The Windows Phone OS has arrived on a number of good handsets, but none of the manufacturers has yet been able to produce a killer Windows Phone for the U.S. market...until now. The Samsung Focus S, introduced by AT&T, is a beautiful device: it's thin, it's light (maybe too light), and it sports a gorgeous 4.3-inch Super AMOLED Plus screen, a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera, and a quite good 8-megapixel rear-facing camera.
Does it sound familiar? It should, and that's its only catch. The Focus S is essentially the same shell as AT&T's excellent Samsung Galaxy S II phone, minus the Android operating system (and a few other internals), and plus a physical camera button. The recipe does make for a very smooth Windows Phone experience, if you can push past the mildly creepy sense of déjà vu.
The Samsung Focus S costs a reasonable $199.99 with a new, two-year service agreement, but at the time of this review, I saw it on sale online for $99.99, so check around for discounts before you buy.
Classy, sleek, and open are three words I'd use to describe the Samsung Galaxy S II phones, and the same can be said of the Focus S. The all-black phone has rounded corners and flat sides. As with AT&T's Galaxy S II and slightly larger (and LTE-capable) Skyrocket, the handset has a slightly dimpled back cover and a slight rise where the cover snaps into place at the bottom of the phone. A larger handset, the Focus S measures nearly 5 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide by a svelte 0.3 inch thick. With its slimness and scant 3.9-ounce weight, it feels a little insubstantial, and I'm unconvinced of its ability to sustain casualties from butterfingers' repeated drops.
The Focus S has a gorgeous 4.3-inch Super AMOLED display with a WVGA resolution of 800x480 pixels, and support for 16 million colors. As with other phones with this screen technology, colors are vivid and stand out from the screen; it may make photos and video look more saturated on the screen than they are when viewed from your computer, so beware!
Running Windows Phone 7.5 Mango, the Focus S' interface is simply a single start screen populated with dynamic live tiles, many of which update with new information (this page is customizable to a degree--you can determine color and app order, and pin and unpin tiles). There's a second screen that shows your apps.
Above the display is the 1.3-megapixel camera. Below it are three touch-sensitive buttons that correspond to the back button, home, and search. Pressing and holding the back button also lets you switch among tasks. The same motion on the home key launches voice actions.
Windows Phones tend to have a few more physical buttons than phones on other platforms. Unfortunately, these buttons are rather cheap-looking lumps of plastic on the Focus S, and lack the polish found on the rest of the design. On the left is the volume rocker, and on the right spine you'll find the power and camera shutter buttons. The Micro-USB charging port is down below, and up top there's the 3.5mm headset jack. Flip the phone over to locate the 8-megapixel camera lens and LED flash.
Since this is a Windows phone, all memory is internal; there's no microSD card slot for expandable memory.
Editors' note: Due to their similarity, much of this section is taken from the review of the Samsung Focus Flash, also for AT&T.
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. You get 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 if you sign up 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.
At 16GB, the device memory doubles that of AT&T's Samsung Focus Flash. Without a microSD card slot, that's the upper limit for all local storage, but Microsoft has softened 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.
Samsung has a knack for making some pretty nice cameras, and the Focus S is the lucky recipient of an 8-megapixel lens and a 1.3-megapixel front-facer. I really like Microsoft's take on the app itself, which wakes up when you press and hold the camera button, even in locked mode. Switching among cameras and video mode is simple, as is accessing the multiple settings for white balance, image effect contrast, sharpness, ISO, photo resolution, and so on. Simply swipe toward the top of the phone to view the photo gallery.
Photos themselves were very good. Sharpness is set to medium by default, which is too bad, because amping the sharpness up to high or maximum sharpness can really define the photo. If you don't save the settings, they'll return to the default. Colors were usually vibrant, though at times the Focus S has been known to overdo it with tones that appear candied, especially reds and greens. I witnessed some weird ghosting on one indoor photo. There is a bit of shutter lag, but not so much it gets annoying.
The front-facing camera took decent pictures, all things considered, though they were often washed-out and less distinct (which might be a good thing when it comes to such close-range face photography). Video played back smoothly, without any jitters or skipping, though it sometimes washed out the scene and in general looks best when viewed on a slightly smaller screen. See even more photos taken with the Focus S in this gallery.
I tested the quad-band (GSM 8500/900/1800/1900) Samsung Focus S in San Francisco on AT&T's network. Call quality was acceptable, but not quite ideal. Volume was nice and loud to my ears, and voices sounded rich and natural, though a little scratchy. While the line was clear, without any background noise, I did notice some garbling and audio blips. Callers on the other end of the line reported volume a bit on the low side, and a little echo, though they said I sounded like me and there wasn't any background fuzz.
Samsung Focus S call quality sample Listen now:
To test speakerphone, I held the phone at waist level. Volume was acceptable, pretty loud for the feature, while managing to keep the buzzing that often accompanies higher-volume speakerphones in check. I'll note that voices did sound tinny, but not echoey. On the other end of the line, callers said I sounded hollow and distant, and that call volume plunged. Sounds began running together, but there was no signal disruption.
Data speeds are important, of course, and while there aren't any Windows Phones that support 4G LTE yet, a couple are greenlit for the "4G" HSPA+ network. These speeds aren't as blazing as LTE phones in absolute terms, but I will say that browsing felt comfortably normal. Using the Focus S' Internet Explorer browser, CNET's mobile-optimized site finished loading in about 14 seconds, with the full, graphically rich site loading in about 27 seconds. IE drew up the New York Times' desktop site--without redirecting to mobile--in about 15 seconds. Internal speeds felt fast on the phone's 1.4GHz processor.
The Focus S has a rated talk time of up to 6.5 hours, and up to 10 days of standby time on its 1,650mAh battery. According to FCC's radio frequency tests, the Focus S has a digital SAR of 0.33 watt per kilogram.
Samsung has definitely led the way with Windows Phones, from the original Samsung Focus to the loosely related Focus Flash and Focus S we see now. Any way you look at it, the Focus S, with its clean, attractive, powerful minimalism, is easy to use and lets Windows Phone shine. There are few overt flaws, and the device brings Microsoft's mobile platform the closest it's ever been to being in direct competition with Android and iOS superphones. However, as much as I recommend the device for day-to-day use, the analytical part of me can't help but feel like Samsung is cheating just a little bit by reusing the widespread Galaxy S II design that's become its Android flagship. As heartily as I approve of recycling, I'd love to see Samsung create a Windows Phone that introduces a style all its own. The device is about neck-and-neck with the huge HTC Titan, which does have a more polished, though hefty design, and it will still face competition when the U.S. version of the Nokia Lumia 800 lands on our shores. Yet, not everyone wants a screen as large as the Titan's, or a body as unwieldy, and I suspect that the phone will have an overall wider appeal. Until then, the Focus S and the Titan are battling it out for the Windows Phone crown.