Samsung ATIV Odyssey review: a budget WP8 phone that performs like a flagship

The Windows Phone 8 deluge is slowly starting to taper off. HTC and Nokia have made their presence known with loud, bold statements and even Huawei has gotten in on the action. Meanwhile Samsung has already blessed the market with its flagship ATIV S, a respectable rehash of the Galaxy S III with a Microsoft soul. Nokia and HTC even have their respective mid-range models on the market. Which leaves just one slot to be filled: a budget offering from Sammy. With the debut of the ATIV Odyssey it's safe to assume that the Windows Phone landscape won't be changing too dramatically in the immediate future. (Of course, Mobile World Congress could make a liar out of us in short order.)

The ATIV S simply doesn't have the pomp and flash (though, it has the guts) to run with the Lumia 920 and HTC 8X. But in the mid-range, where gimmicks and style often take a backseat to functionality, perhaps Samsung can carve out a space for itself among the Redmond faithful? Last year's Focus 2 and 2011's Focus Flash struck a winning combination of price and functionality by offering comparable specs to their higher-end competitors. Just over a year later, the question is whether that's still a winning combination in a market that's significantly broadened its horizons.

Gallery | 57 Photos

Samsung ATIV Odyssey review

Hardware


In many ways, the ATIV Odyssey is not terribly different from Samsung's other mid-range devices. Under the hood are many of the same components that made the ATIV S a compelling handset. But on the outside, it's a completely different ballgame. The 4.8-inch, 720p panel has been drastically downsized to four inches and has sadly lost some pixels in the process. The Super AMOLED display is only of the WVGA variety -- a resolution increasingly reserved only for the lowest-end Android handsets.

Still, that's par for the course in the Windows Phone world, where HTC and Nokia have used the same resolution the 8S and Lumia 820, respectively. Which is a shame because, as we've become more accustomed to HD phones, the flaws and pixels in lower-res panels have become much easier to pick out, especially with text. And, in case you haven't noticed, the Windows Phone UI is essentially just blocks of color and text. It's not all bad, though: the screen offers the same abyssal blacks you'll find on other AMOLED displays, along with saturated colors that only subtly veer into the unnatural territory. Still, that familiar blue tinge we've noticed on similar displays is indeed apparent here.

Samsung ATIV Odyssey review

The face of the device doesn't hold any surprises. The capacitive Windows Phone buttons are below the screen where you'd expect them, while the chrome speaker grille, front-facing camera and array of sensors are dotted along the top. There's also some less-than-subtle Verizon and Samsung branding flanking the display -- just two of the four logos slathered on the handset. The others, Verizon LTE and Windows Phone graphics, cover a pretty good chunk of the battery plate, which covers the removable 2,100mAh battery. And you'll need to be able to pull that power out in order to access the SIM. The panel itself is the same flimsy plastic, made to look like brushed aluminum, that the ATIV S is sporting. At the top are the holes that allow the 5-megapixel camera and LED flash to poke through.

Under the hood are many of the same components that made the ATIV S a compelling handset. But on the outside, it's a completely different ballgame.

The sides of the device are wrapped in a cheap-looking chrome plastic that we keep hoping will fall out of favor with device manufacturers. In addition to those thin strips of fingerprint magnets are the usual assortment of buttons and ports. Along the right are the power / lock key and the slightly squishy two-stage camera button. On the left are the volume rocker and a flimsy little door that hides the microSD slot, a rarity on Windows Phones. That slot can accept cards up to 64GB in size, which is convenient since the Odyssey only has 8GB of internal storage. The bottom edge is home to the micro-USB port, while the top surface houses a standard headphone jack. While most of these buttons work as you'd expect, we noticed the camera button feels a bit soft.

Samsung ATIV Odyssey review

While we'd gladly trade a little fragility for the premium feel of metal or glass, we can appreciate that the Odyssey is capable of surviving a pretty nasty spill.

The rounded body and smooth plastic body fit nicely in the hand. So much so that you almost don't notice its slightly chunky 0.4-inch profile. That is, at least, until you look at it. The chrome band serves to highlight the thicker construction of the Odyssey. The mostly plastic body does make the device feel a bit cheap, but it has its advantages. For one, it keeps the weight down to 4.4 ounces -- light enough that you could almost forget you're carrying it in a pocket. Secondly, it actually makes the phone more durable. While we'd gladly trade a little fragility for the premium feel of metal or glass, we can appreciate that the Odyssey is capable of surviving a pretty nasty spill. In fact, I dropped it down an entire flight of stairs and even after it slammed into the tile floor 15 feet below, it looked no worse than when it slipped out of my careless hand. The Gorilla Glass 2 front didn't have a single ding or scratch and the back plate didn't even pop loose following the stomach-churning thud. An iPhone wouldn't have survived beyond the second step.

The Odyssey is also the latest phone from Verizon to ship "Global Ready," which means in addition to the prerequisite LTE and EV-DO Rev. A radios, it's also packing unlocked GSM and HSPA capabilities. And don't let the "global" thing fool you. Support for GSM on the 850, 900, 1800 and 1900 bands, along with HSPA/UMTS on 2100, means we were able to pop in an AT&T SIM, though we were only able to get EDGE data.

Software


Samsung ATIV Odyssey review

Truth be told, there isn't much to say about the software that hasn't already been said. Windows Phone 8 is Windows Phone 8, even on a smaller screen. The UI is simply the most beautiful mobile platform out there and the host of enhancements introduced with the latest update to the OS turn Microsoft's baby into more than just a pretty face. Those include improvements to multitasking, resizable tiles, Wallet and, of course, the support for truly modern hardware. But, perhaps, the software improvements shine even brighter when sticking to lower-end devices. The smoother operation and better-utilized screen real estate mean you barely notice how small the Odyssey's screen is, until it comes time to bang out a lengthier email.

Samsung ATIV Odyssey review

The biggest surprise, however, is IE10. The SunSpider mark of 919ms trounces most of the Android options on the market and is a hair better than the iPhone 5's score (924ms). While hardware plays a part in the scores reported, the efficiency of the browser's rendering engine is just as important, if not more so. While there are certainly a few minor things that irk us about the latest mobile version of Internet Explorer, they're drastically outweighed by the positive. So much so, in fact, that we won't even waste any more breath on the matter -- IE10 is great.

Verizon and Samsung packed in a few additional apps, but they're all easily removable and mostly inoffensive. Samsung includes its Now hub, which pulls in weather and news, along with a basic photo editor and MiniDiary -- a mostly useless piece of software that allows you to sketch images, make notes and store images. Clearly, the idea is to act as a daily catalog of your activities, ideas and emotions (you know, like a Tumblr, but offline), but it feels more like a simplistic note-taking app. There's also DataSense, which isn't strictly a Verizon app, but for the moment, this too is exclusive to the carrier.

Performance and battery life


Samsung ATIV Odyssey Nokia Lumia 820 HTC Windows Phone 8S Samsung ATIV S HTC Windows Phone 8X
WPBench 245 224 180 241 221
Battery rundown 2:00 2:07 3:30 2:38 2:30
SunSpider (ms, lower numbers are better) 919 909 1,415 890 914
AnTuTu 11,190 11,506 7,333 12,064 11,775

Under the hood are the same 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 and 1GB of RAM that kept the ATIV S running with its more charismatic competitors in the benchmark wars. Which means the Odyssey more than holds its own, and at a much lower price point. That SunSpider score of 919 is just a few milliseconds behind the 914 turned in by the Lumia 920 and HTC 8X. As an example of how far the Windows Phone platform has come, let's reach back to November of 2011 and check out the score we got on the Odyssey's spiritual predecessor, the Focus Flash: 6,842ms. Yep. In just over a year Samsung's budget-friendly Windows Phone offering managed to shave almost 6,000ms off this particular metric, which is quite impressive. Still, most of the credit goes to Microsoft for all the work that went into optimizing IE10.

The Odyssey more than holds its own and at a much lower price point.

Other tests turned up equally impressive results. The average WPBench score of 245 is actually slightly higher than the ATIV S, which notched a 241, and quite a bit higher than the Lumia 920 and HTC 8X, both of which landed in the 220s. AnTuTu was a slightly different story, however. While it handily trounced HTC's budget 8S, its score of 11,190 wasn't enough to match the numbers put up by those flagship phones, and it even fell short of the Lumia 820. The ATIV S, despite having almost the exact same components under the hood, posted a score almost a full thousand points higher at 12,064. Still, you'll be hard pressed to spot that difference in day-to-day operation. The phone chugs along at a workman-like clip, even when playing a few of the more demanding 3D games from the Marketplace.

Samsung ATIV Odyssey review

The only major disappointment in our battery of benchmarks was, in fact, the battery. In the (admittedly grueling) rundown test baked into WPBench, the Odyssey only survived two hours and 14 seconds. The only other Windows Phone 8 handset we've tested to even approach such paltry runtime was the Lumia 820, which gave up the ghost at two hours and seven minutes. Every other device running the latest Microsoft mobile OS lasted at least 2.5 hours (and the tireless 8S chugged along for 3.5 hours). In real-world use it generally survived a full day without a recharge, but certainly couldn't make it through a second. By the end of a relatively busy workday, the battery would usually have dropped to around 30 percent.

Call quality is solid, if unexceptional. Conversations were relatively clear with only minimal noise and no dropped connections. The LTE radio inside performed as admirably as you'd expect, hitting speeds of 25 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up during off peak hours. When the airwaves got a little more congested in NYC things were pretty stead at 15 Mbps down and around 11 Mbps up.

Camera


To say the cameras were not a highlight would be an understatement. In fact, they were just as big a letdown as the battery. The front-facing 1.2-megapixel shooter is more or less useless for anything beyond video chats, and even then it's barely serviceable. Video captures are noisy and have a distinctive blue tinge to them, which made this reviewer look quite a bit sicklier than he actually appears (or least likes to think he appears). The 1080p video from the primary camera, however, was more than serviceable. During daylight, color reproduction was bright with good contrast while the microphones did a serviceable job of highlighting our narration and tamping down background noise. As you would expect, thanks to the lack of any kind of image stabilization, clips were quite shaky. Though, my over-caffeinated hands probably didn't help matters.

Gallery | 43 Photos

Samsung ATIV Odyssey sample shots

What was underwhelming in late 2011 is quickly becoming inexcusable.

The 5-megapixel camera around back is very much a mixed bag. The unimpressively specced sensor performs adequately... outdoors... and in direct sunlight. Pictures are crisp, colors are bright and saturated, and it can even handle some decent macro shots. The moment conditions stray from those ideals, however, things quickly go downhill. Move into the shade or indoors under artificial light and colors become washed out and small amounts of noise become apparent. Step out at night and the images are pretty much unusable. Even with street lamps providing ambient light and the flash on, boundaries between objects become indistinct thanks to the amount of noise introduced. As the lights go down, the camera also begins to take much longer to focus, making it tough to capture fickle subjects like an attention-starved cat. There are a few baked-in filters (a sort of Instagram-lite, if you will) that help mask some of the shortcomings. But they're buried in the camera settings and nothing to get excited about.

And speaking of settings, there's not a whole lot you can do here. There are a few basic white balance presets, exposure compensation and ISO tweaks, but you'll find no burst-shot or HDR switches. Of course, thanks to Microsoft's Lenses, third-party devs can add functionality through downloaded apps. We will forever continue to be proponents of sticking two-stage shutter buttons on phones like the one found here. Being able to half-depress the key to focus and line up a shot before fully pushing it is intuitive and satisfying. Ultimately, the camera performs similarly to the one found in the Focus Flash. In fact, we wouldn't be surprised to find out it was the same exact sensor. What was underwhelming in late 2011 is quickly becoming inexcusable.

Wrap-up


Samsung ATIV Odyssey review

The Odyssey is far from perfect but, like its forebear the Focus 2, this budget Windows Phone is not without its charms. Granted, a good chunk of that comes from the beautiful OS, but the handset itself has a lot going for it -- namely, its top-notch performance. Unlike other companies, Samsung isn't skimping on horsepower to keep the cost down. The 1.5GHz CPU and 1GB of RAM are not only capable; they're the same basic components inside flagship Windows Phone 8 devices. This is not just a huge boon for the Odyssey in benchmarks; its prowess is immediately apparent during regular use. Even when we fired up some demanding games, the phone barely skipped a beat. Obviously, corners had to be cut somewhere, and the low-res camera and screen are where Samsung ultimately decided to compromise. These choices are hardly enough to ruin the experience of using the phone, but the older technology on display is certainly showing its age.

If you're thinking about the HTC 8X or Lumia 920, you may as well skip straight past the Odyssey -- this is not the device for you. If you're leaning towards the 8S or 820, however, take a moment's pause to consider it. Really, it's all about your priorities. (We're assuming you've already settled on Windows Phone for your OS and are looking to pick up a device at the cheaper end of the spectrum.) If you're looking for a strong camera, there's no question that the Lumia 820 (or 822 as it's known on Verizon) is the way to go. But if you're simply looking for bang-for-your-buck performance, then the Odyssey is a serious contender, if not a clear winner. Then again, if you're on Verizon, the 8X is only $50 more and well worth the small premium.

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Samsung

Samsung ATIV Odyssey

Pros

  • Impressive performance for the price
  • Minimal bloatware
  • Expandable storage

Cons

  • Low-res screen
  • Underwhelming camera performance
  • Cheap-feeling construction
Summary

The ATIV Odyssey looks like a budget phone, with its cheap construction and low-res screen, but it performs like a flagship.