Windows Phone 7 Review: We Have Ourselves A Race

Let's just get it out of the way: Windows Phone 7 is the most exciting thing to happen to phones in a long time.

There's a million reasons why Windows Phone 7 matters. It's the most important PC company in the world, battered, bruised and badly lagging, coming back to the next generation of PCs, after crashing on a bunch of rocks and abandoning ship. It's potentially the most tectonic shift in mobile since the launch of iPhone and Android over three years ago. It's Microsoft starting over and betting massively on its future. It's a very different kind of Microsoft product. It could be the beginning of something truly great.

I've been using Windows Phone 7 off and on since a preview build in July, when I detailed as much of Windows Phone as possible in excruciating detail (so that's where you should go for the deep explanations). Most of that still holds up.

Windows Phone 7 is the most aggressively different, fresh approach to a phone interface since the iPhone. Everything is super flat and two dimensional. Ultra-basic squares, primary colours and lists. Fonts are gigantic and clean, white text on an almost universally black void. It's fluid. The spartan nature is emblematic of the entire OS, for better and for worse. You don't get a lot of choices. There are no custom ringtones, for instance. It just is how it is. And while it looks and feels very different in some regards, it's uncanny just how inspired Windows Phone is by the iPhone in its underpinnings, versus anything else Microsoft has ever made.

The interface is oriented around three core concepts. There are Hubs, which are essentially panoramic apps that span multiple screens. Ironically, what really proves the Hub concept works are the third-party apps that use it. It works perfectly with Twitter, Foursquare and Facebook, swiping over a screen to get to mentions, or to see your friends' check-ins. Live Tiles, the home screen's icons, update themselves with fresh info, like email counts, though they don't go far enough to replace bona fide widgets. And the app bar is semi-persistent menu/taskbar in apps hiding actions, like to start a new email or switch tabs in Internet Explorer - a necessarily evil, given how radically Microsoft has reduced the onscreen UI.

The core OS is very good, if embryonic in some ways, much like the original iPhone. It's really up to the apps to make Windows Phone usable. Microsoft won't have 250,000 at launch, but true to their word, it seems like they'll have a lot of what's needed, with the early launch apps feeling surprisingly. (That said, it's still way too tricky to find things, especially given there ain't that much in the store yet.) It could be the best platform launch yet. Foursquare is tidy. The Twitter app is second only to iPhone. The Facebook app is phenomenal in form and function, better than the iPhone (though it makes the integrated Facebook stuff in the People seem crappier by comparison). The Xbox Live games are excellent, for the most part. Missing still from the App Marketplace and from the phone itself? A decent messaging app.

The lack of third-party multitasking itself isn't a pain, per se, but the way the phone quickly "dehydrates" third-party apps like Twitter or games once the lock screen engages is seriously detrimental to the overall smoothness of the experience, like smashing into a road bump every mile or so while cruising in Ferrari down the autobahn. Copy and paste is coming next year, but I didn't really miss it.

Overall, you can see where Microsoft is going with things, and it's dead on, but sometimes you wish it would be there already, just like you sense what iPhone 4.0 would be like right after playing with an iPhone for the first time. I want Windows Phone 8.

Windows Phone is different, and very good at the same time. Difference is something I value a bit too much, perhaps, but it's partly why we were so blown away by webOS, too. The flatness of the UI is exceptionally stylised, and some people might hate it, I dig the utter essentialism of it, at least when it doesn't get in the way of function. The design is thoughtful overall - notifications for a text message or new achievement slide over the top of the screen in non-intrusive way.

Except for the desktop side, where things like Live.com still feel sprawling and messy, it's a nearly perfect melange of Microsoft services - Bing, Zune, Xbox, Office - in a cohesive, logical and typically beautiful way. (Though the more tied into Microsoft you are, the better experience you'll have, like Google and Android.) The native apps are almost gratuitously tasty eye candy. As a location loads up in Bing Maps, a fog fades away from the map. The Outlook mail app makes email look crispy in a good way. Even IE doesn't suck, responding and loading smoothly, though anything that renders poorly in desktop IE will do so on the phone. It feels like Microsoft at its best.

Microsoft's approach deftly balances the cloud and the phone. When I turned on the first for the time, I plugged in all of my account info, and my contacts, emails and Xbox Live account all appeared instantly, the way they should. But I can also move the phone from PC to Mac and back without any problems to pull in all of the right photos and music from both machines. It's a wonderful agnosticism.

Earning Xbox Live achievements standing in line at a coffee shop is pretty baller.

Remember how iTunes wasn't so bad, and then Apple kept pinning on feature after feature, bloating it into a massive, disgusting corpus? Yeah, well, the Zune desktop client is slowly meeting the same fate, now that's it used to sync Windows Phone and as the desktop browser for the app marketplace. Zune's interface works pretty well for music and videos! Not so much as a phone and app manager. The integration feels awkward, like Microsoft was trying to figure where to stick the phone and just went "aha, Zune!" For instance, you can't actually see the apps on the phone in the Zune client. On the other hand, the radically simple Mac sync client won't even let you pull pictures off the phone. In general, the platform's weakest link is anything designed by people outside of Windows Phone - the Live site is still kinda messy and blah, for instance.

This is an active interface. You're going to be constantly swiping, flicking and manipulating it. That's because of in pursuit of the stark aesthetic, there's a radical reduction in elements on screen. Take the home screen, which only fits eight tiles at once - so to get to something else, you've gotta swipe down to your other tiles. (The iPhone gives you access to 20 items; Android 2.2, up to 19 items.) Or worse, if it's in the loooong list to the right of home, you've gotta swipe to the right, then flick down the list to get to the app you want, since there's no universal search to call up apps. It's more annoying with email, since there's no singular email app. Every email account creates its own tile, which sucks when real estate is so valuable. And then you've got situations where the text runs off the screen in lists, like "Star Wars: Battle Fo" in Xbox Live.

The app marketplace organisation and app discoverability could use some work, both on the phone and on the desktop. Browsing for apps is the single most painful experience of Windows Phone. Loading app lists takes forever, and it's the one time the phone ever becomes totally non-responsive. Grabbing an app requires confirming and reconfirming like 6000 times. It just needs to be a better experience, all around.

There's still some very 1.0 tendencies that are like bad flashbacks to the original iPhone. I'm reading Twitter. I lock the phone and put it in my pocket to buy a pack of gum. A minute later, I pull it back out to read Twitter. Press unlock. I'm hit by a "Resuming...." screen. Then all the tweets have to reload. There's no multitasking in WP7, and I'm using a phone with a 1GHz processor and 512MB of RAM, but I have to sit through a de facto loading screen every time I lock and unlock the phone with an app running? Apps may dehydrate and rehydrate themselves to preserve battery life, but the user experience of that right now is jarring and crappy.

Windows Phone 7 is really great. A lot of that greatness is potential. But if anybody can follow through on their platform it is Microsoft. Should you buy this instead of an iPhone or Android phone? In six months, after the ecosystem has filled out and we get a much clearer picture of what the app scene is going to look like, the answer will be more definitive. But right now, it's definitely an option. Considering where Microsoft was just a year ago, that's saying a hell of a lot.


Comments

    the thing is
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    ....
    this phone is too damn ugly, bring some good design ones MS!

      what you mean is how do you expect the image obsessed iphone customer to switch to this ugly phone (which isn't actually ugly). don't they know form is much more important than function these days?

    pfft, its insulting you'd call it a 'next generation PC'

    Microsoft have managed to take the 'C' and especially the 'P' out of it...

    as I said before, its an iphone clone in every way that counts, and while offering a range of hardware, all the choices are worse and/or more expensive than the current iphone anyway...

    and I really really really REALLY don't know WHY anyone would pick one of these over an iphone.

    except, of course, for the xbl integration.

      iphone clone?

      by your definition, the iphone is a clone of a palm/pda

      not sure what your trying to get at.

        no... my definition is:

        - it is locked down and controlled by the company. with very few customizable features. (interface ect)

        - does it have flash? or just silverlight...

        - third party software can only be accessed on the device through the one distribution service, owned, controlled and run by the company.

        - you must use the company's own sdk, that only runs on the latest versions of the company's own Desktop OS, and even uses a programming language that only that company really uses.

        - you must pay the company to put apps on the one and only distribution service, and even then, it is entirely at their discretion.

        - loading any media on the device has to be drip fed through they company's own proprietary 'syncing' software.

        no, obviously im not an iphone fanboy, if I was, I would be really happy about Winmo 7! because its more of the same thing!

        and for every instance where it doesn't copy iphone, it seems worse..

        so again, I ask. why would you buy this over the iphone?

        quite right then. but having this level of control makes the overall user experience better for the average consumer.

        as a android owner/user i envy the iphone and windows phone 7 platforms as a cohesive and well developed environment for apps and user experiences.

        the android devices are too fragmented, albeit great for phone companies pushing distinctive software, it really is a mess of broken apps, crashes and inconsistent experiences and interfaces. thus the push to gingerbread and beyond

        @Matt

        I'd get this over the iPhone because of hardware differentiation and a totally new revolutionary UI, as well as social integration. The xbox integration looks fun, though I dont have an xbox and frankly dont need one to make my own avatar :D.
        Like I stated earlier, played with it here in Sydney, and it totally makes my iPad look and feel old, it just feels modern, it gives choice, not everyone wants an iPhone. Most who didn't get an iPhone got Android, but are regretting it due to its fragmentation, WP7 IS the true iPhone competitor. Android is googles take on symbain and windows mobile 6.
        Where it doesnt copy the iPhone it gets worse? In what regard?. Social integration is something iPhone doesnt have. How is it bad? not having to open an application to upload photos or comment on someones status is actually very convenient, as well as being able to pin anything to the homescreen (playlist, people etc) Taking photos is also alot faster, as well as how it manages notifications just to name a few 'differences'. Microsoft basically used the same goals as the iPhone, but implemented it differently to give a totally different experience. The iPhones goals was similar to pda in that you have a touch smartphone which could download apps from the net, they implemented it differently by making it a closed system to make it easier for people to get apps, rather than having to download it from websites.
        IMO, iOS is limited to its homescreen UI which is basically just an app launcher.

      Matt, I'll tell you why I'll buy a WP7 devoice over an iPhone -
      1. I can choose a handset that suits me, instead of being forced to take what Apple deems best for me. e.g. SuperAMOLED is superior to the Retina Display, as any side-by-side test will show.
      2. Zune is a great application and I already have it on my computer.
      3. After all the iPhone 4 problems, you'd have to be an idiot to trust Apple. OTOH, Microsoft have been kicking a few goals lately and I can choose a manufacturer I also trust.
      4. Most importantly, I have played with both side-by-side and I think that WP7 is just better. I like the design of the iPhone 4 a lot but I'd happily take a Mozart over it, based on the overall experience. Omnia 7 will be even more desirable.

    I actually really like it. However I'm not one to jump straight into the latest and supposedly greatest (read: iphone fanboys et al :) j/k) I'll wait until er, SP2? until I make a decision as to whether or not it'll actually be worthwhile. It's like anything with technology these days though really, you don't buy 1.0, you wait. For now, loving the Google/Android ecosystem too much to want to change, and after having suffered the iphone ecosystem (even though it was intuitive) was a breath of fresh air.

    Wow... all new stuff by Microsoft... good for them but i really don't care! I found it more amusing that the word "iPhone" appears 11 times in the article... saying something? I think so!

      Matt2.....Really? I think you need to get off the Steve Jobs nipple and look at the history of iPhone. I is the product now because it has gone through 4 major changes and they still get the arial wrong ... as for locking things down can you say iTunes or anything i.......

      The WP7 phone are a great option for people that just want a phone with intergration that will work.

      As for iPhone being metioned 11 times, get real it is an article about a new entry into a market so of course there will be comparisons

      I personally didnt get an iPhone because I want the thing I buy to actually do something when I get it, not to rely on multiple microtransaction bought apps to make it usable.

      I dare you to use an iPhone with no apps installed or add up the cost of the apps you have D/L.

    I think Matt here is a fanboy of the iPhone!

    I don't care what iPhone users say about it, it looks neat, the only appealing thing over the iPhone for this is the fact that I can write my own software for it without needing an overpriced Mac just to get started

      this is a fragile argument. because like how iphone dev must be done on mac, winmo dev MUST be done on windows... vista or win7 for that matter.

      so there is no real moral victory for MS here.

      but on a practical level, being a PC user, yes, that is a plus, though there are... ways... to easily do iphone dev on PC.

        I was thinking about getting into developing for the iPhone, but the SDK requires Intel Chipset and my Powerbook is too old...
        I do have a brand spanking new HP Laptop from work so any ideas on how to use the SDK there would be a bonus. I am thinking VM...

    can't wait! lucky kiwis

    Just came back from the Telstra shop after playing with one. Makes the iPhone OS look outdated and just look plain boring (wish my iPad had this OS). So getting the Omnia7 outright when it becomes available.

    I really like the look of WP7 and would defintely consider it when my contract comes up for renewal next month, but the lack of tethering is a complete deal breaker.

    Microsoft needs to give people everything that apple and google are plus something extra/better in order to really get people on board. Leaving things like cut and paste and tethering out isn't going to help their cause at all.

    Not enough to persuade me against getting an Iphone 4. Been using the iPhone 3G since it launched and love it. Will sign up for IP4 soon, was looking forward to checking out windows phone but its not quite there at the moment. I will check em out in 2 years time.

    I will be getting one of these win phone 7's i like the hd7 personally. I've had iphones since the 2g came out and now everyone i know that has a mobile, has an iphone (even my grandparents!), so i think its time to move on :)

    I've had an iPhone 3g for some time now. i used to love it but its officially just a phone now.

    i was eager to get an iphone 4 but i honestly have had it on order since launch. had 2 on order and my wifes one has come in now but still waiting for mine.

    im quite interested in all the competitors now.
    im an anti apple fan boy, i really dispise them but for what i wanted from a phone a "Jailbroken" iPhone is exactly what i wanted.

    these new win phones look like they may also be what i want.

    I'll ikely still get the iphone 4 but mainly cos im still interested to see how win phone 7 develops.
    id say that by the time im ready for a 4g or LTE phone (hopefully within 2 years) jumping camps will be a great idea

      In 2 years time the iPhone will be running Photoshop CS7 and WP7 will be just getting copy and paste. I exaggerate but one of the things Apple does really well is iterate like clockwork. Maybe one reason why they have won so many users over the last few years. People can trust that they are in it for a long time. I don't think we are too many software updates away from more dynamic app icons or a re-jigged notification system. Much respect to Microsoft for throwing their pocket protectors out the window and starting fresh on this. It's the first windows product where I'm intrigued enough to have a play with it.

    Given the latest piece of rubbish I purchased from Microsoft (Office 2007) I could not ever again purchase anything associated with brand. I expect the phone will also consume more time in learning how to interface with it to the detriment of actually communicating with the world.

    Complaints complaints ...
    I see lots of whinging here. It's a personal choice. People try to compare to what they like or used to. Its like my friend got a new GF but whinge about how she does not do things like his ex-GF. But later found out that the one has things he did not experience before and he kind of liked that. Its a new version of a total rebuild people. Give it time. Just like the first iPhone was not so great , so is this one. It is NOT A CLONE OF iPHONE, and that is why Microsoft wanted something different unlike the Android which copied the iPhone to the max. Personally I like the interface. I am bit over the icons scroll left/right. I use Zune everyday and I am used to it. Microsoft will listen to users comments and improve definitely. I can do without multi-tasking for the moment as it drains battery life. I don't see copy and paste as being ultra required but a nice to have. Tethering is missing but not really important right now. All these will come as update next year. The social networking is well integrated and that is nice.
    So it a choice. If you don't like it, keep what you have and be happy :)

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