Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Windows Phone: Samsung Focus

The eighteen month reign of my iPhone 3GS is over. I have succumbed to a combination of shame of not supporting my company, a curiosity towards the latest technology and development platforms, a frustration with the ever increasing fail of iTunes for Windows, and the lust for a good deal. The result: I now own a Samsung Focus, one of the more popular Windows Phone devices, with a store-installed 8GB memory upgrade (to 16GB total).

So far, the experience has been great; it’s refreshing to get a new experience after so long on Apple tech.The screen and camera are both everything good you’ve heard about. Finally being able to sync to Zune is a great relief. The Windows Phone 7 interface is a refreshing change.


  • Battery: Great! Meter shows over 3/4 at the end of the day, including speakerphone calls, WiFi on, compulsive email checking, and Fruit Ninja.
  • Screen: Everything you’ve heard is true. Black blacks, vibrant colors (particularly for photos). Respectable at 4”.
  • Camera: Also deserving of its reputation – clear focused shots with good color and handling light. LED flash gives even lighting. 
    In fact, the on-board camera is noticeably better than my recent Casio Exilim purchase, which even at 12Mpx had such horrible optics that I gave the damned thing away.
  • Memory: 8GB is obviously not reasonable for a modern device, especially with nearly 2GB reserved space, but luckily, you can expand the on-board memory with certain microSD cards. I’m disappointed that AT&T only had 8GB cards certified, but it beats taking the risk of crashes (a worry for many). The upgrade has been reliable for me thus far.
  • Call Quality: perfect, both in-ear and on speakerphone, in a variety of environments. People on the other end report hearing me clearly with minimal noise.
  • Signal: who knows. I’m in the Seattle area: our 3G coverage is as strong as our Starbucks coverage.
  • Form: Light and thin; sits comfortably in my front pocket.

Samsung Focus vs HTC HD7S

Some may question my sanity to buy the Focus the very day the HD7S came out. After all, how can 4.3" of screen be wrong? Well I did try both phones, and what really sold me was the audio quality for calls – the HD7S was really hard to hear to-ear, especially in the noisy Commons area. While the HD7S had the louder speakerphone, the Focus had noticeably better sound quality. Combined with reviews that point to the Focus as the undisputed King for screen (the coveted AMOLED), battery life, camera, and the fact that the Focus could be upgraded to match the HD7S’s 16GB of storage, it was an easy decision to take the Focus.

Windows Phone 7 vs iOS

I like the new Windows Phone 7 home screen. Tiles really are better, and given how many apps the average person has these days, relegating all but the most important to a list makes great sense. I’m less enamored with some of the other UI elements like the side-scrolling ‘tab’ views, but I think I’ll grow to like them.

I like the ‘People’ focus in WP7 over iOS. Out of the box, my phone’s already aware of Windows Live, my work Outlook, Facebook, Google, and texting and is capable of linking these all into a single contact.

Random cool feature: you can go to a website, and request to see your phone’s location, force it to ring (even if it’s on vibrate), or lock it (with a custom message). Lost phones will be a thing of the past!

iOS may have the largest app collection out there, but Microsoft did a good job of getting apps that matter fast. Netflix, Kindle, Yelp, Battle.Net authenticator and recently even Glympse are all available, plus a solid selection of games (and yes, soon even Angry Birds). I’ve had no problems finding all the apps I’ve wanted, with the exception of Zillow and AAA Roadside.

Only a few features I found noteworthy in their absence vs iOS:

  • Custom ringtones, though this is rumored to be coming in the next major update.
  • Visual voicemail. After being on iPhone, the idea of actually *calling* your voicemail seemed primitive by comparison.
  • Separate volume state between speaker and the aux jack. The same volume doesn’t make sense between the speaker and headphones.

I did not miss Cut and Paste (which is apparently available now) or Task Switching (coming soon) at all. For all the people that whine about these features, the scenarios where such features actually useful are not that common.

Zune vs iTunes

I hate iTunes. So very much. Sure, it does the job, but it just makes me so very mad that a company acclaimed for their UX could make such an unintuitive piece of software. Even simple things, like how many clicks it takes to update apps, or how it’s nearly impossible to actually find anything through browsing the iTunes store, or how hard it is to simply choose what music you want to sync. Or how it can’t automatically pick up PDFs as new books without manually dragging them over. Or how the process will deadlock half the time on device connect. Or how I have to send my photo sync through a separate application. Or how every version update I have to remind it that I in fact will never ever care to run Safari.

Zune is just an awesome piece of software. Everything is simple, yet easy to find and manage.It’s particularly easy to determine what music ends up on the phone – either drag it to the big sync icon, or for the more advanced users, specify rules (eg. “sync all of my favorite metal). You can also sync your entire collection, but given that Zune pass lets you download as much music as you want, that could fill a device in no time.

It’s not all rosy though. Application data (or the apps in general) from your Windows Phone doesn’t seem to sync to the PC.This matters a lot if you wipe your phone (or replace it outright) – iTunes is always one sync away from being back to normal, while with Zune there’s almost no way to avoid data loss.

Miscellaneous Complaints

The included headphones with the Focus are horrible, even for earbuds. Not a trace of bass, and distortion through the rest of the audible range. The iPhone headphones are great in comparison.

The first sync was a bit flaky – device install errors prevented Zune from recognizing the device. It took some driver manipulation and reboots on both sides to get a clean first connection.

Capacitive buttons, while fun to poke at, can be a bit sensitive when handling the device, especially the search button on the right side (coincidentally, the one button of the three I never actually want to push).

The games I’ve tried thus far don’t seem to perform as well as their iOS equivalents. In particular, both Doodle Jump and Fruit Ninja feel like the framerate is just that tiny bit too low. Not sure whether it’s an effect of the screen technology, the underlying compute power vs the demand of XNA, or even just all in my head, but it certainly detracts a bit from arcade games.

A nitpick – but it’s really frustrating that you can’t actually use many of the phone’s features while it’s connected to the PC.