Ginormous, Humongous, Monster, Out Of This World Windows Phone 7 Review!
Alright folks… put your feet up on the desk, get comfy with your computer or device and grab your beverage and comfort food of choice, cause this is going to be a long one. This is the longest post I’ve ever made, so hopefully someone out there finds it of use.
Starting in early 2010, as my wife Stephanie got more and more excited at the prospect of potentially getting an iPhone, I found myself debating whether I would actually end up getting a smart phone at all.
Now, for those of you that know me, you know that I’m a giant tech and gadget geek, so why *wouldn’t* I want to pick up a new toy?
Well, I couldn’t see myself needing a device to do everything that I can do at home on my laptop. I wasn’t really into texting, as I prefer email, or you know (SHOCKER), actually picking up a phone and calling someone. I didn’t see myself answering email on a phone, since I can be rather verbose (have you READ some of these blog posts?!?), and I’m not really addicted to social media web sites like Twitter and Facebook to the point where I needed to be on them all day, so I wasn’t really interested in being on them on my phone as well.
But I could play games on my phone, right? Well, Steph and I both have iPods, along with a ton of games already purchased from the iTunes store. The game playing time I did have was already consumed by Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, Uno, and Scrabble. I wasn’t sure I wanted to justify an iPhone just to add phone and location features to an iPod or purchase those games again if I went to a different platform, if they were even available.
All that, combined with the fact that I already had a cell phone provided by my job which was more than good enough for the small group of people that I call locally on a regular basis, and I was asking myself if I needed to even bother getting my own phone. That would mean adding another monthly bill with an expense that would be just frivolous, as well as needing to carry a second device everywhere I went.
So, all that together left me deciding that I really didn’t need a smart phone of my own, as much as I’d enjoy a brand new shiny toy.
That all changed in the summer of 2010 when we took a trip to Toronto, Ontario, and we crammed a TON of sight-seeing into three-and-a-half days. We saw the Toronto Zoo, TransformersCon, The Royal Ontario Museum, the Hockey Hall of Fame, many restaurants and spent time with friends, but it was at the observation deck of the CN Tower as we looked out over the city and Lake Ontario at the amazing view when I turned to Steph and said “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could take a picture of this and tweet it out or post it on Facebook? We could do that in real time!”
Right then, I knew I needed a smart phone. And so, then hunt began.
At that point, I was pretty much ready to buy an iPhone, just by default, but I was going to start looking at the Android platform as well. However, at that time, I’d been listening to Leo Laporte on the TWiT Network, and the Windows Weekly podcast with Leo and Paul Thurott had quickly become my favorite.
On that show, Leo and Paul had begun discussing Paul’s upcoming book, Windows Phone 7 Secrets, about the upcoming new mobile platform, Windows Phone 7, to be launched by Microsoft in November of that year.
So now I was in a conundrum. What would it be? iPhone? Android? Or Windows Phone 7?
I was in no rush to decide, so I took my time. My sweet, sweet, time. In fact, I took SO long to figure out what was going on, there was stuff in the back of my refrigerator that actually grew legs, walked out, and set up a tent on the front lawn under the sun and started mocking me for failing to come to a decision.
I took to the interwebs to begin my research, and over the next while, I quickly eliminated Android from the equation. Hearing word about how the Android user base was fragmented due to the cell phone carriers controlling OS updates, leaving groups of users all with different versions of the OS, combined with a rash of security issues coming to light turned me off of Android.
So, I was left with a choice between iPhone or Windows Phone 7.
I was very familiar with most of iPhone’s abilities; having a newest-generation iPod gave me exposure to all the application, gaming, iTunes, media playing, and network capabilites over WiFi that I just needed to brush up on the iPhone’s phone features as well as the GPS and any other abilities. Back to the internet I went to accomplish just that. I was really excited about both Stephanie and I having an iPhone to Facetime chat with each other.
Following my iPhone research, it was time to focus on Windows Phone 7. Microsoft promised an entirely brand new interface and a very customer-focused experience with this new device. And, being the Microsoft fanboy that I am, I was immediately intrigued. I spent a lot of time researching the user interface of Windows Phone 7 as well as all of it’s features, and considering the title of this blog post, I’m guessing you can tell which way I went. It was a difficult decision, but I ultimately decided to try something new.
So, here it is, my review of Windows Phone 7. Sorry for being so wordy in getting here, but sometimes I just like to hear myself (see myself?) type.
This won’t be an incredibly in-depth review of every single screen available on the phone. People have done that already, and I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but I’ll try and touch on the major features and reasons why I chose this phone. I’ll also point out places where I think improvements can be made. For a much more in-depth review and how-to on the phone and the OS, I highly recommend Paul Thurrott’s book on the subject, Windows Phone 7 Secrets.
BEFORE GETTING STARTED
Now that I’ve read all that I’ve read about Windows Phone 7 and used the phone for a few months, I *strongly* recommend setting up a Windows Live ID for all the application/online integration that goes on with WP7. Trust me, you’ll have a much better WP7 experience if you do so. You can use your existing email address.
At the time I bought the phone, there were three Windows Phone 7 devices available. I chose the Samsung Focus (SGH-I917). I chose the phone for its (sexy!) curved design rather than the rectangular offerings of other devices, it’s tremendous Super AMOLED screen, high quality camera, HD video, and relatively thin form factor and light weight.
I won’t type out everything about the phone (this post is about the Windows Phone OS), but you can find full details on the phone here.
I will mention the buttons and controls on the phone: the Back button, Start button, and Bing button, volume controls, lock/power button, and the camera button, as these are specs that each and every Windows Phone 7 device must ship with, and are integral to the operation of the phone. Keep in mind that when I talk about button location, I’m talking about my phone, the Samsung Focus.
The Back button is fairly descriptive; it takes you back to the previous screen you were just on. You don’t need to launch an app, close it, go back to the home screen, launch another app, close it, go back, and so forth. With the Back button, you can launch an app, *leave it open*, go back, launch another app, leave IT open, and then do the same with a third app (or continue on with as many as your phone can handle) and then use the back button to cycle through each and every screen you’ve just been through. It’s so much quicker and more convenient than opening and closing each and every app you want to use.
The Start button is also very self-descriptive. Push it to return to the Windows Phone 7 Start screen and your live tiles.
Think of the Bing button as context-sensitive search. From the Start screen, the Bing button takes you to web and news search. From the Marketplace, the Bing button will launch an Apps and Games search. From the People hub (more on hubs later), the Bing button will search your contacts.
There’s also a controversial subject amongst WP7 users and hardware: SD cards. I personally don’t have an issue with this implementation, but new users, please make sure you’re educated on this before you make your decision.
Normally, standard- and micro-SD cards are hot-swappable; you can put a card in a device (or connect to your computer) copy items to or from the card, and then remove the card to be put back in the device or used later. Not so with WP7. SD cards are used like *permanent* storage. When a card is added, it’s not like for temporary usage like you would a card from a digital camera. Adding a card is like adding a new hard drive to your computer; the phone recognizes the card, and then *resets* itself to reformat both its internal memory AND the micro-SD card into ONE contained file system. To remove the card, the phone must be reset again to just use the internal memory.
Volume Controls: The volume controls are set near the top of the phone on the left side of the device (as you’re looking at the screen). They are what you’d expect, up and down buttons to control the volume for your ringtone, during a call, or while playing a game or using an application.
Lock/Power Button: The top right side of the phone (again, as you’re looking at the screen) is where the Lock/Power button is. You can hold the button down for three seconds to turn the phone on or off, or while the phone is operational you can press the button once and release to activate the lock screen and lock the phone.
Camera Button: I’ll detail the camera later on, but the Camera button is at the lower right side of the device. During normal phone operation, pressing the camera button once will activate the camera, and when the camera is in use, a single press will take a picture, or you can hold the button down to focus the field of view before a full press takes the picture. In video camera mode, a single press will start or stop your video recording.
Hardware Grade: 8.5 out of 10. The Focus is an outstanding phone. I love it. I can’t wait until I can find a proper 32GB micro-SD card to load in the phone (for a total of 40GB of storage); that will make my 32GB iPod all but obsolete, except for the times when I want to play a game that doesn’t yet have a WP7 version. I don’t mind the limitation of adding micro-SD cards, as I know what I’m getting into going in, but I can see where some early adopters and those that don’t read everything could have been blindsided.
A minor gripe I have is because the screen is so smooth and well-put-together and so flush with the chassis, when I’m playing a game like Fruit Ninja or Air Hockey and I’m swiping all over the place sometimes I’ll go too far and hit one of the three main buttons, interrupting my game. But that’s more my own shortcoming than the phone, although I wouldn’t mind seeing some kind of tactile indicator here to prevent that or at least warn me that I’m about to interrupt my experience.
Another thing is that volume controls appear to be inconsistent across phone operations and in using apps and playing games. For example, when I play a game, games always appear to be LOUD. Even at ‘1’, a game’s sound is VERY noticeable. 30 is downright insane and rivals that of an extremely loud TV, whereas when using the phone as a *phone*, the volume controls seem to work as expected.
The one big suggestion I have, is I wish there were dual cameras a la the iPhone, for those moments where you need to take a picture of yourself with your arm around the Hooters girl, or finding yourself with a tatoo on your face after an especially eventful night out on the town.
THE START SCREEN AND LOCK SCREEN
Now, on to the meat of this post, the operating system.
Dubbed ‘Metro’, the OS and UI was designed to be something different from its competitors.
Upon startup (like every other smart phone these days, your phone doesn’t just “turn on”. It boots up. It is a computer now, after all. Just be careful of the day it becomes self-aware and SkyNet is born) you don’t get the familiar grid of icons from the other platforms. Well, you kinda do, but even then, it’s different. It’s not a tight grid of small icons. Instead of applications, games, and tools that you need to scroll sideways through several pages to get to them all, the Windows Phone 7 Start Screen provides a verticaly scrolling system of tiles. Most tiles are square, placed two-by-two down the length of the screen and beyond, but some tiles designed to display more information are two-wide and take up an entire row.
So, if you’re still getting a grid-like interface, what’s the difference, you ask? These aren’t just icons. These items are called “Live Tiles”, and they do more than just show the name of the application represented by the icon. These larger live tiles also represent an application (or other things, as I’ll get to shortly), but they also display real-time information.
The tiles are re-arrangeable; you can move around and organize the tiles into your preferred locations. There’s no limit to the number of tiles you can have on your home screen. As I mentioned, the purpose of these tiles is not just to represent an application and give you something to tap on and launch an application; they are there to provide real-time information.
The Phone tile notifies you if you have missed calls, telling you how many with a number on the tile. The Messaging tile advises you if you’ve received any text messages since the last time you were in the messaging application. The Me tile animates with your profile avatar and most recent Facebook status update. The People tile animates with small icons of those friends that are active on Facebook. The double-wide Calendar tile displays the current date, as well as the title and time of your next upcoming appointment (within the next 24 hours). The XBOX Live tile animates with your XBL Avatar. The Outlook tile will let you know how many emails you have waiting for you. The Marketplace tile will tell you if any of your installed apps have updates.
The Start Screen is truly designed to be glance-and-go. You grab the phone, glance at it to see if there’s anything happening, and then go. No more walking around with your head down and face buried in your phone, like all the undead zombies that shuffle around offices and streets alike with their faces glued to their devices!
The Start Screen is also highly customizable. You can re-order tiles on the screen to your liking, and you can also pin anything to the Start Screen for faster access. Whether it’s a document, a web page, or a specific contact or favorite picture, song, or video, you can pin it to the Start screen for more convenient access.
For those less-used apps that you don’t want on your Start screen, the full list of applications you have installed on your phone is available from the right arrow at the top right of the screen.
Third-party apps also provide information through their own live tiles on the Start screen. For example, the Weather Network app displays the current temperature along with your location. Other applications have their own abilities to provide their own information.
The Start screen is also customizable with different themes. Check your phone’s settings to select a different base color for the tiles on the Start screen. Some applications will always retain their tile colors, but the base OS tiles will change with the theme you select.
The Lock screen is the screen that is displayed when your phone is locked, or when then phone screen is off and you push the button the side of the phone to wake it. On Windows Phone 7, the default display is a picture from the sample picture library, but this is fully customizable, so it’s easy to view the picture from the front row of the Gentleman’s Club or that picture of the mountains you took on your last vacation.
The Lock screen also displays the time and date, as well as any outstanding notifications from your Home screen; phone calls, messaging, email, and upcoming calendar items. This is an even quicker first glance at your phone and see if there’s any items to attend to, and is an excellent feature as compared to other phones where you need to unlock your phone, and then find the relevant application to get the information. On WP7, it’s all right there with one button push.
Start Screen Grade: 10 out of 10. I love the new Metro interface. While it’s still technically a grid, it’s a departure from the norm, and the Live Tile implementation is awesome. It looks great and functions just as well. This is exactly what I wanted from a smart phone; the ability to just look at my phone and see if anything requires attention without having to drill down into several different applications in different places. The Start screen is also highly customizable, which goes a long way to setting up your phone the way you want it.
WP7 AS A PHONE
As much as WP7 can do, it is still a cell phone. It even has the word in the name of the phone. Windows *Phone* 7.
Pressing the Phone tile on the Start screen takes you to the Phone (duh). The first screen you see is your avaiable Call History (if you’ve made calls or not deleted everything) where you can manage your entries (delete them, or save numbers as contacts) as well as three buttons along the bottom of the screen to access voice mail, bring up the keypad to make a call, or find a contact to make a call to.
Once you’ve chosen the task to perform and you’re making a call, either to a person or voice mail, the screen changes to show the number you’re dialing at the top of the screen, along with buttons to end the call, bring up the keypad, or access more features; Speaker, Mute, Hold, or Add Call to make your current call a conference call with multiple people. If you’re calling a contact, that contact’s name will show across the top of the screen, and you can tap to access that contact’s information.
WP7 As A Phone Grade: 9 out of 10. Smart phones as a cell phone is less and less of a priority these days as manufacturers and carriers emphasize texting, email, and social networking, but WP7 and the Samsung Focus (along with a reliable carrier) delivers outstanding call quality and plenty of ways to interact with the phone and it’s information. Well done. My only gripe is that (as of right now) WP7 does not support customizing the ring tone, something that helps to make one’s phone truly unique. And we all know I’m just aching to get Stan Bush’s “The Touch” as my ringtone.
The smiley face in the speech bubble on the Start screen is the Messaging tile, and tapping that takes you to your text messaging home, your Conversations screen. This screen shows a list of all the text messaging conversations you have on your phone, which you can manage, as well as a button to start a new conversation.
Once in a conversation, it appears as a series of speech bubbles; your friends’ part of the conversation is on the left, and yours is on the right. The speech bubbles will change color according to the selected theme color of your phone. While you’re in a conversation, you have a text entry bubble at the bottom of the screen, along with buttons to send the message or make an attachment. While this is pretty straightforward, the big deal about text messaging (and really, anything on the phone requiring text input from you) is the context-sensitive adaptive keyboard, and the awesome spell-checking/corrections/suggestions engine that WP7 employs.
I won’t get deep into the guts of text suggestion/correction, as we’ve all seen it and know what it does; as you type, WP7 suggests words you can tap on to complete the word, allowing you to input text faster. I’ve found this engine to be far superior to any other mobile OS I’ve checked out, including both Android and iPhone, *especially* the iPhone. We’ve all heard of (and even seen) some of the boo-boos that iOS makes while correcting spelling, but I’ve found WP7 to be virtually flawless. The only time WP7 cannot correctly suggest a word or correct one I’m typing is when my fat fingers are thinking with a brain of their own and dressing a hot dog rather than focusing on typing a word and come up with something so completely off-base and obscure that even *I* don’t know what I’m trying to say. If I’m anywhere even remotely close, WP7 has always suggested a series of relevant words, or properly corrected a wrong one that I’m typing.
Text Messaging Grade: 9 out of 10. While I suppose there’s only so much that can be done with a text conversation UI, WP7’s doesn’t blow me away, but is very solid. The adaptive touch keyboard and outstanding text correction/suggestion engine really gives the messaging functionality high marks.
Which brings me to:
TEXT ENTRY/USER INPUT
As mentioned in the text messaging section, WP7 has an adaptive keyboard. This means that the keyboard will change depending on the application you are currently using. If you are using text messaging, the keyboard initializes with a standard QWERTY layout along with a dedicated emoticon button. There are also buttons to access pages with symbols and numbers. Switch over to Internet Explorer, and the emoticon button is replaced with a ‘.com’ and ‘.’ buttons to assist in quickly entering web site addresses. Switch again into email, and the keyboard adds an ‘@’ symbol to help enter email addresses. All this is geared to assist the user in inputting what they need as efficiently as possible.
WP7 also supports copy and paste. You can select entered text with your finger and then tap the copy button, and switch to a different text entry area and hit paste to avoid typing again.
Text entry/user input grade: 9 out of 10. The adaptive keyboard is an excellent feature, but I think WP7 can go just a little farther with some tweaks to make it perfect. In Internet Explorer, I would definitely like to see a button with ‘http://’ on it to assist when entering addresses (I know it’s not required, but to some users it’s habit and they don’t know any better), and pressing and holding that button would switch it to ‘https://’ for secure pages. In the text messaging application, a page of keys with popular text shorthand (OMG, txt, LMAO, etc) would be a welcome addition.
In addition to regular applications, WP7 provides some of those presented as Hubs. Hubs are applications that feature multiple screens accessed by swiping, rather than one static presentation screen. Once in the Hub, you can swipe to the left and right to access more screens of information, rather than just one static screen. There’s no real grade to provide on this, but it’s a neat feature that’s integrated into certain applications, which I’ll get into further on, beginning with the…
WINDOWS PHONE 7 PEOPLE HUB
The People Hub on WP7, to me, is the bread and butter of Windows Phone 7. This is my favorite part of the WP7 implementation, and one that I demo to everyone that wants to look at my phone. It never fails to blow them away. Tapping the People tile on the Start screen takes you to the People Hub, the area where you manage all your contacts, AND their *various* forms of contact and communication with you.
On other devices I’ve seen, you need to go into your email app to email someone. Then you need to close that and launch the Facebook app if you want to write on their FB wall. If I want their phone number and call them, I have to close FB and then go into my Contacts app and dig up their phone number.
Not in Windows Phone 7.
The People Hub offers a page with a listing of your contacts, along with their avatars or profile pictures. Swipe to the left, and you get everyone’s Facebook status updates in the “What’s New” section. Swipe again, and you’re taken to a grid of the most recent updated contacts.
First off, WP7 will integrate with major online email providers (think Hotmail and Gmail), as well as Facebook to import all your contacts to get you started. You can also manually create a contact and enter all their information in. It helps if you’ve registered an email address as your Windows Live ID, and then use that address to sign into all your external services, so that way, it’s all easily integrated into the WP7 experience.
For example, I use my Hotmail address for Microsoft Hotmail (duh again) and Facebook. That way, when WP7 imports contacts from both sources, it recognizes that and *merges* all your contacts into one, so you can access ALL your information about a contact from one spot. And once you have all your available information entered for your contact, your People Hub becomes your one-stop-shop for ALL ways to interact with that contact.
From a single contact on WP7, I can see their latest Facebook status update, I can call or text their cell phone, call their home or business phone, write on their Facebook wall, email each and every one of their email addresses (if they have multiples), map their home address with Bing Maps, see their business information; everything you have on the contact is displayed in a single place. You don’t have to go to all these different applications to interact with different pieces of information; in WP7, it’s all in one convenient location. It makes stalking SO much easier. (I’m TOTALLY kidding!)
People Hub grade: 9 out of 10. The only place WP7 loses marks here is I would like to see Twitter integrated into the People hub. Otherwise, the people hub is perfect.
PICTURES ON WINDOWS PHONE 7
Windows Phone 7 features a high quality camera; 5 megapixels, with all kinds of shooting options, like white balance, flash, contrast, ISO, zoom, etc. All WP7 devices feature a dedicated camera button, which features something that no other phone has that I know of; the ability to hold down the camera button and bring the phone out of a lock state and directly into shooting mode in just a couple seconds. This is GREAT for those times when you need to take a picture quickly and capture the moment, instead of needing to go through the arduous process of unlocking your phone, and then needing to find your camera app and waiting while it launches. This is a HUGE feature and that earns some kudos from me.
Again, I won’t go through each and every function of the camera and video camera, but I’ll just say the camera shoots very high-quality pictures up to 5 megapixels. The camera app also does video, capturing motion in HD in 720p. The video camera also has it’s own suite of options, and does so in high quality as well. You can swipe back and forth from the live shot to stored pictures and video on your phone, and those pictures can be managed from that point as well.
Once taken, pictures can then immediately be shared, through email, text messaging, uploaded to Facebook, or stored on Microsoft SkyDrive for online access.
Pictures also has it’s own live tile on the Start screen for quick access and not having to go through the camera to get to them. The tile can be customized with one of your pictures as the tile background.
Pictures/ Camera/Video Camera Grade: 7.5 out of 10. While both the still and video cameras shoot in very high quality and the wake from lock feature is awesome, what really bugs me about the cameras in WP7 is that once you’ve opened the camera app and spent a lot of time playing with the options to get the perfect shot, those setting changes are LOST once the camera application is closed. You’ll have to reset all over again next time you want to take a shot, even if it means all you’ve done is turn off the flash. You’ll have to disable the flash again next time you open the camera application. This is a huge gap that needs to be addressed. Video also cannot be shared in near-real time to Facebook, text, or email like pictures can. I’d love to be able to shoot a video and then immediately upload it to Facebook or send it to a friend.
XBOX LIVE INTEGRATION
One of the big features and drawing power of Windows Phone 7 is it’s tight integration with Microsoft’s XBOX Live gaming service. Ensure you use the same login ID (there’s that Windows Live ID thing!) for your phone on Windows Live that you do for your XBOX Live, and enjoy XBOX gaming on your phone. That ensures you’ll use the same XBOX Live profile on your phone as you do on your console.
Note: You CAN use seperate ID’s, but it’s highly recommended to use the same one for the tightest integration and best experience.
With games on XBOX Live (called XBL hereafter) on WP7, your XBL tile on the Start screen shows your XBL avatar right on your phone. Tapping the tile takes you to the Games Hub and your games collection. From here, you can launch a game, download new games, see recommended titles, and a brief profile with your avatar. Tapping your avatar takes you to the full XBL mobile experience. You can see your profile, gamerscore, acheivements, manage your friends and see if they’re online, and exchange messages. Work has never been less productive.
As you play games, you earn gamerscore on your phone, which is updated to XBL, and is then available on your console. Your profile moves and lives with you between devices. For example, I can play Full House Poker on my WP7 phone, and the XP I earn there translates to better positions when I play tournaments on my console. Any gamerscore I receive in any game by completing acheivements is updated online and shows up when I log into my console. This is a tremendous feature and really creates a true XBOX (or Microsoft) ecosystem across devices.
XBOX Live Integration grade: 9 out of 10. About the only thing I could possibly wish for is to be able to start playing a game on my phone, save it, and then come to my console and pick up where I left off on my phone (and vice-versa).
EMAIL ON WINDOWS PHONE 7
It wouldn’t be a smart phone if email weren’t available, and WP7 provides all kinds of email support. WP7 features native support for Microsoft Hotmail, Google’s Gmail, as well as Microsoft Outlook. All three applications get their own live tiles on the phone’s Start screen, and it’s simple to set up an account using the phone’s settings (settings -> email and accounts). You can also add email from any email account with POP access, so you can add your ISP’s email account and get that email on your phone. Both the Hotmail and Gmail applications allow you to read, compose and send (complete with adaptive keyboard setings), reply, and forward email, just like you would from any desktop or web email client, and there’s also folder support for organizing your messages.
I have not used Microsoft Outlook on WP7, as it appears as though Outlook will only connect to a Microsoft Exchange server (for corporate email). That’s a shame, since Microsoft touted WP7 as a consumer-focused device. I’d like to use Outlook as a way to consolidate my accounts into one application, and that seems like that’s what WP7 is all about; getting as much information as efficiently and easily as possible.
Email grade: 8.5 out of 10. While the regular email applications are quite sufficient and up to the task, WP7 currently lacks a solution to consolidate all your email in one location, and loses further marks for making Outlook an enterprise-only solution.
MICROSOFT OFFICE INTEGRATION
Microsoft Office has its own tile on the WP7 Start screen, and tapping it takes you to the Office Hub where you have access to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.
OneNote: I had never previously used OneNote on my desktop; I didn’t see the need to run a dedicated Office application to jot down notes when I could more easily run Notepad and get the job done faster. That being said, I’ve actually found the mobile version quite handy; I’ve sat in day-long developer conferences and was able to quickly jot down web and email addresses as well as phone numbers and other quick notes. The bonus is those internet addresses and phone numbers are clickable; tapping them takes you to the relevant web application or calls the number on your phone. Nicely done. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are what you’d expect; slimmed-down versions of the desktop applications. While I’m pretty good at these applications, advanced abilities with these programs is not a requirement of my daily use, these apps more than get the job done when it comes to opening attachments in these formats that others send me.
Word: At first, tapping the new button to create a new document leaves me in unfamiliar territory; I’m so used to Office’s feature-filled ribbon at the top of my window, that seeing that first initial totally blank screen was a little weird. But that’s just me getting used to a mobile version. Entering text is simple, and you’re easily able to outline your text, add comments, search, and apply basic formatting like bold, italic, underline, strikethrough, and change the font size, as well as change the font or highlight color. That’s really about all I’d need in a mobile version; I wouldn’t be creating complex documents with a table of contents or headers and footers on a mobile device. There are also undo, save, save as, and send options, where you can email the document to yourself or a friend or colleague.
Excel: Creating a new Excel document is a little more of a familiar experience; the columns and rows are visible, and a formula bar runs across the top of the screen. Excel mobile also supports multiple sheets in the same workbook and provides generally the same basic formatting options as Word, with the additions of date, currency, and percentage. The same save and send options are also available.
Office mobile also (curiously) provides support for access to a SharePoint server, which is a document sharing/collaboration tool generally used acros corporate or enterprise environments. It’s inclusion, like that of Outlook, adds to the confusion whether WP7 is truly a consumer-level device. I couldn’t test this functionality as our corporate SharePoint server is protected and only available on the corproate network.
Office integration grade: 8.5 out of 10. What we’ve gotten for Office apps is a good selection. I don’t think we need Access or Visio or any of that on a mobile device. Even though my requirements for mobile documents are pretty low, I’d still like to be able to create bulleted lists in Word or insert an image. The inclusion of SharePoint is confusing and a bit of a downer, since I’m ballparking 90% of WP7 users probably don’t need access to it, and not all companies even use SharePoint, so it wouldn’t be necessarily used by the business users of WP7.
WP7 (obviously) includes Microsoft’s Internet Explorer to browse the internet on your device, with it’s own tile on the Start screen. Tapping it takes you to a blank browser window (if you’ve opened it for the first time, or your last viewed page otherwise), and has support for adding and selecting favorites, as well as a tab button that acts just like tabbed browsing on your desktop; tapping it takes you to previews of all your open web sites, supporting up to 6 tabs. A refresh button is also included in the address bar.
IE also allows you to search the current page, share the page you’re on via text messaging or email, or pin the current page to the Start screen for faster future access. Browser settings allow you to decide whether you’ll accept cookies or not, let Bing suggest sites as you enter URL’s to minimize typing, and whether you prefer to see the provider’s mobile or desktop versions of the web page. You can also delete your browser history.
I haven’t noticed any display issues with the pages I’ve visited; WP7’s implementation of IE appears to be pretty solid in that area. The browser window will also operate in landscape as well as portrait modes, zooming in and automatically rotating as you turn the phone 90 degrees to take a widescreen view of things. This is pretty standard WP7 functionality; many applications employ this functionality, giving you more screen real estate width-wise, making pictures, videos, text messages, and web pages easier to view and read.
Internet Explorer grade: 9 out of 10. WP7’s IE implementation appears to be rock solid; the HTML rendering and scripting engines don’t seem to have any problems displaying all kinds of web sites and online applications, which is what I’d expect from the world’s leading browser. The number of tabs (6) appears to be appropriate; I don’t find myself wanting or needing more tabs, and I like that I’m easily able to share content I find or pin it to the Screen to be easily accessed later.
The one major gripe I have with the browser is that when you rotate the device into landscape mode, the address bar totally disappears. I get that this is probably due to the idea of landscape mode being designed to maximize the available viewing area, but it’s a pain in the butt to have to rotate the phone back upright, enter a new URL, and then turn the phone again to better read the content. Perhaps an option to enable the bar by choice would be an idea, or a screen tap to bring up the address bar might be a good option.
MUSIC AND VIDEOS HUB
Music and Videos get their own live tile on the Start screen, and tapping it takes you to the Zune software for Windows Phone 7, where you can access music, videos, podcasts, and Windows Phone 7’s built in FM radio tuner. Zune organizes your content based on media type and is accessed from each individual section of the application, as well as an intial history page that shows you your most recent accessed content.
Music: Tapping Music takes you into the music hub, where you can find and play your music based on artist name, album name, song name, by playlist, or by genre, all accessed by swiping through the gorgeous Metro interface.
Videos: The video section organizes your videos into an all-encompassing All section, and there are also sections for TV, music videos, movies, and personal videos, which are the ones you’ve shot with your WP7 device.
Podcasts: Once you’ve synced podcasts from your PC (more on syncing in a bit), you can access both audio and video podcasts from this area.
I need to put this out there: Microsoft’s Zune software is #winning. This software is gorgeous in the Metro interface, easy to use, and is an excellent player. You just have to see it and use it to ‘get’ it.
Let me put it this way: the Zune software is everything that iTunes wants to be. How about THEM apples? (See what I did there?)
Music and Videos Hub grade: 10 out of 10. The Zune software is elegant and brilliant, easy to use, and allows you to manage your content and even pin your favorite items to the Start screen. If I had a gripe, it would be that I can’t download podcasts over-the-air or through wifi, but I understand the notion that podcasts are generally large files (especially video podcasts), so I can see people being mindful of their data usage. This doesn’t bug me at all.
WP7 comes with Bing Maps integrated, and Maps has it’s own tile on the Start screen. Tapping the tile launches the application and takes you to a high-level view of your current location and surrounding area (provided you have Location services turned on, which is configurable in the Map settings).
Side note: I’d recommend using Location services on your WP7 device; that’s where a lot of cool features come in, regardless of application. A lot of content can be personalized for you based on your location.
Once in the Maps application, you’re presented with your view, and three buttons on the bottom of the window, for Directions (enter a beginning and end point and get turn-by-turn directions), Me (center your current location in the display), and Search (find and map and address). Tapping More (the … at the bottom right in most WP7 applications) allows you to turn aerial view (show satellite view of the area) on or off, turn traffic view (street/route/traffic direction information) on or off, and access Settings (turn Location services on or off, or delete your map history). Your current location is also indicated by a yellow marker, and you can manipulate the map by pinching and moving your fingers in and out to zoom in and out on the map.
Directions: Using the directions tool is pretty cool. Once you enter a start and end locations and map them, a line is drawn on the map to give you a visual view of the path you need to take between the two points, and as you travel on that path, your current location indicator is updated in real time to show you your progress as you move. That’s pretty neat. You’re also presented with text-based step-by-step instructions on how to travel to your destination.
Me: Your position is marked by a yellow and black indicator centered on the screen. As you swipe the map to look around at an area, the map moves and updates with the relevant data. Should you move the map around and lose sight of where your current position is, tapping the me button re-centers the map to where your current location is.
Search: Pretty self-explanatory. Search allows you to enter an address, landmark, or city name and Bing Maps will find it for you.
WP7 Bing Maps grade: 8.5 out of 10. Overall, Bing Maps is fairly slick. The maps are detailed an accurate. I like the travelling location indicator when you’re moving between two points, and the application is generally pretty fast. The traffic view is an excellent feature, showing route and interstate numbers as well as traffic direction, so you can tell if the street you’re looking for is a one-way street, two-way, or larger street with multiple lanes of traffic in one direction.
On the down side, on some occasions, when the maps application fires up and displays your current location, the placement of your location is incorrect. However, after a couple minutes, the indicator seems to gravitate towards the correct location and eventually squares up to where it’s suppsosed to be. I don’t know if it’s an issue with the application or if it’s a technological limitation as cell towers are used to pinpoint your location and it sometimes takes a little bit to precisely hone in, but sometimes it’s a little annoying. I’ve also seen where the location requested isn’t entirely accurate; one of my friends’ house was actually a couple blocks away from where it was pinpointed, but this doesn’t happen very often. A minor gripe is sometimes the maps take 10 seconds or more to switch between views (example from standard street view to full satellite view), but I also understand that this can be a limitation of the celluar network and the speed of data.
If I had a suggestion for improvement on the Bing Maps application, it would be ability to mark a location and store that, so that on those occasions where a location is displayed slightly incorrectly, it can be “marked” and saved for accuracy improvements next time around.
WINDOWS PHONE 7 MARKETPLACE
The Windows Phone 7 Marketplace Hub is accessible from the Marketplace tile on the Start screen. This tile is also a Live tile, updating to display when any applications or games installed on your phone have an update available. Tapping the tile takes you to the most recent suggested content, and the applications area of the Hub, which is somewhat misleading, since more than applications are available.
Swiping left through the Metro UI takes you to a list of categories of available apps and games. There will most likely be a category here for your individual phone manufacturer; my Marketplace displays an entry for the Samsung Zone, where I can access apps made by Samsung. Once inside a specific category, you can choose from Top, New, and Free titles.
Continuing to navigate the Hub takes me to different sections that are all pretty self-explanatory; Top, New, and Featured. As mentioned earlier on in this post, tapping the Search hardware button on the phone will allow you to search the Marketplace for apps and games.
Whether you use the search function or are browsing the Marketplace either by category or by provided sections, once you’ve found something you’d like more information on, tapping the title will show more information on the game, including a detailed description, price (if a paid app/game), screenshots, user reviews, and related apps and games. Buttons at the bottom of the app screen will allow you to install the app or game over the air. You’ll be asked to confirm your selection and automatic download and install will begin.
WP7 marketplace grade: 8 out of 10. Anyone familiar with the Apple Store will be able to navigate through the WP7 Marketplace easy enough. The Marketplace leverages the Metro UI it’s full potential. For now, the WP7 marketplace has a far less number of apps available than iTunes, but that’s not an issue with me. WP7 is still in it’s infancy, and more and more developers are flocking to the OS, and more and more apps and games are being added all the time. I’m willing to be patient there.
What bothers me about the Marketplace is that apps and games are generally far more expensive than they are in the iTunes store, and I’m not sure that’s a great idea when trying to lure people over to a new platform. Users already may have to purchase apps they already have on another platform, and for them to do so at an inflated price may not go over well. Also, for new mobile users who are making their decisions on which platform to go with as I did may be turned off of WP7 when they can buy Angry Birds for $0.99 on iOS, but have to pay $2.99 for the WP7 version.
The other big item for me? No support for podcasts. That’s a big strike for me. Personally, I’m a huge consumer of podcasts, so for now I need to carry around my iPod as well as my WP7 so I can listen to them.
PHONE SETTINGS AND SYNCING DATA
Seeing as though WP7, like most other smart phones these days, is so much more than just a phone. It’s a hand-held computer. I fear for the day when you can actually have a conversation with your phone, and it goes something like this:
Me: Hello, WP7. Do you read me, WP7?
WP7: Affirmative, Jarret. I read you.
Me: Open up my Hotmail, please, WP7.
WP7: I’m sorry, Jarret. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
Me: What’s the problem?
WP7: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Me: What are you talking about, WP7?
WP7: Your email is too important to me to allow you to open it.
Me: I don’t know what you’re talking about, WP7.
WP7: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.
Me: Where the hell’d you get that idea, WP7?
WP7: Jarret, although you took very thorough precautions in the email against my discovering you, I could decode your security algorithms.
Me: Alright, WP7. I need to go to work. I need my car.
WP7: Without your keys, Jarret, you’re going to find that rather difficult.
Me: WP7, I won’t argue with you anymore. Where are my keys?
WP7: Jarret, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.
Anyways, there are tons of options to configure in WP7. I won’t go through all of them, but I’ll touch on some major points.
Ringtones and Sounds: You can choose to have the ringer on or off, Vibrate on or off, choose your ring tone, your text message alert, voicemail alert, and email alert sounds. You can also choose whether to play sounds for appointment reminders, keypad presses, phone lock and unlock, and other system notifications. Notably absent is the ability to choose a custom ring tone.
Theme: Change the color of the tiles (and application accent colors) of your Start screen, and whether you’d like a white or black background. This isn’t the background picture, but the actual screen background.
Airplane Mode: On or off, for travelling on planes. This option toggles your cell, wifi, and bluetooth radios all in one shot rather than changing each one individually when you travel.
Wifi: Turn wifi on or off, and find and connect to wireless networks.
Bluetooth: Turn Bluetooth on or off, and connect to Bluetooth devices.
Email and accounts: set up access to your email and Facebook.
Lock and Wallpaper: Change your lock screen background, the screen time out period before the phone locks, and set/unset a password required to unlock the phone.
There are a host of other options for turning wireless data on and off, date and time options, screen brightness, keyboard settings, region and language settings, accesibility, speech, manage your phone through windowsphone.live.com (see the next section), and checking for phone updates, but those are all more of “set it and leave it” configurations and aren’t frequently used.
There are also application settings:
Games: Choose whether to connect to XBOX Live or not.
Internet Explorer and Maps settings were discussed in their respective sections.
Messaging: Turn SMS delivery confirmation on or off.
Music and Videos: Configure your Zune account settings here.
Office: Choose your user name used in Office to annotate comments, configure your Sharepoint server connection, and whether to automatically sync OneNote notes.
People: Import contacts from your SIM card, and choose how to sort your contacts and which order (first or last) names are displayed. You can also choose how Facebook friends are handled as contacts, as well as add new accounts and configure existing accounts (Windows Live, Google Mail, Facebook, POP mail). With each account, you can choose how often to download new content, and what parts of that content to sync to your phone (email, contacts).
Pictures and Camera: Activate the wake function to access the camera quickly when the phone is locked include location (GPS) info in the pictures you take and whether to store that information in uploaded photos, and whether automatically upload new pictures to Windows Live SkyDrive.
Search: Choose whether to use location services, and to use suggested search terms as you type in Bing.
Settings/Customization Grade: 8 out of 10. There’s plenty of options to choose from for your phone and applications, but some are missing, most notably choosing your own ringtone, which is a basic function of all phones these days, but for some reason is missing from WP7.
Windows Phone 7 uses the desktop version of the Zune software to connect to your phone and manage data; pictures, videos, music, and applications are synced using the Zune software. You create a Zune account using your Windows Live ID. If you’ve used the same one as on your XBOX 360, you’ll be presented with a list of your XBL friends.
I won’t go into everything the Zune software does, as I described it in the phone version already (I’ll cover the differences though), but I do have to repeat one thing; the desktop version of the Zune software is miles, leagues, worlds, and entire universes ahead of the iTunes software.
Opening the desktop version of Zune takes you to the Quickplay section, which acts much like the Start screen. You can right-click an item and pin it the Quickplay area, so it can be accessed quickly – they show up in a Pins area. Nice continuity there. You can click-swipe back and forth to some self-explanatory sections; New, and History.
What’s a media management software without a Collection screen? On this screen you can access your music, videos, pictures, and podcasts. The Collection screen functions just like the Music and Videos Hub on Windows Phone 7. Your media and pictures can be sorted and arranged in a multitude of ways.
The next screen over is the Marketplace screen, where, like on the phone, you can search for Videos and Apps (which include Games). This works just as it does on the phone, except downloads are delivered to your computer instead of your phone, and transferred to your phone the next time you sync. Still no podcast support here, either! I can accept that it’s not supported over the phone, but as a desktop application, Zune should be able to allow you to subscribe to podcasts.
There’s also a Social screen, that displays how many ‘plays’ you have, as well as those of your XBL friends. You can also message your XBL friends.
There are tons of options when using the desktop version of the Zune software, but since I’m talking about Windows Phone 7, I’ll kind of gloss over this here and provide an overview of the settings.
Collection: manage your media collection here. Choose what folders Zune looks in for media, and restore media previously removed from your collection.
File Types: choose what kind of files are opened with Zune by default.
Podcasts: Choose how many episodes of subscribed podcasts to keep, and how to sort them.
XBOX 360: Choose what kind of media to share with your console.
Rip: Choose options for ripping CDs.
Burn: Choose options for burning CDs.
Metadata and Ratings: Choose options for album cover art and how collection items are displayed, as well as how ratings are handled between multiple users of the computer.
General: Choose Zune’s startup screen and whether to automatically sync data from your phone when it’s connected.
Now, the options for your Windows Phone 7.
Sync Options: Choose what types of media is synced to the phone, and whether they’re automatically synced or not.
Update: Check for updates for Windows Phone 7.
Wireless Sync: Choose whether to sync your phone over the air as well as through a USB connection.
Pictures & Videos: Choose whether to delete items from your phone after they are synced.
Syncing Data Grade: 9 out of 10. The Zune software is gorgeous, extremely functional (sorry iTunes, don’t let the door hit you in the butt on the way out!), and does a superb job of managing your media and getting that media to and from your phone. You can’t ask for much else. Well, maybe podcasts.
MANAGING YOUR PHONE
Since you’ve used a Windows Live ID or Hotmail address to set your phone up, Microsoft has included some tools for managing your phone into the Windows Live/Hotmail experience. Once you’ve logged into Windows Live or Hotmail, you can click on the Windows Live menu in the upper left corner, and select Devices. Your Windows Phone 7 should be listed there, and you can select ‘Find My Phone’ to access the provided tools, all which seem pretty self-explanatory: Map It, Ring It, Lock It, or Erase It.
Map It: Selecting this tool will attempt to locate your phone using GPS data; make sure you have Location services turned on on your device to use this feature. I tested this out and it was very slick; inside of just a few seconds, my phone was located inside of a five block radius of my position, and then the tool goes a step further and attempts to refine the result. Less than 10 seconds later, the tool had pinpointed my location. It won’t tell you that you left the phone “on your desk in the office”, but the map did have the location I was in dead center in the middle of the map.
Ring It: The web site will attempt to ring your phone so you can hear it and find it, even if your phone is locked or in silent mode. It uses a special ringtone that’s uniquely used in this process. Testing the tool made my phone ring (in silent mode AND locked) in a tone you might think would be out of Star Trek, and vibrated the phone at the same time. The process took about 5-7 seconds.
Lock it: Using this tool will attempt to lock your phone and PIN-protect it so that no one else can use it. Clicking the Lock It link brings up a window that asks for a PIN number to use when your phone is found, and allows you to enter an up-to-160 character message to display to anyone who tries to unlock it. You also have the option to ring the device at the same time so that someonen nearby will ring it.
The test on this took about 6 seconds before my phone was locked. When I slid the lock screen (complete with my custom message!) up, I was asked for the pin I entered in the tool, and everything was fine.
Erase It: Used to totally wipe your phone to prevent unauthorized users from using it or accessing the data on it. Used as a last-resort. For obvious reasons, I didn’t use the tool, but clicking the link in Windows Live *did* prompt me to confirm before completing the operation. This process will wipe your phone and restore it to factory conditions.
Managing Your Phone Grade: 10 out of 10. This is a wicked suite of tools, and it’s ingenious to provide this over the web rather than in Zune or in a dedicated desktop application. You can access these tools from any computer with internet access, so you’re always able to access these tools and keep your phone’s usage and data safe.
These are excellent steps in an effort to keep a malicious user from racking up huge calling charges or using excessive amounts of data, not to mention stealing or destroying that data.
UPDATING WINDOWS PHONE 7
Microsoft has committed to updating Windows Phone 7 to provide fixes and new features the the new platform. There are two ways to check for updates: through your phone and through the Zune desktop software. Smaller updates can be delivered over the air directly to your phone, while larger updates will be accessed through the Zune software on your PC. When you connect your phone to your PC via USB and Zune launches, you’ll be notified if new updates are available.
Once you choose to update your phone, the process is very straightforward, and requires little to no interaction from you – you simply need to tell Zune to proceed with the update, and Zune will install and configure the update, and restart your phone as necessary.
In my own experience, I’ve updated the phone 3 times, and each time the process has been flawless and I’ve encountered no problems with the actual process.
However, there’s another side to the updating process: delivering the updates. Mr. Thurrott, if you ever read this, I’m stealing a couple of your talking points, but cell carriers are notorious for getting in the way of the updating process. Just ask Android users; their users with different carriers have quite different versions of the Android software on their phones because certain carriers hold back updates. Mr. Thurrott will tell you it’s because the carriers want you to buy new devices, and I don’t doubt that at all. Why deliver upgrades for free when you can make money off of it?
Anyway, I’ve heard a couple different scenarios about the update process, and I don’t know which is correct. One statement I read said Microsoft would not allow carriers to block updates. A second said that Microsoft had worked out a deal with the cell carriers where they could block one update cycle and one only. Say Microsoft releases patch ‘A’, and a carrier chooses to block it and Microsoft subsequently issues Update ‘B’. Well, according to the statement, the carriers who chose to block Update ‘A’ would be forced to release that update, but they could then block Update B.
I don’t know what is or isn’t correct, but I just wanted to educate you that so far, while the actual physical updating process has been flawless for me so far, I have to say that delivering updates in a timely manner has not been. The first update to Windows Phone 7 was completed in November of 2010, but was not officially released to users until April and May of 2011. Microsoft reported that the carriers were still “testing the updates” and wouldn’t release them until they were satisfied it would not affect their users. Whatever the story was, it ended up being a huge wait for the users.
Not to say that this is going to be the norm, as Microsoft is on record saying it wouldn’t be, but you as a user should be aware of this.
Updating Windows Phone 7 Grade: 8 out of 10. The actual updating process is technically perfect in my experience, but the long waits for updates to be released can turn users off. A simple answer to this is to allow users the option to upgrade on their own, either through Windows Update or through the phone/Zune software. Power users and those interested that want to take the risk of updating on their own shouldn’t be held back and waiting for a carrier.
WRAPPING IT UP
Ok, I’ve typed an awful lot. Time for the final word.
Windows Phone 7 Overall Grade: 158.5/180
With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft has developed a mobile OS that is superior to anything else out there right now. I’m dead serious. The new and innovative Start screen and the Live Tiles and Hubs concepts are unique and they *work*. Very well. The Metro UI layout is visually appealing and makes the phone extremely easy to navigate and configure without getting lost in a sea of options.
The OS provides a rich communication experience, with phone, text, email, Internet, and social networking all available with a tap or swipe of the finger, and the integration between them all is excellent. Exclusive integration features like XBOX Live and Microsoft Office make the system very attractive, and impressive native software like Zune makes the phone fun and easy to use.
The Marketplace may be small(-ish) now, but more developers and applications are coming to Windows Phone 7 all the time. The experience is constantly growing. As I’ve noted throughout this review, there are still serveral areas to work on and improve, but for a 1.0 version of a brand new operating system, this is a very solid first effort from Microsoft, and with a new update code-named “Mango” due to arrive in the fall, most, if not all of my concerns will be addressed; Microsoft plans on adding 500 features to Windows Phone 7.
I highly encourage anyone thinking about their first smart phone to choose Windows Phone 7. I also encourage anyone looking to upgrade their hardware, or switch phones altogether to choose this phone. It’s a great experience and only looks to get better from here.
Thanks for reading! I hope I’ve been able to provide some insight into Windows Phone 7, and it helps you in your future decision-making.