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

The middle-of-the-road Samsung Ativ S Neo is a safe choice for those who shop by price, but an unexceptional smartphone overall.

Jessica Dolcourt Senior Director, Commerce & Content Operations
Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Commerce & Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Commerce, How-To and Performance Optimization. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica began leading CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
Expertise Content strategy | Team leadership | Audience engagement | Tips and FAQs | iPhone | Samsung | Android | iOS
Jessica Dolcourt
8 min read

Features-wise, the Samsung Ativ S Neo sits in the center of Sprint's lineup, neither the high-end, high-priced smartphone on the premium side of spectrum, not the entry-level smartphone trying to keep it all together. A mass market phone like this occupies an important, if less exciting, place in any carrier's roster. Yet this particular middle-of-the-road performer struggles to justify its $149.99 introductory retail price, particularly when the HTC 8XT comes in at $50 less on contract. (Days after this review originally posted, Sprint lowered the Ativ S Neo to $49.99 on contract. The 8XT is now free with a two-year service agreement.)


Samsung Ativ S Neo

The Good

<b>Samsung's Ativ S Neo</b> is an attractive Windows Phone 8 handset with a large screen and more native camera extras than other Windows phones.

The Bad

The Ativ S Neo is slow, heavy, and has a weak image quality.

The Bottom Line

Though it's an unexceptional smartphone overall, the middle-of-the-road Samsung Ativ S Neo is a safe choice for those who shop by price.

True, the S Neo's larger, HD screen and doubled storage (16GB instead of 8GB) explain the price difference. Ultimately, though, both devices bring good-but-not-great internal operating speeds, photography, and features. It doesn't help that Sprint's slow 4G LTE deployment makes downloading apps and uploading photos a drag for anyone still stuck in a 3G-only footprint.

Getting to know Samsung's sturdy Ativ S Neo (pictures)

See all photos

Design and build
Modeled with some of the Samsung Galaxy S4's squarer sensibilities, the Ativ S Neo is an attractive device, whose rounded rectangular design comes dressed in patterned, high-gloss dark blue plastic and a shiny metallic rim.

At 0.36-inch thick and 5.1 ounces, the S Neo leaves a much more solid and heavy impression than Samsung's typically featherlight handsets. It's a little too weighted for my tastes, in fact. Proportions are otherwise pleasing at 5.3 inches tall and 2.7 inches wide -- larger than the iPhone 5, but smaller than most of today's jumbo phones.

Colors look bright and letting crisp on the S Neo's 4.8-inch HD touch screen (1,280x720 pixels with a 306ppi density, if you care to know.) Of course, Windows Phone 8's large, broad, high-contrast helps in that regard, and it isn't until you're reading desktop versions of articles and viewing photos that high resolution starts making a difference.

A physical home screen button about the size of a Tic Tac helps you navigate the Ativ S Neo, along with capacitive keys for going back and starting search. A Windows phone mainstay, these buttons have secondary functions to launch voice search and flip between recent apps. While the home button responds well to your press, I'd personally prefer it a little more fingertip-shaped and a little bit less oblong.

It isn't the Samsung Ativ S Neo's size that makes it a little burdensome, but its heavier-than-expected weight. Josh Miller/CNET

Along the spines, you'll find the power/lock button and a physical camera shutter, the Micro-USB charging port, volume rocker, and a standard headset jack. The shiny buttons all rise just enough from the surface to make pressing them second nature.

The S Neo's 8-megapixel camera module comes with an LED flash sidekick, and is joined on the front by a 1.9-megapixel lens. You'll need to peel off the back cover in order to get at the microSD card slot below (you can store up to 64GB here.)

OS and features
Running Windows Phone 8 (review), the Ativ S Neo serves up everything the platform has to offer, like multitasking, Xbox Live integration, and Kid's Corner, a walled-off profile for young'uns. The flipside is also true that the S Neo shares all of Windows Phone 8's foibles, like its still-growing app store and little things like no persistent voice dictation in that otherwise spry virtual keyboard (there are separate dictation buttons for apps like text messaging and Microsoft One Note).

Samsung has enhanced the experience somewhat with expanded NFC in the Ativ Beam app. The benefit here is that Samsung makes it really clear that you can share photos, documents, music, and videos with any Samsung Windows phone and NFC-capable Android devices.

Take a closer look at that physical home button. Josh Miller/CNET

Samsung also bestowed upon the S Neo its Shooting Modes lens, a camera app that lets you launch HDR mode, among others. I'll go into more detail in the camera section below. Samsung Link helps you connect Samsung devices over Wi-Fi to share content.

Other preloaded apps that make their way onto the device include a photo editor and a handy video trimmer. You'll also see the Scout navigator, Mini Diary, and apps for Sprint's movies and music subscriptions.

In addition to the extras are Windows Phone staples like an alarm clock, a calculator, calendar, and data monitor, and the full Microsoft Office suite. Visual voice mail and Microsoft's mobile wallet are also on board.

Cameras and video
An 8-megapixel camera sensor graces the back of the Ativ S Neo, and ordinarily, that's very good news. Samsung has a strong track record with smartphone cameras of this type producing clear, colorful photos and video. In this case, the camera fell short, creating images that were far less sharp and detailed than real-world counterparts, and less colorful and vibrant as well.

Exposure was also sometimes off, and photos on the whole looked flatter, duller, and more muddled than I expected. The searing flash often created harsh scenes. Photos were mostly usable, mind you, but I wouldn't class the Neo's performance among my roster of top smartphone cameras.

Luckily, using the Neo's camera is pretty straightforward. The native camera app gets many additions here with a choice between regular and macro focuses (in the settings,) white balance presets, and options to tweak exposure metering, ISO, contrast, sharpness, and so on. You can also add Samsung's effects (like sepia and solarize), and dial down the photo resolution to make smaller files. Many of the same choices carry over to video settings as well.

A pair of extra camera lenses ships with this phone, including Samsung's Shooting Modes, which includes HDR for higher contrast shots. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

In addition to Samsung's more embellished camera app are even more modes in the separate Shooting Modes lens, an app preloaded by default (and thankfully easy to get to from the camera app.) Here, you can select three additional setups for continuous shot, beauty shot, and HDR mode for high-contrast situations. I like that Samsung's app uses more visual graphics than the native camera app does, but there's a lot of overlap between the two programs' photo settings. Still, there's not quite enough overlap to use Shooting Modes as the main camera, like if you want to use a macro setting. Frustratingly, Shooting Modes also lacks a button to get back to the entire collection of lenses.

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.


Samsung Ativ S Neo

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 6