Samsung Focus S (AT&T) Review

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Editors' rating:
The Pros

Thin and light design; Big, bright, Super AMOLED Plus screen; Engaging interface; Great music and gaming experience; Loud speaker

The Cons

Slow camera; Pokey data speeds; Back feels a little flimsy

Verdict

The Samsung Focus S packages Microsoft's attractive Windows Phone OS with a stunning screen and slim Galaxy S II style.

Those who doubted that Windows Phone isn't a mobile platform to be reckoned with need to check out the new Samsung Focus S for AT&T. Equipped with a fast 1.4-GHz CPU, a vibrant 4-inch Super AMOLED Plus screen, and all the goodness of Windows Phone 7.5, this handset has a lot going for it. Best of all, you can now snag this smartphone for $99, much less than the $199 launch price. Read on to find out just how good a deal this Windows Phone is.

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Design

Samsung Focus Flash BackLike a Galaxy S II in Windows clothing, the Samsung Flash S looks very similar to its Android kin. Its front is a smooth slab with gentle curves and rounded edges, and the back has a slight chin at the bottom. On the front is a large 4.3-inch display, framed by a 1.3-megapixel camera and an earpiece above and three capacitive buttons (Back, Search, Windows) below it.

Flat and extremely thin, the Flash S (4.9 x 2.6 x 0.3 inches) sports a marginally smaller profile than the Galaxy S II (5 x 2.6 x 0.4 inches). At a feather-weight 3.9 ounces, this Windows Phone is almost a full ounce lighter than the HTC Radar (4.8 ounces), and a hair lighter than the Galaxy S II and even the diminutive Samsung Focus Flash (both 4.1 ounces).

Of course, the Focus S is much wider than the Focus Flash, its smaller 3.7-inch Windows sibling. The Focus S is less of a fingerprint magnet too, thanks to a textured back plastic battery cover--the Flash's battery door is brushed metal. Similar to the Galaxy S II, the thin cover of the Focus S feels flimsy and flexes easily.

Also on back is the 8-MP main camera and LED flash and speaker. A headphone jack sits on the handset's top edge, while camera and power buttons occupy the right. The bottom lip holds a microUSB port and a thin volume rocker runs along the left side.

Display

Samsung Focus Flash DisplayLike many of Samsung's latest handsets, such as the Galaxy S II, the Focus S sports a lovely 800 x 480 Super AMOLED Plus display. This panel offers extremely high contrast; vibrant colors; and deep, dark blacks. Viewing angles are also pleasingly wide, letting groups of two to three people watch movies. The HQ YouTube trailer for Hugo was richly rendered with tweed Parisian fashions, spinning clockwork gears, and giant steam locomotives.

The HTC Radar 4G, which uses a standard LCD screen, is brighter, but its smaller 3.8-inch display lacks the same impact. At 214 lux, the Focus S is about the same brightness as the AT&T Galaxy S II, but dimmer than the T-Mobile version (249 lux).

Software and Interface

The Focus S is the second Samsung device to run the Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) operating system. Attractive and very capable, the OS uses the Live Tiles interface on the home screen. Tiles are arranged vertically, and they swivel and display updates with fun animations. For example, the Google Mail and Messaging tiles show the number of new messages, while apps such as Music + Videos and Pictures showcase artwork from the last track played or randomly cycle through your images.

Samsung Focus S LockscreenUsers 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 nice feature of Windows Phone 7.5 is the People hub, where you can view your friends' and followers' latest status across multiple social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter). You can also create groups around specific family members or other contacts, making it easy to keep tabs on social-networking updates and send out group messages.

Mango also makes it easier to multitask; by pressing and holding the Back button, you can see all your open apps. We just wish you could close apps by swiping them off the screen. Another welcome feature is Local Scout, which helps you discover things to see and do around your current location. For more on the OS' standout features, check out our full review of Windows Phone 7.5.

Keyboard

Samsung Focus Flash KeyboardWindows Phone 7 devices come equipped with just a basic touch keyboard, and the Samsung Focus S is no exception. That said, we found the layout easy to use. Thanks to the phone's large 4.3-inch screen, typing on the Focus S was much easier than on the pint-size Focus Flash. Some will lament the lack of haptic feedback, however.

Dedicated @ and .com keys are a plus, but there are no secondary functions for commonly used symbols. Pressing and holding the period key will open a window with extra punctuation marks.

Web

Samung Focus Flash WebUsing the Samsung Focus S for surfing the web was mostly satisfying, but this is definitely not the fastest phone in AT&T's lineup. Whereas devices such as the HTC Vivid and the Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket support the carrier's new 4G LTE network, the Focus S is limited to HSPA+ speeds.

On our tests, the Focus S managed decent download speeds. With the SpeedTest app, we measured an average download rate of 2.1 Mbps in Queens, NY. That's not much faster than speeds from 3G handsets, and it's about half the speed of the Samsung Galaxy S II, which pulled down 4 Mbps. At a more densely populated location in downtown Manhattan, downloads on the Focus S dropped to a much slower 813 Kbps.

The Samsung Focus S managed to open such mobile sites as CNN.com and ESPN.com in a pretty swift 6 seconds, and full desktop versions of The New York Times and Laptopmag.com in 12 to 13 seconds. To be fair, Internet Explorer loads cruder, more pared-down mobile pages than Safari and the Android browser.

Performing pinch-to-zoom actions inside large desktop-size pages was buttery smooth, and the phone nimbly rendered text and images in sharp detail. A tabbed menu shows six different web pages at once and makes it simple to jump between them.

Search and Voice Commands

Hitting the Search key on the Focus S launches the Bing search feature, with boxes that reveal fun factoids when clicked. At the foot of the Bing screen are three buttons to perform specialized queries: a musical note icon to analyze and identify music playing in the background (a la Shazam), an eye symbol that lets you scan barcodes and other items with the phone's camera, and a microphone icon for leveraging voice commands to find information. All these features worked without a hitch, and just like with the Focus Flash, we were able to download a track directly to the phone after the Focus S identified it--a very neat trick.

Holding down the Windows key launches speech recognition, called Microsoft Tellme, which lets users speak commands such as "text Dan" or "call Avram." It will also tackle voice dictation and fire off messages without you having to touch the screen. A few errors occurred on our tests, but it was generally accurate at interpreting our requests. Just don't expect Siri-like intelligence.

Performance

Just like the Samsung Focus Flash, the Focus S comes with a 1.4-GHz Snapdragon processor under the hood, which is faster than its 1-GHz Focus predecessor. The phone opened menus with pep, but performance was virtually identical to its smaller-screened sibling.

The handset also juggled multiple operations well, even when we put some processing pressure on the device. We listened to Internet radio while surfing the web and checking our Facebook updates via the official app, and the Focus S didn't miss a beat.

The HTC Titan for AT&T has a faster 1.5-GHz processor, but we haven't been able to test that device yet.

Email and Messaging

The Focus S supports all the major types of email accounts, from Exchange and Yahoo to Google. Threaded emails are now included in Windows Phone Mango, too. You can link accounts into one inbox, 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 Excel, PowerPoint, and Word 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.

Marketplace and Apps

A common complaint about Windows Phone 7 is that it has a relatively scant selection of apps. That said, users will find many of the more popular options available for download from the Windows Phone 7 Marketplace. Staples such as Facebook, Foursquare, Netflix, and Twitter are all there and integrate the same attractive 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 Focus Flash Weather AppSamsung brings some of its own software to the Focus S, with a Daily Briefing app (pictured) that places weather, news, stocks, under one roof. The Photo Studio application offers Instagram-style effects, including Cold, Grey, and Warm 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.

Games

The Focus S serves up lots of fun via the Games hub. Hitting this option opens 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. The large display of the Focus S made for an entertaining gaming experience with big explosions, rocket fire, and debris flying across the screen.

Music and Video

The Focus S provides access to Zune, which makes music discovery a snap. A Zune Pass costs $9.99 per month, and it lets you download as many songs as you want from your desktop or on the phone. The pass lets you stream any song in the Zune library, and you can keep up to 10 tracks per month.

Purchasing movies and TV shows through Zune is more confusing than with other services, because Microsoft uses a point system instead of dollar amounts for pricing. You also can't download videos wirelessly.

Maps and GPS

Samsung Focus Flash MapsAs with other Windows Phone devices, the Focus S 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 S to calculate a route to downtown Manhattan from Queens. The app now integrates with the phone's address book, too, an ability lacking on Windows Phone 7.

Camera and Camcorder

The Samsung Focus S features an 8-MP camera, which is sharper than the 5-MP sensor on the cheaper Focus Flash. Unfortunately, just like the Focus Flash, the Focus S was sluggish to fire. Even with autofocus engaged, the shutter was about a half second behind, making capturing moving subjects tricky.

Samsung Focus Flash Sample PhotoStill, the image quality of landscapes was clear and pleasing. The purple of flowers, and red and green of fall foliage was nicely saturated even on a cloudy day. 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 email, Facebook, SMS, and Twitter.

When viewed on a large laptop screen, the 720p video we captured was pretty detailed. It was easy to read signs filmed from across the street and ads on passing taxis. Color looked slightly washed out though, with yellow cabs and red cars less than vibrant. Unlike with some other smartphones--such as the Galaxy S II--you can't output these videos via HDMI or wirelessly over DLNA.

A front-facing 1.3-MP camera also delivers fairly detailed images; we could clearly make out individual strands of hair, but it gave our skin tone a slightly reddish hue. Unfortunately, the only video chat app that can take advantage of the camera is Tango; Skype is not yet available for Windows Phone.

Call Quality and Battery Life

On our test calls, the Focus S' earpiece was relatively loud--louder than the Focus Flash's--and voices sounded rich and full. Callers on the other end also liked how we sounded but could definitely tell we were calling from a cell. A large speaker on back of the phone enabled us to conduct conference calls from across a small room.

With a rated talk time of 6.5 hours and a standby time of up to 10 days, the Samsung Focus S offers pretty good stamina. Starting off fully charged at 10 a.m., the phone ran all day and night, only needing a recharge in the morning. Unlike many Android phones, you should be able to get through an entire work day on a single charge.

Samsung Focus S vs. the Competition

The most direct competitor to the Samsung Focus S is the $199 HTC Titan, which has a much larger 4.7-inch display and a slightly faster processor (1.5 GHz). However, the Titan costs $100 more. The HTC Radar 4G for T-Mobile ($99.99) has a smaller screen than the Focus S but faster 4G speeds. However, it's not as light, and the Focus S' Super AMOLED display pops more.

Verdict

The Samsung Focus S serves up a compelling Windows Phone 7.5 Mango experience in a thin and attractive package with a great display. And assuming the price stays at $99, this smartphone is a good value, putting it between the $49 Samsung Focus Flash (which has a smaller 3.7 inch-screen and a lower-res camera) and the $199 HTC Titan (a massive 4.7 inches). Still, we'd prefer a faster camera, and the data speeds aren't the best AT&T has to offer. But if you like the idea of owning a Windows Phone, the Focus S is a solid mid-range choice.

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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
Carrier AT&T
Form Factor Candybar Touchscreen
Operating System Windows Phone 7.5
Networks GSM/GPRS/EDGE850/900/1800/1900 MHz 3G - UMTS/HSPA+850/1900/2100 MHz
Data GPRS/EDGE/HSDPA/UMTS
CPU 1.4-GHz Samsung CPU
RAM
Internal Memory 16GB
Memory Expansion Type none
Display (main) 4.3-inches, Super AMOLED Plus, 800 x 480
Display (secondary)
GPS Yes
Bluetooth Type Bluetooth 2.1 EDR with A2DP
Wi-Fi Wi-Fi
FM Radio Yes
Front Camera Resolution 1.3MP
Camera Resolution 8 MP
Audio formats supported MP3
Audio formats supported M4B
Audio formats supported M4A
Audio formats supported WMA
Video formats supported WMA
Talk / Standby Time 6.5 hours talk/up to 10 days
Ports microUSB
Ports 3.5mm headphone
Size 4.96 x 2.63 x 0.33 inches
Weight 3.9 ounces
SAR Rating (Head) 0.33 W/kg
SAR Rating (Body) 1.12 W/kg
Company Website www.samsung.com