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

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MSRP: $449.99

The Good Samsung's Ativ S Neo 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.

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6.7 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 6

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.)

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.

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.

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