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Samsung Focus (AT&T) review: Samsung Focus (AT&T)

Samsung Focus (AT&T)

Bonnie Cha Former Editor
Bonnie Cha was a former chief correspondent for CNET Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.
Bonnie Cha
19 min read


Samsung Focus (AT&T)

The Good

The Samsung Focus features a brilliant 4-inch Super AMOLED touch screen. The smartphone has good quality, and the camera takes excellent photos and video. Windows Phone 7 brings a fresh and friendly user interface, great multimedia capabilities, and an improved browser.

The Bad

No copy and paste yet. Limited support for landscape mode. Xbox Live games slow to load. The phone feels a bit plasticky. No direct syncing for non-Exchange Outlook accounts; must go through the cloud.

The Bottom Line

Anyone looking for an alternative to the iPhone, but who wants better multimedia features and a more organized user interface than Android offers, should look at the Samsung Focus with Windows Phone 7, which has all that plus solid performance and a sleek design.

Editors' note:In our reviews of the HTC Surround and the Samsung Focus, we point out some of the more major features of Windows Phone 7, but for a more detailed look at the full operating system, please check out our in-depth review of Windows Phone 7.

The Samsung Focus is one of the first Windows Phone 7 devices to ship in the U.S, and all eyes are on this first wave of handsets to see if Microsoft's revamped mobile operating system actually delivers--no pressure. The device itself is very much on par with what's out there today. Similar to Samsung's Galaxy S models, the Focus features a gorgeous 4-inch Super AMOLED touch screen, a 1GHz processor, a 5-megapixel camera with HD video capture, and unlike some of the other Windows phones, it has expandable memory. As for Windows Phone 7, we get into the nitty-gritty in our review here but overall, we think it's a very solid start for Microsoft. The operating system has its flaws, mostly due to the lack of some basic features, but we found much to like about Windows Phone 7. There may be those who are wary and will hold off on buying a first-gen device with a new system, especially from a company that hasn't had the best record in the mobile industry, However, Windows Phone 7 feels different and gives Android a run for its money in the usability and multimedia departments. If the iPhone isn't your thing, the Samsung Focus is absolutely worth a look. The Samsung Focus will be available starting November 8 for $199.99.

If you've handled any of the Samsung Galaxy S phones, then the Samsung Focus will look and feel familiar to you. Featuring an all touch-screen design similar to the Fascinate, the Focus measures 4.9 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide by 0.4 inch thick and weighs 4.2 ounces. It's slimmer and lighter than the HTC Surround but also feels a bit more plasticky and slick. That's not to say that the smartphone is fragile or cheap; in fact, the phone is sturdy, but we wouldn't mind seeing some type of soft-touch finish or metal parts on the handset.

The Samsung Focus is similar to the Galaxy S series in design.

The Samsung Focus really shines with its 4-inch Super AMOLED touch screen--another carryover from the Galaxy S series. Sharp and vibrant, text, Web pages, pictures, and video look absolutely brilliant on the screen. We also found it responsive, as it registered all our taps and quickly scrolled through lists and easily zoomed in and out of pages. The display has a proximity sensor, as well as a built-in accelerometer, but the user interface doesn't always rotate with the phone, which is a problem (more on this in the User Interface section).

For text entry, the Focus offers an onscreen keyboard in both portrait and landscape mode. Despite its cramped looks, we were able to peck away at the keys and compose messages fairly quickly and with minimal errors. We'd say it's on par with the Android keyboard. The keyboard has predictive text and depending on the task, the keyboard offers various shortcut keys. For example, if you're entering an e-mail address or Web URL, you'll get a ".com" button or if you're typing a message, you'll get an emoticon shortcut.

As required by Microsoft, below the screen you'll find the back, Start, and search buttons.

Below the display, you'll find the three navigation buttons--back, Start, and search. Microsoft requires these three buttons on all of its Windows Phone 7 handsets, but OEMs can customize the style of the controls, whether they are touch-sensitive, physical keys, or a combination of both. In Samsung's case, it chose to go with all touch-sensitive buttons on the Focus.

There are several physical controls on the Focus, including a volume rocker on the left and a power button and camera activation/capture key on the right side. Other components on the smartphone include a Micro-USB port and 3.5mm headphone jack on top of the device, camera and flash on back, and a microSD expansion slot behind the battery door.

The Samsung Focus comes packaged with a wall charger, a USB cable, a wired stereo headset, and reference material.

User interface
Windows Phone 7 is a complete and refreshing departure from previous versions of Windows Mobile. Microsoft essentially pressed the restart button and worked with a team of designers to create a mobile operating system based on a number of principles, including elegance and simplicity, typography, motion, and relevance, which we mostly saw during this preview.

The change is immediately noticeable as soon as you pick up the phone. Microsoft stripped away all unnecessary information (almost too much, actually--the status bar displaying battery life, signal strength, and so forth goes into hiding after a couple of seconds) and soft buttons, and created a Start screen that consists of "live tiles," which are essentially dynamic widgets to your favorite apps, contacts, and hubs and also display alerts, such as new e-mail and missed calls. You can rearrange the order of the tiles and remove them by doing a long press on the screen. You can also "pin" new tiles, but to do so, you must first navigate to the list of apps (press arrow to the right of the Start screen) or the People hub, find the item that you want to add, and then pin it to the Start screen.

Beyond the Start and apps menu, you will find the platform's Hub system. The idea behind hubs is to bring together related content into a single place for consumption and interaction, and it really showcases some of the work Microsoft has done on relevancy, organization, elegance and typography. There are six hubs in total--People, Pictures, Games, Music + Video, Marketplace, and Office.

Within each hub, you will find a panoramic user interface with bold, attractive text splashed across the top to identify different subsections (aka Pivots) that you can swipe across and in some cases, a small contextual toolbar along the bottom of the screen to help you perform specific tasks to the app.

Now, some might complain that this type of navigation requires too much scrolling and can be overly complicated and admittedly, when compared to iOS and Android, this is true and certainly won't be for everybody. On the flip side, we found it absolutely wonderful to be able to do so many things from one place, without having to launch several different apps, so we have to give Microsoft kudos for thinking of this kind of organization. We also very much appreciated the consistent user interface, since it made it easy to work each of the other hubs.

Overall, Windows Phone 7 provides a more pleasant navigation experience than previous iterations of Windows Mobile, mostly from an aesthetic standpoint but in other aspects too. As much as Microsoft focused on the typography and creating a chromeless user interface, it also concentrated on motion, and as you launch apps and navigate through the different screens, you'll notice that some of the transitions are marked by turnstile motions. It's modern and fresh, but sometimes it can slow down navigation.

The back and Start buttons did their assigned jobs of returning to the previous page and Start screen, but we wish there was a way to bring up a list of your recently used apps like Android does, since it's easy to get lost once you start diving deeper into an app. In general, however, we found the touch interface and general navigation felt zippier than past versions of Windows Mobile.

There are things that could be improved, though. For example, there's only limited support for landscape mode. It works for messages, videos and photos, the Web browser, and games. However, if you rotate the phone, the Start screen will remain in portrait mode. Microsoft said that user testing showed that customers were really only rotating the phone to type messages, but were otherwise using the phone in portrait mode. But what about maps? What about when you're listening to music on the HTC Surround with the kickstand open and want to see what song is playing?

All things considered, will Windows Phone 7 resonate with consumers? We think so. It's interesting to note that several times throughout the review period, people commented on how they liked the user experience on Windows Phone 7 better than Android--both from a looks standpoint and user friendliness. The iPhone is still the one to beat in terms of ease of use, but in a competition for simplicity between Android and Windows Phone, we'd say the latter would win.

Along the same lines, there's something to Microsoft's decision to crack down on third-party customization. From the very beginning, the company said it wanted to provide a consistent end-user experience regardless of the phone or provider and in the long run, this will help make the transition easier as users switch devices or move carriers. This should also prevent delays when pushing out software updates, since each custom UI doesn't have to go through testing to ensure it works with the new software. OEMs and carriers also still have the opportunity to add their customizations. It's just a more subtle approach. For example, Samsung offers a Now hub, which acts similarly to the Happenings Now widget on the Galaxy S Android devices by providing weather information and news and stocks updates.

We have to give Microsoft credit for being able to acknowledge that its old OS wasn't working and taking a chance on rebuilding something from the ground up. The end result is something fresh, fun, and functional.

Phone features
Starting with the basics of the phone, the Samsung Focus offers quad-band world roaming, a speakerphone, conference calling, voice dialing, text and multimedia messaging, and the full range of wireless options: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 3G, and GPS. The dialer app is simple and straightforward, though to access it as well as other phone options (mute, speaker, etc.) once on a call, you must tap a small icon to activate pull-down menu.

Like many other smartphone, Windows Phone 7 is able to merge contact information from different e-mail accounts and social networking sites, but it's a bit limited in scope and capabilities right now. The OS draws from Facebook, Windows Live, Exchange, and your other e-mail accounts for contact data, and after setting up your device with these accounts, the phone immediately pulls in contact information.

Previously, there was no way to filter the contacts--it was all or nothing--but Microsoft added a feature where you can now exclude Facebook contacts that don't exist in your other synced accounts (e.g., Outlook, Windows Live, Gmail), which makes your address book manageable if your Facebook account is full of casual contacts.

We chose this option and imported our Facebook, Gmail, Windows Live, and Exchange accounts. The syncing process was painless and happened in the background, but we ended up with numerous duplicates for the same contact. It's easy enough to link profiles, but with the number of duplicates we had, it got to be quite tedious and annoying.

As we briefly mentioned in the Navigation section, the People hub also provides real-time updates to your friends' Facebook statuses and allows you to quickly like or add a comment if you wish. You can easily update your own by tapping on your individual card from the contacts list. For the most part, you can access most of the information you would see on Facebook from within the People hub, but if there is something requires you to go outside the hub, you have to sign into your account via the browser, as the dedicated Facebook app isn't available yet.

One other notable omission that might irk a lot of people is the lack of Twitter integration. This isn't to say it won't be offered in the future, but as of now, it's not supported at launch. It'd also be nice to have a Favorite category in the People hub. The Recent list doesn't quite cut it.

E-mail and calendar
Windows Phone 7 offers a variety of e-mail support, including the standard POP3/IMAP accounts and of course Exchange. For most personal accounts, setup is a simple matter of entering your log-in ID and password, and we were able to sync up our Windows Live and Gmail accounts in a matter of seconds. Setting up Outlook requires a little more information, such as server and domain info, but again, we didn't encounter any problems here. That said, for Outlook accounts not connected via Exchange ActiveSync, you must sync through the cloud (via Windows Live/Hotmail) in order to get your calendar and contacts synced to the phone.

We should note that you don't have to have a Windows Live ID to start using the phone, but if you want to access the Marketplace or Xbox Live, it is required, so you'll most likely want to create one or log in, for access to apps at the very least. This will also back up your phone's data to windowsphone.live.com where you can also manage your contacts, photos, and use several tools to locate or wipe your phone in case it gets lost or stolen.

Windows Phone 7 doesn't offer a combined inbox; a separate inbox is set up for each of your accounts. The e-mail experience is the same regardless of which client you're using, and it's strikingly simple in appearance, though that isn't a reflection of the app's capabilities. Messages are filtered by all, unread, flagged, or urgent, and also features a robust search function that can find keywords within the text of the message or within the e-mail fields. It's also a treat that you can simply tap to the left of a message(s) and press the small trash icon at the bottom to delete it.

You can configure the device to sync e-mail at different time intervals, ranging from manually to as items arrive. We received our messages as they arrived, sometimes before they even hit our real inbox. We didn't have any issues download attachments, but be aware that initially you have to manually sync your folders.

Though you don't get a unified inbox, you do get a combined calendar, with appointments color-coded by account. The calendar apps provides views by agenda, day, and month, with a similarly clean and minimalist view as e-mail. There is no week view, however. Microsoft said it didn't find it necessary, but we think it would've been helpful, especially as you're preparing for the work week.

You can also easily create new appointments using the contextual toolbar at the bottom of the screen and set such options as a reminder, occurrence, and status, but we weren't able to access our corporate directory to add attendees, only those listed in our contacts list. If you receive a meeting request, there are simple icons for accepting, declining, or responding to invites, and there's even an option to send a note to all the meeting attendees if you're running late.

Office support
Similar to Exchange, we expect good integration between the Microsoft Office Suite and Windows Phone 7, and the elements are certainly there. You can view, edit, and create Word and Excel documents, while PowerPoint files are limited to just view and edit. We downloaded Word and Excel attachments from our e-mail and were quite happy with how documents were displayed with original formatting. However, editing options are pretty much limited to formatting, highlighting and changing font color. What's even worse, Windows Phone 7 doesn't offer copy/paste--yet. Microsoft is working on bringing this basic functionality to Windows Phone in the near future, but at launch, you'll be without.

A new addition to the Mobile Suite is OneNote Mobile. The note-taking app is quite useful; you can add photos and recorded audio clips, as well as bulleted or numbered lists to notes. You can pin notes to the Start page, e-mail them, or sync them to your Windows Live account, so you can access it via Web later on.

Finally, if your company uses SharePoint Server 2010 for storing documents to share and edit, you can access them by entering the URL.

Web browser
Mobile Web is such a huge part of smartphones nowadays, and fortunately, Windows Phone 7 provides a relatively good browsing experience, certainly much improved from Windows Mobile. The Internet Explorer browser offers support for up to six windows and thumbnail views of all open pages, so you can easily toggle back and forth. You can also bookmark sites, and if you feel like it, you can pin pages to the Start screen for easier access.

Zooming can be handled either by using the pinch-to-zoom gesture or by double-tapping the screen. Both are smooth and zippy, but there's a slight delay when rerendering text and images. Other available tools and settings include keyword search, the ability to share links, and page suggestions by Bing.

Page load times were fairly quick. Using AT&T's 3G network, CNET's full page loaded in 21 seconds, while mobile sites for CNN and ESPN came up in 11 seconds and 9 seconds, respectively.

Now, for the bad news. As of right now, there's no support for Flash, Silverlight, or HTML5, so despite taking several steps forward, Windows Phone 7's also several steps behind the competitors. There's some consolation in the fact that Adobe did say at Mobile World Congress that it's working with Microsoft to bring Flash to the browser, but it just won't be in time for the holiday launch.

Music and video
If there's one area where Windows Phone 7 really excels and gives the competition a run for its money, it's the music experience. Windows Phone 7 now includes full Zune integration, so anyone who has used a Zune HD will be familiar with the interface of the Music + Videos hub. If you're new to Zune, there's a slight learning curve, but the interface is fresh and fun. The player offers simple controls and displays both the album art and an artist picture in the background. That said, it'd be nice to have better player control when multitasking.

When working in another app while listening to music, nowhere on the screen do you see your current track or any type of controls for advancing or rewinding tracks. It was only when we pressed the volume rocker by accident that a small toolbar dropped down from the top of the screen to expose the media buttons. This treatment is fine and we can learn to live with it, but we just wish it was more apparent from the get-go.

To get music, videos, and photos onto your phone, you will now be required to use Zune desktop software, and it's not just for multimedia. All synchronization and content management between your device and your computer will be handled through the Zune software; there's no more Exchange ActiveSync, and we can't that we're sad about that fact.

The Zune desktop client is much more attractive and easy to use. We dragged and dropped songs, videos, and podcasts with no problem (note that there is no drag-and-drop mass storage, however), and playback was fine. Windows Phone 7 also allows for Wi-Fi syncing, so you can drag and drop files to the phone icon on the desktop client, then the next time you plug the phone in for a charge and it detects your preferred Wi-Fi network, it will wirelessly sync the new files.

One other very important feature to call out here: Windows Phone 7 will sync with Macs. Yes, you read right.

Microsoft will release a beta version of Windows Phone Connect to Mac later this year that will allow you to sync non-DRM content from iTunes and iPhoto via USB. However, it's quite limited in capabilities. For example, you can only choose to sync by playlist, artist, or genre; you can't pick individual songs. The same holds true for photos--you sync entire albums but not individual photos. At launch, it also won't support contact syncing.

The Windows Phone Connect to Mac desktop client is pretty bare-bones, but at least it provides you a way to sync iTunes and iPhoto with your phone.

Still, we'll take the limited capabilities over nothing. We received an early version of the software to try out, and we were able to sync albums and photos just fine. However, we weren't able to play our selected songs on the Samsung Focus. We could see the album art and full track list and received the following error message: "Can't play. Try signing in with your Windows Live ID or try syncing again." Meanwhile, we repeated the process on the HTC Surround and it had no problem playing back the tracks. Obviously, there are some kinks that need to be worked out.

We dragged and dropped songs, videos, and podcasts with no problem, and playback was fine. You can, of course, purchase and download new music and video from the Zune Marketplace, directly from the phone or from your PC. However, with a Zune Pass subscription, you'll also be able to stream unlimited music to your phone. The catch is that this feature costs an additional $14.99 per month, but we absolutely loved having it as a way to discover new music. Even if you opt not to get Zune Pass, the good news is that Windows Phone 7 handsets will all have FM radios and support third-party streaming services, such as Slacker, which is already available in the Marketplace.

Camera and photos
The Samsung Focus is equipped with a 5-megapixel camera and flash and HD video capture. It offers more editing options than the HTC Surround, including settings for contrast, saturation, and metering but more importantly, it delivered better picture quality. Objects appeared sharper in images, and with or without the flash, colors were more vibrant. Recorded video also looked crisp and didn't have any of that haziness that we've often experienced on other camera phones.

We were quite impressed with the picture quality.

Any photos you take with the camera will show up in the Photo hub under the Camera roll. With any photos, you can do a long press on an image to share it either via e-mail, MMS, or Facebook, or you can upload it to SkyDrive, Windows Live's online storage system.

Along with your camera photos, the Picture hub will also display any images synced from your computer, Facebook albums, and mobile uploads. You can filter images by date or favorites, as well as check out a timeline of photos that your friends have uploaded to Facebook.

Curiously, there isn't a slide show option built into the Picture hub, so you have to manually swipe through your photos if you feel like taking a trip down memory lane--a shame, particularly for those handsets with built-in kickstands. Also, unfortunately, right now you can't upload or share any videos directly from the phone. You'll have to transfer the file to your computer if you want to do so.

Apps and Windows Marketplace
One of the big questions surrounding Windows Phone 7 is its Windows Phone Marketplace. Apps have become integral part of smartphones and are a key differentiator among platforms. So how will Windows Phone 7 fit into the landscape? Will developers take to the platform? Will the quality of apps be on par with iOS and Android? It will be some time before we know the answer to some of those questions, but from what we've seen so far, the outlook is promising.

Microsoft says it's confident that the Windows Phone Marketplace with launch with more than 1,000 apps and games when the first phones ship in the U.S. on November 8 and expect to release several hundred apps per week till the end of 2010. As an example, scheduled releases for the month of December include SlingPlayer, AP Mobile, ESPN, Amazon Kindle, Direct TV, Ustream, Weather Channel, Cheeseburger Network, Seesmic, Photobucket, Zagat, and MySpace Local Concerts.

During our review period, there were about 450 apps available, including some of the more major and mainstream apps such as Twitter, Slacker, Foursquare, OpenTable, and Fandango. Our concern wasn't so much with the quantity of apps (the apps will come) but with the quality. However, we were heartened by what we saw when we checked out some of the available titles.

Many of the apps, such as Twitter, Slacker, and IMDb have adopted the same type of panoramic interface found in the hubs, so you already get a familiar feel as you're using the apps. They're also quite eye-catching and full-featured. For example, in Fandango, you can watch movie trailers within the app and purchase tickets. Meanwhile, the eBay app allows you to search and buy/bid on items, as well as share links, read descriptions and watch product video.

If this first wave of titles is any indication as to type and quality of apps coming to Windows Phone 7, then we're not too worried. You can check out more Windows Phone 7 apps here.

Of course, as an AT&T phone, the Samsung Focus also comes preloaded with a number of carrier services, including AT&T Navigator, AT&T Radio, and AT&T U-verse Mobile, which allows you to download TV shows via Wi-Fi onto the phone. For a limited time, AT&T will actually offer customers who purchase a Windows Phone 7 device a free Entertainment Pack, which includes a 30-day trial to U-Verse Mobile (normally $9.99 per month), a 30-day Zune Pass, the "ilomilo" Xbox Live Arcade game. Pretty sweet freebie if you ask us.

However, here's another sweet thing about Windows Phone 7. Unlike the carrier's other smartphones, you can actually uninstall any of the unwanted carrier apps from the phone--not just remove them from the Start menu but actually uninstall them. This is great news if you don't like all that bloatware tying up precious resources. Just note that if you hard reset the phone, the apps will reinstall after the reboot.

Call quality and performance
We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Samsung Focus in New York using AT&T service and call quality was quite good. Our callers sounded loud and clear, and we weren't distracted by any background noise or voice distortion. Originally, we had the volume set at the highest level, and the sound was actually too loud and hurt our ears.

Samsung Focus call quality sample
Listen now:

Though not as loud, the speakerphone provided enough volume that we could carry on conversations in a noisier environment. The sound quality was slightly hollow on our end, and callers said there was a bit of an echo on their side but nothing that prevented us from carrying on with the conversation. We paired the smartphone with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones with no problem.

The Samsung Focus comes with a 1GHz processor and 8GB of internal memory with expansion slot (up to 16GB). Generally speaking, the phone was responsive and was able to keep up with most of our tasks. The turnstile animations kind of disguise it, but there were slight delays as we waited for some apps to launch. The most significant lag occurred when starting up a couple of Xbox Live games but beyond that, we didn't encounter any debilitating delays. Game play was smooth, as was video and music playback.

The Samsung Focus ships with a 1,500mAh lithium ion battery with a rated talk time of 6.5 hours and up to 12.5 days of standby time. In our battery drain tests, the Focus provided 6 hours on continuous talk time before needing to be recharged. Anecdotally, with moderate to heavy use, we got a full day's use out of the phone before needing to recharge.


Samsung Focus (AT&T)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8