RIM's BlackBerry brought smartphones before the public eye; Apple's iPhone made them a must-have fashion accessory. Google's Android provided a platform on which a multitude of manufacturers could build its own competing devices. Late last year, Microsoft finally replaced their own lacklustre offering -- Windows Mobile 6.5 -- with the new and wholly distinct Windows Phone 7 (WP7). Here we look in-depth at the latest smartphone operating system, what it offers and what you should know as a consumer.
In the December/January issue of PC World we gave you a peek at WP7, wrapped up in the lovely HTC 7 Trophy. The phone as a whole scored a 4/5 "excellent" rating -- largely due to the feature set, as well as the slickness and ease-of-use offered by the operating system. The HTC 7 Trophy, however, is a top-shelf device: some of the best WP7 hardware on offer, from a manufacturer known for its premium phones. But what about devices aimed at the more price-conscious?
Well, there you've actually got some protection. While not manufacturing the phones itself (there is no Microsoft-built WP7 device), Microsoft has laid down a fairly stringent set of minimum hardware requirements aimed at providing "the confidence of standard specs" and "universal capabilities that are easy [for developers] to target".
Both of these advantages are offered to an even greater degree by the iPhone, with Apple's total control over the hardware and software platform. With standard specs, you know what you're getting -- an app designed for WP7 will run on any WP7 phone, with performance comparable to any other high-end smartphone today. This advantage is lacking in the world of Google's Android, with device manufacturers offering wide variations in hardware and laying thick UI skins, such as Motorola's MotoBLUR, over the basic OS to give each device a unique look and feel.
If you're a stickler for consistency but don't have (or want) an iPhone, you're going to prefer Microsoft's approach over Google's. WP7 simply can't be skinned -- what you see is what you get. Once you've used one WP7-based phone, you can pick up and immediately use any other -- regardless of make and model. Some may have superior cameras, others may have hardware keyboards, but all will offer the same on-screen interface and the same smartphone experience. Don't like the interface on one WP7-based phone? Then you're probably not going to like it on any other.
So what, exactly, is that experience? I've been using WP7 daily for the last two months, so I can clue you in on the neat advantages -- and the nasty annoyances -- of the latest contender in the smartphone arena.
To use an Apple iPhone, you need to sign up for an iTunes account. Similarly, any phone based on Google's Android operating system is tied to a Google account. Here, Microsoft has gone down much the same path as Apple and Google. You can use your WP7 device as a regular old phone without any kind of registration, but to purchase or download apps, use the phone's Xbox Live integration (more on that later), or really use the 'smart' part of your smartphone, you're going to need a Windows Live account.
It's free to sign up and doesn't require too much of your life story but it does mean your contacts, appointments and other such information sit on Microsoft's servers. Whether you consider that an advantage (access from anywhere) or a disadvantage (privacy concerns) is really a matter of personal opinion.
It's worth noting that if you use Windows Messenger, MSN, Hotmail, Microsoft Passport, SkyDrive, Office Web Apps or any of a host of other Microsoft services, you'll already have a Live account you can use.
Keeping in touch
Think the advantages of storing your contact information in the cloud outweigh the downsides? Windows Phone 7 convinced me of that with its seamless Facebook integration. In fact, after years of stoically avoiding all attempts of friends and family to shift me onto The Social Network, WP7 had me signed up and 'friending' people within hours of unboxing the phone.
Why? I'm tired of maintaining a contacts list. People are forever changing their email addresses and phone numbers. Want an image alongside everyone in your contact list? Try doing that manually for your twenty (or two hundred) closest friends. With WP7, you just add your Facebook account to the People application, and the details of your Facebook friends are all automatically imported -- names, profile pictures and any contact information they've supplied.
Whether from Facebook or Windows Live, your contacts all appear in a single list. Got contacts that aren't on either service? Just add them from the phone, and they'll be added to your Windows Live account in the background.
Many of your Facebook friends probably don't have their phone numbers listed. Know their number yourself? Add it to their contact on the phone, and WP7 will create a matching Windows Live contact with the extra details. The two contacts are 'linked' behind the scenes, so you still only see one entry with the combined Facebook and Live details.
Flick your finger across the screen, and you can immediately see any Facebook friend's recent status updates, right from their contact entry. Posting your own status updates is equally simple.
Downside? Despite Twitter's massive popularity, it lacks equivalent integration on WP7 for status updates and images. A standalone Twitter app is available, but this seems clunky in comparison to the near-perfect integration of Facebook. At this stage, Microsoft has no public plans to offer Twitter integration; if you're after a better Twitter experience than iPhone or Android devices can provide, you're out of luck.
Getting the message across
So, you've got Facebook and Windows Live to keep your contact list updated. You can communicate via either of those networks and -- via a downloadable app -- Twitter as well. But what about more direct and immediate ways to keep in touch?
WP7 provides a simple phone interface, with an on-screen alphanumeric dialing pad. Calling established contacts is even easier, by tapping on the appropriate phone number or using the mostly-accurate voice-dial feature.
Text messaging and email are both well supported via a simple interface and on-screen keyboard. Texts are shown in threaded conversations, while email takes a familiar inbox view. Sadly all the various forms of communication are treated quite separately: I'd have loved to see those conversations contain all of the texts, calls and email I've shared with a particular contact.
Each of these core apps make use of WP7's Live Tiles feature, which shows the number of missed calls or unread messages on each application's home-screen icon. Still, you have to check each app separately to see what you've missed or received.
WP7 includes a simple, yet functional, Calendar app that can be synchronised with Windows Live and Microsoft Exchange. Despite the strong integration elsewhere, Facebook 'Events' are not supported -- if that's how you manage your social life, those events must be re-entered into Windows Live (via the phone or website) or your Outlook calendar manually.
Amazingly, WP7 lacks a to-do list. Various applications are available, but at the time of writing none matches the power of Outlook's with repeating events, reminders and other advanced features. Drive your life through lists? Look elsewhere, or see if the WP7 marketplace can offer up an app that satisfies. Still, seems like a pretty core application for a smartphone to me.
Portable versions of Word, Excel and OneNote are included, along with a viewer for PowerPoint presentations (useful as a prompter, or for those on-the-plane rehearsals). I found Excel and OneNote well-featured: OneNote even includes the same voice-recording capability found on the desktop version. However, Word is extremely cut-down, lacking features such as Word Count and including only exceptionally basic formatting. It's not great for composing documents, but at least it serves as a viewer for Word docs received as email attachments.
Out & about
When I looked at the HTC 7 Trophy in December, I commented on the lack of functionality in Microsoft's Bing Maps. Compared with the wonderfully feature-filled Google Maps available on iPhone and Android, this would have been a major let-down (and probably ended my tour with WP7 two months ago). Fortunately, I was wrong.
Back then (and still at the time of writing), a localisation issue with Microsoft's Bing search engine means map results simply aren't displayed for New Zealand. This makes the Maps app next to useless: you can zoom in and pan around, but you can't actually find an address or get directions.
Fixing this is relatively easy, but obscure: change your 'Browser & search language' to US English. Once Bing has been properly localised for New Zealand, this should no longer be necessary. However, I do wonder why this wasn't done before the global launch: New Zealand was the first country to receive Windows Phone 7.
With that setting changed, searching for addresses is a breeze and the phone provides good step-by-step driving directions. However, there does seem to be some issue with either the GPS positioning or the accuracy of Bing's map data: I found many street numbers were displayed a few houses off, which is a pretty major shortcoming.
Next page: Cool apps, and the overall experience