Samsung’s new Focus Flash is a sleek, well-designed Windows Phone with a price that might just be enough to bring new smartphone users into the Microsoft fold.
What makes the Samsung Focus Flash remarkable aren’t its specs — though it is a well specced device — or its form factor — though we’re impressed with its build — but its price. At just $49.99, this Windows 7.5 Mango device gives “budget smartphone” a whole new meaning.
When I first handled the Samsung Focus Flash, my first reaction was, “this looks slick.” The Focus Flash is similar in size to the iPhone 4/4S, though the sides are tapered angularly, which makes it appear thinner in spots.
Aside from the front screen, which is glass, the body of the phone is plastic. The phone doesn’t feel cheap or overly slight; it’s lightweight but the phone still feels substantial. In other words, I never feared I was going to break the phone by putting it in my pocket.
The screen is a 3.7″ Super AMOLED display. This is on the small size for most of the newer Windows Phone 7 handsets. The Focus Flash’s big brother, the Focus S, has a 4.3″ Super AMOLED Plus display. Later this month, the HTC Titan will ship with a ginormous 4.7″ screen.
Although most manufacturers are embracing the bigger screen philosophy, I prefer smaller screens myself. Perhaps my hand size (and pocket size) has something to do with it, but I find the 3.7″ screen size just about perfect.
Although not as vibrant or crystal clear as the Super AMOLED Plus display in the Focus S (or the Lumia 800), the screen is still a joy to look at and use. In fact, I preferred it to some of the more expensive Windows Phone Mango devices I got to play with alongside the Focus Flash.
The processor is a speedy 1.4Ghz processor. Windows Phone devices don’t currently support dual-cores and the 1.4Ghz processor matches what you find in more expensive devices.
The front and rear cameras are serviceable, but nothing to write home about. Microsoft requires phone makers to include a photo button on the device itself, which is a nice touch.
The one glaring weak spot on the phone — and the only part that makes it feel like a $50 device — is the amount of onboard storage. The phone only has 8GB of memory — less with the included apps from Microsoft and AT&T. Plus, the memory isn’t expandable.
For the users that Microsoft and Samsung are targeting with this device — first time smartphone owners — this likely won’t be a problem — but it will mean limiting the amount of media on the phone over the long term.
Like Apple and Google, Microsoft is hoping consumers will use a combination of cloud-storage and streaming apps to satisfy their storage needs.
Battery life on the device was impressive. The phone got through about two days of normal use and one day of hardcore web surfing and app usage on a single charge.
The Metro UI remains one of my favorites on any platform. It’s designed to be easy to glance at and the text and chromatic layout is a pleasure to read in nearly all situations.
Although you need a Windows Live Account to use the Windows Phone 7 Marketplace, email and calendaring works with any major provider. In fact, I was able to plug in my Google Apps email info into the phone with no problem and instantly see not just my mail, but also my calendars and to-dos.
Microsoft has totally one-upped the competition when it comes to social networking integration. Not only does the phone natively connect to Twitter — but also Facebook and LinkedIn. Plus, your contacts and calendars from those networks can show up in a unified inbox.
One of the neatest features in Mango is the ability to pin portions of an app to your homescreen. This means that instead of just having a shortcut to Evernote, I can actually pin the voice capture action in its place. Tapping that button takes me to a new voice note, no additional steps required.
Microsoft has also added a voice search layer across the OS that works with Bing and select web providers to offer up relevant information. The effect is more similar to the pre-Apple acquisition app Siri than Siri on the iPhone 4S, and Bing’s voice recognition engine continues to be subpar when compared to Google or Nuance. Still, it’s nice to see Microsoft thinking about the future.
Over the last year, a host of apps and games have made their way to the Windows Phone 7 Marketplace. While Microsoft still lags behind Android and Apple in terms of app numbers, it’s getting better.
This week, Spotify has made its way to Windows Phone Mango. In addition the features already available for iPhone and Android, the Windows Phone version features built-in sharing via Facebook, Twitter and Messenger in a way that is utterly seamless.
In fact, in testing the phone over the weekend, I found about 90% of my most-used apps and utilities were either available for Windows Phone Mango or had a similar substitute.
Still, the omissions can hurt. Not having access to Dropbox, for instance, meant that I couldn’t easily access any of my stored documents or files. Likewise, while Netflix support is excellent, not having access to HBO Go, Hulu Plus or my cable company’s app meant that my video watching options were severely limited.
The good news is that overall, app quality, even from smaller developers, is largely good. The bad news is that many of the niche apps that have found a home on Android or iOS are still missing from Windows Phone 7.
The situation is getting better and my hope is that in the next twelve months, Microsoft can continue to court developers.
Compared to Other Windows Phones
One of the real strengths in Microsoft’s smartphone strategy is that it sets a minimum baseline for device performance. This guarantees every Windows Phone device has a minimum spec and thus, will run the same apps and the same version of the software.
This strategy means unlike many $50-and-under-devices, the Focus Flash isn’t running antiquated software or hardware. In this way, comparing the phone to others in higher price ranges becomes more about additional features rather than pure hardware performance.
I prefer the screen on the Focus Flash to the screen on the more expensive HTC Radar 4G. The Radar 4G has really terrible viewing angles and though larger, feels a bit more chintzy.
The Focus S has the same internal specs as the Focus Flash, but it has more internal memory, a bigger screen and a better camera. Whether or not it’s worth the extra $150 comes down to personal preference. While the screen on the Focus S is a bit nicer, I actually prefer the size and form factor of the Focus Flash.
Microsoft and Samsung should be commended for hitting the sweet spot in the value market with the Focus Flash. Aside from the internal memory — which is anemic — this phone is anything but budget.
Yes, it requires a 3G data plan and yes, users will need to sign the standard cell phone contract. However, for the person transitioning from feature phone to smartphone or for families looking to add another line to their account — this is a phone to keep your eye on.
There are cheaper smartphones. The iPhone 3GS is available for free. However, that phone is now two and a half years old and is showing its age when running iOS 5. Meanwhile, the Focus Flash runs the latest version of Windows Phone Mango and has a clear upgrade path for the future.
For users who are new to the smartphone game, use Office or Exchange at work, and want an inexpensive but feature-rich phone, the Focus Flash is definitely worth a look.