When you're launching a whole new mobile operating system, you want the hardware to put your best face forward. The Samsung Focus does just that. Its Super AMOLED display is so bright, crisp, and rich, it's the ideal complement to the new Windows Phone 7 OS. Everything on this handset--from the customizable tiles on the home screen to Xbox Live games and HD videos--really pops. The Focus ($199 with a two-year contract) is also ready for productivity, thanks to the revamped versions of Outlook and Office Mobile. Still, this smart phone faces stiff competition from Android and the iPhone. Can this device make Windows Phone 7 attractive enough for the masses?
Design and Display
When the screen isn't on, one could easily mistake the Samsung Focus for the Samsung Captivate. Both black slabs are very thin and light (4.8 x 2.6 x 0.4 and 4.1 ounces versus 4.2 x 2.5 x 0.4 inches and 4.5 ounces). The Focus feels significantly lighter in the hand than the iPhone 4 (4.8 ounces), which is quite a feat given the Samsung has a larger 4-inch display. Does it feel cheap? No, but the all-plastic body doesn't feel as premium as the glass-and-metal iPhone.
Like all Windows Phone 7 devices, the bottom of the Focus has three buttons: Back, Search, and Start. These are capacitive buttons, which were responsive but a bit too easy to accidentally press for our taste. The outer edge of the device has a chrome look, with the power and camera buttons on the right side, a volume rocker on the left, and a 3.5mm jack and microUSB port up top. The back of the Focus has a sleek pinstriped battery cover, with cutouts for the 5-MP camera and speaker.
The 4-inch Super AMOLED screen (800 x 480 pixels) on the Focus makes this phone stand out against other Windows Phone 7 devices, including the HTC Surround on AT&T. The deeper blacks and superior viewing angles put that handset to shame, though the iPhone 4's retina display boasts a higher resolution and brighter whites.
Both highly functional and beautiful, the look and feel of Windows Phone 7's software is one of its key selling points (for a full review of the new operating system, click here). It all starts with the new home screen of this OS, populated with Live Tiles which you can easily move around (just press and hold). Similar to Windows 7 on the desktop, you can pin all sorts of stuff to this screen, including apps, notes, people, playlists, and websites. This approach goes a long way toward making the experience personal, and it's certainly more streamlined than Android phones with multiple home screens and different size widgets. Plus, the tiles are dynamic. Our Google e-mail tile displayed the number of new messages, while a tile for a loved one showed their latest Facebook update.
Swiping to the right launches a list of programs in alphabetical order. You can't move apps around here, but you can uninstall them or pin them to the Start menu. We'd like to see a folder option, but that's kind of what hubs are for. Hubs on Windows Phone 7 aggregate apps and content for related activities. The selection includes Games, Marketplace, Music + Video, People, Pictures, and Office. For example, the People Hub shows your contacts, but also displays the latest updates from your Facebook friends. Meanwhile, Office combines Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint, and Word.
Within these hubs and many apps, you'll find that the interface relies heavily on large, easily legible text (similar to Zune media players) and that it's panoramic. The text runs off the screen, which is your cue to swipe to the right to see more options. Overall, this design works, but in some cases Microsoft takes the cut-off text motif too far. In the Marketplace, for instance, we couldn't read the full names of some apps.
The touch keyboards on Windows Phone 7 devices are all the same, which isn't a bad thing. The layout on the Focus let us type relatively quickly while providing a good selection of suggested words as we pecked out messages. You'll hear a faint knocking sound as you enter letters at a varying pitch, which we found reassuring. We also appreciated the .com button on the keyboard when surfing, the wide selection of emoticons when messaging, and the ability to select alternate punctuation when we pressed and held the period key.
Our biggest beef with the keyboard is that it doesn't stretch across the entire display in landscape mode, which would make entering text easier for those with larger fingers. On the plus side, by default Windows Phone 7 corrects misspelled words and inserts a period after double-tapping the Spacebar. You can adjust these and other options in the settings menu.
This is not the Internet Explorer Mobile that people made fun of on older Windows Mobile phones. The new browser on the Focus is faster, supports tabbed browsing, and automatically hyperlinks addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Pinch-to-zoom gestures were smooth in our tests. The tabbed menu shows up to six sites at one time in a neat grid, making it easy to switch between different pages. With the address bar you can enter search terms, including addresses for pulling up a map as the first result.
How about speed? The Focus was just a couple of seconds behind the iPhone 4 in most of our tests, loading the mobile versions of CNN and ESPN.com in 10 and 8 seconds, and the full versions of the The New York Times and Laptopmag.com in 19 and 24 seconds. The iPhone 4 in the same locations turned in times of 8, 6, 21, and 23 seconds, respectively, so the Focus won one round. While the accelerometer was responsive when switching to portrait to landscape mode, the iPhone 4 was a hair faster here as well.
And that brings us to our biggest complaint about the browser. The address bar simply doesn't appear in landscape mode, and neither does any other button (favorites, tabs, etc). That's frustrating and downright odd. Our only other issue is that YouTube videos wouldn't play during our tests, but a downloadable Video Player that can stream that content should be available by the time the Focus is available for sale.
Search and Voice Commands
All Windows Phone 7 devices have a dedicated search button for a reason. As you might expect, the OS integrates tightly with Bing, When you touch the button on the Focus you'll see a photo with a couple of boxes on top that deliver fun factoids. The name of the city that you're in will appear in the upper right corner, which serves as a reminder that local search results are available. You can also touch a little microphone icon to speak your query.
A search for sushi while in Woodbridge, NJ automatically returned a list of local results on the Focus displayed on a map. From there you can see a rating, get directions from your location (though not spoken), or call the business. You can also pin that business to the Start page. Pretty smart stuff. With more general queries you'll see web results, then local, and news. When we looked up New York Giants, it was cool to see their upcoming schedule as the first entry.
In other instances, search is contextual. For example, when using Outlook you can use the search button to find something in your inbox. Same thing goes with People and the Marketplace. What's missing? A universal search option that lets you search for apps, contacts, e-mail and more right from the home screen, a feature Android, iPhone, BlackBerry 6, and webOS all have.
When you press and hold the Focus' Windows key, you'll launch the speech recognition featured, powered by TellMe. It was fairly accurate when voice dialing and conducting searches, but it didn't immediately recognize "Open Music+Videos." We had to repeat our query a couple of times.
Specs, Performance, and Multitasking
Yes, the Windows Mobile lag is gone. The Focus features a 1-GHz Snapdragon processor, 512MB of ROM, and 256MB of RAM. In our tests, the phone was quite snappy when moving between menus, launching apps, and scrolling through photos. However, Windows Phone 7 has the advantage--or drawback, depending on your point of view--of not letting third-party apps run in the background. Multitasking is limited to Microsoft's own apps, such as playing Zune tunes while you surf the web or receiving e-mail while you browse through the Marketplace.
The Focus includes 8GB of memory, which is 8GB less than the Samsung Captivate and iPhone 4. You can add up to a 32GB microSD card, but it's not meant to be swapped in and out. With Windows Phone 7 these cards are treated as an extension of internal storage, and if you remove the card you'll hard reset the phone--and must reinstall any previously downloaded apps. Plan on installing a card once (ideally when you get the phone) and leaving it alone.
E-mail and Messaging
Outlook Mobile looks great on the Focus' Super AMOLED screen, with large text that's easy to read. You can easily swipe to the right to read unread, flagged, and urgent messages. And with Office Mobile on board, you can view and edit Excel, PowerPoint, and Word files. We encountered an error when trying to open one PDF attachment, but another PDF document loaded fine, complete with landscape and pinch-to-zoom support. While we wish the Outlook search worked faster, it returned accurate results
We set up a Gmail and Yahoo e-mail account in a matter of seconds and set the Focus to grab messages as they arrived. Unfortunately, Windows Phone 7 lacks both threaded messaging and unified inbox options. You can't even switch between accounts from within Outlook Mobile; you must exit to the main menu and then select the tile for the appropriate account. It doesn't take that long, but it's a little annoying.
Text messaging is a pretty straightforward affair on Windows Phone 7, with staggered blue text boxes to indicate different people in a conversation. Surprisingly, the OS doesn't include an instant messaging app, though we assume the Marketplace will fill this void in short order.
Microsoft is playing a serious game of catch-up with Apple's iOS (275,000 apps) and Android (90,000 apps, as the company expects to have just a little more than 1,000 apps available for download for the Nov. 8 launch of this device. Still, for an OS that's completely new, Windows Phone 7 comes to the smart phone party bearing some pretty cool gifts. You'll find lots of popular apps available for other platforms, such as eBay, Foursquare, Netflix, OpenTable, Shazam, and Slacker. Most of these apps also mimic the look of the rest of the OS, giving them a more polished feel.
We found the shopping experience intuitive, with categories such as Top, New, and Free under the All apps category, and plenty of specific categories to dig into (Photos, News & Weather, Travel, etc.) However, while the apps themselves downloaded briskly, the menus sometimes loaded slowly.
Samsung bundles its Daily Briefing app with the Focus, which delivers weather updates, news, and stocks. The interface looks slick, but we don't like that you have to manually refresh content.
AT&T bundles a handful of its own apps, including AT&T FaimlyMap ($9.99 for locating two phones, $14.99 for five phones), AT&T Navigator for turn-by-turn directions ($9.99 per month), and AT&T Radio ($4.99 per month). The most interesting AT&T app is U-verse Mobile for watching video on the go. Users can download TV shows to their devices over Wi-Fi. If you're a U-Verse subscriber for home TV, the content is free and you can even program your DVR. However, buyers who don't currently have a U-Verse package need to fork over $10 per month. All of these apps also mirror the look and feel of the Windows 7 UI, but we suspect many users will skip them in favor of other options in the Marketplace.
To get a feel for what it means to have the Xbox brand on a phone, all you have to do is fire up a game such as Rocket Riot. This game lets you fly through the air with a jetpack and blast everything in sight. The visuals are fun and retro-chic, and action fast-paced (though we did notice occasional slowdows). But the Xbox experience actually begins when you first launch the Games hub, where you'll see your Games collection, your customizable avatar, and requests from gamers who want to challenge you.
As of the time of this review, there were plenty of first-tier titles in the Xbox Live section of the Marketplace, including Star Wars: Battle for Hoth, The Harves, and The Sims 3 (ranging in price from $2.99 to $6.99). You'll also find plenty of second-tier titles not under the Xbox umbrella for 99 cents or free. The Super AMOLED display makes the Focus a compelling canvas for the latest games; just be careful not to touch any of the menu buttons while playing (like we did), which exits the game.
Music and Video
Although the Zune brand isn't a household name, it helps the Focus double as a compelling music and video player. If you have a Zune Pass ($15 per month), you can use the desktop Zune software to download as many songs as you want and keep 10 tracks per month, as well as stream any song in the Zune library on the go. Just keep in mind that you must use the Zune software to sync.
The interface is pretty cool. The Music + Video hub wallpaper will typically be the last artist you were listening to, and the History menu will let you jump right back into what you were playing last. When you're not in the music player, you can skip tracks and pause playback using a small bar at the top of the screen, which you launch using the volume controls. We just wish you could touch that bar to go back to the music player to, say, select a different artist.
To try out the Focus' video playback capabilities we downloaded an episode of House using Microsoft's confusing points system. (Seriously, it's time to move to dollar amounts that everyday consumers can understand.) The episode played smoothly on the Focus, and the sound came through loud and clear. Music sounded nice and loud through the speaker, too, though not as rich as the HTC Surround's dedicated slide-out speaker.
Maps and GPS
Like all Windows Phone 7 devices, the Focus has Bing Maps pre-installed, which loaded quickly for the most part and offered pretty smooth panning. It took the phone only 6 seconds to pinpoint our location in midtown Manhattan. You can look up directions from your current location and conduct local searches. You can also load aerial views and show traffic, but you won't find any extras such as layers or augmented reality functionality.
If you want spoken turn-by-turn directions, you'll need to spring for an AT&T Navigator subscription ($9.99 per month), which also includes search, and traffic info. It only took seven seconds for the Focus to calculate a route to central New Jersey. Unfortunately, the app doesn't integrate with the phone's address book.
Camera and Camcorder
The good news is that the Focus lets you start taking photos just by pressing the camera button--even if the phone is locked. It took only five seconds for us to see the live preview screen. Too bad the 5-MP camera doesn't shoot very fast. Even when we engaged the auto focus the shutter seemed a half-second behind what we wanted to capture. Moving subjects are pretty much out of the question. However, landscapes turned out well, as well as a few shots of family members--when they were sitting still. The LED flash is powerful without being overwhelming.
We really like that you can have photos automatically upload to SkyDrive for safe keeping (albeit at a lower resolution), and that you can share pics via SMS, e-mail, or Facebook. That's it for services though, at least for now; you won't find sharing options for Flickr, Photobucket, or Twitter.
The 720p camcorder on the Focus delivered fairly detailed footage. Onlookers were impressed with the quality, thanks in part to the vibrant Super AMOLED screen. Unlike some other smart phones, however, you can't output these videos via HDMI or wirelessly via DLNA. You'll have to stick with syncing clips with your PC using the Zune software.
Call Quality and Battery Life
Compared to the iPhone 4, we found that the Focus delivered better sound quality. We also didn't experience any dropped calls. Other callers said we sounded clear, even when riding on a bus. We also like that the speaker is plenty loud, so you shouldn't have trouble hearing callers or GPS directions in a car.
Maybe it's because the Focus doesn't allow multitasking with third-party apps, but whatever the reason we were impressed with this smart phone's endurance. The 1500 mAh battery powered this smart phone from about 9 in the morning until nearly 7 p.m. When we plugged the Focus back it still had nearly a quarter of its juice left. It certainly helps that many of the menus on Windows Phone 7 are black, since Super AMOLED screens use little to no power when displaying black. Talk time is rated for 6.5 hours. The HTC Surround, by contrast, is rated for only 4 hours, since it has as smaller 1230 mAh battery.
These days, smart phone shoppers have a lot of good choices in the $199 price range, even just on AT&T. So it means something when we say the Samsung Focus is among the top three devices in the carrier's lineup. Its Super AMOLED display is a brilliant showpiece for the new Windows Phone 7 OS and all of the entertainment options Microsoft brings to the table. Our only major complaints are that Samsung skimps on the memory (though you can add a memory card) and that the build quality isn't quite as solid as the HTC Surround running the same software. Still, we prefer the Focus because of its superior display and longer battery life.
Overall, the iPhone 4 remains our top choice for AT&T because of its better camera, sharper screen, much wider app selection, and unique features like FaceTime, but the Focus more than holds its own against the Samsung Captivate running Android (also 3.5 stars). People new to smart phones will prefer the Focus' snazzier interface and Xbox Live and Zune integration, but those upgrading from a BlackBerry or other device will gravitate towards the Captivate's larger app market and better multitasking abilities. The bottom line is that the Focus puts a great face on Windows Phone 7, a well-designed OS that we expect to improve rapidly.