This downright great new Windows phone can duke it out with Apple and Google and in some respects is better than the latest iPhone or Android alternative. At $50 (or sometimes less) with a 2-year contract from AT&T, the Samsung Focus 2 is also quite a bargain.
Microsoft often doesn’t get it right the first time, or even the 10th time, but their formidable war chest of cash allows them to keep at it long after most others would have to admit defeat. So while Palm faded away, Nokia went on the ropes, and RIM’s Blackberry started on its path to irrelevance, the Windows operating system for mobile kept getting better. This Samsung Focus 2 phone loaded with the latest Windows mobile operating system is slick and—a description you don’t hear very much for anything Microsoft—cool.
Windows Mobile Software
The old clunkiness and redundant menu commands the Windows OS had a reputation for are gone and only once did I have to consult a manual to figure out how to use something. (To shoot video, you need to hold down the camera button.) Everything was intuitive and relatively easy. The testers using this the past six weeks have been twofold: me the dad and my tween daughter. Both of us managed to set up what we needed and get things done without working at it. That alone is reason enough to recommend this Focus 2 with Windows: no hurdles or hoops to jump through.
So what does it do better? Besides the great features-to-dollars ratio, the main difference in the software is the tiled display on the home page. This is visually more pleasing than what you get with Android or Apple, with the idea being you put the ones you use the most there and then the rest on the second page you flick to. There’s one for Facebook, for weather, e-mail, search (yes, you can put Google on it, not just Bing), etc. One especially cool feature is the Daily Briefing tile, which contains home city weather—you can see the current temperature without opening it—news headlines, stocks, and currency exchange rates. There’s also a compass. Really!
Plus this Windows phone has two advantages over the iPhone: it displays Flash websites fine and it has Windows mobile built in. As in you can edit that Word doc, Powerpoint, or Excel spreadsheet without a bunch of 3rd-party workarounds. And see every website.
My review version came loaded with some travel apps to show how well this would work on the road: Yelp, GasBuddy, TripAdvisor, and TripIt. No blips with any of those.
If there’s a clear weak point with the Windows OS for mobile, this is it though. All the big apps are here, but there just aren’t as many choices as you’ll find with the operating systems that have a larger base. If this catches on, that could change, but for now there’s a clear limit. The exception to this is games. Because of the Xbox Live platform, there’s a wide game selection and you can try most of them out before buying. That has been a big hit with my daughter. She got some new games in Vietnam even over Wi-Fi and had some new ones to play on two long train rides.
It was easy to pull over my music collection and whatever videos and photos I wanted—easier than with my Motorola Atrix Android phone—but it required downloading the Zune software first. The Zune player never caught on, but the software lives. Apart from this taking up 100MB on my laptop though, no biggie. It works.
Samsung Focus 2 Design
So what about the phone itself? Putting the software aside, this smart phone is a good piece of machinery. Phone calls were crisp and noise-free, you can use a Bluetooth headset, the texting worked fine, and it feels nice in the hand. It’s got a 5mp camera that takes terrific daytime shots and video, fair low-light photos. There is a built-in flash though. I’d put the picture quality a tad below an iPhone or my Motorola Atrix for when the light’s not perfect, but better than some actual cameras I’ve used, including the Nikon L120 camera I ditched for a superior Fuji one. Here’s an example of what a typical photo looks like, unaltered, from a sunny day.
There is also a front-facing HD camera for video or chat and the quality of this was better than I expected. My daughter made about 20 videos of herself using this and they look better than what she does with an old Flip camera.
I was also surprised by the quality of the speaker. Sure, it’s still a tinny phone speaker, but this is the first time I’ve played music on a phone and haven’t wanted to shut it off 10 seconds later because the sound was so bad. You can actually hear some bass coming out of it and it didn’t get badly distorted. Sure, attach a travel speaker and it sounds a whole lot better, but listenable at least.
The biggest shortcoming of this Samsung Focus phone is something quite basic: storage. It only has 8GB of storage and as with the iPhone, there’s no slot for an SD card. This seems like an odd omission that wouldn’t have added much to the manufacturing cost, but hey, I guess they had to cut somewhere to be able to offer it for $50 with a contract.
The Bottom Line
Overall, this is a much better smartphone than I expected it to be and after reading bad reviews of Windows phones for so long, it was gratifying to see they’ve fixed most of the problems of the past. You know Samsung makes good phones, now you don’t have to take a big step down if it’s loaded with Windows. There are more features on here (like voice commands) I haven’t even tried yet. I’ve been very happy with how this Focus 2 performed in my tests and it’s a great phone for travel: you can take decent photos and videos and keep up with your social networks without having anything else along.
Now that I’m done with this review, my daughter wants the phone back so she can do all the fun things she’s been doing on it. If you are looking at a phone for your own kid, this is a solid AT&T choice that won’t cost you the hundreds you’ll pay for an iPhone. If you’re looking to re-up with AT&T and aren’t tied to Apple, this is a great one for both work and play. Price it out here as a new or renewing customer.