Samsung Ativ S review: A fresh start
So, the Omnia lineup is no more. To match Microsoft's profound OS overhaul, Samsung chose to start with a clean slate. The Ativ line is the new home of Samsung's WP devices and it has room for smartphones, tablets and tablet PCs. Windows is now a consistent cross-device platform and OEMs are taking note.
Now, Ativ as in "Vita" read backwards is a name perhaps better suited for a new drug. It doesn't have the familiarity of Nokia Lumia or the cheek of HTC Windows Phone 8. But Samsung made sure its Ativ S can match and even beat the rival flagships.
On the inside, they're all the same, but Windows Phone is a lot more powerful than you may suspect. The OS is no longer tied by self-inflicted limitations and OEMs are enjoying life off the leash. HD screens, dual-core processors (for the time being), SD card slots, NFC, USB mass storage - new possibilities have opened up.
Anyone familiar with Windows Phone 7.x will feel right at home from the first time they swipe the lockscreen out of the way. There'll be no learning curve but the performance boost will be instantly felt - the dual Krait cores combined with Microsoft's optimizations have made an already snappy OS even snappier. A job well done.
Some may frown at the lack of visual changes to the interface, barring the new tile sizes. It's an OS however that defies eye-candy, betting on iOS simplicity and stylishly distinct design. And by the way, Windows Phone may look flat and empty at first, but it's a highly streamlined and adaptable OS. Just connect your Live and Xbox accounts, then set Facebook, Twitter and email, sync your phonebook, arrange your live tiles and prepare to be impressed with the beautiful simplicity. All the more beautiful when it happens on an AMOLED screen.
Now, AMOLED is one of the key features that set the Samsung Ativ S apart from the current competition, along with expandable storage and a user-replaceable battery.
Samsung took what seems the easiest way by slapping the new Windows Phone OS on the first thing they had at hand. OK, this sounds a bit dodgy - it's not like they had plenty of Galaxy S III dummies and sat down to think what to fill them with. They wanted their WP8 flagship to make a statement and anything less than their finest droid would've fallen short.
They didn't have to tailor to size either - the Ativ S and the Galaxy S III are virtually the same hardware running different software. The chipset is the only difference and although the droid has nominally more oomph under the hood, the Ativ S is by no means underpowered.
In theory this should really help boost the Samsung Ativ S popularity - being associated with one of the best-selling smartphones of the year is exactly what a platform looking to make a breakthrough needs. However, coming to the market full five months after said best-seller and still offering less processing power doesn't really help explain the fact that the Ativ S is slightly more expensive than the Galaxy S III.
Few (if anyone) will be tempted to replace their Galaxy S III with an Ativ S, but for those who are only now looking to purchase a high-end smartphone things are less clear cut. Sure WP lacks the functionality and customization prowess of Android, but not everyone is a power user and maybe some will consider trading some functionality for more consistent looks and a distinct design good business.
Nokia's Lumia 920 flagship tries to impress you with a polycarbonate unibody, that's a realy looker and even better camera performance with the optical image stabilization for unrivaled low-light shots. The company also makes a strong case of packing one of the most advanced displays in business, even if it lacks the true blacks of the Ativ S AMOLED.
The price you have to pay for all this is 50 g of extra weight, no memory expansion and slightly higher cost of acquisition. Some would find this way too steep, while others will say that the Lumia-exclusive voice-guidance app Nokia Drive is enough to justify the difference with the extras listed above coming as free bonuses.
HTC Windows Phone 8X is the third contender for the WP8 top dog title. It has the same chipset as the Ativ S and the Lumia 920, but uses an SLCD2 HD screen and again lack a microSD slot for cheap memory expansion.
Featuring a 4.3" screen , the HTC Windows Phone 8X is also a notably more compact than its two main rivals, which means it provides a great alternative to those who find the Ativ S too large to handle. Finally, the 8X retail prices is expected to be about €50 lower than the Ativ S, so it's also aiming to provide better value for money in the premium segment.
Finally, the Apple iPhone 5. As we said in our dedicated review of WP8, the platform is finally done playing the part of a punching back and is ready to start trading blows with iOS. The Apple OS is very closer to WP in terms of ideology, but while Microsoft is finally starting to loosen its grip and removing some of the restrictions, Apple is still stubbornly refusing to do so.
Sure, iOS has the best-stocked application store on the market, but Apple hasn't had the best of streaks lately (both in terms of new smartphone releases and platform updates), so Ativ S and its WP peers now have a genuine chance of steering a few people away from the Apple store.
Not so long ago, a Windows-powered smartphone getting too close to a droid flagship or iPhone risked hurt and humiliation. These times are now over and Samsung can safely say they have more where the Galaxy S III came from. And it runs Windows. It's your turn.