Rating: ★★★★★

The Samsung Focus. It’s a phone’s phone. That’s partly thanks to Windows Phone 7. The Microsoft operating system makes it a proper calling device first, apps secondary, and that’s refreshing compared to app-filled screens from competing phone makers. Instead, we just buy and play apps, send emails and text messages, and only on rare occasion listen to voicemail left by our mothers. Someone in Redmond must have remembered why it’s called a cellphone. Add a smart OS to brilliantly designed hardware, and you have a clear winner.

Windows Phone 7, however, is not the highlight of this review. Samsung’s Focus is, which we took a first look at awhile back. I can safely say that it can replace my iPhone. In fact, that’s exactly what I did…for a month, and then some. And I haven’t looked back since.

As a product reviewer, I switch phones regularly. It’s part of the job. I personally own an iPhone, which I purchased like everyone else in the Apple store. Even when I’m testing a phone, I still bring my iPhone along, because it stores all of my data, music and apps. I bring it along even if I take out the SIM card to use my AT&T service for the phone being tested.

With the Samsung Focus, I did just that. I used my own SIM card (the Focus is available through AT&T), and after 3 days forgot entirely about my iPhone. As a side note, I use an iPod Touch and iPad regularly as well, so apps were never an issue. More importantly, I didn’t miss my iPhone. The Samsung Focus was – and is – an absolute pleasure to use.

The Samsung Focus is very similar to the Galaxy S phones (like the Fascinate and Epic 4G, which we reviewed) in both shape and design. As you read in my first impressions, the biggest difference between the devices is the Focus has a fat, rounded bottom, and of course runs on Windows instead of Android. Otherwise, if you painted a Galaxy S logo on the Focus, it would fit right into that exclusive club. Windows Phone 7, however, puts the Focus in a different class entirely.

However, for this review we will concentrate on the device specifically. The design is sleek for a 4” display. It feels good in the hand, both to hold for calls upright and horizontally when watching recorded video or taking pictures. The glossy phone is easy to grip, and I’ve never had a slip or drop because of slick fingers. Buttons are well placed and tactile. There have been some complaints about the power/standby button being placed on the right side instead of the top, but I’ve found it easy to adjust to, and more convenient than a top button for a phone of this size.

The HTC HD7 beside the Samsung Focus, from left to right

Even removing the battery panel reveals a very clean design, a testament to Samsung’s swift change to its design philosophy. Unfortunately, even now, the micro-SD slot for upgradeable memory is still not functional. Interested buyers can take comfort in knowing that the Focus comes with 8GB of onboard memory, which is still leaps and bounds ahead of most smartphones. Still, it’s pathetic that after all this time there is still no fix for the flagship Windows Phone 7 device.

The curvature and contoured design is unique, and even after a month I still haven’t adjusted to it. The bottom bulk makes it more difficult to put in and take out of the pants pocket. That girth simultaneously helps support the device, which is presumably top-heavy without the thick bottom. The overall design is very pleasant to use with either hand, with both hands, and for phone calls.

Some stipulation about poor battery life is only partially true. A recent glitch did cause less than stellar battery performance, but in my testing the Focus lasted as long as most smartphones these days last – a full day. Under moderate use, it’ll last a day and a half, though if you’re on the phone constantly, you’ll be recharging it twice daily. Low battery life is partially due to WP7′s high-contrast graphic design. The screen often displays bright colors, which undoubtedly wears the battery down. This is also why the main screen uses a black background, though the wonderful design is worth spending a little extra battery life on.

The HD7 and Focus, sitting atop the Samsung Galaxy Tablet. The Focus is by far the sleekest device.

Windows Phone 7 devices use a 3-button structure for navigating menus (compared to the 4-buttons on Android and 1-button on iOS), the Focus has very responsive buttons and the display is equally quick. This is no surprise considering Samsung’s proficiency with recent screen tech, though it is worth noting that the Fascinate and Epic 4G both seemed to have less accurate displays for touch sensitivity, which I thought was due to the software. The Focus, using the same SuperAMOLED display as both Android phones, has no such problem, because Windows is more accurate in reading touches.

Typing, however, isn’t as fast as it can be. Either the OS or the hardware isn’t fast enough to accept quick successive presses. After writing a sentence or two in quick succession the keyboard will lock up as though trying to catch up, and after a moment unfreeze. This nuisance is particularly frustrating when using the included Office applications. Otherwise, touch sensitivity is on par with the iPhone, and the inclusion of suggested words (where the phone displays words you may want to use immediately above the keyboard) speeds up typing dramatically. It marries the two best features of the iOS and Android keyboards.

Synchronizing the Focus is easier than syncing an iPhone. All it requires is Zune software (which is already superior to iTunes), and within 30 seconds Zune will recognize the phone and start media transfers and backup. The whole system is snappy and convenient, and unlike iTunes with the iPhone, fast. The Focus can even be used while syncing, though access to data is limited. For instance, you cannot listen to music when synching. Pictures are immediately backed up, and whatever automatic settings users put in place occur instantly, and quickly. Even when filling up the 8GBs of memory, I didn’t have to wait more than five minutes.

Pictures taken on the Focus look magnificent, especially on the gorgeous SuperAMOLED screen

Once again as expected, the screen is gorgeous. Video looks divine, and the very clean, high-contrast design of Windows Phone 7 makes the display look even better, OLED’s specialty. In many respects, the Focus looks almost as good, detail-wise, as the iPhone 4. However, the SuperAMOLED suffers under direct and indirect sunlight and isn’t comfortable to use outdoors. The brighter your surroundings are, the more difficult the screen is to view.

The camera on the Focus is superb. Several shots I took at the beach are just incredible, better than some taken with my Nikon D7000. You can see a few samples below. Video is also good, but not great. The Focus includes a large number of photography options, from setting the white balance, the image effects, relative contrast (from very low to very high), light saturation, sharpness, EV, wide dynamic range, and even the ISO settings. There are so many options that I could spend another month just testing the camera, which in itself is incredible.


Click to see full-size images. Caution: they are 5MP each, but less than 2MB each.

The camera does have its limitations. The LED backlight tends to wash objects and flesh tones out, and the extremes in the settings are mostly for more professional photographers, not basic shooters. There is no option for easy versus full settings, which would be a good addition for anyone who just wants to take a good picture and have their phone figure out the rest. That said, people with more photography experience will surely get both a kick out of the Focus, as well as take some great shots with it.

Another great feature is the option to automatically upload pictures to a SkyDrive account, for free. That way, pictures taken are automatically backed up online. While I haven’t yet found a need for this feature, it should prove convenient with extended use considering how rarely most of us actually connect our phones to our computers. And the feature is even more valuable considering how good the camera on the Focus is.

The Samsung Focus is an excellent phone. There’s no question why it’s Microsoft’s flagship device for their new mobile OS. The Focus has everything a high-end phone today needs: great hardware, excellent software, and most importantly, they work well together. For app junkies, the WP7 app marketplace is barren, but anyone who wants a phone first, app player second, will be very pleased with the Focus. Combine that with a great camera, easy synchronization and plenty of customization, and both Samsung and Microsoft have a real winner.

The Samsung Focus is available on Amazon for $99.99 after a 2-year contract signing.



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.