Microsoft has not been shy in admitting that their mobile efforts over the past few years have been less than stellar. A decline in market share and mind share has seen the software giant struggle to stay relevant amongst strong offerings from both Google and Apple. Microsoft's efforts in the Windows Mobile 6.5 era were desperate and sorely lacking third party applications, basic OS functionality and support for the ever changing mobile hardware. Engineers and executives at Microsoft decided to reset their development focus on Windows Mobile over two years ago and began to create a new operating system, from the ground up. The result is Windows Phone 7, but is it enough?
Microsoft has been very strict on its Windows Phone 7 specifications. All devices must have the following at a minimum:
- Capacitive Touch: 4 or more contact points
- Sensors: A-GPS, Accelerometer, Compass, Light, Proximity
- Camera: 5 megapixels or more, Camera with a flash and dedicated camera button
- Multimedia: Common detailed specs, Codec acceleration
- Memory: 256 MB, 8 GB Flash or more
- GPU: DirectX 9 acceleration
- Processor: ARMv7 Cortex/Scorpion or better
- 2 screen sizes: 480×800 WVGA, 480×320 HVGA
- Keyboard: Optional
- Hardware Buttons: Must be fixed on the face
In terms of additional hardware requirements, the device must have a back button, windows button and search button on the front of the device. Microsoft also stipulates that volume +/- buttons, a power button and a dedicated camera button must be present. These strict guidelines for manufacturers help maintain a consistent user experience across the range of Windows Phone 7 devices. For this particular review Microsoft loaned us a Samsung Omnia 7.
The Omnia 7 is a quad GSM band phone that packs a 4-inch super AMOLED display. The device also sports the minimum 1GHz Qualcomm processor, 5MP camera with 720p video capture and 8GB of storage. A-GPS, Wi-Fi N and bluetooth are also present.
Microsoft has redone Windows Phone 7 to focus on a structured ecosystem. The platform allows for developers to use tools such as Visual Studio to create applications. Two thirds of all Windows developers use this as their primary development tool so Microsoft believes it's a natural way for developers to create Windows Phone applications. Designers can also use a wide range of Microsoft's Expression tools to create beautiful designs. The core of Windows Phone 7 runs on Silverlight and the XNA runtime which uses the .NET Framework that Microsoft includes in its desktop versions of Windows. Game developers can take code written for the Xbox and have that work on phones because the XNA framework is supported. This broad development platform is bound to be appealing for a wide range of developers.
Development is only one part of the structured ecosystem. In the past Microsoft has allowed third parties to replace the UI on the device. The problem is some devices have the standard UI, others have an OEM custom UI and others have parts of the UI replaced by operators. Third party developers aren't sure what part of the UI to write to and it has created a confused user experience for end users. The goal with Windows Phone 7 is that the "end user is King" according to Andy Lees, VP of Microsoft's Mobile Communications Business. Lees believes that Microsoft isn't controlling the UI this time around, it's simply doing it in a structured way so that third parties can add value and differentiate themselves without compromising the end user experience. Smart design is Microsoft's mantra for Windows Phone 7.
Setting up your Windows Phone 7 device
The first time you switch on a Windows Phone 7 device you will be presented with options to add Windows Live accounts, Facebook accounts and other mail services. Similar to the Android start experience, this will then configure the device for you to make it a very personal experience. One thing we noticed here at Neowin is that you'll need to be careful when you pick the Windows Live account that you first add as this ties itself to the core of Windows Phone and you cannot remove it later on. Why Microsoft has made this decision is unclear, but for those with multiple Windows Live accounts you can add them all to the phone but the first one will be the primary account used for Xbox Live, marketplace and music/video hubs. Once your accounts have been added the device will begin synchronising content.
Home screen/Lock Screen
One of the first experiences with Windows Phone 7 is the all new and unique home screen. This is one of the truly impressive and unique aspects of Windows Phone 7 that is both original and helpful. Think of the home screen as a cork board where you stick all your important notes and information to. Each section is a "tile" and some tiles are double width whilst others are single. Microsoft says that all third party apps tiles will be single width. The company had to make some design decisions to create double width tiles for applications like calendar and pictures. If a calendar tile had remained single width then all the information for a specific appointment would not be displayed efficiently. Although third party app developers will not be able to create double width tiles, OEMs and mobile operators will be permitted to create them. Fortunately these are removable from the home screen and all OEM and mobile operator applications can also be removed from the device to save space.
The home screen serves as your main interaction point with Windows Phone 7. You can pin applications and people to the screen and I fully expect Microsoft will extend this further in later revisions of the operating system. The ability to pin your favourite contacts makes the phone extremely personal. No two Windows Phones will ever look the same thanks to this home screen. The only criticism here is the bright range of colour schemes, on an AMOLED device this is more noticable. The animations for moving items around are seamless and impressive. Windows Phone 7 really feels like it's alive in the palm of your hand. If you scroll to the bottom of the home screen then the arrow at the top slides sideways to point you in the direction of the classic look.
The Windows Phone 7 lock screen takes the static and sometimes boring screen and improves it greatly. Across the top, you'll see indicators for signal strength, connection type (3G, EDGE) and whether Wi-Fi or Bluetooth are enabled and battery status. Information such as emails, text messages, missed calls and voicemails are all provided straight on the lock screen. The lock screen allow users to customise the wallpaper and also see latest calendar appointments, including their location. The tagline is "less stop and stare, more glance and go".
Calling and text messaging (SMS) is as you would expect on Windows Phone 7. Dialing is simple and you have direct access to the People Hub to select your contact. The standard speaker phone, hold, mute and conference calling is all included. We found reception on the Samsung Omnia 7 to be fairly reasonable, especially in areas where usage of smartphones is high. Text messaging on Windows Phone 7 is also straight forward too. Instead of using coloured bubbles to differentiate incoming and outgoing text messages, Microsoft has opted for a minimal design. Small little speech bubbles point downwards for outgoing SMS and upwards for incoming. We'd prefer a stronger visual indicator as it was often confusing to work out at a glance. MMS picture messaging is present alongside the ability to send to multiple recipients. You can also forward texts by simply holding your finger down on them and selecting the forward option, this copies the text into a new message. Simple but efficient.
If ever there was a Facebook phone then this is truly it. Facebook is at the very heart of Windows Phone 7 and it beats throughout the operating system. Synchronising and adding contacts is extremely easy. You simply add your Facebook account and relevant Gmail/Hotmail or other account and Windows Phone 7 will scan through your contacts and link them dynamically. If you have multiple contacts that haven't linked correctly then Windows Phone 7 will suggest links for those contacts under their profile page. This functionality is extremely powerful and compelling for such a device. We found a few things we'd like to see Microsoft address in future releases to increase the usability of Facebook but overall it's a great experience.
The games hub of Windows Phone 7 is the part that will excite any seasoned or casual Xbox Live gamers. If you setup your Windows Live account on the device it will pull down your Xbox Live information and display your avatar within the games hub. Microsoft also provides an Xbox Live Extras application which displays your interactive Avatar. Players can prod the Avatar and list their Xbox Live achievements. The Extras app also lists your online Xbox Live friends, why this functionality wasn't baked straight into the games hub isn't clear. A number of big names have signed up to provide Windows Phone 7 games. The marketplace, at the time of writing, includes games such as Frogger, Star Wars, The Sims 3 and Uno. Unfortunately since the marketplace is in test mode at the moment, we've been unable to fully test the functionality. Expect a feature focus article in the coming week to highlight this further.
Marketplace is the name of Microsoft's application, game and music store for Windows Phone 7. You can access the store from the Marketplace app, via the Xbox Live Hub and the Music and Video hub. Microsoft has gradually been approving a number of high profile applications during the test mode marketplace that Neowin has had access to. Applications such as Foursquare, Shazam, eBay, IMDB and Seesmic have all been recently released. Microsoft's store is a joy to use unless you're searching for something specific. Hitting the search button allows you to narrow down your search but the final results mix in applications, games and music so it's often hard to find the application you require. This leads to a frustrating experience that we hope Microsoft will address before the store hits thousands of applications. We've installed around 30 applications from the store and our list has become rather cumbersome to scroll through. We'd suggest pinning settings to the start screen as Microsoft lists applications A-Z on its classic start screen. We can imagine this would become a bigger issue for those who are app crazy and load on large amounts of apps. Microsoft's answer is to pin apps to the home screen but this only shifts the problem elsewhere. We're hopeful that a local search for applications will be provided in future OS updates. Our limited experience with the IMDB, Twitter and eBay apps shows that third party developers are embracing the metro look and feel throughout their applications. Most applications feel like they are part of the operating system.
Music and Video Hub - Zune
Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 media offerings come in the form of Zune. The Music and Video hub offers a one stop shop for all music, video, podcasts, radio and marketplace content. The only thing missing from this hub is photos. Powering your content onto the device is a slick desktop application called Zune. Most people will not be familiar with the software unless they have previously owned a Zune player. The software will ingest a range of different formats such as MP3, WMA and AAC etc. Zune doesn't support playlists from iTunes or DRM content but fully supports Zune's marketplace content. The big win here is that Microsoft will support wi-fi syncing for Windows Phone 7. Although there's a slight catch. In order for the wi-fi sync to work you'll need to plug your device into a power socket and have your PC running. Microsoft says the reasoning behind this is to prevent considerable battery drain when syncing large amounts of content. Overall the Music and Video hub offers everything you'd expect. Windows Phone 7 supports a variety of formats including MP3, WMA, AAC, MPEG and H.264. DivX and MKV formats are not supported natively but we fully expect third parties to offer separate applications for these. The music and Video hub also tracks your YouTube history and provides this to you within the hub. Windows Phone 7 users can also take advantage of the Zune pass subscription service which provides unlimited music streaming for a set price per month.
The Pictures hub is the central place to interact with photos on your Windows Phone 7 device. The hub syncs down your photos and albums from Facebook and Windows Live. The Facebook integration is solid in pictures, allowing you to save photos locally and comment on friends Facebook images. Pictures taken from the camera are also listed in the hub. Sharing to Facebook or Windows Live is a simple operation. We'd like to see Flickr available in the pictures hub, fingers crossed that will become available in the coming weeks.
Office Hub and Internet Explorer
Microsoft has also included an Office Hub for Windows Phone 7 users. Office Mobile allows you to access and edit Word and Excel documents on the road. PowerPoint editing is not included but you can read the docs on the device. OneNote is also included and syncs fully to Microsoft's SkyDrive service in the cloud. When you open an Excel sheet, it maintains the original look and feel of the file and includes graphs too. PowerPoint files retain a large majority of their transition animations and audio also.
The calendar on Outlook supports multiple calendars which are colour coded to make it easy for you to access personal appointments versus work ones. The Office experience on Windows Phone 7 is leaps and bounds from Windows Mobile 6.5. Outlook email provides an unread filter and users can also flag emails and navigate between messages quickly. You can also bulk delete content if you tap to the left of messages.
Browsing on Windows Phone 7 is surprisingly good. Despite not using the Webkit mobile standard that most other devices rely upon, Microsoft's implementation is solid. Browsing is fast and zooming in to content is quick and easy. Microsoft's ClearType technology makes fonts crisp, clear and easy to read on a small screen. Microsoft claims it's one of the fastest browsers on the market. Internet Explorer supports up to six browsing tabs and standard pinch to zoom features. You can also double tap to columns where columns will be snapped and small amounts of text word wrapping is applied. Microsoft has no commitment to support Adobe Flash 10.1 just yet. It's a question of implementation and the software maker is taking the same stance as Apple, claiming the largest use of Flash on the web is YouTube. Microsoft does not have an extensibility model inside the browser for Flash or Silverlight yet. We understand, from company insiders, that this will change very soon and Flash is on the cards in the next few months. The lack of HTML5 support could be an issue in future but Microsoft is likely to have updated the browser before HTML5 is wide spread.
And the rest...
Microsoft's virtual keyboard on Windows Phone 7 is one of the most impressive I have used on a mobile device. The implementation of a wheel for word suggestions makes it quick to pick out words before you finish typing. The target size of the keyboard increases smartly. For example if you type "th" it guesses that the next letter will likely be an "e" or "a" and increases the target size of those characters. You don't see this visually but it certainly helps for typing words. When incorrect words are picked out, it shows a wheel of suggestions and underlines the incorrect word with a red squiggly line, like Microsoft's Office products. The target area for the backspace is also reduced when you're typing to avoid mistakes.
Bing search is included on the device and baked into the maps application. Bing allows you to search for local content. For example if you type "Pizza" and swipe to local then you'll get local pizza restaurants wherever you're currently located. When you first load Bing maps the map zooms in from the clouds to your current location, a nice little animation for those using the service for the first time. Microsoft has hard coded the search button to Bing in the OS and has no plans to open this up to other search engines in the future.
Settings for the device are somewhat basic. The brightness is simply high, medium or low and automatic. On an AMOLED device the colours can be a little overpowering even on the low setting. We also found it odd that the security lock for the device has no time out. You either set it to come on every time the device is locked or not at all. There's no options to ask for a password after 15 minutes or 1 hour of inactivity.
Windows Phone 7 also supports voice recognition. By pressing and holding the start button you can use Microsoft TellMe speech features. You can use your voice to call people, start apps and search the web.
It's clear that the company has put design and implementation first over some features. The lack of copy and paste will annoy some but Microsoft has promised an update to address this and other issues in early 2011. On the plus side, the functionality the device has for social networks and the personal experience is executed extremely well.
Microsoft's approach to Windows Phone 7 is refreshing. The concept of hubs and tiles pays off across the operating system and provides a seamless and integrated experience for consumers. Although the operating system has a number of issues and feels like a work in progress in some areas, we're confident that Microsoft will address this quickly. Windows Phone 7 devices are extremely compelling smartphones at a time when many will be considering their holiday purchases. Microsoft is betting big with Windows Phone 7 and that bet has to pay off. From what we've seen, Windows Phone 7 will be a huge success for Microsoft. Although Apple's strategy and device offerings are solid, we fully expect Windows Phone 7 to eat into Android sales and recover its lost market share. Is Windows Phone 7 enough to save Microsoft's failed mobile efforts? Yes, it's a giant step in the right direction and one that the software maker will back with funding, support and development. Windows Phone 7 is a beautifully crafted work of art that you should definitely consider on your next phone.
Stay tuned to Neowin as we dive deep into each individual feature of Windows Phone 7 in the coming weeks.
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