by: Bonnie Cha on October 20, 2010
Editors' note: Tested on the Samsung Taylor, Samsung Focus, and HTC Surround.
In February 2010, Microsoft introduced Windows Phone 7 to the world. A complete overhaul of the company's mobile operating system, Microsoft got the tech world excited about it again with its fresh user interface, added features, and promises of improved performance. We've had to wait a long nine months since then to see if Windows Phone 7 actually delivers everything it promises, but we finally got a chance to find out. With the first wave of devices expected to hit on November 8, here's what to expect from Windows Phone 7.
A fresh start
As we said at Mobile World Congress, Windows Phone 7 is a complete and refreshing departure from previous versions of Windows Mobile. Microsoft essentially pressed the restart button and worked with a team of designers to create a mobile operating system based a number of principles, including elegance and simplicity, typography, motion, and relevance, which we mostly saw during this preview.
The change is immediately noticeable as soon as you pick up the phone. Microsoft stripped away all unnecessary information (almost too much actually--the status bar displaying battery life, signal strength, and so forth goes into hiding after a couple of seconds) and soft buttons, and created a Start screen that consists of "live tiles," which are essentially dynamic widgets to your favorite apps, contacts, and hubs and also display alerts, such as new e-mail and missed calls. You can rearrange the order of the tiles and remove them by doing a long press on the screen. You can also "pin" new tiles, but to do so, you must first navigate to the list of apps or the People hub, find the item that you want to add, and then pin it to the Start screen.
What's cool is that you're not just limited to pinning apps or contacts. You can also pin things like individual Web pages and maps to the Start screen, which will save you time from having to first launch the appropriate app and then navigate to the item you want.
The look is simple, to be sure, and provides easy one-touch access to information. During our technical preview of Windows Phone 7, we expressed our reservations over the layout of the Start screen and app view. However, it is what you make of it. There isn't any part of the Start screen that is locked down, so you can customize it to your needs--something that was lacking in previous versions of Windows Mobile. The list view for apps is a little less flexible and the more apps you install on the phone, the longer and longer this list is going to get. Android employs a similar list view but it also better utilizes space with a grid layout. Adding universal search to Windows Phone 7 would go a long way in alleviating this problem.
A world organized by hubs
Beyond the Start and apps menu, you will find the platform's Hub system. The idea behind hubs is to bring together related content into a single place for consumption and interaction, and it really showcases some of the work Microsoft has done on relevancy, organization, elegance and typography. There are six hubs in total--People, Pictures, Games, Music + Video, Marketplace, and Office.
The names of the hubs are fairly self-explanatory, but as an example, the People hub merges contact information from your various accounts and then displays them in one long list. A swipe to the right will show you Facebook status updates (unfortunately, Windows Phone 7 will not have Twitter or MySpace integration at launch) and lets you like or add comments, while another swipe will bring you to your most recently contacted people.
This type of panoramic user interface runs across all the various hubs with bold, attractive text splashed across the top to identify different subsections (aka Pivots) and in some cases, a small contextual toolbar along the bottom of the screen to help you perform specific tasks to the app.
Now, some might complain that this type of navigation requires too much scrolling and can be overly complicated and, admittedly, when compared with iOS and Android, this is true and certainly won't be for everybody. On the flip side, it was absolutely wonderful to be able to do so many things from one place, without having to launch several different apps, so we have to give Microsoft kudos for thinking of this kind of organization. We also very much appreciated the consistent user interface, since it made it easy to work each of the other hubs.
Overall, Windows Phone 7 provides a more pleasant navigation experience than previous iterations of Windows Mobile, mostly from an aesthetic standpoint but in other aspects too. As much as Microsoft focused on the typography and creating a chromeless user interface, it also concentrated on motion and as you launch apps and navigate through the different screens, you'll notice that some of the transitions are marked by turnstile motions. It's modern and fresh, but sometimes it can slow down navigation.
The back and Start buttons did their assigned jobs of returning to the previous page and Start screen, but we wish there was a way to bring up a list of your recently used apps like Android does, since it's easy to get lost once you start diving deeper into an app. In general, however, we found the touch interface and general navigation felt zippier than past versions of Windows Mobile.
What's interesting about Windows Phone 7, though, is, at times, it feels like you're getting two completely different experiences on the phone. The Start screen/menu list, and some apps like the phone dialer, e-mail in-box and calendar, are completely minimalistic, while other aspects of the phone, like the aforementioned hubs and multimedia features, are more sophisticated and elegant. It doesn't hurt the navigation, per se, but is doesn't really make the phone feel like a cohesive unit either.
Also, there's only limited support for landscape mode. It works for messages, videos and photos, the Web browser, and games. However, if you rotate the phone, the Start screen will remain in portrait mode. Microsoft said that user testing showed that customers were really rotating the phone only to type messages, but were otherwise using the phone in portrait mode. But what about maps? What about when you're listening to music on the HTC Surround with the kickstand open and want to see what song is playing?
All things considered, will Windows Phone 7 resonate with consumers? We think so. It's interesting to note that several times throughout our review period, people commented on how they liked the user experience on Windows Phone 7 better than that of Android--both from a looks standpoint and regarding user friendliness. The iPhone is still the one to beat in terms of ease of use, but in a competition for simplicity between Android and Windows Phone 7, we'd say the latter would win.
Along the same lines, there's definitely something to Microsoft's decision to crack down on third-party customization. From the very beginning, the company said it wanted to provide a consist end-user experience regardless of the phone or provider, and in the long run this will help make the transition easier as users switch devices or move carriers. This should also prevent delays when pushing out software updates, since each custom UI doesn't have to go through testing to ensure it works with the new software.
OEMs and carriers also still have the opportunity to add their customizations. It's just a more subtle approach. For example, on the HTC Surround, there's an HTC Hub that brings some of the familiar HTC UI elements, such as the animated weather widget. The HTC Hub also highlights some the company's featured apps. Meanwhile, Samsung offers a Now hub on the Focus, which acts similarly to the Happenings Now widget on the Galaxy S Android devices by providing weather info and news and stocks updates.
Like many other smartphones, Windows Phone 7 can merge contact information from different e-mail accounts and social networking sites, but it's a bit limited in scope and capabilities right now. The OS draws from Facebook, Windows Live, Exchange, and your other e-mail accounts for contact data, and after setting up your device with these accounts, the phone immediately pulls in contact information.
Previously, there was no way to filter the contacts--it was all or nothing--but Microsoft added a feature that allows you to now exclude Facebook contacts that don't exist in your other synced accounts (e.g., Outlook, Windows Live, Gmail), which makes your address book manageable if your Facebook account is full of casual contacts.
We chose this option and imported our Facebook, Gmail, Windows Live, and Exchange accounts. The syncing process was painless and happened in the background, but we ended up with numerous duplicates for the same contact. It's easy enough to link profiles, but with the number of duplicates we had, it got to be quite tedious and annoying.
As we briefly mentioned in the Navigation section, the People hub also provides real-time updates to your friends' Facebook statuses, and allows you to quickly like or add a comment if you wish. You can easily update your own by tapping on your individual card from the contacts list. For the most part, you can access most of the information you would see on Facebook from within the People hub, but if something requires you to go outside the hub, you will have to sign back into your account via the browser, as the dedicated Facebook app isn't available yet.
One other notable omission that might irk a lot of people is the lack of Twitter integration. This isn't to say it won't be offered in the future, but it's not supported at launch. It'd also be nice to have a Favorite category in the People hub. The Recent list doesn't quite cut it.
E-mail and calendar
Windows Phone 7 offers a variety of e-mail support, including the standard POP3/IMAP accounts and, of course, Exchange. For most personal accounts, setup is a simple matter of entering your log-in ID and password, and we were able to sync up our Windows Live and Gmail accounts in a matter of seconds. Setting up Outlook requires a little more information, such as server and domain info, but again, we didn't encounter any problems here. That said, for Outlook accounts not connected via Exchange ActiveSync, you must sync through the cloud (via Windows Live/Hotmail) in order to get your calendar and contacts synced to the phone.
We should note that you don't have to have a Windows Live ID to start using the phone, but if you want to access the Marketplace or Xbox Live, it is required, so you'll most likely want to create one or log in, for access to apps at the very least. This will also back up your phone's data to windowsphone.live.com where you can also manage your contacts, photos, and use several tools to locate or wipe your phone in case it gets lost or stolen.
Windows Phone 7 doesn't offer a combined in-box; a separate in-box is set up for each of your accounts. The e-mail experience is the same regardless of which client you're using, and it's strikingly simple in appearance, though that isn't a reflection of the app's capabilities. Messages are filtered by all, unread, flagged, or urgent, and also features a robust search function that can find keywords within the text of the message or within the e-mail fields. It's also a treat that you can simply tap to the left of a message(s) and press the small trash icon at the bottom to delete it.
You can configure the device to sync e-mail at different time intervals, ranging from manually to as items arrive. We received our messages as they arrived, sometimes before they even hit our real in-box. We didn't have any issues downloading attachments, but be aware that initially you have to manually sync your folders.
Though you don't get a unified in-box, you do get a combined calendar, with appointments color-coded by account. The calendar app provides views by agenda, day, and month, with a similarly clean and minimalist view as e-mail. There is no week view, however. Microsoft said it didn't find it necessary, but we think it would've been a helpful, especially as you're preparing for the work week.
You can also easily create new appointments using the contextual toolbar at the bottom of the screen, and set such options as a reminder, occurrence, and status, but we weren't able to access our corporate directory to add attendees--only those listed in our contacts list. If you receive a meeting request, there are simple icons for accepting, declining, or responding to invites, and there's even an option to send a note to all the meeting attendees if you're running late.
Messaging and keyboard
There's not much to say about the text and multimedia messaging capabilities, other than it works and is easy to use. You also get a threaded chat view, and MMS are presented inline. As we're quickly realizing with Windows Phone 7, you really shouldn't judge anything by looks because even though the keyboard appears to be a cramped mess--particularly in portrait mode--it's actually quite accurate and fast and offers predictive text. It's also smart in the sense that when entering text in an e-mail's To field or a Web address, the keyboard provides a .com shortcut and when composing a message, the keyboard surfaces a shortcut to a list of emoticons. Microsoft said third-party keyboards (a la Swype) will not be supported by Windows Phone 7.
Similar to Exchange, we expect good integration between the Microsoft Office Suite and Windows Phone 7, and the elements are certainly there. You can view, edit, and create Word and Excel documents, whereas PowerPoint files are limited to just view and edit. We downloaded Word and Excel attachments from our e-mail and were quite happy with how documents were displayed with original formatting. However, editing options are pretty much limited to formatting, highlighting, and changing font color. What's even worse, Windows Phone 7 doesn't offer copy/paste--yet. Microsoft is working on bringing this basic functionality to Windows Phone in the near future, but at launch, you'll be without.
A new addition to the Mobile Suite is OneNote Mobile. The note-taking app is quite useful; you can add photos and recorded audio clips, as well as bulleted or numbered lists to notes. You can pin notes to the Start page, e-mail them, or sync them to your Windows Live account, so you can access them via the Web later on.
Finally, if your company uses SharePoint Server 2010 for storing documents to share and edit, you can access them by entering the URL.
Mobile Web is such a huge part of smartphones nowadays, and fortunately, Windows Phone 7 provides a relatively good browsing experience, certainly much improved from Windows Mobile. The Internet Explorer browser offers support for up to six windows and thumbnail views of all open pages, so you can easily toggle back and forth. You can also bookmark sites, and if you feel like it, you can pin pages to the Start screen for easier access.
Zooming can be handled either by using the pinch-to-zoom gesture or by double-tapping the screen. Both are smooth and zippy, but there's a slight delay when re-rendering text and images. Other available tools and settings include keyword search, the ability to share links, and page suggestions by Bing.
Now, for the bad news. As of right now, there's no support for Flash, Silverlight, or HTML5, so despite taking several steps forward, Windows Phone 7's also several steps behind the competitors. There's some consolation in the fact that Adobe did say at Mobile World Congress that it's working with Microsoft to bring Flash to the browser, but it just won't be in time for the holiday launch.
Music and video
If there's one area where Windows Phone 7 really excels and gives the competition a run for its money, it's the music experience. (Xbox Live might be another, but hard to say without testing it.)
Windows Phone 7 now includes full Zune integration, so anyone who has used an Zune HD will be familiar with the interface of the Music + Videos hub. If you're new to Zune, there's a slight learning curve, but the interface is fresh and fun. The player offers simple controls and displays both the album art and an artist picture in the background. That said, it'd be nice to have better player control when multitasking.
When working in another app while listening to music, nowhere on the screen do you see your current track or any type of controls for advancing or rewinding tracks. It was only when we pressed the volume rocker by accident that a small toolbar dropped down from the top of the screen to expose the media buttons. This treatment is fine and we can learn to live with it, but we just wish it was more apparent from the get-go.
To get music, videos, and photos onto your phone, you will now be required to use Zune desktop software, and it's not just for multimedia. All synchronization and content management between your device and your computer will be handled through the Zune software; there's no more Exchange ActiveSync, and we can't say that we're sad about that fact.
The Zune desktop client is much more attractive and easy to use. We dragged and dropped songs, videos, and podcasts with no problem (note that there is no drag-and-drop mass storage, however), and playback was fine. Windows Phone 7 also allows for Wi-Fi syncing, so you can drag and drop files to the phone icon on the desktop client, then the next time you plug the phone in for a charge and it detects your preferred Wi-Fi network, it will wirelessly sync the new files.
One other very important feature to call out here: Windows Phone 7 will sync with Macs. Yes, you read right.
Microsoft will release a beta version of Windows Phone Connect to Mac later this year that will allow you to sync non-DRM content from iTunes and iPhoto via USB. However, it's quite limited in its capabilities. For example, you can choose to sync only by playlist, artist, or genre; you can't pick individual songs. The same holds true for photos--you can sync entire albums but not individual photos. At launch, it also won't support contact syncing.
Still, we'll take the limited capabilities over nothing. We received an early version of the software to try out, and we were able to sync albums and photos just fine. However, we weren't able to play our selected songs on the Samsung Focus. We could see the album art and full track list, but received the following error message: "Can't play. Try signing in with your Windows Live ID or try syncing again." Meanwhile, we repeated the process on the HTC Surround and it had no problem playing back the tracks. Obviously, there are some kinks that need to be worked out.
You can, of course, purchase and download new music and video from the Zune Marketplace, directly from the phone or from your PC. With a Zune Pass subscription, you'll also be able to stream unlimited music to your phone. The catch is that this feature costs an additional $14.99 per month, but we absolutely loved having it as a way to discover new music. Even if you opt not to get a Zune Pass, the good news is that Windows Phone 7 handsets will all have FM radios and support third-party streaming services, such as Slacker, which is already available in the Marketplace.
As CNET blogger Matt Rosoff said, with a little fine tuning, Microsoft could create the ultimate mobile music service.
Camera and photos
All Windows Phone devices are required to have a 5-megapixel camera at the minimum, but the editing options may vary by handset.
Any photos you take with the camera will show up in the Photo hub under the Camera roll. With any photos, you can do a long press on an image to share it either via e-mail, MMS, or Facebook, or you can upload it to SkyDrive, which is Windows Live's online storage system.
Along with your camera photos, the Picture hub will also display any images synced from your computer, Facebook albums, and mobile uploads. You can filter images by date or favorites, as well as check out a timeline of photos that your friends have uploaded to Facebook.
Curiously, there isn't a slideshow option built into the Picture hub, so you have to manually swipe through your photos if you feel like taking a trip down memory lane--a shame particularly for those handsets with built-in kickstands. Also, unfortunately, right now you can't upload or share any videos directly from the phone. You'll have to transfer the file to your computer if you want to do so.
One of the big questions surrounding Windows Phone 7 is its Windows Phone Marketplace. Apps have become an integral part of smartphones and are a key differentiator among platforms. So how will Windows Phone 7 fit into the app landscape? Will developers take to the platform? Will the quality of apps be on par with iOS and Android? It will be some time before we know the answer to some of those questions, but from what we've seen so far, the outlook is promising.
Microsoft says it's confident that the Windows Phone Marketplace with launch with more than 1,000 apps and games when the first phones ship in the U.S. on November 8. The company expects to release several hundred apps per week till the end of 2010. As an example, scheduled releases for the month of December include SlingPlayer, AP Mobile, ESPN, Amazon Kindle, Direct TV, Ustream, Weather Channel, Cheeseburger Network, Seesmic, Photobucket, Zagat, and MySpace Local Concerts.
During our review period, there were about 450 apps available, including some of the more major and mainstream apps such as Twitter, Slacker, Foursquare, OpenTable, and Fandango. Our concern going into the testing wasn't so much with the quantity of apps (the apps will come) but with the quality. However, we were heartened by what we saw when we checked out some of the available titles.
Many of the apps, such as Twitter, Slacker, and IMDb, have adopted the same type of panoramic interface found in the hubs, so you already get a familiar feel as you're using the apps. They're also quite eye-catching and full-featured. For example, in Fandango, you can watch movie trailers within the app and purchase tickets. Meanwhile, the eBay app allows you to search and buy/bid on items, as well as share links, read descriptions and watch product video.
You can check out more .
Xbox Live wasn't fully functional or live on our Samsung Focus and HTC Surround review units, but once it's officially turned on, you'll be able to personalize your avatar and your gamer's profile and achievements. Of course, you'll get access to , including those from EA Mobile. You'll be able to try all games before buying.
There were a handful of titles available for us to check out, including Twin Blades, Frogger, Star Wars: Battle of Hoth, and Bejeweled--all of which we downloaded over Wi-Fi. A number of the games took a while to load, but once going, the gameplay was smooth and fun. In Twin Blades, a zombie-slashing game, we were able to maneuver easily even on a smaller touch screen, thanks to well-placed controls.
Without knowing what the final experience will be like, it's hard for us to really make a judgment, but the Xbox Live integration could be a key differentiator for Windows Phone 7.
Maps and search
Bing serves as the primary search engine on Windows Phone 7. A press of the phone's search brings up the delightful Bing app into which you can enter your search term either by text or voice. Bing will then display Web results, as well as local and news items for the search term. If you choose local, results are listed based on your current location, and tapping on a listing will bring you to a new page with the address, phone number, link to directions, and (if available) Web site, hours of operation, and reviews.
Turn-by-turn navigation is offered in both vehicle and pedestrian modes as text-based instructions, but there's no option for mass transit or bicycle modes as there is with Google Maps. This probably is fine for a majority of people. However, in cities like New York and San Francisco, it would be nice to have those options, since mass transit and bikes are popular modes of transportation.
Overall, we were quite happy with the navigation experience. The Bing search engine was quick to return results, which were mostly relevant to our searches. Our position on the map was sometimes off by a half block or so, and map redraws definitely took some time. This is one area where we miss Nokia's Ovi Maps. Directions were also accurate, and we liked that Bing showed both a smaller map view and text-based instructions on the same page so you don't have to switch back and forth. You can view each separately, though, and Bing offers traffic data as well as an aerial view.
In mid-May, Microsoft updates its Bing application to bring voice-guided navigation to Windows Mobile devices and the plan is to bring this to Windows Phone 7, but it won't be available at launch.
In terms of search on the phone, Windows Phone 7 sadly does not offer universal search. This would have been a particularly useful feature, since the platform holds so much information. You can search within the People hub, e-mail, and Marketplace, but hopefully Microsoft integrates universal search in the future, so that you can look up an item from any point on the phone.
Some final thoughts
It's absolutely mind-boggling that Windows Phone 7 is missing some very fundamental features, like copy/paste, third-party multitasking, and universal search. In the past, competitors like Apple were lambasted by the public for not having such features, so you'd think Microsoft would take precautions not to repeat such mistakes. We understand some sacrifices had to be made in order to meet the holiday release deadline and that they'll eventually be added in a future update, but these are some pretty key and basic features that we would expect to be included out of the gate.
Criticisms aside, there's a lot we like about Windows Phone 7. The Zune integration is killer, and the core apps are much improved. We also commend Microsoft for being able to acknowledge that its old OS wasn't working and taking a chance on rebuilding something from the ground up. The end result is something fresh, fun, and functional. Some people will cry that it's too little, too late for Microsoft, but should there ever be a time when manufacturers should stop offering customers a choice? That would be a sad, sad day. Microsoft's long road to a comeback won't be an easy one, but at least it's now headed down the right path.