Not since Palm's betting-the-farm moment on webOS has a company introduced a mobile platform so radically different from its predecessor. Windows Phone 7 isn't just a departure from Windows Mobile 6.5 and what came before, but a complete reboot. And there's even more at stake for Microsoft than when Palm shook up the smart phone world with its slick software, only to disappoint with lackluster hardware. If this re-imagining isn't a home run, there won't be an HP to swoop in with more resources. This is Microsoft's last mobile stand. And it has to work. Or else.
So what does Windows Phone 7 bring to the table that will keep Google's Android and Apple's iOS from running away with the smart phone race? Actually, quite a lot. The interface is beautiful and dynamic, and Microsoft leverages several brands here that others don't have in their stables, including Bing, Xbox Live, and Zune. Microsoft is also really trumpeting the idea that its OS will let smart phone owners use their devices more efficiently, thanks to time-saving features such as Live Tiles on the homescreen and Hubs.
However, some aspects of the platform feel unfinished or rushed. And we're not talking about the apps Marketplace, which one would expect to be well behind Android and iOS at launch. Read on to discover what we like and what we don't like about the new Windows Phone 7, and don't forget to check out the first reviews of the devices running this OS, including the HTC Surround and Samsung Focus.
The interface is simply gorgeous.
The lock screen shows your next meeting and how many new messages you have. The Pictures app automatically pops up a photo you took as a panoramic background. And Live Tiles for your favorite people display their last Facebook update. All of these little details add up to a user experience that feels more modern and dynamic that what the competition offers. Most applications use what Microsoft calls internally as its Metro interface, which uses large text that runs along the top of the screen horizontally. This serves as a visual cue that you're supposed to move from left to right to see more options. In most cases, this works beautifully, and we like that third-party developers are using the same look and feel for their apps, including Slacker and eBay.
Live Tiles on Start screen save time, make the phone truly yours.
When you turn on your Windows Phone 7 device, you'll see an elegant Start screen that includes the time, as well as your next calendar appointment and notifications for new messages. It's a nice touch. Swipe that lock screen up and you'll see a Start screen with Live Tiles. They're called that because many of them display information at a glance, such as the latest Facebook update from a favorite contact. By default, the phone, people (contact) messaging, and e-mail tiles populate the first four spots, and the next four belong to the carrier or phone maker to populate with tiles of their choosing. You'll then see more tiles below.
Don't like the order? Just press and hold to start moving tiles around, or delete them with a tap. The beauty of the Start screen is that you can pin almost anything you can think of to it as a tile for easy access, whether it's an application, note, person (for quick dialing, texting, etc), playlist, or website. Yes, Android offers a fair amount of customization across multiple home screens with widgets, but Microsoft's approach is cleaner.
Launch the camera, without unlocking your phone.
Straight out of the why-didn't-someone-think-of-this-before department, all Windows Phone 7 devices allow users to start the camera app just by pressing and holding the camera button when the phone is turned off. You'll feel a little vibration, and the phone will wake up ready to fire a shot. We used this feature several times during our testing, and it really does save time. Our Samsung Focus was ready to shoot after 5 seconds, while pressing the power button on an iPhone, unlocking it, and starting the camera app took 7 to 8 seconds. That could be the difference between getting or missing a shot.
Seriously speedy performance. (Windows Mobile lag is gone!)
The biggest complaint we--and everyone else--had about Microsoft's earlier mobile operating systems was that they just weren't responsive. Well, say goodbye to that dreaded lag. All Windows Phone 7 devices pack a 1-GHz Snapdragon processor, and the software seems very highly tuned to deliver fast performance. Navigating menus, jumping back to the home screen, scrolling around webpages; everything is just really snappy. Although we encountered a few instances where we had to press a button or selection more than once to get a reaction, overall Windows Phone 7 just feels pleasantly smooth.
E-mail triage made easy, superior Office integration.
Managing your inbox on the go is a cinch with Outlook for Windows Phone 7. For example, if you want to delete multiple e-mails at once, just tap to the left of a message and checkboxes will automatically appear. You can also flag e-mails and easily swipe between All, Unread, Flagged, and Urgent messages with a swipe. We also like how addresses are hyperlinked in your inbox, so you can easily map them.
As you might expect, Microsoft bundles the full Office suite with Windows Phone 7, including Excel Mobile, PowerPoint Mobile, and Word Mobile. Once you download an attachment, you can easily open the document with a tap, as well as make edits. We like that you can send documents via e-mail from Office Mobile, but you can't attach docs to outgoing e-mails from within Outlook itself. OneNote Mobile 2010 is great for taking notes on the go, and you can include voice recordings and photos. Once you're done, it all gets synced with Windows Live SkyDrive.
Those businesses that use SharePoint will appreciate SharePoint Workspace Mobile for accessing shared docs, which syncs the latest version to your phone.
Windowsphone.live.com marries your device with the cloud.
While Google is synonymous with the cloud, Windows Phone 7 lets you do a lot from the web using a central hub. At windowsphone.live.com, you can find your phone on a map, call it, lock it, or erase it. And that's just for starters. You can also have your device automatically sync the photos you take with your device's camera with the service (albeit at a small 719 x 539 pixels, see an example). This site also displays synced OneNote notes and Windows Live contacts (if you have them), and you can add events so that they appear on your phone's calendar. Last but not least, users can dress their Xbox Live avatars, although this feature wasn't accessible during our testing.
Xbox Live onboard--and a pretty strong game lineup.
At a time when Android is playing catch-up with iOS in the games department, Microsoft already has an ace up its sleeve on Day One with Xbox Live. Within the Games Hub you can download quality titles such as Rocket Riot, Star Wars: Battle for Hoth, and The Sims 3, with more top-shelf games on the way. Here you can also personalize your avatar, see if you have any invites, and challenge a friend. Microsoft also promises games where you can play with others on the PC. For now, though, gameplay is turn-based and not real-time multiplayer, which is a bummer. We'd also like to see popular games such as Angry Birds, Modern Combat 2, and Madden NFL 11.
The browser is pretty darn good
If surfing the web on a Windows Mobile phone left a bad taste in your mouth, you're going to really like what Microsoft has done here with Internet Explorer Mobile. It's much faster than previous efforts, complete with tabbed browsing (pictured) and silky smooth multitouch zooming. You don't get cut and paste yet (see The Bad), but at least Windows Phone 7 automatically links street address, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. We found that an iPhone 4 was slightly faster--both when loading pages and switching from portrait to landscape mode--but overall Internet Explorer Mobile represents a big step forward.
Editors' Note: During our testing YouTube videos would not play, but we expect that the required Video Player download to be available in time for retail availability for Windows Phone 7 devices.
Typing is a breeze
The bad news is that Windows Phone 7 won't support third-party keyboards (such as Swype).
The good news is that the stock keyboard works well, especially in portrait mode (pictured below). While some may find the mild knocking sound when you tap the screen a bit annoying, we actually preferred to leave it on.
The software did a nice job predicting and suggesting words as we typed, and we love that you can press and hold the period key to get alternate punctuation. In web mode, the keyboard includes a dedicated .com key, and when messaging, you can access a full menu of emoticons with a tap.
We just have two nitpicks. The keyboard doesn't stretch all the way across in landscape mode. And there's no button for closing the keyboard, a pain when it obscures text boxes or dialog boxes. (You must use the back button.)
Smart search--and voice recognition.
When you fire up Bing on your phone, you'll see the name of the city that you're in, which is the first cue that Windows Phone 7 takes search seriously. This mobile-optimized engine is pretty smart. For example, if you type in "pizza," Bing will assume that you're looking for local results and display those first on a map. From there you can scroll to the right to see News and general web results. (We just wish the first result wasn't always an ad.)
If you search for weather, Bing will return a five-day forecast almost immediately, complete with a little graphic icon and the current temperature.
Windows Phone 7 makes searching via voice relatively simple: Just press and hold the Windows key. Thanks to integration with Microsoft's TellMe speech features, the device returned results pretty quickly. Voice recognition can also be used for opening apps and calling contacts. However, this OS doesn't go as far as Google's Voice Actions, which lets you speak text messages, listen to specific artists, and get directions.
Elegant media player + Zune Pass for all-you-can-eat tunes.
From the start, Windows Phone 7 is a better platform than Android phones for music lovers. The player looks more polished, and you can easily sync music using the Zune desktop software. If you sign up for a Zune Pass subsription you can download for $15 per month (on top of your data plan) all the music you want and keep 10 songs per month. The Music and Videos hub also integrates TV shows and movie downloads (an episode of House looked crisp and smooth on a Samsung Focus), podcasts, and FM radio. When you're playing a track and using another app, you can skip ahead, go back, and pause playback using small window at the top of the screen, which you launch by pressing the volume controls.
Good app selection for a new platform.
As with the iPhone and iTunes, Windows Phone 7 lets you download apps using Zune desktop software. You just go to the Marketplace tab to start shopping, and you can download the app either via USB or just check the Marketplace app on your phone for updates.
As of the time of this review, Microsoft expected to have more than 1,000 apps available at launch. That pales in comparison to Android's 90,000+ programs and the 300,000 or so for iOS. BlackBerry App World surpassed 10,000 apps in September. Still, we're pleasantly surprised by some of the top-shelf apps already appearing in the Marketplace, including eBay, Foursquare, OpenTable, Seesmic, Slacker, and preview verison of Twitter. Most of these apps look more polished than their Android counterparts, and we like that you can add apps to your phone bill instead of having to set up a separate account.
Our only pet peeve is that the Marketplace mixes apps and music results when searching; we wish there was a way to filter one or the other out. Also keep in mind that you don't get turn-by-turn navigation by for free as you do on Android. You'll need to spring for a premium app, just as you do on the iPhone.
Given that every other smart phone platform touts multitasking as a hallmark feature, it's surprising that Windows Phone 7 doesn't let third-party apps run in the background while you perform other tasks. It was just jarring to hear Slacker playback stop when we tried to open the browser. Yes, Microsoft's own apps work in the background, but these days that's not enough. (We expect an update to address this issue, but Microsoft couldn't comment on timing.) You also can't easily switch between apps as you can on Android, iOS, or webOS. At least for now, you're pretty much stuck with hitting the home key and then touching what you want to launch.
Landscape support limited to certain apps.
We were pretty shocked when we opened the maps application (which is otherwise good and pictured to the right) and the orientation didn't change when we switched our phones from portrait to landscape mode. Why not present a larger view? E-mail does landscape, so does calendar, and so does the Web (though in a half-assed way). But all of the hubs and other apps are stuck in portrait mode. That includes the main menu, which will be especially annoying for those who own the LG Quantum or any other WP7 device with a keyboard that slides out in landscape mode.
IE Mobile address bar doesn't appear in landscape mode. Seriously.
Surfing the web in landscape mode just makes sense. You can see more of the page at once without having to zoom in. So it's absolutely mind-boggling that there isn't an address bar in this mode in Windows Phone 7. We scrolled up to the top of the pages and found... nothing. You also can't favorite a site, access favorites, or pull up tabs in landscape mode. That is really frustrating. It just seems like a bad bug no one had time to fix.
No drag-and-drop syncing with Windows 7
Don't get me wrong. I don't mind the Zune desktop software for syncing music, photos, and videos. We found it relatively simple to drag items to an icon of our phone from within this program's slick interface, which some may prefer to iTunes. Still, this is a Windows product, and the fact that your Windows Phone 7 device doesn't show up as a device for syncing in Windows 7 itself makes us question Microsoft's thinking. Not everyone wants to live in the Zune universe, so you should give people a choice. Windows Phone 7 devices should show up in Device Stage or at least as a lettered drive, plain and simple.
Copy and paste coming later.
Microsoft has already shown us how this very basic functionality will work when it arrives early next year, but that's a long time to wait for a feature every other mobile OS offers. In the meantime, you can take solace in the fact that Windows Phone 7 at least hyperlinks addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses.
No threaded messaging or combined inbox.
On Windows Phone 7, not only do you not get an option for a unified inbox, your e-mail accounts get their own tiles. In other words, there's no way to switch between accounts without backing out to your phone's main menu. That's bad. Granted, Google has separate silos for Gmail and other accounts, but at least there's a maximum of two choices. Like to see your messages in a conversation style? Look elsewhere, as the OS doesn't offer this capability.
Universal search a no-show.
iOS has it. webOS has it. Android has it. And the new BlackBerry 6 has it. Universal search lets you search for apps, e-mail, contacts, and more from one place, but Windows Phone 7 doesn't have this feature. Search on this platform is limited to web searches and searching from within the apps themselves (such as e-mail). We hope this gets added soon.
Lacks Twitter integration
Windows Phone 7 throws you a bone with a nicely designed Twitter app, but it doesn't integrate with the rest of the OS. That means you can't post photos to Twitter from the Pictures app or share a webpage on Twitter from Internet Explorer Mobile. Twitter also doesn't integrate with contacts (though some would hate that). Plus, the lack of background multitasking for third-party apps means you can't receive updates when you're doing other things.
If we had to give Windows Phone 7 a grade right now, it would have to be a solid B. The OS looks wonderful (including many of the early apps); its highly customizable Home Screen saves you time; and it's got plenty of speed. We also have high hopes for gaming on this platform as more titles roll out, and suspect that a lot of people who have never heard of Zune will be pleasantly surprised by Windows Phone 7 devices as media players.
On the other hand, if you look at many of the things missing from Windows Phone 7 in its current state, one could argue that this OS deserves an Incomplete grade. Glaring omissions such as multitasking for third-party apps, cut-and-paste, no landscape mode for the Maps app, and the lack of an address bar in the same mode are all signs that this product was rushed to market in time for the critical holiday shopping season.
We think Windows Phone 7 could have benefited from more time in the oven, but on many levels it succeeds already. People new to smart phones will be dazzled by everything this platform packages. Early adopters and current smart phone owners, however, may want to hold off until expected improvements make this OS a more formidable competitor to Android and iOS. Given how far behind Microsoft has been the mobile race, it will need to update its software swiftly.