The Samsung Focus 2 is the most recent 4G LTE Windows Phone release, joining the ranks of the Nokia Lumia 900 and the HTC Titan II. Armed with an entry-level price of $50, the Focus 2 seemingly tries to balance the strengths and weaknesses of the more recent 4G handsets, like size, processing power, camera quality, etc. But, as is usually the case with compromise, the Focus 2 ends up mostly in happy medium territory, making it more than a jack of all trades, but still not quite a master of any.
Build & Design
After the release of two massive 4G Windows Phones, the Lumia 900 and the Titan II, the build of the Focus 2 is a refreshing change of pace. It takes on a more traditional, compact build, measuring 4.8 x 2.5 x 0.4 inches, making it a more comfortable device to hold and use one-handed. Still, I found it curious that Samsung touted the Focus 2 as being thin and sleek when it was first announced; it may be a more manageable size in terms of its width and height, but it's actually slightly thicker than the Titan II (which was 0.4 inches thick). Thankfully, at 122 grams, it's at least lighter than the brick-like Lumia 900 (160 grams) and Titan II (173 grams).
The Focus 2 has a very clean aesthetic, coming only in white with silver trim. The glow of the brightly backlit capacitive navigation buttons below the screen is a nice touch, too. The only issue I have with the phone's design is that it's made entirely out of shiny, slick plastic, and that includes the entire back panel. Without any sort of curvature or textured surface, this thing is just bound to get dropped or slip out when users attempt to cradle it between their ear and shoulder.
Easily one of the weakest points of the Focus 2 is its display: a 4-inch screen that sports an unimpressive 480 x 800 pixel resolution. And although it was decently bright and there was depth to its colors and blacks -- due to it being a Super AMOLED display -- the fact that I could easily see individual pixels without even having to hold the phone all that close to my face is entirely unacceptable. The graininess was so bad that it reminded me of the similarly rough display found on the Galaxy Player 3.6.
The one thing that the display of the Focus 2 has going for it is that 4 inches is a respectable screen size for a phone that's as relatively compact as this one. To me, it seems like a reasonable compromise between a slightly larger screen that pushes the size of the handset into unwieldy territory (see: the Lumia 900 or Titan II) and a smaller screen that's uncomfortable to use.
Other Buttons and Ports
The rest of the Focus 2's design is by-the-numbers. The bottom edge of the device is where you'll find the micro USB/charging port, while the 3.5mm headphone jack is on the top. The volume rocker is located on the left side, and the power/standby button and the dedicated camera button are both on the right.
That just leaves the back side, which is where the rear-facing, 5-megapixel camera and flash are located, as well as the phone's speaker. There is also a front-facing, 0.31-megapixel (VGA) camera that is placed in the upper left-hand corner on the front of the phone, right above the display.
The Samsung Focus 2 runs Windows Phone 7.5, aka Mango. It may be polarizing for folks who object to its "Metro" UI, the tile-based aesthetic, but it's difficult to deny the convenience of having Office, Xbox Live, Outlook, Internet Explorer, and, yes, even Zune integration for people who use any or all of those services. For more information on the operating system, which remains unchanged from device to device (no skins or custom UIs), have a look at our full review.
I was surprised to see that the Focus 2, despite its bargain price, has a respectable 1.4 GHz Snapdragon S2 processor under the hood, as well as 512 MB of RAM. Though it is regrettable that its CPU is only single-core, since Windows Phones don't support multi-core chips, it's still a powerful processor. Admittedly, it doesn't take much to keep the OS running smoothly, which is nothing if not efficient with processing power, so I made sure to try it out against graphics-intensive games and apps, and it handled itself with aplomb.
That being said, on paper it still finished behind the behemoths that are the Lumia 900 and Titan II. Using WP Bench Free, the Focus 2 achieved an average of 89 marks over five runs; Engadget has the Lumia 900 and Titan II benchmarks listed at 92 and 94.5, respectively. The Focus 2 even finished behind the much older Focus S, which scraped together a score of 91.54. This is just to offer a more concrete idea of the Focus 2 based in hard numbers, however, and in terms of real-life usage, you really can't tell the different between how it performs compared to the other recent Windows Phones.
Unfortunately, one of the compromises Samsung made with the specs of the Focus 2 is with its storage capacity; it has only a meager 8 GB. This is especially alarming when one considers that that leaves roughly 6 GB of storage that can actually be used, as well as the fact that Microsoft's restrictions mandate that Windows Phones cannot have expandable memory. Don't expect to store your entire music, photo, or video library on this phone.
The 4G LTE service (as well as the telecom service) that AT&T provides, while not as good Verizon's, is still perfectly capable, even if coverage is a bit spotty at times. I enjoyed the speeds, as they allowed me to easily stream video -- through YouTube and the like, because Flash is not supported by WP7 -- and make downloads from the Marketplace. I do wish that the Marketplace didn't force users to connect their phones to a Wi-Fi network or their computers when downloading larger apps; what's the point of a fast data connection if you can't use it to when making sizable downloads?
Apps and Software
As the Focus 2 is an AT&T phone, it comes preloaded with AT&T's suite of branded apps, most of which are relatively useful, but of which better versions can probably be found. There is, for instance, the AT&T Code Scanner for QR codes, but ever since the update of Windows Phone 7 to Mango, this feature has been built into the OS's Bing Search under the moniker "Vision." There is also the AT&T Navigator (a maps app; again, something that is baked into the OS), myAT&T (for account management) and AT&T U-Verse Mobile. AT&T U-Verse is a paid service, however, so the app -- which allows users to stream select media, program DVR recordings and browse their TV guides -- is really only useful to subscribers.
The only new AT&T app that I noticed was AT&T FamilyMap, which lets users track other family members that are on the AT&T network by locating their phones. Unfortunately, this is also a paid service, with the phone coming with a one-month free trial before charging $9.99 a month to locate up to two phones.
The only other pieces of preloaded software on the phone beyond AT&T's apps are the Yellow Pages app and Samsung's Now app, which is, for all intents and purposes, the HTC Hub (seriously, it's virtually identical). Nevertheless, it can be useful, especially with the on-the-fly updating of WP7's home screen tiles. If you pin Now to your home screen, for instance, weather updates will automatically show up on the tile itself so you don't have to go into the app (or another weather app) to get the info you need. Other features of the app include top news stories, stocks, social network aggregation, and exchange rates.
It's worth noting that the Marketplace is steadily growing, providing more and more Windows Phone apps by the day, both paid and free, but it's still vastly inferior to both the Apple App Store and Google Play. App selection is still the weakest part of the platform, and popular app makers almost never offer their software for WP7...it's always "for iOS and Android."
Unfortunately for Microsoft, the situation it has on its hands is kind of a Catch-22: app developers don't bother creating apps for WP7 because it's unpopular, and it's unpopular because app developers don't bother creating apps for it. As a result, you'll often see advertisements for apps that sound particularly handy, only to find out that you can't get them on a phone like the Focus 2. So as far as app selection for this phone is concerned, keep in mind that the Marketplace still has a long way to go, but it is improving (with the Marketplace recently hitting 100,000 published apps).
Although the rear-facing camera on the Focus 2 is only 5 megapixels, the minimum resolution by Windows Phone standards, and doesn't boast the brand-name recognition of the Carl Zeiss optics found on the Lumia 900 (which actually turned out to be sub-par), I actually don't have as much of a problem with it as other members of the press seem to. Maybe it's that I have a much lower standard for smartphone cameras in the first place -- I never expect them to be incredible and I never think they are; they'll always be in a substandard league of their own in my opinion -- or maybe it's that I'm just happy to see it take pictures that don't have orange and/or blue glows to them, a la the Nokia 900.
In fact, its white balance was mostly fine, and I was generally impressed by the color saturation in its photos. Usually, colors didn't appear to be too faded or, on the other end of the spectrum, oversaturated (though admittedly, some indoor shots resulted in slightly faded or weak colors). The camera could also achieve a respectable depth of field, which was great for close-up shots -- which, in turn, revealed far more detail than I would have expected from a camera phone; notice how you can actually see the little dots in the printed pattern on the coffee cup.
The really serious weakness with the camera is its low-light shooting capabilities. Noise and grain abounds in photos taken with poor lighting, so in this sense, the camera of the Focus 2 doesn't hold a candle to the likes of the Titan II, which takes exceptional shots in dim light.
And the front-facing camera is obviously nothing to write home about, with its VGA resolution (i.e. less than a single megapixel). The quality looks awful and is clearly not meant for anything more than allowing people to make out the general appearance of your face when making video calls.
The battery life of this Samsung smartphone is definitely good, especially for a 4G LTE handset, but I'm not sure I'm as impressed with it as some other reviewers are. With a full charge, it was able to last me two days and roughly five hours after making two 15-minute phone calls, sending no texts, and doing no more than a half-hour's worth of internet browsing.
Granted, as I usually do, I tested it under strenuous conditions, turning on Wi-Fi, location, email push, and maximum brightness settings. Still, that's not that impressive considering the two other 4G LTE Windows Phones I've tested (as well as the "4G" Lumia 710 from T-Mobile) under the same conditions could all net me at least three days' worth of battery life with my intermittent internet usage and occasional phone calls. The one leg up that the Focus does have on the likes of the Lumia 900 and Titan II, however, is that its 1750 mAh battery is removable.
The Samsung Focus 2 is definitely a solid phone, one that offers performance a small step above what you would expect for $50. It's certainly a good deal for an entry-level phone (with the not-so-entry-level luxury of 4G LTE), but bearing that in mind, if you're willing to shell out another $50 you can get your hands on the flagship Windows Phone, the Nokia Lumia 900. The Lumia 900 is not without its flaws -- its awful camera springs to mind pretty quickly -- but for another $50, you can get a much, much better-quality screen, better battery life, more storage, and, depending on whether or not it's your thing, a more unique and larger build.
But if you're really just looking for the cheapest way to get your hands on a Mango-based smartphone, the Focus 2 is probably your best bet. The Lumia 710 is a close contender, also being an extremely affordable phone with 4G, but the Focus is more powerful under the hood and is connected to a better network, with 4G that is LTE, as opposed to HSPA+. Despite it being a phone that generally eschews premium, top-of-the line features in favor of a more appealing price tag, the Focus 2 will still serve you well, even if it doesn't blow you away.