The Samsung Focus delivers the best Windows Phone 7 experience I’ve seen so far. It’s a spare, elegant canvas for a mobile operating system that relies heavily on bold design. The Super AMOLED screen showcases Microsoft’s big blocks of color, and Samsung even found ways to subtly downplay Windows Phone 7’s weaknesses.
Hardware and Phone Performance
The first thing you notice about the Samsung Focus is its grand and gorgeous 4-inch, Super AMOLED screen. AMOLED’s hypersaturated colors work well with Microsoft’s UI, which has big blocks of color and clear text; the Focus makes many competing phones look washed out. The phone itself is a slim 4.9 by 2.5 by 0.4 inches (HWD) and 4.2 ounces, pretty easily pocketable. The entire front is black, so as not to take attention away from the screen; the plastic back has a businesslike pinstripe design, but looks a little greasy when overrun with fingerprints.
A world phone that connects to AT&T’s and foreign 3G networks at HSPA 7.2 speeds, the Focus also integrates 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi. I was able to get about 1.3Mbps down using a speed-test Web site, although you can’t use this phone (or any Windows Phone) as a modem or hotspot for your PC.
- Service Provider
- Operating System
- Windows Phone 7
- Screen Size
- 4 inches
- Screen Details
- 800-by-480 Super AMOLED capacitive touch screen
- GSM, UMTS
- 850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100
- High-Speed Data
- GPRS, EDGE, UMTS, HSDPA
- Processor Speed
- 1 GHz
As a voice phone, the Focus is fine. In my tests, RF reception was stronger than the competing HTC Surround ($199.99, 3 stars). Volume was okay, if a bit quiet sometimes. Noise cancellation in the microphone worked very well, though it made my voice sound a bit strangled when it was busy blocking out a loud, passing truck. The speakerphone has great volume and transmissions sound solid. The Focus connected effortlessly with my Aliph Jawbone Icon Bluetooth headset, and the TellMe-powered voice dialing was unusually accurate. Talk time, at 5 hours 54 minutes, is good for such a slim phone.
The Focus is the only Windows Phone 7 so far to accept expandable memory. Take off the back panel, and you can pop in a MicroSD card (up to 32GB), potentially turning this 8GB phone into a 40 GB phone. But beware: you can’t remove or change the memory card without doing a full factory reset of the phone. Don’t think of this as “removable” memory—think of it as adding more RAM to your mobile PC.
The Focus and Windows Phone 7
For a basic rundown of Windows Phone 7’s features, take a look at our review of the Windows Phone 7 OS.
In my mind, the Focus’s major contribution to Windows Phone 7 is what it doesn’t do. The Focus doesn’t have a slide-out keyboard or a kickstand, so you’ll almost always hold it in portrait mode. And this is a good thing.
One of Windows Phone 7’s biggest problems is that it’s just not designed to be used in landscape mode. A few apps work in landscape mode—a couple of games, the Web browser, the video player, and the e-mail program. But most of the system just doesn’t rotate. Most notably, the menus, even the Zune music-selection menu, don’t rotate. The Focus avoids tempting the user into using the phone in landscape mode, playing down this OS weakness.
AT&T and Samsung got to add a half-dozen apps of their own to the Focus, although you can uninstall any of them. AT&T added FamilyMap, a GPS tracking service; myWireless, which helps you monitor your phone bill; AT&T Navigator, AT&T Radio, and U-Verse Mobile, which I’ll discuss later.
Samsung Now, which gives you basic weather, news and stock information is also pre-installed. I wish it could show that information in the app’s home-screen tile, but the selection of Windows Phone apps is so thin at this point, I’m grateful just for the data.
The Zune Phone
Like all Windows Phones, the Focus is also a Zune music player. I don’t mean it’s “like” a Zune; the interface looks very similar, and it has has almost all of the features of Microsoft’s Zune HD.
To Zune, hook your Windows Phone up to a PC running the Zune client software. Mac software for syncing unprotected, local music and video is coming soon. The Zune client lets you organize, sync, and download music, video, and apps.
AT&T stuck some of its own media software on the Focus, too. AT&T Radio gives you a large library of streaming radio stations for $4.99 per month. I think it will be outdone by Slacker Radio, which should be in the Marketplace at launch. More interesting is the $8 a month U-Verse TV, which promises unlimited streaming and downloadable copies of popular TV shows. I couldn’t test that feature, though.
The 5-megapixel camera is pretty good, although it isn’t quite as good as the iPhone’s. Shutter speed is super-quick and resolution is good at 1,300 lines, but shutter speeds in general seemed a little low, causing some blur (especially in low light) if my hands were shaky. The video camera isn’t bad either, taking 720p HD videos at 24 frames per second and 640-by-480 videos at 30 frames per second. They were a little grainy, but clear, in focus, and not wobbly, in my tests.
Windows Phone vs. the Competition
The Samsung Focus is probably the best of the Windows phones, although I have five more reviews to go before I can really decide that for sure. But the more practical question is: How does this phone compare with the other top handsets on AT&T?
The Focus strikes hardest at the Samsung Captivate ($49.99-$199.99, 4 stars), AT&T’s best Android phone—and at Android in general. The Captivate is a terrific phone, but Windows Phone is like a manicured garden where Android is running a little wild. It looks like updates will come more promptly for the Focus, and e-mail compatibility is even better. Especially if you like the Zune syncing experience, the Focus can offer a more elegant, more orderly (if less flexible) option.
Microsoft may be a major player in business, but the Focus and the BlackBerry Torch ($199.99, 4 stars) don’t really compete. You’re buying the BlackBerry Torch because your business has a BlackBerry server, or because you want a physical keyboard. Come back when we’ve reviewed the Dell Venue Pro and we’ll talk.
Apple’s iOS is simply a more mature platform. Even though the iPhone 4 ($199, 4.5 stars) has serious trouble making phone calls—yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it—it retains our Editor’s Choice because it’s both refined and flexible. The platform’s 300,000 apps are a big part of that, but Apple is also just a step ahead of Microsoft on many of the experiences, such as multiplayer gaming. While Microsoft’s promised XBox integration is mostly potential for now, it’ll undoubtedly be more impressive when there’s a better array of games, including multiplayer titles. But this is a good start.
Zune fans are obviously the first major market for the Samsung Focus, but I’d also recommend it to folks who want the simplicity of the iPhone, but who are scared away by its poor voice performance. Just beware that you’re an early adopter, and are buying into a platform that’s just starting up. For a version 1.0, though, the Samsung Focus is a great start.
The Samsung Focus will be available on November 8 for $199.99 with an AT&T contract.