somewhere between the Galaxy S 4 and Galaxy Note II design approaches, retaining the least memorable aspects of each and eliminating anything that made the ATIV S stand out. It’s possible we’ve just been exposed to too much Samsung design recently -you may find this hardware beautiful, and if so, good for you- but for our part, we hope those stories of Samsung metal-phone-making factories are true.
Surprisingly, things start looking a little better on the software side. Defying all expectations, Samsung has gone out of its way to bolster its Windows Phone software offerings. After months lying fallow, the Samsung Zone in the Windows Store now boasts almost 20 custom titles. That doesn’t sound like many, but for the company we’ve long considered the most apathetic Windows Phone maker ever, it’s a big deal.
The additions are almost all camera-centric, possibly in response to Nokia’s suite of special photo apps in the Windows Store. There are many to choose from, all of them labeled with Samsung’s characteristic half-translated titles: Artistic Effect, Fun Shot, and Color Effect are all reminiscent of shooting modes in the company’s Galaxy line, and there are even some direct ports like Paper Artist for the more ambitious photo editors. There’s even a Manga camera app right out of the box, which delivers results as ridiculous and hilarious as you’d expect.
Samsung has also brought its own special flavor of tap-and-share to the Windows Phone world with ATIV Beam, a pokey but fun port of its S Beam feature from the Galaxy family. In our experience, ATIV Beam is slow and sometimes takes several attempts to result in a successful transfer, but we’ve gotten it working pretty well with both a Galaxy Note II and a Moto X (sorry, Lumia owners: non-Samsung Windows Phones aren’t supported).
Our favorite addition is the App Folder, a downloadable Samsung title which allows you to supplement your Start Screen with -you guessed it- folders containing apps. This is something we’ve wanted to see for quite a while on Windows Phone, where screen real estate is often a rarity, even with version 8’s new mini tiles. App Folder isn’t for everyone, though; apps within the folders can’t display Live Tile information, and stock apps can’t be included in folders – a major shortcoming that’s probably more Microsoft’s fault than Samsung’s. Still, this app is one we’ve found quite handy.
Just like the HTC 8XT, our ATIV S Neo came with a bunch of Sprint bloatware pre-loaded – and just like the 8XT, deleting that bloat didn’t help much with software responsiveness. The Neo is less prone to stops and starts than the 8XT, but just barely. Something in Sprint’s customizations, or a strange side-effect of the GDR2 update, or some unforeseen interaction between Windows Phone and the new Snapdrgaon 400 SoC, isn’t doing the software on these new phones any favors; the ATIV S Neo is definitely less responsive than most other Windows Phones on the market, especially when playing music in the background. It won’t be a show-stopper for everyone, but this performance hit is definitely annoying, especially given Windows Phone’s typically buttery responsiveness.
It may feel counter-intuitive to open an app called “Shooting Modes” to snap some photos, but that’s exactly what you’ll want to get in the habit of doing on the Neo. Samsung’s special viewfinder may be poorly named, but it offers a few important enhancements over the stock Microsoft camera app, not least of which is HDR capability. On top of that, Samsung’s pretty good at building lightweight, easy-to-understand camera UIs, and our only real complaint is that there aren’t more enhancements to choose from.
In terms of end results, the Neo’s 8MP shooter isn’t much to get excited about. Well-lit photos outdoors produce nice results, but indoor pictures tend toward the gray zone of washed-out “blah.” That HDR setting is there to help with challenging lighting situations, though, and help it does. There are also enhanced settings for contrast, saturation, and the like, as well as that ridiculous Manga camera and other fun filters – so taking the photos is usually a more enjoyable experience here than on a stock Windows Phone. Just don’t rely on it for night shots without the flash; this is last year’s camera, remember.
In video mode, the camera is still just okay. We can make out more compression artifacts in the end result than we’re used to seeing, and the focus is a little slow to catch up in some situations – but saturation is good and audio capture is, too. It’s not a bad camcorder, but it’s far from being a great one.
Smart or not, a phone is still a phone, and it’s important that it act like one when pressed into service in that antiquated role of voice communications. Just like its forebears, the ATIV S Neo does what it needs to in this area – but no more than that. Callers sounded okay to us, and they said we also sounded “fine” to them – as long as we were in a quiet room. Once background noise came into the picture, we needed to get far away from it to continue our conversation.
The Neo’s rear-mounted speakerphone is tiny and tinny compared to what’s coming from other manufacturers these days, so loudspeaker calls and media watching ends up being, once again, just okay. And listening to music over earphones is similarly middle-of-the-road; an equalizer called SoundAlive can be found down at the bottom of the settings menu, but fiddling with it doesn’t seem to do much to the audio coming through our earbuds.
Sprint’s LTE network in Boston is still less robust than those of its competitors, but it does deserve an honorable mention for outdoing other carriers in reliability at a recent Red Sox game with 30,000 people in the stands. And though that was at the end of a long day, the Neo still soldiered on for longer than we expected: this phone’s battery seems fairly solid, given its relatively low capacity. That’s backed up by the WPBench battery exhaustion test, which saw the Neo give up the ghost after 2 hours and 29 minutes. That’s right in the same neighborhood as the Lumia 920 (02:30:00) and Lumia 820 (02:11:00)., but it falls short of the Lumia 1020‘s score of 03:17:00. Heavy users will still want to consider carrying an extra pack, but moderate use shouldn’t tap the Neo dry before the day is out.
+ Expandable memory, removable battery
+ Good battery life
+ Samsung Zone improving
+ Camera viewfinder better than stock
– Uninspired hardware
– Software lags more than a Windows Phone should
– Unremarkable camera output
– Speakerphone, headphone performance lacking
Pricing and Availability
After some initial confusion, the ATIV S Neo finally went on sale last week at the
hilarious steep price point of $149.99 on a two year contract. Then, presumably after either a clerical error was corrected or a strategy meeting was held, Sprint promptly busted the price of the phone down to $49.99 with a new line of service and a two-year contract. That’s much more in line with what we think this device is worth, but those customers ineligible for this promotion can still pick the Neo up at the full retail price of $449.99 if they desire. Whatever price they end up paying, they’ll get Sprint’s typical eco-friendly recyclable-cardboard, soy-ink unboxing experience:
If Samsung’s ATIV smartphone line-up were an airplane, it would be a Boeing 737. It gets the job done, but no one’s ever really excited about it. It’s not particularly good-looking, fast, or new. And while it occasionally gets a refresh every now and then, you can’t really tell which variant you’re looking at until you read the pamphlet in the back pouch of the seat in front of you.
We have to give credit where it’s due. There have been modernizations here, in the Snapdragon 400, the camera software, and the Samsung Zone. Sprint tried to live up to its intention of rebooting its Windows Phone effort with new hardware … but the net result just isn’t enough. The company over-promised and under-delivered, something that’s never cool – but to a group already as downtrodden as the few hopefuls who’ve been stuck with HTC Arrives for the past few years, it’s even worse.
As the higher-end of only two choices, the ATIV S Neo is the device to get if you want a Windows Phone and you absolutely have to stick with Sprint. But if you have any flexibility in your carrier choice at all, and you’re looking for a Windows Phone experience done right, we can think of a few other smartphones to recommend.