Samsung Ativ S Neo review: Decent Windows phone hampered by speed

At the end of the day, Samsung's S Neo butts up against the major limitation facing Microsoft's system of camera lens add-ons, and that's that phone-makers can't consolidate their own graphical look and multitude of features into a single native app. Switching among lenses isn't hard, but it also isn't as convenient as using a single app for all your photo needs.

In addition to Shooting Modes, the preinstalled MangaCamera lens is all about black and white manga-style fun -- see the sample below. You'll be able to download more photo app "lenses" from the Marketplace app store.

Moving on to video, you'll find that the S Neo records 1080p HD clips and, unusually for this platform, can take stills while recording, as does Android. Autofocus kicked in after a few seconds, and while the video did seem clear when I held still (panning was less successful), the S Neo still wasn't up to par compared even with Samsung' other 1080p videos.

The front-facing 1.9-megapixel camera took some pretty mediocre shots of individuals and groups that were out of focus and bizarrely colored. It'll work in a pinch, sure, but don't expect high fidelity for selfies and video chats.

Behold, the photos:

Colorful produce at the farmer's market. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Parts of this billboard are made with actual orange peels, wheat, and beans. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
These flowers look disappointingly indistinct and overexposed. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Characters from the game Bioshock Infinite. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Although I focused on Lynn's face, color, sharpness, and light all seem off. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
This magnetic office toy is much brighter and more vivid in real life. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Exposure is uneven and the scene looks dark, even with flash, here in CNET's standard studio shot. Click to enlarge. Josh Miller/CNET
Photo taken from the S Neo's front-facing camera. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
The Manga photo lens that comes preloaded on Samsung Windows Phones like the Ativ S Neo can create some fun effects. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

You can compare studio shots from some other smartphone cameras in this online gallery.

Call quality
Call quality was a bit better for my chief test partner than for me when I tested the Ativ S Neo in San Francisco (CDMA: 800/1900 MHz).

On my end, audio sounded strong at medium level, which gives important leeway for loud situations that require you to turn up the volume. Voices weren't exactly clear, though, and I could hear muffled sounds and crackling when my caller spoke. On his end, my caller identified distortion on the peaks, and noted that my voice -- while clear, natural, and loud -- lacked some warmth. Overall, he thought I sounded very good and not as distant as I often do on other smartphones.

Samsung Ativ S Neo call quality sample Listen now:

Interestingly, my test partner graded speakerphone quality almost the same as the mouthpiece quality, saying I sounded nearly identical even when I held the S Neo at hip level. That's a huge achievement, since speakerphones tend to amplify echo.

Volume was a little low on my side of the call, even when I raised it. The more I increased the volume, the more buzzy and echoey the audio quality became. S Neo owners will have a harder time hearing through speakerphone in louder environments.

Performance: Battery, processor, LTE
Although the Ativ S Neo supports 4G LTE, I only noticed 4G signal a handful of times when using the phone in San Francisco and when I did, it was pretty fast. The rest of the time, pokey 3G caused some Web pages to load in minutes rather than seconds. Your experience may differ depending on Sprint's network strength in your area (this rings true for all networks, not just Sprint's), but in mine, the S Neo was a frustratingly slow phone to use.

Internal performance should be fine -- it runs on a 1.4GHz dual-core Qualcomm MSM8930AA processor, after all -- but it moved a little slower than other Windows phones for tasks like booting up and shot-to-shot time (without using the continuous shooting mode.) Still, so long as you're happy with network speed, the internal whirring shouldn't slow you down too much.

Samsung Ativ S Neo (Sprint)
Download Endomondo (3MB) 4 minutes, 20 seconds
Load up Endomondo mobile app 4 seconds
CNET mobile site load 7.6 seconds
CNET desktop site load 1 minute, 2 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 33 seconds
Camera boot time 2.5 seconds
Camera, shot-to-shot time 2.5 seconds with autofocus, 3.5 seconds with flash

For a midlevel phone of this type, the S Neo's 16GB provision of internal storage is pretty good, and doubles that of the HTC 8XT, Sprint's other Windows phone. You can also expand storage up to 64GB, in addition to Microsoft's promise of 7GB of online Skydrive storage. The phone has 1GB of RAM.

The S Neo rates its talk time at 15 hours on its 2,000mAh battery and 10.8 days of battery life over 4G (that's 13.8 days over 3G.) It has a digital SAR of 0.91-watt per kilogram. Battery life was pretty good in my tests so far, holding up even after a few calls. During our drain test for talk time, it lasted 15.92 hours. However, the slower data in my are also kept me from surfing the Web as intensely as usual, so more frequent surfers and streamers will see the charge drain at a quicker rate.

Short, shiny buttons for volume, power/lock, and the camera are stylish and easy to press. Josh Miller/CNET

Buy it or skip it?
The S Neo's $150 retail asking price was too steep for what you get, but the new $50 is spot on and suddenly makes the S Neo's value leap up in the charts. The S Neo isn't a bad phone by any means -- it's sturdy and has a nice, readable screen and an attractive (if uninspired) design. Yet it's also an unremarkable showing with passable, but not not stellar, image quality.

If Sprint is your carrier and the price is right in your budget, you won't go wrong buying the S Neo, though you should also consider Sprint's HTC's 8XT , which has the sexier design for $50 less; however, you do lose RAM and onboard storage capacity.

Those of you willing to spend $50 more and try out Android will find that Sprint models like the Samsung Galaxy S III deliver a more reliable Samsung 8-megapixel camera, selling for about $100 at a deep discount.

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Samsung Ativ S Neo (Sprint)

Part Number: SPH-I800HNASPR Released: Aug 16, 2013
MSRP: $449.99 Low Price: $0.00 See all prices

Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Aug 16, 2013
  • Technology CDMA2000 1X / GSM / WCDMA (UMTS)
  • Service Provider Sprint Nextel
  • Weight 5.08 mg
  • Diagonal Size 4.77 in
  • Sensor Resolution 8 pixels
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