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Samsung Ativ S Neo review

Highs

  • Nice screen for a mid-range smartphone
  • Good battery life
  • Supports international roaming
  • Expandable storage via MicroSD card

Rating

Our Score 7
User Score 0

Lows

  • Camera is “so-so”
  • Performance is also “so-so”
  • Slick plastic back makes the phone feel slippery in the hand
Samsung’s ATIV S Neo won’t win converts from Android or iOS. But it has an excellent screen for a mid-range phone and good battery life, easily making it the best Windows phone available on Sprint’s network.

If you’re a Windows Phone fan (or have been looking to jump the Android or iPhone ship), now would be a good time to go handset shopping – especially if you aren’t partial to Nokia’s Lumia line. With Microsoft recently announcing its plan to acquire the Finnish company’s handset business, it seems likely (or at least plausible) that the days of non-Nokia-made Windows phones are numbered.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t good options available now. If you’re a Sprint customer looking for a Windows phone who often travels to other countries, Samsung’s ATIV S Neo is an enticing new option, with a pleasing on-contract price of $50 with a new two-year contract.

HTC’s 8XT (Sprint’s other current Windows Phone 8 offering) is free with a two-year agreement. So if you don’t need the ATIV’s international calling options, is Samsung’s Neo worth the higher price? To find out, we’ll need to take a tumble down the rabbit hole to find out just what the ATIV S Neo has to offer.

A Galaxy-like exterior

If you’ve held Samsung’s Android-based Galaxy S4 flagship, the Neo will look and feel awfully familiar, if a bit chunky and heavy. Samsung has carried over the S4’s polycarbonate (plastic) and chrome aesthetics, which certainly makes for a nice-looking phone.

The Neo’s button layout differs from the S4, however, with the power button about a third of the way down the left edge, and a dedicated shutter button below that, closer to the right corner when holding the phone horizontally to snap photos. The volume rocker sits on the left side, near the top edge, which is where you’ll find the headphone jack. The Micro USB port, for charging and file transfers, lives on the bottom edge.

We’re not sure if it’s the Neo’s extra thickness or its extra heft, but the Neo feels slippery in our hand.

While the patterned back of the Neo has been tinted a subtle blue to make the device more distinctive, it’s still made of glossy, slippery plastic like the Galaxy S4. We’re not sure if it’s the Neo’s extra thickness (0.44 inches, versus the Galaxy S4’s 0.31) or its extra heft (5.08 ounces to the S4’s 4.59 ounces), but the Neo feels slippery in our hand. We think the issue comes down to the Neo’s more rounded backside. If you’re prone to dropping your devices (or even if you aren’t), we strongly suggest finding a case for the Neo that’s made of a grippier material.

While we’re on the subject of the Neo’s backside, it’s worth noting that it pops off and goes back on easily (unlike HTC’s 8XT). Behind the back panel, you’ll find a MicroSD card slot for expanding the phone’s 16GB of internal storage and a removable battery.

A really nice display for a mid-range phone

The ATIV S Neo’s best feature is its 4.77-inch LCD screen. It’s not a full-HD affair like the S4 or other superphones, but even tiny text looked crisp on the Neo; viewing angles are good, and the display is easily as bright as some flagship phones we’ve seen. Unless you’re a stickler for specs, you’ll quickly forget that the Neo’s screen resolution is “only” 1280 x 720 pixels. When viewing images and Web pages, it’s certainly an improvement over the HTC 8XT’s comparatively paltry 800 x 480 pixels display.

Just like the Galaxy S4, Samsung has stuck a physical Home button (emblazoned with a raised Windows logo) under the display. Some might feel it mars the look of the front of the device, but it’s certainly easier to find with your thumb than the more traditional backlit capacitive buttons. But the Neo has those, too: The search and back buttons hide on either side of the home button and light up when pressed.

Samsung Ativ S Neo Phone top angleThe Neo’s display is great, but the HTC 8XT’s dual front-facing speakers outclass the Neo’s single rear speaker, which sits to the side of the camera module. The Neo can get loud. But at maximum volume, its output is tinny and distorted. The Samsung S4, by comparison, gets about as loud, but mostly keeps the distortion at bay.

Camera

The Neo’s nice screen wouldn’t seem all that out of place on a pricier phone. But the same can’t be said for the phone’s 8-megapixal camera. Outdoors under even daylight, it does a reasonably good job. But the sensor seems to have a problem with any kind of uneven lighting. When shooting indoors near a window, we saw details disappear, and the interior appeared much darker than actually was.

Samsung Ativ S Neo Phone sample 4

Even the LEDs from a clock on our desk caused nearby image details to wash out. Interior shots with even lighting looked okay, but noisy, just as we saw with HTC’s 8XT. If you’re looking for a Windows phone with a good camera, Nokia’s Lumia line is still your best bet (although you won’t find them on Sprint).

Windows Phone and Apps

There’s no getting around the fact that, while Windows Phone 8 is a capable mobile OS, its app selection can’t compete with what’s on offer from iOS or Android. Although the app selection has climbed to above 160,000, many highly ranked apps on other platforms have yet to make their way to Windows Phone. And third-party alternatives to YouTube, Gmail, and Instagram generally aren’t as good as the native apps on other operating systems.

Samsung improves the situation somewhat, by offering up its own set of apps, which seem to be mostly ported from Android. There’s a camera app (called Shooting Modes) that lets you take HDR photos, as well as a photo editor, and MangaCamera, which adds comics-themed overlays to your photos. Other Samsung apps, like an RSS reader and simple video editor, are available from a dedicated Samsung Zone in the app store. Generally, the Samsung apps are a mixed bag of useful and gimmicky. Nokia’s baked-in apps do a better job of filling in where Windows Phone 8 feels a bit barren. But of course, the Lumia line isn’t available on Sprint.

International traveler

Sprint bills the Samsung ATIV S Neo as “the first Windows Phone 8 device from Sprint with international roaming capabilities.” The phone’s quad-band GSM capabilities should let you make calls from just about anywhere in the world within range of a cell tower. And data should be available in many countries as well, so long as there’s a GPRS, EDGE, UMTS, HSPA+, or WCDMA coverage. Just don’t complain to us when you get the massive roaming bill. Sprint’s other current Windows Phone, HTC’s X8T, doesn’t have an International-friendly radio. So if you travel a lot, the Neo is definitely a better choice – although if you can afford to do a lot of traveling, you can probably afford a higher-end phone with similar international options (and a better camera), like the Android-based Galaxy S4.

Specs and performance

We don’t expect impressive specs from a mid-range smartphone, and the ATIV S Neo’s 1.4GHz dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM certainly doesn’t match up well to the higher-clocked quad-core or eight-core chips and 2GB of RAM in current high-end models. The Neo does, though, line up nicely against the specs of HTC’s 8XT. And the Neo’s 16GB of internal storage is double what 8XT is packing. Like HTC’s device, the Neo has NFC, as well as Bluetooth 4.0.

The S Neo’s quad-band GSM capabilities should let you make calls from just about anywhere in the world within range of a cell tower.

While both phones support Sprint’s 4G LTE, that network is still far from robust. Even in Manhattan, the phone mostly stuck to 3G, and just a few miles across the Hudson in Jersey City, the phone never left 3G. Just like we saw with HTC’s 8XT, 3G speeds felt slow even by their last-generation standards. We couldn’t hang onto a 4G signal long enough to test. On 3G, the phone topped out at 0.39Mbps up and 1.03Mbps down.

The network speed made the phone feel sluggish while we waited for our Facebook feed to load and apps to update. Once we switched on Wi-Fi, the phone mostly felt snappier.

We say mostly because, well, the Windows Phone OS just doesn’t feel as zippy as iOS or recent Android builds. We didn’t notice any major stuttering navigating the OS, but animations often felt like they should be executing more quickly, and app launches frequently didn’t happen as fast as we’d like. This has always been a problem with Windows Phone. And while most basic apps worked well, we did notice the phone occasionally freeze briefly when playing the game Royal Revolt.

Samsung Ativ S Neo Phone bottom backOverall, the S Neo is not annoyingly slow, but not as nimble as higher-end alternatives we’ve tested. We’d say that’s partially down to the phone’s hardware, but also because Windows Phone just isn’t as mature as other mobile OS alternatives.

Battery Life

The Neo’s removable battery has a slightly higher-capacity than the HTC 8XT (2000mAh versus 1800mAh on the HTC). But we weren’t sure we’d see better battery life with the Neo, since it has a larger, higher-resolution screen. After a few days of frequent use, though, we came away pleasantly surprised.

Samsung Ativ S Neo Phone back case offAfter about 15 hours away from the plug, browsing Facebook, making a few calls, snapping photos, and doing a bit of gaming, the battery remained consistently above 25 percent. Unless you’re a very heavy user and you spend your lunch hour gaming or streaming video, the NEO should get you through an average day without having to worry about looking for a charger. The HTC 8XT, meanwhile, didn’t last nearly as long in our anecdotal testing.

Conclusion

If you’re on Sprint and are specifically looking for a Windows Phone, the Samsung ATIV S Neo is a better option than the HTC 8XT, largely because of its higher-resolution screen and better battery life. And while it requires an extra $50 initial investment, that’s a tiny portion of what you’ll pay over the required two-year contract.

But there’s certainly nothing so impressive about the Neo that it should sway happy iPhone or Android owners, or OS-agnostic shoppers looking for the best value. The HTC One or Moto X, for instance, are much better phones with better app selections that are currently priced just $50 more than the Neo. And with the launch of the iPhone 5S and 5C, we wouldn’t be surprised of the iPhone 5 gets a price drop that makes it more competitive with the ATIV S Neo.

As much as we like Windows Phone 8, it’s not likely to gain much market share on Sprint’s network without some higher-end options than the Samsung ATIV S Neo or HTC’s 8XT. And with the Microsoft and Nokia partnership getting more intimate, we may not see new high-end Windows phones for a while – unless they come from Nokia.

Highs

  • Nice screen for a mid-range smartphone
  • Good battery life
  • Supports international roaming
  • Expandable storage via MicroSD card

Lows

  • Camera is “so-so”
  • Performance is also “so-so”
  • Slick plastic back makes the phone feel slippery in the hand

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