Ultimately, the colorful, striking home screen is the first thing people notice about any Windows Phone 7 smartphone, and that’s a good thing. In fact, it is the best possible reaction Microsoft could hope for.
The truth is that, given the large gap between Microsoft and its competition, namely Android and the iPhone, anything less than extraordinary would have doomed Windows Phone 7 from the start. There’s a greater truth here however, one that has heretofore gone unspoken. Since U.S. Robotics’ debut of the Palm Pilot in 1996, we’ve been essentially stuck with the same look and feel for our PDAs and smartphones. Sure, Android extends the desktop metaphor a little bit, but isn’t it pretty much a Windows/Mac desktop?
So we’re happy to see something different. And we’re slightly surprised to see such a refined and polished mobile operating system. It’s not perfect. Windows Phone 7 lacks deep layers of customization, cut/copy/paste functionality, and there’s a dearth of third-party app support. But it’s different in a good way, so much so that critics are having a hard time identifying what it is about this fledgling OS that makes people so happy. That’s a good sign for Microsoft and a better sign for all of us.
We’re going to take a deeper look at the OS and pit in head-to-head battle against Google Android. Welcome to the smartphone party, Microsoft. You’re late, but we’re glad you’re here.
The core of Windows Phone 7 is the home screen and its symmetrical, Mondrian-esque arrangement of large square tiles, each of which provides entry into a basic task such as email, web browsing, games, text messaging, calendars, and more. Each tile is plainly labeled, and each account is easy to set up. We appreciate that each of our separate email inboxes was labeled independently—Outlook for our Exchange server, Comcast, Google Mail, Yahoo Mail, etc. (You can customize these account names.) Critics and users have bitched about the lack of a unified inbox that lumps all of our emails together. Our take: It’s a nicety, but not a necessity. These days, most of us use separate inboxes to reflect our various personas—worker bee, family man, pervert—so the separation makes sense.
Each of the tiles on the start screen are “live”, meaning that the OS constantly updates them with new alerts in real-time. Typically, the alerts consist of a number signifying the number of new emails or items to process, but in the case of the calendar, specific meeting details are displayed. Microsoft’s decision to use larger tile icons than Android, Blackberry, and iOS is key; all three competing mobile operating systems notify you of updates on the home screen, but the WP7 design makes it much easier to see these updates at a glance. One other nice touch is that the lock screen itself notifies you of new email, calendar entries, and text messages. Neither Apple nor Android does this.
We were pleased to discover that, across the board, this interface consistently removes one to two steps from almost every single smartphone task we perform on a day to day basis. The only real exception to this is the ability to pick up news, weather, and sports scores via the desktop widgets that Android permits.
As a general rule, the level of customization consistently disappointed us. You can customize the placement of individual tiles on the Start screen—an extended press on an icon allows you to drag it around the home screen and place it wherever you’d like. You can also “pin” just about anything—applications, websites, photos, games, people, podcasts, and more—to the home screen in the same manner. After just under a week of usage, we wanted to adjust the color and/or size of individual tiles. We wanted to leave a row of tiles blank in order to group our applications. None of this is possible.
The inability to customize the Windows Phone 7 OS at deeper levels is our most substantial gripe. In our minds, customization equals optimization and, as a general rule we want to be able to mold our mobile experience at the interface, text, and input levels.
Email and Office
Unrealistically, we expected that because Exchange and Outlook are Microsoft products, Outlook in Windows Phone 7 would function in some kind of special manner. We were misguided. Performance around message delivery and syncing is identical. The interface and color design is vastly superior to Android’s email client. It’s amazing how a shift to black text on a white background—you know, the way we actually read most of the text in our lives—works wonders for legibility. (Android phones’ default mode uses white/colored text on a black background.)
SMS Texting in Windows Phone 7 utilizes a threaded approach, with each SMS conversation housed in a separate window. One aspect of SMS/MMS messaging that we appreciate is that it’s really easy to attach images to your messages. Click the attach icon, and you’re good.
We cheered the presence of Microsoft Office, which allows us to create and edit Word and Excel documents, and edit .PPT decks from the convenience of our smartphone. One minor disappointment is that you can only save your documents locally or on a Sharepoint server—we want to be able to save our docs to Microsoft’s cloud-based Skydrive service.
Given the prevalence of touchscreen smartphones, one of the most important aspects of mobile operating systems is the quality of the virtual keyboard. We confess to feeling initially disappointed by Windows Phone 7 here. Compared to the iOS and Android keyboards, it feels too small and the keys are too crowded, particularly in landscape mode. One of Android’s great strengths is that you can swap out the default keyboard for a handful of other high-quality opotions. We expect (and hope) that we’ll soon see a series of third-party replacement keyboards for sale in the Windows Phone marketplace. We were pleased to discover that the virtual keyboard’s adaptive traits were top-notch. It constantly adapted to and corrected the errors caused by our clumsy, meaty thumbs.
Games, Music, People, and More
One other significant change in Windows Phone 7 is the way the OS treats your friends and social networks. Instead of shunting your social life into a series of applications,, Microsoft has created a dedicated channel—People—that allows you to keep track of all of your real and faux friends’ posts, status updates, and more. It functions in a similar manner to Blackberry 6’s aggregate social view, but looks prettier. This aggregated people view also extends to the Photos category of the OS—here you can see all of your friends’ most recent photo posts.
For existing Zune users (like us), the integrated Zune support is a beautiful thing; it essentially means that every WinPhone is also a Zune HD. This means that you can download and stream all of the Zune catalog of music, podcasts, and videos. The only exception to this rule is that, for some reason you can’t stream or download Zune music channels. The most important thing to know is that the Zune PC software functions as a sync client for WinPhone devices in the same manner that iTunes does for iPhones. Plugging your device into your PC initiates an automatic two-way sync (if you prefer), although you can also set up your phone to sync with your home PC via the wireless network.
Microsoft created a lot of hype around the built-in integration with Xbox Live, which is simultaneously a category for downloading and playing games as well as a way to keep track of your Xbox Live achievements, score, and more. One nice touch is that you can download a trial version of every single game in the marketplace. At launch, there were only 20+ games available for download; this will have (hopefully) increased substantially by the time you read this.
At launch, app support is clearly Windows Phone 7’s biggest weakness in comparison to Google and Android. It will take Microsoft many months to catch up to the massive app libraries available on Android and iPhone and the truth is that, in terms of raw numbers, it will never fully catch up. At launch, some hyper-basic categories such as instant messaging, Dropbox, and Google Voice weren’t available. That’s a big concern because it probably reflects a wait-and-see attitude by third-party app developers. Still though, it’s probably just a matter of time before we see thousands of apps across all major categories.
Days after the launch, one of Maximum PC’s Facebook fans, I Jedi, summed up the key question around Windows Phone 7: What is Microsoft bringing to the table that will encourage adoption of its platform? It’s a fair question. Upon launch, it seems that Windows Phone 7 meets at least two key criteria for standing apart from the competition - mainly, the user interface design is so strikingly different that everyone wants to touch it. That’s a great start.
Beyond this, the fact that 95% of the world uses some incarnation of Windows presents a massive opportunity for Microsoft to bring more power and more functionality to the table. We’re intrigued by Windows Phone 7 for what it does well—interface and interoperability—and for what it can do in the future. In 12 months time, we envision a mobile OS with built-in remote connectivity to our desktop, our media server, and our home network. We envision a massive games library, with deep hooks to our Windows and Xbox games. We see built-in file sharing via SkyDrive. And yes, we see cut and paste.
The 12-18 month smartphone upgrade cycle we all live by means that Microsoft has definitely inserted itself into the smartphone conversation. We’ll see what happens next.
Deathmatch: Windows Phone 7 vs. Android
Previously, in Smartphone Deathmatches: In a surprise upset, Google Android bested both Blackberry and Apple iOS on the merits of its customization, flexibility, and rapidly swelling application support. This month, we’re tossing Windows Phone 7 in the cage with the iPhone killer. Can Microsoft’s fledgling mobile OS hold its own against a pack of angry Androids? It’s time to find out.
Round 1: Ease of Use
The Windows Phone home screen is everything we want in a phone; attractive, dynamic, and functional. Android’s home screens are more customizable and we love the ability to place widgets but ultimately, the desktop metaphor feels a little dated. WinPhone’s use of categories trumps the all-in-one approach of Android. Overall, Microsoft has a created a much easier at-a-glance interface. We considered penalizing Windows Phone 7 for the absence of cut/paste, but then we tried to remember the last time we used it on our phone, and could not.
WINNER: WINDOWS PHONE
Round 2: Flexibility and Customization
Microsoft has emphasized simplicity in its mobile operating system, and the end result is that, aside from the ability to tweak the colors and position of the tiles on the home page, you can’t change very much of the interface at all. We love Android in this regard, which allows us an abundance of control over our mobile environment. You can change pretty much every single element of the desktop, applications, and power management settings.
Round 3: Application and Developer Support
Android has over 100,000 apps. At launch, Windows Phone only had a few thousand, and was missing some big categories, such as all Google apps (no surprise there), Instant Messenging, and more. Over time, Microsoft will catch up—and WinPhone’s use of achievements in games is novel—but right now, this category is a no-brainer.
Round 4: Email and Messaging
Both operating systems’ email clients are easy to set up and offer built-in support for Exchange, Gmail, Yahoo, and POP. Microsoft’s interface and color design is slightly superior to Android, mostly because we can see three lines of text in the default view. Although Windows Phone’s threaded SMS text messaging looks and feels better than Android, you can download superior third-party text clients from the Android Marketplace. This one’s too close to call, mostly because both email clients are top-notch.
Round 5: Media Storage and Playback
Android is fairly open source in the manner it deals with media. You can sync up music using Windows Media Player, or any other sync client (except Zune and iTunes), and you can drag/drop directly from Windows to your device. Windows Phone works extremely well with Zune, which allows you access to a massive music library for $15 per month, and also grants you a la carte access to movies and TV shows. And you can sync your phone wirelessly with your PC.
WINNER: WINDOWS PHONE
Round 6: Photos and Storage
These days, almost all of us are walking around with the equivalent of several rolls of film in our pockets. The question, as always, is what the hell do we do with all these photos? Both Android and Windows Phone offer easy ways of viewing pictures we’ve taken. This said, Windows Phone’s ability to upload photos automatically to Facebook or SkyDrive, and the ability to view all of our friends’ photographs as well, is so innovative we wish we’d thought of it.
WINNER: WINDOWS PHONE
And the Winner Is…
The fact that Microsoft is in the mobile conversation at all feels like a minor miracle. When Microsoft announced that it was delaying Windows Phone 7 earlier this year, we thought that was the kiss of death. Instead, holy cow! This is a unique, good-looking mobile operating system. It’s still a 1.0 version, and doesn’t come close to approaching the levels of customization available to Android users. But between the intuitive use of categories for basic smartphone tasks, Zune integration, and a cleaner look and feel, we have to declare Windows Phone the winner.
One final thought: one of the things we haven’t mentioned in this Deathmatch is battery life. Ultimately, it wouldn’t be fair because hardware and battery size/type are a big part of the equation. However, our tests have made it clear that the Windows Phone OS is far less battery-intensive than Android. As we see more devices, we’ll investigate further.