Well, a few weeks ago was the HTC Inspire, so apparently it’s time to do a 180 degree turn and review something developed by Microsoft instead. And so, like a plot twist in a bad movie, in comes the Samsung Focus, practically dripping Windows ubiquity, right when needed. As a somewhat jaded Microsoft PC user, the question is as follows: how will the Win7 Phone OS stack up against the other available mobile OSes, and would it be enough to warrant a switch?
This phone at first glance is pretty run of the mill. Like the Inspire, it runs laps around my Droid, both in terms of aesthetics and sheer power. However, this phone could easily be mistaken for a sibling of the Inspire and most other current Android smart-phones. I’m not really convinced if that is a good thing or a bad thing yet. However, the case is only half the battle. The other half is what’s inside.
I’m one of those unfortunate individuals who have owned computers running Windows ME and early versions of Vista, and as such when booting the phone up for the first time I was terrified it would be a slow, fairly buggy experience. Luckily enough, this doesn’t seem to be the case. The phone runs smoothly through normal usage, nothing blue screens, and I breathe a sigh of relief.
Like most other smart-phones these days, the Samsung Focus follows the design plan of a slightly curved rectangular hand-held: screen on front, haptic buttons on bottom, camera on back. Personally I’d prefer to see a somewhat different (unique) design, but since the phone does what’s required I can’t really fault it too much. The casing is smooth, mixing metal and plastic casing pieces, and has a minimum of ridges. Compared to the HTC Inspire, reviewed a few weeks ago, the camera seems more incorporated, being relatively flush with the case instead of jutting out. Of course, this is partially due to the fact that the Focus doesn’t have the same camera/flash package. Buttons are nicely shaped and in the expected places, and seem to be fairly strong. Overall, the Focus seems to be a light, well built piece of electronics, without any of the flimsy construction you’ll see in phones where corners were cut.
Upon startup, it’s pretty clear that the team who put together the Win7 Mobile operating system wanted to distinguish themselves quite a bit from the Android and iOS systems. Unlike the other two, the win7 mobile doesn’t place apps in multiple navigable pages. Instead, it has the main apps set up in a checkerboard-ish pattern on the first menu, and a vertical list of all the apps on the second. The applications on the main menu usually have a graphic attached along with them, usually representing the kind of things within the app itself. ‘People’ flashes pictures of users you’re connected with, while the Xbox Live app showcases your avatar. The icons in the second page are all stationary, simply representing themselves with a single icon. The system is responsive, changing pages and programs quickly with just a little delay from time to time.
One thing that pleasantly surprised me upon receiving this phone was how very nice the Internet Explorer Mobile experience was. Compared to its somewhat bloated and ugly PC relative, this browser is minimal, fast, and feels like a PC browser experience on the phone. This is in comparison to some of the other phone browsers available, some of which are clearly just hack jobs of their desktop counterparts. The browsing is fast and clean, quickly loading up sites with a modicum of effort. One thing that did bother me about the experience was the fact that while I was typing in a new address, the page I was currently on would continue to load. If this happened to cause any pop-ups to occur, it would kick me back out to that page, removing anything I had input into the address bar.
Sadly, despite the pleasant browser, I can’t say I was too impressed with the rest of the package. There aren’t any features that really separate the Focus from the rest of the pack, no spark that really sets it apart. Everything is different from what I’m used to, and while that’s nice, there aren’t any improvements. Nothing in the software jumps out to make me choose this particular phone/OS combination. The available starting apps are pretty standard stuff, and while they do everything that’s necessary they aren’t particularly unique. They’re just there, in the background, doing their thing. It doesn’t really matter that they’re Microsoft branded because they feel functionally identical to all the other ones out there. The Xbox Live and Microsoft Office apps are fairly unique, not really having any analogs on other systems, but they don’t necessarily add anything useful. If you’re like me and do most of your gaming on the PC, Xbox Live just takes up space. I’m sure that some individuals can get a lot of mileage out of it, but I’m not one of them. Microsoft Office enjoys a larger audience, as it allows you to run things like Excel,Word and Powerpoint, programs that nearly anyone with a computer can make use of. However, it isn’t incredibly useful. The small touchscreen and lack of a physical keyboard make it difficult to do anything aside from proofread your files. I could see this app making a much larger splash on a tablet, but on a phone where its functionality is stunted it doesn’t bring much to the phone.
I must say, even though I expected to hate the Windows 7 phone experience, it left me with some decent impressions. The incorporation of Office is a nice touch, but I honestly don’t think it makes a difference on a phone. The utility gained from having it on a small phone touchscreen is pretty minor, and without a keyboard or a mouse actually using office to do work is an exercise in patience at best. Currently it feels more like a gimmick than an actual useful feature. Internet Explorer however showed itself off to be a very strong mobile browser, impressing me repeatedly during general browsing with speed and ease of handling.
In conclusion, while the Samsung Focus and the Windows 7 OS it runs on are nice, there isn’t really anything special about them. It functions just like any other smart phone on the moment, and while containing a few gimmicky features like Xbox Live and Microsoft Office, doesn’t really carry anything to separate it from other smart phones in the market. If you have your heart set on a Windows phone go for it, but otherwise it’ll probably be better to wait and see what else they can do with the platform. Perhaps the next iteration of Windows for phones will bring something really new and exciting to the table. Maybe not. While the phone functions well, the novelty of the Windows 7 mobile experience isn’t enough of a draw to choose this phone over comparative models.
Rating: 3/5 Gears