When the brand new Windows Phone 7 OS came to play in the US, only 3 phones showed up for the launch party. Arguably, as the mobile history books are written, these could be remembered as the most important phones that ever use the platform; if they are a letdown or failure of any kind, it could mean an early death for Microsoft’s latest and riskiest investment.
Samsung was one of the first manufacturers to take a swing at the platform, bringing out the Super AMOLED-equipped Focus to make a stellar example of WP7, showing off many of the platform’s capabilities. With a 4” capacitive touchscreen and 1 GHz processor, it’s definitely on the high end of the spectrum, and offering phones like the Focus tells the world that Microsoft is ready to play with the big boys and isn’t messing around anymore.
So while it’s going to be known as one of the very first Windows Phone 7 devices in the US, will it also be known as a good phone? Let’s find out what the Samsung Focus is all about.
Hardware and Design of the Samsung Focus
In hand, the Samsung Focus has a very familiar feel to it because it’s designed quite similar to many of Samsung’s other most recent phones, such as the Galaxy S. With its 4” touchscreen, thin body and rounded curves, anyone who has used a Galaxy S device will feel right at home with the Focus. It has a certain aura of elegance about it, and is a device I truly enjoy looking at. Even though it has a large screen it doesn’t feel like I’m holding a barge; the same cannot be said about other devices with 4-4.3” screens. At 4.07 oz the Focus is very light for its overall size.
I was a bit disappointed that Samsung chose to go with a black glossy all-plastic exterior that would attract fingerprints from a fly, let alone my grubby hands. While it may all be plastic, at least the back cover is something besides a boring flat back. Instead, Samsung designed it with some clever angles, keeping the middle raised and tapering it off on the edges. It adds class and makes the whole phone look solid.
As mentioned earlier, the Focus has a Super AMOLED display that makes the screen resolution brighter than the competition, helps save battery life, and uses thinner parts so the phone itself can be much thinner at 10 mm. The resolution of the screen is 480×800. In contrast to the LG Quantum, the colors and more vibrant and deep, and it’s easy enough to tell the difference when holding the two phones up next to each other. I did notice at the same time, however, that the screen brightness itself was higher on the LG Quantum when both were on the same brightness level.
Still on the front of the phone, 3 capacitive touch-sensitive buttons are shown directly underneath the screen. These 3 — back, Windows, and search — are the same as any other WP7 device since Microsoft requires this layout on every one of its phones. There are small changes the manufacturers can make: for example, the LG Quantum chooses to keep back and search touch-sensitive but turn the Windows button into a physical button. Samsung opted to go all touch, straight across. Fortunately all three of these buttons are easy to press, and at a comfortable place for my thumb when I’m holding the phone with one hand. I don’t feel as though the phone will just go off-balance and fall out of my hand easily, and that’s a great comfort to me.
The Focus attempts to keep the outside of the phone as minimal as possible. It subscribes to the idea that the less physical buttons there are, the better. On the left side you’ll notice the volume up/down rocker, again in the perfect spot for my thumb when one-handed.
On the right side, you’ll see both the camera button (I believe this is also a requirement on every WP7 phone; Microsoft prides itself in the ability to take pictures no matter if the screen is locked or if you’re in a different screen) and the power/screen lock button.
Up on top is the 3.5 mm headphone jack and the Galaxy S-esque MicroUSB charger port with the sliding door to help keep moisture and dust out without worrying about a dinky plastic flap just coming off the phone. I’ve always enjoyed this small but significant innovation.
Rounding up the tour of the Focus, the back simply has the 5 MP camera with LED flash and a decent-sized spot for the back speaker, as well as logos and the aforementioned angles. The battery cover is a basic snap-on and pry-off cover, nothing new. Underneath the battery cover there is room for a SIM card and MicroSD card slot.
A word about the MicroSD, since it relates to the overall hardware of the phone. This particular issue has been a rather large controversy and source of utter confusion ever since before the phone was even released. Here’s the scoop on it.
Originally Microsoft hadn’t intended any of its phones to have accessible expansion card slots, but somehow the Focus slipped through the cracks and shipped with one anyways. We’re still hazy on the details on how this occurred and why it was allowed to pass through testing this way, but the fact is that while the slot can technically recognize a MicroSD card (I’ve seen plenty of successful attempts), an official memo sent out by AT&T explains that no MicroSD cards currently made are actually compatible with WP7. The memo mentioned that owners of the Focus should wait until Microsoft-certified cards are available, though there is no word on exactly how long this will take. In the meantime, if a card is used, there is a rather sizeable risk to it in that it can severely affect the performance of your Focus. So for now, take full advantage of the 8 GB internal memory that the Focus has, and be patient until the new Focus-specific cards come out.
All in all, the Focus feels elegant, classy and modern. I don’t feel as though the phone’s style will be obsolete within the next few months, which is always a huge plus to potential buyers. Nobody wants to buy a phone that just looks old and outdated.
Software and OS of the Samsung Focus
The Focus being a Windows Phone 7 device (am I the only one who keeps wanting to say “Windows Phone 7 Phone”?) could either be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you look at the OS. The phone has to somehow get past Microsoft’s soiled reputation in the world of mobile and prove not only itself but the OS that operates on it as well. That’s a rather heavy burden for any WP7 device to have at present time. Contrast that pressure with that of its relative, the Samsung Captivate, which has much less pressure on it than a normal phone just because it happens to run Android, an OS that’s already been proven a hundred times over.
At least the Samsung Focus does a spectacular job of handling this pressure well. As I was playing with the phone, never once did I think I was actually playing with first-generation firmware. The interaction with the OS platform was incredibly smooth and I rarely found any type of glitch or bug. This is a huge difference from that of the T-Mobile G1 running first-gen Android firmware, for sure.
Though there are a few things that I missed having on WP7 (copy and paste, *cough cough*), I know that I could use this phone on a long-term basis and be perfectly happy with it.
More details on my WP7 experience in a future review. But suffice to say, Focus had a heavy burden to bear, and bore it flawlessly.
One more note on the OS experience. Microsoft went polar opposite of Android’s multi-UI approach and actually clamped down on what phone manufacturers could do with the WP7 firmware. Each and every Windows Phone has the same exact layouts, user interfaces, and minimal spec requirements, to ensure that a phone maker can’t go messing up what Microsoft has already “perfected” and try to add in its very own flavor. Microsoft just held its ground and said if you want to play with me, you have to go by my rules. Fair enough, Microsoft, I think it’s probably for the better.
There are a few small changes each company can make. One such leniency Microsoft has granted is in the Marketplace, where each company can feature its very own store within the Marketplace itself. So Samsung has put in a few extra apps that can only be downloaded on the Focus and none other, such as:
Samsung Photo Sharing: Gives you the ability to upload multiple pictures at once to certain SNS sites.
Now: Basically identical to Daily Briefing on Samsung Android devices; shows your essential life information, such as weather, stocks, news, etc.
Three: Exclusive to H3G, gives easy access to customer support.
Network Profile: For any unlocked Samsung WP7 devices. Allows you to switch your active network profile to whatever networks are available, and gives you a list of networks to choose from. Great for international traveling.
Exciting? Not really. I wasn’t too impressed by the lack of choices in the “Samsung Zone”, as it’s called. When using the LG Quantum I noticed a much better selection of apps in LG’s Hub than I did with Samsung. Fortunately, this isn’t really that large a concern since the majority of apps that you’ll be interested in downloading will be available in the main Marketplace on any WP7 phone.
Camera and Camcorder
The camera built into the Focus is a good quality 5 MP that does offer LED flash and autofocus. It was a little tricky trying to find the best way to get the pictures completely focused, but after just a couple practice shots I had it down easy. From that point on it was smooth sailing and I felt the pictures turned out very well.
These pictures below are taken in my backyard under cloudy and almost rainy conditions, so there is a lower light level than usual. But the pictures still turned out great.
The camcorder is 720p HD resolution at the max, though you do have the option to record at a lower screen resolution. The advantage of doing this is in how much space you’ll save between the two different styles. If you’re running low on memory and can’t get to a computer to transfer existing files over, go with the lower res for a small period of time.
Thing is, when you look at this video below, it’s hard to tell that it’s in HD in the first place. Panning around my backyard made the video look slightly choppy, as if it takes a while for the picture to catch up with where the camera’s pointing. So at least outside it seemed sluggish. Using it inside looked slightly smoother but it is not 100% by any means.
You can set the camera to automatically or manually upload your pictures to SkyDrive, making it even faster and easier to get your pictures moved to your computer. It’s always nice to have the wireless upload ability to limit the number of times you actually need to plug your phone into your computer.
Multimedia and Browser
Sideloading the Focus on my PC was a piece of cake. All I needed to do in order to get started was download the Zune app on my computer, and plug the phone in. The Zune app booted right up and took me step by step through the setup process so it could recognize the Focus. Once setup, it was incredibly easy to go in and pick out which artists I wanted to listen to and import any pictures I had taken on the Focus already (and that’s if you never took advantage of the Focus’s ability to take the pics in your gallery and upload them to Microsoft Live SkyDrive).
Once on the phone, the music was easy to find since it was in the “Music+Video” tile. Going into that program, I was immediately faced with the options of music, videos, podcasts, and marketplace.
While I enjoyed the audio quality of the music I loaded into the phone, I was hoping to find an equalizer somewhere in the phone to adjust my bass and treble settings based on what genre I was listening. I couldn’t find any equalizer available.
Fortunately, WP7 allows me to perform other tasks while listening to my music player, so I could easily browse the web, text or email at the same time. Microsoft hasn’t enabled multitasking for third-party apps yet, but at least there is a small degree of multitasking that I do have access to.
Speaking of browsers, the included Internet Explorer on the Focus is rather robust. If you’re not a huge fan of IE, don’t worry too much about this version because it doesn’t look anything like the computer versions; instead, it’s optimized for your Windows Phone. Switching between active windows is easy, you can do voice searches, and the pinch-to-zoom and accelerometer work like charms here. Sadly, I absolutely hated the fact that going into my Google Reader pulled up the same mobile site that you would see on an old Blackberry or messaging phone. It’s hard going back to this style after getting used to the Android and iPhone web apps.
Even if you never use Google Reader, the important thing to take out of this is the idea that while most sites look perfectly fine (and normal) through the WP7 IE browser, those sites that are Android/iPhone optimized won’t be optimized on this OS platform (at least, not yet).
With a 4” screen, typing on the WP7 keyboard was never an issue at all. In fact, going to this phone from an iPhone made me feel at home, because the keyboard was very responsive and Microsoft built an excellent autocorrect feature in with the keyboard itself that exceeds any other platform’s version.
Performance of the Samsung Focus
While having a solid OS and user experience matters a great deal, none of it is relevant if the phone itself is a piece of junk. Thus, it’s time to evaluate the performance of the Samsung Focus doing the most important stuff — its job.
Fortunately I was very pleased with everything on the Focus. For instance, the battery life on it is outstanding, especially compared to any iPhone or Android device I have ever used. I am fairly positive it had the best battery life I’ve ever used in a smartphone, which is saying a lot. The battery life is rated at 6.5 hours of constant talk time, but during my review I used the Focus as my primary device, which includes texting, emailing, web browsing and social networking, and the battery lasted me the entire day with some left to spare. I still charged it up every night, but I personally never had to worry if it would last through the day without getting a spare charger somewhere. Any phone that can start the day at 9:00 with full charge and still have 15% left at midnight is a winner in my sight.
The call quality was also excellent. No dropped calls, no static, and nobody complained on the other end of the line when I made my calls. The volume was high enough for me to hear everything clearly, and the speakerphone was equally impressive. In fact, I never had to bump up the volume to the highest setting, because moderate volume was good enough for me.
Finally, the 1GHz processor is coupled with 512 MB RAM, which makes this phone extra speedy. Scrolling up and down, the screen kept up with me without falling behind. It moved instanteously whenever I moved my fingers. The programs loaded up without major delays and everything I did using the phone was rather seamless. While other similar phones use the same speed processor, they don’t feel as speedy because they don’t have as much RAM as the Focus.
In my reviews I hate to say nothing but good things about a phone, because it’s my job to find little nitpicky things to like and not like, and there are goods and bads with every phone no matter how close to perfect it may seem. With that said, I was hard-pressed to find things I didn’t like about the phone that weren’t related to the OS in some way. The Focus has top-notch specs and carries those specs very well. I am rather disappointed in the SD card slot debacle, and hope it can get fixed soon so the Focus can have more than 8 small GB of storage space inside.
But overall, provided you are willing to venture into unknown territory with an unproven first-generation OS, the Samsung Focus is a great option to consider for your purchase. It is currently available in AT&T stores for $199 with contract and no mail in rebate.
Below you will find my video review of the Focus and a full gallery of pics.
For more reviews on Windows Phone 7 devices, check out my LG Quantum review.
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