Windows Phone 8's official release may be just a few months away, but until then there are still Windows Phone 7.5 devices that are worth looking into. If you don't feel like waiting until this fall or need a new phone now, then AT&T has a couple of inexpensive but feature-packed phones to choose from. The Samsung Focus 2 is one of those. For a current price of only $49.99 on contract, you get a 4-inch Super AMOLED display, LTE connectivity, a 1.4 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, and Windows Phone 7.5. Windows Phone has built a nice little niche for itself, but for some people, it's still new. Is it worth taking a chance on a new operating system or should you go with something you know, like an Android phone or an iPhone? Keep reading to find out.
As per Samsung's usual hardware scheme, the Focus 2 is all plastic. It comes in white, making it stand out from the typical drab, black phones we see on the market. Despite being made from plastic, the phone feels solid. There's no wiggly buttons or hollow feeling. It actually looks rather sleek and modern. Measuring 4.79-inches tall and 2.47-inches wide, it is somewhat small in the hand, but only in comparison to other phones with large, 4.5-inch displays. It's slightly thicker than the previous Focus, the Focus S, and I wish Samsung had stuck with the slender hardware, but it's not so thick that it feels bulky.
The Super AMOLED display looks terrific and a 4-inch screen is the perfect sweet spot between too large and too small. It offers enough room for a comfortable typing experience. I always enjoy Samsung's AMOLED displays and the Super AMOLED display on the Focus 2 delivers bright, saturated colors and crisp graphics. It has a resolution of 480 x 800, which amounts to about 233 pixels per inch.
Below the display are three capacitive buttons for Back, Start, and Search. The multi-tasking interface is reached by long-pressing on the Back button, whereas long-pressing on the Start button brings up Windows Phone's voice control function. By default (and this cannot be changed) the Search button will access Bing search. The volume rocker buttons are on the left side of the phone (actually around the middle of the top half, an odd spot); the microUSB port is on the bottom of the phone; the hardware camera button and the Power button are on the right side of the phone; and the 3.5mm headphone jack is on the top of the phone. There is no microSD card slot but the phone has 8GB of internal storage. You can delete any and all pre-installed apps from AT&T and/or Samsung.
Around the back of the phone is the camera with its flash and underneath the battery cover is, well, the battery. The micro-SIM card (note: micro-SIM) slot is accessible once you remove the battery.
Due to Microsoft's strict software guidelines, Windows Phone devices do not bring any UI customizations from their hardware manufacturers, save for a custom Hub. Samsung's hub, called Now, delivers information on weather, news, stocks, and more. The app also has a live tile that displays the current weather and the forecast for the day. Samsung has included a few apps like Photo Studio which can be found in the Samsung Zone of the Marketplace. Aside from that, Windows Phone is unchanged from phone to phone. A few standout features are Live Tiles for quick-glance access to information from apps, the Zune Marketplace for music, videos, and more, integration of Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn as well as any accounts from Google, Yahoo, and more, Microsoft Office, and the Marketplace with about 100,000 apps. Windows Phone is known for its simplicity and Metro UI. The OS's simplicity allows you to get all of the information you need within a few seconds and without getting distracted.
Hardware continuity is a strength of Windows Phone. Performance is consistent across all Windows Phone devices. You can always expect a smooth and seamless experience, even with a phone like the Focus 2 with a single-core Snapdragon processor (clocked at 1.4 GHz). All tasks can be carried out with little to no lag and transitions are smooth. Here are a few test results when benchmarking the Focus 2's performance: on an AnTuTu Benchmark test, the Focus 2 scored a 2,553, and on a WP Bench test, it scored an 87.78 (the highest score recorded is currently 113.38).
The Focus 2 runs on AT&T's LTE network. While testing the phone in the Dallas area, I recorded average download speeds of 5 Mbps with highs of nearly 9 Mbps. However, I had constant problems with AT&T's network. It was difficult to maintain a connection for an extended period of time and the phone would randomly lose a data connection although the LTE signal was on and I had multiple bars of service. This is most likely a problem with AT&T and not necessarily the phone, as I've had the same problems with another AT&T LTE phone I'm currently testing.
Samsung equipped the Focus 2 with a 5-megapixel autofocus camera with LED flash and a VGA front-facing camera. The rear-facing camera also captures 720p HD video. In terms of picture quality, it's about what you would expect from a phone of this caliber. Photos look good but not great. Outside shots with perfect lighting have a nice quality to them but once you go indoors or a cloud shows up, the quality weakens. In general, details are soft and the noise can be bothersome. The pictures are not horrible, for sure, but this camera isn't going to compete with any of the cameras on some other high-end phones. Video captured with the phone's camera didn't come out much better. The audio quality was actually pretty good, but details, again, were much too soft.
The Focus 2 uses a 1,750 mAh battery. Battery life will vary greatly depending on your connection. Obviously, if you don't have LTE coverage and spend your days on HSPA+, then you'll easily make it through a full day without having to charge the battery. Even with an LTE connection, I was able to use the phone for a day, but I did have to charge it at night.
I'll be straightforward about this: there are better Windows Phone devices out there, even on AT&T. You've got phones like the Nokia Lumia 900, the Samsung Focus S, and the HTC Titan II, all of which are more desirable than the Focus 2. However, they're also more expensive than the Focus 2. If money is no issue, snag the Lumia 900 for $50 more and you'll get a better phone overall. However, if you don't have fifty extra dollars, then you should be perfectly content with the Focus 2.
The Good: Super AMOLED display; LTE; inexpensive; great performance; attractive hardware.
The Bad: Poor camera performance; won't be updated to Windows Phone 8; non-expandable memory.
The Verdict: It's not the best Windows Phone device out there but it will keep you happy. That being said, it's a risk to buy a new Windows Phone device now since it won't be updated to the newest version of the OS, coming this fall. Weigh your options before making this call.