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Samsung Focus S

With a year of Windows Phone experience under its belt, Samsung returns to the fray for round two with two major new devices targeting the US, the large but thin Focus S and the small and petite Focus Flash. The former, which is the subject of this review, is more obviously a follow-up to the original Focus, which was the best-selling first generation Windows Phone handset. The Focus Flash, meanwhile, is inexpensive and relatively tiny, and should open up Windows Phone to a completely different kind of customer. I'll examine that phone in a separate review soon.

Given the quality of the first generation Focus--you could drop it at will and never hurt the thing--the new Focus S has a lot to live up to. And it does admirably, in most regards. The device is taller and wider than the original, but thinner and lighter, and while I realize some people will recoil at the larger 4.3-inch display--the original Focus sported a 4-incher--I think it suits Windows Phone and its opaque Metro tiles nicely.

In the hand, the Focus S feels like it weighs less than the original Focus, but there's something about spreading the weight out over a wider yet thinner device that makes it seem even lighter, almost airy. Looking at the spec sheets, I see that the Focus S weighs in at 3.9 ounces, not all that much lighter than the 4.07 ounces of the original. But it really does feel lighter, and less dense.

The size differences are even harder to explain. The Focus S is 4.96 (h) x 2.63 (w) x 0.33 (thickness) inches compared to 4.84 (h) x 2.56 (w) x 0.39 (thickness) inches for the original Focus. Again, not too different on paper, but very different in real life. Advantage Samsung Focus S.

Much about the two devices is similar or identical. Both feature AMOLED screens, though the Focus S is described as Super AMOLED Plus, compared to plain old Super AMOLED for the original. They appear very similar to me, with deep blacks and vivid colors. Both are covered in scratch- and ding-resistant Gorilla Glass, and as before I see no reason to cover up this device with any protection; the first gen version seemed impervious to damage.

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Samsung Focus S

Each of the handsets features the same set of buttons--Power and Camera on the right, Volume Up/Down on the left, and those capacitive Back, Start, and Search buttons under the screen. The Search button was one of two major areas of concern on the first-gen Focus because it was so easy to tap inadvertently. Because of the more squared off device corner on the Focus S, I seem to hit it less often, thankfully.

One difference I appreciate is that the micro-USB port, which is used for charging, PC sync, and, in this release, for Internet tethering, is on the bottom of the device instead of the top. This seems like a more preferable location for such a thing, and Samsung has done away with the dumb sliding port cover that adorned the previous version.

Internally, things get even more interesting. The Samsung S features a fast 1.4 GHz processor, a big bump up from the 1 GHz part in the original. Techies and those who seek to diminish Windows Phone for partisan reasons will note that it's not a dual-core processor, but then it also doesn't come with the battery life issues of a dual-core device, either. And no offense to iOS, but Windows Phone doesn't need dual cores. It runs lightning fast already.

Other internals are improved as well. RAM jumps from 512 MB to 1 GB, and built-in storage is doubled from 8 GB in the first model to 16 GB. However, contrary to many reports I've read, the Focus S does not support storage expansion via micro-SD. So 16 GB is all you get. For most people this isn't an issue, but I'd like to see Windows Phone handset makers at least offer different storage allotments as an option, as Apple does.

(To be fair about expansion, Microsoft never officially supported storage expansion in first-gen devices anyway, and on devices that did offer this feature, like the original Focus, the failure rate was unbelievably high.)

And then there's the front-facing camera. The original Focus didn't have one, since Windows Phone 7 couldn't do anything with it anyway. But the Focus S does, though the only on-device support for the thing comes via the Camera app, which now features a new software button for switching between the two. (Third party apps like Tango can use the second camera, of course.) As with most other smart phones, there's a huge difference between the primary camera, which offers 8 mega pixels of resolution in this version, up from 5 in the original, and the secondary camera, which tops out at a woeful 1.3 megapixels.

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The quality of the front-facing camera is lousy. No surprise there.

Speaking of cameras, the new primary camera answers the second of those two major areas of concern with the first Focus: The sad, sad quality of the cameras that shipped on every single first generation Windows Phone handset. Yes, it offers a higher resolution than before, but higher resolution doesn't always equate to better quality. So is the Samsung Focus S camera better? More important, is it as good as that in the best-in-class device, the iPhone 4S?

It's definitely better than any first-gen phone, and in some quickie, informal tests with several second-gen phones on the day of Windows Phone 7.5 US launch, it was apparent that the Focus S was second only to the HTC Titan for camera quality among Windows Phones. And while I'll need more hands-on time with the Titan to be sure, it was apparent at the event that only the Titan could hold a candle to the iPhone 4S. I intend to test that.

For now, I'd rate the best of the first-gen Windows Phone cameras as "good" (and I'm being kind there) and the HTC Titan and iPhone 4S as "excellent." The Samsung Focus S falls in the middle, at "very good." And it really is very good: Compare similar shots side-by-side with those taken on the original Focus and it's no contest. The Focus S photos are clearer and offer truer-to-life colors. Here are three sample shots from each phone's camera.

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Samsung Focus S (top) and original Samsung Focus (bottom)

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Samsung Focus S (top) and original Samsung Focus (bottom)

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Samsung Focus S (left) and original Samsung Focus (right)

(I will compare the Focus S camera to that in the iPhone 4S in a future Windows Phone 7.5 vs. iOS 5 article. But generally speaking, the quality of the iPhone 4S camera is superior.)

From a wireless networking standpoint, the Focus S adds support for AT&T's not-quite-but-what-the-heck-let's-call-it-4G HSDPA+ networking type, as well as 14.4 Mbps HSDPA, both of which can be faster than the 7 Mbps HSDPA that the first-gen Focus supports. But let's be serious, there's usually no difference at all. I do sort of like that Microsoft has the marketing cajones to put a little "4G" up in the status area instead of plain-Jane 3G. Sure it is, guys. Sure it is. (Apple refused to do this with the iPhone 4S.)

The Samsung Focus S comes with Windows Phone 7.5, of course, and there's no reason to beat this one to death: I happen to prefer Windows Phone to iOS or Android, and by a long shot. And you can read my lengthy Windows Phone 7.5 review or the first Windows Phone 7.5 vs. iOS 5 article if you want to learn more.

But you may recall from Part 4 of my Windows Phone 7.5 review that Microsoft added several last-minute additions to the OS, new features that would appear first in new devices based on this OS. The most critical of these new features, Internet sharing (or what some call "tethering") is available on the Focus S, as it is on other new, second-gen AT&T handsets. Of course, it requires a compatible data tethering plan from your wireless carrier, but it's nice to see it included. (Not included, and sorely missed, is Visual Voicemail, which I was under the impression AT&T had basically invented. I've yet to see Visual Voicemail in action on Windows Phone.)

Other unique new software features include the usual collection of Samsung and AT&T apps, most of which I delete instantly, including the new Yellow Pages mobile, which continues a disconcerting trend on Windows Phone where wireless carriers basically duplicate features that are already found on the device. (In this case, Local Scout.) Nothing worth dwelling on.

Battery life has been excellent. And while I haven't experienced the battery life issues that are apparently dogging some iPhone 4S users, I can say that the Focus S lasts much longer than Apple's latest handset in daily use, and much, much longer from a standby perspective. I've left the thing unattended and unplugged for well over a day and it fares much better than the iPhone 4S.

Put simply, the Samsung Focus S is the nicest Windows Phone device I've used at length so far, and the one I'll be using at least for the foreseeable future. The one possible wrinkle in that plan is the HTC Titan, which ships later this month. I'll be getting one to test the camera quality, because for me, that is now the primary consideration when it comes to choosing a Windows Phone or any other smart phone. But your needs may be different, and the Samsung Focus S seems to hit a sweet spot: It's a great looking device, with a thin and light form factor, and yet it sports a big screen, dual cameras, one of which is very good, and other modern features.  The Samsung Focus S is a worthy follow-up to last year's preferred Windows Phone handset, and if you're on AT&T, this is one of the best all-around choices available. Highly recommended.