Gadling gear review: Samsung Focus Windows phone

Remember 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.