Hands-On with Windows Phone 7: Clean, Intuitive, But Missing Key Features
To compete with Apple’s iPhone and the Android army, Microsoft needed to pull out all the stops to sell Windows Phone 7 to the masses. Windows Mobile has a miserable reputation for being slow and not so user friendly. Throw in the Microsoft Kin failure, and you’ve got a lot of skepticism surrounding Microsoft when it comes to mobile OS's. Thankfully, Microsoft completely ditched the often frustrating, always sluggish Windows Mobile experience. Windows Phone 7 is a brand new OS, and Microsoft was wise to start with a clean slate.
For the most part, Microsoft succeeds in delivering a user-friendly, socially-connected operating system. Windows Phone 7 nicely balances business and fun with Office, XBox Live and Zune integration in one environment. But the exclusion of copy/paste and universal search are annoying oversights. I’m also not thrilled with the fact that Microsoft opted not to go with third-party multitasking. This instantly puts them behind Android, which does support third-party multitasking.
To get the full experience of Windows Phone 7, you’ll need a Windows Live ID. Your Windows Live ID will be a single log-in for your XBox Live, Zune and Hotmail or MSN accounts, if you have them. You’ll also need to make sure that the Windows Live IDs associated with your Zune and XBox Live accounts match, or else you won’t be able to use all of the features on your phone. I already had a Zune account, but I don’t use Microsoft’s e-mail services, nor do I own an XBox. Setting all of this up under one XBox Live account took a bit of time, and in a weird way I felt like I was signing myself over to Microsoft.
The Lock Screen provides a useful at-a-glance view of any new activity on your phone. New voicemails, text messages and e-mail messages show up here. The Lock Screen is also the only place on the phone where you’ll be able to set a wallpaper image.
Swiping upward on the touchscreen brings you to your Start screen. I have to admit, the Start Screen, while functional, isn't the most attractive homescreen in the world. Your screen is made up of what Microsoft calls “Live Tiles,” which are constantly updating with new content. For example, the People tile shows pictures of your contacts while the Calendar tile displays new appointments. The XBox Live tile shows your avatar bouncing around. Overall, it is a unique way to display updates and information on your phone.
You can easily arrange the Live Tiles by pressing down and holding on one of them. A small thumbtack icon appears in the corner of the tile while you drag the tile around, determining where you want to place it. If you want to get rid of a Live Tile, you simply hit the thumbtack. Like I said, the Start Screen isn’t the prettiest I've seen, but I appreciate the minimal approach Microsoft took here.
Swiping left brings you to your full list of apps. Again, Microsoft takes a very minimalist approach here. The icons and text are clear and readable and the list is easy to scroll through. Speaking of scrolling, you’ll feel like you’re doing a lot of scrolling throughout the entire Windows Phone 7 UI. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; scrolling is pretty speedy, but it is sort of a weird approach to navigation.
This minimalist approach changes when you start delving into the Hubs. The Live Tiles act as the entry point to Windows Phone 7's "Hubs," which are aggregations of related information formed by content that's native to your phone as well as content from third-party apps. For instance, all your social media and contact content are organized in the "People" hub.
Zune Player and Media Hub
While the Zune HD standalone MP3 player might not have taken off with consumers, I’m glad to see it continue to live on in Windows Phone 7. The Zune player interface on the phone and the features in the PC client are gorgeous, user-friendly and a refreshing alternative to iTunes. Unfortunately, you’re going to have to download the latest version of the Zune desktop client (the current one won’t sync with the phone), but this process is pretty quick. Just go to Zune.com to download the latest version and you’ll be up-to-date in minutes.
In Video: The Windows Phone 7 OS Impresses
The Zune music player on the phone is clean and simple, like much of the WP7 interface. When you launch the player, you’ll see a list of choices: music, videos, podcasts, radio and Marketplace. Flick left, and you’ll see the “History” panel, which shows your most recently played music. Flick left again and you’ll see the latest music or videos you’ve added to your phone. You can also pin a song, video or particular artist to your Start screen so you don’t have to go through the hub to find it. The Now Playing screen is a lovely experience as it displays artist photos and album art as your song is playing.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t own an XBox or use XBox Live, so I tested out the Games Hub using both the account of a heavy XBox gamer and a newly-created account for myself. My colleague, the gamer, was really impressed with how tightly XBox Live on the phones integrates with his XBox Live account on the console. Think of the console and the phone as just two entry points for the same Xbox Live account.
As a casual gamer, I was impressed with a few of the games I tested on the Samsung Focus and on a pre-production unit earlier this year. The graphically beautiful IloMilo cleverly uses the hardware's built-in accelerometer as you attempt to unite two pixie-like creatures (aptly named Ilo and Milo) in a dangerous, twisting maze. And lucky for AT&T customers, this very addictive game will be free to Focus owners through the end of the year. Another fun game is Crackdown 2: Project Sunburst, a tower defense game which utilizes Bing Maps.
Stay tuned for in-depth reviews of a few XBox games. We'll also be taking a closer look at XBox Live integration on the phone.
Messaging and People Hubs
The software keyboard looks a little on the small side, but I was pleased with how well it works. It is very accurate and speedy and I was able to bang out a long e-mail pretty quickly. The keyboard also helpfully provides a “.com” shortcut when you’re entering an e-mail address or Website.
The People Hub is your homebase for e-mail, text messaging and Facebook. “Contact cards” aggregate your friends and colleagues contact information with data from their Facebook and Windows Live accounts. While there will be a standalone Facebook application for Windows Phone 7, you can update your status from the People Hub as well as view your friends’ status updates.
The Photos Hub is probably my favorite Hub on Windows Phone 7 as it is more than just a gallery. The Photos Hub brings together photos associated with your Windows Live and Zune accounts with the photos taken on your device.
E-mail and Calendar
When it comes to e-mail, Windows Phone 7 really shines. The interface is clean (again, going with that minimalist approach) It supports a wide-array of account-types including the standard POP3/IMAP, as well as Exchange. Again, Microsoft goes for the minimal approach here in terms of interface. At the top of your inbox you can swipe between all, unread, flagged and urgent messages. I was able to download both text and image attachments from my e-mails with no issues.
The Calendar UI is also very clean, displaying "day" and "agenda" views side-by-side so you can easily switch between the two. Windows Phone 7 also displays a single color-coded view of multiple calendars, which is a useful feature if you have both a social and work calendar set up. If you have an upcoming appointment, the Calendar app will push that info to the Calendar tile as well as the Lock screen so you have no excuse for forgetting meetings.
The Office Hub, as to be expected, is better on Windows Phones than any other mobile operating system. OneNote, Microsoft’s version of Evernote, lets you jot down notes and associate images with them. You can view, edit and create documents in Word and Excel. You can’t create PowerPoint documents, however; you’re limited to just editing and viewing. I’m not sure why you’d want to create a PowerPoint document on your phone, so this isn’t really a big deal to me. Stay tuned for a more in-depth review of Office Hub coming later this week.
Overall, Microsoft has done a good job with this version of Internet Explorer. Internet Explorer supports tabbed browsing (up to 6 open windows). In the Settings menu, you can specify whether you want the browser to load mobile or full sites. You can also bookmark pages or pin pages to your Start screen for easy access.
Internet Explorer unfortunately does not support Adobe Flash 10 content, HTML5 or Silverlight, which puts it behind other mobile browsers. Adobe has said that it is working with Microsoft to deliver Flash to Internet Explorer, but neither company has commented on when that will be rolling out. It is also unclear whether Microsoft will allow consumers to use third-party browsers.
Microsoft has done an excellent job with Windows Phone 7 when it comes to user interface, performance and functionality. The real question is whether it will be able to win over consumers. At this point, I’m not sure. The missing features are big disappointments and set the OS behind both the Android and iPhone OS's. It will really depend on whether Microsoft can deliver the content—apps, games, music and video.
More Windows Phone 7 Coverage