Besides the free--and ancient--iPhone 3GS, AT&T's budget smartphone selection is pretty slim. That's why Samsung's new $49.99 Focus Flash, one of the company's first devices to run the new Microsoft Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango), is a breath of fresh air. This affordable handset crams a Super AMOLED display and a fast 1.4-GHz processor inside a light and compact design. Read on to find out just how compelling an entry-level smartphone can be.
The first thing that strikes you about the Samsung Focus Flash is its small size (4.6 x 2.3 x 0.4 inches). The phone is much more compact than its predecessor, the Samsung Focus (4.8 x 2.6 x 0.4) and fingers easily wrap around the handset's smoothly curved rectangular shape. Both the Focus and the Focus Flash weigh 4.1 ounces, which is lighter than the iPhone 4S and the HTC Radar 4G (both 4.8 ounces).
A slick shade of black and a metal rear plate lend a classy look to the Focus Flash. Be warned, however, that the exterior picks up fingerprints easily. Above the screen is a front-facing camera and below it are two capacitive buttons for Back and Search. Unlike on the first Focus, which had a capacitive Windows button, a physical key serves the same function and also wakes up the handset.
The power button is placed within comfortable thumb reach on the phone's right side, and there's a dedicated shutter button below for firing up the camera when the screen is off. A volume rocker occupies the right side, while a headphone jack and microUSB port sit on the top and bottom edge, respectively. The phone's 5-megapixel camera with flash is on the back.
Display and Audio
The Flash's 3.7-inch Super AMOLED screen impresses with bright, well-saturated colors. Watching the HD YouTube trailer for The Immortals was a real treat. We could clearly see motes of dust trailing columns of marching warriors and sharp details in castle walls and boulders. This 800 x 480 screen isn't as bright as the traditional LCD on the HTC Radar 4G, though, and some may prefer the latter's slightly larger 3.8-inch size.
The Samsung Focus Flash boasts an excellent speaker. It got very loud and produced warm, full audio. The airy synthesizers, whispering vocals, and clapping drum beats were distinct in "We Own The Sky" by M83. While we could have used a touch more bass, the phone also recreated pianos and brass horns in the hip hop track "Shove It" by Santigold with no distortion.
Software and Interface
Other than the price, the biggest draw of the Focus Flash is the new Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) operating system. Pretty to look at and packing plenty of features, the OS uses a dynamic Live Tiles interface on the home screen. These tiles are arranged vertically in portrait orientation, and they flip, twinkle, and display updates. For instance Google Mail and Messaging tiles show the number of new messages, while apps such as Foursquare highlight the current scores of you and your friends based on recent check-ins.
Users can also pin tiles to the home screen to serve as shortcuts for apps, pictures, groups, and people. The lock screen displays the time and date in an elegant font, and you can easily customize it with wallpaper.
Another welcome feature of Windows Phone 7.5 is the People hub, where you can see updates from your friends and followers across multiple social services (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter) in one stream. You can also create groups for specific family members or other contacts.
The new Mango software also makes it easier to multitask; by pressing and holding the Back button, you can see all of your open apps. Local Scout is yet another standout feature, helping you discover things to see and do near your current location. For more on the OS' standout features, check out our full review of Windows Phone 7.5.
Like all Windows Phone 7 devices, the Focus Flash features a basic touch keyboard. We found the layout clear and easy to read, and we appreciated having dedicated @ and .com keys. However, we made more errors on this layout than on other Windows Phones because of the relatively small screen size.
The keyboard also lacks keys with secondary functions for commonly used symbols. However, pressing and holding the period key pulled up alternate punctuation marks. Those looking for haptic feedback will have to look elsewhere.
Web surfing on the Samsung Focus Flash was a mixed bag. Pinch-to-zoom within large desktop-size pages was very smooth, and the phone quickly rendered text and images in sharp detail. A tabbed menu shows six different web pages at once and makes it easy to switch between them.
Connected to AT&T's 4G HSPA+ network, the Focus Flash managed respectable download speeds. Using the SpeedTest app found in the Marketplace, we clocked an average download rate of 1.5 Mbps in Queens, NY. That's not much faster than typical 3G handsets, and it's half the speed of the Samsung Galaxy S II, a "4G" AT&T handset that logged 4 Mbps down on our tests. In a more congested area in downtown Manhattan, downloads slowed to 502 Kbps.
The Samsung Focus Flash managed to load mobile sites for CNN.com and ESPN.com in a pretty swift 6 seconds, and the mobile version of Yahoo took 9 seconds. However, Internet Explorer loads cruder, more stripped-down mobile pages than Safari and the Android browser.
Search and Voice Commands
Pressing the Search key on the Focus Flash launches the Bing search feature, a photo with boxes that reveal fun factoids when clicked. On the bottom of the Bing screen are three buttons to perform specialized queries: a musical note icon to analyze and identify music playing in the background (like Shazam), an eye symbol that lets you scan barcodes with the phone's camera, and a microphone icon for leveraging voice commands to find information. All these functions worked well, and we were even able to download a track directly to the phone after the Focus Flash tagged it--very slick.
Holding down the Windows key launches speech recognition, called Microsoft Tellme, which lets users speak commands such as "call Greg" or "text Sarah." It will also handle voice dictation and send off messages without you having to touch the screen. The phone made a few errors on our tests, but it was mostly accurate at recognizing our requests.
The Samsung Focus Flash is equipped with a 1.4-GHz Snapdragon processor, which is faster than its 1-GHz predecessor. We navigated menus nimbly, especially compared to using the older Focus.
The device also multitasked well. To push the Focus Flash, we listened to Internet radio using while surfing the web and checking our Facebook updates via the official app. Holding down the Back button let us jump between apps quickly.
E-mail and Messaging
The Focus Flash supports all the major types of e-mail accounts, from Exchange and Yahoo to Google. Threaded e-mails are now included in Windows Phone Mango, too. You can link accounts into one inbox to help blow through your messages, and swiping to the right cycles through unread and urgent messages. There's also a dedicated Messaging app for texting.
Office Mobile is installed, which puts Microsoft's full suite of productivity tools in the palm of your hand. Users can both open and edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents on the handset. You can also sync docs to Microsoft's cloud-based services such as SkyDrive (for personal files) and SharePoint (for business collaboration) or through an Office 365 account.
Traditionally, the biggest weakness with Windows Phone 7 has been its paltry selection of apps. Still, many of the most popular options are available for download from the Windows Phone 7 Marketplace. Essentials such as Facebook, Foursquare, Netflix, and Twitter are all just a few taps away and integrate the same slick panoramic Metro interface found on Microsoft's own apps. Windows Phone now supports Spotify, a music app that has proved very popular on Android and iOS.
Samsung brings some of its own software to the Focus Flash, with a Daily Briefing app that puts weather, news, stocks, into one location. The Photo Studio application offers Instagram-style effects including Warm, Grey, and Cold plus shooting modes such as Panorama.
AT&T bundles a bunch of its own apps, including AT&T Navigator for turn-by-turn directions ($9.99 per month) and AT&T Radio ($4.99 per month). U-verse Mobile lets users download TV shows to their devices over Wi-Fi--and if you're a U-Verse subscriber for home TV, this content is free. Those who don't have a U-Verse package need to cough up $10 per month.
The Focus Flash provides easy access to compelling titles via the Games hub. Tapping on this option pulls up your Games collection, customizable avatar, and challenges from other gamers. The Xbox Live area of the Marketplace offers plenty of first-tier titles, including Assasin's Creed, The Harvest, and The Sims 3 (ranging in price from $2.99 to $6.99). You'll also find plenty of second-tier titles for 99 cents or free.
In Rocket Riot ($4.99), a playful retro arcade title with a cool physics engine, we zoomed around on a jetpack and blasted everything we saw to bits. The visuals were fun and action was fast-paced.
Music and Video
A captivating entertainer, the Samsung Focus Flash provides access to the Zune music and video service, which makes music discovery simple and fun. A Zune Pass costs $9.99 per month, which lets you download as many songs as you want from the desktop or the phone. The pass also includes streaming of any song in the Zune library, and you can keep up 10 tracks per month.
Purchasing movies and TV shows is more confusing than on other services, because Zune uses a point system instead of dollar amounts for pricing. You also can't download videos wirelessly.
Maps and GPS
Like all Windows Phone 7 devices, the Focus Flash has Bing Maps pre-loaded. The app opened quickly and offered smooth zooming and panning. It took the phone only 4 seconds to pinpoint our location in Queens, NY. You can look up directions from your current location and initiate local searches. You can also launch aerial views and show traffic, but you won't find any extras such as layers or augmented reality.
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 3 seconds for the Focus Flash to calculate a route to downtown Manhattan. The app now integrates with the phone's address book, too, an ability lacking on Windows Phone 7.
Camera and Camcorder
Shutterbugs will appreciate how the Focus Flash lets you kick the phone into camera mode just by pressing the camera button--even when the phone is locked. Unfortunately, the Flash's 5-MP camera was slow to fire. Even with autofocus engaged, the shutter felt about a half second behind, making capturing moving subjects a challenge.
Still, the image quality of landscapes was clear and pleasing. The yellow, purple, and orange of flowers and fall pumpkins also had impact. Shots captured in low light were also well exposed; the LED flash was powerful without being overwhelming.
You can automatically upload photos to SkyDrive and share pics via SMS, e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook.
The 720p video we captured was pretty detailed when viewed on a larger laptop screen. We could clearly make out store signs filmed from across the street and ads on taxis as they rolled by. Unlike with some other smartphones, however, you can't output these videos via HDMI or wirelessly over DLNA.
Call Quality and Battery Life
On our test calls, the Focus Flash's earpiece didn't get particularly loud, but voices sounded crisp and distortion-free. Callers on the other end were impressed with how easy it was to hear us even when we dialed from a windy rooftop. Thanks to the big speaker on the handset's back, we had no trouble using the speakerphone to make calls from large conference rooms and meeting halls.
With a rated talk time of 6.5 hours and a standby time of up to 250 hours, the Samsung Focus Flash proved its staying power in anecdotal use. Starting off fully charged at 11 a.m., the phone lasted an entire day and night, needing to be plugged back in the following morning. Unlike most Android phones, it should get you through an entire work day on a single charge.
Samsung Focus Flash vs. the Competition
The most direct competitor to the Samsung Focus Flash is the original Samsung Focus, which has a larger 4-inch display but a slower processor. The HTC Radar 4G for T-Mobile (currently free) has a slightly larger and brighter screen than the Focus Flash as well as faster 4G speeds. However, it's not as light, and the Focus Flash's Super AMOLED display pops more.
Android fans can pick up the bulky but fun Xperia Play 4G for $49.99. The old iPhone 3GS is free on contract, and it has a superior app selection and a simple interface though it lacks the deeper social networking integration of Windows Phone.
Whether you're shopping for your first smartphone or you just want a capable device without spending a bundle, the $49.99 Samsung Focus Flash is a compelling choice. The interface is attractive and easy to use, the Super AMOLED display is top-notch, and the design is compact but solid. While some may find the display a little cramped--and wish the data speeds were faster--the Focus Flash is a great alternative to budget Android phones and the iPhone 3GS on AT&T.
Tags: Samsung Focus Flash, Samsung Focus, Smart phones, Samsung, cell phones, reviews, Windows Phone 7.5 Mango, Windows Phone 7.5, Windows Phone 7, Windows Phone, Snapdragon, Smartphones, snapdragon_glider