Windows Phone may not have much market share, but you can’t blame Samsung for its woes. It has released more WP7 handsets than almost anyone. Unfortunately since the release of the HTC Titan 2 and Nokia Lumia 900 in the last couple months, the Korean maker has been left as the only Windows Phone maker on AT&T without a 4G LTE capable device. Enter the Samsung Focus 2. Capitalizing on the relative success of the original Focus, Samsung has made a phone that offers LTE for the best price yet ($50 with a two-year contract). But is it worth the deal?
Look and feel
On the surface, there is nothing fantastic about the original Samsung Focus. It’s a black plastic handset with a 4-inch screen. But, more than other Windows Phones back in late 2010, it had a unique appeal. Part of that appeal was undoubtedly in the AMOLED screen, which seems like a screen technology built to make Windows Phone look great, but the screen size and feel of the phone just worked. Everything worked. Released last year, the Focus S and smaller Focus Flash were both decent handsets, but neither of them felt like the Focus. With the Focus 2, Samsung has finally created a proper update to everyone’s original favorite Windows Phone.
The Samsung Focus 2 is slightly thicker in the middle than its older brother and carries a white coat of paint, but the 4-inch AMOLED screen is back, as is the general feel of the original phone. Samsung has even improved the design a bit, making the power and volume buttons larger and easier to press. The charge port has moved from the top to the bottom as well, allowing you to more easily check your phone while it’s plugged in. And there’s a front-facing camera (assuming you want or need one). The Focus 2 also takes some rough design cues from the new Galaxy S3, with a silver band that runs around the edges.
We have three small complaints about the Focus 2. For starters, the AMOLED screen does have visible black subpixels, which aren’t found in the higher-priced Focus S or other high-end Windows Phones like the Lumia 900 (though the subpixels don’t harm the experience much). The backlight for the Back, Home, and Search navigation buttons also bleeds through the white front of the phone pretty badly, which looks a little messy. Finally, the phone has a slick coating which makes it a tad slippery to hold. It hasn’t really bothered us so far, but may annoy some users.
Android phones may all be different, but Windows Phones are created equal… at least when it comes to their interface. The Samsung Focus 2 runs on an unmodified version of Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango). Microsoft has locked down Windows Phones so that they all operate the same.
Windows Phone is different from Android devices and the iPhone most sharply in its home screen, which doesn’t have shortcuts to apps, but instead has what Microsoft calls Live Tiles, which are square icons that can display widget-like information. For example, a weather app can show the weather right on the homepage, or your email Live Tile can show how many unread emails you have. This makes using your phone easier and allows Windows Phone to get away with not having a big notification tray (or junk drawer, as some Microsoft employees have called it). There are plenty of other differences as well. We particularly like Microsoft’s Zune-like media player as well.
As usual, there are a few Microsoft apps like Internet Explorer 9, Xbox Live, Bing Maps, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.
However, the downside to buying a Windows Phone from anybody but Nokia is that you don’t get some of Nokia’s custom apps like Nokia Maps, Nokia Transport, and Nokia Drive, which leverage the company’s solid mapping technology — one of the major reasons Microsoft made the partnership with Nokia in the first place. Still, the phone does come with Bing Maps, and you can download a Google Maps app from the Marketplace. We do wish Samsung would develop some unique apps of its own.
Like all Windows Phones, don’t expect to be impressed with the specs on the Samsung Focus 2. Microsoft has locked down Windows Phone hardware specifics, so every device is fairly similar. The Samsung Focus 2 has a 1.4GHz single-core Qualcomm processor, 512MB of RAM, 8GB of internal storage (no microSD), 480 x 800 pixel AMOLED screen, Bluetooth, an audio jack, GPS, common features like an accelerometer, a 5-megapixel rear camera, and a 0.3-megapixel (VGA) front camera.
The Focus 2 seems to have roughly the same 5-megapixel rear camera in it as the original Focus, which works fairly well. We have noticed that the auto focus sometimes doesn’t register right, leading you to have to retake a picture (common problem in Samsung phones like the Galaxy Nexus as well), but mostly, it works fairly well in outdoor, indoor, and low-light conditions. The color balance seems to be tweaked, leading to some shots that have better color, and some that seem a bit washed out compared to other Samsung phones. Like other Windows Phones, it can take 720p video fairly well. And, as always, it has a dedicated shutter button, which will open the camera immediately when you hold it, even if the phone is locked.
The camera performance here likely doesn’t match the Nokia Lumia 900 or HTC Titan 2, but it does the job.
Voice and data
We made several calls to and from the 900 to test out its voice capabilities and everything is just as good (or should we say bad) as any cell phone. Nothing particularly stood out, but there were no issues with hearing or being heard. Speakerphone works as well.
On AT&T’s 4G LTE network in Manhattan, we’ve been getting about 14 Megabits per second download speeds and 1.4Mbps upload speeds. These numbers are a bit slower than we were getting some weeks ago on the Lumia 900, but it’s likely a network problem, not any issue with the phone. Currently, results still seem a bit faster than Verizon’s usual 7Mbps to 9Mbps down and 1Mbps to 4Mbps up, but few phones are using 4G yet. The speeds will slow down when more devices (like the iPhone) begin to use 4G LTE.
As we noted in previous reviews: Due to some of the annoying limitations of Windows Phone, you’ll have a hard time utilizing the network fully. Even on AT&T’s LTE network, the built-in Zune podcast player will not download any audio podcasts over the air. It constantly claims that are “too big” to download on AT&T’s network. This isn’t true, as our Android phones download far larger files all the time. While we understand the need to conserve bandwidth. Issues like this hurt Windows Phone.
The Focus 2 has a fairly standard 1,500mAh battery, which should provide 6 to 7 hours of talk time, and almost two weeks of standby. Windows Phone comes with a nice battery-saving feature as well, which can help your phone last till you get home in a battery emergency. The battery life of the Samsung Focus 2 is nothing impressive, but it isn’t below the norm either.
The Samsung Focus 2 is only $50 on AT&T, and for that price you get everything you need in a Windows Phone and 4G LTE connectivity. There’s nothing flashy about the Focus 2 and it doesn’t have the navigation apps of the Nokia Lumia 900, but it’s one of the more comfortable phones on the market and has a form factor that hits that size sweet spot, making it small enough that almost anyone can use, but large enough that most people shouldn’t have a hard time typing on the keyboard. We like the Focus 2. For the price, you will too.
- Vivid AMOLED screen
- Windows Phone 7.5 UI is easy to use
- Affordable $50 price
- High-speed 4G LTE on AT&T
- Comfortable size and feel
- Low-resolution screen
- No microSD
- Single-core processor
- No real standout qualities