2011-11-08-063

Samsung Focus S review

What’s a big screen device at 4.3 inches running Windows Phone and is considerably thin? For the majority of users, the answer is clear – something from HTC. Surprisingly, many would be absolutely wrong because Samsung released the Focus S, a Windows Phone that is sporting a 4.3 inch display running Windows Phone 7.5 that is also razor thin. However, unlike the Taiwanese company that has made their name for huge screen and razor thin chassis, the Samsung Focus S offers a Super Amoled Plus display in almost a thinner form factor than any of HTC’s 4.3 inch devices. Does the slim size make the Samsung Focus S a must have for those that want to try Windows Phone? Or is this one of those cases where size is actually a bad thing? Of course we’re not going to tell you now, you have to read the full review to find out more.

Hardware

The Samsung Focus S feels like a HTC device. However, the device is made of plastic and much like the Samsung Focus, it feels so light it is almost breakable. The curved edges on the sides of the device makes the device feel really nice in hand and almost certainly quite comfortable when drafting SMS messages or typing out some emails. The front of the device has a 1.3 MP shooter toward the upper left, and at the bottom of the 4.3 inch screen lies the standard 3 Windows Phone capacitive buttons for simple operations. To the left side of the device is the volume rocker that is quite sturdy with no accidental taps of the volume rocker. To the right of the device is the power and camera button, which sadly didn’t have the sturdy feel of the volume rocker. In fact, the power button was quite recessed in the device making it almost too easy to power on the device. The camera button also exerted a similar recessed button approach and a less than sturdy feeling over the volume rocker.

Switching to the top of the device is the 3.5 mm standard headphone jack and to the bottom is the microusb port. Unlike the previous Samsung Focus, the microusb port is not located on the top of the device, but on the bottom of the device which is certainly fine for me. One minor cosmetic issue I had with the Focus was the micro-usb charging port on the right side versus on the bottom like other Windows Phones devices.

Turning the device over shows the 8 MP shooter that has become synonymous to a high quality Windows Phone device. At the bottom of the shooter lies the LED flash. The two are surrounded by a rather flimsy back. Unlike the Samsung Focus, which also had a similar plastic backing, the backing of the Focus S is reminiscent of a weaker HTC Mogul/xv6800 backing. However, despite the flexibility of the back cover, the pattern on the back cover actually feels good. If a solid backing were chosen like the Samsung Focus, the device would’ve felt almost cheap. However, the back cover with the raised bump pattern gives the device somewhat a premium feel. If there were one thing I would wish, it would be that the device had a kickstand.

Display

As stated, the Focus S sports a 4.3 inch Super AMOLED Plus display. Like all Windows Phones, the Samsung Focus S sports a 800×480 screen resolution but lacks a pentile matrix subpixel arrangment. To put this in proper perspective, the previous Focus had a PenTile Matrix subpixel arrangement meaning that the pixels on the Focus screen was around 768,000. While the experience was mediocre, in Windows Phone, color banding was the number one complaint of Focus owners. Samsung’s use of Super AMOLED Plus display means the display has 1,152,000 sub-pixels unlike its older brother Focus with 768,000 subpixels. The result is a solid array of colors on the Samsung Focus S that makes operating Windows Phone wonderful.

However, there are quite a few drawbacks with the screen. The viewing angles, compared to the Samsung Focus, aren’t as bright. The device is quite dim on automatic brightness resulting in a rather dark looking device that doesn’t have the wow factor the Super AMOLED Plus display notably deserves. The easiest solution is to disable automatic brightness, which helps, but I can’t help but wonder if there is a ambient light sensor driver issue at work.

Despite some foibles with the screen brightness, the Super AMOLED Plus display on the Samsung Focus S definitely improves the Metro experience. The sheer size of the screen doesn’t give Windows Phone a cartoonish appearance and overall browsing through movies and playing games on xbox live was far better on the Samsung Focus S versus its predecessor because of the use of Super AMOLED Plus. Well, when it was bright anyway.

Camera

Last year, the Samsung Focus was arbuably the best camera for Windows Phone for features such as antishake and a great camera sensor at only 5 MP. The most amazing thing about the Samsung Focus camera was the ability to have an excellent white balance. No matter where you shot, the automatic settings adjusted extremely well. Sadly, the same excellent quality cannot be said for the Samsung Focus S, whose photos are a bit of a catch 22. First let’s go over the good.

Like many of the previous Windows Phones, if there is an extremely good amount of lighting in the photo, like in a natural environment, the images are extremely well done like the Samsung Focus. In my shooting around the Chicagoland area, I didn’t find many hiccups with the camera shots. The same can be said for many camera shots in other areas, like some of the shots taken on the Chicago bus and under adequate conditions with several different light sources. Surprisingly, in complete darkness, the flash is extremely bright luminating the entire object in the photo.

However, in many shots for dark conditions, my photos looked less than impressive. After a fresh rain in Chicago, where I love taking photos of flowers with water drops on their petals, I found that the image quality took a drastic turn for the worse. The result is almost a very cheap looking image with lots of noise in part because the Samsung Focus S has a rather ugly bug that all Windows Phones currently have. The white balance bug that plagued many devices (Dell Venue Pro owners know this bug extremely well) is still there and it often leads to an overexposed photo, a photo with a lot of noise, or generally a photo taken from a 3 MP shooter as far as loss in quality.

When resized to a smaller image, the pictures look quite nice, but viewing images in their RAW form is a chilling experience. Understandably, I am no newbie when it comes to a camera, but I am also no expert. However, I expect some shots to really stand out in several conditions. It’s also likely that I’ve been bitten by the Nokia bug after using the Nokia N8 as my primary camera for so long, I expect the same for all mobile cameras, in that I expect a mobile camera to have the perfect white balance for the average consumer to take the best shot. Not getting that from a Samsung in some ways is quite strange considering the Samsung Focus had such a good camera.

Despite my issues with the photos, I found the 720P footage came out a little bit better. On default, the video settings are at VGA, which is a strange one. However, both the 720P and VGA recording do a great job of capturing video without any issue whatsoever.

Be that as it may, the photos taken from the Samsung Focus S are a catch 22. Some photos are fantastic, and some are just plain mediocre, almost bordering on bad because of the white balance issues on several Windows Phones. However, the camera ofers autofocus, touch to focus on several different objects in the image, and the ability to edit many photos through the autofix option. Sufficed to say, for some photos, autofix may be your friend. In some shots, the images will be so good that autofix isn’t necessary.

Performance

Let’s be clear. If anyone was ever looking for a reason to upgrade from your old Windows Phone to a shiny new Windows Phone, the performance is the clear reason why. Trying several different devices over the year, the OS was snappy, but there was lots of lag in graphic intensive applications (like gaming). Fortunately, the single-core, second generation Snapdragon at 1.4 GHz performs tasks very well. The Adreno 205 GPU decreases a lot of the graphics lag that existed on its older brother the Adreno 200 giving games a really fluid experience. For many aficionados, they will find that the Adreno 205 needs to be retired for dual-core chipsets. The Adreno 205 GPU will not win a contest going head to head with the likes of a refined dual-core device, like the iPhone 4S. Despite the aging limitations of working on single core processors, it is a huge jump in comparison to last year’s iteration.

What is really unique about the performance is comparing the performance against other OSes running the same chipset leading to a Mr. Green Roboto vs. Redmond showdown. Sadly, using the same specs on a Green Roboto will not yield the same silky performance as a Windows Phone. Much of that is attributed to Microsoft optimizing the operating system to run on their strict hardware requirement. Sufficed to say, Mango runs without any issues on many second generation devices.

For many that love to visualize performance in numbers, WPBench gives some unique benchmark scores in comparison to first generation Windows Phones. The overall benchmark score using WPBench was 90.39, which is leaps and bounds over first gen hardware. To see how the score was gathered, take a look at the shot below:

However, taking a look at the top scores of WPBench for the same device, the score is higher (between 98 – 100) for benchmark testing which is very interesting to say the least. Despite the improvement for users going from older hardware, the device may not compare head to head against the iPhone 4S. But the Focus S isn’t a slouch either when performing day to day tasks or gaming.

One limitation to performance is the storage capacity at only 16 GB, giving users access to around 14.00 GB of space. Installing navigon takes 1 GB depending on location and for some users, 16 GB is just not enough. However, NAND > SD storage, and in many ways the SD storage had some issues with performance and memory management. Top that with general slower performance on the sD storage of the Samsung Focus, the Focus S definitely gives users that speed, even if there is a concession of extended storage and lacking 32 GB options.

Battery Life

For a huge Super AMOLED Plus display, the battery life was expected to be on the low side. I’m happy to report that the Focus S battery life far surpassed my expectations. Using AT&T’s 4G network, I was able to get almost 2 days from moderate to heavy usage, including some web browsing, snapping some photos and videos, playing some games, and viewing a few powerpoints on the device. Surprisingly, WPBench gave some very interesting battery results with the battery completely drained after about four hours and 30 minutes. Sufficed to say depending on the task, the phone will perform extremely well in terms of battery. For extremely heavy usage, you may need to charge after about 19 hours, but for moderate usage over wifi, you can stand at least a day and a half.

Wireless

Wireless deserves a special category for a variety of different reasons. One of which is users can place calls via their mobile provider, or use Tango video service for free calls over wifi and their mobile network. On the positive side, the call quality is very clear on both ends and no missed calls which is a plus. The Samsung Focus S is also touted to have 4 (faux) g access which should give users blazing fast speeds. Clocking the overall speed from a speed test application yielded surprisingly unimpressive results. The average download speed barely reached above 4 Mbps with upload speeds of about 1 Mbps. For the Focus S to be touted at AT&T’s 4G network, the speeds are very lackluster.

Another issue I found with the device was the WiFi. If I were to describe the WiFi, rather the ability to maintain a WiFi connection, I would say disappointing. As I turn toward the Samsung Focus Flash and the Dell Venue Pro, WiFi was not an issue for either device. For the Samsung Focus S to be considered the “big” guns, the WiFi performance is lackluster. Often, I would literally place my phone in 3-5 foot range of my router, and the WiFi signal would drop. Browsing WiFi in my home, a task many will do, was almost a nightmare with the constant WiFi drops and not establishing my network connection. This made downloading larger games, such as Kinectimals and the Harvest a complete chore unfortunately.

Software

Of course, the Samsung Focus S is running Windows Phone Mango and the OS is definitely one of the best I’ve used. Despite being at 1.4 GHz and having 512 MB RAM with a percentage of the RAM going to the GPU, everything was fast and fluid and a joy to use. Some slight disappointments included an ability to zoom into a text field when you have to modify spelling of a word would be a welcome addition that existed on Windows Mobile (yep it did), smart dialing, and a few other things. Overall the experience was quite enjoyable. But, what else would we say, this is WPsauce.com

Final Thoughts

The part of the review I loathe for a variety of reasons. The Samsung Focus S has a lot of specs that makes it perfect for the average consumer to use and master fast. A 4.3 inch Super Amoled Plus display in a relatively thin form factor, packing an 8 MP rear shooter with 1.3 MP shooter on front. In addition, Windows Phone Mango (7.5) is a joy to use and the graphic hiccups on any next generation device will be few and far in between. However, issues with establishing a consistent WiFi connection, some ambient light sensor issues making viewing angles considerably dim in comparison to the Samsung Focus Flash (the cheaper little brother). The camera is a catch 22, and like other Windows Phones is plagued with the awful white balance bug that rears its ugly head on sporadic occasions. Perhaps, much of the issues are those that a nice firmware update will fix in the not too distant future (I hope). It could also be my unit too that has some issues. Overall if I were to recommend the device, I would recommend it with a star, listing the almost plethora of issues in its current iteration.

The major question is whether a user should upgrade to the Focus S. That’s a difficult question because individual tastes differ. On a performance perspective, the Samsung Focus S is definitely a winner over previous generations of Windows Phones. On paper, the specs of the Focus S almost update in every single way; except in terms of memory. If you are cognizant on memory, and you feel that $549 is a bit too much to spend on a single core processor, you may want to wait. If you’ve never used Windows Phone, and have been interested in using Windows Phone, you should give the Focus S a try for a few days and see what you think. If you are a die hard phone aficionado that has to have the latest and greatest, like me, then you should purchase the Focus S. Any issues listed are those of firmware, not necessarily hardware that will be fixed.

What we love

  • 4.3 inch Super AMOLED Plus display
  • Performance
  • Operating System
  • Form Factor

What we hated

  • Some camera issue
  • Considerably dimmer screen when using automatic brightness
  • WiFi instability

Bottom line

The premium Focus S performs well in many tasks, but dimmer screen, some mediocre camera photos, and WiFi instability turn this phone from being great to just okay. I give it a

7.5/10

 

12 thoughts on “Samsung Focus S review”

    1. in the end yes. Gotta love an all day rain when trying to film. I am sure the focus flash may not have that issue, but heck you may see snow knowing chicago weather =/

  1. When I went to the AT&T store I also noticed that the screen would often dim itself. I later found out that this is a feature on the phone. This feature could actually be turned off in the “extra settings” . I noticed in the video that you had it turned off and you described it as a feature that will adjust the colors on a white screen. In actuality that feature controls the intensity of the screen. When disabled, the screen will not dim itself and it makes the display very bright and in my opinion it makes the display something more to drool about. Maybe that is why you were thinking that there was something wrong with the proximity sensor as well. Anyways good review and let me know what you think when you switch that setting to off if you haven’t already. 

    Thanks

  2. The camera quality alone will make me not trade in my 1st gen Focus for this. Those outdoor shots of the lamp & flowers are just awful.

    Doesn’t this have the same exact sensor as the Galaxy S II?? I don’t recall shots looking this bad on those devices.

  3. Your camera problem sounds like the ISO setting in auto are too high. If you really want to get good photos in low light use the manual settings and open the F stop as much as possible (make the F number go down as low as possible) or up the exposure time. Auto is always gonna be way worse than using manual settings (and it’s really nice that this phone has manual settings).

    One of the biggest problems with cameras that have small sensors will be the ISO. You really should make sure its lower than 800. When you get into DSLRs, cameras with larger sensors preform much better in lower light situations than cameras with smaller sensors.

    Might want to try a more controlled test using a picture with lots of colors and lines in different light levels while changing the settings manually. This would give you a better idea of why the picture isn’t turning out as well and will be much more repeatable than taking pictures outside in varying/uncontrollable light conditions.

    1. I just picked up this phone the other day. I noticed the goofy screen brightness issue in the store but it works just fine for me. Some have complained about a keyboard lag but I don’t see any and I can type pretty fast. The wifi is fine for me. One app, Mixtape I think, would let the wifi connection drop after the phone had been asleep for a few minutes. Maybe the wifi issue noted is app related. 

      I’m really liking this phone. I’m coming from 4yrs of Android and the original Galaxy S and feel like I wasted my time there. This UI is great. Half the time I can’t tell if I’m still in an app or the O/S. The data is pervasive, between apps, O/S menus, everywhere. It’s incredibly responsive – if my finger studders while swiping, so does the animation.

      The screen is astounding, twice as good as the original Galaxy S. I just want to use the phone, for no reason. How many things do you buy that make you want to use them?

      1. a few. Sadly this isn’t one of them I’m afraid. I’ll have a final write up sometime in the coming weeks to explain that and part of it does lie in marketing, usability and price. Sufficed to say I rather enjoyed the focus flash far better (which is the cheaper of the two)

    2. those were all camera defaults, well except the anti shake and changing the lens to macro. Trust I may not be an expert, but I can say I know my way around a camera or two
      as far as updated shots, quality is about the same after changing the ISO settings. It’s a shame though because the camera is supposed to be fantastic

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