Samsung and AT&T must have a good thing going with their array of Windows Phone devices, because here comes the fourth in line, the Samsung Focus 2. Two things make this handset, running Windows Phone 7.5, stand out. First, its 4G LTE connectivity makes it only the third Windows Phone device to be compatible with the faster of AT&T's two "4G" networks (behind the Nokia Lumia 900 and the .) Second, at $50 with a new two-year service agreement, the Focus 2 is a steal.
Beyond the budget price is a nice 4-inch Super AMOLED display, a 1.4GHz processor, a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera that captures 720p HD video, and a front-facing camera. While the Focus 2 will certainly lure in new Windows Phone users and deal-lovers, those looking for stepped-up camera resolution and larger memory storage should consider either of AT&T's other two LTE phones, or if data speed isn't a worry, then the.
Samsung is taking a cue from the cultural color zeitgeist and offering the Focus 2 in white, accented by a silvery trim. Although the Focus 2 is constructed of durable-feeling, hard-molded plastic, the smooth finish makes it look fairly classy. The coating may be a little too glossy, however. While it felt silky to the touch, it also slipped out of my hands and off my lap more than once. This would have been a good candidate for at least a patch of textured backing, preferably a soft rubberized area, to lend some grip. The Focus 2 may not be vying for the title of slimmest phone, but I found the dimensions comfortable, fairly compact, and easy to fit in a jeans pocket or purse. The handset measures about 4.7 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide by 0.5 inch deep and weighs 4.3 ounces. It's no lightweight, but it has about the right amount of heft.
A 4-inch Super AMOLED display greets you on the phone's face, with a 800x480-pixel (WVGA) resolution that's pretty standard for a screen this size. The simplicity of the Windows Phone OS tiles works well with the resolution, and text looks pretty sharply defined to the naked eye. As usual, Samsung's chosen display makes blacks look black and colors pop. In fact, compared with screens by other phone makers, Samsung's Super AMOLED screens make colors look oversaturated. While this works to the phone's advantage in most cases, your photos may look a little candy-coated (but more on this later.)
Above the touch screen is a front-facing VGA camera. Below the display are three backlit, touch-sensitive navigation buttons for back, home, and search. The secondary functions are there as well: press and hold the back button to see and select your recently opened apps, and do the same for the home button to launch voice actions. The search button pulls up Bing, from which you can also scan bar codes and identify music, in addition to other functions.
Silvery buttons on the right spine control power and the camera shutter. The volume rocker is on the left spine. A Micro-USB charging port is on the bottom and up top is the 3.5mm headset jack. Flip over the phone to see the 5-megapixel camera lens and flash. No current Windows Phone devices have expandable memory, so you won't find a microSD card slot, try as you might. The Focus 2 uses a micro-SIM card.
Microsoft sits in between Android and iOS when it comes to how locked-down the operating system is to manufacturer enhancements, but in general there's tremendous uniformity among the devices. If you know Windows Phone on one phone, you know it on them all. To recap, you'll find support for the hallmark connection and communication features: Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, maps, e-mail, and text and multimedia messaging. There's also hot-spot support, some neat integration with your phone contacts and social-networking services, built-in podcast subscription support, and Xbox Live.
Microsoft made an effort to bake certain useful enhancements into the OS, including the aforementioned voice actions, music ID, and bar code scanning for identification and shopping uses. There's also Yelp-like functionality in Local Scout, social network check-in from the personal profile on the Start screen, and auto-fix editing features in the camera app.
AT&T and Samsung slipped in their usual complement of apps as well. In Samsung's case, these are tidily corralled in the Samsung Zone within the application Marketplace. They include the Tango video chat app, Photo Studio, and a daily headline, to name but a few. Also in the Marketplace is AT&T Featured, where you'll find the excellent Pandora competitor Slacker Radio, Yellow Pages mobile (YP), and a bushel of AT&T account management apps.
You'll see many of the carrier's apps repeated on the app launch screen: AT&T Code Scanner, Family Map, and My AT&T. A subscription to AT&T Navigator delivers turn-by-turn voice directions, and signing up for AT&T U-verse Mobile gives you access to TV and videos. In addition to these are Microsoft's essential tools, which include an alarm, a calculator, a calendar, Internet Explorer, and folders for People, Games, and Music + Video.
The quality of what you get from the Focus 2's 5-megapixel rear-facing camera is variable, depending on how you fuss with the settings. Samsung's Windows phones have a bad habit of defaulting to the medium sharpness, even though they can increase two more sharpness levels. I'm someone who would prefer a "sharp" or "maximum" default, and only manually set a middle-of-the-road resolution if I want to be careful about the file size for mobile sharing or uploading.
Leave the settings as they are on medium, and you won't be blown away by the Focus 2's photographic capabilities, even though many of the photos are still acceptable. I was mostly pleased with the pictures I took in Milwaukee, Chicago, and San Francisco while testing the Focus 2, and believe me, I took plenty. I was totally satisfied with the image clarity for sharing photos via e-mail and social networks, though I did notice, as I mentioned, that the photos could have been a little sharper and brighter at a higher-detail setting. Indoor shots weren't as good as outdoor shots, and low-lighting situations only illuminated the camera's weakest point. A little natural light goes a long way. One-handed shooting makes it harder to achieve focused shots, since your hand shake competes with the built-in autofocus, which otherwise works great.