If I asked you to name a manufacturer of Windows Phone-based handsets it is very likely that you’d come up with Nokia. The company has plenty of models available, and it has worked hard in its partnership with Microsoft to offer some good software add-ons that help its brand stand out.
But of course others are producing Windows Phone handsets too, and Samsung has just joined them. Samsung is rather late to the Windows Phone 8 party, but that doesn’t stop the Ativ S being a smashing phone with a lot going for it. The absence of LTE support is irritating, but there’s a lot more here that’s very nice.
The Ativ S is a big phone – the largest of any to run Windows Phone 8, in fact. The Super AMOLED screen measures 4.8in thereby just about beating Nokia’s 4.5in Lumia 920, and it houses 1,280 x 720 pixels. It’s the same screen found in the Galaxy S3, in fact, and it is obvious why Samsung has chosen to resurrect it here – it’s a pleasure to work with. If anything, Super AMOLED works better with Windows Phone than Android because the big blocks of colour that make up the tile-based interface respond much better than the Android interface to the bright sharp rendering on offer. Video looks great too and, well, you get the idea.
Having mentioned the Galaxy S3 I should continue with the comparisons. Some might say the Ativ S is a very similar looking phone, but in fact it isn’t. It is similar in size, sure, and Samsung has opted for a physical Windows button that takes you to the Start Screen just as it opts for a Home button on the Galaxy S3. Here the flanking touch buttons are back and search, incidentally. The reflective Windows Phone symbol on the physical button looks a little cheap and cheerful for my taste, and sadly it is not backlit. It’s an odd aberration, and a very visible one, in what is otherwise a pretty stylish physical design.
The backplate is very thin and flimsy, but the fake metal finish to the plastic material looks great. The grill towards the bottom of the back covers the speaker, which in turn produces audio that's too heavy on the treble for my taste and tends to distort at top volume. This grill also has a fake metal finish.
The fake metal concept extends to a long plate at the bottom of the back that melds into the edging. This has been given a chrome-like makeover and it's the only part of the metal lie that doesn’t quite work. Plastic with a chrome finish just never seems convincing.
The chassis has a has squarer and blockier appearance than that of the Galaxy S3, though the overall dimensions of the two handsets are remarkably similar – the Ativ S measures 137.2 x 70.52 x 8.7mm, while the Galaxy S3 is almost identical at 136.6 x 70.6 x 8.6mm.
Button and connector placement is completely unremarkable. The headset slot is on the top edge, micro-USB on the bottom. A smallish volume rocker is on the left, main power and camera shortcut on the right. Under the backplate there’s a slot for your microSIM and another for microSD, both of which can be got at without the need to remove the battery.
You get 16GB of built in storage, and that microSD card slot lets you add up to 32GB more, so there are none of those old issues about being unable to expand Windows Phone storage here.
Samsung has used a 2,300mAh battery in the Ativ S, and it did a pretty good job of keeping the phone alive. Placing it under an average (for me) burden that included some web browsing, email syncing, calls and even a little gaming, it saw me through a working day. If you are a heavy user, or listen to music on the commute, you’ll probably need to find mains power during the day.
The 8-megapixel main camera benefits from a flash, and I found photos to be perfectly acceptable in terms of both colour depth and quality. However, I still carry a dedicated camera most of the time and use a cameraphone for tweetable photos and the like rather than anything I want to keep long term. There is a 1.2-megapixel front camera, too, for those interested in video-calling or taking pictures of themselves.
The dual-core Qualcomm processor, which is supported by 1GB of RAM, might sound behind the times when compared to the quad-core processors that support top-grade Android handsets, but I had no complaints about the responsiveness or speed of the Ativ S. In both cases, it performed well and did not let me down. As befits a high-end handset these days NFC is built in. It’s a pity, though, that there’s no LTE support.
I’ve said before that if you want software extras to lift the standard out-of-the-box Windows Phone 8 experience, then Nokia’s Lumia range is probably where you should be looking. Samsung has not changed my view with the bundle it supplies on the Ativ S. Yes, there are some extras here, but nothing that’s a deal-maker, I'm afraid.
You get Samsung Now, which is just an aggregator for weather, news (from Yahoo! News), stocks (from Yahoo! Finance), currency conversion, and an odd Top Tweets service that delivers tweets from several countries including France, Germany and Italy, but not the UK.
Live Wallpaper is a fairly nice app that lets you choose up to 12 photos for the lock screen. I rather like this one as it helps you personalise things and get away from Windows Phone 8’s otherwise samey look across handsets. It is really easy to use which means you might be encouraged to change photo sets regularly.
MiniDiary lets you gather information in one place and can accommodate notes, photos and voice recordings. Personally, I’d install Evernote instead. Music Hub gives you some music related extras and is built around a store. Photo Editor will for some be the star of the show as it gives you a range of useful image editing facilities.
Samsung has also taken the opportunity to pre-install ChatON, its IM application. It does the job well enough but your contacts will also need to be on ChatON for you to take advantage of it. The same goes for Family Story, an app designed for sharing photos, notes and events with owners of other Samsung devices. You need a (free) Samsung account to use it.
To be honest, the pre-installed apps won't draw you to the Ativ S. The good battery life, nice design and plentiful (and expandable memory) are the key features in that respect.
At the time of writing this, Samsung’s Ativ S is the Windows Phone 8 handset with the largest screen, and the screen is bright, clear and a real eye-catcher. Slick operation under the fingers, NFC, plenty of memory and a generally stylish physical design are all additional points in its favour.
Manufacturer and model
Samsung Ativ S
Qualcomm 1.5GHz dual-core
Built-in memory/memory expansion
16GB or 32GB/microSD
4.8in, 1,280 x 720 pixels
137.2 x 70.52 x 8.7mm
Windows Phone 8