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 HTC Titan II.) 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 Focus S.
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.
The Focus 2's color reproduction is an interesting beast, since colors you view on the screen of most Samsung AMOLED phones are almost always oversaturated. This doesn't matter much, and in fact is advantageous when it comes to viewing the live tiles. The blow-out becomes obvious when viewing outdoor scenes where leaves and grass appear candied and unsettlingly greener than real life. However, the colors mellow out and become much more natural when you view them on a computer monitor.
I always love Windows Phone's physical camera shutter button and autofocus, and Microsoft did a great job of designing the camera software itself, and integrating an autofix feature that, while not a sure shot every time, at least attempts to smooth out the final image.
On to video recording: the Focus 2 captures movies in 720p HD. The recording experience was pretty good, but I did notice that it took a second (probably actually a fraction of a second) for objects to come into focus as I moved the camera around. Colors looked right and videos I played back looked smooth, not jerky. Videos shot on the Focus 2 will be ideal for show-and-tell, and for casual uploads, but the phone won't produce the sharp quality we're seeing on some (but not all) of the most high-end phones. Shutterbugs may have to become creative with storage, since the Focus 2 has no expandable memory and only 8GB of onboard storage. New users will get access to 7GB of online storage with Microsoft SkyDrive. Microsoft used to offer 25GB to alleviate any potential space crunch, before changing its cap. According to Microsoft, 99 percent of SkyDrive users don't exceed the free cap, and those who do are welcome to purchase some more online space.
I tested the quad-band Samsung Focus 2 (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) in San Francisco. Call quality was definitely serviceable overall, but my main impression was "soft." I turned up the volume from medium to high, and a cloak of fuzziness covered my speakers' words. Audio tripped up frequently, and I even heard some garbled words, though the conversation was intelligible the entire time. The line sounded clear, even if the way the words transmitted wasn't sharp. My callers, on the other hand, praised the strong volume and clarity, saying I sounded very slightly muffled.
Samsung Focus 2 call quality sample Listen now:
When I held the phone at waist level, the speakerphone also sounded better to my testing partner than it did to me. I had to turn up the volume to hear, and voices sounded a little fuzzy, not clear, but at least speakerphone cured the garbling. With the volume relatively high, I could feel the handset buzzing in my palm when the voice on the other end of the line spoke. Callers summed up the speakerphone quality sparingly, as "good." Carrying on a conversation wasn't a problem, but I've heard clearer speakerphones.
There's some confusion about how many processors a smartphone really needs to operate at peak. Microsoft says it's working on supporting multicore processors, but maintains that the way the Windows Phone OS was written, with fewer processing demands at once, a dual-core or quad-core processor would be overkill. Politics and marketing aside, I never noticed undue hang time with the Focus 2's 1.4GHz processor when I browsed Web sites, opened apps, and generally navigated around. That said, some apps do load faster than others. Voice actions, for example, doesn't load instantly.
One of the most attractive features of the Focus 2 is access to AT&T's 4G LTE data network. Speeds weren't exactly blazing-fast in San Francisco, where the app WP7 Bandwidth Test (Free Speed Test in the Marketplace) recorded HSPA+ and LTE speeds ranging between 2Mbps and 5Mbps down, and upload speeds that hovered around 1Mbps. In real-world use that translated to a phone that loaded graphics-heavy Web sites quickly (CNET.com's full site loaded completely in just over 30 seconds) and streamed YouTube videos without any buffering. Still, I did notice some blockiness in the resolution, which was noticeably below HD. Still, if you don't require HD video streaming (which usually comes with a premium price tag,) then streaming without interruption worked fine.
The Focus 2's rated battery life is a respectable 6 hours of talk time, with a standby time of up to 10.4 days over 3G and a much shorter 6.5 days over 4G LTE. Of course, all this can change depending on how bright your screen is and how often and intensely you use your phone. FCC tests measure the Focus 2's digital SAR at 0.76 watt per kilogram.
If you've been searching high and low for a bundle of Windows Phone value, the Focus 2 is Samsung's AT&T LTE answer both to T-Mobile's Nokia Lumia 710 and also to its own Focus Flash. The specs hold their own for a midlevel or entry-level smartphone, with a better-than-average screen and camera (especially when you increase the sharpness) and extras like a front-facing camera. I won't blame you one bit if the low price tips your decision in the phone's favor. Just keep in mind that at times, you can see the trade-offs Samsung made to keep the phone within range of the offer, like a smaller memory store and a slippy finish. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the Focus 2, but would steer away those who yearn for marathon battery life and top-of-the-line camera quality.