Windows Phone 7 – Close to perfect!
Windows Phone 7 has the WOW factor. It is elegant and incredibly intuitive.
For those of you who shrug when ever you hear Windows Mobile 6.5. Windows Phone 7 is nothing like it. The horrible Windows 3.11-like user interface is gone and the phone doesn’t seem stuffed up with functionality nobody seem to need. Windows Phone 7 is a fresh start, and the things it does, it does well — but the things that it doesn’t (yet), tend to stick out. These missing features include copy and paste, visual voicemail, multitasking of third-party apps, and the ability to do video calling and to use the phone to connect other devices to the Internet (tethering). Hopefully some of the functionality are just days away, as Microsoft is about to release the first update.
A few more things before we start reviewing. The Windows Phone 7 platform is not officially launched in Norway. The phones are imported from U.K, and they don’t have a Norwegian keyboard (æ, ø and å), nor a Norwegian spell checking, so I tend to write all messages in English. Further more the Marketplace is closed for us, we can’t even download free applications. There are ways to get access to the Marketplace, but you will have to find out yourself.
The user interface is nothing like you’ve seen before. As mentioned, gone is the Windows Mobile 6.5 interface, and Windows Phone 7 isn’t similar to iOS or Android. It is something completely new. The interface is a pretty huge jump from any mobile OS you have seen before it. The interface is built on some of the design theories Microsoft established with the Zune. I am impressed, it is the simplest approach to smartphones I’ve seen so far!
Why do I say this? Because I work with mobile phones at the University of Oslo. Part of the job is to test phones that we will recommend for our staff. I test 5-6 phones a year, plus ereaders and tablets. So you can imagine, it’s not often I get the WOW feeling. Last time was with the iPhone and I never got it with the Android. No Android phone or tablet have made me ever want to play with it. With the phone running Windows phone 7, HTC Mozart, I sat the whole Saturday morning, going through the interface, looking for applications that I have on the iPhone, simply to see if the phone could replace the iPhone.
Microsoft has done an incredible job with the visual interface. From the lock screen on down, they manage to simplify things down in a way that seems almost artistic.
The Start Screen
The main feature of Windows Phone 7 is the Start screen, which takes the form of a long vertical list of tiles that can represent either an app or a hub. The phones lack multiple home screens or traditional folders for grouping apps. Windows phones use large, dynamic tiles that can give you certain information, like your next appointment, at a glance. And it has special “hubs” for things like contacts and entertainment that use bold, attractive interfaces and offer personalized, updating information. But there is a downside to this clean, simple, different approach, so you “pin” your favorite apps, contacts, photos or Web sites to the Start screen, the list of tiles grows longer, and you have to scroll further and further to reach some.
The App List
The start screen is pushed to the left, when you push a little arrow at the top. A long – potentially very, very long – list of apps appears. Here, the icons are a reasonable size, but they’re simply laid out in a long list. No way to putting them into folders as on the iPhone, and there is no way to line them side by side. In its basic form, the list is fine. But as soon as you get a lot of apps installed, like I have on my iPhone, it’s going to start feeling untenable.
With Windows Phone 7 Microsoft has almost got rid of all the buttons on the phone. Only three important buttons are left: Back, Home and Search, in that order. Back always takes you back one screen (and it’s got a long memory – you can keep going back through all your actions), while Search will search within your app (say, email or maps). Home is always home. It’s a good, robust arrangement.
On a smartphone there is a lot of small alerts popping up to tell you whats going on various services, such as an incoming SMS or an IM. Similar to how notifications are handled on the Android platform, notifications are placed in a small notification area on the top of the screen. This lets you continue with what you are doing on the phone. The iPhone, on the other hand, puts alert windows in front of you, interrupting whatever you’re doing! The notification system in WIndows Phone 7 is somewhere between the two. Notifications pop up at the top of the screen, appearing where the status bar usually sits. Tap the notification, and you’ll jump to the app that pushed it. The problem is that it only contains the last notification and it doesn’t let you manage recent notifications that you didn’t address as they came in!
The onscreen keyboard is on level with the on the iPhone. It is in other words really, really good. You get a QWERTY keyboard in portrait mode (are you listening, Nokia?), and multiple suggestions in a row above the keyboard as you type; the most likely word you’re typing is picked out in bold, and if you move on while that’s highlight it gets put in. I’m not often typing wrong, but I wonder how Microsoft will implement more letters for the markets here in Europe: The Scandinavian countries, Germany and Hungary. Will the keyboard remain just as good?
Microsoft also has a clever text cursor system, allowing you to quickly and accurately put the cursor wherever you want. Windows Phone 7 draws the cursor about 20 pixels above your thumb, and then moves it relative to where you drag.
The Hubs are really something that differs Windows Phone 7 from the other mobile operating systems. Hubs can best be explained as half apps, half folders.
Windows Phone 7 has 6 hubs: People, Pictures, Music + Videos, Marketplace, Office, and Games (connecting the phone brilliantly to the XBOX platform).
People is essentially your contacts list, with an added connection to Facebook. Your Facebook news feed is pulled into a “What’s new” view, and tapping on any contact lets you write on their wall or view their individual feed (in addition to calling them). It’s a nice gesture for those who just want the basics of Facebook — but most Facebook junkies will probably want to go for the dedicated application.
Pictures is where your pictures go. The Hub also automatically pulls down the pictures you or your contacts have published on Facebook.
Office is where Microsoft flexes their business muscle, allowing for the creation/handling of Excel, Word, and Powerpoint documents. This is also where the platform’s note taking application, OneNote, resides. All files can be synced back and forth to your Windows Live account.
Marketplace – Third Party Apps
Microsoft’s application store is nicely implemented. The applications are sorted in categories, and you can filter between free/paid applications, and top item tracking for each category. The selection of available applications is getting better every day that goes by, and many of my favourite applications on the iOS platform is already available on Windows Phone 7: Adobe Reader, Amazon Kindle, BBC News, Endomondo, Facebook, GReadr (a Google Reader), Guardian Newsreader, Last.fm, Share2Flickr (lets you upload your photos to Flickr), Shazam, Twitter and WordPress.
As on all mobile platforms, there are multiple apps that more or less do the same and they often have similar names. I would therefore have liked to that search results also showed the price, who made the app, or whether or not there’s a trial. Searching for “Google Reader” turns up several apps. How do you know which one’s free? How do you know which one is the one made by your favorite company or if it is the official one? If the icon/name isn’t enough for you, you get to click through every item to find what you’re looking for. Also, Microsoft has decided to intertwine music results amongst app/game search results, which turned search basically in to a mess!
Perhaps the best feature of all: if an app developer wants to give their users a taste before they buy, the marketplace supports it. Next to “Buy” will be a “Try” button. On the Windows Phone 7 platform there is no need for developers to make an annoying Lite version of the applications! It’s one of the things I hate with the iOS platform.
E-mail and Calendar
At work we don’t use Exchange, so high on the list was testing the IMAP implementation. And I am happy to report that Windows Phone 7 plays nicely with our email servers.
The OS also comes with simplefied setup of major free email providers, Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail. Private I use Gmail, and also this service works nicely on the phone. Sadly the email client lacks a unified inbox, so you have to clutter your Start screen with separate tiles for each account.
The calendar, which syncs with Exchange, Windows Live, or Google, can’t sync with Yahoo or MobileMe, and lacks a week view. At work we use Lotus Notes, and there is no support for this group client and I have no idea on IBM working on a Notes Traveler client for Windows Phone 7.
Surfing the Web
Microsoft has done a good job with the Web browser. It is as fast as the default browsers on iPhone and Android, and has more or less the same set of features, except for no HTML5 support. And of course, it also lacks support for showing Adobe Flash content. For YouTube viewing, you download an app from the Zune Marketplace.
Wi-Fi works like a charm at home. I had no problem connecting it to my WPA Personal based access point. Nor did I have problem connecting it wirelessly at work. We use WPA Enterprise (802.1x). But before being able to connect I had to download and install a certificate. The whole process of getting connected got a lot more difficult then on iPhone and Android, but still way simpler then on a Nokia phone!
I hope and I am confident, that Microsoft will give their Wi-Fi implementation a lot of love in the time to come. This part stands out from the simplified interface that the rest of the OS have.
If you want to connect the phone to your PC, syncronization is done through Zune. I would have hoped that sync would have been done through Windows Mobile Device Center, but I guess Microsoft got tempted by Apple’s approach (locking the iPhone to iTunes).
I have not tested connecting the phone to a Mac, but there is a Windows Phone 7 Connector for Mac in beta.
Security – Client Certificate Support
Windows Phone 7 is marketed as a consumer oriented operating system, and unfortunately does not include all things certificate related:
- It supports using client certificates for Exchange ActiveSync authentication.
- No VPN support in general with or without certificates.
- No support using a certificate to authenticate to a web site.
- As mention, a not to good implementation of 802.1x.
In this area the iPhone is miles ahead of Windows Phone 7 (and also ahead of Android), and if these things are important for you, there is just one phone you should choose.