“The next big thing is already here.”
The slogan, emblazoned on billboards and tee-shirts across the globe, was Samsung’s go-to-market buzzphrase for the launch of its 2012 superphone, the Galaxy S III. It reflects the scope of that massive rollout, perhaps the largest in Android history, and the ambitious aspirations of the company behind it. The buzz and bombast of that device’s unveiling -and, more recently, that of the Galaxy Note II– underscored the cocksure attitude of a company that knew it had a hit on its hands. Samsung, the globe’s leading handset vendor, was on top of the world, and it wanted everyone to know it.
It was in the midst of this surge of self-confidence, between the Galaxy S III launch and the Galaxy Note II announcement, that the company took the wraps off its first Windows Phone 8 device: the ATIV S. Actually, it was the first Windows Phone 8 smartphone to be announced, period, and some expected the device to be one of the first on retail shelves, as well.
That’s not how things played out. Instead, more-colorful competition flooded the market in the form of the Nokia Lumia 920 and the HTC Windows Phone 8X, devices with unique designs and features that soon began to erode the allure of Samsung’s silver slab. As weeks passed with no sign of the ATIV S’s arrival, the question arose: was the phone even worth the wait?
Thanks to the fine folks at Samsung, we have a review unit in-hand to help us find out. We’ve spent the last several days with the device, putting it through its paces here in the United States, and we’re prepared to render a verdict on what is, if not the “next big thing” in general, certainly one of the most significant Windows Phones in the platform’s short history. Read on for details.
Video Review · Specs · Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance · Battery Life · Call/Network · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me
Anyone who’s followed recent Windows Phone 8 device releases will find the ATIV S’s spec sheet familiar. It’s powered by the usual dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm S4 CPU (MSM8960), backed up by the de rigueur 1GB of RAM. Our device, the global GT-I8750 version, came LTE-free, but equipped instead with radios supporting quad-band GSM and HSPA+, along with the usual suite of WiFi a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0, and NFC. For optics, there’s an 8MP primary and 1.9MP front-facing camera, whose photos or videos can be saved to either 16 or 32 gigs of onboard storage, depending on the model.
Less familiar to high-end Windows Phone shoppers are the additional storage and battery specs. Unlike its competitors from HTC and Nokia, the ATIV S features expandable memory via a microSDXC card slot, allowing users to augment the onboard storage with memory cards of their own. And the 2300 mAh battery powering the device is user-accessible, allowing the owner to carry a spare in his or her pocket for instant on-the-fly replenishment. It’s these features, absent on the HTC Windows Phone 8X and Nokia Lumia 920, that really set the ATIV S apart, making it the most customizable high-end Windows Phone on the market.
Sure, mid-tier Windows Phones like the Lumia 820 and Windows Phone 8S offer such expandability, but those devices do so at the expense of screen size and quality; not so with the ATIV S. The front of the device is dominated by a bright 4.8-inch, 720×1280 Super AMOLED display kicking out a pixel density of 306ppi. Those specs will be familiar to anyone who’s handled a Galaxy S III, but in the stark, flat, sharp-edged environment of Windows Phone, the high color saturation and deep blacks of the display really make the interface “pop.” The screen’s large area makes typing easier, and the new, smaller tiles in Windows Phone 8 allow the added canvas size to be used more intelligently.
The screen isn’t the only thing that’ll be familiar to transplants from the Galaxy device family; the ATIV S chassis bears a visual signature that is vintage Samsung. With its wide-radius rounded corners, side-mounted power/standby button, and love-it-or-hate-it physical home button, the ATIV S resembles a cross between an updated Galaxy S II and a squared-off Galaxy S III. In one respect, that’s a shame; it would have been nice to see Samsung take a more unique design path to set its flagship Windows Phone apart from its Android offerings. But putting aside the bigger picture, the ATIV S is a very attractive smartphone.
The phone is quite thin at 8.7mm, and feels light in the hand at 135g. Though that’s the exact same weight as the Galaxy S III, the ATIV S manages to avoid feeling quite as cheap as its Android-powered sibling. Maybe that’s partially due to the higher-quality chrome border making up the sides of the device, but we think the biggest aesthetic improvement the ATIV S brings to the table is the brushed-metal look of its battery door, a finish Samsung calls “metallic hairline.” It actually looks like real aluminum, much more so than the “titanium” finish of the Galaxy devices; it positively gleams. Real metal would have been nice, to enhance the device’s heft and to improve its feel-in-hand, but that’s not always practical. In the end -and this is not a backhanded compliment- it’s the best fake metal we’ve ever seen.
In daily use, the device feels nice in the hand (if a little slippery), with pleasing dimensions that make it very comfortable to use in both landscape and portrait orientations, and even during voice calls. We’d like to have seen out-of-box support for wireless charging, and if we were in charge, we’d have bumped the power/standby button down a few millimeters and improved feedback on the buttons in general. But in the end, the ATIV S feels good, its thin chassis slips easily into a pocket, and you can use its insanely reflective battery door as a signal mirror if you’re ever stranded on a desert island. What more do you want from a smartphone?
With few exceptions, as far as software is concerned, a Windows Phone is a Windows Phone. Devices running WP8 typically deliver nearly identical features and performance regardless of manufacturer, and we found the software to run as well on the ATIV S as on any other device. Our ATIV S review unit, though, came loaded with Windows Phone version 8.0.10211.204, a more recent release that includes the option to keep WiFi awake during standby, and to reject voice calls with text messages– both handy features. We only encountered one serious bug during our time with the unit: auto-brightness on this device is awful, always setting the wrong levels and lagging behind changes in ambient lighting conditions. Fortunately, that’s easily fixable with an OTA update.
Like other major OEMs, Samsung has its own section of the Windows Phone 8 Store, unimaginatively dubbed the “Samsung Zone.” Here, users can download Samsung-exclusive apps, many of which come preinstalled on the ATIV S. Samsung’s titles aren’t as numerous -or as useful- as Nokia’s, but we like them: Samsung Now is a great aggregator for news and weather, though its live tiles could be prettier, and the Photo Editor is handy for applying filters or touch-ups. “Live Wallpaper” isn’t what you think -there’s still no provision for animated home or lock screens in Windows Phone- but it is a cool way to customize the lock screen’s look and feel, shuffling through photos of your choice in a slow-moving slide show. Music Hub is here, serving as a nice alternative to Xbox Music for people still pining for Pandora and Spotify, and even the MiniDiary seems to be a hit, with 4.5 out of 5 stars in Store reviews.
In the category of minutiae: Samsung hasn’t forgotten to include its infernal “Whistle” notification in the ATIV S’s software load, so if you have a soft spot in your heart for what could be the most irritating sound effect known to smartphones, you’ll feel right at home here. On the brighter side, the phone’s capacitive Search and Back keys have sensible backlight timeouts -they don’t stay annoyingly illuminated for the duration of a movie, as they do on the Lumia 920- and the device’s haptic feedback is satisfyingly strong when you do press them. Finally, for anyone who thought Samsung’s on-call nannies had abandoned their posts, fret not: the device will still warn you if you’re blaring your danged rock music too loudly.
The 8MP camera on the ATIV S seems to be the same shooter as found on the Galaxy S III, which is a good thing. The camera copes adequately with most lighting situations, and there’s a fair amount of tweaking possible in the Windows Phone 8 viewfinder software to hone white-balance, ISO, and exposure settings for a great shot. Low-light performance is good for a “conventional” smartphone camera, though of course nowhere near the Lumia 920’s miracle-working prowess. There’s plenty in the way of effects here, too, for those who like seeing what a sepia or negative filter looks like before pressing the shutter key.
In our testing, stills came out mostly sharp and richly colored, and of course they really pop on the ATIV’s S-AMOLED display. Video is acceptable, though auto-focus is a little slow compared to other devices we’ve tested in 1080p shooting mode.
Packing the same CPU, GPU, and RAM combination as found in most other Windows Phone 8 devices means the ATIV S shouldn’t vary appreciably in terms of horsepower, and we confirmed that in our testing. The ATIV S scored 237.86 in the WPBench benchmarking utility, compared with the Lumia 920’s 233.5 and the Lumia 820’s 216.02. We’ve found that WPBench scores, even run back-to-back on the same device, typically vary by 5-15 points, so the difference between these scores is insignificant for our (admittedly unscientific) purposes.
As we mentioned already, this translates to very impressive real-world performance, both in day-to-day UI interactions and in mildly taxing exercises like streaming video, browsing graphically intense webpages, and playing addictive games like the flight combat simulator Rise of Glory.
As far as audio goes: while we find the lack of a built-in equalizer disappointing, we don’t have many complaints with the output from the ATIV S’s headphone jack. If you’re streaming most of your music from online services, this device will serve you fine. If, however, you want to take advantage of that expandable storage to listen to high-quality MP3s, you might be let down. If possible, bring your own headphones to a retail store and “try before you buy.”
The battery in the ATIV S doesn’t just outclass the Windows Phone 8X and Lumia 920 in terms of its removability; it’s also a larger power pack to begin with, its 2300 milliamp-hours besting those 1800mAh and 2000mAh competitors, respectively.
That spec superiority gives the ATIV S a real-world advantage in terms of endurance as well. In WPBench’s battery stress-test, which runs the CPU at max cycles until auto-shutdown, the ATIV S endured for 2 hours and 42 minutes. That’s only about 11 minutes longer than our Lumia 920 held out, but under normal usage conditions, the ATIV S definitely displays more impressive endurance than its Finnish foe. In our first day with the device, which saw moderate to heavy usage, it took us nine hours after unplugging to reach the 25% charge level.
That performance, coupled with the fact that the battery can easily be swapped with a fresh one, make the ATIV S the best high-end Windows Phone 8 device for endurance, bar-none.
Call Quality/Network Performance
We tested the ATIV S on T-Mobile USA in the Greater Boston area. In voice calling, we found the earpiece to be clear, but its output was too low to overcome even moderate traffic noise; you’ll want to plan on taking your conversations in quiet locales, or using headphones. Callers said we sounded fine in normal mode, with a slight but manageable reverb when switching to speakerphone. Here too, the volume is too low: the device’s speakerphone is capable of ear-splitting output when it comes to media and notifications -like that grating whistle- but it’s limited to perhaps half-intensity on voice calls. That may be a common failing in smartphones, but that fact makes it no less annoying on the ATIV S.
Data speeds over T-Mobile’s “4G” network were fairly good when we were in an HSPA coverage area: we averaged around 7 Mbps down and about 3 Mbps up. Sadly, the carrier’s coverage still lags behind its competitors in our region, so we were stuck on EDGE much of the time. As always, you’ll want to thoroughly investigate your local carriers’ coverage situation before signing a contract.
+ Big, bright, high-resolution display
+ Excellent battery life
+ Good camera performance
+ Comfortable form factor
+ Expandable memory
+ Removable battery
– Samsung’s custom software suite needs work
– Design is somewhat dated
– Middling voice quality
Pricing and Availability
While the ATIV S hasn’t yet seen an official release on any US carrier, it’s available elsewhere. Online retailers Clove and Expansys began stocking the device on December 14th, and carriers from Austria to Canada are now offering it with varying levels of contract discounts. So far, the rollout feels very much like a soft-launch, with little in the way of marketing or advertising from Seoul. We wouldn’t be surprised, though, to see an ad blitz for the ATIV S starting sometime early in 2013, possibly as part of a broader push for the ATIV brand in general. If you’re in the US and you just can’t wait, the ATIV S will function over GSM and HSPA on both T-Mobile USA and AT&T.
Wrapping up the ATIV S requires, once again, a division of perspective.
Taking the whole Windows Phone landscape into consideration, it’s easy to see why some would be disappointed in this device, from an aesthetic perspective. The company has succeeded in building a nicer-looking smartphone than much of its competition … from last year. In 2012, though, the ATIV S’s design displays a singular lack of boldness when compared with its more bombastic counterparts from HTC and Nokia. Only part of that is color: the issue extends further, to concept. The squared-off HTC Windows Phones resemble the live tiles that they encase. Nokia’s Lumia line comprises uniquely built devices with enhanced features. Next to competition like this, the ATIV S comes off almost milquetoast by comparison.
But let’s leave all that behind and play the part of the average consumer. If you don’t care about where the phone fits in the landscape, and you’re just interested in a great Windows Phone experience, the ATIV S fits the bill, and then some. The display is the biggest available on the platform, and it’s gorgeous. The casing is conservative, but beautiful in an understated way. And in case we haven’t made it clear: the removable battery and expandable memory card slot put this phone in a class by itself. Samsung’s thin custom app selection and the device’s unremarkable audio quality might give some buyers pause, but ultimately the ATIV S is a great Windows Phone that we don’t hesitate to recommend.
More ATIV S Content from Pocketnow
Is the ATIV S Worth Waiting For? (Editorial)
Pocketnow Weekly Episode 023: ATIV S (Podcast)
Pocketnow Daily: ATIV S (Video)
For more on the ATIV S, straight from the horse’s mouth, listen to our candid discussion on this week’s episode of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast!