Samsung ATIV SE review - Is it good enough to be your next phone?

Samsung has been a vendor of Microsoft's Windows Phone for many years but the company has not been as aggressive with the OS as it has been with its Galaxy line of products. With that being said, the second iteration of its ATIV line of devices for Verizon has been released but with tough competition from Nokia, the market is not wide open for Samsung to take.

The position of the device would be at the top end of the market. With a quad-core processor and a 13MP camera, Samsung didn't skimp on the specs but with a plastic housing, it does send a bit of mixed signals.

But we are never one to complain about having options and that's exactly what the ATIVE SE provides. If for some reason you don't like the Lumia devices, there is now a Samsung competitor, which, on paper, looks to be a seriously good phone.

For Microsoft, they need Samsung and many other vendors to help push the platform. Even with Microsoft, now being the largest Windows Phone vendor on the planet, they will never take a serious chunk of the market unless they can convince vendors, like Samsung, to start pushing Windows Phone instead of Android devices. So, here we have Samsung's latest device running Windows Phone 8, let's take a closer look to see if this device should be on your shortlist for your next smartphone.

Samsung didn't hold much back when building that ATIV SE, with a quad-core Snapdragon 800 CPU pushing the 1s and 0s, to the 5in 1080P display, the ATIV SE has a lot going for it. The device even includes an IR blaster, which you might think is a bit of a novelty, but when you lose your TV remote, you'll understand why the IR blaster is actually a great feature. You can see the entire spec sheet below.

Samsung ATIV SE
Product Codes ATIV SE
Display 5 inches
Processor Snapdragon 800
Quad Core 2.3GHz
Storage 16GB

Bluetooth 3.0

Camera 13MP rear camera
2MP front camera
Single flash
Ports Micro-USB
3.5 mm audio connector
Sensors IR
Light sensor
Proximity sensor
Battery 2600 mAh
Launch OS Windows Phone 8
Launch Date Spring, 2014
Size Length: 5.42 inches
Width: 2.75 inches
Thickness: .33 inches
Price $99 on-contract
$549 no-contract

Like the previous ATIV that we reviewed, the lines are vaguely similar in appearance. There are the standard Windows Phone buttons across the bottom, but one notable item is that the device features a physical home key that some may prefer over the capacitive buttons found on many other devices like the Lumia Icon.

The side of the device features a volume rocker and the other side has the power button. There is no dedicated camera button on the phone which is a bit of a bummer since the 13MP camera is more than capable of capturing life's moments but for now, there is not a dedicated button.

The phone, unfortunately, sticks with Samsung's love for plastic. If this device were made out of aluminum, it would be a home-run, but the plastic really down-plays the high-end specs that are behind the gorgeous display. We wish Samsung would realize this but then again, they sell millions of the Galaxy line of devices that are made of plastic too.

The camera on the back of the device does protrude from the device which means it cannot be placed flat on its back. Not a huge issue as there is a protective ring around the sensor to keep it from getting scratched but is still something to be aware of before you buy the phone.

The front of the device features a honey-comb type pattern around the buttons and the speaker. It gives the phone a bit of a different look compared to the typically black coloring used by more manufacturers. It's certainly a personal opinion if you like the look, for us, it's simply 'ok', nothing that attracts nor pushes us away from the device.

Besides the plastic, the phone is quite attractive as it is a bit slimmer than the Lumia Icon and offers up a premium device in a package that is conservative enough that most users will be happy with.

Samsung has been building displays for decades and it's not a surprise that the 1080P 5in AMOLED display on the ATIV SE is one that we love. From every angle it looks great and the color reproduction is in-line with our expectations.

The blacks are deep and the lines are crisp and when you turn the brightness all the way up, the screen meets our basic expectations for viewing in direct sunlight. While it's not as good as the Lumia Icon out in the sun, its performance is acceptable.

Gesture input all worked well and we had no issues with the touch accuracy of the display.

From a user perspective, the display is great and one that we quite like. The 5in size is served well by the 1080P resolution and the AMOLED has consistently proven itself to be a reliable display technology.

Knowing what Samsung has been able to do in the television markets, becoming a premium brand, its phone displays generally match that of their bigger counterparts. And with pixel density and outrageous claims of cramming higher resolutions into smaller and smaller displays, there is a point of diminishing returns where resolution starts to chew through battery life and the return on that battery life investment is not worth the reward.

At 1080P on a 5in display, the ATIV SE provides all the density the average user will expect and does so in a way that preforms well with the Windows Phone OS. Know this, if you buy a ATIV SE, you won't complain about the display as it is gorgeous.

Samsung put in a 13 MP shooter on the ATIV SE and while the company is not known for its cameras like Nokia, that doesn't mean Samsung's cameras are a poor match against the Icon. The fact is, that with a sensor surpassing 10MP, the differences between sensors shrinks dramatically. For the most of us, cell phone cameras are a great way to capture what is happening here and now; they are typically not used in-place of professional equipment.

More so, cell phone images get tossed up on social networks and then are mostly forgotten about until you take a quick scroll through your photo roll. So, with the 13MP included with the ATIV SE, it gets the job done and will make all your selfies and other photos look great on your preferred social network.

With that being said, the camera produced mixed results with images having uneven tones and some images appearing over saturated.

Low light photos are not as good as the Icon, but that’s to be expected, as Nokia has done a lot of work in this area to separate itself from the other phones and it has 7 more megapixels than the ATIV SE.

Click to enlarge

Color reproduction is fair, the images tend to lean a bit towards the warm side; shutter speed was not an issue either as images were snapped quickly after tapping on the screen.

The front facing camera that will inevitably be used for Skype calls and selfies is more than capable at delivering on those fronts, as long as it is a well-lighted environment.

It is important to point out that the phone does lack a dedicated camera button. Tapping on the screen to take photos on the ATIV SE is not hard but it is slightly less inconvenient than many other smartphones on the market. Not a deal-breaker but it is a little inconvenience that some may want to be aware of if they generally prefer this type of feature.

Overall though, the rear camera is more than capable for filling the needs of most consumers, minus maybe a few photo purists. But, if you fall into the latter category, you already own a DSLR so it’s not a big deal.

One thing that many forget about smartphones, and this seems a bit obvious, is that one of the primary features is the phone. Yeah, we know, not everyone loves to talk on the phone but that’s a core feature of the ATIV SE.

Call quality is quite good with the smartphone and our conversations were heard easily by both parties. The speakerphone worked well too but was a bit flat for our taste as the voices lacked a dynamic range that other devices like the iPhone or Lumia Icon exhibit. It’s a bit hard to explain but it seems the speaker is unable to hit the mid-tones evenly.

Generally speaking, the audio meets basic expectations here as call quality is on par with just about every other smartphone on the market but the speakerphone is a bit of a small inconvenience that certainly wont impede its use.

With the announcement of Windows Phone 8.1 a few weeks back and having been using the updated OS on a daily basis now, going back to Windows Phone 8.0 feels like a huge leap backwards.

While I know you can get 8.1 on this device with the developer preview, out of the box, it runs 8.0 and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

Like nearly every single Windows Phone before it and especially one with the specs of the ATIV SE, the software runs like a hot knife through butter. I had very few instances of even the smallest bit of lag and jumping around the OS was an effortless task.

The ATIVE SE does come with a few applications that are built by Samsung such as Mini Diary, Live Wallpaper, ATIV Beam, Manga Camera and a few others.

The Live Wallpaper app makes it easy to create a slideshow that will be shown on the lock screen and the Manga Camera app allows you to add cartoon-ish overlays to images.

The apps that Samsung includes as ‘unique’ to its devices are a modest attempt at building something that separates the device from other vanilla Windows Phones. None of these apps are truly spectacular or offer anything that isn’t readily available in the Windows Phone store.

Like many smartphones these days, the battery is becoming less of an issue as manufactures have found ways to cram more juice into a smaller package. The ATIVE SE is no different with its 2600 mAh battery.

We were consistently getting around 9 hours of use out of the device before it was ready to be plugged in. Certainly not the best on the market and I know that I use my phone to obsessive levels, so 9 hours is pretty good for the phone. Also, since you can swap the battery, if you really want to always be juiced up, carrying around a second battery is an option with this phone.

Like all of the Windows Phones that we have reviewed, even entry level phones, the OS has always performed exceptionally well and this holds true for the Samsung ATIV SE. The quad-core processor hums along and we rarely noticed any snafus with lag.

Left MultiBench | Right AnTuTu

Applications launched quickly and even CPU intensive operations like opening a video or launching the camera application were a walk in the park. For the casual user, know this: the OS runs like a hot knife through butter and will not present any issues during the lifecycle of this device. It's a high-end phone and the performance of the device reflects the specs that are under the hood.

When looking outside the Nokia phone lineup, your options are quite slim, but the ATIV SE is a good phone, in fact, if you don’t mind the plastic exterior and less than perfect camera, it’s a great phone. The casing of the device does cut down quite a bit on the ‘premium’ feel you get with the Icon but what you gain is a user-swappable battery.

Performance is on par with expectations and with modest battery life, there is a bit of room for improvement but no phone is perfect.

The physical home button is also a nice gesture too. You forget how nice it is to have tactical response with a home button after having used capacitive buttons on the Lumia lineup for the past few months.

The size of the phone is large, but it’s not so big that it’s overwhelming and the deep blacks of the display make for an excellent viewing experience.

The one tradeoff to consider, if you are sizing this phone up against the Lumia Icon, is that we know that Lumias will receive excellent lifecycle support whereas the ATIV SE is a bit up in the air when it comes to software updates. Of course, you could always sign up for the developer preview program and bypass those worries but if you only like running official software that has been tested on your specific device, then this option may not be good for you.

Generally speaking, the ATIV SE is a good phone for nearly all consumers. It’s a general purpose device that goes out of the way with great performance and an OS that is quickly maturing.

Samsung ATIV SE
Performance Display Home Button
Average Camera Plastic No Camera Button
Spring 2014


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