Review: Samsung ATIV S Neo for Sprint
The S Neo is one of two Windows Phone 8 devices available from Sprint. It's a solid effort from Samsung and bests more than a few Windows Phone competitors. Here are our thoughts.
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Is It Your Type?
The Samsung ATIV S Neo is one of two Windows Phone 8 smartphones available from Sprint at the moment. It offers the style of Samsung's Galaxy-class Android devices with Microsoft's swift and capable platform instead. For Sprint customers seeking the best WP8 experience available, the S Neo is it.
Were it not for the Windows symbol on the Samsung ATIV S Neo's Start button, you'd be forgiven for mistaking it for an Android smartphone. Samsung took a page from the Galaxy S4 when designing the Neo, which shares many of the GS4's characteristics. The Neo is unmistakably Samsung in the best possible way.
Though the name Neo perhaps conjures images of shadowy hackers and matrices, Samsung's take on the name is all class. The phone has an attractive chrome-colored frame that forms the outer edges. It contrasts nicely with the conservative shade of blue that colors the bezel on the front and the battery cover on the back. The Neo is a good-looking smartphone. It doesn't blaze any new design trails, but it comes across as sophisticated.
The Neo has an excellent feel. It may be somewhat large (to accommodate the big screen), but gently rounded side edges help the phone fit snugly in your palm. The surfaces are glossy, slick, and smooth, but don't feel cheap like on some other Samsung handsets. I wish the Neo were a bit lighter, but the weight helps lend the Neo some authority. The materials are of good quality, and the Neo is assembled tightly. It’s solid and strong. Though it is big, it should still fit in most pockets without a problem.
The Neo's front face is a nice mix of black, blue, and chrome accents. The earpiece grill, for example, has a chrome-colored cover, and the Start button has a chrome rim that makes it easy to see. The bezels are fairly thin, though not as impressively narrow as on some of Samsung's Android phones. The Start button is raised slightly and has a great feel to it. The profile makes finding it with your thumb a breeze. It is flanked by two capacitive buttons, Back on the left, and Search on the right. This is the same setup that most Windows Phone devices use.
You'll find the volume toggle on the left side of the Neo. It is a thin strip, but the profile is just enough to make it easily located. Travel and feedback was a bit stiff, in my opinion. The lock and dedicated camera buttons are on the right edge. They are both a bit small, but have good profiles. The screen lock button has similar travel and feedback to the volume button. The two-stage camera button feels excellent, with both stages well defined. The stereo headphone jack is on the top and the micro-USB port is on the bottom.
Like most Samsung phones, the battery cover is removable. You can also swap out the microSD memory card.
The ATIV S Neo functions like most other modern smartphones, but looks classy doing it.
At 4.8 inches across the diagonal, the Neo has one of the biggest screens available on a Windows Phone 8 device. Sadly, the screen offers only 1280 x 720p HD resolution rather than full HD, but that's because Windows Phone didn’t yet support full HD screens when the Neo was announced. Samsung typically uses AMOLED displays, but in the Neo's case it switched to LCD. I found the screen to be bright, colorful, and sharp enough that individual pixels are all but impossible to see. Viewing angles were good and I didn't have any trouble using the Neo outdoors so long as the brightness was set up all the way. The Neo's screen is bigger and more pixel-rich than the one on the HTC 8XT.
The Neo performed above par when it came to connecting to Sprint's network. I tested it on both Sprint's EVDO 3G network and its LTE 4G network. When on 3G, it remained connected consistently and never dropped the signal. I had no trouble connecting calls, but 3G data is becoming increasingly painful in its lack of real speed. The Neo was quick enough on 3G to pull down email and Twitter updates, but downloading and installing apps was torturous. I used the Neo on Sprint's LTE network in New York City and saw a dramatic uptick in data speeds. Apps downloaded much faster and the device was quick to loading web pages. Sprint's LTE 4G footprint is slowly growing, but still lags its larger competitors.
The Neo is one of the better voice phones I've tested on Sprint's network in recent months, at least as far as the earpiece goes. Calls were crystal clear and had plenty of volume with the toggle set all the way up. I didn't hear any interference of any kind, and people with whom I spoke through the Neo said I sounded very good. I can't say the same for the speakerphone. Both quality and volume nosedive significantly. The speakerphone sounds like you're trying to talk to someone through a cardboard box, and the volume wasn't loud enough for use in my car. The ringers and alert tones were OK, but not great. The vibrate alert was strong enough to get my attention even when the Neo was stuffed in my backpack.
The Neo packs a 2,000mAh battery and I was impressed with the battery life it provided. The Neo easily lasted an entire waking day (from 7AM to 11PM), even when used extensively for firing off Tweets and emails. I spent the better part of a day with the Neo on Sprint's LTE 4G network and didn't notice any significant change in battery life compared to when it was used on 3G alone. You'll want to charge the Neo every night, but shouldn't have to worry about it in between charges.
The Neo runs Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 platform. Aside from sprinkling in their own apps/services, neither Samsung nor Sprint can do anything to change the basic behavior of the operating system. That means it runs just like every other WP8 smartphone.
Lock screen tools include customizable notifications and wallpapers, as well as quick access to the camera and a nice clock. It's a shame, though, that you can't act on the notifications, such as dismiss your unread emails. You can only see how many messages or calls you might have waiting.
The Start screen is customizable to a certain degree. The apps take the form of Live Tiles, which can be adjusted into three different sizes (small, medium, large). Some apps offer dynamic content that changes on the tiles throughout the day. This is one of WP8's cooler features. You can jump between open apps with a long press of the back button, which opens the multitasking tool.
The main app menu is just an alphabetical list of all the installed apps. It's a bummer this view cannot be customized in any way. I'd appreciate the addition of folders, for example, to hide seldom-used apps. The same goes for the settings tools, which are also listed in a simplistic fashion. Don't get me wrong, they function just fine. All I'm saying is that Windows Phone sometimes feels a bit restrictive.
A dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor with 1GB of RAM is what provides the Neo with its computational powers. As I've said on pretty much every WP8 review I've written, performance is never a problem. Windows Phone is a fast platform and the Neo didn't have any trouble powering through apps, playing games, multitasking and so on.
Calls and Contacts
Windows Phone's phone tool is somewhat simplistic, but at least that means it’s easy to use. The dial pad is large and makes dialing numbers a snap. The call history is spartan, but it offers essential features including the ability to save, text, or call numbers stored in the log. In-call features cover the norm, such as speakerphone, mute, send to Bluetooth, etc. The phone performs fine.
Windows Phone doesn't have a traditional contact app; instead, it has the People Hub. The People Hub is a contact app on steroids. It syncs perfectly with your email contacts, and then cross-populates contact data with their Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn profile data. The result is a socially-connected space on the Neo that includes not only raw contact details, but recent Twitter updates, Facebook comments, and so on.
The People Hub also includes features called Rooms and Groups. Both let you create subsets of your contacts and then interact with them in this separate space. For example, Rooms can share text messages, photos, and calendar items easily with one another. Groups are larger versions of rooms and are meant more for business/company groups rather than family members or friends.
The native WP8 email client is decent and syncs with all the usual internet-based email services out there. You'll have no problem connecting your Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo Mail or other service. The email client does a fine job of rendering HTML emails, but the threaded conversations could be much easier to view.
The SMS app also works as the Skype and Facebook messaging apps. They are all three one and the same. The user interface is spartan, but offers just as many tools as competing platforms. It's a cinch to add photos, videos, or other content to outgoing messages. It doesn't support other services like Google Hangouts, though.
Separate Twitter and Facebook applications are available from the Windows Phone Store.
The Neo includes the stock XBox Hub and music and video options available to all Windows Phone devices. There's nothing wrong with the stock apps. The store lets you buy music, but you can also sideload it from a computer. The same goes for video (though iTunes movies/TV shows aren't supported for obvious reasons.) The music player syncs content from the store to the device and will display artist bios and other cool details when you're poking through your library.
Sprint has developed WP8 versions of its Sprint Music Plus and Sprint TV and Movies services and both are available on the Neo. I found that they function about as well as they do on Sprint's Android devices. That means discoverability of music in the Sprint Music stores isn't great. Live TV can be viewed for free, but movies cannot. You have to pay to watch/rent movies. The quality of Live TV streamed over the network depends heavily on signal strength. Over 3G, it was mediocre under the best circumstances. I found that Live TV performed better when used with an LTE connection.
Last, the big, 720p HD screen makes viewing content a more enjoyable experience.
The Neo has two camera apps, sort of. FIrst, there's the stock WP8 camera, which can be launched with a long-press of the dedicated camera button whether the phone is locked or awake. The camera launches quickly.
The Neo focuses quickly, shoots quickly, and saves quickly. There are more settings available in the software for tweaking the behavior of the camera, such as setting the resolution, white balance, etc. You can also apply some effects (B&W, Sepia, etc.) before taking pictures. The camera can also take advantage of Lenses, which are third-party apps that perform specific actions with the camera. Several Lenses, including Blink (burst mode) are pre-installed. You can download more from the Windows Phone Store. The main camera app works well.
There's a separate app called "Shooting Modes" that you might not ever bother to open unless you're the curious type. Essentially, the Shooting Modes app is a camera with several of Samsung's Galaxy-style camera modes available. Don't get too excited, though. The app lets you shoot in Auto mode, Continuous (burst mode), Beauty Shot (for portraits), or HDR. Otherwise the Shooting Mode app acts just like the stock camera.
The Neo has an 8-megapixel sensor with a flash. In general, I found it took pictures that are among the best available from a Windows Phone device. I'd say it produces quality just below that of the Nokia Lumia 1020 PureView. Focus was sharp, exposure accurate, and white balance spot on. Low light was pretty good, but could have been a bit better. This is one area where the PureView phones outclass the Neo. The only trouble I saw was reds, which blew out the sensor (see Elmo below). Otherwise, pictures accurately reflect the environment in which they were taken.
The Samsung Shooting Modes make a slight difference in the results. For example, using Samsung's HDR tool definitely helped balance light and dark regions in photos (see white flowers below).
On the whole, most people will be pleased with the results they get from the Neo. They're definitely superior to those I saw from the 8XT.
The same can be said of video. The Neo shoots in 1080p HD video and I thought the results looked good. I watched the video on my HDTV and thought the Neo did a commendable job most of the time. My only complaint would be the presence of more grain than I care to see, especially in darker scenes. The flash can serve as a video light if you want, but I found this over-exposed things a bit.
The Pictures Hub is all about the community experience. It lets you easily upload images to Facebook, SkyDrive (Microsoft's photo upload service), Flickr, or send them along via MMS or email. Microsoft wants users of Windows Phones to enjoy their photo experience.
The native gallery app only offers a few editing tools, which are limited to crop, rotate, and "auto-enhance." The Neo also comes with Samsung's Photo Editor app for those who like to spend time touching up their photos before sharing them. Believe it or not, Samsung basically ripped off the native Android gallery app and stuffed it into its Photo Editor app. Anyone who's used the Android gallery app will see how closely Samsung's own WP8 Photo Editor resembles the Android version. Shameful, but at least it includes a few extra editing tools, such as decorations, effects, and so on.
The Neo has only a handful of unnecessary apps on board, which are the Sprint-branded music and video apps. Ditch those and stick with Microsoft's apps instead. The Neo offers more than 12GB of user-accessible storage, though, so Sprint's unnecessary apps aren't really a big deal.
The Neo supports Bluetooth 3.0 with the typical set of profiles, such as stereo Bluetooth, object push, and phone book access. The Neo paired easily with other Bluetooth devices, including mono and stereo headsets, and other phones. I thought phone calls routed through Bluetooth headsets sounded excellent. They were quite loud, too. Music also sounded excellent when sent to Bluetooth headphones.
Internet Explorer 10 is a solid web browser and is good at displaying web content. I don't think the app itself is as feature-rich as the stock Android and iPhone browsers. There are alternative browsers available in the Windows Phone Store. As much as I like the browser, it did not prove a good match to Sprint's slower 3G network. When used with Wi-Fi, it is excellent. Over EVDO? Not so much. However, once I latched onto Sprint's LTE network in NYC, web pages loaded in a jiffy.
The Neo has a nice digital clock on the lock screen, It also displays the day of the week and the date. I wish the clock were bigger — or at least customizable — but it is not. Thanks to the bright display, it’s pretty easy to see outdoors.
I had no trouble with the Neo's GPS radio. It worked well with the Maps apps and always managed to locate me within about a half minute and to within about 25 feet. All WP8 devices uses Nokia's HERE maps, though the actual application on the Neo is just called "Maps." The data is the same. One of my favorite features is that you can download specific maps so they can be viewed offline. Downloading the maps also makes the GPS and Maps app perform faster because it doesn't need to talk to a server across the network.
Maps on Windows Phone is second to Google Maps, but just barely. It offers an incredible array of tools and functions for managing locations, sharing points of interest, and routing directions. It's all free.
The Neo also includes TeleNav's Scout application. This free navigation app is pretty good when it comes to searching for nearby stuff, like gas stations and banks. I think the native Maps app is better at navigation, but Scout does a good job when it comes to finding local points of interest.
Kids Corner is a feature in WP8 that lets parents cordon off a special area of the phone for their kids. Basically, parents put the phone into a mode that only lets kids access certain apps and features, such as the camera or games. It's meant to prevent kids from wiping their parents' phone or emailing pictures to their entire inbox.
Some of the useful tools on board most Windows Phones - the Neo included - are SkyDrive, Office, and OneNote. SkyDrive is Microsoft's cloud storage service. All WP8 devices have access to 7GB of online storage for free (you can pay for more if you want). It is accessed online via your Outlook/Hotmail account. You can set up SkyDrive to automatically upload your photos for safekeeping, as well as store documents and so on. Office needs no introduction. On the Neo, you can open/edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, as well as sync them to your personal (or corporate) computers. OneNote is Microsoft's extensive note-taking and -managing app. It functions similarly to EverNote.
Samsung did a very good job in designing and manufacturing the ATIV S Neo. It's an attractive piece of hardware that is comfortable to use and functions just as it should. The screen is particularly nice, battery life is quite good, and phone calls made through the earpiece sound divine. It's a shame the speakerphone is so crummy, though.
The WP8 operating system may not be for everyone, but it works flawlessly on the Neo. Apps are quick to load and Neo offers all the goodies we've come to expect from our smartphones, including email and advanced messaging, access to apps and media content, and plenty of extras.
For Sprint customers, the only other WP8 option is the HTC 8XT. The Samsung ATIV S Neo is clearly superior to the 8XT in my opinion, and I'd suggest you give it serious consideration.
Shame it's not full HD
Now I'm interested in giving WP a chance. Tho' I'll wait for new improvements.