The Next Windows Phone: It’s Pretty Great

The Next Windows Phone: It’s Pretty Great

Pleasant. That doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment, or a benchmark or like, impressive. But the truth is, most technology isn’t pleasant. The new Windows Phone is. Very much so.

It feels alive. Everything bounces. Everything swoops. Everything flips. Every single action is lushly animated. It just doesn’t sweat the details-blood was spilled. The lock screen isn’t a simple shade. It has a sense of weight and gravity; the further up you drag it before you let go, the faster it slams back down (if you don’t go through with the unlock). It’s almost like the phone is happy to be alive. Which kind of makes you feel happy to use it. No other phone is like that.

Windows Phone 7, when it launched back in October, was like a very promising baby. It was cute and reasonably genius-y for its age, but it also frequently shit the bed and was missing some teeth. By which I mean, in this painfully extended metaphor, it was missing major things like multitasking and copy & paste, piled on top of a load of other tiny deficiencies. It’s grown up quick. Now, it feels like a complete person.

So yeah, there’s multitasking. (It’s oddly the single gaudiest piece of interface on the phone. Whoever thought a gigantic, bold primary colour background was a good idea is either blind or playing a trick on us.) And copy and paste. They matter, definitely. But it’s all the little things, the tiny, uh, big decisions that Microsoft across the board that add up in a way to make Windows Phone feel whole. Like the way Microsoft’s ditched mixed usage of the search button, so now it only launches Bing-before, sometimes it launched Bing, sometimes it launched contextual searches. You never knew. Now you do. Windows Phone also feels much, much faster, and that’s even without a lot of apps re-written to take advantage of fast resume (*cough* Twitter *cough*). It’s iPhone 4 fast now, most of the time.

If anything, I sometimes wonder if Microsoft paid too much attention to the details-the way a conversation thread springs downward when you open one in mail is gorgeous, among a million other effects that shows how much they care-and not quite enough on making sure the big ideas worked perfectly. The way Windows Phone tries to re-conceive the act of searching completely contextually is radical and brilliant. And beautiful, frankly. But a lot of the local search information right now is fairly crappy. Local Scout, Bing’s handy, not-as-shitty-as-Yelp local listings feature is fantastic, in theory. In practice, a lot of the listings are outdated (the Brooklyn Star’s been open in a new spot for months now, and it’s still showing the old listing, which is now Best Pizza), suggested attractions are terribly far away (in the context of New York City), and a lot of the review sections are completely barren. Or take text-to-speech: Admittedly, my vocal range approximates a redneck gorilla after half a bottle of whiskey and four packs of cigarettes, but not a single one of the text messages I dictated, no matter how precise diction, came out correctly. (Optical and audio search were far more successful, though.)

Even without Twitter integration built-in yet—I’ve been using a very early build of Mango, so a lot of stuff isn’t finished, like Twitter and a lot of the app “hooks” Microsoft has been playing up—it’s striking how much more connected to people Windows Phone now feels than any other phone, even Android. That’s partly because of the baked-in Facebook chat (though I’d kill for Jabber/Google Talk) that’s neatly integrated with your text messages and partly because the new Groups feature lets you seriously focus on the newsfeeds and messages of the people you really care about. That, and neither of these things are siloed as apps; they’re just there. There’s something pretty satisfying about pulling up a contact and seeing your entire email/chat/text history, or their most recent pictures or Facebook updates. It just makes sense.

There’s a lot more I could talk about: how music + videos is way more usable with its redesigned UI, or how IE9 is a pretty damn good mobile web browser, or that finding stuff in the Marketplace isn’t broken anymore. Or conversely: how music streaming should work and feel more like Rdio, how there still needs to be universal search, how I’m still missing some key apps (I’ve got a list of devs for Microsoft to bribe, starting with Marco Arment and the Instagram guys), or how much more crossover I think there should be between Xbox on Windows Phone and Xbox in your living room. But the bottom line is that Windows Phone is now better and finally feeling complete across the board, even with current quirks and bugs like Facebook chat bombarding you with notifications that have to be cleared individually or Contacts’ strange requirement that numbers fit precisely into Windows Phones’ pre-designated categories for numbers. (It straight up ignores any number with a custom label.) In other words, I can’t wait to see Mango when it’s finally finished.

In the meantime, I’ll say this: Pending some killer Nokia hardware or radical Android redesign, I think the choice this fall for all but the nerdiest of nerds is going to be very simple. iPhone or Windows Phone. Nothing else is that pleasant.