Windows Phone 7 is the latest mobile operating system to hit the scene and it’s hands-down the sexiest smartphone OS out there. WP7 is completely new. The UI is unlike anything you’ve seen elsewhere. Tile animations and transitions are smooth as silk. It’s obvious that Microsoft decided to put an emphasis on the design and eye-appeal of WP7, giving the operating system the kind of design aesthetic that you see in the glossy pages of high-concept magazines or in the halls of design/art schools.
But, does Windows Phone 7’s slick animations, crisp text, and refined style leave room for a high-end operating system that’s capable of going toe-to-toe with the best of what Google and Apple have to offer? Let’s take a look at Windows Phone 7’s features and break down the pros and cons.
What better place to begin than the beginning?
- Responsive UI
- Crisp text and graphics (almost like e-Ink)
- Seamless Facebook integration
- Quick-start camera for capturing fleeting moments
- Uncluttered interface
- Sexy design aesthetic that invokes a high-concept magazine
- Easy Google, Facebook, Windows Live setup
- Did we mention the snazzy, new, eye-candy UI?
- Doesn’t support external storage
- Lack of cut/paste functionality (coming in early 2011)
- No WiFi Mobile Hotspot feature
- Lack of Twitter integration (coming soon)
- Finnicky Google integration
- No unified inbox or threaded email
- Many apps don’t persist in the background
- Most of the OS is optimized for portrait view (landscape orientation isn’t as ubiquitous as we’d like)
There are only three navigation keys that you need to be familiar with. Microsoft has mandated that handset makers must adhere to a strict handset design spec that requires a standardized, three-key layout. You have the “back” key on the left, which navigates, well, backwards. The middle key is the “Start” key, which is similar to the “Home” button on Android and iPhone. The Start key takes you back to you Start Screen (more on that later) and it’s the central point from which you navigate throughout WP7. The right key the “search” key, and it fires up the integrated Bing search app. From this app you can search the web for websites, local businesses, and any news stories that match your search terms.
When you turn the display on, you’re greeted by the lockscreen. You get at-a-glance information on signal strength, WiFi connectivity, Bluetooth connectivity, battery level, time, date, calendar events, and missed calls and pending messages. What’s cool is that you can fire up the camera from the lockscreen, even while the display is turned off, by holding down the dedicated camera shutter button.
You can change your lockscreen wallpaper by going to the “Settings” menu and choosing a new picture to splash up on the lockscreen. You can also setup a lockscreen password for added security.
The best part of the lockscreen is that you can see your pending messages and upcoming calendar events without having to fire up the email or calendar apps. Just turn the screen on and get quick access to your most important information.
Start screen / Homescreen
Slide your finger upwards from the lockscreen and you’re taken to your “Start” screen. This is a completely new homescreen design for Windows Phone 7. The WP7 Start homescreen serves up a variety of “tiles” that you can rearrange to suit your needs. The Start screen tiles give access to everything from basic phone functions to apps to webpages. You can “pin” WP7 apps, contacts, web pages, and even OneNote notes to this Start homescreen – the idea is to give you a single, centralized user interface that allows you to navigate the entire device in a way that minimizes the time it takes for you to dig around and find an app or a favorite photo.
Kinetic scrolling and responsive touch controls are the name of the game here. All windows have kinetic scrolling enabled – allowing you to quickly scroll through a list with a flick of a finger, using the momentum of your flick to scroll through the list. When you reach the end of a list, the icons/tiles/text that you’re scrolling through will “smoosh” up and bounce back, rather than abruptly stopping at the end of the list. It’s a subtle touch that goes a long way in giving the WP7 UI a really refined, high-concept feel.
The topmost four tiles are always set to Phone, People, Messaging, and Email tiles. The next group of four tiles are customized by the handset maker and/or wireless carrier that sold you your WP7 phone. You can rearrange tiles by tapping and holding on a tile and then moving it to the desired location on the homescreen. Tiles do not automatically clean themselves up, which can get a little irritating at times.
Apps / Hubs
The Windows Phone 7 apps that are included with the phone are slim. You get “apps” for basic features, such as camera, phone, calendar, email, Twitter, contacts, text messages, and the like. Beyond that, you’ll need to hit up the Marketplace for more apps. By the time the device launches in stores, you should be greeted by no less than 1,000 apps in Marketplace, with hundreds more apps coming online weekly.
You’ll also see “hubs” as part of the Start screen. Hubs look like most other tiles, but open up in panoramic screens that serve up all kinds of relevant content. The Games hub, for example, aggregates all the Windows Phone 7 games that you download from Marketplace. You can also customize and fiddle with your Xbox Live avatar. The Games hub will even notify you when a friend wants to challenge you to a game or when it’s your turn in an ongoing, turn-based game.
We’d like to see more apps running in the background. Most apps, as of the time of this review, were not built to take advantage of WP7’s APIs which allow them to continue to persist in the background (multitask). Both the iPhone (iOS) and Android phones are capable of running apps in the background (for the most part), so it’s clear that Microsoft has some catching up to do with Windows Phone 7.
Say your hands are tied up but you need to make a phone call or search for a nearby restaurant on your WP7 smartphone. Well, with the voice recognition feature, you can do that with just a few words. From anywhere on your phone, press and hold the Start button to use the Microsoft TellMe speech features in Windows Phone 7. This will let you use your voice to call people, start apps, and search the web. You might want to “Call Steve Ballmer, mobile.” Or maybe you want to “Open Calendar.” If you’re feeling adventurous you can “Find movie theaters” and Bing will do all the legwork for you. Not sure what to say? Just ask the phone, “What can I say?”
The voice recognition service is based on the TellMe technology that Microsoft acquired not too long ago. It works well, but isn’t yet up to par with Google’s voice recognition services. It’s about on par with the iOS voice command feature, which is actually not that bad.
Some of the tiles on your Start screen are known as “Live Tiles.” They’re called that because they’re seemingly “alive” with information. Live Tiles automagically update themselves with information relevant to their function. The People tile will continue to update itself with our friends’ profile pictures, based on the most recent activity on social networks like Facebook. The Calendar tile will update itself with your next calendar event. Email tiles update themselves with the number of unread emails. And so on.
On the surface, Live Tiles might seem a bit gimmicky, but in use, they really are useful. No more digging into apps to update yourself on the most recent happenings. Live Tiles allow you to simply glance at your Start screen and get the info you need.
Marketplace is where you go to buy stuff in Windows Phone 7. You can access the Marketplace through one of the default tiles on your Start screen. From the store, you can browse all manner of WP7 apps, games, and even music. If you see something you like, you can buy it with a couple taps of your finger – and charge it to the credit card that you have linked to your Windows Live account.
Microsoft has assured us that, by launch in November, the Marketplace will boast over 1000 WP7 apps and will continue to add more apps and games at a rate of a hundreds per week following the initial launch. That’s not a huge number, but you can be sure that, by the time you pick up your own Windows Phone, you’ll likely have access to all the apps that you’ll need to get started with the new Microsoft OS and be happy.
You can’t buy videos in the Marketplace from your Windows Phone, which is kind of a bummer. But, remember, the iPhone didn’t launch with a full feature-set either. You can still download videos through Zune on your PC and then transfer the video to your handset via tethered or WiFi sync.
Facebook and Windows Live are the only social networks that are natively integrated into Windows Phone 7. Facebook, Myspace and LinkedIn are connected via Windows Live. Unfortunately, Twitter integration is still in development and will be rolled out through an over-the-air update.
The idea behind Windows Phone 7 is that it puts all your information within easy reach. That includes all your and your friends’ status updates, photo uploads and comments. You can find your own status updates in your Me tile on the Start screen. All your friends’ comments and status updates are available as part of the People tile. There is a Twitter app, but no matter how pretty and clean it looks, we just can’t get over the app’s sluggish performance and lack of background notifications – the app has to be open to deliver messages and tweets. We’re hoping that more apps are allowed to persist in the background with future updates.
The integration of social networks into People (contacts), Me and Pictures is impressive. It takes some getting used to — you’ll have to get used to jumping between People, Me and Pictures to get a clear picture of what’s going on in your network — but it works seamlessly with WP7.
While email doesn’t offer a unified inbox feature,WP7 offers unified contacts. If you have multiple contacts cards for the same person (say you have info in Facebook as well as Google Contacts), you can link both cards to the same contact in Windows Phone 7. That way, you can view a combination of all the information across multiple contact cards in a single view. This makes it handy to aggregate all your contacts’ information in an organized way.
Unfortunately, integration with Google contacts is still a bit lacking. Google contacts that aren’t perfectly formatted for WP7 will fail to show up – phone numbers that are listed as “other” instead of “phone” will not show up in your contacts. This can be frustrating (it was incredibly frustrating for us), but now that you’re armed with this info, you’ll hopefully be less frustrated with WP7 and Google Contacts integration.
The Calendar could have better Google Calendar integration, but that’s just us. For the most part, calendar functions in WP7 work extremely well. And then there’s the visual appeal of a calendar set against a simple, black background. Like everywhere else in Windows Phone 7, calendar text is crisp and almost reminds us of e-Ink.
You can designate meeting attendees through the calendar, and even notify them that you’re running late to a meeting via the “running man” icon in the calendar. And, if you have a scheduling conflict, WP7 Calendar will show you the conflict and give you all your meeting details to help you decide how to resolve the conflict.
Like we mention above, Google Calendar support could be better (try sharing calendars between friends and getting them to show up in WP7 – we should note that iOS can’t do this either). Google services are best left to Android devices, for obvious reasons. Still, you can add basic calendars from Google, Windows Live and even Outlook and have them all show up seamlessly in WP7.
In the end, Windows Phone 7 gets bonus points for a visually stunning and well thought-out calendar, but takes a hit for its lack of Google Calendar support.
The Pictures hub is where you go to browse and manage your photos. Makes sense right? Thanks to the panoramic hub, Pictures are mostly presented in an intuitive and convenient fashion. Pictures that you upload to Facebook are all automatically pulled into the Pictures hub. Even cooler, pictures that your friends upload to their Facebook accounts are also automatically pulled into the Pictures hub. This is where the seamless Facebook integration comes into play. We like it.
You can also access photos that you upload to your Windows Live account, SkyDrive, and even your profile pictures from Facebook. One thing that we had a hard time wrapping our collective heads around was the convoluted organization structure. Photos can be grouped into “Mobile photos from Windows Live” as well as “SkyDrive camera roll from Windows Live”. Microsoft is good at creating confusing organization structures, and Windows Live reinforces that fact. We’re still not sure why SkyDrive is branded separately from Windows Live. Full disclosure: we’re Mac users.
We like the fact that the camera fires up even while the screen is locked. That’s a really handy little feature that helps you capture those fleeting moments in life. Simply hold down the camera shutter button as you take the phone out of your pocket or purse and, with a little luck, the camera should be ready for action by the time you are ready to frame your shot. You can choose to have photos that you take automatically uploaded to the cloud and synced with your SkyDrive. We really like the automatic cloud syncing capabilities of WP7, even if it is still a little rough around the edges.
The Live Viewfinder also makes it easy to preview pictures that you just captured. Simply swipe your finger to the right on the camera viewfinder and you can swipe through previously captured photos with abandon. On iPhone or Android, you have to tap the “preview photo” icon to check out your past pics. That’s what WP7 is all about – easy navigation and incredible eye-appeal.
Music and Videos
Zune integration. That’s the key to the music and video experience on WP7. The idea behind the Music+Video hub is that it serves as a central hub from which you can access all your media. If you have a subscription to Microsoft’s all-you-can-eat music streaming service, Zune Pass, WP7 is the smartphone OS for you. You can stream music to your heart’s content, and all you have to do is sign in to Windows Phone with your Windows Live account.
What? You don’t have Zune Pass? Worry not, you can still transfer music (including playlists) from your computer to your Windows Phone using the Zune client/application on a PC or the Windows Phone Connector for Mac. You can also buy songs on the Zune Marketplace from either your phone or your PC (using a credit card that you link to your Windows Live account). Unfortunately Macs do not get this feature. Macs can only sync songs and photos to a Windows Phone at this point.
You can play videos through your the phone’s Zune Player app. These videos have to be transferred to from a computer. You can’t buy videos in the Marketplace using your phone. If you want to buy videos for your phone, you’ll have to buy them using your desktop and sync it to your phone.
The media player is capable of playing a variety of file types: .mp3, .m4a (aac), .wma, .mp4, .m4v, .wmv, and .jpg formats are compatible with the media player. Videos play almost instantly, with little waiting for playback to begin. The controls are simple. Simply tap on the screen to bring up playback controls (play, rewind, fast forward). Unfortunately, the lack of a scrubbing bar makes it tedious to skip to the end of a long movie. That’s a small con for WP7.
Just as Zune Pass is tightly integrated into WP7, Xbox Live is also integrated into the platform. From the Games hub, you can access all sorts of online games, downloaded games, check on game requests from friends that want to play with you in an online battle of wits, and even keep tabs on your Xbox Live account. All you have to do is login to your Windows Phone with the Windows Live ID that you linked to your Xbox Live account, and you’ll have full access to your avatar, your props, and full closet access.
With a free download, you can enable all sorts of Xbox Live features on your Windows Phone. You can see what your XBL friends are doing on their phones, PC or consoles, and even message them via XBL text messages. You can also brag about your achievements to anyone on your Friends list.
The Games hub is also where all your downloaded games will automatically be stored. When you purchase a game from the Marketplace, you won’t see the game in your Apps List. The game will save itself to your Games hub, where you can go to not only play your downloaded games, but also discover new games for download. The hub will also notify you of any game requests from friends that are waiting for you to play with them or when it’s your turn to make a move.
Search in Windows Phone 7 is context aware – meaning that it will search through different media depending on the task at hand. There are two levels of “search” in WP7. You can choose to search the web for content related to your search terms, or you can search within an app. Tap the hardware “Search” button from the homescreen and you can search the web for relevant websites, local businesses, and even news related to your search term. In apps with a search field, a single tap on the hardware search button will allow you to search for words in the app. A second tap on the hardware search button allows you to search the web, as you would from the homescreen.
The Bing Search tool will return search results for web hits, local businesses, and even news hits. If you search for “sushi,” Bing will show you web results for “sushi,” local businesses that serve sushi or are related to sushi in some way, and will even give you news on sushi. If you choose to dig into a local sushi-related business, Bing will serve up business ratings, phone numbers, websites, hours of operation, and even reviews and nearby businesses. That’s what we call comprehensive search.
Windows Phone 7 will also allow you to look up the definition to a word in a document. Simply tap a target word to highlight it and then tap the hardware search button. WP7 will automatically start searching the web for any results relevant to your highlighted word. It’s a small feature, but surprisingly useful for increasing your vocabulary.
Overall, search is done really well on Windows Phone 7. We’d like to be able to cut-and-paste search terms into the search box, but seeing as how the feature will hit WP7 in early 2011, we’ll give search a solid two thumbs up.
Email is as good as anything that iPhone or Android can offer. You get full HTML email support, which means you can view emails with fancy-schmancy formatting and embedded images (you have to allow the email client to download images, thought – a spam consideration). Emails can be updated at regular intervals or pushed to your phone as they come in. And, emails are integrated into Live Tiles that sit on your Start screen and automatically update themselves with your inbox’s unread email count.
If you get an email with an address or phone number within, WP7 will recognize the data and highlight it for you. Clicking (tapping) on the highlighted data will automatically take you to the phone to call the number or Bing Maps to show you where the address is on a map. In early 2011, copy/paste will be rolled out to Windows Phone 7, allowing you to do whatever you want with phone numbers and addresses, but, for the time being, the email client handles this kind of data well. That is, unless the address or phone number is formatted strangely or is surrounded by various numbers – in which case, WP7 will freak out and fail to dial the correct number or pull up the correct address (this shouldn’t happen too often).
Unlike the iPhone, you can actually attach images to an email from within the email client. With iPhone, if you finish writing an email and decide that you want to attach a photo, you have to copy the text, trash your current email, go to your photo, share it via email, and then paste the text back into the email. With WP7, all you have to do is click the “attach” icon at the bottom of the screen and you can choose the picture(s) you’d like to attach.
If you need a unified inbox, WP7 isn’t going to satisfy you at the moment. There is no unified inbox. Microsoft may or may not roll out an update (we’re leaning towards “may”) down the line that enables unified inbox for the email client in Windows Phone 7, so keep that in mind. You also don’t get threaded email views, which is a big deal for us.
Email on Windows Phone 7 is good. It’s better than anything iPhone or Android had to offer in their early days, and is almost as good as anything they have to offer today. In some ways, email on WP7 is better than iPhone today. That’s saying a lot.
You don’t get turn-by-turn GPS navigation, but you do get what we believe is the most polished maps experience on any smartphone. With a fast enough data connection, maps fade into view in an organic way. Map data appears on the screen as if being uncovered by clouds, in contrast to the cold map tiles that Google Maps tends to load. This is especially evident when zooming into a portion of the map – it just feels smoother and less jarring than on iPhone or Android
You can choose from aerial or map view in Bing Maps. We prefer the Maps view, but if you like the “satellite view” look, then you’ll want to opt for aerial view. On top of the that, you can overlay traffic data on the map, showing you where the worst traffic is where you’ll find free-flowing routes.
Bing Maps is also integrated into search. Tap on a “Local” search result and you’ll be whisked away to Bing Maps, showing you exactly where a particular business or address is located. You can then tap on the address flag to get more details on the location: business ratings, phone number, website, hours of operation. Swipe left on this screen to read individual reviews on the business. Swipe left again to see what’s nearby.
Addresses embedded in emails and text messages will automatically link to Bing Maps. Most of the time, you just click on the underlined address and you’ll be taken to the maps app. Sometimes, though, if the address is surrounded by numbers or just formatted in a non-standard fashion, WP7 will fail to recognize the address correctly. This is one instance where the lack of cut-and-paste comes in to play its nasty tricks.
Bing Maps is the new gold standard for smartphone mapping. It’s lacking some features — like public transit directions and turn-by-turn GPS guidance — but it’s mostly an incredible experience.
With Windows Phone 7 in hand, you don’t have to worry about dealing with Internet Explorer web browsers of days past. We’ll avoid commenting on the desktop version of Internet Explorer, because, well, that’s just going to get us all worked up. Instead, we’ll focus on the Internet Explorer Mobile experience — some of you may know the mobile web browser as Pocket Internet Explorer (PIE) — and how it’s grown up in WP7.
Gone are the days when Internet Explorer Mobile for Windows Mobile forced you to use a stylus in order to navigate efficiently around the clunky interface. The new Internet Explorer Mobile for Windows Phone 7 is swipe-tastically optimized for touch inputs. It shares DNA with the desktop version of Internet Explorer 7 and Internet Explorer 8. It handles HTML5 without problem and serves up the same crisp, sub-pixel rendered text that makes the rest of WP7 look so good. In short, IE Mobile in WP7 is light years improved from what you may have known from the Windows Mobile days.
The browser will support tabbed browsing for up to 6 different windows at the same time. Unfortunately, we weren’t really able to browse more than a couple tabs at the same time. Loading multiple webpages concurrently can be hard on system resources, and it seemed as if WP7 had trouble keeping more than a couple tabs loaded at the same time. We sometimes had to wait for pages to reload after browsing other tabs. It’s not a huge concern, but is irritating enough to mention.
Another irritating aspect of the web browser is the the inability to pull up the URL bar when in landscape orientation. The browser works just fine and dandy in portrait view, but if you turn the phone sideways for a widescreen view, you can’t access the URL bar.
On the upside, pages will load in the background as you fire up a new tab and start browsing another website. This is a critical feature, and is one of the few instances where processes continue in the background. Windows Phone 7 doesn’t really multi-task – some apps will work in the background (like the FM Radio, Pandora, webpages loading in the browser), but most will simply close themselves down upon returning to the Start screen.
IE Mobile, in the end, is pretty much on par with the iPhone and Android web browsers. It may need a little more polish, but the current state of IE Mobile is good. Not the best, but good enough.
Is Windows Phone 7 more than just a pretty face?
Let’s start off with the obvious. Windows Phone 7 is the sexiest smartphone OS that we’ve yet seen. It’s super model sexy. It’s got that undercover hotness factor that belies the elegance and poise of its design aesthetic. Hands-down, WP7 will give iPhone and webOS a serious run for its money, as far as looks are concerned. But, does Windows Phone 7 have what it takes to be more than just a pretty face?
That answer depends on how you plan to use your smartphone. For most people, WP7 will be a fantastic alternative to iPhone and Android. You can sync all your emails (with full HTML compatibility) and let you know when you have unread email sitting in your inbox. You can browse the full web with the kind of multi-touch pinch-zooming interaction that iPhone, Android and webOS users have been enjoying for years. You get quick, easy access to information from your social networks. You can use the Microsoft Office hub to do some serious work done. You’ll enjoy a new UI that is a fresh departure from the app-based iPhone and Android UIs – flat, artsy tiles and incredibly crisp text. And, to top it all off, you get unrivaled integration with Xbox Live and your Zune Pass.
But, here’s the kicker, if you’re the kind of power user that needs apps like Twitter to continue running in the background, relies heavily on Google services (Google Calendar, Google Contacts), and can’t do without a unified inbox, WP7 may not be for you. For those of you that fall into this group, make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.
For most people, Windows Phone 7 will be way more than a pretty face, it’s a fully competent and compelling smartphone platform. It’s good stuff, and it doesn’t hurt that the UI is fresh and new.
*note: cut-and-paste functionality will be enabled in WP7 with an update in early 2011
Make sure to check out all our Windows Phone 7 reviews and hands-on coverage:
REVIEW: AT&T HTC Surround – Does this Windows Phone 7 handset rock?
REVIEW: AT&T Samsung Focus Windows Phone – Super AMOLED and WP7
Hands-on the HTC Mozart Windows Phone 7 handset – Aluminum unibody and WP7
Hands-on with the HTC HD7 Windows Phone 7 smartphone – Big screen and WP7 goodness
Hands On with the LG Quantum with Windows Phone 7
Hands-On: LG Optimus 7 – PlayTo App Allows for Mobile Streaming
Hands-on Samsung Focus Windows Phone 7 smartphone – Super AMOLED and WP7
Hands-on: HTC Surround Windows Phone 7 handset – Dolby surround sound for WP7
Hands-on the HTC 7 Trophy Windows Phone 7 smartphone – An affordable WP7 phone