capsule review

Samsung Focus: Well-designed Windows Phone 7 device

At a Glance
  • Samsung Focus

Samsung’s Windows Phone 7 offering, the Focus ($200 with a two-year contract from AT&T), showcases the brand-new Microsoft mobile OS nicely with a gorgeous display, slim design and fast performance. Windows Phone 7 is still missing some key features, however, like copy and paste and third-party multitasking, which makes it a tough sell against the Samsung Captivate, an identically-priced Android phone also on AT&T.

Design

When I first heard that Microsoft would be placing hardware restrictions on manufacturers, I imagined boring, uniform designs. Fortunately, the Samsung Focus is undoubtedly a Samsung phone with its glossy piano-black face and rounded edges.

Measuring 4.8-by-2.5-by-0.4-inches, the Focus is the thinnest of the Windows Phone 7 devices. Weighing 4.2 ounces, the Focus is lighter than the iPhone 4. The front-face of the phone is dominated by its 4-inch Super AMOLED display with three touch-sensitive buttons below it: back, home and search. These three buttons are part of Microsoft’s hardware requirements for manufacturers.

On the right side of the phone, you’ll find the power button and the dedicated camera key. This camera key is another hardware requirement and I’m actually really excited about this small feature. Shooting a decent photo on a smartphone can be tricky, especially when you have to hold the phone and hit an on-screen shutter button. The inclusion of a hardware shutter button is something that all smartphones with high quality cameras (including the iPhone) should have. The shutter button also has another unique feature: When your phone is in sleep mode, pressing the shutter button wakes it up and brings you directly to camera mode.

On the phone’s left spine, you’ll find the volume rocker. The USB port (with that annoying sliding cover that Samsung seems to be fond of) and a 3.5-mm headphone jack sits at the top of the phone.

Back to the display: Samsung’s Super AMOLED display technology is one of the best when it comes to color saturation, clarity and performance outdoors. Samsung’s Super AMOLED technology puts touch sensors on the display itself, as opposed to creating a separate layer (which Samsung’s old AMOLED displays had), making it the thinnest display technology on the market.

Super AMOLED is fantastic—you really have to see it up close to appreciate it fully. Colors burst out of the display, and animations appear lively and smooth. Some reviewers have noted that colors look oversaturated, but I don’t really mind the effect. While the display also does quite well in bright outdoor light, the phone’s glossy hardware sometimes throws off a blinding glare.

Windows Phone 7: A whole new OS

By now, you probably know that Microsoft has created Windows Phone 7 from scratch. Now is the time to forget any preconceived notions you may have about Microsoft’s mobile products. Windows Phone 7 is light, fast and user-friendly. It isn’t perfect, however. Missing features like copy/paste and true multitasking are big oversights. (Microsoft says copy/paste will come in an update in January). I also don’t find the OS all that aesthetically-pleasing or visually consistent, and navigating through the OS requires a lot of scrolling. For an in-depth look at the Windows Phone 7 OS, check out PCWorld’s hands-on here.

Camera

Microsoft required handset manufacturers to ship with a 5-megapixel camera or higher, which is another welcome standard. All of the phones launched last week, including the Focus, sport 5-megapixel cameras. Microsoft has allowed manufacturers to throw in their own custom settings and features for the camera in addition to the standard settings. The Focus has a wide range of settings and controls including white balance, image effects (mono, sepia, antique to name a few), saturation, wide dynamic range and anti-shaking. The camera also has an LED flash, autofocus and 4x digital zoom.

The interface is touch-friendly and easy to navigate, but the icons for the controls on the phone’s side are a bit too small for my liking. For example, the switch for changing from camera to video capture is tiny and I sometimes had to flick it multiple times to get it to switch modes. Also annoying: you can’t zoom using the volume rocker. It is a minor detail, but if the Focus can have a hardware shutter button, can’t it have a hardware zoom rocker too?

I was mostly impressed with the image quality of the Focus’ camera. My photos—indoors and out—looked bright and sharp. The indoor shots looked a bit oversaturated, both on the phone and my PC, and somewhat blown out. Photos shot outdoors on a rare sunny day in San Francisco looked good, but my colleagues agreed with me that these too were oversaturated.

Performance

Call quality over the AT&T network in San Francisco was a mixed bag. While most of the callers on the other end of the line reported positively on the quality, I had a hard time understanding a few of my contacts. One contact sounded a bit garbled and another sounded very distant and tinny. I also experienced one dropped call.

The phone is really quite fast—a refreshing change from the sluggish (and often frustrating) Windows Mobile 6.5 experience. When in the Photo Hub, the accelerometer—which is supposed to detect whether the phone is being held in upright or landscape orientation—seemed to lag a bit while I was in the Photo Hub. Also, there were a few instances where I had to hit the hardware touch buttons more than twice to go back or pull up search.

Web browsing over AT&T’s 3G network was also pretty speedy. PCWorld.com loaded in 18 seconds, the media-heavy ThrasherMagazine.com loaded in 26 seconds and NYTimes.com loaded in 21.6 seconds.

Samsung and AT&T apps

Microsoft allows phone makers and mobile operators to customize up to six tiles on a WP7 handset. On the Focus, Samsung has one tile called Daily Briefing. This feature is also on the company’s Android Galaxy phones. Daily Briefing lets you customize news, weather feeds and other important information. This information is pushed to the tile so you’ll have access to it from your homescreen. AT&T has three tiles: AT&T Radio, AT&T Navigator and AT&T U-verse Mobile. You can remove these tiles from your start screen, but unfortunately there didn’t seem to be a way to remove them from the device.

Conclusion

The Samsung Focus is an attractive, well-designed phone that has a great camera and a speedy processor. But AT&T customers have a tough choice: The Samsung Captivate, which is also $200 with a two-year contract, has these attributes plus access to the huge Android Market. Windows Phone 7 delivers when it comes to usability and performance, but the amount of content users will have access to remains to be seen. Android already has a proven track record of being a great operating system; Windows Phone 7 will have to work hard to win over consumers.

[Ginny Mies is an associate editor for PCWorld.]

This story, "Samsung Focus: Well-designed Windows Phone 7 device" was originally published by PCWorld.

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At a Glance
  • Samsung Focus

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