Windows may be the underdog in the war of smartphone operating systems, but it offers a mobile experience you can't find anywhere else. The Windows home screen features a completely customizable Live Tile grid, which gives you at-a-glance, dynamically updated views of your email, text messages, phone calls, Tweets, Facebook updates and breaking news, all at the press of the power button. It comes with Microsoft Office pre-installed, so you can make last-minute edits to that big PowerPoint presentation. And you can take advantage of the camera lenses that only Windows phones offer, with optical image stabilization and astounding megapixel counts.
Since the OS is uniform from one device to the next, making a decision about which to buy involves picking the right hardware. Three companies make Windows phones for the U.S. market: Nokia, HTC and Samsung. Samsung's options are decent and HTC's are beautiful, but Nokia is the true powerhouse. It's designed Windows phones almost exclusively for several years, and its mobile division will soon be acquired by Microsoft. Plus, Nokia's Lumia line boasts the best smartphone cameras in the world.
If you're looking at our top 10 Windows phones, start with Nokia's models. The company's numbering system can feel obtuse, but models with bigger numbers tend to offer better components. The Lumia 928, available at Verizon, is a powerful entry that's free on contract. The Samsung ATIV Odyssey has one of the best smartphone batteries we've ever seen. It's available from AT&T, as is the Lumia 1520: the ultimate Windows phablet with a processor that blows away every other Windows phone. If you're having trouble making a decision, check out the articles on Windows phones we've put together; they're sure to help.
Windows Phones: What to Look For
There are a few basics you should look out for when shopping for any Windows smartphone. Keep them in mind as you're browsing our reviews and reading up on our comparisons, and you'll have the perfect pick in your hand in no time:
The look, feel and construction of a phone will have a huge impact on your day-to-day life. Do you want something light and easy to carry around, or something with a big, bright, high-resolution screen? A great deal of personal preference goes into the decision, but in general, look for lighter phones with higher pixel densities. The more pixels a phone's screen packs into every inch, the sharper its image.
The majority of Windows phones offer screen resolutions of 1280 x 720 or 1280 x 768. This is impressive, but if you crave a true HD experience, turn to a screen with 1920 x 1080 resolution, also known as 1080p. It will give you all the crispness of your best home theater TV in a device you can carry anywhere.
If Windows phones are known for anything, it's their cameras. Nokia's Lumia series has become world-renowned for its superb optics, squeezing professional-quality photographic hardware and software into the phone in your pocket. When comparing cameras on phones, keep an eye on the following:
Image Resolution: The higher the megapixel count, the bigger and more detailed the image. If you buy a phone with an incredibly high photographic resolution – 20 megapixels or more – you can zoom in on your subject without sacrificing quality.
Optical Image Stabilization: Usually a rare and coveted feature in a phone, OIS is available on a variety of Windows devices. It dynamically aligns the camera's lens and sensor to help compensate for vibrations, which dramatically increases the sharpness of your photos. Many phones have digital image stabilization, but optical stabilization tends to be superior.
Manual Settings: Controlling capture settings such as exposure and white-balance can give you tremendous creative freedom when taking pictures. Even if you're not a professional photographer, spend some time learning the basics and you'll take photos that will stun your friends.
The more often you use your phone, the more important battery life will be to you. A battery's capacity, measured in milliamp-hours (mAh), often reflects its overall longevity. If you tend to prefer certain activities, however – for example, if you like to browse the web or watch video more than talk on the phone – keep an eye on specific test result numbers. Many phones will let you talk for hours at a time, but can only stream video or display webpages for a few hours before shutting down.
The biggest differentiating factor between two phones is often the speed of their respective processors. Though the vast majority of Windows phones sport dual-core processors, newer models are beginning to offer quad-core chips, which can muscle through intensive applications with ease.
You should also consider the amount of internal storage available in each phone, and whether it's compatible with microSD expansion cards. Most Windows phones offer either 16 or 32GB of internal storage for your apps, photos, music and videos. If you need more space, microSD cards can offer up to 64GB of room, so long as the phone has an expansion slot.
When it comes to doing fun things with your phone, built-in hardware extras can be as important as the apps you download. All phones have an accelerometer, for example, and most have a compass, but only the best Windows 8 phones sport a gyroscope. Gyroscopes track a phone's orientation, which can be useful in apps that do things like help you exercise or stargaze.
Two fun features to look for are near field communication chips and FM radio tuners. NFC chips can talk to other chips at extremely short distances – a handful of inches, at most. This allows you to do things like pay for meals with your phone by tapping it against a special scanner at certain stores and restaurants. FM tuners, meanwhile, let you listen to over-the-air broadcasts from local radio stations.
Unfortunately, most Windows phones are exclusive to individual carriers. AT&T has the widest selection of devices, but every carrier offers some variant of the Windows phone experience. If you're already with a carrier and don't plan to switch, be sure to check which phones are available with that carrier.
Windows phones have an uphill battle ahead of them. With the success of Android and iOS, there are few options available to those of us who love the clean lines and bright colors of the Windows Phone 8 interface. Thankfully, many of the Windows phones that are available are superb. If you love Microsoft Office or are a fan of photography, there's no better option out there.
Windows phones tend to all feel similar to one another. This is partly because the OS is kept uniform across devices, and partly because only a handful of manufacturers are even making smartphones that run Microsoft's Windows Phone 8. That's why the Nokia Lumia 1520 is such a breath of fresh air. Where every other Windows phone has a display somewhere between 4 and 4.8 inches on the diagonal, the Lumia 1520 offers 6 palm-filling inches of touchscreen real estate. Where the competition struggles to surpass 720p resolution, the Lumia 1520 packs full 1080p HD. For an extraordinarily competitive price, you get great battery life, fun hardware features and a phenomenal camera.
Nokia's Lumia 1520 is unabashed about its size. As with all phablets – smartphones so large they begin to feel like small tablets – the 1520 is nearly impossible to use with a single hand. Even if it fits in your pants pocket, it'll feel more than a little uncomfortable and is better suited to purses, satchels or big coat pockets. Likewise, you might look ridiculous holding it to your ear, so if you're planning to make many phone calls, we'd suggest you buy yourself a Bluetooth headset.
That said, if you're a fan of big screens or can get past its size, the Lumia 1520 is a powerhouse that impresses in every respect. The display itself is 6 inches of 1080p crispness, with a pixel density of 368ppi – sharper than any other Windows phone. It uses in-plane switching (IPS) technology, which means you can enjoy superb viewing angles when you're sharing photos with friends, and great visibility when outside. Its blacks aren't quite as rich or deep as you'd find on an AMOLED screen, but you'll be able to enjoy it in direct sunlight, so you probably won't mind.
The phone's spacious screen allows room for three columns of Windows Phone 8 live tiles, instead of the usual two. This means you can get much more at-a-glance information and won't have to scroll as often to find the apps you want. It also provides a stunning window into those apps, whether they're games you've downloaded from the Windows store or pre-installed apps such as Nokia's Smart Cam.
Nokia's phones are becoming well known for their superb optics. The Lumia 1520's camera isn't the best the company has made, but it still captures stunning, 20-megapixel photos. Those are big enough that you can zoom in up to 2X without sacrificing a bit of quality. The phone's pictures are captured through an optically stabilized Carl Zeiss lens, so they're sharp and well saturated. Thanks to the camera's focus flash, which helps it find the right focus in low light, they even pop at night.
But the true power of the 1520 lies in the manual control you have over your photos. Its automatic settings will yield great pictures, but if you're at all familiar with photography, you can use the camera's controls to tweak shutter speed, exposure, white balance and more. Meanwhile, the Nokia Smart Cam app gives you some fun extras to play with. Change Faces, for example, lets you pick the best faces from a series of group photos for the perfect composite shot. Motion Focus emphasizes a subject by blurring the background, making it look like you're moving with your target.
As befits a device of its size, the Lumia 1520 boasts the best battery life you'll find in a Windows phone. At 3,400 mAh, the cell itself has a capacity almost 75 percent larger than the next best battery. This means you can enjoy phenomenal 24-hour talk times, or surf the web and watch video for 11 hours straight. Don't worry about that boring flight you have coming up; your phone will have more than enough power to entertain you from gate to gate.
There are a handful of phones that can beat the Lumia 1520's speed, but none of them run Windows Phone 8. With a quad-core, 2.2GHz CPU, the 1520 can handle anything you throw at it. Transitions between UI views are silkily fluid, games pop on that giant screen with nary a stutter, and camera image processing is almost transparent. You can buy the phone in either 16GB or 32GB models, but if that's not enough storage for you, the phone is compatible with microSD cards up to 64GB in size – something most of Nokia's other phones can't claim.
From the very latest version of Bluetooth to its built-in near field communication chip, the 1520's hardware feature set is impressive and unmatched by the competition. You'll enjoy 4G LTE data speeds, the ability to create a Wi-Fi hotspot, and even FM radio when you're out. And thanks to its integrated gyroscope, compass and accelerometer, the phone has all the data it needs to know its exact position in the world, which can be quite useful for certain apps.
The Nokia Lumia 1520 is big in every degree – size, weight, speed, battery life and of course, that massive display. The classic Lumia design is present in full force, with its gorgeous polycarbonate shell and gentle curves, but you also get extras you won't find in other Lumia phones, like microSD compatibility. Sure, it might be a bit clunky for some, but if you're a fan of big screens, you can't go wrong.
When Nokia released its Lumia 928 in early 2013, the phone earned a great deal of praise. A Verizon exclusive, it packed a camera that could impress in all sorts of light, a processor that could handle the Windows Phone 8 operating system without missing a beat, and a screen sharp enough that you never had to worry about pixelation. It might not have fared well against Android or iOS smartphones in one-on-one comparisons, but among Windows phones, the 928 led the pack.
Today, Nokia's newer devices have lapped the former flagship. The Lumia 928 no longer has the strongest processor or the richest feature set. It is still, however, a great phone, thanks in no small part to its display and camera, which is why it still deserves top marks.
The Lumia 928 features Nokia's now-familiar polycarbonate unibody chassis: a strong and sturdy plastic frame that looks svelte and can take a surprising amount of punishment. Where Lumia models often come in a variety of colors, the 928 is only available in black or white, with sharper corners than many of its predecessors. The result is an understated, angular design that can slip in and out of pockets with ease despite its added heft.
The front of the phone is dominated by a 4.5-inch AMOLED display. The AMOLED technology gives its screen abysmally deep blacks that melt into the bezel. The screen tends to fade in bright sunlight, but Nokia's anti-glare coating helps keep things readable. Meanwhile, by packing 1280-by-768 resolution into 4.5 inches of space, the phone offers a pixel density of 334ppi – more than sharp enough to turn individual pixels invisible and give you glistening text and satiny-smooth images.
Nokia is a company renowned for its phones' cameras. With an impressive one packed into its admittedly bulky frame, the Lumia 928 is a worthy entrant in our lineup of Windows phone reviews. Its 8.7-megapixel shooter offers optical image stabilization and Carl Zeiss lenses, so you can expect crisp, vibrant photos every time you tap the shutter button.
The best cameras can capture great images in any light, and with an ƒ/2.0 aperture in one hand and a xenon flash in the other, this phone is primed for nightlife. Apertures are measured in F-stops, with smaller numbers equating to wider openings that allow more light onto the camera's sensor. Most phone cameras offer an ƒ/2.4 or ƒ/2.2 aperture; the Lumia 928's ƒ/2.0 is comparatively huge. By capturing more light from the surrounding environment, its nighttime and indoor photos are far crisper than what many other phones offer. And, thanks to its xenon flash – the same type of light bulb used in point-and-shoot cameras – you can illuminate even the darkest rooms.
As solid as the 928's camera hardware is, its made all the more impressive with Nokia's Smart Camera app. Smart Camera is a software suite that gives you control over settings like ISO, white balance and shutter speed. Using simple and beautiful on-screen controls, you can leave the settings on automatic or manually tweak them, getting a real-time look at the results.
Even the best phone is little more than a block of plastic in your pocket if it runs out of juice. The 928's battery is the same 2000mAh cell you'll find in most Nokia Lumia models. You'll get the same 6 to 7 hours of continuous web browsing and video playback as you would with those models, but both standby and talk times have been improved. With the screen off, you'll be able to talk to friends for up to 17 straight hours, and leave the phone on standby for over three solid weeks. Of course, with push notifications, GPS tracking and other power-sucking apps running in the background, your experiences will vary, but expect to make it through a day without worrying about random shutdowns.
The Lumia 928's biggest weakness is its disappointment of a processor. Dual-core chips are nothing new, and the 928's 1.5GHz CPU has seen a lot of face time in many different Nokia phones. There's nothing inherently bad about the processor, but in the modern smartphone market, there's nothing particularly great about it, either. Windows Phone 8 will run well, and the default apps will animate beautifully, but expect slowdown in more hardware-intensive apps and games – stuttering, frame rate drops and even the occasional freeze.
Everything we've come to expect from our smartphones is present in the Lumia 928, from basics like a compass, gyroscope and accelerometer, to more niche features such as a near field communication chip, which allows data transfers when you hold the phone up to a compatible scanner. A few things we would have liked to see are missing – other Lumia models, for example, sport FM tuners that let you listen to the radio right from your phone, but the 928 lacks one. All in all, however, you'll be able to make the most of the phone and its accessories without feeling like you're missing out on the latest gadgets.
The Nokia Lumia 928 is an unquestionably good choice for any Verizon customer who wants a Windows phone in their pocket. It's solid, boasts a lovely screen and has a camera that puts the carrier's other options to shame. Granted, its processor has more than a few gray hairs, but if you're itching for the Windows Phone 8 experience and want access to Big Red's coverage, it's our hands-down recommendation.
Nokia Lumia 925
Nokia's Lumia 925 is a marked departure from the design philosophy behind the company's other Lumia phones. Where most feature brightly colored, unibody polycarbonate shells, the 925 makes use of a metal housing. This helps alleviate some of the weight issues Lumia Windows phones tend to have – their polycarbonate shells make them heavier than most plastic phones – and cuts down on the device's overall girth. Unfortunately, the phone still has the same wide bezels as earlier models. Its screen feels smaller than it actually is, in a housing that seems larger than necessary.
Squeezing a 1280-by-768 display into 4.5 inches of space nets the phone a pixel density of 334ppi. That's well above the 300ppi threshold at which the eye can't distinguish between pixels, so you'll enjoy a crisp, smooth visual experience. The screen is built on AMOLED technology, which boasts blacks so deep and rich it can be difficult to distinguish between the display and its bezel. AMOLED screens tend to behave poorly in bright sunlight, but Nokia has applied a decent anti-reflective coating to the Lumia 925. It doesn't eliminate glare, but it noticeably reduces it.
Behind its screen, the 925 is powered by a dual-core, 1.5GHz processor and 1GB of system memory. They're the same basic components found in most other Lumia phones, and they're beginning to show their age. While you won't have an issue running most Windows Phone 8 applications – social media apps, Microsoft Office and the Smart Camera will all work beautifully – you may find that newer, more hardware-intensive programs like "Halo: Spartan Assault" will cause some chug.
The Smart Camera app is a particularly nice addition to the Lumia 925 over the line's previous iterations. It offers gorgeous and easy-to-use on-screen controls for the camera's settings, from exposure to white balance. In combination with the phone's physical camera – an 8.7-megapixel shooter with Carl Zeiss lenses and optical image stabilization – it gives you access to a level of photography Nokia has become renowned for.
Along with its camera, screen and new metal chassis, the Lumia 925 offers a selection of hardware features you'd expect out of a flagship phone. The device's gyroscope, compass and accelerometer combine to help the phone always know where it is, how it's oriented and how it's moving, which is invaluable in apps that, for example, track your movement patterns to help you lose weight. It has a built-in near field communication chip for close-range syncing with other devices, and even sports an FM tuner so you can listen to local radio stations.
The Nokia Lumia 925 is the best Windows phone T-Mobile offers, and is among the better options at AT&T. Its metal construction is light but strong, while its camera reflects a level of photographical polish customary to a Nokia device. Its processor is beginning to show its age and there are more impressive phones available, but in terms of value per dollar, there's plenty here to keep you entertained.
Nokia Lumia 920
Despite their numerical variations, many of Nokia's Lumia phones are quite similar. You can generally expect higher-numbered Lumias to be more powerful, but changes from one model to the next tend to be evolutionary. As such, the Lumia 920 feels more like a prototype for Nokia's future phones than a flagship device. It's a bit too heavy to be comfortable, and its late-2012 components aren't quite comparable to modern Windows phones.
One feature the 920 pioneered for the Lumia line is its 4.5-inch display. With 1280-by-768 resolution – which offers a slightly wider viewing experience than standard 720p – the screen is crisp and smooth, packing a 334ppi pixel density. Its sensitivity has been dialed up high enough that you can use it while wearing light gloves, which significantly improves the winter texting experience. And thanks to its in-plane switching (IPS) technology, the screen offers superb viewing angles and looks excellent under direct sunlight.
Delightful though the 920's screen is, the case it's built into is a clunky affair. At 6.53 ounces, it's heavier than any other smartphone we reviewed, with the exception of big-screen phablets. It's almost as big, too, thanks to wide bezels that make an otherwise large screen feel small in your hand. This is a phone that may tire you out the longer you hold it to your ear, and it will definitely be felt when squeezed into your pants pocket.
The Lumia 920 wasn't the first of the line to feature Nokia's PureView photo algorithm, but it made solid improvements and can output beautiful photos. The 8.7-megapixel shooter takes pictures through a wide, light-gulping ƒ/2.0 aperture for great nighttime shots and even better daylight images. Like all the best Lumia phones, it features optical image stabilization and Nokia's excellent camera software, which lets you dynamically modify settings such as ISO, white balance and shutter speed. The result is a phone that, with a bit of effort, can capture excellent images. It's by no means the best camera we've found on a phone, but for a device that's free with contract, it should satisfy.
Packed into the Lumia 920's bulky outer shell are a series of components that won't win any awards, but easily handle day-to-day needs. The dual-core, 1.5GHz processor blows through the Windows Phone 8 operating system, although it can hiccup on some of the more graphics-intensive apps on the Windows store. You'll be able to fit a number of those apps on the phone thanks to its 32GB of built-in storage, but don't expect any expandable options here – the 920 lacks a microSD card slot. If you have a big music collection, you might have to be selective about what you transfer to your phone.
The Nokia Lumia 920 is the cheapest Windows phone on offer from AT&T, and rightfully so. From its structural heft to its lack of expandable storage, the device trails behind – if only just slightly – in almost every category. If you're an AT&T customer with affordability in mind, a free phone can seem quite attractive. But if you're willing to spend an extra $50, there are better alternatives out there that, if nothing else, will be a lot more comfortable to hold.
In late 2012, HTC unveiled its first flagship device running Windows Phone 8: the unimaginatively named HTC Windows Phone 8X. With Windows phones growing in popularity, the device became known simply as the HTC 8X: a svelte, stunning handset with a superb screen and solid internals. But as time has passed, what once was impressive is now merely average. The 8X still looks great, and its screen is still sharp, but it's no longer such a notable standout.
Availability tends to vary, but you can usually find the HTC 8X in either black or a bluish purple. Its unibody shell is elegantly curved into the tapered rectangle that's become commonplace in today's Windows phones. This means it sits well in your hand and feels nice and light, but remains sturdy. The phone's front face is home to one of its best features: a 4.3-inch, 720p display that boasts an impressive 342ppi pixel density. Far above the 300ppi cutoff where your eyes stop being able to see individual pixels, the 8X's screen is wonderfully sharp, giving you text with crisp edges and buttery curves.
The camera on the phone's back cover is decent, capturing 8-megapixel photos through a wide, ƒ/2.0 aperture. This lets plenty of light onto the sensor, which results in better-quality low-light images. They can still be somewhat grainy or blurry, thanks in part to the phone's lack of optical image stabilization. But with a steady hand and a few tweaks to the camera's settings, you'll be taking decent shots in no time.
If you plan to use the 8X extensively throughout the day, be ready to charge it at some point in the late afternoon. The battery HTC installed offers 1800mAh of power storage, which nets the phone about 11 hours of continuous talk time and 6 hours of continuous browsing. That may seem like more than enough – after all, when was the last time you used your phone to browse the web for six hours straight? In real-world usage, though, those who like to stay connected may feel the pinch.
HTC's first Windows flagship had a solid processor when it was released, a dual-core 1.5GHz chip with more than enough muscle for the period. It's not quite as impressive by modern standards, but it'll still breeze through most apps. Expect the operating system, Microsoft Office and similar programs to run without problems, but you'll hit a few hiccups with newer releases.
Taken on its own merits, the HTC 8X is a fine phone with plenty to offer a prospective buyer. It boasts a great display, a beautiful design and a nice camera. However, given that it's a Verizon exclusive, that it costs almost $50 on contract, and that you can get a newer, more powerful and feature-packed phone for free with the same carrier, we can't give it our recommendation.
The HTC 8XT is a relatively recent offering on the Windows phone market. A Sprint exclusive – and arguably the best Windows phone the carrier offers – the 8XT features beautiful aesthetics, easy portability and a respectful feature set, including front-facing HTC Boomsound speakers. If you love listening to music and don't like wearing headphones, or you just find yourself using the speakerphone a lot, you'll appreciate what the 8XT has to offer. If great visuals are important to you, though, it might be worth looking into a different carrier and their devices.
The 8XT's design can certainly turn heads. Its bright blue polycarbonate shell is partially covered by a soft-touch purple backing. Holding it is completely comfortable, especially given that at just 4.23 ounces, it's the lightest Windows phone available.
As nice as the 8XT's design is, its display is woefully outdated. HTC stretches an 800-by-480 screen – commonly referred to as WVGA – over 4.3 inches of space. This results in a pixel density of 217ppi, the lowest of any Windows phone and well below the threshold at which your eyes can discern pixels. Three years ago, such screens were commonplace; today, they're long outdated. If you like to browse the web, read books or extensively text, you may find your eyes tiring far more quickly than they would on newer, crisper displays.
The 8XT's 8-megapixel camera is no Nokia, but it's still solid. Through its wide, ƒ/2.0 aperture, the camera's sensor captures plenty of light, significantly improving indoor and nighttime shots. They can still come out a bit grainy, but with built-in controls for settings like ISO, you can fine-tune your images before snapping photos. And there's the usual assortment of extra settings such as burst and panorama modes, to help you capture that perfect vista.
With a dual-core, 1.4GHz processor, HTC's phone can easily handle Windows Phone 8, though it may struggle with applications that are more CPU-intensive. Its 8GB of internal storage will quickly fill, so plan to invest in a microSD card. These expansion cards are great for carrying up to 64GB of additional music, videos and photos.
The 8XT is one of only three Windows phones you can buy that support Bluetooth 4.0, the latest and most future-proofed version of the popular wireless technology. It is, in fact, surprisingly feature-rich, with fun extras like a near field communication chip and an FM tuner built into the device. The one notable absence is a gyroscope, which phones use to track their orientation – portrait, landscape, upside-down and so on. Without one, some apps may not work properly.
The HTC 8XT is a beautiful phone marred by an ugly screen. So long as you haven't gotten used to high-pixel-density displays, there's more than enough here to enjoy, especially considering you can get it for free with a new carrier contract. Its camera takes solid photos, its hardware extras are a blast to use, and finding a Windows phone with expandable storage is something of a rarity. If you've experienced retinal screens before, though, the 8XT's display will drive you nuts; it's simply too grainy.
Samsung ATIV S Neo
Samsung's ATIV S Neo is the company's newest Windows smartphone. Built from low-cost components, it's a profoundly average device aimed squarely at budget buyers. Unfortunately, depending on which carrier you're on, you can find a better phone that's free with the same two-year contract. That doesn't make the Neo a bad phone; it's simply outmatched.
Externally, the Neo is similar to other low-cost Samsung phones, with a sturdy plastic housing that feels cheap despite its rigidity. Next to the stunning offerings from HTC and Nokia, its aesthetics are almost boring: The Neo's most eye-catching elements are the sorts of wide, faux-chrome accents you'd find on a six-year-old phone. It does boast a spacious 4.77-inch display running 720p resolution, so if you like bigger screens but still want something you can slip in your pocket, you're covered.
Thanks largely to Nokia, Windows phones have become well known for their great built-in cameras. Against such competition, the ATIV S Neo is a disappointment. It features an 8-megapixel lens that captures standard 1080p video. You can take pictures while filming, but the resulting shots aren't as impressive as what you'd get in photo mode. For its part, the camera's photos are decent but hardly noteworthy. Its small aperture nets some iffy images in low light, and without manual exposure or shutter control, there's no compensating for the shift. Even if you're in the noonday sun, you'll find taking pictures somewhat maddening – the camera can take up to two seconds to focus on and capture a subject, every time you tap the button.
While the Neo's camera almost feels like a failure, its internal components are passable. The phone features a dual-core 1.4GHz CPU that can easily handle the smooth transitions of Windows Phone 8's interface. Its 16GB of internal storage can be increased with a microSD expansion card, should you need extra space for your music and photo collection. Meanwhile, its 2000mAh battery has enough juice to power up to 15 hours of continuous talk time, seven hours of video playback and eight hours of web browsing. That may not be a ton, but it's enough to get the average user through the day.
The Neo is one of only a few Windows phones supporting the Bluetooth 4.0 standard. You can find Bluetooth in just about any phone these days, but 4.0 is the latest and greatest version of the technology, compatible with the widest range of wireless accessories. It's one of the phone's few high points, since most Windows phones only offer Bluetooth 3.0 or 3.1. Having version 4.0 installed means you're future-proofed as more and more accessories requiring it are released.
Camera aside, the Samsung ATIV S Neo is a decent phone. It can feel on the cheap side, and it doesn't offer the speed and longevity of much of the competition, but it can stand on its own as a perfectly adequate mobile companion. The problem is, there's no good reason to choose it over other options. Since the operating system on Windows phones is consistent from one manufacturer to the next, picking the best one involves finding the best price-to-performance ratio. Given that other phones offer better performance and build quality for less cost, you're better off picking one of them.
The Samsung ATIV Odyssey offers a cheap, straightforward Windows phone experience in a device that isn't just underwhelming; it's been ho-hum since the phone was first released. It offers enough processing speed to carry the Windows Phone 8 operating system with smooth and snappy transitions, but doesn't bring anything else impressive to the table. Given that it's a Verizon-exclusive device and Verizon offers far better phones free with contract, there's little reason to buy the ATIV Odyssey.
The phone features a straightforward design that's plastic and flimsy, but small enough to be easily pocketable. Its 4-inch screen offers 800-by-480 resolution, which calculates to a pixel density of 233ppi. Modern smartphones tend to have densities of at least 300ppi, with pixels small enough that you can't see them with the naked eye. The Odyssey's 233ppi screen is visibly pixelated, harking back to the phones of 2011. If you aren't already used to sharp smartphone screens, you probably won't mind the low density. If, on the other hand, you tend to read a lot of text on your phone, you may find the lack of clarity distracting.
Perhaps the least impressive element of the ATIV Odyssey is its camera, which was substandard in early 2013 and is a disappointment today. Its 5-megapixel lens captures adequate photos in good light, but can take up to a second to focus on a subject and snap a picture once you press the shutter button. Its tiny aperture lets in very little light, so you'll struggle taking decent photos at night or indoors. And without manual ISO or shutter control, there's no compensating for that aperture. You can't even take advantage of HDR, burst or panorama modes, as the Odyssey doesn't offer them.
Thankfully, the phone's dual-core, 1.5 GHz processor is strong enough to handle built-in Windows phone applications with ease. Microsoft Office may not look spectacular on the phone's screen, but you'll be able to quickly make changes to Word documents, even if you're away from your computer. Likewise, while the 8GB of internal storage isn't much, the phone's expansion slot will let you load up to 64GB of extra space via a microSD card.
Were the Samsung ATIV Odyssey the only free-with-contract Windows phone available at Verizon, it would be an excellent entry-level device for anyone who wants to experience Microsoft's mobile OS without the financial hassle. The offerings from HTC and Nokia, however, are equally affordable and outpace Samsung's phone in every way. If you're a Verizon customer and are itching to experience Live Tiles, look higher up in our list of the top 10 Windows phones.
Nokia Lumia 521
Of the Windows smartphones available on the U.S. market, Nokia's Lumia 521 is the least impressive. That doesn't stop it from being a beautiful phone – after all, the entire Lumia series boasts graceful curves and a sturdy build quality. As an entry-level device, the 521 will wow anyone who's used to feature phones. Compare it against other Windows phones, though, and the 521 is found wanting.
The phone's physical design is quite comfortable. The device is light and easy to hold, kept compact by a 4-inch screen that's as small as you'll find on any modern smartphone. Unfortunately, the screen only offers 800 x 480 resolution, better known as WVGA. The result is a pixel density of just 235ppi, which is low enough that your eye can easily distinguish one pixel from the next. If you're used to feature phones, you probably won't mind, but if you've owned a smartphone made within the past two to three years, the screen will feel overly pixelated.
The Lumia 521 is the first phone we've reviewed in a long time without a front-facing camera. In an age of selfies and video calls, it feels odd not to be able to snap a picture of yourself with a friend, or use your phone as a go-to mirror. Nor does the rear-facing camera make up for its absence; where every other Windows phone can shoot 1080p video, the Lumia 521's 5-megapixel shooter can only manage 720p. It lacks both a flash and the optical image stabilization found on many of the Lumia line's newer models, so its performance in low light is disappointing at best, if not unusable.
With a capacity of only 1430mAh, the Lumia 521's battery can't handle much more than a couple hours of video or web browsing. Light users should be able to make it through the day, but if you tend to use your phone for any of its "smart" capabilities – taking pictures, listening to music, browsing the web and so on – plan to keep the phone plugged in at work. Granted, since the phone can't connect to 4G networks, web speeds are quite slow, so you may not find yourself browsing your favorite sites anyway.
If you're used to feature phones, expect a huge leap forward in capability when you switch to the Lumia 521. However, its dual-core, 1Ghz processor will struggle if you try running any substantial apps; it simply can't compare to the powerhouses you'll get with HTC, Samsung and other Nokia phones. It only offers 8GB of internal storage, but thankfully has a microSD expansion slot. If you like, you can add up to 64GB of additional storage for your excess movies, music and photos.
If you're a longtime fan of smartphones, the Lumia 521 is not for you. From its disappointing camera to its unimpressive battery life, the device doesn't have much to offer a consumer already familiar with the Windows phone landscape. If, however, you're graduating from a feature phone and want a cheap, functional smartphone, you've found one.