Microsoft Windows Phone 7 review

4 out of 5

For

Refreshing and innovative design, looks great, excellent use of backgrounds and flowing text, Zune offering looks comprehensive, online find, lock and wipe options

Against

Early days for a new OS, no internet video support, copy and paste not available yet, no Twitter integration, Marketplace and Xbox Live still relative unknowns

Built from the ground up with a “relentless focus on the consumer”, Windows Phone 7 finds Microsoft trying to re-assert itself in a market it practically invented and catastrophically lost a grip on. Failure to develop and evolve saw Windows Mobile progressively fall from grace. But that is now history and when dealing with Windows Phone 7, we barely need to mention Windows Mobile again. That’s done. Finished. Irrelevant to this discussion, apart from saying that this is a whole different story. Microsoft is aiming high, it's pulled out all the stops, launching on multiple devices globally.

Here we are not interested in the hardware - that will follow - here we are looking at what we've seen of the new software so far. If you want to know what hardware there is, what networks it’s on (in the UK) and what our first impressions were of these devices, then head over to our Windows Phone 7 homepage

In composing this review we have used three devices: the HTC HD7, the Samsung Omnia 7 and the LG Optimus 7; one handset from each of the major launch partners for Windows Phone 7. Of these we know that the HTC HD7 wasn’t final firmware, but having three devices, we can iron out those quirks that are down to Microsoft and those that are tied up in hardware issues. We’ve also been running some beta software applications, but again, the LG devices were free from those, so we should have a good balance when it comes to the overall user experience of Windows Phone 7.

 

Less stop and stare, more glance and go

Yes, we’ve stolen Microsoft’s own tagline, but it seems fitting as this is the idea behind the design of Windows Phone 7 - keeping you informed about the important things simply and easily. 

Starting with the lock screen, Windows Phone 7 doesn’t just ask you to unlock to enter the device, it contains a range of information, as well as letting you customise the wallpaper to whatever you want. Windows Phone 7 isn’t unique in this sense, but we like what you get here: big time and date, notifications across the bottom of the screen to show your missed calls, messages, emails, but most impressively, your calendar appointment and venue. Just as Microsoft says, you really can glance at it and know what is going on.

Compare this to the iPhone, which really requires you to unlock the phone to find out what's been going on, and Windows Phone 7 is better placed. Android, with all its various skins is equally adept, the top notification bar usually showing you that something needs your attention, or with the likes of Samsung's drag and drop puzzle pieces taking you directly to your messages.

Additionally the lock screen will also give you controls over your music player. Grab the phone out of your pocket and hit the button to look at the lock screen and a drop-down music controller appears when you are playing music. This will let you pause and skip tracks. It is a universal sound control area, so will also let you switch the ringer to vibrate, and the volume keys remain live when the device is locked so you can always change the volume of your tunes. The same drop-down audio menu can be triggered by pressing the volume button, wherever you are in the device.

What are less glance and go are the general phone status icons. These are hidden at the top of the device, and tapping at the top will see the reception bars, battery status and so on drop down. Often they will be hidden, with only the time on show, waiting for you to enquire after this information before it is shown.

Swipe the screen up and you find yourself at the homepage or Start screen. Wherever you are in the device, hitting the mandatory central Start button on the phone will bring you back here. This screen is also completely customisable.

 

Gentleman, Start your engines

Like the lock screen, the Start screen is designed to be informative and engaging without having to do anything. The screen is made from live tiles which drop into a grid of sorts, the tiles being either square or rectangular, with some getting the “double tile” treatment.

Double tiles are used to give some things greater prominence, firstly to break up the Start screen visually, but also to give you more information. The calendar tile is double so you can read text within it, which is useful; the photo tile is double so you get more of a picture, which is pretty. Microsoft hasn’t always done pretty before, but it certainly does now.

In terms of customisation you can add and remove tiles from the Start screen, as well as change all the colours. There are two background options, either light or dark, and a selection of colours which change the overall colour-theme of your device. This will change the colour used to highlight information, the tiles, links and so on. From a visual point of view some might think the big blocks of colour look a little basic, but their live nature adds interest.

Of the devices we’ve been using, each has had the default colours of the network in place - red for Vodafone, orange for Orange, blue for O2 - but you can simply pick what looks right for you. There is only a basic selection and we’re surprised that there is no colour wheel to pick a custom shade - perhaps we’ll be seeing an app from someone like Dulux offering to colour match your phone to any shade you show the camera?

Sitting to the side of the Start screen is an arrow that opens the list of applications on your phone. This includes everything, from the dialler to apps you download. This continually grows into a massive list, but each and every item can be pinned to the Start screen as you see fit. We’re yet to see what sort of implication this has on usability, as the Marketplace is yet to really get up and running, but we’ve had no problems filling the Start screen with extra applications.

The core Hubs are represented by tiles and it’s in these tiles that you get the best example of their live status, for example your Xbox avatar will popup in the Xbox Live games tile, your Pictures tile gets a background from one of your pictures, the Music and Videos tile will pick up a background from an artist you sampled in the Zune Marketplace, and the People tile has constantly changing pictures taken from your contacts.

Pinning a contact to the Start screen again gives them an animated tile. One click takes you through to their contact page so you can call, message or mail them, or view their updates. We’ll cover contacts in more detail further on. You can also pin a browser shortcut to your Start screen which gives you a thumbnail of that page, which is nice, direct and to the point.

 

Hubs, Hubs, Hubs

Hubs are the name of the game for Windows Phone 7. For those that don’t know, Microsoft has outlined a number of core Hubs for the platform: People, Pictures, Music and Video, Office, Games and Marketplace. These Hubs underpin the Windows Phone 7 experience.

Outside of these Hubs you have the other essential elements, such as phone functions, messaging, email, calendar, maps and the internet browser. Together these cover the basic offering from Windows Phone 7. In addition to this, manufacturers have also been able to create their own Hubs, into which they can pile a collection of extras - we’ve already seen some of what the HTC hub has to offer, for example, but we won’t delve into that here - we’ll save that for when we are reviewing the specific device concerned.

 

Party People

Smartphones are about people, or so everyone says. It’s the people experience that has made HTC Sense on Android devices like the HTC Desire so popular. Windows Phone 7 doesn’t offer quite the same degree of connectivity with social networks that HTC Sense or Motoblur does, and we suspect that has something to do with Microsoft wanting to push Windows Live as a social network in its own right.

On starting your Windows Phone you’re invited to log into your Windows Live account, in a similar way as you are invited to log into your Google account on an Android device. Windows Phone 7 supports Google (and Google Apps accounts) too so your email, contacts and calendar will fall into place. 

Facebook is the core service here for Windows Phone 7, and after plugging in your details, you’ll find your Facebook friends falling into place. This functionality isn’t unique to Windows Phone 7, of course, Android has been doing this for yonks and even BlackBerry offers the same functionality, but it does mean you can easily populate your People Hub without going near a computer.

The People Hub is divided into three areas: a list of all your contacts, with pictures and BIG names, a “what’s new” screen and finally a recent screen. You can search, with instant results returning your contacts by name, with the option to hit “search Google directory” to return results beyond names, so you can search by company name for example.

Adding contacts is simple - you just plug in their details, but that’s not how people really add contacts. Microsoft has responded to the lack of copy and paste as a feature in Windows Phone 7 (it is promised for early 2011), but instead it's talked about smart tags. Smart tags essentially pick up on pertinent information so your the phone can do the right thing.

It works to a point and that point is that it picks up on things like phone numbers and makes it easy to add them to contacts (or you can select an email address and make a new contact). So harvesting that sort of information from emails to build up your “people” is easy, but one part of the smart links didn’t work as we’d have liked.

If we’re being honest, the time we use copy and paste the most is to extract address information from an email invitation and paste it into either the calendar, browser or maps. You can happily get a map for a contact, but we found that addresses were ignored in emails, so the information is trapped and you are left to write it on the back of your hand and then key it in where you want it. We also found that our Google or Windows Live calendar location info wasn’t picked up on, so again, we had no way of accessing it.

Despite the lack of “wider” social network integration, you can view other feeds by linking your Windows Live account to other social services. We found this pulled in LinkedIn updates nicely, but in the absence of a LinkedIn app, this is a one-way process.

You get Outlook support as you’d expect and for those planning on using their Windows Phone as a business device, you get Exchange support too, including appointments. With our Google accounts we found we had folder/label support, so we could sync the “All Mail” folder, and then use it for searching - particularly useful if you find yourself having to refer back to emails whilst on the move.

Emails look fantastic and we found that they displayed well, although at times we found that emails didn’t download the text until we had clicked on an attached document, at which point all the text fell into place. We’re not sure if this is a small bug, but it was an issue that was easily resolved by downloading the attached doc - as an intermittent issue it is difficult to judge.

One of the quirks of Windows Phone 7 is what you can attach to emails. Start writing an email and the attach "paperclip" option only lets you add a photo. There is no direct option to attach another type of file. However, if you venture into Office you can opt to send files via email. Hopefully Microsoft will see the benefit of linking these up so you can attach docs to emails from the email itself.

Pictures

Pictures are pulled in from your Facebook account and from Windows Live, although sneakily the “albums” only contain a single thumbnail until you open them up to browse further. The arrangement of your photos is slightly odd, as there are a number of views that aren’t immediately obvious.

Enter through the Pictures tile and you’ll find those signature wrapping backgrounds (customisable) lifted from your photos. The first view gives you your local pictures and your camera roll, with a “what’s new” page you can swipe to where you’ll find updated Facebook pictures from your contacts. You can browse these photos and flick through the gallery they came from, leaving comments as you go. Essentially is reflects the Photos tab of your Windows Live account.

Flick the other way in the Photos hub and you get the option to view All. This will then open up your Facebook and Windows Live photo albums so you can browse (having let them download of course). If you want to use a photo (say to add to a contact, or share via email, MMS or on Facebook) then you’ll need to save it locally to your phone. A long press gives you this option, as it does from images online too.

Every Windows Phone has a camera and you can elect to have all your pictures automatically uploaded to your SkyDrive which forms part of your Windows Live account. In the menu is the option to share, or a “quick upload” option which you can set to SkyDrive or Facebook, for one-click uploads. Photos can also be geotagged too, if you wish. You get pinch zooming on photos if you need to inspect them a little closer.

 

Music & Video Hub: Welcome to Zune

The Music & Video Hub handles a wide range of content, again all lovingly displayed with wrapping wallpapers as you swipe through the screens. Broken down into music, video, podcasts, radio and Marketplace, it pulls together your media in one place, except photos, of course.

The Zune desktop software gets a phone tab and a range of settings that apply to your phone, which includes a software update option, and everything is relatively comprehensive; you have options of what happens to photos when you connect your phone, how media is converted, whether the video resolution is altered and so on. The Zune software also lets you sync wirelessly, but you’ll need your PC on and your phone plugged into the wall (i.e., charging). You can always download the Zune software and take it for a test drive if you are in two minds - it’s free.

Mac users will have to wait and see what options they are offered: Microsoft has suggested that syncing is coming to Mac, but as for the form and function, all we can say is watch this space.

You’ll need a Zune account and you’ll need to get your credit card handy if you intend to buy on the fly: essentially the Zune Marketplace offers the same sort of experience as iTunes does on the iPhone. There is plenty of preview material, so you can sample songs before you buy. Once you buy, you download to the device, can sync to your PC and share around your other devices as it is DRM free. Alternatively, you could take the Zune Pass option (something we didn’t test), which gives you unlimited music streaming for a cost. We’ve already seen confirmation from Spotify that it’ll be producing a rival app, so you will have choices.

The music player itself is easy to use, with big album art and links into the Zune Marketplace to encourage you to buy more from the same artist. The FM radio needs the headphones to act as an aerial and lets you save favourites for easy access; you can use the speaker too to broadcast your radio rather than having to listen to it through the headphones.

At an OS level, Windows Phone 7 supports AAC, H.264, MP3, MPEG4, WMA and WMV, although Microsoft admits that other apps may play other formats, a little like the situation you find on Android. Obviously we’d like to see wider format support, particularly to cater for easy video syncing with the likes of DivX and MKV.

 

Games and Marketplace

Marketplace offers a number of access points on Windows Phone 7, the first is via Zune Marketplace as mentioned above, the second is directly through the Marketplace app, finally you can jump in from the Xbox Live Hub. Frustratingly there seems to be little separation between them when you use search in the Marketplace, with results being returned not only from apps, but also artists and albums. Search for “eBay” for example, and your're faced with some album results before you find the official eBay application.

Marketplace gets the same rolling wallpapers as elsewhere on the device, picking up a theme from a featured app. It is then divided into Applications, Games and Music. We also know that manufacturers will be able to tinker here slightly, but again, we’ll deal with any of these issues as and when we look at specific handsets.

When we started playing with Windows Phone 7 a week ago, we’d say that the Marketplace was a rather desolate place. This was one of the problems that Windows Mobile suffered and it’s key to attracting new users to the handsets. As we’ve been playing with Windows Phone 7, more interesting apps have been coming online - eBay, the Tesco shopping app previewed on launch day, Shazam. These are names we are familiar with, and now we sit and wait for the Marketplace to officially launch on 21 October to really see whether Windows Phone 7 is going to offer everything we expect as soon as it hits the shops. At the moment the jury is out.

The Xbox Live “integration” is one of the areas that has got a lot of attention for Windows Phone 7 - leveraging one of Microsoft’s strongest consumer brands. You can sign in with your Xbox Live ID and your avatar appears on your handset. Currently, clicking on yourself takes you through to an "under construction" website, so we're guessing there is more to come in this area. We've also seen an Xbox Live Extras app which pulls in more information, lists all your gaming achievements and indicates what friends are online. It is now available for download and once installed means you can tap your avatar, get a load of new features and you can head off and see your achievements and so on. A nice addition, if the Xbox Live features appeal to you, you'll want to download it straightaway.

With the Marketplace not being fully up and running we haven’t seen exactly how Xbox Live on WP7 is going to be, but we have had the chance to play some games. From what we’ve seen so far, there is plenty of fun to be had. We’ve been playing a little Rocket Riot, with all its retro mayhem madness and some Frogger, which is a bit of a throwback - you also have the likes of The Sims 3. There will be both single play real time games and turn-based games to play against friends.

But the best thing about Xbox Live on Windows Phone 7 that we’ve seen so far is some of the names involved - Konami, LucasArts/THQ, EA, Microsoft - which have been responsible for some great games. We’ve yet to see any real linking between what happens on your console and what you carry in your pocket, but we're sure this will change in the next few weeks.

 

Office and Keyboard

If you thought that everything was looking good from an entertainment point of view, you’ll also find Office Mobile present and correct on all Windows Phone 7 devices. This means you get access to Word, Excel and PowerPoint on the fly. The latter two are items you’re likely to view rather than edit, but the former, along with OneNote, you might be inclined to use more often. OneNote, naturally, will be able to sync with your SkyDrive making it really easy to start working on something and pick it up on your PC later. Photos and recordings can be added to OneNote notes, but but be aware that recordings don’t work with web app. 

This means you'll be able to receive documents by email, open them up and edit them and send them on, which is a great feature to have from the off. One exception we found was PDF docs. The phone doesn't natively support then - try and open a PDF and it will inform you that you need to download an app, and at the time of writing, that app wasn't available. We'll file that under "coming soon".  

Any office work you do decide to do - along with all that emailing and messaging – will rely on there being a decent keyboard. We found the Windows Phone 7 keyboard to be responsive enough to bash out messages at speed on all the devices we tested it on. 

The spell-checker doesn’t seem quite as adept as that of the HTC Sense keyboard on Android, so you will have to occasionally turn back and make some corrections. We’re surprise that even though the phone identifies spelling errors as you type (with the traditional red wiggly line) there isn’t a check spelling option after the matter.

But the real positive thing is that you have the size and space to bash out those notes or messages, and with the screen sizes on Windows Phone 7 you don’t have to contend with a tiny portrait keyboard either.

In a smart move Microsoft have taken a slightly different approach with the cursor. If you want to edit some text, a long press will pop-up the cursor. Rather than appearing under your finger as many do, it appears above your finger, so you can then drag it down into the exact space you want to edit. Take that Apple and Android, Microsoft's solution is elegant and effective.

Everything else - maps, bing, browser, multitasking

Maps are present and correct and pack in some interesting features, like the fact that it displays in overview mode until you zoom in: when you get close to street level then it switches to satellite view. Pinch zooming is supported. The mapping seems fast too, with Bing integration meaning you can find points of interest nearby.

Search is a key part of the Windows Phone experience and tied to that search button. As is the case with Android, search is context sensitive, throwing up results based on the application you’re in. That means searching in Marketplace returns Marketplace results, searching in People will return contacts results. Searching from the home screen will open up a Bing page and return your results, divided into local, news and web. This is great for finding places, as it will throw up a local result with a map market, so you can dive straight into the maps, and plot a route to that location. The integration across services around search is good in this regard and can be a really powerful feature.

Windows Phone 7 comes with its own version of Internet Explorer, which we have found works very well for general browsing and is nice and quick to load pages. Multiple pages and pinch zooming is supported, as is double tap zooming. The glaring omission is the lack of support for any sort of internet video. Head over to the YouTube website and try to play a video and it will tell you that you need the app, but at the time of writing, that app wasn't available to download.

Multitasking is also something you can’t do. We say can’t, but you’ll always have the core apps running in the background, so you can be playing a little Rocket Riot, stop to take a call and return to your game without a problem, a simple resume option meaning you can get back in where you left off - surfing the internet whilst listening to your music is also possible. We found that notifications came through, for example an “ending soon” notification from the eBay app, despite not being in the application.

One of the most noticeable things is the sheer lack of settings. Anyone watching Android of late - especially those of the HTC Sence variety will have seen a burgeoning in the number of settings and options there are. Windows Phone 7 is simpler and we found that surprisingly appealing.

On other obvious omission is Messenger. A core Windows Live application - perhaps the application that drew people into Windows Live in the first place is not represented at a core level on Windows Phone 7. We expected this to be fully integrated so you could instant message contacts from the off. As far as we know, Windows Live Messenger will be offered as an application developed by Miyowa, but as yet it hasn't appeared.

Finally, don't forget that once your Windows Phone 7 device is up and running, you'll have a range of supporting feature online. You'll be able to locate, lock and erase your phone (or phones) online, so if you lose it or have it stolen, an on-screen message will inform the new owner that you've locked it. Remote erase is also quick and easy and a great free feature.

Verdict

It is clear that Windows Phone 7 is an impressive consumer mobile operating system, with some nice touches and flashes of inspiration. We like the refreshing departure from sometimes busy interfaces that you’ll find elsewhere: Microsoft haven’t been scared to use white space and with screen sizes that give you plenty of space the mobile experience on Windows Phone 7 is great.

The use of moving backgrounds and text that rolls over the page draws you into what feels like a bigger picture. The edges of the screen don’t constrain the display, you simply swipe across without feeling like you have made a departure from where you were before. 

In our tests Windows Phone 7 has been stable too. We’ve had crashes, sure, but always around the same events on beta software and the occasional glitch on the device that we knew wasn’t final hardware. Microsoft’s decision to restrict what manufacturers can do with a Windows Phone might have come as a surprise, but might be the best decision yet: like the Apple and the iPhone, Microsoft can more or less guarantee the experience you are going to get.

Does Windows Phone 7 offer you anything you can’t get elsewhere? Not really. The inclusion of Zune makes it an interesting offering in the face of iTunes, and the gaming offering, although yet to really come to fruition, looks promising.

Is Windows Phone 7 currently competitive? Almost. There are some key apps missing from the experience. We’re happy with the core ingredients, but we’d like to see video sorted as a matter of urgency. YouTube may be frivolous and a great time waster, but when you’re standing in front of a hotel mirror, desperately trying to remember how to tie a bow tie, it can be a real godsend. We’ve heard mention of a Twitter application already, but we’re yet to see the level of integration that it offers - will you be able to update from the Me page to any service you want, or will you always have to open the app?

A few questions still remain which we hope will be resolved when Windows Phone 7 launches later in the week - like Xbox Live and Marketplace - but with Windows Phone 7, Microsoft seems to be back on the right track. But the deciding factor may well lie in the hands of developers and how quickly the app offering gets up and running - only time will tell.

That said, those who are forced to use a Windows Phone because of workplace demands, should be very happy indeed.