Windows Phone received a significant boost thanks to Nokia's Lumia 900, which brought Microsoft's upstart operating system to a more mainstream audience with a style and price that was difficult to resist. Now that the dust has cleared from the platform's flagship device, Samsung returns to Windows Phone offering a capable 4G LTE handset as an alternative for AT&T subscribers.
The Samsung Focus 2 (AT&T) takes its design cues from Samsung's other handsets like the Samsung Galaxy SIII, shrinking the rounded look to a relatively svelte case measuring 4.7 inches tall and 2.5 inches wide.
Samsung brought the Focus 2's weight down to a barely noticeable 4.3 ounces. For some reason, the handset still feels bulky in the hand despite its relatively light weight, measuring 0.5 inches deep.
It only comes in white, with a smooth plastic shell that is a perfect magnet for smudges, accented by a silver strip bordering the case. Some may have warmed to an overly plastic feel in their smartphones, but coupled with the Focus 2's perceived bulk, it feels somewhat cheap. That said the phone's actual construction is solid, but you can definitely tell when holding the Focus 2 that it isn't built to be a premium handset.
The Focus 2's 4-inch Super AMOLED display is bright and clear with excellent color contrast highlighted by the bright Live Tiles on Windows Phone. The 800 x 640 resolution isn't going to compete with the iPhone's retina display any time soon, but with above average pixel density (233 ppi) compared to other recent Windows Phones, the Focus 2 looks crisp without feeling cramped on the smaller screen.
Above the screen you'll find the VGA camera while directly under the screen are the three standard Windows Phone touch control buttons. We found them to be highly sensitive, activating accidentally when a thumb or hand brushes too close, particularly when using the camera. The buttons also light up when activated with a slight vibration at each press, the latter of which can be turned off in the phone's settings.
Along the phone's silver trip on the right side are the power and dedicated camera buttons, while the right side is home to a single elongated button for volume control.
The top meanwhile is home to a 3.5mm headphone jack and a micro-USB port rests on the bottom for charging and connecting to your PC.
On the Focus 2's back is a 5MP camera lens that sticks out slightly from the case, which is coupled with an outward microphone and flash. The back cover pops off to reveal the removable battery and a secure slot for your micro-SIM card. There's no expandable memory on the Focus 2 though, so you're stuck with the limited 8GB of memory.
The Samsung Focus 2 features the Windows Phone Mango, version 7.5 of Microsoft's mobile operating system.
The lock screen displays the time and date in large lettering, with room underneath to alert users of calendar notifications, emails, or messages. The most recent unread text message gets a short preview on the lock screen, but emails only show up as a simple notification.
Small icons for battery life, cellular, and Wi-Fi signal strength are also shown at the top of the lock screen. Sliding the lock screen up will fully wake the phone, and reveal the meat of Windows Phone through its tile interface.
The large brightly colored tiles offer a unique experience compared to the page-heavy interface on Android or iOS. Tiles are arranged in two columns, with the occasional app, like the calendar and AT&T's pre-installed U-verse app, taking up an entire row. Tiles cannot be resized.
Tiles are easy to move around by holding down and dragging them to the desired row or column. Any app can be easily pinned and unpinned as a tile, even pre-installed apps, which makes the home screen customizable to display all of your apps or only the apps you want to immediately access.
Apps that are not pinned as tiles are still on the phone, and can be accessed in a side menu by swiping left or tapping an arrow on the upper right.
Many tiles provide live information, such as how many text messages and emails are unread, your Facebook photos, or album covers for the music as it plays. The live information is helpful to quickly gauge what is happening in each of your apps without requiring you to actually load each one individually. Live information isn't universal to all apps though, with strange omissions like the lack of a default weather app with at a glance forecasts.
How useful those tiles actually are will depend on what you want out of a phone. The average user will appreciate the clean organization of the tiles and helpful live information. However, power users will likely find themselves scrolling a lot to find the information they want, since the large tiles only leave room for eight app tiles on-screen at any given time.
The touch buttons under the screen provide useful secondary functions as well. Holding the back button allows you to see all apps running in the background, though not all apps for the OS support multitasking. Holding the Windows button on the other hand opens the voice command menu.
While smartphones are increasingly getting outfitted with dual and quad-core processors, Windows Phone 7.5 has hardware restrictions that limit the Focus 2 to a single-core 1.4GHz Snapdragon S2 processor with 512MB of RAM. Samsung makes excellent use of those slim specs though, with zippy performance without any noticeable hiccups outside of the occasional third-party app.
Contacts and calling
Rather than a simple address book for contacts, Windows Phone uses the unique People app to bring all of your networks to one place. This includes your standard phone contacts from a SIM card, email lists through Windows Live, Google, and Outlook, as well as your social networks including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Drawing contacts from so many places can become overwhelming, but thankfully there are useful filters by network and the option to create groups for better organization.
In addition to the complication of having too many contacts, pulling lists from multiple social networks often results in individual contacts having multiple profiles. These too can be managed with a chain icon that allows you to link contacts together into a single profile page. Sorting through the long list of Facebook and email contacts can be a tedious process when initially setting up the People app, but the resulting compiled contact list is a beautiful thing to behold.
Since the People app ties into your social networks, it also provides a compiled news feed of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn updates. The social feed can become overcrowded quickly though, so most users will be much happier opting to download dedicated apps for each network.
Calls are handled through the Focus 2's Phone app, which appears under the name AT&T when pinned as a tile on the home screen.
Loading the AT&T app gives you immediate access to your call history, the People app, and the option to type in a name to search for a contact. Strangely, the phone doesn't allow you to use the landscape keyboard when typing a name into the search bar. Of course, there is also the standard number pad, with a simple and clean interface.
Call quality was excellent overall, though the phone's default settings were a bit soft and required a slight volume adjustment. Switching to speaker phone provided similar results, with excellent quality after raising the volume.
The Windows Phone dedicated Messaging app handles all of your standard SMS/MMS text and picture messages as well as Facebook Chat.
Launching the Messaging tile opens the Threads list, showing your text and picture message history. Tapping the plus icon at the bottom opens a new message which you can type out and send to your contacts. You can attach photos to your message using the paperclip icon, or activate speech to dictate your message using the microphone icon. Speech detection is fairly accurate, though the feature works best with shorter messages, often tripping up over names and longer sentences. Sadly videos are not available to send via MMS.
Swiping left or right from the Threads list takes you to the Online list, displaying Facebook friends available for chat. You can also set your own chat status to let others know you are online or let them know you are away.
Windows Phone has a separate tile for managing emails, which supports multiple accounts through Windows Live, Google, Outlook, Yahoo! Mail, as well as other POP and IMAP accounts.
Email text is large and easy to read against the inbox's white background, though it would be nice if it provided the option for white text against a black background, which is an option that can be chosen in every other Windows Phone dedicated app.
Activating multiple accounts creates a new tile for each one on the home screen. The tiles can also be consolidated with the link inboxes option, allowing you to gather all accounts into a unified inbox or group specific ones together while keeping others separate. The flexibility is greatly appreciated for users who have accumulated more than their fair share of accounts.
Typing messages and emails with the virtual keyboard is quite comfortable in landscape format but can feel a little cramped in portrait if you have larger fingers. Each key provides surprisingly forceful vibration feedback and a soft, satisfying "tok" sound. Both keyboard feedbacks can be disabled in the phone's settings, though the Focus 2 is one of the few devices where I have not done so for the sound.
The Samsung Focus 2 uses AT&T's 4G LTE network, which doesn't have the best reputation for reliability. Finding reception in and around Chicago was somewhat hit or miss, with the odd dead zone popping up more frequently than it should.
When the Focus 2 does have a connection, the results aren't exactly favorable. Internet Explorer 9 chugs as it loads pages, and scrolling down reveals an additional delay as it renders the rest of the site, even when only dealing with text.
Testing connections speeds is difficult on a Windows Phone due to the lack of Flash support in Internet Explorer 9. Using the Free Speed Test app from the marketplace we were able to record an average download speed between 0.92Mbps-1.25Mbps and upload speeds under 0.4Mbps. The numbers seem low even considering our less than glowing experience using the browser, but it is consistent in illustrating the generally slow web browsing experience on the Focus 2.
Even on a Wi-Fi connection, Internet Explorer 9 is hardly the best mobile browser in town. Media heavy pages often fail to render properly and the same delay is still present when scrolling pages. It has the option to default all web pages to either their desktop or mobile version, but even after making the switch we found it still occasionally loaded the wrong version.
Other browser features are fairly standard, with the ability to set favorites, share pages via email, create tabs, and pin sites to the phone's home screen. Unfortunately, there's no option to sync bookmarks with your desktop browser.
As already mentioned, Internet Explorer 9 lacks Flash support, which should be a familiar experience for anyone converting from an iPhone. A paid third-party FlashVideo for WP7 app can be found in the marketplace to rectify that, though it only offers downloading and playback of Flash videos rather than full Flash browser.
The Samsung Focus 2 isn't going to draw in any serious shutterbugs with its 5-megapixel rear camera, but it performs well enough to get the job done.
Like all Windows Phones, the Focus 2 has a dedicated camera button, which can be pressed halfway to get an image in focus before taking the photo. You can also simply tap on the screen to snap pictures, in which case there is a slight delay to allow the camera to focus similar to a half press of the shutter button. You can even hold the shutter button to wake the Focus 2 directly to the camera, though this setting can also be turned off if you begin taking too many images of the inside of your pocket or purse.
Outdoor pictures came out clear, though you may want to increase the sharpness setting since the camera defaults to medium. Settings also allow you to fine tune the white balance, contrast, saturation, and manual adjustment of the ISO, though we didn't have any major complaints with the defaults.
Indoor pictures expectedly fare less successfully, with the single flash not enough to compensate for a lack of natural light.
It shoots pictures at 5M (2592x1944) resolution by default, with options to lower it to 3M (2048x1536), 2M (1600x1200), and even VGA (640x480) if you so desire. The camera also offers a 4x digital zoom, though the blurry results make it not worth using.
The Focus 2 also has a VGA front-facing camera, with expectedly poor image quality. The front lens is primarily for video chat purposes, which it performs as well as any VGA camera can be expected to, but isn't going to impress anyone.
Despite the lower resolution than other Windows Phones like the Lumia 900, the Focus 2's camera can take some quality shots. The wide variety of options will be more than enough for casual photographers simply hoping to capture a moment or two of their day.
The Focus 2's camera is also used to capture video, using a film icon in the lower right corner (upper right when held in landscape format) to toggle between moving and still pictures.
For some reason the Focus 2 defaults to VGA resolution for video, but it can also capture at the preferred 720p (1280x720) HD resolution at 30 frames per second. Switching to 720p produces clear video that will more than get the job done in most situations.
There are some drawbacks to taking video with the Focus 2. It doesn't appear to have any image stabilization to speak of, so videos have a tendency to be on the jittery side. Audio from videos is also pretty poor, with speech often garbled as the microphone attempts to discern between its target and background noise.
On the bright side, video capture has the same adjustable settings as still images, allowing you to correct the white balance contrast, saturation, and sharpness as needed. The camera flash can also be set to function as additional lighting for videos, though it doesn't provide quite enough illumination to handle anything darker than a moderately to dimly lit room.
Like other Windows Phones, the Focus 2 handles all music and videos through the pre-installed Zune app.
While Microsoft's Zune devices never quite took off, the app offers a nice hub for all media on your phone, handling music, videos, and podcast either bought from the Zune Marketplace, transferred from your computer, or taken directly with the phone. It also acts as the hub for media apps, such as Spotify and the pre-installed AT&T U-verse app.
Getting your own media on the phone requires the free Zune Music + Video program installed on your PC, or the Windows Phone 7 Connector app for Mac users to sync their Windows Phone through iTunes.
The Zune app also features an FM radio tuner, which requires headphones plugged in to use as the antenna. Many will likely ignore it for internet radio apps, but the simple interface functions quite well and allows you to save your favorite stations.
The standard speakers on the Focus 2 aren't quite up to the task of regular music playback, though it fares better with headphones plugged in. Video is limited by the Focus 2's 800 x 640 resolution display to prevent it from playing true HD video, but colors still look crisp if you opt to watch TV shows and movies on the small screen.
Battery life and connectivity
The Focus 2 bucks the common trend with Windows Phone by offering a removable 1750 mAh battery.
Samsung claims the battery will last for 6 hours of continuous use (6.5 days on standby with 4G LTE). Our tests showed that number can drop to between 3 and 4 hours when subjected to constant internet browsing, music streaming, and the occasional game, though that's still not too shabby.
Of course, what really matters is how the battery holds up to normal every day usage. We found that a single charge usually could make it through the whole day, consisting of checking emails, text messages, calls, web browsing, and occasionally music playback. If the Focus 2 is then left unplugged overnight the battery was almost always dead or dying the next morning, but so long as you charge it while you sleep the battery life fits nicely into the daily routine.
Aside from the headphone jack, a micro-USB port is the Focus 2's sole connectivity port. The micro-USB serves double duty for charging and connecting the Focus 2 to your computer to transfer media files, which it can do both tasks simultaneously.
As we touched on when discussing the Focus 2's internet features, it can connect through both AT&T's 4G LTE network or Wi-Fi for online access. It also features an FM radio tuner and supports Bluetooth 2.1+ to connect with headsets or other docks and devices.
There is also an Internet Sharing option hidden in the Focus 2's settings, which turns it into a Wi-Fi hotspot through the 4G LTE network. We were unable to test Internet Sharing on our review handset, though our experience with the phone's network reception so far doesn't make us optimistic.
Maps and apps
The Focus 2 comes with a number of pre-installed apps from both AT&T and Samsung.
On the AT&T side, the carrier has included apps including AT&T U-verse Mobile, AT&T Code Scanner, AT&T Navigator, and the My AT&T app. Windows Phone lets you unpin any app from the home screen, and many of these will likely be the first ones to go.
Samsung included its own app, called Daily Briefing, which can acts as a hub for weather, a Yahoo! News feed, and stock quotes. Strangely, the app doesn't support Windows Phone's live tiles feature, so you'll still need to download an additional third-party app if you want at a glance weather forecasts.
The phone also includes the standard variety of apps found on any Windows Phone device, including alarms, a calendar, calculator, maps, and the marketplace. Fans of games will appreciate the deep integration of Xbox Live, allowing you to use an existing gamertag to manage your account and earn achievements in mobile games.
The app marketplace for Windows Phone still lags behind those found on iOS and Android devices. You can finding big name apps like Netflix, LinkedIn, Spotify, Angry Birds, and Cut the Rope, but deviating from well known titles usually has results that are highly suspect at best.
The Focus 2 includes two map options between the default Maps app and the AT&T Navigator app. Both offer turn-by-turn directions and can point out local highlights for restaurants, shops, and activities nearby.
AT&T Navigator offers the benefit of traffic tracking to offer alternate routes and provide accurate arrival times, though the actual maps take significantly longer to render and is especially a problem when trying to scroll across the map. AT&T's app also requires a $9.99 monthly fee after an initial 30-day free trial, making Microsoft's faster traffic-less Maps app the preferred choice.
The Samsung Focus 2 makes no effort to hide that it is a budget Windows Phone. With that framework in mind, it does a fantastic job with the hardware it's been given.
For lack of a better word, the Focus 2 is just "right."
It offers surprisingly zippy performance, more than capable of holding its own even against higher-end Windows Phones like the Nokia Lumia 900 and HTC Titan II.
That performance is matched enough battery life to get you through the day and the Windows Phone interface that adds both style and substance to the smartphone.
Sure, the camera could be a little better, but you can still get a lot of mileage out of the 5-megapixel one included.
It's a perfectly capable smartphone. That may sound like the kiss of death to gadget hounds, but it is not meant as a condemnation by any means. The Focus 2 may not set any records but it can do anything you would ask of a Windows Phone, and do it well.
Despite our optimism for the Focus 2, it is not without faults. AT&T's 4G LTE network is chief among them, holding the phone back with slow internet reception assuming it can connect at all.
The lack of expandable memory is also a major drawback, since the 8GB of internal storage is actually closer to six and a half once the OS and standard apps are taken into account. Not that you need much memory to download the best of what the sparse Windows Phone Marketplace has to offer.
The phone also disappoints with its smooth plastic casing, which feels cheap compared to other handsets on the market. This is less of a problem when taking the Focus 2's price into account, but it certainly doesn't inspire confidence in the phone's ability to survive a fall.
The Samsung Focus 2 is an excellent Windows Phone released at the worst possible time. Yes, the elephant in the room is that Windows Phone 8 is just around the corner, and like all devices running the Mango OS, the Focus 2 can't be upgraded.
It doesn't help that thanks to aggressive pricing the Nokia Lumia 900 can now be found in the same budget $50 price range as the Focus 2. It's a shame, because the Focus 2 really is a great handset, and as a high quality low cost Windows Phone it would be a an easy recommendation. But when held up against Nokia's flagship device at the same price the faults become that much harder to overcome, leaving the Focus 2 too little too late.