Microsoft and AT&T continue to make the case for purchasing a Windows Phone, and the latest example is the $49.99 Samsung Focus 2. This handset accesses AT&T's fast 4G LTE network and wraps the uniquely compelling Windows Phone 7.5 interface in a refreshingly compact design. But is that enough to make customers think twice about an Android phone or to ignore the Lumia 900?
The Focus 2 comes swathed in glossy white plastic, similar to what you'd find on the Samsung Galaxy Player. A silver plastic band wraps elegantly along the sides, providing a nice contrast. The power and a dedicated camera button rest along the right side of the device, while the volume rocker occupies the left. A lone headphone jack sits on top, and a microUSB port is along the bottom.
A 4-inch display dominates the front of the device in the middle of silver AT&T and Samsung logos. A 0.3-megapixel front camera sits in the top left corner. Three capacitive buttons (Back, Home and Search) are located beneath the screen.
The phone's rear features a 5-megapixel camera between an LED flash and a pair of small speakers. Logos for Samsung and Windows Phone are printed below in gray.
Measuring 4.8 x 2.5 x 0.4 inches, the 4.3-ounce Focus 2 is one of the lighter Windows Phones on the market. However, the slightly smaller 4.8-ounce HTC Radar 4G is just as slim at 4.7 x 2.4 x 0.4 inches. The 5.2-ounce, 5.2 x 2.7 x 0.5-inch HTC Titan II and the 5.6-ounce, 5 x 2.7 x 0.5-inch Nokia Lumia 900 are much bulkier by comparison, due to their larger displays.
While the Focus 2 is fairly attractive. we prefer the Lumia 900's colorful polycarbonate soft-touch body.
Display and Audio
Never let it be said Samsung doesn't know how to make content really pop on a smartphone screen. We were in awe of the richness and depth of color in Nicki Minaj's technicolor island getaway video "Starships" on the 4-inch, 800 x 480 Super AMOLED display. The emerald-green rain forest was lush against the backdrop of the crystalline blue ocean, which made the artist's magenta bikini and neon green hair pop even more.
On the other hand, the Focus 2's 203 lux reading on our light meter fell below the 311 category average, as well as other Windows phones on AT&T. The HTC Radar 4G and the HTC Titan II had much brighter screens, at 450 and 451 lux, respectively, while the Lumia 900 delivered 262 lux.
Despite their diminutive size, the twin rear speakers on the Focus 2 packed a wallop, more than enough to fill a small room. We could clearly distinguish Minaj's staccato flow from the saccharine pop instrumentals. However, the audio sounded slightly distorted; you'll want to avoid the max volume setting when listening via the speaker.
Unlike Android devices, all Windows Phones feature a standard keyboard to meet your texting and email needs. So it was no surprise when the Focus 2 let us type quickly and accurately. Typing in landscape mode provides a roomier layout, but we wish there wasn't a quarter-inch of dead space on either side. Although the keyboard doesn't deliver any haptic feedback, the satisfying clicking and popping sounds are almost as reassuring.
The Focus 2 also features speech-to-text that dictates your text messages and Web searches. We found it was pretty accurate, but the phone got tripped up by such homonyms as "dear" and "deer."
Software and Interface
We continue to be fans of Windows Phone 7.5's easy and intuitive Live Tile interface. The Start Screen features a number of tiles, including People, Xbox Live and Pictures. We love the visually stimulating tiles that update intermittently with new photos of our friends, Xbox Live avatars or recent status updates.
The Groups feature is a favorite because it compiles all the info about our friends and family (recent status updates, photos, messages) and compiles them into an entertaining feed. We also like the Now Tile, which combines weather information from Accuweather.com, news from Yahoo! and country-specific top tweets from Twitter.
As with other Windows Phones, you access apps on the Focus 2 via an arrow key on the Start Screen. The apps are then listed alphabetically. While scrolling through our list was relatively swift, it can become tedious. Fortunately, once the apps list gets long enough, you can quickly jump around by pressing on the first letter of the app's name.
AT&T pre-installs some of its own apps onto the Focus 2. AT&T U-verse Mobile comes in handy if you want to catch up on episodes of "Castle" or "Once Upon a Time." There's also FamilyMap to locate family members and Navigator to look up quick directions. In case you need to scan a quick QR or bar code, there's AT&T Code Scanner.
We love that Windows Phones feature a full version of Office so we can create and edit articles, spreadsheets or presentations without having to worry about any formatting problems when we get back to our laptops. We're also happy that the calendar syncs directly with Outlook.
Samsung didn't pre-install any apps, but there is an apps store for AT&T and Samsung in the marketplace, as well as for Microsoft apps. In comparison to Apple and Android, Microsoft's Marketplace is still quite limited but is getting progressively better, now offering popular third-party apps including WordPress, TweetCaster, Groupon and Shazam. Plus there's a plethora of Xbox Live-branded games such as "Doodle God," "Fragger" and "Fusion: Sentient" and music via the Zune Marketplace. Still missing, though, are popular titles such as Pandora and "Angry Birds Space."
Powered by a 1.4-GHz single-core Qualcomm CPU with 512MB of RAM, the Samsung Focus 2 isn't the most powerful phone on the block, but it gets the job done. Opening and switching between apps was nice and snappy, as was switching between portrait and landscape modes.
During our benchmark testing, the Focus 2 scored 85.7 on WP Bench. The Lumia 900 and its 1.4-GHz Snapdragon processor notched 88.9, while the HTC Radar and its 1GHz Snapdragon CPU (MSM8255) scored 79.62. However, the HTC Titan II outperformed all with its 1.5-GHz single-core CPU, delivering 97.5.
Users who download a lot of multimedia content may find the Focus 2's 6.6GB of free space rather limiting, not to mention the fact that there's no microSD card slot.
4G LTE and Web Browsing
Riding on AT&T's growing 4G LTE network, the Focus 2 averaged download speeds of 9.4 Mbps and uploads of 1.2 Mbps on Free Speedtest. When we tested the Lumia 900, it boasted speeds of 15 Mbps down and 5 Mbps up.
We saw fairly good but not great speeds when surfing the Web. The Focus 2 took 4.7, 6.4 and 5.7 seconds, respectively, to load the mobile versions of CNN.com, ESPN.com and NYTimes.com. The desktop version of Laptopmag.com took 16.1 seconds.
Camera and Camcorder
The 5-megapixel rear camera on the Focus 2 captures stills at a fairly brisk pace, with only a second of latency between shots. We were pleased with the color quality in our photos of the neighborhood flower shop. There were vivid pinks and magentas along with rich golds, oranges and purples. However, we found the sharpness lacking when we viewed our images on a laptop.
We saw similar results when capturing 720p video: bold colors but with a grainy texture. However, we were impressed with the camera's ability to quickly adjust to different lighting conditions. When we panned up to the sky and then back down to street level, the Focus 2's footage looked above average.
Images from the 0.3-megapixel front-facing camera were rather grainy, but delivered vivid color.
To test call quality on the Samsung Focus 2, we dialed both landlines and mobile phones. Overall, the audio quality was mostly clear, but we noticed some latency when dialing cell phones. In addition, a few callers complained of faint echoing as we spoke. Switching to speakerphone delivered fairly loud audio, but sometimes the volume faded in and out on both ends of the conversation.
Samsung claims that the Focus 2's 1750mAh battery will produce up to 6 hours of life. The phone fell slightly short of the mark, lasting 5 hours and 15 minutes. But we did a lot more than just talk. Our testing included watching a few episodes of "Code Monkeys" on Netflix, streaming audio on Slacker Radio, posting status updates on Facebook and Twitter and surfing the Web. You should see close to a full day of endurance with lighter usage.
For $49, the Samsung Focus 2 is a pretty good deal, offering a slick interface, solid performance and 4G LTE speeds. Android fans, however, should stick with the $29 Pantech Burst, which also has 4G LTE and offers access to lots more apps. And for $49 on Amazon, those who prefer a Windows Phone can walk away with the more stylish Nokia Lumia 900, which has a better Carl Zeiss camera and a larger AMOLED screen. The Focus 2 is a solid choice for shoppers looking for a compact smartphone that's easy to use, but there's nothing here that really stands out.