Review: Samsung Ativ S – the other Windows Phone

Allan Swann
January 15, 2013


Is this the Windows Phone version of the Galaxy S3? Very nearly.

It’s very tempting to see Windows Phone as a two horse race between HTC and Nokia. HTC inked a deal with Microsoft to make its Windows Phone 8 handsets the official launch phone for the new OS; Nokia meanwhile has thrown everything including the farm and the kitchen sink at making its Lumia line work. It has quite literally bet its headquarter offices in Finland on Windows Phone taking off, selling it and leasing it back for an influx of cash.

There is, however, another player with cards on the table: Samsung. It’s the biggest mobile maker in the world today, and in theory it ought to be more than capable of matching the pair. But the new Samsung Ativ S is proof of something else entirely. Rich from its Android successes, and despite its immense hardware skills, Samsung is content to plod out the odd Windows Phone with little effort or thought, if only to keep all its options open lest things change at some point down the line.

So a Galaxy S3 running Windows Phone then?

Samsung has yet to earn the reputation for beautiful design that Apple has, and yet the Ativ S is by far the most charming and usable Windows Phone we’ve ever held. And surprisingly, that’s because it’s designed like one of the most popular Android phones on the planet: the Samsung Galaxy S3.

From the processor and screen to the curved plastic build, this is a Samsung Galaxy S3 with slightly straighter corners and a gun metal back plate instead of a blue one. This is a good thing though: Samsung’s incredible know-how has helped stuff all this tech into a thin and light package that’s equal parts durable, comfortable and usable. The power button for instance is on the right hand side, in easy reach of your fingers (a major failing of HTC’s similarly oversized One X line) while the removable cover lets you switch the battery and add your own micro SD card too.

The Ativ’s body is a joy to hold, and sophisticated enough to show off

Better than the Nokia Lumia 920?

As striking as Nokia’s flagship Lumia 920 is, it’s just far too big to be practical for many: yet though the Ativ S is just as large, it’s only 8.7mm deep, and substantially lighter at 135g.

That’s mostly because it seems to be all screen, with just a sliver of the front face dedicated to bezel and buttons. The 4.8-inch display on the front is gorgeous and packed with pixels: text is crisp and viewing angles are broad. With its heavy reliance on vivid coloured homescreen tiles and black backgrounds, Samsung’s Super AMOLED tech (which does not light up black pixels at all) is perfect for Windows Phone.

Saving space does have some drawbacks however: Nokia’s phones are as big as they are to make way for their epic camera tech. By contrast, the eight megapixel snapper on the Ativ S, while more than decent, isn’t pack leading, lacking the 920 PureView camera’s incredible low light performance (it’s the same shooter as the now eight month old Galaxy S3). Samsung’s also missing the various lens apps for Windows Phone that Nokia has preloaded on its efforts – but that’s just the start of its software problems.


Lazy software and missing apps

Samsung’s Windows Phone 8 store is limited

Apart from a new, smaller sized icon tile for the homescreen, Windows Phone 8 runs much like 7.5 before it. It’s extremely fast, power-sipping (especially with the Ativ’s beefy 2,300mAh battery, which we found good for up to two days of use) and on the surface very easy to use: tap a tile, or swipe right for all your apps, and jump into the People hub to see your friends’ updates.

This much is true of all Windows Phone 8 devices though: Microsoft doesn’t let licensees tamper with the core. The Ativ’s problems lie in the apps it comes with – or rather those it doesn’t.

Samsung’s selection of exclusive apps is poor, and only serves to underline just how meagre the selection on Microsoft’s own store remains – the basic photo editor for instance is perfectly usable and welcome, but only highlights Instagram’s absence on Windows Phone. There’s a 7digital MP3 download store (superfluous), a news app, a chat app, and a mediocre diary app which is more digital scrapbook than calendar. When the most interesting extra is one that lets you have different photos on your lockscreen (Live Wallpaper), you know there’s a problem.

It’s Maps where this is hardest felt though. Bing Maps just isn’t as good as the one-two combo of Nokia Maps and Drive and Lumia Windows Phones, and their absence makes it hard to recommend one of the few top price smartphones on the market right now that doesn’t provide turn by turn directions for free.

How does it stack up against the other Windows Phone 8 devices?

Microsoft won’t let manufacturers tamper with its software like they do with Android, but the main players all pre-load extra, exclusive apps to help them stand out nonetheless. Here’s what they offer:

Nokia – 
Nokia’s free Music streaming app is internet radio done right on a mobile, while its array of “lens” apps let you muck around with your photos to much mirth. The jewel in the crown is Nokia Drive though, the free satnav app which lets you download data for a whole country in advance, so you can use it abroad without racking up charges. There’s no equivalent on other Windows Phones, though free turn by turn with voice is standard on Android and iOS.

 – HTC focuses on music, with Beats Audio providing heavy bass on its new Windows Phone – though it’s ultimately little more than an EQ profile. There’s also an HTC Hub, otherwise known as the world’s most pointless news feed.

Samsung – Samsung’s bundle is by far the most meagre of the lot: there’s an image editor (welcome), an MP3 download store which you can find on the Windows Store anyway, a Now app much like HTC’s Hub and a memo app. It does at least come with Samsung’s free ChatOn instant messaging app, but this is available on other platforms too.

Does Windows Phone 8 stack up in the real world?

Even if you can cope with this, there’s an elephant in the room. Or rather, two: more than 24 months after launch, the fact remains that Windows Phone still lags behind its big rivals, Android and the iPhone.

WP8's People and Photo hubs are standouts

WP8’s People and Photo hubs are standouts

As individual as the homescreen design of Windows Phone is, there are still fundamental flaws in the OS: Bing Maps search is weak; app multitasking is slow and clunky; Internet Explorer’s lack of WebKit renders mobile websites horribly. And as Facebook becomes more and more packed with adverts and updates from pages, the People hub becomes less and less about, well, people.

There are many apps still missing, even as more big players start porting their services over. Little things grate too: you still can’t rent or buy movies on your phone without syncing with a computer first, for instance.

Meanwhile, Microsoft’s competitors continue to streak ahead. Now on version 4.2, Android is faster, better designed and more feature-packed – and the chances are it’ll be making an appearance on the Samsung Galaxy S4 not too long from now.

The iPhone meanwhile needs no introduction, and with Google Maps now back on the App Store, the search giant has vanished away all the problems we had with iOS 6.

There’s definitely still a space for Windows Phone: its fresh look may tempt those weary with the homescreen/app-list layout of Android and iOS. But a flagship phone like the Ativ S may not be it: Windows Phone remains for smartphone newcomers, making low power, low price rivals like the HTC Windows Phone 8S much more attractive. Samsung must know this: it’s why it seems to have spent so little time sticking Windows Phone on an otherwise wonderful handset.

What Mobile Verdict

There’s no doubt in our mind that with the Ativ S, Samsung has built the finest Windows Phone to date. Its screen is larger than that of the Nokia Lumia 920, yet the whole package is so much lighter and more manageable.

If only the same could be said of the software. While stock Windows Phone 8 is pleasant enough, Samsung’s extras are lazy, badly thought out bolt-ons. If you’re going with Microsoft, it’s hard to resist Nokia’s take on the platform, with its useful apps and superior mapping. And that’s if you already know you definitely want a Windows Phone – a much trickier decision to make.


Stunning, light build
+ Dazzling HD display
+ Windows Phone 8 is easy to use


Camera lacks PureView sensor skills
Exclusive apps are poor
Windows Phone 8 remains flawed

Spec sheet

Networks – O2, Vodafone
Dimensions – 37.2 x 70.5 x 8.7 mm
Operating system and version – Windows Phone 8
Screen size and tech used – 4.8-inch Super AMOLED
Resolution of screen – 720 x 1280
Processor – 1.5GHz dual-core
GPU – Adreno 255
Storage – 16/32GB expandable via micro SD
Cameras – Front 1.9MP camera, rear 8.0MP capable of 1080p HD video
Wireless – Wi-Fi
Ports – Micro USB, 3.5mm audio
Battery life – 2.300mAh

Reviewed by Philip Brown

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