Gadling gear review: Samsung Focus Windows phone

The Samsung Focus Windows PhoneRemember when buying a cell phone was easy? You simply walked into a store, found a device that was the right size and price to fit your needs, bought it, and walked out the door. You usually didn’t have to buy another one until that phone died, and the thought of upgrading on an annual basis was nearly unheard of. The increase in demand for smartphones over the past few years, spurred on by the introduction of the iPhone and Android, has changed that landscape dramatically however, and now we seem more aware of new alternatives that can deliver the best mobile experience possible. One of those alternatives is the Samsung Focus, which runs Windows Phone 7 – Microsoft’s answer to Apple and Google’s mobile operating systems.

From a hardware standpoint, the Focus hits all the right notes. Powered by a 1Ghz processor, the interface is responsive and snappy, which is important considering that Windows Phone does some very different things from the competition. The phone comes with 8GB of on board storage and a microSD card slot allows for quick and easy expansion. A 5 megapixel camera, with LED flash, takes excellent photos and video, which are displayed on a very crisp and detailed 4 inch Super AMOLED screen

Of course, all of that hardware doesn’t mean much if the operating system that runs on it isn’t up to par. Fortunately, Windows Phone 7 is a powerful and interesting take on the mobile OS, which is designed to put the information that is important to us at our fingertips. Those familiar with the desktop version of Windows will recognize a “Start” menu that grants access to installed apps, but it is the new hub-based interface, code named Metro, that is truly unique and different. These hubs are highly customizable and display information on an interactive start screen that lets us know at a glance if we have unread e-mails, Facebook status updates, or Twitter messages that require attention. It is all very slick, well designed, and easy to use – so much so, that the next version of Windows for PC’s will integrate Metro in some fashion as well.These days, consumers rate the value of their smartphone based on the apps that are available and in this area, Windows Phone lags well behind the iPhone and Android. That said however, you’ll find options for most of the top apps from those devices are available here as well, including travel apps from Kayak, XE Currency, and most of the major airlines. The Marketplace, Microsoft’s version of the App Store, also has versions of Angry Birds, Netflix, Yelp, and many of the others apps you’ve come to know and love. Windows Phone may lack the large numbers of apps available on the competition, but there are still plenty of alternatives available to fit your needs.

Using the Samsung Focus around town, on the AT&T network, resulted in good performance, with no dropped calls and decent, if not outstanding, voice quality. Data was fed to the device via 3G network or WiFi quickly, allowing for web surfing, answering e-mails, and sharing photos on Facebook. Everything functioned as you would expect and in this arena, the phone held its own with the iPhone and Android devices.

So how would the Focus fare as a travel companion? In this area it is a bit of a mixed bag. The battery life is solid (6.5 hours of talk, 300 hours of standby) and Windows Phone uses the Bing search engine, also owned by Microsoft, to deliver good local search options and maps, complete with turn-by-turn navigation. The device is actually excellent at multimedia playback, allowing users to listen to music or watch movies on the go, and integration with XBox Live opens the door for the potential for some great games as well. Additionally, the great camera in the Focus is nice for photos and video as well, although I wouldn’t recommend it over a dedicated point-and-shoot.

But the Focus is also larger than the iPhone, which makes it a bit more challenging to stuff comfortably into a pocket while traveling. The large screen may look beautiful, but it expands the dimensions of the device as well. More importantly, the Focus isn’t a true world phone, which means it won’t roam on all mobile networks when traveling internationally. That could be a problem for some travelers, who don’t want to carry a second phone while abroad. The new iPhone 4S does offer that functionality, and the upcoming Windows phones from Nokia will also feature cellular chipsets for connecting globally as well.

Consumers looking for a true alternative to the iPhone or Android will definitely want to give the Focus and Windows Phone a look. Recent updates to the OS have brought even more features to the device and its unique, innovative interface presents important data in a completely different way from the competition. The Focus is also quite affordable, running just $49 with a new contract from AT&T.

Gawker’s Worst 50 States

I’ve been following Gawker’s newest series, The Worst 50 States. I’ve been enjoying following this series. In an effort to pin down not only the best states in the US of A, but, more importantly, the worst states, Gawker compiled a Gawker-invented rating system in order to rank our fair fifty. Granted, this rating system consists solely of the viewpoints of those on staff for Gawker, so the viewpoints are just about as biased as you would deem Gawker (Which might be not at all according to you!), but there’s some interesting stuff in there. Yes, they’re focusing on the bad more than the good, those damn pessimists, but all in all, fact or fiction, the commentary on the 50 states is makes me laugh. And, I’ll just throw this in there, I’ve been to 48 of the 50 states and much of every summary they make rings true to me. They’re not done wrapping up the states yet, but check out their analysis of most of the states here.

If you’re inflamed, saddened, or curling over with laughter after reading what’s so bad about your home state, come back here and tell us in the comments how Gawker made you feel.

Study Ranks States By Individual Freedom

Bench 2.0: the strangest seat in Bury St. Edmunds

In 2001, sleepy Bury St. Edmunds, England received an interesting gift, ultimately from Microsoft CEO Bill Gates. In the Abbey Garden, the town’s centerpiece, is what the locals claim to be the world’s first internet-enabled bench. Sponsored by MSN.co.uk, the seat contains jacks for internet cables and is said to provide direct access to the web. Unfortunately, the development has been rendered irrelevant already, thanks to the ubiquity of wireless internet access in Europe and around the world. Since I no longer travel with an arm’s length of Category 5 cable, I don’t know if the access from the bench works … though tour guide Anthony Mitchell referred to its functionality in the present tense.

Today, two cultures coexist comfortably in the Abbey Garden. The latest generation bench sits amid ruins from more than half a millennium ago. I guess there are worst settings for checking your Twitter feed!

Disclosure: Visit Britain shelled out some cash for this experience, and British Airways supplied the flights. I do wonder, though, if they would have liked me to write about anything else from the four hours I spent in St. Edmundsbury. We spent about five minutes at the bench, after all.

Bing Travel: “We save the average couple $50 per trip”

Hugh Crean is the general manager of Bing Travel, Microsoft’s new travel search engine. Microsoft is trying to chip away at Google’s search engine dominance, and Bing Travel is part of a multi-pronged effort that also includes shopping and health-related microsites. Crean’s company, Farecast, was acquired by Microsoft last year and folded into MSN Travel. I asked Crean about what Bing means to travelers.

Q: Farecast. MSN Travel. Now Bing Travel. My head is spinning! Couldn’t you just leave well enough alone?

Crean: It’s true that we’re giving the guy who changes our name on the front door some good business this year, but we’re excited that as part of the overall Bing search strategy, Bing Travel is a solution that a lot of travelers will discover and learn about in the coming weeks, months and years. Frankly, we’re simplifying things. With Bing Travel, Microsoft now has a single online destination for travelers.

Q: How is Bing Travel different from MSN Travel?

Crean: For starters, we incorporated all the great Farecast features – price predictor, hotel rate indicator, deals, planning tools, fare alerts, and more. Plus, we added the travel editorial travelers have used and read for years at MSN Travel. Beyond those core features, we have a really deep integration with Bing.com that makes Bing a great search site for travelers. Try a general Web search on Bing.com for ‘flights from LAX to SFO.’ Right at the top of the results you’ll see our prediction on whether to buy now or wait, deals out of LAX, a link to our flexible travel tools and more.
Q: Bing is about a week old. Has anything surprised you about the reaction to the new site, and particularly to Bing Travel?

Crean: We’re excited that travel is a key vertical in Bing and that the user response to the Bing and Bing Travel has been generally positive. There is plenty of room for improvement and we’re anxious to receive any and all feedback from customers so we can make it even better.

Q: At the heart of Bing Travel is data-mining technology that predict the price of an airline ticket or hotel room. Can you explain how it works?

Crean: At the core of Bing Travel is a passion to help consumers make faster, more informed decisions by delivering a more organized travel search experience and providing interesting features and functionality which help users accomplish key tasks more easily.

The prediction is a good example of how we make customers smarter and more empowered when shopping for airline tickets. Every night we gather and analyze millions of airfares (we basically run and catalog every possible search for every destination and every possible date). We then monitor those fares over time. Through machine learning and other really complex methods employed by our team of data miners, we are able to predict airfare pricing trends over time. The process and the information we provide for hotels is different, but employs many of the same basic principles.

Q: I really like the way you turn airline yield management on its head. Yield management tries to predict how much money a passenger is willing to pay for a ticket. But Farecast — sorry, Bing Travel — tries to predict when airlines are likely to offer the lowest fares. How much money have you saved your customers?

Crean: We are complimentary to the airline’s yield management and in fact, we give consumers the confidence to buy when they otherwise wouldn’t open their checkbook. The airlines control their pricing, and we are offering a free tip that builds consumer confidence. Importantly, we’re a search experience and not a travel agency, so when the consumer is ready to buy we connect them with a click directly to the airline or online travel agency to buy their tickets. A third-party audit showed that we save the average couple $50 per trip. I couldn’t tell you how much money we’ve saved travelers over the life of our company, but we get emails and tweets all the time from fans who save $100, $200 and even more by using our price predictor.

Q: Those fare prediction charts that show up when I do a fare search are extremely helpful. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been asked, “Will fares go up?” But I’m wondering: How do you know if you’re right? Have you ever subjected yourself to an audit of any kind?

Crean: Yes, we have subjected ourselves to a third party audit. Navigant Consulting found that our airfare predictions are 74.5 percent accurate. We’ve never claimed to be perfect, and you’ll see that alongside our predictions we include a confidence rating. Our goal is to be transparent and provide as much information and data as the consumers need so they can make a smart decision about their travel.

Q: When you look at hotels on Bing Travel, you don’t see the same kind of chart as you do when shopping for fares. Instead, there are three given designations: “Deal”, “Average” and “Not a Deal.” How do you come up with those labels, and how is your algorithm for hotels different than it is for airfares?

Crean: Hotels is a very different product than air with distinct comparison and pricing dynamics, so our approach is unique based on the category. With hotels we aren’t predicting what that particular rate is going to do over time, the way we do with airfare. We mark hotels as “Deal” or “Not a Deal” based on the historical rates for that hotel over time, and a few other indicators. Again, we’re presenting as much data for travelers as possible so they make and informed choice. We like to say that all our results are based on science, not marketing.

Q: Don’t look now, but car rental prices are climbing. They could sure use a little Bing attention. Any plans?

Crean: Don’t drive any conclusions from this, but we’re definitely keeping the door open on a rental car product.

Q: I’ve noticed that Bing Travel includes more than just a way to search prices. There are blogs and forums. How do these fit into a search engine?

Crean: With Bing Travel, we’re extending beyond comparison shopping and providing content that helps travelers get inspired about where to travel and be up to date with the latest travel news. A recent Forrester report said that 20 percent of travelers start their search without a specific destination in mind. So, the idea is to complement quality travel editorial content with community content to provide useful planning insights for travelers.

Q: Bing Travel isn’t the only site that tells travelers the best time to buy. Others, notably Farecompare.com, have similar features. How do you plan to differentiate yourself from those products, moving forward?

Crean: To be clear, no other online travel site provides a Price Predictor, which predicts if airfares are rising or falling and provides consumers with a recommendation to buy now or wait. The Hotel Rate Indicator, which uses science to indicate which hotel rates are deals, is also a differentiated offering available only to Bing Travel. Even our approach to airfare deals, leveraging billions of historical airfares to help consumers know what is a deal and why it’s a deal, is unique to Bing Travel. We’re committed to continued innovation to help consumers make faster, more informed decisions when searching for travel.

Name Your Dream Assignment Contest

Calling all aspiring travel photo-journalists! If you’ve ever dreamed of having $50,000 in cash to live out your travel dreams, keeping a blog, and taking photos along the way, now is your chance. Lenovo and Microsoft have teamed up to offer an unbelievably cool travel contest that is really as simple as putting your dream assignment in photos and words for the rest of the U.S. to daydream about.

The contest is called the Name Your Dream Assignment, and it’s open to writers and photographers of all backgrounds. The contestant with the winning idea will win $50,000 to bring his or her dream assignment to life. In addition to this amazing cash prize, the winner will win a digital camcorder and a Lenovo ThinkPad. Two runners-up will get the Lenovo laptop too.

The contest started on March 3rd and will continue until April 3. At that point, the 20 entries with the most PICS will be judged by an expert panel, which will choose the winner based on originality, creativity, skill, and experience.

Get crackin’, people! Some Gadling members and readers have already submitted their dream assignments (see links below). If you have dream up of an assignment and post it on the site, feel free to add your link to the comments section below. I’m more than happy to PIC yours if you PIC mine! :)

Mine:
http://www.nameyourdreamassignment.com/the-ideas/hibren/minority-languages/

Reader Bernie’s:
http://www.nameyourdreamassignment.com/the-ideas/berniesiao/drowning-cultures/

Gadling Guru Willy’s:
http://www.nameyourdreamassignment.com/the-ideas/WillyVolk/shooting-sharks-around-the-world-underwater-and-topside/