Samsung Focus S $149.99

1st Mar 2012 | 00:32

Samsung Focus S

Thin, light, with a nice display. Does this Windows Phone have all the right stuff?

TechRadar rating:

3.5 stars

The Focus S goes head to head with any other WP7 phone on the market, and it does it in a thin, light, and sleek package.

Like:

Unique OS and UI; Great battery life; Best screen of any WP7 phone; Great system-wide integration; thin

Dislike:

Poor specs on paper; Slow "4G"; Flimsy Battery Cover; Only 720p Recording; Limited app market;

Overview, design and feel

The Samsung Focus S is a Windows Phone 7 phone on AT&T intended to compete against relatively high-end devices. Its price tag – $199 with two-year agreement, and $549 without – suggests that it is to be pitted against phones like the HTC Titan, 16GB Apple iPhone 4S, and Samsung Galaxy S2.

Compared to non-WP7 devices in its price range, the Focus S's hardware doesn't fare particularly well. Sporting a 1.4GHz (single core) Snapdragon processor and only 512MB of RAM, it strikes us as being about a year too late; however, amongst other WP7 phones, these specs are top notch.

Samsung focus s

When it comes to WP7 devices, all of that internal hardware mumbo-jumbo is supposed to take a back seat. Microsoft has gone to great lengths to try to ensure that WP7 devices carry very uniform specs, letting you pick a device based on more outward criteria.

The Focus S is all about size and weight. At just 8.5mm thick and 110.6g, it is the thinnest and lightest WP7 phone yet. Even more impressive is the fact that it manages this with a 4.3-inch capacitive touch screen with a 480x800 resolution.

Samsung focus s

The display is another defining feature of the Focus S. Because it is Super AMOLED Plus, it has excellent contrast and the vivid color really makes the Metro UI pop. At 4.3 inches, it sits as an option between the HTC Titan (4.7 inches) and Samsung Focus Flash (3.7 inches), which both have nearly identical internal specs.

Samsung focus s

It also features an 8MP rear camera with LED flash, typical of devices in this class, as well as a 1.3MP front facing camera. The usual assortment of sensors, light and proximity, are also present; however, we're disappointed in the lack of notification LED.

The Focus S' camera does share an unfortunate design flaw that we see in many smartphones: it protrudes out from the back. This makes the lens prone to scratches anytime the phone is set down on its back.

Samsung focus s

As far as build quality is concerned, the chassis is solid, though made of plastic, like most of Samsung's current smartphones. Point of concern is the battery cover, made of extremely thin but very resilient plastic. It clips on using a handful of tiny plastic hooks which may be susceptible to wear over time.
Thanks to Microsoft's design standards, the Focus S has the same buttons found on any other WP7 device, though not necessarily in the same spots.

Samsung focus s

On the face are the Back, Home (Windows Logo), and Search buttons in capacitive form. The left side of the phone holds the volume rocker.

The Power/Lock button sits on the right side along with a very useful two-stage dedicated camera button.

Along the top is the standard 3.5mm audio jack as well as a microphone for noise cancelling. On the bottom are the mini-USB port and another microphone. The loud speaker sits on the bottom corner of the rear of the phone.

Samsung focus s

Under the back cover, we find the SIM card slot and a 1650mAh battery. Sadly, there is no expandable storage, so you're limited to the 16GB of internal storage – of which, about 12.6GB is available to the user.

Despite its somewhat underwhelming specs on paper, the Focus S can serve as a worthwhile alternative to phones like the iPhone 4S or Galaxy S2, so long as you have the right purposes in mind.

Interface

Samsung focus s

Quite possibly the best and worst thing about the Samsung Focus S is the fact that it is a Windows Phone 7 phone, and running the latest version, too (7.5 Mango). The greatest thing about WP7 is that it really is nothing like the competition (ie: Android and iOS).

Of course, the flip side to that coin is the massive learning curve you'll run into if you're coming from anything that isn't WP7.

Samsung focus s

But don't let that discourage you. WP7 has a handful of unique things that it does extremely well by integrating just about every feature imaginable. Uploading a photo to Twitter or Facebook? Integrated into the camera. Want to identify a song? Integrated into Bing Search.

The real discouraging thing is everything that you take for granted with your iPhone or Android phone that Microsoft left out, things like a system-wide file manager, or even the ability to upload arbitrary file types.

As long as you can look past that, WP7 still offers a very usable system. The Metro UI, while a little plain, does grow on you quickly. It's all about the "tiles."

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Tiles are sort of a combination of icons and widgets. They're fairly small, like icons, but have the capability of serving up dynamic content, like widgets. You can reorganize the tiles however you like, pinning or unpinning with a simple long press.

Customization doesn't go much further than that, though. It's possible to change the background color and primary color of the tiles, but that's pretty much it. It's a step further than you get with iOS, but considerably more limited than Android.

Samsung focus s

Apps are located to the right of the tiles, listed in a single vertical column. WP7 does feature its own app Marketplace, but again, if you're coming from Android or iOS, you'll be a little disappointed with the selection, at least for the time being.

Microsoft has chosen to integrate the Windows Phone Marketplace with Xbox Live, so there's a good chance that we'll be seeing a competitive gaming market in the not so distant future.

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The Focus S also features multitasking, as do all WP7 phones with the Mango update, but it's far from perfect. The system seems a bit too eager to kill background tasks, even if you're not doing anything else.

For most apps, especially games, leaving them in hopes of coming back and picking up where you left off is always a gamble.

Ultimately, if you're a WP7 veteran, you'll have no trouble finding your way around, but if you're coming from anything else, you'll probably find yourself cursing at your phone a bit in the first week or two.

Contacts and calling

Like just about everything else on WP7, the contacts on the Samsung Focus S is another area where Microsoft opted to go against convention. All of your contacts are listed in the "People" app/tile.

The People tile consists of two sections, "What's new" and "All." The What's New section is basically a conglomerate of every social network you've associated the phone with, like Twitter, Facebook, Windows Live, and etc.

By default, it gives you a timeline of every update from all of your networks combined; however, it's easy to view it as one network at a time with just a couple of taps.

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Swiping either left or right brings you to the All section which is your address book. It lists all of your from all of your social networks and phonebook. It's not as simple to filter this list as it is with the What's New section. Fortunately, it does include a search feature (tapping the on-screen magnifying glass, not the capacitive search button).

In the settings, you can select which social networks to display in the All list, but that's the extent of the filtering. You cannot display contacts that have phone numbers only, for example. This is partially remedied by the ability to create contact groups.

Creating a group not only lets you text or e-mail multiple people at once, but also lets you follow their status updates more easily.

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From the People tile, you can pin contacts or groups to the start page. This creates a tile that will display their latest updates and photos, making it easy to keep in touch.

Setting this all up is extremely simple. All you have to do is sign in with your various social network credentials, and it integrates your contacts automatically. We were even able to merge contacts from different accounts together.

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The dialer is simple, though basic. We do wish it had some form of smart dialing. Short of that, it does have a shortcut to your address book as well as the ability to search call history and contacts.

Audio quality during a call is nothing short of amazing, likely thanks to the Wide-Band AMR encoding Samsung opted to include. It also features active noise cancellation thanks to the dual microphone setup.

Messaging

Thanks to the WP7 OS, the Samsung Focus S has a long list of options when it comes to messaging. By default, you can text, chat via Windows Live Messenger, and of course e-mail. After jumping through a few hoops, you can also chat through Facebook.

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The Messaging tile handles all of it except for e-mail. Like the People tile, Messaging has two sections, "Threads" and "Online." As you'd probably expect, the Threads section is for SMS and MMS messages, while "Online" is for Facebook and Live Messenger conversations.

E-mail is handled through a separate tile – in fact, each e-mail account you use gets its own tile. This can be pretty annoying when you deal with several e-mail clients, but it's possible to link inboxes into single tiles.

Samsung focus s

The E-mail tile is the same regardless of e-mail service you're using. The All, Unread, Flagged, and Urgent tabs help keep things a bit more organized, especially when combining multiple inboxes.
By default, you can only search through mail that has been synced to the device, but in the case of Gmail, you're given the option to "search more in Google Mail" which allows you to bring up e-mails that have not been synced. Exchange, as you'd expect, works similarly.

Unfortunately, typing on the Focus S is a bit like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In some instances, you get an amazing typing experience with active spell checking, predictive text, and an accurate keyboard.

Samsung focus s

From time to time, you'll come across a text field that the Focus S just doesn't seem to like. In these cases, all of those advanced typing features just don't exist anymore. Even worse, when you do make a typing mistake, going back to correct it can be frustrating.

Trying to move the cursor requires a long press, simply tapping once will select the entire word. Once you've long pressed, the cursor appears above your finger, not where you originally pressed. In the case of long text fields, such as e-mails or word documents, this is troublesome, because as you move the cursor back down to the word, the screen zips down to the bottom of the page. We've found that it's often easier just to retype the entire word.

In Messaging, you can avoid the keyboard all together using Text-to-Speech; however, we're sad to see that this isn't a system-wide feature. Typing an e-mail or in a text document has to be done the old fashioned way.

Internet

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The Samsung Focus S' 4.3-inch display makes for a very spacious web browsing experience, and HSPA+ 4G can keep things speeding along – assuming AT&T's network isn't bogged down.

Web browsing is done using the WP7 version Internet Explorer. While it runs using the same engine as its desktop counterpart, It's really nothing like Internet Explorer at all, though. It has a nice, clean interface (no annoying toolbars) and basically integrates everything into the multifunction address bar at the bottom of the screen.

Navigation

The only real complaint we have would be against the navigation buttons. For starters, there is no forward button, and if you happen to leave IE, such as to answer a phone call, it forgets all of your previously browsed pages in which case pressing the back button simply exits the browser.

Punching in a URL works just as you'd expect, bringing you to a webpage where you have the usual pinch-to-zoom and delightfully smooth scrolling, though there is no Adobe Flash. Things really get interesting when you try a search.

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WP7 gets its own search results page where you have three tabs: web, local, and images. Web, of course, brings up your typical Bing search results, but also some WP7 specifics, such as Marketplace apps.

The local tab shows nearby results; however, we've found that it often misses things. The images tab displays Bing images results, fitting thumbnails on the screen in an effective 4x5 grid.

Integrated search

You don't have to fire up IE every time you want to do a search. Hitting the search button will pull up Bing no matter what you're doing on the phone. The Bing search engine is perfectly integrated into the phone, but it's also your only choice.

For those who don't care for Bing, this may be a deal breaker, but in the case of WP7, it's worth giving a shot. It can search the web, search locally, identify music, search by image, and also search by voice.

Samsung focus s

Local Scout is the Bing local search engine. It brings up nearby stores, restaurants, and even events and attractions.

Music search is very cool. It listens to a song, identifies it for you, and then gives you a link to it in the Zune Marketplace. It's not quite as accurate as Shazam or SoundHound, but it is very convenient.
Seaching by image uses the camera to scan barcodes and find books, albums and movies from cover art. It can also scan and translate text very effectively.

Samsung focus s

Holding down the Windows button brings up voice recognition similar to the iPhone 4S' Siri minus the advanced language engine. It uses key phrases like text, call, find, and e-mail. Anything that doesn't start with a recognized key phrase simply gets turned into a search query.

Camera

Every WP7 device has a lot of great features that go into its camera, and the Samsung Focus S is no exception. From the dedicated camera button to the various photo settings, you can't help but feel that a lot of thought has gone into the camera.

Samsung focus s

The 8MP image sensor is fairly mainstream for devices in this price range, and in fact, it's the very same module found in the Galaxy S2.

A dedicated camera button is a requirement for all WP7 devices, so naturally, the Focus S has one. The two-stage button allows for a half-press to focus and a full-press to snap the photo.

The camera button also acts as a shortcut into the camera app. All you have to do is hold the button down for a few seconds. Even from the lock screen, you can launch the camera and take an in-focus shot in about 5 seconds.

We'd love to see more smartphones with dedicated camera buttons. As long as you have plenty of natural light, photos come out very well. Colors can occasionally stand to be a bit more saturated, but everything typically comes out crisp and clean.

Samsung focus s

The Focus S also has a unique feature called Wide Dynamic Range that comes in especially handy with tricky lighting. With it enabled, you lose a bit of that crispness, but gain a great amount of detail in dark areas with strong backlighting.

Low light performance is a different story. The LED flash helps some, but if you're too close to your subject, it gets completely washed out; too far and you may as well not have a flash at all. Without the flash, photos are plagued with more noise than the front row of a metal concert.

Samsung focus s

Interestingly, though, the Focus S excels at macro photos. You can select the macro focus mode in the options, but there's typically very little need since the autofocus mode detects it quite well.

Apart from that, you get a few image effects (monotone, emboss, outline, etc); the ability to adjust the ISO, resolution, saturation, white balance, contrast and a few others that will likely go untouched; and an anti-shaking mode which, so far as we can tell, doesn't do a thing.

You can also use the 1.3MP front facing camera for photos. You get what you'd expect from a 1.3MP camera – nothing amazing.

Samsung focus s

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Typical saturation and white balance from adequate natural lighting.

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With Wide Dynamic Range turned off, branches only show as silhouettes.

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Turning on Wide Dynamic Range gives more detail to the backlit branches.

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Macro shots come out great.

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Low light produces a very noisy image.

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The flash makes a big difference in low light, but can wash out details.

Video

Despite sharing the same camera module with the Galaxy S2, the Samsung Focus S can only shoot at a maximum resolution of 720p (in contrast to the S2's 1080p). On the plus side, it does a good job for only 720p.

Samsung focus s

For whatever reason, the default video setting is VGA (aka 640x480). We actually thought video recording was absolutely awful until we realized the mistake. Once we switch to 720p mode, we were rather impressed.

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With the proper settings, videos come out crisp and bright, although in low light things get a bit grainy. Audio was impressive, picking up sounds cleanly from both behind and in front of the camera, though you don't get the option to record in stereo as with the HTC Titan.

We were also impressed with its ability to transition from bright to dark areas. It wasn't particularly fast at it, but it was very smooth. The frame rate was always equally as smooth.

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There was a peculiar quirk we ran into involving the digital zoom during recording in that you can't. So long as you're not recording, you can zoom to your heart's desire, but as soon as you hit record, the option goes gray and you're stuck at whatever zoom level you started on.

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It makes sense, considering that fiddling with zoom options while recording would make for a pretty bumpy video, but we'd still like to have the option.

In the end, the Focus S' recording capabilities are pretty good for being limited to 720p, and amongst other WP7 devices, we'd consider it one of the best.

Media

If you've ever heard of the Microsoft Zune, you probably have a pretty good idea how the Samsung Focus S deals with multimedia. Fortunately, WP7 builds on the original Zune platform considerably.

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The only really terrible thing about the way WP7 handles multimedia is the fact that in order to copy anything to or from your phone, you'll need to use the Zune software. Anyone used to Android will likely hate this fact, but iPhone users should be partially used to it thanks to iTunes.

The Zune software isn't necessarily bad. We just wish we could have a choice when it comes to copying songs, videos, or even photos.

Storage space is our only other major gripe. The approximately 12GB of space can be a bit limiting, especially for HD videos.

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12 gigs is still a decent amount of space for music, though our current music collection far exceeds that. Fortunately, you don't need a ton of space to have a wide selection of songs with the Focus S.

With the Zune Music+Videos tile, you can make use of the Zune Music Pass to download and stream songs right to the Focus S. As an AT&T device, it also comes with AT&T Radio and AT&T U-verse Mobile, if you're signed up for those services.

Samsung focus s

If you'd rather not have to pay for any streaming music services, the Focus S is one of the rare smartphones with a built in FM tuner. As long as you have a set of headphones plugged in to act as an antenna, you have free local radio.

Then there's the Smart DJ feature that was added to WP7 with the Mango update. It can be used to create a playlist (either from the songs on the handset, or from the Zune Marketplace if you have the Music Pass) based on a seed song of your selection.

Unfortunately, we couldn't get Smart DJ to work quite right. It seemed to have trouble identifying the songs we selected.

Samsung focus s

Despite that, one of our favorite features is the ability to identify songs through the search button. Similar to Shazam and Soundhound, the Focus S can listen to a portion of a song and find it for you.

The success rate here isn't quite as high as Shazam, but it integrates perfectly into the Zune marketplace. It makes it easy to add new songs to your collection.

Watching videos isn't quite as nice of an experience as listening to music on the Focus S. This is mostly because of the Zune software requirement.

Video formats

WP7 seems to support a very limited list of video formats, and the Zune software sort of lets you know this. Unsupported videos still show up in Zune on your computer, and you can even drag them to the phone to be copied…except they don't actually copy over.

As long as you have the right format, videos look great on the super AMOLED plus display. HD resolutions up to 720p playback just fine.

We're a little disappointed with the lack of streaming video options, but that's mostly due to the still maturing Windows Phone Marketplace.

Battery life and connectivity

The 1650mAh battery that the Samsung Focus S comes with is fairly typical for current smartphones, perhaps even slightly on the smaller side. Still, it manages very well, likely due to the fact that it's powering a single core 1.4GHz processor.

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The specs claim that the Focus S is capable of up to 9 hours of talk time and a whopping 25 days in standby. We couldn't find anyone willing to talk on the phone with us for 9 hours, but we were pretty impressed with the overall battery life we got.

Even under fairly heavy use (meaning an hour or two of GPS navigation, some music playback, a few phones calls, a handful of text messages, and quite a bit of web browsing), we still had a solid 45% left after a 12-hour day.

On the days when we weren't quite so demanding, the battery would still be around 85% at the end of the day.

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It of course has all of the usual connectivity features such as Wi-Fi (both 2.4Ghz and 5.0GHz, which is impressive), Bluetooth (though lacking file sharing), and GPS. No NFC onboard, but we're still waiting for that to catch on.

One of the biggest disappointments is the data connectivity. The Focus S is a "4G" phone, but barely. It uses AT&T's HSPA+ network, which at least in the San Francisco Bay Area, never seems to come close to 4G speeds.

Despite handfuls of speed tests all over the bay, we never once broke 2Mbps. That's pretty appalling even by 3G standards. The phone itself is supposed to be capable of 21Mbps under ideal conditions.

Maps and apps

As far as apps are concerned, the Samsung Focus S (and all WP7 devices) has a lot of catching up to do compared to iOS and Android. Currently at about 70,000 apps, the Windows Phone Marketplace holds about a 10th of the apps available for iOS.

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Microsoft Office comes included. A very basic version of course, but you can still use it to create and edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files.

As far as gaming is concerned, Microsoft is leveraging its already successful Xbox Live platform. The available games, thus far, have essentially nothing to do with Xbox, but the brand name carries a lot of weight.

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Already, many of the popular Android and iOS games have found their way into the Xbox Live market for Windows Phones.

When it comes to maps and navigation, it's either Bing or nothing. It works well for finding all sorts of destinations, especially when you use the Local Scout app.

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Even getting directions with Bing maps is a delight – that is, until you want turn-by-turn navigation.
While it's perfectly capable of reading directions aloud, it simply doesn't. It will announce the first direction, such as "In .78 miles, turn left onto Broadway Ave," as you set off but only give a notification chime after you make that left.

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You can tap the screen at any time to hear the current direction, but because it doesn't remind you, it's easy to miss a turn. To make matters worse, navigation won't run in the background, so you have to leave the screen on the entire time, which takes a toll on the battery.

There are a few navigation alternatives in the marketplace, though they're not free. Fortunately, WP7 lets you try apps before buying them.

Verdict

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The Samsung Focus S has a tough time competing against smartphones that aren't running WP7. The iPhone 4S is available at the same price with a dual-core processor and 10-times more apps.

Up against other WP7 phones, it's easily among the best choices in its price range. Its only real competitor here would be the HTC Titan, though the Nokia Lumia 900 may be worth consideration.
It really comes down to your feelings towards WP7. It's very easy to hate if you don't give it a fair chance, but after a week or two with it, you might find it hard to go back to Android or iOS.

We liked

WP7 is something unique with all sorts of clever features and amazing integration that you don't realize you've been missing until you give it a try.

The Super AMOLED Plus display really does stand out against other WP7 devices.
Even with a large, 4.3-inch display, the Focus S is very thin and extremely light.

We disliked

The unique experience carries a hefty learning curve, and focusing on all of those clever features and integration seems to have resulted in overlooking some of the fundamentals.

Zune software is required to transfer anything to or from the phone, and even with it, most file types are simply off limits.

The app market still has long way to mature.

AT&T's "4G" network is a complete let down.

Final verdict

If you want to give WP7 a shot, the Focus S should be one of your top considerations. It'll go head to head with any other WP7 phone on the market, and it does it in a thin, light, and sleek package.

It also makes a great choice for anyone looking to upgrade from a Blackberry, Windows Mobile, or WebOS device; however, that's not to say an iPhone 4S or Samsung Galaxy Nexus wouldn't be an equally valid upgrade.

Anyone coming from iOS or Android will really need an open mind if they don't want to wind up smashing the Focus S out of frustration.

Just make sure AT&T's network is solid wherever you'll be using it most.

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