As I’m sure most of you already know, Windows Phone 7 launched one week ago today, bringing a brand new OS to the ultra-competitive mobile device market. Review units have been pretty hard to come by; but once again, our friends at Samsung Mobile have come through, giving us our very own Focus to test. Normally, we try and keep device reviews separate from our mobile OS reviews; though device and OS do work hand in hand, they’re 2 distinctly different segments that should stand alone both for their flaws and their merits. But since both the device and its operating system are brand new, we’re going to try and combine our first impressions, while still treating the Focus and Windows Phone 7 platform as independent entities.

Let me start by addressing an unfair reality of the mobile device industry: Because of the success of Apple’s iOS platform and Google’s Android, any new OS must endure living under a microscope. On the surface, this is completely unfair; after all, both iOS and Android have at least 4 versions under their respective belts, while Windows Phone 7 has just come to market–isn’t it completely unfair to draw comparisons? Well the answer is yes–and no. While Windows Phone 7 may be brand new, it’s still competing for consumers’ dollars against existing players, and must be judged on its current merits–not what it might be like 3 versions from now. While Apple could afford to be patient 3 years ago due to lack of competition, Microsoft has no such luxury and like it or not, has to deliver quickly. And guess what? They have.

Though I’ve discussed the disadvantages of arriving late to the party, I’ve yet to talk about its main advantage: Learning the lessons of those that have come before you–and that’s exactly what Microsoft has done. They’ve taken pieces of what’s worked from both Android and iOS, and left out what hasn’t; the interesting thing is that Microsoft has managed to do this while still creating something completely new and different with Windows Phone 7. The second you power-up the Focus, you’ll notice a user interface unlike anything you’ve ever seen.  Designed to give you access to all of your information as cleanly as possible, Microsoft has gone with a “living tile” system, that presents you with 2 vertical rows of tiles, giving you shortcuts to all of the things you do most–right on your home page. The really great thing from a user’s perspective, is that this setup is not unique to the Focus; all Windows Phone 7 devices share the same UI, avoiding the “consumer confusion” Android sometimes suffers from, due to the proprietary “skins” Google allows their device manufacturers to use. Of course, some folks may miss the ability to have these custom skins as well as the ability to customize their homepage with their widgets of choice; but I think Microsoft made the right decision–opting to go for consistency of user experience over complete control over customization.

That’s not to say that you can’t customize Windows Phone 7; you can place any tile that you want in any order on your homepage. Swiping your homepage to the left reveals all of the apps you have on your phone (from pre-installed to those you download) alphabetically, and long-pressing any of them gives you the ability to “pin” them to your homepage; you can also change the color of your tiles whenever you choose, as well as pick from a variety of wallpapers. But the beauty of Windows Phone 7 is not the variety of choices you’re given; it’s how intuitive this new UI is…and how responsive. Streamlining the user interface not only simplifies the experience for the user, it also dramatically increases the speed of the device. I spent some time this weekend at my daughter’s soccer game and showed the Samsung Focus to some of the other parents at the game. After they got past the cool factor of the new Windows Phone OS and the wow factor of Samsung’s proprietary Super AMOLED display, (more on that in a bit) the thing that really blew people away was how fast this device was; some of that may be Samsung’s hardware, but the majority of it is Windows Phone 7 itself. That whole, “Get in, get out, get on with your life?” They’re serious about that.

Windows Phone 7 also displays its information uniquely. When inside any of the apps, swiping right or left lets you see a different portion of the same background–similar in concept to Android’s use of one wallpaper image that shifts right or left as you swipe, but a more elegant execution. These swiping motions in WP7 usually take you to subcategories of the app that you’re in–very simple, very intuitive. It may seem insignificant, but even the way the other tiles fall away after touching the tile you want, adds visual appeal–and how quickly it happens only enhances the experience. Applications are more simple than fancy; many apps (such as Office or Calendar) feature simple text on a plain white or black background–you also don’t see as many options as you do with apps on other platforms. Yes, some of this may be based on compromises made in order to  to get this OS to market faster; I also feel that keeping additional features to a minimum kept WP7 lean and mean–I’m more impressed by how fast and elegant this OS is, than I am disappointed by small features it doesn’t have.

Though the Marketplace can’t yet compete with Android and iOS in terms of sheer volume, all of the apps I’ve sampled have a unique Windows Phone 7 feel. With Android and iOS, it sometimes feels like your getting the exact same app that just happens to work on a different device; with WP7 apps, the horizontal scroll and unique categorization are also here–making the apps you use feel completely fresh, even if you’ve used them on other devices before. Another area where Microsoft does something a bit differently is how it organizes your contacts. Instead of keeping your regular contacts and social network friends in different places, WP7 puts them all together in a tile called “people.” Though it does simplify things to have everyone in a single place, I’m just not crazy about having my contacts from different parts of my life playing together. My biggest gripe (and one I hope Microsoft addresses) is that once you add a Facebook account to your device, all of your Facebook friends automatically populate your contact list–and you can’t get rid of them unless you remove your Facebook account from the device; I would have preferred the option of keeping Facebook friends out of my contact list…especially when I can’t control the picture they choose to display. (Yes…things can get very awkward very quickly, when a photo you can’t control appears on your “People” tile) This minor gripe aside, WP7 does a great job of unifying your contacts.

Microsoft has also done a great job leveraging one of their valuable online assets–Xbox Live. If you’re an Xbox gamer, a WP7 device will be a must-have. Not only is WP7 a great gaming platform, but the integration of your Xbox Live account is a fantastic addition to the platform. Once you’ve logged in to your Windows Live account, WP7 collects your avatar, friends list, achievements and gaming history and puts all of the information right at your fingertips–you even get the same satisfying “ping” when unlocking a new achievement.

As I mentioned, your experience with the OS will be pretty consistent, regardless of the device that you choose. AT&T currently has 3 to choose from, but the smart choice seems to be the Samsung Focus. Sporting the same 4″ Super AMOLED screen made famous by the Galaxy S line, the graphics literally jump off the page–the screen is that sharp and vibrant. Honestly, this is the best Samsung phone I’ve ever tested…and that’s saying something. If you’re familiar with our site, you know how fond we are of the Galaxy S devices–but Samsung really nailed it with the Focus. The shape, with its tapered back plate, fits perfectly in your hand; the phone is slim and light, yet still has enough presence to not feel like a toy. The face of the phone takes the best qualities of the Vibrant and Captivate, and merges them into one glossy package. I read a review that talked about the Focus feeling a bit cheap, so I payed close attention to the build and quality of materials; I’m not sure what phone this other reviewer was working with, but nothing about the Focus looks or feels cheap.

I’m a big proponent of actually using your mobile device to make calls; I’m happy to report that the call quality on the Focus is excellent, and the external speaker is strong and clear. Though the integrated camera is low on frills, the picture quality is quite good; the dedicated camera button (mandated by Microsoft to be on every WP7 device) works well, but the autofocus can be a bit slow at times. I wouldn’t even mention this, except for the fact that the picture quality is good enough to use your Focus in place of a point-and-shoot–so just beware of the occasional lag. As for the battery life, getting through an average day of usage is not a problem; in fact, I’ve yet to get a low battery warning–but I’m working on it.

There are so many things to mention about Windows Phone 7 and the Samsung Focus, I feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface; every time I use the phone, I find another thing I like about it. Microsoft really needed to do something special with their new OS if they hoped to regain some of the market share taken by Google and Apple; with just a few days of usage under my belt, I think both Samsung and Microsoft have every reason to be optimistic.

 

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