Samsung was one of the first to join the Windows Phone parade with the Focus, and was quick to follow up with devices like the Focus S. It's been unusually conservative with Windows Phone 8, however: the ATIV S ($100 on contract through Bell Canada) is the last of the big three flagships to arrive in 2012, following weeks after the HTC Windows Phone 8X and Nokia Lumia 920 went on sale. Some would argue that Samsung has been especially conservative with the ATIV S, given that it shares the same 4.8-inch screen, Snapdragon S4 processor, cameras and overarching design traits with Sammy's other flagship phone, the Galaxy S III. There's a real worry that someone visiting the carrier store will see both devices and pick the Galaxy simply through name recognition alone.
And yet, they're not entirely cut from the same cloth: there's a design twist or two, a larger battery and, of course, a switch to an entirely different ecosystem. Some will want the phone to try Windows Phone's simpler, at-a-glance interface concept; others are shopping solely inside of Microsoft's universe and want to know if expandable storage and Samsung's custom app suite fend off rivals. We already have lots to like, but there are a few punctures in the ATIV S' faux-metal armor that will keep it from being the handset for everyone, even if they do prefer Windows Phone. Read on and you'll see why.
You'd be forgiven for thinking the ATIV S was another of Samsung's many Android devices.
Much of that apparent kinship with the Galaxy S III is visible from the front: if it weren't for the Windows logo stamped prominently on the home button, you'd be forgiven for thinking the ATIV S was another of Samsung's many Android devices. It's that close. Spin it around, however, and you'll realize that it's not mimicking its siblings quite so literally. The brushed-metal effect on the back isn't real, but it doesn't have to be -- the result is a smartphone that could very nearly be called handsome, if a bit flashy. Build quality doesn't suffer, as it still feels very sturdy, and those swaths of metallic gray help minimize (though not completely eliminate) fingerprint smudges. Gorilla Glass 2 kept the front of the phone pristine during our testing.
Some may just like the feel of the ATIV S in their palms. While it's touting a larger screen than the 4.5-inch Lumia 920, it's easier to hold courtesy of its textured finish and thinner (0.34-inch), lighter (4.8-ounce) body. Your experience may vary, but we weren't as afraid of an impending drop when using Samsung's phone one-handed. For that matter, the interface itself is easier to navigate one-handed versus the Galaxy S III. The subtle design changes, along with Windows Phone's larger UI elements, reduce the chances of launching something by accident and put your intended target just that much closer.
Few will be surprised by the ports and controls around the device, which very closely follow both Microsoft and Samsung's guidelines. Not that this is necessarily a problem, mind you. Up top is the standard headphone jack, while the bottom has a typical micro-USB port. The main speaker is located on the back and isn't especially loud, although it's certainly audible from across a quiet room. We occasionally hit the volume rocker on the left by accident, but we had no such trouble with the right side's camera button and didn't struggle to reach the power button, like we did with the Windows Phone 8X. The capacitive back and search buttons at the bottom are almost too easy to graze, however.
The real highlight may be what's just under the surface. Unlike what we've seen with HTC and Nokia's highest-end Windows Phone devices, the ATIV S gives expansion a big, friendly hug. Pop off the rear cover and you'll find not just a space for a micro-SIM, but also a microSD slot and a removable battery. Some buyers may not need to hear anything more than this, really. We know many who refuse to buy a phone that can't grow with their needs, and they'll appreciate the opportunity to go beyond the 16GB of built-in storage (up to 48GB total) as well as carry a spare battery for particularly hectic days. The result won't be as capacious as 64GB models of the iPhone 5 or One X+, but it won't cost as much, either.
As we've mentioned, the ATIV doesn't usher in any great revolution in processing power. It uses the same dual-core, 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 chip we've seen in some Galaxy S III variants, as well as many early Windows Phone 8 handsets. It sticks to 1GB of RAM rather than the 2GB of some of its Android brethren, but then again, there's less demand for the extra headroom. NFC is built in and once again uses the battery as the antenna.
Those hoping for a Nokia level of cellular diversity might be disappointed, though. In the Bell Canada model we tried, there's quad-band GSM, GPRS and EDGE (850 / 900 / 1,800 / 1,900MHz) and a similar number of dual-carrier, 42Mbps HSPA+ bands (850 / 1,700 / 1,900 / 2,100MHz), but just AWS (1,700MHz and 2,100MHz combined) for LTE. Variants for the US and elsewhere are poised to have either country-specific LTE frequencies or stick to 3G. As glad as we are that Samsung is catering to specific regions' needs, it's slightly disappointing to know that even an unlocked ATIV S sometimes won't reach its best data speeds on foreign carriers.
We weren't kidding when we said the ATIV S had a familiar screen. This is the same 4.8-inch, 1,280 x 720 Super AMOLED HD panel from the Galaxy S III. That's both a blessing and a slight curse, in our minds. You'll ultimately get rich colors, wide viewing angles and deep blacks. That also results in the ever-so-slightly fuzzy look of a PenTile pixel arrangement. However, what we said for the Android device also holds true here: this panel is far better than previous generations, and the pixelated effect isn't really noticeable unless your eyes are too close to the 306-ppi image. Although AMOLED still doesn't have the best reputation outdoors, we could see it well enough on a sunny day with the brightness pushed up.
Next to its immediate Windows Phone 8 counterparts, the ATIV S faces a stiff fight. It has the biggest screen of the current bunch and doesn't have to worry about refresh rates when AMOLED has near-instant response. Still, it doesn't have the pixel density of the 8X, or the extra 48 pixels of width afforded by the Lumia 920. Anyone who lives in a cooler climate will appreciate the Lumia 920 LCD's glove-friendly screen, too. There were a few times during my mid-December testing of the ATIV S where I had to stop to avoid frostbite. We're fine with Samsung's approach when the screen is large and contributes to a thinner overall phone profile; we just have to accept that it's not the best in every respect.
Samsung recycled Galaxy parts once again with the ATIV S' dual cameras. Both the 8-megapixel, f/2.6 rear shooter and the front 1.9-megapixel, f/2.8 camera are lifted directly from the likes of the Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II. On bright days and in good indoor lighting, that leads to photos from the rear camera that are sharply focused, with soft backgrounds in macros and accurate colors. The choice does maintain the reduced dynamic range, however, and the sensor is nowhere near earning trophies for low-light performance or image stabilization like the Lumia 920. Dark scenes without the bright (if slightly harsh) flash still result in either a lot of noise or pitch black elements. We had an opportunity to shoot with both the ATIV S and Note II for a while, and many images from both cameras were nigh-on identical to each other -- lumping the mostly good in with the occasional bad.%Gallery-173637%
This assumes that we're shooting with the same settings, though, and it's here that the ATIV S stumbles. Windows Phone 8 will let you fine-tune core image details like exposure, filter-based effects and white balance, but there's no built-in burst shooting, high dynamic range modes, panoramas or precision controls like metering. Samsung doesn't preload any apps that take advantage of Windows Phone 8's Lens feature for extending camera functionality, so we're left either finding apps for ourselves or going without.
Some of the basics take a separate hit because of Microsoft's approach. Tap-to-focus doesn't work without also taking a shot, which leaves you to either gamble with the results or lock the focus using the hardware key and pan away. The settings menu obscures most of the screen, preventing a good preview of any mode changes. That vaunted near-zero shutter lag? Shot-to-shot times are still quick, but no longer instant when Microsoft inserts transition animations and there's no continuous shooting mode. It's true that many casual photographers may not mind, or even notice; we just don't like that the ATIV S has one arm tied behind its back.
Video recording is thankfully much better. Windows Phone leaves fewer settings to play with, but the high-bandwidth 20 Mbps capturing is clean in daylight and stays sharp as long as the phone isn't being thrashed around. Exposure changes kick in smoothly and quickly. Moviemaking in the dark is about the only area that's off limits. The microphone faces a similar ceiling, catching subtle details in quieter moments and coping less than graciously with wind and loud noises. We'd choose Samsung's Windows Phone for capturing video in many situations... just not for the nightclub.
We've delved into Windows Phone 8 a few times now, and the ATIV S of course shares that same UI, so we won't rehash everything here. As ever, it's a distinctive take on smartphone software, and the introduction of resizable tiles has done wonders for providing as much live information as you'd care for. Internet Explorer 10 is a modern, speedy web browser. Like we hinted earlier, the ATIV S feels like it's occasionally solving problems that we see in the Galaxy S III, especially for those who aren't normally fans of big screens or a deluge of on-screen information. The Windows Phone keyboard remains one of the easiest to type with, at least on Samsung's big screen, with smart autocorrection as well as straightforward text selection.
All the same, there are a few undeniable chasms that have to be crossed. Multitasking is still awkward. Notifications are more prevalent than ever, but the lack of a notification center (missing due to time constraints, Microsoft has said) means you could miss a vital message if you're not paying attention while inside an app. Also, Microsoft needs to go beyond having 46 of the top 50 Android and iOS apps -- it needs the top 500, as there are too many must-haves beyond just the smash hits, whether it's Path or Remember the Milk. Those who live in Google's ecosystem will be hard-pressed to make the jump, regardless of third-party alternatives like MetroTube that occasionally fill in the gaps.
Most Windows Phone supporters have their share of custom apps to tailor what's otherwise a very uniform experience, and Samsung is more than eager to follow suit. We'd call its strategy a potpourri. Where Nokia is focused mostly on location, and HTC is a fan of little conveniences, Samsung wants to cover a few areas at once. Company loyalists will most likely recognize its cross-platform messaging service ChatON as well as the Music Hub, which (at least in Canada) centers on a 7digital-run music store. There are a few less common additions such as Family Story, which shares memos and photos between groups like a cross-OS version of Microsoft's own Rooms; Live Wallpaper, which shuffles photos on the lock screen; a MiniDiary app for cataloging memories with photos and voice; Now, a hybrid news and weather aggregator; and a self-explanatory Photo Editor.
In practice, there's a real hit-or-miss quality to these apps. We use Now the most for news and weather, as with HTC's hub. The Photo Editor app helps for a quick crop or tweaking the contrast before sharing a photo with the world. Live Wallpaper and the Music Hub feel redundant, though, and we honestly didn't see much point to MiniDiary when its content is completely disconnected from the outside world. ChatON and Family Story, meanwhile, both have strikes against them through their small communities (we struggled to find and recruit users among hundreds of contacts) and an arcane sign-up process that relies on phone numbers. Quite frankly, we got more bang for the buck from Nokia's mapping suite and HTC's attentive phone options.
At least Microsoft's hardline stance on the user experience works in the ATIV S' favor. Samsung's apps are treated like regular third-party releases and can be deleted entirely, if you can't bear to see them; they're sitting in a dedicated Samsung Zone section of the Windows Phone Store if you want them again. Carrier bloat is here, but you can still uninstall the apps from AT&T, Bell, Rogers and others if they're more hindrances than help. The loadout is light, as well -- our Bell unit has just a lone Mobile TV portal instead of the several non-removable apps we usually see on the provider's Android lineup. The sense is that it's our personal device, not just a profit engine for the network.
Performance and battery life
Theoretically, there shouldn't be any statistical difference between the ATIV S and any of its high-end Windows Phone 8 counterparts. After all, its 8X and Lumia 920 opponents share the same Snapdragon S4 and 1GB of RAM. For the most part, day-to-day interaction shows that to be true. The interface is still as speedy as ever, and 3D games in the Windows Phone Store like Ilomilo and Ragdoll Run stay smooth. Browsing is where you'll notice the jump the most; between Internet Explorer's improved renderer and the Snapdragon S4, pages load very quickly as long as the connection can keep up. We wish Samsung had used the extra time to stuff in a Snapdragon S4 Pro like that in the Lumia 920T, but the chip may be overkill when there are few things in Windows Phone's short-term future that would justify the added brute strength.
Samsung ATIV S
Nokia Lumia 920
HTC Windows Phone 8X
Nokia Lumia 900
SunSpider (ms, lower numbers are better)
AnTuTu (*GFX test off)
Going to more concrete numbers tells a slightly different story. Although the differences are imperceptible most of the time, the ATIV S just manages to edge out its Windows Phone 8 peers in every category. It crunches numbers faster and lasts just a tad longer in our battery rundown test. The longevity can be explained by the 2,300mAh battery pack, but there's no obvious explanation for such a consistent lead. We're intrigued enough that we've reached out to Samsung to see if there's a more logical reason than happenstance, such as the company's skills with in-house flash memory and RAM. We'll let you know if there's a definitive answer.
The extra 200mAh in battery capacity over the Galaxy S III is appreciated, though not quite as much of a boost to real-world use as you'd think. Our device had just under half of the battery left after the eight-hour span of a workday with periodic use of email, the web, social networking and the occasional phone call, and those who aren't any more aggressive should last the rest of the evening. It's very much possible to crush the ATIV S as a power user: on our first run, battery life shrank to about four hours after snapping 93 photos, recording three videos, streaming music over LTE and regularly hopping on to Twitter. Thank goodness there's a removable battery, then, even if we miss the wireless charging of the Lumia 920 and Verizon's 8X.
Outbound call quality was described to us as good by the various people we spoke to, although the inbound clarity on Bell's network wasn't as phenomenal as what we'd encountered with the Galaxy S III on other networks. Data was largely stable, albeit with a notable moment of inconsistency: we noticed that data traffic suddenly ground to a halt in downtown Ottawa on a Saturday night, even with three-bar LTE reception as we stood outside. Weekend revelers clogging the network may have played a part, but it wasn't confidence-inspiring. We can say that LTE was quick when working earlier in the day, and as we left the urban core. Our best result saw 21.4 Mbps downspeeds and 9.6 Mbps up, with downloads typically hovering around 17.5 Mbps. Outside of 4G, the dual-carrier HSPA+ 3G was good enough to reach a healthy 15.2 Mbps down and 1.6 Mbps up.
Samsung sits atop the smartphone world like a colossus thanks to its Android leadership, but the ATIV S ultimately feels like a third wheel on the Windows Phone 8 bicycle -- in part because it arrived late, but mostly because the design doesn't bring anything exciting to the table. HTC's Windows Phone 8X thrives on its compact, stylized body and helpful (if minor) tweaks; Nokia's Lumia 920 centers on major features for navigators, shutterbugs and cold-weather explorers. Samsung's phone stands out precisely because it's not trying to stand out, relying instead on historically reliable selling points like the slimmest design, the biggest screen and the most expansion.
Some will like it that way. Fans who've been waiting for full SD card support on a top-of-the-line Windows Phone now have that choice -- and it may trump everything else. Converts to Windows Phone and even smartphone newcomers might gravitate toward the ATIV S simply because they'll feel right at home. We genuinely enjoyed carrying one around, and it's a solid choice for those who aren't strongly attached to another mobile operating system (and don't mind the mixed bag of pre-installed apps). And at $100 or less on contract in Canada ($80 at Rogers; $30 at Telus) it's priced quite well.
Still, it's this conservative strategy that makes it a tougher sell for Windows Phone diehards and people who care less about expandable storage. While HTC and Nokia are guilty of saddling their Windows Phone devices with fixed storage and non-removable batteries, they've managed to carve out spaces for themselves through sheer originality: their camera and design features are irreplaceable. Samsung's decision to blend in makes the ATIV S less likely to stand out.