For only $49.99 for AT&T's Samsung Focus Flash, you might think you'd be getting a low-quality Windows Phone. I'm happy to report that you'd be wrong. The Focus Flash may indeed be the less expensive and less provisioned of AT&T's two new Samsung Windows "Mango" phones (the other being the Samsung Focus S), but it can stand on its own in today's tough market.
The Focus Flash has a stylish design, and a vibrant, if perhaps smallish 3.7-inch Super AMOLED screen, a 1.4GHz processor, and two cameras. It's easy to use thanks to Windows Phone's live tiles, and the Windows Phone OS continues to offer one of the better virtual keyboards available today. The handset isn't perfect, and Microsoft still has a long way to go to give Windows Phone the features and allure that iOS and Android have, but the Focus Flash is still an upper-middle model for smartphone buyers, particularly those on tight budgets.
The Focus Flash, a "4G" (HSPA+) world phone, becomes available Sunday, November 6.
I've got to hand it to Samsung on this one. The Focus Flash doesn't look like a $50 phone, or like the usual $50 phones Samsung excels at churning out. Instead of looking like a stamped plastic pebble, the Focus Flash manages to look tailored. It still has a glossy black plastic face, but sharp, squared-off edges make it look sleek rather than cheap, and the metal strip worked into the dark grey, removable plastic battery cover is a page from rival HTC's book on sartorial smartphone charms.
At 4.6 inches tall by 2.3 inches wide and 0.43 inch thick, the Focus Flash is a compact phone by today's standards, easily slipped into a pocket. It weighs 4.1 ounces, which feels about right, and I'm surprised at how light that thin metal sheet is on the plastic black cover.
One trade-off with the smaller overall size is the Focus Flash's 3.7-inch screen. Windows Phone live tiles are larger than your typical Android and iOS icons, so I didn't have any problems navigating around; however, for reading and typing, I'm beginning to prefer the ubiquitous 4-inch screen size. People who plan to watch a lot of streaming media may hesitate at this screen size as well.
When it comes to vibrancy and clarity, however, the Focus Flash is ahead of the game; its Super AMOLED screen has a 480x800-pixel WVGA resolution and supports 65,000 colors. Samsung has been among the front-runners when it comes to screen technology, and although this isn't the Super AMOLED Plus screen we're talking about, it's still bright, colorful, and full of visual oomph.
The Focus Flash is running Windows Phone 7.5 (also known as Mango), and as with other Windows Phones, you'll be able to choose one of 10 tile and icon colors and either a black or a white background. Other visual elements you can control include rearranging tiles on the start screen and pinning and unpinning tiles, people records, apps, and other elements to the start screen. Thanks to Mango, live tiles are more dynamic in the Windows Phone operating system than before, so you'll also be able to do things like update your social networking status from your constantly-updating Profile tile.
Let's move on to the phone's external features. One of the most exciting extras you may not expect from a $50 phone is the VGA camera lens located just above the screen. Below the screen are three typical buttons for the Back, Home, and Search. I like that the Windows button is a physical thing you can actually push, but it's a little small and I would prefer it flush or slightly raised from the surface rather than slightly indented--though it was likely designed that way to prevent accidental finger-presses.
A quite responsive volume rocker is on the left spine, with the power button and camera shutter button on the right. The Micro-USB charger port is on the bottom, and there's a 3.5mm headset jack up top. One of the nice things about Windows Phone is that pressing and holding the camera button wakes up the camera, even if the phone is locked with a password.
The camera lens itself is on the phone's back, and is accompanied by a flash. The back cover is removable, but you won't find any microSD cards here--Windows Phone famously is without support for microSD, and keeps an internal memory instead. On the Focus Flash that memory is 8GB--which is unfortunately on the smaller side, but not unexpected for the phone's modest price.
Microsoft keeps the Windows Phone OS pretty locked down, so the features are similar from phone to phone. One of the most important features is that the Focus Flash runs on AT&T's "4G" HSPA+ network, which is speedier than the 3G network, but it isn't 4G LTE.
Like other smartphones, the Focus Flash supports Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, and multimedia messaging. There's e-mail and social networking integration through account log-ins in the settings, an option for linking inboxes together, and support for group messaging. Your address book is limited only by your available memory. There's also a neat ability to thread messages sent between IM and traditional texting in the same thread, and support for task-switching. (For even more detail about what's new in Mango, read the full Windows Phone 7.5 review.)
There's also good stuff like speakerphone, conference calling, and voice prompts for things like voice dialing. Essentials include your clock, your calendar, a calculator, Internet Explorer 9 (with HTML5 support but no Flash), and podcast subscriptions. There's also a Bing Maps app, with turn-by-turn directions for walking and driving. Microsoft offers Xbox Live integration through the Games hub.
Although there's not a lot of variation, there is a bit of wiggle room for manufacturers and carriers to add some of their own apps, and we see that here. With AT&T, you get branded apps for a bar code and QR code scanner, AT&T Navigator with turn-by-turn directions, AT&T Radio, MyWireless, and AT&T U-verse Mobile, which is the mobile version of U-verse TV for streaming shows (this service costs $9.99 per month to sign up for from the phone).
Samsung has added a few extras as well, like a Photo Studio app with some basic editing tools. It'd be even better to see these things within the native camera app.
Microsoft continues to win points for its Music+Videos hub with Zune and Zune Pass integration, and great music-mixing DJ features. Bing's new Mango features with music identification and optical scan-search (called Bing Vision) also worked well on this real-world device.
The device memory is limited to 8GB, as I've mentioned before, but Microsoft has attempted to soften the blow by giving Windows Phone users 25GB of free online file storage through SkyDrive. It's one method for saving photos, videos, and other documents.
As a reminder, the Focus Flash has a front-facing VGA camera and a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera with LED flash. I must have looked narcissistic repeatedly taking self-portraits in the office, but it's because the photos constantly came out blurry enough to make me dizzy. That's unfortunately not much of a shocker for a phone camera, although quality is slowly improving over time across the industry as a whole. At least the photos aren't grainy. However, neither are they focused.
The rear-facing camera took photos with distinct edges and good focus (autofocus helps). Color fidelity was very good, but in some cases, especially scenes with artificial lighting, colors were off, and often oversaturated. In most cases, the autofix editing icon in the camera app's photo-review screen correctly adjusted the scenes, lightening and brightening as needed.
You can see more of the phone's photographic capabilities in this slideshow.
Video recording and playback were fair, but the camera struggled with the low levels of indoor light in my test video (I'll spend more time with outdoor video as well.) It was a little dark, and the camcorder had difficulty keeping the lighting steady. It made the room look much grayer than it was. I also had to boost the volume to hear the subject of the video, but it did play back smoothly without jerkiness. It'll serve most people's purposes well enough, but it isn't the peak quality I've seen.
I tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Samsung Focus Flash in San Francisco using AT&T's network. Call quality was a little weak in my tests. Volume was nice and loud, but voices sounded muffled and slightly digital, as if the voice were being fed ever so subtly through an autotuner. I did enjoy the absence of background noise. On their end, callers said my voice was loud, but sounded a little bit raspy and garbled, and not quite natural.
Samsung Focus Flash call quality sample Listen now:
On the other hand, the phone delivered one of the better examples of speakerphone I've heard. It was nice and loud on both ends of the line, without background distractions. Sure, it still sounded like a buzzy speakerphone, but it was highly understandable and relatively clear, if a little lispy.
Data speeds on AT&T's 4G HSPA+ network was pretty good. CNET's mobile site loaded in about 17 seconds, and the full desktop site loaded in 34 seconds. The New York Times' mobile-optimized site finished loading in 5.5 seconds, and the full desktop site loaded in about 28 seconds.
The Focus Flash has a rated battery life of up to 6.5 hours of talk time and 10.4 days of standby time. FCC radio frequency tests measured a "="" rel="follow">digital SAR of 0.35 watt per kilogram.
Set aside the ridiculously reasonable $50 price tag and the Samsung Focus Flash is still a worthy smartphone, especially for people who want quality, but who don't demand cutting-edge specs. The processor is single-core, but performed without lagginess or incident. The 4G speeds won't be as fast as AT&T's nascent LTE network, but they are faster than plain old 3G. The screen is on the smaller side, the front-facing camera is nothing to boast about, and the call quality needs some maintenance work, but from the camera to the apps, the Focus Flash behaves like a good Windows Phone should. At this point, whether you like it or not probably boils down to how you feel about the operating system as a whole.
I, for one, would recommend the Focus Flash--to the right person. For those who are already entrenched in iOS or Android, the Focus Flash won't be the phone to lure you away. But if you're a Windows Phone fan, a new smartphone owner, or someone who's open to Windows Phone's simplicity and clean, fresh design (and who also happens to love a good deal), by all means check it out.