The iPhone, and various versions of it, has been my mobile of choice for the last few years. I recently met with a few people from the Windows Phone 7 team and they introduced their phone to me. With the news this week of Nokia planning to shop Windows 7 phones, this mobile OS is soon to grow very fast globally.
The phone has deep social integration and brings a completely new and intuitive UI to smart phones. It was beautiful and interesting. However to really give this phone a test drive I wanted to spend some time with it. What better way to do that then make it my primary phone for a week? I tested Windows Phone 7 on a Samsung Focus, a light, well built phone. As an iPhone user it took me a few tries to get used to the back button and search button. The home button is in the center of the phone just like with the iPhone. I wanted to mainly review the software experience but the buttons are an important part of that.
After turning on the phone, it prompts you to set up your accounts, like Windows Live, Google, Facebook, Microsoft Exchange accounts, etc. After giving the phone access to your accounts you will see the tiles on the home page updating with the latest amount of unread emails, pictures of your friends and other high level information. It’s interesting to have with this dynamic home screen. The tiles make it easy to reach important items quickly. The phone uses the combination of vertical sliding and horizontal sliding to move from the home screen and the deeper layers, which creates a very intuitive experience. The touch and software responsiveness is very impressive. The transition time between opening an app or page is fast. The transition itself is animated with the tiles popping and vanishing when an app is open or closed. This all ties into the overall theme of the OS and it reminds me of the cool factor that the iPhone 4 had with the multi-tasking screen swap animation. The live tiles on the home screen acts like the central glue of the phone. Each tile can be moved by pressing down and rearranging.
Social Integration The magic really starts when you click on the Contact’s icon, because of the deep integration with Facebook you’ll find a list of all your Facebook friends, and if you touch their name it gives you the option to call that person, send a text message or write on their wall. This is also known as the ‘People Hub’. The People Hub is second on the home screen and it’s one of the dynamic tiles that continuously updates to show photos of your friends. It’s great for social media fanatics such as myself. The People Hub has three horizontal sections: People (a list of all your contacts), What’s New (updates from your friends Facebook profiles) and Recent (people you have recently called or contacted). The nice thing about this is that What’s New contains both images, texts, comments and the ability to respond. By doing this, it has managed to make Facebook a part of the OS. Each contact has a profile which contains a photo the ability to call, text, write on Facebook wall, send email, map of their home address, map of their work address, company, job title, birthday and if applicable, significant other. It appears that all that data is pulled in from Facebook, which means everything is populated from the start.
Email The Email tile on the home screen has a number on the icon, alerting you without having to enter the app how many unread messages you have. It’s easy to set up your email account from the settings section. Like all the built in apps the Email app abides by the Windows Phone 7 theming. This makes using the phone a very fluid experience. Icons at the bottom of the email page are used to compose a new message, select multiple messages at once, view your mail folders, and sync. The UI of the Email app makes it feel like a natural extension of the device but unfortunately it does not have the Gmail Archive feature which I love.
The default search engine IE uses is Bing and search results are not displayed in the standard IE format. The results get pulled into the screen and are displayed on a black background with white text. The IE browser is not as nice as the iPhone’s Safari. Many of the pages don’t look quite right. Furthermore, unlike the new Android phones it does not come with Flash.
Games The Xbox Live tile is the equivalent of Apple’s Game Center for this phone and it’s very impressible. Unlike the Game Center which is ugly and unusable, Xbox live is a deeply integrated gaming experience. You can pull in your account and avatar from Xbox. It also comes with a lot of games that have been redesigned for the mobile from the Xbox casual gaming section, though you have to pay for most of them. You can also get to the selection of games from the normal Marketplace. Gaming is becoming one of the cornerstones of competition in the smart phone world with Playstation launching its first Android phone next month. Windows Phone 7 with Xbox live is going to be a serious contender in mobile gaming space.
Photos and Camera
The Pictures tile and the Pictures app itself includes both photos you’ve taken and photos from your Facebook feed. You can choose between viewing all of your photos, your favorites, or choosing by date. Additionally sharing your photos is really simple. Select the photo, hold down and an option pops up to share on Facebook. It’s a really handy way to quickly upload photos to Facebook. Another nifty feature is taking photos without unlocking the phone. Just press the camera button and snap away. However, there seems to be a problem with the camera settings. It is unable to remember flash settings and that can be very frustrating if you want to take a series of photos in poor lighting.
Music and Video
The Music and Video tile has links to the music player, videos podcasts, the radio, and the Zune Marketplace. Connecting the phone to your computer allows you to sync over your music. I however, am not a big collector of music; rather I just listen to Pandora. I was sad to find that there is no Pandora app, which led me to discover that there’s no multi-tasking from third party apps – something that I had assumed would be a given. There are three sections in the Music and Video section; Zune, History and New. The visual interface is particularly awesome here, and it remembering and pulling in the YouTube video I played in IE was very cool.
Marketplace Marketplace is the Microsoft equivalent of the iPhone App Store.. Search for apps using the Search Button, swipe left and right to discover the top apps, new apps, free apps, and to browse by category. The selection is not as extensive as other smart phone market places. However, the Microsoft developers ecosystem is huge. There is already a large set of game developers working on the Xbox and there is an equally large set of developers building apps for Windows. These developers will be able to take all their tools and knowledge and apply it to this new platform very easily. As the phone becomes popular, the distribution should lead to a fairly fast development of a robust app ecosystem. Although the apps currently available are expensive and there are fewer free apps. Paying for apps is easy, because the AT&T bills you for the app there is no need to register on an external system and enter your password before each download. Apps downloaded effortlessly but at the start I was left wondering when it had finished downloading and where it had gone.
This feature is a personal favorite of mine; the Windows Phone 7 comes with an Office App that can create and edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files. The App is intuitive and very easy to use. It does get annoying that you need to email the document to yourself to access it outside of your mobile without Sharepoint. What would be great is if all the documents synced with Dropbox that way I could access and update from any device. The virtual keyboard is better then the iPhone’s. The auto-correct and predictive text is less hassle to get too and more accurate. The cursor is better to maneuverer. Sadly there is no copy and paste, which I was told is coming soon.
The Windows Phone 7 is as easy to use, or perhaps even easier than any of the other mobile phone operating systems currently available. Instead of scrolling through page after page of apps, all the information you care about is front and center. When you want the apps, a single tap takes you to an alphabetical list when you can find what you want quickly. Its screens are beautiful; I would go as far as to say that I found it better looking than the iPhone. It was fast with no loading screens popping up other than to play games. Even web pages loaded up without much waiting about. Microsoft has set a fairly strict set of hardware requirements for all the companies making devices that run Windows Phone 7. So the performance for all the models should be quite similar. The social integration is a great feature of the phone, though one major problem I had was when I tried to disable my Facebook account. I had logged in using my public account, which has 5000 friends, and so I found the People hub pointless. To personalize the People hub experience, I wanted to connect my private Facebook account to the phone. However, every-time I went into settings the phone kept on giving an error message. Even though it does not have true multi-tasking, all the in build apps update in the background, so my inbox is up to date when I’m ready to read my mail, for example. I can tell at a glance what the weather is like or when my next appointment will be or how many updates are available for the software on my phone. During the week, I did have to revert back to my iPhone a few times. The reason for that was because I needed to use an app that was either not available on Windows Phone 7 or I had already bought it on my iPhone. I feel that if you, like me, are used to using a smart phone and have a high app-lock-in cost you won’t want to change device easily. However, the accessibility and ease of use that came with the tile screens made it a joy for me to use the Windows Phone 7. Having everything at your fingertips at all times is a strong plus. It’s nice to not have to open up individual apps to check your email, to view your text messages, and to get local weather information and news. I thought at the end of this week I would be rushing back to my iPhone but no, I am still using the Windows Phone 7 and am not sure, when and if I will revert back to my iPhone full time. If you’re looking for a smart phone and have never used one before, Windows Phone 7 would be a great place to start.
(You may notice that the images in the article are generic. That is because when I found out that you can’t take screen-shots using the phone, it made me so mad that I refused to take any of my own photos.)