Windows Phone 7 Review

Posted on July 21, 2010

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It’s come a long way, hasn’t it? Well, in some respects, no. In fact, Windows phone 7 only started development 2 years ago, not so long of a development for an entire OS, even more so if you consider that Windows phone 7 is a complete departure from *shudder* Windows Mobile 6.5, a platform long due for a much-needed update. If you consider that the last time WinMo was updated, it was 2005. A time when touchscreens and WVGA screens were unheard of in phones, and Yahoo looked like this. Nowadays, it’s a very different game, and Microsoft needs to evolve and clean up it’s image at the same time. Can they pull it off?

In light of it all, I would call Windows Phone 7 a desperate move by Microsoft to try and stay in the game and become a player in the mobile phone league again. After all, what was once a major force for mobile business is now a joke compared to Blackberry and the untouchable iPhone, and Redmond really needs to pull the rabbit out of the hat (or the phone) to stay in the party. Microsoft still has a few months before the consumer version of Windows Phone 7 hits store shelves, but I’ve been chosen as one of the select few to get a not-for-retail test phone–dubbed “Taylor” developed by Samsung to run Windows Phone 7.

What you’ve likely seen before of Windows Phone 7 hasn’t changed much since the announcement of the platform some months ago, but UI aside, the interface has been majorly tweaked to run tighter and smoother.

The “Metro” UI is the main theme here. It’s a no-nonsense 2D look, with lots of stark colors and contrast. Actually, 2D isn’t quite the way to describe it– the interface utilizes a lot of layers on top of another to give a “2.5D” feel, sort of like the parallax scrolling effect of some 16-bit sidescroller games. It actually works really well, giving a kind of depth to the interface without detracting from the main interface up front. However, some text does get cut off at the sides, which may appeal to some but might really turn off neat freaks. For instance, in the Office hub “PowerPoint” reads “PowerPoir”.

I was actually taken aback by the crisp, intuitive touch interface. This is so far the only touch device that I’ve used that comes close to iPhone-like quality. It’s actually surprising how much Microsoft cared about the interface. Instead of dazzling the user with shiny bells and whistles, they’ve developed a sleek, down-to-business look that acts and feels like a cohesive whole. In fact, I’d actually use Apple’s catchphrase to describe it; “It just works”.

Getting around on the OS really comes down to three different sections: the homepage (which is a list of glanceable information, updates, and favorite apps and people), the applications list (pretty self-explanatory; it’s an alphabetically organized list of your applications), and the “hub” pages (really an in-between; a sandwich between an app and a menu). The navigation of the UI is smooth and intuitive, being an iPhone user, the touch interface is nothing new to me, and I was scrolling through menus and apps like a breeze. However, some apps and menus are only accessible by performing a long press– something that iPhone users are not used to doing. The long press is really like the skeleton key of the OS; you just have to try it and see what it unlocks.

Windows Phone 7 uses a drop down shade to notify you of new SMS messages, much like Android does. If you’re playing music in the background, you can access the controls quickly by just pressing one of the volume buttons (similar to the double-tap feature of the home button on iOS). Strangely, the area up top that shows Wifi status, signal strength, and battery life does not follow new windows that you open automatically, causing it to disappear from view whenever you open an app. However, this is easily circumvented by simply dragging the bar back down.

Other touches in the UI include a little animation when  the phone is loading an app, which is a nice little touch to let you know that the phone hasn’t frozen (which it hasn’t yet in my tests). Aside from that, the UI mostly stays out of your way and lets you focus on the task at hand, just you and your content, which is the way it should be.

There are two big drawbacks to the UI, though. First of all, no copy and paste (remember anything, Apple fans?), and no support for third party multitasking of apps. The former really makes no sense here, though, since Microsoft did a nice job of text editing in Word. Oh well, maybe in the final version…

Speaking of Word, though, brings the question: how well can you type on Windows Phone 7. Our test phone didn’t have a hardware keyboard, so I was forced to use the touch-based software keyboard. I was scared, to say the least. My experiences with software keyboards in the past have ranged from decent to flat-out nightmarish. even the iPhone keyboard layout proves frustrating at times.

However, I can say that using the keyboard in Windows Phone 7 is actually…really, really good! Nearly as good, if not as good as the iPhone keyboard, and way better than any stock Android keyboard. it is one of the best and most accurate software keyboards that I’ve used by far. My test phone was quite narrow running the stock 480 x 800 Windows Phone 7 resolution, and using the keyboard was a little cramped, but it got the job done well.

The keyboard is as simple as the rest of the UI, with monochromatic boxes as keys instead of the colourful menus in WP7. It’s obvious that Microsoft took a few cues from Apple designing this keyboard, letters pop up above the keys when you press them, and if you do a long press on one of the keys you get options for accents. Nothing new and fascinating, but nothing sub-par either.

The general layout is the same, however Microsoft has added an emoticon icon in the bottom left, next to the comma and space bar. Microsoft has also made a smart decision in always having the comma and period buttons in sight.

If you have a phone, you have contacts. Probably hundreds of them, and you need to keep track of them. Windows Phone 7 doesn’t really have “contacts”– instead, it has a “people” app. This is a social platform first and foremost, and a business phone second, which is unusual for Microsoft. As soon as you add an email account or Facebook profile, it automatically pulls in all contacts from the network and disperses content throughout the phone accordingly, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. For example, this means that your pictures app will get filled with everyone’s Farmville photos from Facebook, or those 296 photos of your aunts new dog that she can’t stop emailing you about. As of press time, there is no option to stop this aside from removing Facebook from your phone altogether.

This can be really annoying at best, but it also effectively renders the people app useless as a traditional phone contact list. If you’re a normal human being and have a few hundred or less contacts, you can just flick through to find who you want to call, but then Facebook comes in, and you suddenly have 200 more people to flick through. Microsoft actually recommends using the search feature to find friends and pin popular friends to your home screen.

The solution is simple: Microsoft could just go the way Android has already gone and give the user choices on what to import. Also, add a Facebook app! Currently, Facebook has nowhere to live besides in your contacts list. A dedicated app for Facebooking would solve all the clutter.

What’s strange about all this, though, is the fact that through all the social integration in Windows Phone 7, there’s no Twitter to be found! For some, Twitter is every bit as important as Facebook– even more so for some, and it seems like a glaring omission, especially when you compare it to Twitter-centric platforms like Android. Additionally, there is no MySpace or Flickr support (the former we could do without, though), or support for any other email platform besides Windows Live. You can set up alternate email providers, but they don’t pull info into your contacts.

Email setup itself is relatively painless, and there are plenty of setup options to go with people’s level of skill. During the initial boot process of the phone, you’re asked to give your Windows Live ID, although it’s not necessary to use one. On the email setup screen, you have the option to use your Outlook, Yahoo! Mail and Gmail accounts. You also have options to manually set up POP and IMAP accounts. Microsoft also provides full support for EAS Google accounts– a welcome feature for Gmail users. Contacts and calendars can come along for the ride thanks to EAS calendar syncing, a feature Microsoft plans to add for the full release.

You are provided with a number of sync frequency options, push, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, hourly, etc. Push seems to work well, but does tend to drain the battery more.

The email app on the phone is pretty good when you look at it. Just like the rest of the UI, it is very tight and seamlessly integrated with the rest of the phone, while still maintaining the simple, barebones look. You get clear, upfront access to most commonly used features, and you can always pin tasks to your home menu for ease-of-use. In standard email mode you get one line for email preview, which is nice. You can also swipe right or left for additional sorting options. One feature greatly missed is message threading, a feature overlooked by both Apple and Palm. However, multiple message management and sorting is nicely done here, with only a quick tap required to bring up the check boxes for quickly moving or deleting large groups of messages.

Tapping the search button in Mail gives you a powerful search tool, which parses subjects, senders, messages, and receivers all at once. It made it really easy to find all I was looking for right away. Unfortunately, it only searches messages that you’ve already downloaded to the device, not messages on the server.

Another thing, the mail app on WP7 doesn’t combine all your inboxes into one. In fact, when you set up a new account, it essentially creates an entirely new app for that mailbox. This can go both ways, however. If you want to keep everything nice and organized, you might like this approach. But if you want to keep everything simple, sleek, and streamlined, you’re out of luck.

Overall, the mail app is a solid experience. Great for business and home users alike, however there are a few minor features that have been overlooked, but nothing worth dumping the phone for.

Email aside, let’s talk texting. It’s a fact that most smartphone users text more then they talk, so we’re hoping Microsoft gave us a great SMS/MMS experience.

Like the rest of the UI, SMS is very barebones, with simple baby-blue 2D speech bubbles on a black background. Texting is smooth thanks to the great software keyboard we have been blessed with, and MMS couldn’t be easier. One gripe, though, is that messages from both parties are in the same blue bubble, and the only way to differentiate sender and receiver is by looking at the placement of the speech bubble; you on the right, the other person on the left.

Another issue is the bright white text against a bright blue background. Contrast is definitely an issue here, and in some lights it is hard to read messages.

Overall I like the barebones styling of the SMS app and the overall simplicity of the platform. But colours and other simple details seem overlooked, and can water down the experience.

The browser was one of the things I was worried about from the beginning. Naturally, because this is Microsoft we’re dealing with, the browser is going to be IE, and I’ll be damned if Microsoft actually thinks about allowing third-party browsers like Firefox to run on their platform, but we can only hope.

Actually, for as much crap as Internet Explorer gets, the browsing experience on Windows Phone 7 came as a pleasant surprise. Loading desktop-sized pages was fast enough to run with the big dogs at Apple, and the browser uses a lot less horsepower than mobile browsers of old. Rendering pages as you scroll is pleasantly fast, and you don’t need to worry about scrolling quickly to the bottom of a long page without having to wait for the browser to catch up, a problem experienced in mobile Safari. Scrolling and zooming (which is accomplished just like on the iPhone) is silky smooth, with no noticeable lag even on desktop-class pages. Zooming is accomplished the same as on any other mobile device– when you first zoom, the device still uses the same resolution as before, so you can actually see something while you’re waiting for the page to load, instead of just staring at darkness, and then becomes clearer as it catches up. This same thing is done on the iPhone and in most versions of Google Maps.

Zooming out is dissapointing, however. If you try and see the entire page, all the images and text turns into a jumbled, low-res mess. But really, what do you expect to see on the tiny screen anyway?

The browser, like (again) the rest of the UI, lacks extra functionality, but we do like the “pin to start” feature that allows you to pin sites as apps on your home screen, also seen on iOS 4.

You can have up to six tabs open at once on the browser, and tabs continue to load even if you aren’t viewing them, which is a nice touch.

Neither Flash or Silverlight are supported in the browser, which is nothing new to iPhone users. The real kicker, however, is no HTM5 video support or YouTube support. Really, Microsoft? If you don’t have YouTube or any other videos, you don’t have 40% of the internet. Simple as that. You’re going to need to step up to the plate and add support for the flv or mp4 format on release day.

One thing that did bother me was that some sites did not recognize the browser as a “mobile browser”. Which resulted in some sites being displayed in abhorrent resolutions, like Gmail.

Overall, however, I think that Microsoft did a pretty good job on their mobile version of IE, it’s not a horrible browser, but it’s not an excellent browser either. Just good enough to run with the big dogs, but nothing you’d want to brag about.

What would a smartphone be these days without the ability to play music? With Apple, it’s iPod, and with Microsoft, it’s Zune. If you’ve already used a Zune HD, you’re familiar with the Zune interface, which hasn’t really changed at all in the port to WP7.

The Zune integration is pretty seamless, you can sync all your media to your PC, and play it all on the phone. If you’ve already payed for the Zune subscription service, you can buy pretty much anything whenever you want on your phone, without having to sync to your computer– similar to the iTunes store on iOS4. In general, we like the combo here, but it can get confusing at times. The line between listening and previewing music is very fine here. In fact, you can listen to a preview clip while doing other things on your phone, which is an example of Microsoft’s limited multitasking. It doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense though, previews should quit when you exit the app, you can be streaming a full-length preview, which gives the impression that you own that piece of music– when in reality you don’t.

That said, I love the unlimited access to music on the phone through Zune pass– if you want another $15 added to your phone bill, that is. Something worth looking into for heavy music downloaders, and we should see a spike in Zune pass subscriptions once the phone hits the market.

If you’re used to the tight integration between the iPhone and iTunes, then you’re going to love the Zune app. Microsoft stole a page out of Apples playbook there, but we can’t blame them– Microsoft has already been big on syncing, and they’ve managed to pull it off well in Windows Phone 7.

We’ve heard that Microsoft had big goals on camera quality– and not just picture quality and clarity, but speed too. After all, if your camera takes too long to load, you miss that moment you were trying to capture in the first place. So far, Microsoft has been keeping that promise. While taking shots on Taylor, image quality was no less than stunning and the camera ran smooth, taking about three seconds to load the app and two seconds in between shots, which is pretty much on par with most point and shoot cameras. As with most digital cameras, there is some lag in low-light situations, but the software handles that nicely as well.

Once you do take a shot; something cool happens– the image you took advances to the left, almost like you’re looking at an actual roll of film. You can then scroll down the screen to see all of your pictures. To return to viewfinder mode (for taking pictures) just swipe to the left.

The software also comes with a bunch of built-in effects, including configurable white balance, image effects (grayscale, sepia, and the like), saturation, ISO, exposure, and even metering mode — and most of these options are still available even when capturing video. Naturally, you can also set the flash to fire automatically, always, or never. All of these effects are standard, but phone manufacturers can choose to add more for their phones.

Overall the camera app is nice– delivering performance and power while still offering a sleek, easy to use user experience and tons of features.

Microsoft has already begun handing out test devices (like mine) to developers, in hopes of having a launch filled with third-party creations, and the WP7 box even says on the side: “developers. Developers!! DEVELOPERS!!!!” so we’re pretty clear which side Microsoft’s bread is buttered on.

The first thing that you notice when you open the Marketplace is that you have music as an available category, whereas iOS breaks it down into a separate app. However, a deeper look reveals that it’s not as integrated as you think. In fact, if you click on the music category you’re whisked off to the Zune marketplace, which is actually a relief because it would feel strange purchasing tracks from two different places. Likewise, tapping on the games category brings you to the Xbox marketplace, which (sadly) isn’t live yet.

This leaves us to the final category: apps. Though there aren’t any third part titles yet for the platform (just a smattering of Microsoft demos), it was enough for us to get an idea of what the purchase process is like. Tapping on it takes you to a different area, organized like you would expect; newest, most popular, and featured. You can also do a search by pressing on the phones hardware search button, too. A downside to the search, however, is that there is no search suggestion feature yet, like you would see on any iOS phone.

When you’re actually browsing, you can either forage through the entire list or choose from set categories; Tools, Lifestyle, News & Weather, and Business. However,  I wouldn’t be suprised if this list grew by launch day, or once a service pack comes along a few years down the road. The list view is interesting, and is actually organised pretty well. You still see what you would expect; app icon, name, and a rating of one to five stars, but here you also get a short description of the app below it, which saves you some time when browsing through apps. Tapping on an app takes you to the information page, which shouldn’t be new to any iPhone users– you still get the price up top, a full description, screen shots, reviews, version number, and a list of phone services the app needs. Nothing new there. The screenshots are comically small, but that’s no bug deal. Just tap on one to see a full-resolution shot.

Once you decide to purchase an app (although all the titles seem free so far), the process happens in the background, as it should. Once it’s done downloading, it gets added to your applications list automatically. The one downside of this is that you don’t get any notification that the app is done downloading– it’s pretty much just a guessing game, but it’s only a minor flaw.

Ultra-tight Office integration is a big theme in Windows Phone 7, Office stands to be one of the biggest differentiators in Windows Phone 7– a feature that could make the phone almost impossible to pass over for business users, despite the social-centric first take on the device.

Instead, however, I came away feeling that Microsoft focused too much on the collaboration element of Office and not enough on the actual editing. Though Word still seems to do a good job rendering pages on the small display, the editing capabilities are weak at best. There’s no option to change fonts, and you only get four font colors to choose from. There is a spell checker, but the lack of copy and paste is almost criminal for an app like this. Excel is similarly watered down, though a good number of options and tools have been retained from the desktop version.

PowerPoint presentations, however, cannot be created on the phone at all, though we would suspect that without copy and paste, inserting images would be painful anyway, and if you have to do your business presentation on the bus ride to work, you’ve probably already blown it anyway.

You can hook the phone to a projector or television through it’s handy TV out port, and presentations play nicely in that respect.

Before, we mentioned collaboration– and yes, Office supports SharePoint servers, which is a tool that will undoubtedly be useful for some business users. There’s also OneNote, which is like Word but with another name. Microsoft gears it towards people who want to quickly jot notes and attach pictures and audio recordings– something that you can do in Word also.  Microsoft also syncs all your Office documents to your Windows Live SkyDrive account, which gives it the whole “cloud” thing.

As I noted in my talk about the marketplace, there really is no Xbox Live support on the device quite yet (although it should be active with some titles by launch day). As of now, all you can do is provide your email address and you can get your avatar on your phone– and that’s about the gist of it. I’m hoping that before long Microsoft will take full advantage of the service to bring mobile online games to the device. I was told by a Microsoft rep that there would be two types of games in Windows Phone 7– turn based “app” games, and full on Xbox Live Arcade content, which I am eager to try out.

Maps on the device are just that– Maps. Nothing new here. Although not as good as Google Maps, Microsoft has done a good job of implementing their Bing maps into the phone. You’ve got access to high-quality satellite imagery and real-time traffic information. Obviously, Microsoft has also included a real-time GPS tracking feature as well as turn-by-turn directions to any address (provided it’s not in some obscure place). Pinching and zooming is buttery smooth, and gives a pretty neat effect too.

On the phone, you can search using voice if you’re driving, which will call up push pins showing the location of where you want to go in relation to where you are. As you would in Google Maps, tapping the pin once will bring up the name of the location, and tapping a second time will bring up more details, like the address, phone number, reviews, website, and even their hours of operation– which is incredibly handy for restaurants.

Like Maps, Windows Phone 7’s search feature is powered by Bing. Microsoft has done a nice job of porting it’s well-known home screen to the mobile device, with it’s rotating imagery in the background. But, after all that, it’s just a search engine. Nothing more, nothing less.

In the end, Windows Phone 7 doesn’t really feel like a full blown operating system, but a wire-frame with room for expansion and upgrading. The barebones look might not appeal to all, but it’s actually really clean and refreshing once you get used to it. After all, a phone should’nt be judged by how it looks, but how smooth of an experience you get and how well things actually work. In Windows Phone 7, I don’t see anything really exceptional, but there’s nothing any worse than average, and having lots of good features and no bad ones is a good trait.

Overall, I think that you might want to check out Windows Phone 7 when it comes out in a few months, especially heavy social network users and business users alike.

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