I recently got some hands-on time with the LG Panther GW910, a prototype Windows Phone 7 device. The hardware of the Panther is unlikely ever to see commercial release, so most of my impressions will be about the software experience (which is also not final, and currently at build 6414, the same build currently available for the emulator).
First impressions: Using Windows Phone 7 for the first time on a real phone (and not the emulator) was a very interesting experience, chiefly because it is totally new. The last time I experienced a phone operating system for the first time was about a year ago when I met Android via the HTC Hero.
I was first struck by the simplicity of the interface. The block-based Start screen seemed rather archaic and limiting when compared to iPhone, Windows Mobile, and especially Android. Jumping in and out of applications, the experience began to feel disjointed because of the lack of multitasking (or, I should say, the lack of task manager/quick application switcher). To go into a new app requires a press of the Start button, or a tap of the back button (which intelligently keeps a history of your every move within the phone).
Then, after using some of the email and productivity features of the phone, I began to feel more at ease. I began to appreciate the fluidity of the interface. While there’s a screen animation for practically every action, they’re very fast, and they give an impression of the interface being extremely responsive. Windows Phone 7 feels very snappy. I began to notice how consistently the Metro interface had been applied to the various screen, which I’m used to from the Zune HD.
And then I took a harder look at the Start screen. The promise of the Start screen, that of having easily-glanceable information thanks to live tiles, is unfulfilled on the Panther because it’s a prototype device. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have a tile showing me a recent Twitter update, then another tile showing me the weather, and perhaps another tile showing me a short preview of a new email message. Suddenly the archaic block-based Start screen interface seemed to hold a lot of potential. Yes, other smartphone operating systems can provide this same experience, but it can quickly become unwieldy with multiple homescreens. On Windows Phone 7, you can only scroll vertically on the Start screen (unless you want to swipe right to access all of your programs), and this really cuts down on the clutter. You almost have to make a choice of what’s really important by deleting any programs or widgets that you don’t use a lot, or else your Start screen will become endless.
Before using the Panther, I was worried about was the arrangement of the program tray. Currently, it’s just a long list, sorted alphabetically. But if you really want to put an application within quick reach, you pin it to your Start screen. Wouldn’t that make your Start screen too long if you added all of your favorite apps? Maybe, it depends on how many apps you use on a regular basis. I use about three or four apps on a regular basis. Adding these to my Start screen wouldn’t make it too long.
Web: The web on Windows Phone 7 is fantastic, leaps ahead of what we saw in Internet Explorer Mobile from Windows Mobile. While it’s not as fast as the web browser in Android 2.2 (I did some side-by-sides), it’s almost as fast as Safari on the iPhone 4. The real beauty comes when it’s time to pan and zoom around the page, which Windows Phone 7 does with incredibly ease. It’s buttery smooth, with no hints of lag or choppiness.
Managing multiple tabs is another place IE on WP7 excels. While you can only have six tabs open at once, the tabs will actually continue to load even as you open new ones. Jumping in and out of open tabs is a seamless experience with no perceivable lag, even when the tabs contains graphic-intensive websites. What’s missing here is Flash and HTML5 support, both critical if IE on WP7 is going to compete fairly with the best mobile browsers available.
And a weird bit of behavior that I hope is fixed when WP7 goes final: hitting the back button in IE brings you to the previous page. Makes sense, right? Well, not really. In other programs, hitting the back button steps you back to the previous application you were using. It’s strange that this function changes in the browser. There should be an on-screen back button instead.
Camera: One of the coolest features of Windows Phone 7 lies in the camera app. After you take a picture, you get to see the picture you just took “peek” on the left side of the camera frame. You can swipe your finger left to right to display the picture you just took. Most people want to see the picture they just took after taking it, and WP7 makes it super easy to jump back and see that picture. To go back into the camera app to take a new photo, you just swipe right.
Overall impressions: It’s impossible to come up with a true opinion about Windows Phone 7 without experiencing it as intended. The hardware I used wasn’t final, there were no third party apps I could download, and it was a totally stock installation of WP7 (I’d imagine HTC’s customizations to bring some interesting new elements to the table, for example).
For most people, the claim to fame of Windows Phone 7 will be its integration with Microsoft products that already have a proven track record: Zune, Office, and Xbox. These elements immediately create a sense of familiarity that is bound to drive adoption of Windows Phone 7. But is that enough to sustain the platform and sell tens of millions of units? No. The platform has to be competitive, and it is in a lot of ways, but it’s lacking in others. It still remains to be seen how robust of a developer following there will be for WP7, because as we all know, apps are really important. And the lack of multitasking may not be a problem for some consumers, but to power users, it’s going to be annoying and potentially a deal breaker. Windows Phone 7 feels very much like the iPhone before multitasking came about. You’re constantly jumping back to the home screen to switch applications. And while the back button function is great for moving between two applications, I often want to toggle between three or more.
I remain optimistic about Windows Phone 7. It has a lot of potential, and we’ll have to see how developers and OEMs embrace the platform within the next six months. So far, the prospects seem promising.