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Samsung Focus

December 4th, 2010
Samsung makes a good if imperfect case for Windows Phone 7.

Arguably the most important phone of the initial Windows Phone 7 launch is the Samsung Focus: as AT&T's main model, it has not only represented Microsoft's OS for the US but has had to square off against the iPhone on Apple's home territory. But how well does it fare against its most obvious challenger and the broader Windows Phone mix? We'll find out in our Samsung Focus review. Design and the Super AMOLED screen

A quick handhold of the Focus makes it clear that it's part of the recent trend towards supersized phones. With a four-inch display, the device almost feels too big, and those wearing tight jeans may not want to put this in a pocket. Having said this, it's still smaller than 4.3-inch behemoths such as the HTC HD7, and it's just big enough to be comfortable to hold without having to stretch your hands. It's also extremely thin: at 0.39 inches, it's just a hair's breadth thicker than the iPhone 4 (0.37 inches) and doesn't feel like an intrusion.

Buyers might be slightly disappointed at the choice of materials, though. Build quality is high and doesn't give the impression that it will fall apart, but Samsung has used glossy plastic almost exclusively, down to the chrome-effect sides. It still has a sense of heft and attention to detail, but compared to the LG Optimus 7's metal build, it's clear Samsung was trying to save costs or else felt it necessary to improve reception.

As with all other Windows Phone 7 devices, the Focus has just three main buttons: back, the Windows key and search. All of these are touch-sensitive here. At first, were disappointed that it didn't have the satisfying feel of buttons with physical movement, but having seen the potential for parts to break (or break off) on the Optimus 7, we began to think Samsung had the right idea. Most controls and ports are easy to reach, although the power/lock button wasn't as intuitive on the side as on the top of LG's phone.

The screen, as we implied, is the centerpiece here, and will seem familiar to anyone who has used a Galaxy S phone like the Vibrant. As a Super AMOLED display, the 480x800 panel theoretically enjoys all the benefits of color richness, contrast and ghost-free output of the new organic display technology but the brightness and outdoor visibility of an LCD. For the most part, it's very enjoyable to look at. The Metro interface used in WP7 has lots of black backgrounds in its default form, which shows off just how deep the blacks can be; in low lighting, the display borders are almost impossible to see. Photo and video viewing is excellent, as you not only have a large canvas but an extremely vivid color gamut. If you're buying a WP7 phone with the aim of watching videos from the Zune Marketplace or your own collection, stop here; it doesn't get much better than this.

True to Samsung's word, we were likewise happy with visibility outside. Bright sunlight will still hurt your visibility somewhat, but even so, we didn't have a problem reading text outdoors. Part of this stems from the combination of that large screen size with the propensity for large fonts in the Metro interface.

Not all is perfect, and most of what's wrong stems from the technique Samsung has used in virtually every AMOLED over the past year. Called PenTile, it creates the intended output by sharing green pixels in a matrix rather than the neat, ordered pixels of some other AMOLEDs or almost any LCD. The technique often works just fine, but it has the effect of creating a slightly "fuzzy" look to the resulting image. It's not as perceptively crisp as a straightforward design as a result, although the resolution is the same and we quickly grew familiar. We'd also add that Super AMOLED isn't perfectly accurate; it often oversaturates the picture, so it's designed more to look good than be accurate.

Windows Phone 7 and Samsung-specific features

We won't recap the entire interface experience for Windows Phone 7, having already covered it in detail with the LG Optimus 7; if you're unfamiliar, you'll want to read the earlier review to get a feel for the more minute details. To summarize, though, we can say that it's a very intuitive interface with clever concepts like hubs in place of some apps and robust experiences on the web, in media playback (including Mac and Windows PC sync) and in gaming. If you're used to copy-and-paste text, multitasking and other more complex features from Android, iOS and other rivals, though, you'll be somewhat disappointed. None are necessarily dealbreakers; still, if you like listening to Slacker Radio in the background, you'll need to look elsewhere for now.

Most of the glaring omissions come with text and out-of-the-box productivity. Copy-and-paste text will be available in an update. Until then, however, anyone who uses it heavily in day to day use will be frustrated, even with data detectors doing some of the work by shunting you to the relevant app. It's the Office hub that drew the most scorn. With only extremely basic editing options, an iPhone with Apple's Pages or DataViz's Documents To Go would be far more capable for getting work done. Microsoft does have Exchange and Sharepoint support, although most of its rivals have at least Exchange as well.

The implementation of the OS on the Focus is thankfully very smooth. Microsoft's insistence on a minimum 1GHz Snapdragon for current models keeps it fast; modern games like Need for Speed: Undercover run acceptably well. Samsung's choice of a four-inch screen is also a huge benefit for typing: the sheer screen area gives an already good on-screen keyboard room to play, so there's less chance of accidental key presses, even compared to a known good touch keyboard like that on the iPhone. GPS here doesn't suffer from the slow lock-on that plagued the Galaxy S early on, although we noticed that it wasn't as accurate as other phones when indoors.

Samsung doesn't have as much of an influence over the interface on WP7 as it has on Android or in-house operating systems like Bada. We can't help but think that this is a good thing. Outside of occasional nice touches, the company has had a reputation for bogging down or oversimplifying an OS that didn't really need help. The most glaring change is the presence on the home screen of a custom app tile, Now. It's a straightforward aggregator of news, stocks and weather. The interface is very straightforward and pleasing to use. Unfortunately, it doesn't really take advantage of the OS as much as it could. Each section needs a manual refresh rather than updating automatically, and none of the information surfaces on the home tile. We suspect many users are going to install AccuWeather or another app that will do better.

Like LG, Samsung felt compelled to open up its own special section within the Windows Phone Marketplace to try and differentiate itself from the pack. Known as the Samsung Zone, it's fairly disappointing As of this review, just four apps were in the special area, including Now, an app only useful for those using the carrier 3, a network profile tool and a basic photo sharing utility. LG's store is a treasure trove by comparison. Unless it grows quickly, there's not much advantage.

Camera control and quality

Many of the same praises and criticisms of other WP7 phones apply here. Microsoft's camera interface is very intuitive, especially for post-shot review, and has clever options like the ability to upload directly to a SkyDrive account or to go directly to the camera app from sleep just by holding the camera button. Our chief gripe, and a significant one, is that it doesn't remember settings between instances of using the app. You'll need to reenable image stabilization or upgrade the video quality to 720p every time you revisit the app, which can be very irritating if you tend to have preferred shooting conditions.

With the Focus, there does seem to be more control over the shot than with an alternative like the Optimus 7, and certainly the intelligent but ultra-simple iPhone. Where LG is focused mostly on presets, Samsung has more advanced options like exposure value compensation, manual ISO sensitivity and high dynamic range. We much preferred Samsung's settings in our experience; we need fine-tuned adjustments more than we do "beauty shot."

Image quality for still photos is a step above that on the LG. For one, macro shooting was much easier and more effective during our sessions. We still noticed the difference between the Focus and a good dedicated camera, as details weren't quite as sharp and it tended to blur quickly in less than bright lighting, but the difference was tangible. It's possible to go for creative shots such as bokeh (shallow depth of field) that aren't often easy on a phone.

Video recording is another matter. While the frame rate and audio quality are certainly acceptable, the footage even at 720p shows some artifacts. We mostly noticed a pixelated look to the shots despite the resolution as well as juddering during fast movement, signs both that the phone isn't recording as much detail as it could and that the sensor isn't especially fast. There was also an odd quirk with the video preview during recording. The frame rate of the live preview was noticeably low, at about 10 to 15 frames per second, even though the video itself was smooth at 30. We didn't see this on the Optimus 7.

We should add that Microsoft's video sharing options are poor. Where Apple and Google eagerly give options for YouTube, there's no way to get footage off of the Focus or another WP7 phone without a local transfer. Even e-mail won't work, since Microsoft only allows photos for now. This may be improved in time but could be a major setback for anyone who wants to post clips minutes after they're captured.

Call quality and battery life

Voice on this phone is strictly average. Both ends of a call had an easy time understanding each other, but the voice had a muddy quality on either side. Phone call quality matters less and less with each smartphone we test, but if you spend much of your time talking to others, it's not the best WP7 phone available. You'll enjoy the speakerphone, however. The Focus has an unusually loud speaker, and a unique 'kink' at the bottom of the phone tilts it slightly when resting on a flat surface, so it won't completely muffle the sound.

Battery life is acceptable on the Focus, but it's definitely not as relatively miserly as an iPhone or some of its WP7 rivals. We noticed that it tended to drain a bit more battery overnight and was occasionally thirstier during demanding tasks. Most of this could be owed to the Super AMOLED screen. Other, regular AMOLEDs can actually consume less power than an LCD, but the same techniques that make it easy to see outside and otherwise noticeably better than usual also consume more energy. We got through a day of moderate data use, image capturing and light amounts of voice without killing the battery, so it's within limits. Regardless, there's no question of needing to charge the phone overnight if you use it significantly.

Wrapping up

Most of the criticisms you can level at the Focus are those inherent to the OS. As much as we feel WP7 is a sincerely fresh and welcome break from the norm in how a smartphone is supposed to work, any buyers will have to ask whether or not they're willing to commit to a minimum $200 US price ($150 in Canada) and possibly a long contract knowing that Microsoft is, in some areas, starting from behind compared to Apple and Google. It will catch up in key respects, but how soon and how effectively are mysteries. Microsoft is more committed to upgrading WP7 than it was the Zune HD but might frustrate owners if it takes a year or more to add multitasking and other important technologies.

Also, some of the features aren't entirely unique. If you just want the four-inch Super AMOLED, it's already available from virtually every North American carrier attached to Samsung's own Galaxy S variants and soon the Google-blessed Nexus S. And if you like the idea of a very thin phone with a five-megapixel camera, the iPhone 4 does a better job.

With that in mind, Samsung has at least made a convincing case for WP7. The large but thin design is a good showcase for what the platform is already doing well, especially for those of us who like to watch video on a commute to work. Photography has a long way to go but is still better than some of what persists, and the light touch Samsung has given the OS arguably helps rather than hurts by keeping updates quick and out of the hands of both Samsung and carriers. Anyone who has been annoyed by the fragmentation of Android delaying minor OS updates by months, if they ever arrive, will have an antidote without having to jump ship to Apple.

Buying the Focus, then, depends on how much you're in love with the Windows Phone platform mated to that large screen. The combination is powerful and enjoyable to use, but if you're looking for raw software feature support or find the display either too big or too fuzzy, you'll want an alternative. That we're sad to see the Focus go is nonetheless a very good sign.

- Lavish four-inch Super AMOLED screen.

- Very thin and comfortable.

- WP7 is well-suited to the design.

- Loud speaker.

- Samsung's Now news app is helpful.

- Good (though not great) photo quality.

- Usual WP7 limits: no multitasking or copy/paste.

- Screen can look slightly fuzzy and oversaturated.

- Shorter battery life than some rivals.

- Calls sounded somewhat muddy.

- Pixelated 720p movie capture.