Windows Phone 7 Review

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There’s a lot of hype about the new Windows Phone 7 operating system and that’s how Microsoft wants it. They’ve done something really special with this revision by completely starting over. This is something totally new and design-wise, something completely different. Unfortunately, you might find some of your favorite features missing in the new OS, but you might also find some new features that you’ll fall in love with.

FIRST BOOT





When you first boot up a Windows Phone 7, there are a few set-up steps to go through. See the above video for the exact experience on the HTC Surround. It is recommended that you login with a Windows Live ID that may have already been associated with Zune Pass and/or Xbox Live since that’s important for syncing up with those services. A Windows Live ID will also enable your ability to purchase apps, games, and music from the Windows Phone Marketplace… in addition to giving you access to OneNote SkyDrive syncing, “Find my Phone” features, and the Windows Live portal for Windows Phone 7.

If you do not login with a Windows Live ID at the initial set-up prompts, it will ask you to again when you try to use something that requires a Live ID (Marketplace, Xbox Live, Zune Marketplace).

Now, when you plug the phone into your computer, it’s going to prompt you to download the Zune software, and here’s a gotcha: there’s no way to sync directly with Outlook. Windows Phone 7 can only sync contacts and calendar items with cloud services like Windows Live Hotmail, Google Mail, Yahoo Mail, and Exchange. Here’s a video about how to get your Outlook contacts and appointments to sync with Windows Phone 7 via the Outlook Connector for Hotmail.

Another advantage to pairing a Windows Live ID with your Windows Phone 7 is the device portal on Windows Live. This gives you a nice little overview of many of the things on your phone and includes a very special (free) “Find My Phone” feature that offers location, locking, and calling features from your desktop that should help find a lost phone. Be sure to visit this site to complete set up of the Find My Phone service before you lose your device though.

START SCREEN, PROGRAMS, AND SETTINGS



start


The Start screen is the first thing you’ll see when you boot up a Windows Phone 7. In a world where practically all smartphones sport a grid of application icons on their home screens, these “live tiles” really stand out. Some people hate the stark contrast of these large rectangles against a solid background, while others love the new look. You might be confused by the off-center layout of the tiles, too, but this is by design. The layout conforms to devine proportions which has been studied and used for centuries to evoke emotion.

There are a number of different types of live tiles here. Some are squares, and some take up two columns as a rectangle. You don’t have a choice as to which ones take up how much space as it’s really a matter of how the tile was developed. Some tiles are not really live either. Most applications that get pinned just show the static application icon. Some are able to display live information. For example, pinned contacts will occasionally flip over to show the contact’s latest status update or a new photo that they posted. For more information, see what you can pin to the Start screen.

The programs listing is a quick swipe to the right and it lists all of the programs on the device in alphabetical order. There’s no way to re-sort the listing, but if you tap and hold on the icon for a second, you’ll get a context sensitive menu that will let you pin the selected application to the start page… or, if it’s a 3rd party application, you can uninstall it right from that menu. In fact, you can uninstall any of the applications that are not part of the core OS. That includes applications that were pre-installed by the OEM or the carrier. The uninstallation happens very quickly without any kind of progress bar like we’re used to on Windows Mobile classic.

There’s a single “Settings” item in the programs listing and this is where you’ll find all the customizable settings for both the system as well as individual applications. In most cases, the settings you find for applications can also be accessed from within the individual applications.

MUSIC, VIDEOS AND PICTURES, AND GAMES

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The Pictures Hub is where all of your photos live. You can sort them by date or by folders, and the folders view also downloads SkyDrive and Facebook photo folders. This is a great way to access photos that you’ve already uploaded to an online service. The Pictures hub also downloads folders on SkyDrive that contain videos. Unfortunately, the SkyDrive compatible videos cannot be played in Windows Phone 7. They don’t even show thumbnails. This is very unfortunate as Windows Live Movie Maker and Windows Live Messenger 2011 have been designed to share videos on SkyDrive in a very easy-to-use way. Heck, you can’t even upload videos from Windows Phone 7 to SkyDrive or Facebook. That’s a feature I’ll miss. Hopefully it will be added soon.

You’ve also got a “What’s new” view in the Pictures hub. This will show photo updates from the Windows Live and Facebook social networks. Unfortunately there’s no way to browse social network photo galleries owned by specific users. The “What’s New” feed is based only on a timeline.

If you open an image, you’ll see a little menu at the bottom, and what’s interesting is the “Extras” item. Tap that and it will list some 3rd party applications that can alter the selected image (if you have compatible apps installed).

zune


The Music + Videos Hub is another panoramic design. You’ll see how in each screen there’s a little bit of content clipped off on the side. This is to indicate that you can move the panorama over in order to see more. The Music + Videos Hub design is quite sophisticated in this respect and as well in its background imagery. The hub layout will load panoramic imagery of a recently listened to musician as the background art for the hub. We’re not talking about little album art thumbnails that you’ll normally see on other music players. We’re talking about really good looking imagery designed to be a part of this layout.

You’ll also find thumbnails representing your recent history of music or videos, as well as a listing of new music and videos that you’ve recently downloaded or synced to the device. Under the “Marquee” section, you’ll see some 3rd party applications that offer integrated music or video functionality. Things like the YouTube app, Shazam, and AT&T Music will show up there. Of course, there’s also a menu for accessing music organized in a variety of manners, as well as videos, movies, TV shows, podcasts, FM radio, and a link to the Zune Marketplace.

games


The Games Hub is where you’ll find all of your games. The games don’t actually show up in the programs listing, they’ll only show in the Games hub. The design of this hub isn’t as smart as the Pictures or Music + Videos hubs. The background graphics don’t change depending on recent content. It’s mainly an Xbox 360 theme. However, you do get your little Xbox LIVE Avatar on this screen. It will show your gamer score and recent achievements. You’ll also see an area for gaming notifications like invitations and nudges, a listing of games in your collection, and a spotlight of Xbox Live related news. In the future, a downloadable upgrade to this hub will be available that will make your Avatar much more animated and interactive.

PEOPLE, EMAIL, CALENDAR AND OFFICE



People Hub


The People hub is most likely where you’ll go to first when you want to contact somebody. The “Recent” area shows contact photos for your eight most recently contacted people. These can be people you call the most, or text, or email, or comment on their Facebook walls. Give the panorama a swipe and you’ll see your own contact photo with your latest status update. Tap the status update to change it, or flick to scroll through all of your people. There’s also a new contact button here as well as a search button, though the hardware search button on your phone will do the same thing. Then there’s a “What’s New” section which lists status updates and news from all of your friends on Facebook and Windows Live.

It’s interesting to note that if you see a video posted in your What’s New feed, that you can tap that and it will download and play the video even though Internet Explorer does not support Flash. You can also add comments to any of your friends’ status updates or pictures.

If you tap and hold on a blank area, you’ll get a settings menu where you can change how contacts are sorted and also remove any Facebook friends from the listing that are not already part of your contacts list.

You can tap and hold on any person in your list and pin them to the Start menu. This is Microsoft’s equivalent of a quick dial option since if you have a favorite person on your start screen, it will likely only take you two presses to call them. I personally, find this better than having instant-dial buttons without confirmations since that’s what makes accidental phone calls so easy.

In order to find and call contacts that you don’t want to pin to your Start screen, you have to tap the People hub and then the “Search” hardware button in the lower right on your phone. That’s probably the second quickest way to find non-recent and non-pinned contacts. The quickest would be to use voice recognition by holding down the Windows Logo button on your phone and then saying, “Call John Smith on Mobile.”

email


The email inbox is a very unique design. It looks great. The font sizes are large and easy to read at least in terms of who the message is from. The accent color works great for highlighting which messages are unread. At the bottom are a few useful buttons for creating a new message, multi-selecting messages, accessing other folders, and initiating a sync. By default, only the Inbox is synced, but if you tap the Folders icon, you’ll be able to get a list of folders, and easily turn on syncing for any of them… except for the Drafts folder. You are still not allowed to sync Draft email messages with Exchange 2003, Hotmail, IMAP or anything. (I don’t have an Exchange 2010 server to test this on at this time.) This is really annoying as syncing draft email messages between a desktop and mobile device would make so much sense. Another major annoyance is the fact that the reply status for each message is not synced with the Exchange or IMAP servers. In other words, if you reply to an email from your phone, you’ll see a “replied” icon next to that message only on the phone. The “replied” status will not show up on your desktop’s email client.

Some people might miss the global inbox feature you might find on other platforms. Windows Phone 7 keeps each email account in its own separate application icon with its own live tile. I actually prefer it this way since some of my email accounts are more important than others and I can prioritize my favorite accounts on the start screen. Also, I have no interest in seeing a single inbox that has 60,000 unread messages. Granted, for those that to like that feature, it’s not currently available in Windows Phone 7.

There’s no threaded conversation view for emails either, but you can very easily press the search button and auto-search your emails for everything that includes a specific topic or name. The auto-search terms propagate to the unread, urgent, and flagged tabs as well.

Outlook   Open email

When you open an email message, you’ll get a gorgeous view of the email. A nice big photo of the person who sent it is at the top, and if the message uses HTML, a fully multi-touch capable Internet Explorer rendering of the email will appear below. That is to say after you tap one of the image placeholders in the HTML email to download the images. The email program does not download images by default for security reasons and that’s how it should be.

For email attachments, you can open any type of Office 2010 document pretty easily. Tap once to initiate a download of the attachment, and tap again to open it. If you receive a PDF and try to open that, Windows Phone will prompt you to download the Acrobat PDF reader from the Windows Phone Marketplace.

The text messaging interface is much different than the email interface that we’re used to seeing for SMS in Windows Mobile classic. Now it’s more of a bubble-style threaded chat UI. Unfortunately, text messages don’t currently sync with the Windows Live Devices portal like they used to in Windows Mobile, and there’s no way to archive or copy text messages to a desktop. You can’t even take a screen capture of them or copy them to a SIM card!

Calendar Day View

The Calendar is another place you’ll probably spend a lot of time since it’s important that your smartphone help manage your schedule. A great new feature is support for multiple calendars from different accounts such as Exchange, Windows Live, and Gmail. You can set a different color for each calendar account. Categories do not have their own colors like in Outlook on the desktop. You might also notice that there are only 3 calendar views; Day, Agenda, and Month. Week and Year views are gone. I never really used week view, so I won’t miss it.

Creating new appointments is kind of strange since you can’t drag out a time range on the calendar like you could with classic Windows Mobile. You have to select a beginning time for the appointment and then set the duration in the new appointment screen.

Oh, and there’s no Task syncing from Exchange or anything. So if you have a job and organize your tasks in Outlook or Exchange, you’ll probably miss that feature in Windows Phone 7… unless you decide to transfer your task management to OneNote.

Office Hub


Speaking of OneNote, here’s the Microsoft Office Hub. This panorama’s design is very plain. OneNote gets the first panel, and recent notes are shown as big orange boxes. If you tap the All button, you’ll get to see more OneNote sections and notebooks, and it should ask you if you want to sync with SkyDrive. If you choose yes, OneNote mobile will create a “Personal (Web)” notebook in your “My Documents” folder on the SkyDrive associated with your Windows Live ID. After you get that notebook set up, you’ll have cloud syncing for OneNote. Then you can easily set OneNote 2010 on your desktop to also sync with that SkyDrive notebook. OneNote 2010 has some great features on the desktop, too.

You’ve also got a Documents area that will list Excel, Word, and PowerPoint documents that you’re working. You can access these documents either through Sharepoint 2010 or you can save them when received via email.





Here’s a demo of the Office Hub with its SharePoint 2010 integration.

BING, INTERNET, AND MARKETPLACE



bing


Bing Search and Bing Maps are really nice on Windows Phone 7. When you do a search, Bing will try to guess if you are searching for something near you (Local), or if you’re search for news or web related content. And even if it guesses wrong, it’s very easy to swipe horizontally in order to get different types of results.

Bing Maps is pretty basic even when compared to the features in Windows Mobile 6.5. There are no turn-by-turn voice prompting text-to-speech directions, but hopefully that may come in an update. However, the map display and zooming have a great looking fade-in effect instead of the blocky loading of other cloud-based map application designs.

Bing also has TellMe voice recognition integration for searches, making phone calls, and opening applications. This speech interface can be activated by holding down the Windows key on the device. It can also be activated via a Bluetooth headset, however you can only use the “Call” command via Bluetooth. I’m not sure why that is. Hopefully a more full-featured speech interface will come soon. We’ve heard media playback control would be supported at sometime and it would be good if that were possible via Bluetooth stereo headphones. The TellMe service is actually capable of a lot more than what you’ll see in the first version of Windows Phone 7, so I think we can expect some growth in this area.

Internet Explorer Mobile


Internet Explorer on Windows Phone 7 is a combination of IE7 and IE8 technologies and you might be surprised to hear that it works amazingly well. You can zoom pan and navigate the pages very smoothly even while they’re still loading. You can also switch between tabs while loading other pages. Favorites are easily accessible, however you cannot sync favorites with anything on the desktop or in the cloud. If you’ve got a bunch of mobile web favorites that you always sync to Windows Mobile classic, you might miss that feature.

Another odd design decision in Internet Explorer on Windows Phone 7 is its limited landscape mode usability. When you rotate the device to landscape mode, the button bar and address bar are completely inaccessible. You’re only allowed to pan and zoom whatever web page you were looking at. You’ll have to rotate back to portrait in order to switch tabs or type a new URL.

Internet Explorer on Windows Phone 7 is also initially missing a lot of features that you might take for granted on the desktop and other mobile platforms. It doesn’t support the as-yet-unfinished HTML5 specifications, nor is there in-browser Flash or Silverlight support.

Marketplace Hub


The Marketplace is where the real magic happens. There are different sections for apps, games, and music. Sometimes the company that made your phone or the carrier that you got it from may add additional sections for their own apps that you can download.

The Music section lets you buy albums from the Zune Marketplace. It’s got gorgeous background art featuring the artist of the week. You can use the search button to find anything you like. One interesting thing to note is that even if you have a Zune Pass subscription, the Marketplace still shows “Buy” buttons with prices. It will charge you for the purchase and download MP3s even if you have Zune Pass credits available. Luckily, if you want to just download the music instead of buying or streaming it, you can tap-and-hold on the album or song and a menu will come up with the “Download” option. That will let you download DRM protected music via Zune Pass so that you can listen to it offline as much as you want without purchasing it (as long as you are a Zune Pass subscriber.)

PROS

+ Very well designed and completely fresh user interface

+ An exciting new mobile OS with lots of potential

+ Great for Xbox Live gaming and Zune Pass downloads

+ Sharepoint 2010 integration

+ Developers seem to like the platform

CONS

– No tethering/router support

– No Zune Smart DJ button

– Copy/paste comes later

– Certain apps might take a few seconds to load/resume

– You might have to wait for your favorite apps to become available in the marketplace

– List of “other” missing pieces is extensive

CONCLUSION

For me personally, I am totally in love with the Zune Pass features in Windows Phone 7. Being able to download music where ever I am with no need to think about whether or not it’s really worth $10 is great. Sure, I’m paying $15/month for the luxury of downloading whatever music I want, but if I happen to download something I end up hating, it’s not like I spend $10 on that since I can just download something else too. I’m really looking forward to further upgrades that might bring Zune’s Smart DJ button and “Picks” to the platform.

I’ve also fallen in love with the design, smoothness and stability of this platform. The artistry in some of the hubs, third party applications, and even the email program is beyond anything else out there when it comes to a mix of aesthetics and usability. The operating system is fun to use, and the little visual cues, while initially jarring (why is the type cut off?!) turn out to be really interesting and aesthetically pleasing.

On the other hand, like I said in the beginning, there are plenty of missing features and functionality to harp on. If you absolutely need a feature that has yet to be added to Windows Phone 7, it might not be for you.

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About The Author
Adam Z. Lein
Adam has had interests in combining technology with art since his first use of a Koala pad on an Apple computer. He currently has a day job as a graphic designer, photographer, systems administrator and web developer at a small design firm in Westchester, NY. His love of technology extends to software development companies who have often implemented his ideas for usability and feature enhancements. Mobile computing has become a necessity for Adam since his first Uniden UniPro PC100 in 1998. He has been reviewing and writing about smartphones for Pocketnow.com since they first appeared on the market in 2002.Read more about Adam Lein!