For only $49.99 for AT&T's Samsung Focus Flash, you might think you'd be getting a low-quality Windows Phone. I'm happy to report that you'd be wrong. The Focus Flash may indeed be the less expensive and less provisioned of AT&T's two new Samsung Windows "Mango" phones (the other being the Samsung Focus S), but it can stand on its own in today's tough market.
The Focus Flash has a stylish design, and a vibrant, if perhaps smallish 3.7-inch Super AMOLED screen, a 1.4GHz processor, and two cameras. It's easy to use thanks to Windows Phone's live tiles, and the Windows Phone OS continues to offer one of the better virtual keyboards available today. The handset isn't perfect, and Microsoft still has a long way to go to give Windows Phone the features and allure that iOS and Android have, but the Focus Flash is still an upper-middle model for smartphone buyers, particularly those on tight budgets.
The Focus Flash, a "4G" (HSPA+) world phone, becomes available Sunday, November 6.
I've got to hand it to Samsung on this one. The Focus Flash doesn't look like a $50 phone, or like the usual $50 phones Samsung excels at churning out. Instead of looking like a stamped plastic pebble, the Focus Flash manages to look tailored. It still has a glossy black plastic face, but sharp, squared-off edges make it look sleek rather than cheap, and the metal strip worked into the dark grey, removable plastic battery cover is a page from rival HTC's book on sartorial smartphone charms.
At 4.6 inches tall by 2.3 inches wide and 0.43 inch thick, the Focus Flash is a compact phone by today's standards, easily slipped into a pocket. It weighs 4.1 ounces, which feels about right, and I'm surprised at how light that thin metal sheet is on the plastic black cover.
One trade-off with the smaller overall size is the Focus Flash's 3.7-inch screen. Windows Phone live tiles are larger than your typical Android and iOS icons, so I didn't have any problems navigating around; however, for reading and typing, I'm beginning to prefer the ubiquitous 4-inch screen size. People who plan to watch a lot of streaming media may hesitate at this screen size as well.
When it comes to vibrancy and clarity, however, the Focus Flash is ahead of the game; its Super AMOLED screen has a 480x800-pixel WVGA resolution and supports 65,000 colors. Samsung has been among the front-runners when it comes to screen technology, and although this isn't the Super AMOLED Plus screen we're talking about, it's still bright, colorful, and full of visual oomph.
The Focus Flash is running Windows Phone 7.5 (also known as Mango), and as with other Windows Phones, you'll be able to choose one of 10 tile and icon colors and either a black or a white background. Other visual elements you can control include rearranging tiles on the start screen and pinning and unpinning tiles, people records, apps, and other elements to the start screen. Thanks to Mango, live tiles are more dynamic in the Windows Phone operating system than before, so you'll also be able to do things like update your social networking status from your constantly-updating Profile tile.
Let's move on to the phone's external features. One of the most exciting extras you may not expect from a $50 phone is the VGA camera lens located just above the screen. Below the screen are three typical buttons for the Back, Home, and Search. I like that the Windows button is a physical thing you can actually push, but it's a little small and I would prefer it flush or slightly raised from the surface rather than slightly indented--though it was likely designed that way to prevent accidental finger-presses.
A quite responsive volume rocker is on the left spine, with the power button and camera shutter button on the right. The Micro-USB charger port is on the bottom, and there's a 3.5mm headset jack up top. One of the nice things about Windows Phone is that pressing and holding the camera button wakes up the camera, even if the phone is locked with a password.
The camera lens itself is on the phone's back, and is accompanied by a flash. The back cover is removable, but you won't find any microSD cards here--Windows Phone famously is without support for microSD, and keeps an internal memory instead. On the Focus Flash that memory is 8GB--which is unfortunately on the smaller side, but not unexpected for the phone's modest price.
Microsoft keeps the Windows Phone OS pretty locked down, so the features are similar from phone to phone. One of the most important features is that the Focus Flash runs on AT&T's "4G" HSPA+ network, which is speedier than the 3G network, but it isn't 4G LTE.
Like other smartphones, the Focus Flash supports Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, and multimedia messaging. There's e-mail and social networking integration through account log-ins in the settings, an option for linking inboxes together, and support for group messaging. Your address book is limited only by your available memory. There's also a neat ability to thread messages sent between IM and traditional texting in the same thread, and support for task-switching. (For even more detail about what's new in Mango, read the full Windows Phone 7.5 review.)
There's also good stuff like speakerphone, conference calling, and voice prompts for things like voice dialing. Essentials include your clock, your calendar, a calculator, Internet Explorer 9 (with HTML5 support but no Flash), and podcast subscriptions. There's also a Bing Maps app, with turn-by-turn directions for walking and driving. Microsoft offers Xbox Live integration through the Games hub.
Although there's not a lot of variation, there is a bit of wiggle room for manufacturers and carriers to add some of their own apps, and we see that here. With AT&T, you get branded apps for a bar code and QR code scanner, AT&T Navigator with turn-by-turn directions, AT&T Radio, MyWireless, and AT&T U-verse Mobile, which is the mobile version of U-verse TV for streaming shows (this service costs $9.99 per month to sign up for from the phone).