The Samsung Focus, one of the world's first three phones running the new Windows Phone 7 operating system, goes on sale November 8 for $200 (with a two-year contract). Here are my impressions based on using a prototype; some of my experiences may not apply to the finished product.
The phone itself is impressive, but the real star of the show is the operating system, which (unusual for Microsoft) redefines and in many ways improves the often-cluttered world of smart-phone interfaces.
The Focus has the same 4.0-inch Super AMOLED display found on the high-scoring Galaxy S phones in our Ratings (available to subscribers) plus 8GB (gigabytes) of onboard memory, upgradable to 40GB via a microSD slot, and a rather advanced 5-megapixel camera with an LED flash. Its 1GHz Snapdragon processor provides plenty of speed.
One neat feature is that much of the phone's content, from contacts to content, gets backed up to Windows Live Sky Drive, which provides 25GB of online storage. You can also manage your account from any computer. One negative: The Sky Drive won't take your HD videos, and photos are automatically downgraded in size and quality to minimize upload time and storage requirements.
Clean, attractive interface. Instead of the nested sea of icons you'll find on iPhones or BlackBerries, or the hodgepodge blend of widgets, hotlinks, and apps that define Android phones, Windows Phone divides the world into two parts. The main Start screen features a unique twin-column stack of colorful "live" tiles that often function as widgets, showing you pending calendar appointments, new e-mail alerts, and so on.
Some tiles, such as the calendar, are double-width to show you more information. The tiles themselves can be rearranged or deleted, but they can't be altered. That’s intended to preserve a consistent look, according to Microsoft. I found this consistency very effective in keeping me from getting lost.
Swiping the touch screen to the left summons the Apps page. You can shop for more apps at the new Windows Marketplace, which, unfortunately, wasn’t working on my test phone. Besides launching apps, you can pin them to the Start screen by holding your finger over them.
Key preinstalled apps include the Zune player; MS Office (of course); a news, weather, and stock-report hub called Now; and the People Hub, which integrates the info from all of your contacts, including news feeds and photos. The design here is only moderately effective, because the uniformly square blue or orange icons, although clearly labeled, have a consistent look that makes them more difficult to distinguish from one another.
Brilliant display. The 800-by-480-resolution display was sharp and bright, as I expected. But most striking was the way the Windows Phone 7 interface seemed to shine on it. The background is mostly black, which makes the sleek white text used by the interface very easy to read. Most notable is the calendar interface, which clearly color-codes the entries culled from different accounts, such as Exchange and Google. This really popped.
Simple navigation. Along with swiping your finger and poking the phone display, you can use three buttons at the bottom edge of the phone to drill down to any part of your phone or the Web with great efficiency. The Back button, as the name suggests, lets you back you out of a situation. The Start key functions as a Home button, always bringing you back to the tiles of the main screen, no matter where you are. And the Search key, which uses Bing for text or voice-based Web and phone searches, worked fine.
But the searches are contextual, not universal. You have to be in Contacts to search contacts, e-mail to search e-mails, and the phone to use voice command, for example. That means extra steps if you want to explore a variety of sources.
Social networking. Window Phone 7 takes a hard stab at being a social networking platform, and it's not half bad. The People Hub not only aggregates all the relevant information about your contacts, from numbers and e-mail addresses to news updates, but also sensibly parses them out into news, contacts, recent status updates from Facebook and Windows Live messenger.
Another app called Photos shows you all the recent photos and videos taken by you or posted by your social-network friends. Unfortunately, there’s no support yet for Twitter, but you can download it as a separate app on Windows Marketplace.
Competent camera. Controls for the 5-megapixel camera worked well. There were lots of options for adjusting color, special effects, and sharing via e-mail or social networks. One interesting feature: you can activate the camera by pushing down on a button on the phone's lower-right side, even if the phone is locked. I'll leave it up to our engineers to assess the quality of the camera's photos and videos.
Decent phone. Phone controls worked reasonably well. Gone is the dedicated Phone button common on Windows Mobile phones, but the phone's application tile is prominently displayed in the top left corner of the Start screen. One quibble: I couldn't get voice command to work with the search button, but that could be a glitch isolated to this prototype.
Bottom line: The Samsung Focus looks like a winning smart phone, thanks to its gorgeous display and the efficient and attractive operating system behind it. I'd like it even more if Microsoft added universal search and integrated Twitter into its People Hub. We'll do a full review and rate the phone when we acquire a final version.