Samsung's ATIV S Neo could be an exercise in firsts and lasts. The handset is Sprint's first Windows Phone 8 smartphone to feature international roaming, and thanks to Microsoft's recent acquisition of Nokia, it may very well be Samsung's last Windows Phone. This $99 ($49 with a mail-in rebate) device has a solid array of midlevel specs, including a 1.4-GHz Qualcomm processor, a 4.7-inch display and an 8-megapixel rear camera. Let's find out if the Neo offers enough for bargain hunters.
Looks like Samsung took the blue pill instead of the red on the design. The ATIV S Neo is a close cousin to the Galaxy S4; its rounded corners, chrome-lined edges and speaker grille above the 4.77-inch screen are practically identical to its Android analogue. Likewise, the back of the S Neo is slippery plastic, but we love the Royal Blue finish, as well as a subtle knit pattern that resembles a pair of brand-new jeans. Best of all, the panel is removable, allowing access to the battery and miniSD card, a rarity for Windows Phones.
Along the sides, you'll find the volume rocker on the left and the power and dedicated camera button on the right. The headphone jack is at the top of the phone with the microUSB port at the botGalaxy S4
Borrowing yet another design cue from the Samsung Galaxy S4, a physical Home button sits between a pair of light-up capacitive buttons (Back and Search). Similar to other Windows phones, such as the HTC 8XT, the Back button is on the left, and Search on the right.
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While the ATIV S Neo is an attractive phHTC 8XT prefer the two-toned, soft-touch finish of the HTC 8XT.
The 5-ounce, 5.3 x 2.7-inch ATIV S Neo is larger, heavier and thicker than the HTC 8XT (4.5 ounces, 5.2 x 2.6 x 0.39 inches). The 4.6-ounce Samsung Galaxy S4 (5.31 x 2.69 x 0.25 inches) is also noticeably lighter than this Windows Phone. The 5.1-ounce HTC One (5.4 x 2.7 x 0.37 inches) is about the same weight as the ATIV S Neo, but thinner.
Don't let the midtier categorization fool you, the ATIV S Neo's 4.77-inch TFT 720p display can hang with some of the higher-end handsets on the market.
When we viewed a 720p image of a butterfly on a flower on the ATIV S Neo and the GS4, the ATIV S Neo had more realistic color, and we could see both the bright red on the butterfly's wing from the rich orange of the flower. Due to oversaturation on the GS4's Super AMOLED display, the flower appeared as red as the butterfly.
When we watched the 1080p trailer for "The Bounty Killer," the ATIV S Neo once again displayed better colors; the maniac's white-and-red face paint really popped. However, the GS4's 1080p display delivered better detail, allowing us to see the delicate black curlicues in the painted-on pattern.
The ATIV S Neo delivered a bright 413 lux on the light meter, enough to surpass the 390 lux smartphone average, as well as the HTC 8XT (403 lux).
The speaker on the back of the Neo was able to fill a small room with sound. We heard the tinkle of the piano keys, steady strum of the guitar and swelling strings against Barry White's usually rich baritone on "Playing Your Game, Baby." However, the tinny speaker made his silky low register sound somewhat distorted and bass was thin (similar to most smartphones).
The ATIV S Neo also comes with Samsung's SoundAlive software that enhances bass and overall audio quality when using headphones. The sound definitely improved when we plugged in our V-MODA Crossfade M-100s. The previously flimsy bass was rich and full, as was White's baritone. The highs and mids were nice and clear, making for a good listening experience.
Like other Windows Phone 8 devices, we found the stock keyboard on the Neo easy to use in both portrait and landscape mode. In the latter mode, there's a quarter-inch of space on the left side that could be used to make the keyboard even larger. The keyboard also has fast, accurate autocorrect and some fun emoticons. However, we still wish Microsoft would add trace typing and haptic feedback.
Windows Phone 8 continues to one of our favorite mobile interfaces due to its clean presentation, color design and customization. The foundation of the interface are Live Tiles, a group of colorful app icons that can be moved around or resized with a tap. Tiles can be created for playlists, favorite people, websites, notes, directions and photo albums. The best thing about the tiles is that they're always updating with new information, adding a sense of life that competing mobile OSes lack.
The lock screen on Windows Phone 8 automatically displays photos from your Facebook feed or Camera Roll, personalizing your experience without requiring you to lift a finger. This screen also shows your next appointment and how many messages you have waiting.
Accessing the app list is as simple as swiping to the right of the Start screen. Long-press the Back button, then swipe through the list of thumbnails to select the app.
The Kid's Corner feature is a simple way to childproof your phone. After accessing the feature in Settings, parents can choose which apps will appear and in-app purchases are disabled. You'll have to create a password to cordon off the phone's main interface.
Still, there's a few things that could be improved. You have to tap the top of the screen to see your battery life and connection status on the home screen.
Other persisting gripes with Windows Phone 8 include the inability to close an app from the recent app menu and the lack of a settings shortcuts to toggle things like Airplane Mode and Wi-Fi.
The Windows Store continues to grow, but its current library of more than 170,000 apps pales in comparison to the Android Market and Apple's App Store. Popular apps such as Instagram, Vine and Flipboard are still missing from the Windows Store.
Fortunately, Sprint and Samsung have tried to pick up the slack. Samsung-branded apps include Now, which aggregates information from Accuweather.com, Yahoo! Top Stories and Yahoo! Stocks. There's also MiniDiary, a digital journal where users can add photos, audio recording and text entries.
Samsung included ATIV Beam, which comes in handy for sharing photos, documents, music and videos with other NFC-enabled devices. And if you have the urge to stream content between the phone and a laptop, there's Samsung Link.
Sprint offers entertainment apps such as Sprint Music Plus and Sprint TV and Movies. While these apps are visually attractive, you're still better off with Xbox Music, which follows you across devices.
Scout, a free navigation app by Telenav, provides turn-by-turn directions and offline navigation through a $4.99 monthly subscription fee (or $24.99 a year). Of course, Microsoft has its own Maps app, though it doesn't offer turn-by-turn directions. Neither offer public transit data, but Nokia's HERE suite of navigation apps does all the above for free and is available for download in the Windows Store.
The ATIV S Neo supports NFC for initiating data transfers, but uses Bluetooth for the actual transfers. To share a photo, just pull up the settings menu on an image, tap Share and then touch Tap+Send. We were able to send a photo from the Neo to another WP8 device, but the transfer took several seconds; we weren't able to transfer a video. We also had problems sending photos to our GS4.
The Samsung ATIV S Neo is equipped with a 1.4-GHz dual-core Qualcomm MSM8930AA processor with 1GB of RAM. It's snappy enough for everyday use, launching most apps in a second or less. We burned up the track during a playthrough of "Asphalt 7: Heat," taking time to appreciate the looming skyscrapers when we were blowing past competitors with a nitrous boost. We encountered some stutter when we played with three or four apps running in the background.
On the synthetic CPU and GPU test WPBench, the Samsung ATIV S Neo scored 218, which is enough to top the category average (195), but not the HTC, 8XT (232).
The ATIV S Neo comes with 16GB of storage. However, heavy multimedia users can expand the space up to 64GB thanks to the microSD slot beneath the battery.
The Samsung ATIV S Neo is the latest phone to use Sprint's 4G LTE network. Currently available in 151 markets, the company is slowly but surely growing its network. While not officially available in Manhattan (parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx are covered), we tested the Neo in one pocket of LTE coverage on the east side of the city.
On the SpeedTest.net app, the ATIV S Neo averaged 5.9 Mbps for downloads (7.95 Mbps max) and upload speeds averaged 2.6 Mbps (2.56 Mbps max). The HTC 8XT, by comparison, delivered 6.8 Mbps down and 1.8 Mbps up.
Camera and Camcorder
The Samsung ATIV S Neo's rear 8-megapixel camera captures some surprisingly sharp details. In a test shot of lilies, the brown spots toward the center of the flowers were crisp and well-defined. In a side-by-side comparison with the HTC 8XT, the Neo had deeper color, particularly on yellows, reds and blues. However, there was a faint, but persistent white haze on all the shots from the Neo.
The 1.2-megapixel front camera captured our warm, chocolate skin tone as well as the black, brown and orange tints in our hair. The pics were a little on the blurry side, turning our locks into elongated blobs.
The Neo shoots detailed 1080p video, allowing us to easily read the text on the passing tour buses. The colors were nice and rich, especially the yellow on the taxis whizzing by in the New York City traffic. However, like the still shots, video was somewhat marred by a white haze.
Shutterbugs hoping for some of the cool camera features of the Galaxy S4 will be sorely disappointed. Instead of Drama Shot, Eraser Mode and Animated Photo Mode, Neo owners are relegated to Continuous shot, Beauty shot, HDR and Auto.
Samsung was nice enough to include its Photo Editor app that allows users to crop, adjust the color and add unique frames and stickers. The app also offers 23 Instagram-esque filters. If you're looking to have a little more fun with your photos, Samsung's ManagCamera app lets users snap images with 1 of 32 graphical overlays. It definitely spiced up what would have otherwise been a boring shot of our colleague doing his work.
Samsung also included its Video Trimmer app to cut videos down to size.
During the Laptop Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over 4G LTE), the Samsung ATIV S Neo's 2000 mAH Lithium-ion battery lasted an impressive 8 hours. That's two hours longer than the 6:07 smartphone average. The HTC 8XT was a distant second at 6:43. The Samsung Galaxy S4 clocked 5:49 HTC Onedard Mode and 6:05 in Power Saver Mode. The HTC One was the first to tap out at 5:17.
With a two-year Sprint contract, the Samsung ATIV S Neo costs $99, but comes with a $50 mail-in rebate card, which isn't valid until after 30 days of use (or your first bill).
On Sprint's new Unlimited My Way plan, customers get unlimited talk, text and data for $80 a month for the first phone. Over 24 months and including the $49 down payment, the Neo will cost you $1,969 on this plan. On the new My All-in plan -- which bundles 5GB of hotspot data with unlimited talk, text and data for $110 per line per month -- the Neo will end up costing $2,689 after two years. Under the same plans, the HTC 8XT, which is now free with a two-year contract, would cost $1,920 and $2,640, respectively.
Usually, when you see a sub-$100 smartphone, you know some shortcuts have been made. That's also the case with the ATIV S Neo. This $99 smartphone offers solid performance, a large and vivid display, and an impressive 8 hours of battery life. However, the design feels fairly chunky, and the camera quality could be better. We also wish that Samsung would have ported more bells and whistles from the Galaxy S4.
Between the HTC 8XT (now free with contract) and the ATIV S Neo on Sprint, we give the edge to the Samsung because of its higher-res display and longer battery life. Overall, Sprint customers looking for a Windows Phone 8 device will like the S Neo, but the Nokia Lumia 925 ($29 up front for T-Mobile, $99 on AT&T) remains our favorite midrange Windows Phone because of its better camera and design.