Review: Samsung Focus S (AT&T)


It has been over a year since Windows Phone’s official debut and we’re still waiting to be “wowed” by that one device that makes us want to give up our Android and iOS devices. The latest Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) update goes a long way into addressing some of the shortcomings between Windows Phone and its competitors. But is it good enough?

The Samsung Focus S is AT&T’s latest WP7 offering that aims to cut at least a small slice of percentage points away from the aforementioned two giants. In some aspects, it’s better. In others, there’s a bit to be desired. Hop past the break for the GS review of the Samsung Focus S…
 

Hardware

In terms of fit-n-finish, the Focus S is pretty much your standard Samsung device. That is, it’s thin, sleek, features plenty of finely sculpted plastic, and features a big, vibrant OLED display front and center. By most peoples’ standards, the Focus S is a great piece of hardware.

Diving deeper, the OLED display on the Focus S is truly gorgeous, much like most other current, high-end Samsung phones. Blacks are dark. Like, black hole dark. Conversely, colors are bright, crisp, and…vibrant. We’re also proud to report that unlike earlier generations of OLED, the Focus S’ stays highly readable in outdoor light.

Besides the screen, the Focus S is rather void of too much in the way of external buttons. Up top there is the standard on/off/lock button followed by the camera shutter button on the bottom right of the device. Flip over to the left side of the Focus S and you’ll find the volume up/down buttons and a simple microUSB charging port on the bottom. The back of the device follows the K.I.S.S. mantra with nothing but simple “Windows Phone” branding.

That brings us to our one major dislike — the back cover. Actually, we’re quite torn. On one hand, the seemingly non-existant piece of paper-thin plastic that covers the battery could be easily bent by as little as a hearty sneeze. At the same time, the thinness and bendable nature works in its favor, too. You really have to bend the back cover before it deforms. We honestly don’t see too many instances of someone breaking the battery cover by dropping it. All that said, we’re still kind of half and half on this new, uber thin cover. To each his own.

The Specs

  • Processor: Snapdragon single-core @ 1.4 GHz
  • Display: 4.3″ WVGA (480 x 800) Super AMOLED Plus
  • Memory + Storage: 512 MB RAM + 16 GB of internal storage
  • Cameras: 1.3 megapixel (Front) | Rear: 8 megapixel w/ LED flash (Rear)
  • Battery: 1650 mAh

Software

The Samsung Focus S is one of the newest devices to ship with Windows Phone 7.5 (aka: Mango). The list of new feature additions is expansive and far-ranging, and goes a long way into making Windows Phone a much more competent alternative to Android and iOS.

For starters, Windows Phone 7.5 improves upon the awesome Live Tile feature by not only allowing more 3rd party apps to dynamically update tiles with information, but update with Push Notifications more often. On top of that, certain apps can have multiple tiles pinned to the homescreen if the user so chooses. Example: a weather app with multiple cities.

Another big addition brought on with Mango is how Windows Phone manages multiple email accounts, and simply messaging in general. Prior to Windows Phone 7.5, users could only view a single email account at a time making for a time consuming and clunky experience far removed from the advancements made in both Android and iOS, not to mention the age old BlackBerry OS. But Microsoft went a little above and beyond here. Instead of an “all or nothing” conjoined inbox, Mango allows users to choose which email accounts to team together and which to keep separate. That’s what you’d call “awesome”.

Moving back to messaging — messaging is now less about which service you’re using and more about actual conversing. While it’s not quite as robust as webOS’ threaded messaging app, Microsoft has made messaging in Mango leap-frog anything Android and iOS currently offers by tying together SMS/MMS, Facebook Messaging, and Windows Live IMs into a single screen. As you can imagine, we’d certainly love to see Microsoft allow other services to tie into the messaging application as the three aforementioned services are hardly the go-to standards across the globe.

Social networking in Windows Phone 7.5 Mango is something to brag about. For starters, it’s far better than anything you’ll find on Apple’s locked down platform. The “People” hub as well as other aspects of Windows Phone 7.5 can tap into and display information and updates from the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin. As we stated before, we’d love to see Microsoft add the ability for 3rd party developers to get the same level of integration, similar to how social networking works in Android.

Last but certainly note least: Multitasking. Microsoft appears to have taken one out of webOS’s book. Holding the back button pops up a card-like style of your recently opened apps. The kicker here, of course, is that apps need to be specifically updated for Mango to fully tap into true, seamless multitasking. With that said, something is better than nothing. Also, Windows Phone is continuing to grow (at least by app count metrics) so the wait for your favorite app may not take that long at all.

**Above are just a few things out of literally dozens upon dozens of new additions that make Mango awesome, and prepare the WP7 crowd for some (hopefully) awesome features in Windows Phone versions to come. In total, there were over 500 new features added — way more than we could cover here. On a more general note, we are still half and half with Windows Phone, though eagerly awaiting for what’s next.

Performance

As we’ve said many times before (and will continue to say), higher processor power/more RAM does not immediately translate into a better user experience. Some of the highest clocked Android phones are absolute dogs for one reason or another. Usually, the slowdowns can be traced back to some poorly coded app or “skin”. That aside, Windows Phone continues to impress us with its buttery smooth UI despite the humble little 1.4 GHz single-core processor — transitions between various tasks such as opening/closing apps, snapping pictures, sending an email, etc. are done with little fan fare. In many ways, “it just works”.

The few games we fired up and played didn’t exhibit any noticeable lag, and were free from any homescreen crashing and/or freezing. On that note, we’d love to see some Windows Phone devs really push the platform (and hardware) with some truly graphically intense games.

Moving away from hardware to cellular performance, we’ll note that despite getting a bad rap, AT&T isn’t half bad (in our testing area at least). We’re lucky in that we’re a big enough city to have some decent performance numbers but not too many people per tower to choke it out. Average download speeds as reported by Speedtest.net were in the 2-3 Mbps range with uploads generally hovering around 1.5 Mbps. Occasionally we’d see down/up seeds hit 4 Mbps and 2 Mbps respectively.

Camera

We’re not quite ready to say there’s a Windows Phone device that can match our in-house iPhone 4S in regards to overall photo quality. But we’re close. The Focus S does have a rather capable shooter on its hands. Everything from close ups to bright shots and night shots are handled with ease. As you can see from the night shot below, the phone does a pretty decent job of keeping discoloration to a minimum while also getting foreground and background elements.

One feature of the camera that we particularly like is that tapping onscreen to focus results in a picture being taken almost immediately after. It’s quick and easy for sure. Though, we’re certain there are people who like to focus and then snap a picture separate of each other. You’ll either love or hate this feature. We just happened to fall into the former.

Battery Life

No smartphone can be properly approved/disapproved of these days without taking battery life into account. With as tied into our phones as people are becoming, being able to actually make it through most of a work day with the device which runs our lives is pretty important.

The Focus S is a pretty good, borderline awesome long distant marathoner. Popping the S off the charger in the wee hours of the morning (5am) routinely lasted until 2-3 in the afternoon before we had to start giving the device some attention. Mind you, we’re pretty heavy on phones even when we’re trying not to be. We use Twitter a ton. Ditto for other services such as Facebook, Google+, Foursquare, etc. And then there’s the love/hate relationship we have with email. It never stops, really. More “average” users should easily go 10-12 hours on a charge. Add in a good helping of standby time and you could probably stretch your off-the-wall runtime to a solid 24 hours.

All in all a very good showing, and one that would no doubt have been severely curtailed if a dual-core processor and/or LTE were implemented.

Conclusion

We’ll cut to the chase. The lack of dual-core and LTE aren’t really cons to us. For starters, raw power isn’t necessarily a good way to judge a phone. If that were the case, high-end Android devices would win every battle — and that is simply not the case. Furthermore, while LTE would have been an awesome treat, the small reach of AT&T’s current LTE network as well as abysmal battery life that accompanies said feature mean we’re more than happy to wait.

As for where the Samsung Focus S fits into it all, we must say that despite offering solid competition to Android and iOS on the software front, the hardware still leaves a bit to be desired. The iPhones 4S is an finely crafted piece of art. The Focus S feels and generally looks like a bargin bin device you’d find at the local used electronics store, except it’s $200 on even when signed with a new 2-year contract.

For AT&T users looking for an alternative to the almighty iPhone and not sold on Android should really give the Focus S a look. While the Windows Phone platform still leaves a bit to be desired by way of featured apps and overal 3rd party support as well as in hardware fit and finish, we’re confident that the platform will continue to grow (albiet slowly) in 2012.

Gadgetsteria Rating

  • Performance: 8
  • Hardware: 7
  • Software: 8
  • Battery Life: 7.5
  • Overall (Average): 7.5

Gallery

A special thanks to AT&T for the Samsung Focus S review unit.