This time of year always throws up a wealth of new gadgets for us to drool over in the months prior to the Christmas season, and with nearly every manufacturer placing a lot of emphasis on mobile devices this year, it was hardly surprising there would be a lot of new smart phones. With the iPhone 4 and the new iOS 4 update being launched over the course of the summer and a new version of Android on the way before year’s end, there sure is a lot to be excited about, but for me nothing has made the past few months more exciting than the introduction of Windows Phone 7.
Around this time of year it is always natural to want a new gadget or two as manufacturers launch their devices ahead of the busiest shopping season of the year, so it wasn’t surprising that I was after a new phone. After a freak trampolining accident towards the back end of the summer, though, it became all the more necessary to take the plunge and fork out for a new handset. But what do I do? Go with what was at the time the best Android handset around, the HTC Desire, or perhaps the annoyingly familiar iPhone, perhaps I should wait for the HTC Desire HD or stick with a Samsung Galaxy S, the choice is almost impossible. In the end though, it seemed it would come down to iOS vs Android, and I was sorely tempted to go with the latter.
Enter Microsoft. Enter Windows Phone 7. Something fresh, but has it been worth the wait? Has it lived up to the hype of the last few months? After all its predecessor, which I shall not name for health reasons, was a complete and utter failure for Microsoft and these things tend not to change too drastically from one version to the next. However, this time the apple fell so far from the tree it probably came from an entirely different tree, perhaps even a different forest altogether. And speaking of apples, how does Windows Phone 7 stack up against its fruity competition?
Normally in a software review there’s really no necessity to delve into the details of the hardware that deploys it, but in this case I think Microsoft deserve some degree of recognition for their efforts. Let me explain, up until now there has been 2 major players at the forefront of the smartphone OS, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. On one hand you have iOS, an entirely integrated hardware and software experience where Apple decide as and when software updates are necessary and when the consumer gets access to them. That’s all very well, but what if you’re someone who likes the freedom to choose between a budget or premium device, small or large screen or would prefer, for example, a better camera?
The point is, choice is not an option. You want a phone running iOS, you get an iPhone. On the other hand, we have the opposite extreme of Android. So many devices, so many carriers and so much software, in other words a completely fragmented product. If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard or read a polite rant concerning delayed software updates to Froyo in the last few months, I’d have at least enough for a Chomp. It’s nonsensical, it’s irritating for consumers and difficult for developers, and whilst there are ways around it in Android for those who know where to look, others are kept in the dark awaiting the day when their carrier, not Google, decide they can have the update.
So how have Microsoft gone about it? Well, I guess they’re as close to compromise as you’re going to get from launch, with a small collection of Windows Phone 7 mobile phone handsets fairly similar in their basic spec, but each sporting their own unique selling point. Large screen? HTC HD7. More megapixels? HTC Mozart. Physical QWERTY? Dell Venue Pro and I guess the HTC Trophy would be considered the budget option although it’s not really that cheap, whilst the Samsung Omnia 7 has by far and away the best quality display in its super AMOLED similar to that of the Galaxy S.
So well done Microsoft for giving just the right amount of restriction to allow the freedom of choice AND over-the-air updates for all simultaneously.
Look and Feel
How an OS looks is an extremely important factor for me and the ease of use, particularly on a mobile device, is absolutely essential if it’s going to be a success. I know there will be a lot of Linux users out there that regard a nice UI as a luxury, not a necessity, but we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one. So how does WP7 stack up?
Well, if you’ve seen the preview videos, screenshots or devices then you will know that the home screen is made up of stark 2D blocks called ‘live tiles’. We’ll talk more about that later, but for now let’s concentrate on the aesthetics and simplicity.
In terms of customisation, there is very little to be done. Settings are pretty limited when it comes to changing the look of the OS, in fact all you can really do is choose the colour of the theme/tiles from a variety of colours including, for some unknown reason, a simply disgusting shade of brown. You can also change the background colour between black and white, which in itself makes a surprising amount of difference to the whole experience.
There are no 3D, glossy effects creating a sense of complete overkill in the graphics department, instead WP7 is diminutive and elegant. The beauty is in the simplicity and it really couldn’t be more simplistic. The home screen consists of the live tiles and a simple swipe to the right brings up an alphabetically ascending list of your applications, each of which can be pinned to the main home screen. That’s just about it, navigating anywhere else will take you into an application or a hub.
So how do apps look? Well, the ‘Metro UI’ is pretty consistent across all of the apps including those from a third party and there is a strong sense that the guys at Microsoft have a thing for the horizontal swipe and keeping many aspects to an application almost hidden until you swipe across. Personally I like it, simply because it plays a huge part in keeping the interface clean, however it has opinions divided and it’s not difficult to see why many would prefer a clearer layout from the outset, irrespective of how quickly you get used to it. Similarly, access to a lot of settings menus are via a long press on a link. Again this has split opinions amongst techies worldwide, and I’m not sure I’m ready to come down off the fence just yet.
Live tiles are actually very simple, and whilst they are attractive, they don’t use quite the levels of juice used by Android widgets. Again, a happy medium between Android and iOS.
Essentially, they provide you with basic notifications such as how many unread SMS messages you have or how many e-mails, how many missed calls, how many updates waiting in the Marketplace etc. It’s all just numbers really, but it’s useful and unobtrusive, unlike push notifications in iOS. It’s not just these hubs which have them however, you will also find your ‘Me’ hub and ‘People’ hub sport aesthetically pleasing (again, opinion) tiles displaying pictures, names etc. on the home screen. I suppose this is where it becomes more eye candy than anything productive, but I like it all the same.
One issue I do have at the moment though, is the lack of third-party applications that make use of the live tiles. I don’t know whether that’s because it’s not available to developers, but it sure would be a nice addition to say, a weather or to-do list application for example.
Applications and Hubs
OK, so let’s get this out of the way to start with: there are some very blatant problems with and omissions from the whole app scene right now. For example, no instant messaging app except for a poor attempt at MSN messenger by a third-party is pretty annoying, and it would be nice to have IM+ get on board after impressing with apps for other platforms. That’s not it either; with no SkyDrive integration I have been left puzzled and impatient. I had to pay 79p for a speed dial app!
Now that the most important negatives are out the way, let’s shed some light on what’s good about apps and hubs in WP7. Let’s start with the people hub I’ve mentioned a few times already. Basically, it is an integration of your contacts from Facebook with your address book, in a similar fashion to other platforms. Simply sign in to Facebook and all of your contacts are immediately displayed with or without any details they have or have not put in. If there is anyone else you would like to add it is very simple to do so from within the hub.
Strangely, though, it is impossible to add just a contact and you are forced to link any phone number to a Facebook or Windows Live account that your contact may or may not even have. The big problem here, though, which you may have picked up on already, is the lack of social networks on board, most notable absences are Twitter, MySpace and Flickr by my reckoning. On the plus side, though, the interface is very tidy and a simple swipe across will take you to an up to the minute aggregated feed of posts from Facebook and Windows Live should you set up both.
The ‘Me’ hub is very similar, though of course it is all about you. This is where you manage your contact details, your social networking statuses etc. and manage your Facebook wall.
In addition to this you also have third party apps of Facebook and Twitter, both of which have their upsides and downsides but provide a more complete experience of the respective service than the somewhat meagre integration to the OS. I say meagre, it’s simple and sufficient and I like it.
Music & Videos is one of the key hubs in WP7, offering a great integrated experience of managing and enjoying locally stored media as well as giving you access to third-party applications you have installed such as YouTube and Last.FM. The best way of managing all your own stuff, though, including music, video, podcasts etc. is via the Zune software for your PC, though, and stick around for a full review of that once the dust has settled.
Xbox Live integration is another key feature pushed by Microsoft, and I have to say I love it. Even though I don’t have an Xbox myself, I know how popular the service has been for gaming on console, but was sceptical of how effective it could be on a mobile device. Thankfully, my doubts were put to rest straight away as I set about playing Frogger and Earthworm Jim, two of my personal favourites from yesteryear.
Buying, downloading and installing games is an extremely simple process, keeping them updated is all pretty much automated and controls for the games are consistently intuitive. There is also a free download from the marketplace that integrated into Xbox Live called ‘Extras’ and it simply allows you to adjust your profile, set your gamertag and edit your avatar etc. All pretty well implemented and a potentially huge selling point for the platform as a whole, we have all seen the impact iOS has had in the mobile gaming market.
On a final note about apps for now, we have the pictures hub, which although pretty self-explanatory has a couple of interesting features. For one, you can integrate third party apps to it in a similar fashion to music and video, for example we have ‘pictures lab’ a basic third-party image editor that plants itself into the pop-out menus within the image viewer. The interface is again swipe-centric and you can browse a navigation menu, thumbnails of saved images and a live feed of photos posted on your social networks all from the main screen. When you dig a little deeper you can filter images by date and select favourites, while by default you can access camera photos, saved images, your Facebook profile and wall photos, which are automatically downloaded when you set up your account in WP7. Another neat implementation of a common feature in modern smartphones.
There are other great apps too, which I won’t go into today, for example Bing maps and navigation (very good) and basic productivity tools by default, as well as third party apps such as Adobe Reader, Flixster, IMDB, Shazam, eBay etc. Not a great quantity of quality apps just yet, but a good start nonetheless.
Internet and E-Mail
Ultimately, whether there are many who like to pass the time of day by playing addictive games on mobile devices, the purpose of a smartphone is to keep you connected whilst on the move. OK the functionality may extend a lot further than that these days, but these essentials of Internet and e-mail remain ubiquitous in all good modern smartphones. So, then it is imperative that they are implemented well, right? Well, I can happily say that although even the latest version Internet Explorer probably comes 4th in my list of favourite browsers (possibly 5th), the mobile version for Windows Phone 7, which is based on technologies in IE7 (an argument for another day) is actually neat, very usable and pretty Apple-esque.
I do, though, have a few gripes with it. For starters, you can only have a maximum of 6 tabs open at any time, which hasn’t irritated my too much as yet, but I can imagine for some it could cause a little inconvenience. Whilst we’re on the subject of tabs, I would like to note that the method of switching could honestly be taken straight from iOS. Even the circular icons to close tabs are identical. Having said that, it is a tried and tested method which has proven popular with users of iOS, so why not? The result on Windows Phone 7 is good, to say the least.
On top of that, and this is probably my biggest gripe for the time being, web pages seem to take a lot longer to load than they might on a rival mobile device at this point, though I hope this issue gets sorted in an early update of the OS.
The last negative for now would also be pretty important, but also temporary (hopefully). Basically, Windows Phone 7 is not yet recognised by a lot of sites in that they are not automatically formatted depending on the device you are using, simply because it is not that popular yet. Hopefully the more people get on board early, the quicker this will get sorted.
Back to the positives then shall we? Well, basic management of bookmarks, history and favourites couldn’t be simpler and allows you to be extremely productive. Similarly, settings menus are easy to find and you can easily take elements of a web page, save images etc. at the touch of a screen. It’s probably one of the simplest browsing experiences on a mobile device I have seen, but that’s not to say it’s the best.
Bing integration is also handy, with the address bar at the top doubling up as a Google Chrome and IE9-style search bar, taking you directly to the typical WP7-style Bing search and you can pan across to local results etc, though image search is ever-evasive.
Moving on to e-mail now, and it’s an application that has divided opinions among experts. First of all, setting up your email account is generally easy. You can either select from a list of popular webmail providers such as Windows Live or Google and simply log in, or you can attempt to login to a less popular provider and hope it is recognised. This was the case for me which I was very pleased with, but in case you have to go through yourself the settings for POP and IMAP etc. are as simple as can be expected.
Upon opening the account for the first time, your mail will be downloaded as it is currently stored in your desktop or web-based email account, including folders, flags etc. The first screen you encounter is a simple list of your email, those unread are highlighted in the colour of your current theme and attachments etc. are noted by the usual paperclip symbol. It is all very simple aesthetically and for that reason quite attractive.
The traditional swipe across takes you through various screens including a list of just unread mail, your flagged messages and urgent mail. It’s all easy to manage by simply holding down on an individual message and selecting from the drop down menu, from which you can move messages to folders, mark as unread or read, flag or whatever. It’s very basic, but quite functional as well.
In my experience with e-mail on WP7 the general formatting of messages is great, a simple click to download images is enough, but if you’d rather save data you can leave it at a text only message. It’s no hassle.
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you what all the basic controls are in an email application, but they‘re all there. As I said, though, it is a basic application and if you are after advanced settings such as filters, you’re out of luck for the time being. Other settings though are useful, for example you can alter your synchronisation settings with your desktop calendars etc. and keep your mobile Outlook the same as your desktop all the time.
One thing I don’t like though, again a bit of an Apple copy, is the default e-mail signature, which reads ‘Sent from my Windows Phone’. Work that one out.
Rather than continuing picking apart the entire OS down to the barebones, I thought I would leave it at the essentials and instead finish by compiling a list of what I love and, well, what I don’t.
Things I Like
- Extremely snappy experience, probably on a par with iOS
- First-class home screen, finds a happy medium between the widget-less iOS and the battery-draining multiple homescreens on Android
- Great on-screen keyboard, one of the best (though this has a little to do with the display)
- Zune integration is fantastic, a one-stop hub for your music, movies and podcasts
- Bing integration is handy for quickly accessing the increasingly popular search engine
- Xbox Live gaming is great, though currently limited
Things I Don’t
- Limited number of apps, most notable exception probably a decent IM app
- No SkyDrive integration as yet
- No Flash
- No third-party multitasking
- No copy + paste
So what do I make of Windows Phone 7? What would you make of it? Well, right now I’m very impressed. Considering it is version 1.0 it is very snappy and when you compare it directly with the other platforms, you would probably imagine it to be a far more mature OS. Microsoft has clearly learned from past mistakes and has come up with a potentially fantastic product.
I have to say though, that it will forever divide opinions, and I say forever because at the moment there is not a lot of scope for drastic change in the basic operation, only continuous bug-fixing updates and the addition of core new features such as multitasking.
In the past maybe Microsoft has made a few errors what with Windows Mobile, Vista and the Kin, but perhaps the success of Windows 7 and the great starting ground for Windows Phone 7 will see the company turn a few more heads in years to come. Not that it’s suffering from any major popularity issues in the mainstream. It will certainly be interesting to see how it develops over the next few months and years, and perhaps by version 2.0, Apple, Google and Nokia will have another ready rival on its hands. For now, though, it is still in its infancy and there is a lot of work to be done before it reaches those heights.
Image Sources: Engadget