From the ashes of Windows Mobile, Microsoft and Samsung have given rise to the Windows Phone 7 operating system with the AT&T Samsung Focus as one of the first smartphones to feature the new eye-candy mobile OS. About as thin as an iPhone 4 and packed with powerful hardware, the Samsung Focus does Windows Phone proud. It’s the only WP7-powered Samsung smartphone for AT&T, and that means you get the 4-inch Super AMOLED display that’s thinner, brighter and more colorful than other AMOLED screens. But, do all these impressive features and eye-candy design work work well with Windows Phone 7 in tow? Let’s find out. (photo gallery and HD videos at the end of this review)
- 4.0-inch Super AMOLED capacitive touchscreen WVGA (800 x 480)
- 1 GHz Qualcomm® Snapdragon™ processor
- 5 Megapixel camera with LED Flash
- 720p HD video capture
- 8 GB of internal memory
- microSD card slot, expandable to 32 GB
- WiFi (B/G/N)
- Windows Phone 7
- Slim and sexy
- Big, bright Super AMOLED display
- Dedicated camera shutter button
- microSD card slot can top up internal storage to 40GB
- Responsive UI
- Crisp text and graphics (almost like e-Ink)
- Hot-swappable SIM card
- Quick-start camera for capturing fleeting moments
- Slim and slippery
- microSD card slot isn’t swappable
- Lack of cut/paste functionality (coming in early 2011)
- No WiFi hotspot feature
- Lack of Twitter integration
- Finnicky Google integration
- No unified inbox or threaded email
- Apps don’t persist in the background
If you’re looking for a Windows Phone 7 device that can go heads-up with the iPhone as far as eye-appeal, the Samsung Focus is where you want to look. It’s about as slim as an iPhone 4 (9.9 mm) and boasts a 4-inch Super AMOLED display, 1 GHz Snapdragon processor, 5-megapixel camera (with LED flash) and a microSD card slot that can top off internal memory stores at a generous 40GB. A big slab of glass tops the big display, which is wrapped in a glossy bezel that’s trimmed with metallic accents. The Focus feels a bit light in the hand, but doesn’t feel too plasticky.
The only physical buttons on the phone are the volume control buttons, the power button, and the camera shutter button. That makes for a solid handset that doesn’t creak. The WP7 navigation keys are of the touch-sensitive variety and light up from underneath when tapped with a finger. That also means the only keyboard you’ll get is the virtual, on-screen keyboard.
The battery door pops off easily but won’t ever pop off inadvertently. There are also subtle curves to the battery door that make it easier to hold the phone while typing or swiping your finger across the screen. We also like the sliding door covering the microUSB port. It’s a nice detail that Samsung has used previously on their Galaxy S line of smartphones, and we’re glad to see it again on the Focus.
You should know that the Samsung Super AMOLED display is really the only AMOLED display that’s readable in daylight. Most other AMOLED displays are too reflective to work well in sunlight, but the Super AMOLED technology reduces reflections and glare enough so that the screen is decently usable in harsh lighting conditions.
The downside is that the microSD card can’t be swapped without performing a factory reset on the phone – the storage card is only meant to supplement the internal storage of the phone, it doesn’t act as expandable storage. On the upside, the SIM card can be swapped out without rebooting the phone (you’ll have to toggle “Airplane Mode” on and off).
The Focus is obviously powered by the Windows Phone 7 operating system. Now, before you start conjuring up frustrated memories of the menu-heavy Windows Mobile operating system, you should know that WP7 is like Extreme Makeover: Windows Mobile edition. Gone are the tiny little menus that shunned any touch inputs that didn’t come from a stylus.
No more pull-down menus. Windows Phone 7 is all about side-swiping and flick-scrolling your way though panoramic hubs and application lists. The Start screen is a refreshing departure from the grid of icons that iPhone and Android have made so popular. Hubs are WP7’s way of dealing with app icon-overload. The start screen also serves up at-a-glance information, like how many unread emails you have, app updates, and any upcoming calendar events.
As good as all that sounds, it’s not all roses and rainbows with the WP7 platform. Apps don’t persist in the background. Which makes apps like Twitter and Google Voice almost useless for anyone that cares about getting timely messages. If you’re in the Twitter app and you want to call someone, you have to exit out of the application and restart it from scratch after you finish your phone call. That said, some apps do persist in the background, like the People app, which updates itself automatically. Email and Pandora behave similarly. We just wish more apps persisted in the background.
Overall, the UI aesthetic invokes the spirit of a glossy, high concept magazine.
Slide your finger upwards from the lockscreen and you’re taken to your “Start” screen. This is a completely new homescreen design for Windows Phone 7. The WP7 Start homescreen serves up a variety of “tiles” that you can rearrange to suit your needs. The Start screen tiles give access to everything from basic phone functions to apps to webpages. You can “pin” WP7 apps, contacts, web pages, and even OneNote notes to this Start homescreen – the idea is to give you a single, centralized user interface that allows you to navigate the entire device in a way that minimizes the time it takes for you to dig around and find an app or a favorite photo.
You can rearrange tiles by tapping and holding on a tile and then moving it to the desired location on the homescreen. Tiles do not automatically clean themselves up, which can get a little irritating at times. Some tiles are “Live Tiles”. That means that they are “alive” with information. These types of tiles with automatically update themselves with new information pulled from the web: unread email count, next calendar event, recently active contacts, and app updates.
With a leftward swipe on the Start screen, you’re taken to the Apps list. This is a list of all the apps you have on your WP7 device – yu can navigate anywhere from this screen.
The Focus comes preinstalled with the Samsung Now app, which is basically a Windows Phone reincarnation of the Daily Briefing app that Samsung made popular with their TouchWiz 3.0 Android phones. You also get a handful of AT&T-specific apps to help you get started with WP7 right out of the box: AT&T FamilyMap to help you locate phones in your family; AT&T myWireless to help you manage your AT&T account; AT&T Navigator for GPS directions; AT&T Radio for streaming internet tunes; and AT&T U-verse Mobile to help you get the most out of your AT&T U-verse TV subscription
The onscreen keyboard is your only option for typing on the Focus. Other WP7 phones have physical QWERTY keyboards, but this little guy does not. If it did, it wouldn’t be Hollywood-ready waif that it is. The keyboard is responsive and easy to use. Obvious mistakes are automatically corrected for you as you type, with spelling suggestions popping up unobtrusively as you tap away at the keyboard. If you type a word that isn’t auto-corrected but is not recognized, you’ll see the errant word underlined in red and ready to be corrected with a simple tap of your finger.
The keyboard also changes based on context. If you’re entering a login and password, the keyboard will serve up dedicated keys for the “@” symbol as well as a “.com” key (press and hold to bring up .net, .org, etc.). When replying to a text message or email, you’ll see a dedicated emoticon key that will insert a smiley face with a tap or offer you a variety of emoticon options if you tap-and-hold the key.
The search feature is convenient. There are two levels of “search” in WP7. You can choose to search the web for content related to your search terms, or you can search within an app. Tap the hardware “Search” button from the homescreen and you can search the web for relevant websites, local businesses, and even news related to your search term. For apps that allow you to search within them for specific terms, you can use the in-app search button or the hardware search button. In apps with a search field, a single tap on the hardware search button will allow you to search for words in the app. A second tap on the hardware search button allows you to search the web, as you would from the homescreen.
One cool feature is the way Windows Phone 7 allows you to look up the definition to a word in a document, like a webpage. If you come across a word on the world wide web you’d like to research or define, simply tap that word to highlight and then tap the hardware search button. Your Focus will automatically start scouring the internets for any results relevant to your highlighted word. It’s a small feature, but surprisingly useful for increasing your vocabulary.
Bing Maps on the Focus works incredibly well. You don’t get turn-by-turn GPS navigation, but you do get what we believe is the most polished maps experience on any smartphone. With a fast enough data connection, maps fade into view in an organic way. Map data appear on the screen as if being uncovered by clouds, in contrast to the cold map tiles that Google Maps tends to load. This is especially evident when zooming into a portion of the map – it just feels smoother and less jarring than on iPhone or Android
Bing Maps is also integrated into search. Tap on a “Local” search result and you’ll be whisked away to Bing Maps, showing you exactly where a particular business or address is located. You can then tap on the address flag to get more details on the location: business ratings, phone number, website, hours of operation. Swipe left on this screen to read individual reviews on the business. Swipe left again to see what’s nearby.
Addresses embedded in emails and text messages will automatically link to Bing Maps. Most of the time, you just click on the underlined address and you’ll be taken to the maps app. Sometimes, though, if the address is surrounded by numbers or just formatted in a non-standard fashion, WP7 will fail to recognize the address correctly. This is one instance where the lack of cut-and-paste comes in to play its nasty tricks.
The Maps experience on the Focus is one of its standout features. We much prefer using WiFi, but a strong (and fast) AT&T data connection will suffice.
Thanks to WP7, the Samsung Focus is almost a fully-contained productivity machine. The Office hub serves up Microsoft Word Mobile, Excel Mobile, and PowerPoint Mobile to view and edit documents. You can use Microsoft SharePoint Workspace Mobile 2010 to access and update Microsoft Office documents on SharePoint sites. You can use the bundled Microsoft OneNote Mobile app to take notes on the road and have them automatically synced to Windows Live SkyDrive.
Unfortunately, you can’t just go around creating documents willy nilly and expect them to sync between your computer and your phone. Only photos and OneNote documents are synced over the air. Keep that in mind that if you want to sync Word or Excel documents from your computer to your device over the air, you’ll have to go through Sharepoint.
The Calendar app is as hassle-free as you could ask for. Not only does the calendar look slick, it’s automatically synchronized to your Windows Live or Google calendars or Exchange Server. You can configure which Google calendars you’d like to sync with via the Settings menu in WP7. You’ll see calendar events across all your calendars in a single calendar on your Focus.
You can view your calendar in the traditional “day” view, which helps you spot free time by showing you an hour-by-hour view of the day. Or you can focus on just what’s scheduled by flicking to “agenda” view, which lists only future appointments.
Scheduling conflicts are highlighted for you and Windows Phone 7 will take you to your calendar for that time, and show you the meeting attendees and their RSVPs, so that you can make an informed decision on how to proceed. You can even shoot out emails to meeting attendees, letting them know that you’re running late, with a tap of the “running man” icon.
Email on the Focus is fairly straight forward. Simply add your email account (using Gmail or Hotmail makes for the easiest setup) and the Focus will start synchronizing itself with your inbox. If you have multiple inboxes, the Focus will pull down mail from all of them. Better yet, this all happens in the background – one of the few instances in WP7 where processes happen in the background.
Through email settings, you can configure the Focus to update emails at set intervals or have the emailed pushed to the phone as they come in. Obviously, shorter email update intervals and push email will eat up battery life faster than if you were to set the update interval to, say, 30 minutes. Configure at your own risk.
Overall, viewing emails on the Focus is more than just work. It’s candy for your eyes. The entire Windows Phone 7 design aesthetic is embodied in the email app. Text is incredibly crisp and sharp – thanks to sub-pixel text rendering. Swipe animations are smooth, fluid, and fast. Replying and deleting emails is just a tap or tap-and-hold gesture away. Email is really well done on the Focus.
That said, we just wish there were a unified inbox and threaded email views. These are niggling details that may be enabled with future updates, so we can live with the individual inboxes for now.
Web Browsing, Multimedia, Camera
The web browser in Microsoft’s demoted Windows Mobile OS — you might know the browser as Pocket Internet Explorer or Internet Explorer Mobile — was a lot like Windows Mobile itself. Old and clunky. Sure, we saw some user interface and touch-optimized features added into the mix with Windows Mobile 6, but the browsing experience was still compromised. With Windows Phone 7 the revamped Internet Explorer Mobile is a fully functional, touch friendly, precision instrument capable of browsing the web at the speed of touch. And, for all you tabbed browsing fans, you can multi-surf the web using multiple individual windows (or browser tabs).
The Internet Explorer Mobile in Windows Phone 7 is completely different from what you may have experienced with Windows Mobile, in all the right ways. It’s fast (WiFi will usually help boost webpage load times). It’s as touch friendly as iPhone or Android. There’s tabbed browsing (up to 6 tabs at once). The multitouch pinch-to-zoom feature works well, as does the intelligent tap-to-zoom feature. Pages will also load in the background while you browse another tab. Sprinkle in the ability to interact with webpages before they finish loading, and you’ve got a recipe for a great browsing experience.
To kill the positive mood, though, you should know that playing YouTube videos in the browser will require you to kick out to a YouTube video player app. This app wasn’t available during our review. The YouTube mobile website shows up fine, but the videos won’t play in the browser. The iPhone, on the other hand, will play those videos in the Safari Mobile browser.
Overall, two-thumbs up for the new Internet Explorer Mobile web browser.
If you have a subscription to Microsoft’s all-you-can-eat music streaming service, Zune Pass, you’ll want to think long and hard before looking anywhere other than a Windows Phone 7 smartphone. WP7 is built to be completely compatible with Zune Pass. You can stream music to your heart’s content, and all you have to do is sign in to Windows Phone with your Windows Live account.
What? You don’t have Zune Pass? Worry not, you can still transfer music (including playlists) from your computer to your Windows Phone using the Zune client/application on a PC or the Windows Phone Connector for Mac. You can also buy songs on the Zune Marketplace from either your phone or your PC (using a credit card that you link to your Windows Live account). Unfortunately Macs do not get this feature. Macs can only sync songs and photos to a Windows Phone at this point.
The Samsung Focus also comes with the AT&T Radio app, which streams music over the air. You have to be connected to the AT&T data network (you have to disable WiFi) in order to use AT&T Radio. The app streams music from different genres and offers a good selection of “radio stations” to listen to. And, should you get disconnected in the middle of your fave track, the app will remember where you got cut off and start the song where you left off the next time you reconnect to the network and fire up the app.
You can play videos through your the phone’s Zune Player app. These videos have to be transferred to from a computer. You can’t buy videos in the Marketplace using your phone. If you want to buy videos for your phone, you’ll have to buy them using your desktop and sync it to your phone.
The media player is capable of playing a variety of file types: .mp3, .m4a (aac), .wma, .mp4, .m4v, .wmv, and .jpg formats are compatible with the media player. Videos play almost instantly, with little waiting for playback to begin. The controls are simple. Simply tap on the screen to bring up playback controls (play, rewind, fast forward). Volume is controlled via the volume control rocker on the side of the Focus and scrubbing is achieved by holding down the rewind or fast forward controls.
The lack of a scrubbing bar makes it tedious to skip to the end of a long movie, but we’re fine with that because videos look amazing on the large 4-inch WVGA Super AMOLED display!
The Samsung Focus has an integrated FM radio receiver, so you can listen to broadcast radio whenever you please. The FM Radio feature is integrated into the Music + Videos hub. You’ll need to plug in headphones in order to use the FM Radio – the headphone cord acts as the radio’s antenna.
One cool feature is that you can pin newly discovered radio stations to your homescreen, or just go through your multimedia history to see what stations you’ve recently listened to.
The camera on the Focus is darn impressive. It’s not going to match the Nokia N8’s 12-megapixel camera, but it does a bang-up job with its 5MP image sensor. The single LED flash tends to overexpose images at closer distances, but that’s to be expected for a camera in a smartphone.
The Focus features a dedicated camera shutter key, which makes quick work of taking pictures. Just press and hold the camera shutter key and WP7 will fire up the camera. Start-up time is minimal, and shot-to-shot time is as short as we could hope for.
When you capture a picture, the image immediately moves to the left of the viewfinder. The image hangs slightly off the side of the screen to let you know that a rightward swipe with your finger will take you to a preview of the image you just captured. Keep swiping and you can browse through your most recent snaps.
Settings for the Focus camera are plentiful. You can customize settings for the flash, ISO, light sensitivity, white balance, contrast, saturation, sharpness, metering, photo quality, AF mode, resolution, and even wide dynamic range. The ‘wide dynamic range” feature is most useful in situations where some objects in the frame are well light with other objects in the shadows. This is similar to the iPhone 4’s HDR photo feature.
The coolest feature of the camera, though, is the quick-start functionality. Even while on the lockscreen or completely locked (display off), you can fire up the camera directly. Never again will you miss a fleeting shot of your kid’s first [insert mushy kid milestone here] because you’re fumbling to unlock the screen and start the camera app. With the Focus completely locked in your pocket, simply press and hold the camera button to fire up the camera. You’ll be able to take a quick picture, but if you want to anything else (preview the photo, change camera settings), you’ll have to go back to the lockscreen and swipe to unlock (and enter your lockscreen password if you have one).
Here are some image samples. Notice the pictures comparing outdoor shots taken with and without the “Wide Dyanmic Range” feature:
Call Quality and Battery Life
The Samsung Focus is exclusive to the AT&T network, so call quality will depend on what kind of AT&T service you get in our area. Our Focus review unit spent its time hopping between NYC, LA and SF, so service was frustrating, as expected. That said, when calls connected and we had a strong signal, call quality was good. Even using speakerphone mode (which is decently loud enough to put the iPhone to shame), calls came in strong and clear.
We won’t linger on the rate of dropped calls, because that’s would just be tantamount to beating a dead horse. AT&T isn’t known for having the most reliable network in crowded, iPhone-heavy metros, so we’ll leave it at that.
Overall, call quality was good.
Battery life, is likewise good… for a smartphone. You’ll get full-day use out of a topped-off battery. Seeing as how the Focus is constantly checking for emails, powering that big and bright Super AMOLED display, and running a 1 GHz processor, we’re happy to get more than 24 hours worth of charge.
We had three email accounts pulling down emails as they hit our inbox (which amounts to hundreds per day), used Bing Maps to look up a couple handfuls of addresses (and directions), streamed less than half an hour of internet radio, and browsed the web for at least an hour total. We also sent out about a couple dozen emails and made a handful of phone calls (each lasting less than two minutes) in a single day. The Focus persevered throughout. We really couldn’t ask for more.
As long as you’re topping of the battery at night, the Samsung Focus will do you fine in a typical day. Be forewarned though, as with all smartphones in this class (high-end), heavy use will leave you high and dry sooner than you’d like.
Windows Phone 7 Done Right?
The Focus is one of the best looking Windows Phone 7 devices that will be available for some time. It’s as slim (almost) as an iPhone 4, has a larger display, uses Super AMOLED display technology, boasts a good 5-megapixel camera, and has 1GHz Snapdragon power. The phone feels like a slab of high-tech glass in the hand and looks better than most other smartphones on the market. It’s also highly responsive to touch inputs. The hardware is most definitely good enough to get people’s attention and draw Windows Phone newcomers to check out what life with a Microsoft mobile OS is like.
So, yes, the AT&T Samsung Focus has what it takes to make WP7 a household name.
Likewise, Windows Phone 7 itself is beautiful. The sharp text and flat, high-concept graphical elements simply ooze sexiness and a refined design aesthetic. The touch metaphors are intuitive and fresh. Social network integration is convenient and intuitive. Bing Maps is incredibly impressive and shows what Microsoft can do when challenged by the likes of Google Maps. Calendar integration throughout the platform is not only comprehensive, but useful and easy on the eyes. If WP7’s functionality matched its aesthetics, we’d give Microsoft our unqualified blessing to take iOS and Android OS head-on and give smartphone users an alternative to the iPhone and Android phones.
Unfortunately, WP7’s few may keep the platform from soaring in the near-term. The lack of copy/paste functionality is a big deal. The lack of background processing makes Twitter hard to use. WP7’s integration of Facebook services isn’t as full-featured as a standalone app, which is not available on Marketplace. You don’t get a unified email inbox and emails lack a threaded conversation view. These are all points that could turn users against WP7. That said, Microsoft will update Windows Phone 7 with global cut-and-paste functionality in early 2011. Twitter integration is on the way as well, which would make the Twitter app somewhat redundant. And, we may even see future updates enabling threaded emails and a unified inbox.
In the end, the Focus is as good as it gets for Windows Phone 7 devices without a keyboard. The only question is, will WP7 be enough to tackle your everyday smartphone needs? Chances are, unless you are a power user that relies on heavily on Google services, needs comprehensive app availability, and uses a smartphone as a business tool, the Focus will do you fine. Otherwise, wait until WP7 matures a bit more.