Samsung Focus S Review (AT&T)

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Last year the AT&T Samsung Focus ended up being the best new Windows Phone around as it shot to the top of the charts in satisfaction surveys. This year, Samsung has released two Focus successors and the Focus S is meant to be the high-end model. It improves on last year’s Focus significantly in almost all areas, though the other Windows Phone manufacturers have stepped things up a bit as well. If you’ve already got an original Samsung Focus, you’re probably already very happy with it (especially if you’ve got the Mango update), but what’s changed in this new flagship Windows Phone from Samsung? Read on to find out.

BOX CONTENTS







The device has a usually orange AT&T branding on it and not too many special details about the phone on the back. Inside you get a quick-start guide right on top, a manual underneath the phone, a charger with USB port, a microUSB cable, and some headphones that look pretty nice. There are also different size earbuds for the headphones so you can find one that fits. The headphones sound pretty good and include a microphone with a volume toggle switch and an answer button. If you press and hold the answer button for 1 second it will play/pause music. If you press and hold it for 2 seconds or so, it will activate the speech interface. Pressing it once when the phone is ringing will answer the call. It can be a little difficult to get the functions just right. Interestingly, there’s a big sticker on the phone’s screen that warns against texting while driving, but this phone with Windows Phone 7.5 probably has the best hands-free text messaging speech interface around.

HARDWARE

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The AT&T Samsung Focus S is quite an upgrade over last year’s Windows Phones in the specs department. Its dimensions are 66.8 x 126 x 8.38mm, and weighs only 110g. That’s very thin and light! Its 32-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8255T processor runs at 1400MHz. It’s got around 15GB ROM storage as well and an amazing 4.3″ 480×800 Super AMOLED Plus display. For GSM and 3G band support, it has GSM850, GSM900, GSM1800, GSM1900, UMTS850, UMTS1900, and UMTS2100. It’s also got a new eight-megapixel camera with flash and focus illuminator, as well as a secondary front-facing camera.

For more specs, see PDADB.net

The build quality feels a little better than usual for Samsung devices. The back battery cover is still very bendy and feels fragile, but it seems like it would actually be difficult to break (since it is so flexible). If you’ve held or used a Samsung Galaxy S 2 devices, the Focus S is extremely similar. It’s like the design team wanted to save money by releasing the same phone with a different operating system… not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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On the left side of the device we have the volume controls. The rocker switch is a bit small, but it’s very solid and easy to use.

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On the right side is the camera button and power button. The camera button is much improved over older Windows Phones. It has a distinct tactile feel to it so that you can easily recognize it by touch without having to look at the device. It’s also got more play so that you can feel for the half-press to focus and then the full press to capture the image.

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On the top edge we have a 3.5mm headset jack and a little Qualcomm HSPA+ sticker.

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On the bottom we have the microUSB port. There’s no sliding cover, but the indentation is nicely molded to fit the shape of the port.

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The back has a very nice feel to it and this is where you’ll see the new Windows Phone logo, a rear speaker grill, and the 8MP camera with LED flash. The speaker is nice and loud, but turning the volume up too high will introduce some distortion.

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The back battery cover kind of peels off with little plastic snaps all around the edges. It’s a very flexible piece of plastic. Underneath, you’ll find the 1650mAh battery, and SIM card slot. Unlike last year’s original Focus, there is no microSD card slot for expanding the 16GB of storage, however.

SOFTWARE

Of course, Samsung has done some customizations and AT&T has bundled a few branded apps as well, so that’s what we’re going to look at in the below video. You’ll also see what kind of customizations Samsung has done to the camera. I like the “wide dynamic range” option, but it doesn’t have anything comparable to what HTC has done with the panoramic and burst shot photo options. We’ll also take a look at what kind of speed increase you might see in some of the games. For the most part the Focus S might seem just as quick as last year’s Windows Phones, and it is, but you’ll see there’s definitely a speed increase when loading processor intensive apps and games.

For more about the operating system in general, check out our full Windows Phone 7 and Windows Phone 7.5 Reviews.

CAMERA



The camera on the Samsung Focus S is a decent upgrade from last year’s Focus which at five megapixels was comparable to the iPhone 4. The Focus S now has an eight-megapixel camera which we should expect to be comparable to the iPhone 4S, and as you’ll see in the following images, it does pretty well.



In the above right image, the photo was taken in almost complete darkness with the flash turned on. The Focus S does use its flash temporarily with a half-press of the shutter in order to focus on the subject. Then the flash goes off again when you do a full press in order to take a photo. The flash doesn’t have much range, so expect your subjects to be pretty close.

The photo on the left was obviously taken outdoors on a sunny day. The color reproduction, detail, saturation and exposure look great.



In the above two photos, we show you the difference between the Focus S’s normal exposure mode and its wide dynamic range option. The photo on the right (with wide dynamic range turned on) gives you a lot more detail in the shadows and highlight areas.



Above is a series of 100% crop selections from a variety of smartphone cameras. The 100% crops will give you a pixel for pixel comparison. You’ll notice differences in color balance, sharpening levels, as well as lens viewing angles. Focus S looks like it has the least amount of noise in the bunch and is pretty close to accurate color. The Radar 4G still has a better white balance, though there’s too much noise in the color channels and obvious over-sharpening. If you look at the full resolution versions of these photos, the Nokia N8 photo, while it has the most detail and best sharpness seems to be tuned a bit on the under-exposure side. This is probably done to keep more detail in the highlights. Compare that to the iPhone 4S photo, which has a good overall exposure, but certainly blown-out highlights. The Focus S photo seems to be very close to the iPhone 4S, but the Focus S, N8, and Radar 4G all have a wider angle lens which is good for getting a larger view in the photo without having to step back.







Above is a 720p video recording sample from the Samsung Focus S. The exposure seems to be quite good, though obviously macro focusing doesn’t happen too easily during video recording and we do tend to lose some highlights. Overall, the HD video recording is quite acceptable.

BATTERY LIFE

It seems like these 2nd generation Windows Phones have made some significant improvements in battery life. In last week’s review of the HTC Radar 4G, I was kind of surprised at how great the battery life was, and Brandon gave the HTC Titan high marks for battery life as well. The Samsung Focus S has a hefty 1650mAh battery which blows away the battery life on the HTC Radar 4G (which had blown away the iPhone 4S’s battery life). I could be using the Focus S all day and the battery level might only go down to 75% or so. The Battery Saver settings still shows “1 day and 10 hours remaining” given the similar usage scenarios where other smartphones would be popping up low battery dialogs. On a full charge it might say something like “2 days, 10 hours remaining”, where you’re lucky to see 18 hours remaining for other fully charged Windows Phones. Obviously your mileage will vary depending on reception levels, phone call durations, 3D Xbox gaming, and video watching, but I think it’s safe to say that the Samsung Focus S has great battery life.

PURCHASING AND AVAILABILITY

The AT&T Samsung Focus S is available from AT&T retail stores as well as the AT&T website for $199 with a new 2 year contract.

PROS

+ Very thin and light

+ 1.4 Ghz CPU is very fast

+ Great battery life lasts for days

+ Gorgeous Super AMOLED+ 4.3″ screen

+ Front-facing camera

CONS

– Replacing the battery cover can be tough to get all the snaps back in. It’s hard to tell when it’s completely closed.

– Build quality feels cheap

– Headphone button controls can take some getting used to

CONCLUSION

Last year’s Samsung Focus was arguably the best Windows Phone available so I was certainly expecting Samsung to step it up with their second generation Windows Phones. The Focus S is actually the high-end model among two new Samsung Focus phones with the Focus Flash being a more budget-friendly device. At $199 you’d expect the Focus S to be quite good and it certainly is.

The thin and light form factor makes the Focus S feel like you could throw it at a window and it would just glide across the room, hit the window and fall to the floor unscathed. On the other hand the HTC Titan feels like it would fly right through that window and land outside unscathed. Then there’s the iPhone 4S which feels like it would shatter both the window and itself.

Anyway, the big thing that I didn’t like about the Focus S is the battery cover. The little snaps all along the edge are difficult to tell if they’re all attached to the device properly. It’s not uncommon for many of them to remain detached and thus easier to pop off.

Besides that, there are a lot of things to like about the Focus S. The 4.3-inch screen is absolutely gorgeous, the speed increase is extremely welcome in the processor intensive games, and the camera works very nicely. The excellent battery life is sure to make your Android and iPhone friends jealous as well.

I give the Samsung Focus S a 4/5.

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About The Author
Adam Z. Lein
Adam has had interests in combining technology with art since his first use of a Koala pad on an Apple computer. He currently has a day job as a graphic designer, photographer, systems administrator and web developer at a small design firm in Westchester, NY. His love of technology extends to software development companies who have often implemented his ideas for usability and feature enhancements. Mobile computing has become a necessity for Adam since his first Uniden UniPro PC100 in 1998. He has been reviewing and writing about smartphones for Pocketnow.com since they first appeared on the market in 2002.Read more about Adam Lein!