Windows Phone 7 Review

I’ve had the chance to put a a Windows Phone 7 device (an LG Optimus 7) through its paces for the past week, and it’s been a fairly positive experience. Microsoft has done their homework for the most part, and the operating system is a joy to use. For a large number of smartphone users, particularly new users, WP7 will meet their needs and provide a great experience. The OS isn’t perfect, however, and there are a number of issues that prevent it from being 100% usable for me.

Buttons

Just a quick note about the devices themselves. I have used both the HTC Surround 7 and the LG Optimus 7. This isn’t a review of the devices themselves, but it’s worth noting a few things that are similar across the WP7 lineup. Microsoft has created guidelines that their manufacturers must follow.

The first is the button design. There are three buttons along the bottom of every phone – Back/Return, Windows button, and Search. The home button idea has been incorporated in nearly every smartphone these days, and the back and search buttons are popping up on most models now as well, especially Android phones. I still find myself neglecting the search button. I still don’t feel it is really so integral that it warrants being one of only three main buttons.

The back button was made popular by RIM on its BlackBerry devices. It is very important in the operation of those devices, and WP7 is no different. In fact, there are several times when the back button is the only button that will get you out of certain screens. This is my first issue with the design. The Optimus 7 is a very “tall” phone. For most users, it is very awkward to hold the phone, use your thumb to navigate, and then have to reach down to the back button to get out of a menu.

Camera button

A big part of Microsoft’s design philosophy around WP7 phones centers around the camera button. All of the literature spouts the fact that all phones have a physical, dedicated camera button. Apparently this is a big deal. I am fairly avid photographer, and I have never longed for a camera button on my iPhone (or any other device I have used). In fact, I have actually changed the convenience key on my BlackBerry to do other things (like open BBM, etc.) rather than act as a dedicated camera button.

Beyond the question of need, there is a fundamental flaw in this design – it gets in the way!

As you can see in the image above, when holding the phone as you normally would, your fingers or palm cover the camera button. Now, the button has to be held for a few seconds for the camera app to engage, thus hopefully preventing accidental presses… but in regular usage, I have had this happen a few times and it is very annoying.

Interface

Now down the brass tacks – the operating system itself. Microsoft has a big hole to dig themselves out of. Windows Mobile has been the laughing-stock of mobile operating systems for several years. Trying to shoehorn the Windows experience onto a tiny screen has resulted in a terrible platform. Not only that, but Microsoft has lagged for so long that they weren’t even in the game anymore. Perhaps if they hadn’t neglected their OS, they’d still be a major player. As it stands, they have their work cut out for them if they want to change people’s perception of Windows on mobile devices.

Luckily, they did the right thing – they built WP7 from the ground up. The new OS has very little to do with Windows. It’s a brand-new interface and it makes WP6.5 look like DOS. The interface is very modern. And very bold. I think that’s the best way to describe this new direction – bold. The colours are loud, the text is large, and there is very little to customize and change. And for the most part, it works. It looks nice, it is incredibly easy to use, and it has some unique features that set it apart from its competitors.

Tiles

The whole WP7 interface is based on tiles. Tiles are little squares or rectangles that link to apps, show information, and have the ability to update live. Tiles are nice, and very user-friendly. And Live Tiles are a cool idea – email tiles like GMail, Outlook and Hotmail animate and give a current inbox count; Marketplace displays application update notifications; Calendar displays the next upcoming event with day and date. Very nice.

The Me tile updates with your current Facebook photo and status, and the People tile updates photos… but those aren’t particularly useful, just nice graphical touches. Compare these to interactive widgets on Android, like HTC’s Friendstream or Motoblur, which allow you to scroll through friend’s status updates and information. These live tiles are sort of halfway between icons and widgets – not enough functionality to really make them useful, but they are a nice touch nonetheless.

Tiles are great, but the overall design is not power user-friendly. On iOS, you have folders and the ability to have several pages of apps. On HTC Sense you have pages, multiple scenes, and interactive widgets. On WP7, you can pin anything to the Start Menu, but if you have several apps and contacts you want to pin, you could be scrolling down forever, with no quick way to jump to a specific spot.

This weakness is particularly apparent when it comes to favourite contacts. On iOS, I simply have to choose “Add to Favourites” within a contact and they are pinned to the Favourites tab in the Phone app. On HTC Sense, I can add contacts to my Favourites widget and I have instant access to them right on a home screen. On WP7, however, I can only pin them to the main Start Menu. This means if I have ten people I call a lot, I would have ten tiles filling up a large portion of my menu.

The only other options are to use your recently called numbers. You can do this from the Phone app, but if your favourite contacts aren’t the ones you called recently, you’re out of luck. You could also go into the People menu and swipe to the Recent section. This is great, but when you select a contact from there, it simply brings up their contact entry. You have to then select which number you want to dial.

Mail Notifications

The phone’s lock screen is great. It displays network information, the time, day, and date, any upcoming appointments, and it displays the number of new emails. A very nice quick-glance screen that Apple should take a look at. The live tiles also update with unread counts, as mentioned above. However, there is one major issue that I have with these tiles – once you click the tile and view your mail, these notifications disappear. Note that this occurs simply after viewing your inbox, not after reading the message themselves!

I mentioned this to someone and they thought it was great – after all, they said, once you’ve seen what your messages are, why would you need to be notified that they are there? Well, in the spirit of Getting Things Done, I have to disagree. I want to know how many messages are unread in my inbox at all times – if I don’t see that count, I can easily forget about messages I only casually glanced at when opening the mail app. It also removes the incentive to get that count down to zero by actually dealing with the messages.

Landscape Mode (Or Lack Thereof)

Landscape mode is getting more and more love  in the smartphone world. It is very instinctive to turn the phone on its side and have everything adjust accordingly. The major players haven’t enabled this functionality for their main interface, but some Android devices have, and it’s only a matter of time before other devices follow suit.

That said, there really is no excuse for not enabling landscape support for the majority of apps. Apple has taken strides to enable landscape (and landscape typing) support on several of its important apps like Mail, SMS, Safari, Notes, and so forth. The first apps to feature this were Photos and Camera. This makes a lot of sense, since a lot of photos are taken in landscape orientation, and it’s a lot nicer to flick through those photos when they fill the screen.

On WP7, however landscape/portrait choice seems like an afterthought. In the Camera app, you are stuck with a landscape layout – turn or leave the phone in portrait mode and the controls are sideways. Nowhere is this lack of attention to detail more apparent than when viewing photos in the Pictures app. The app itself supports only portrait view. Once you have selected a photo, you can turn the phone to landscape. If you want to go back and choose another album, you have to turn the phone back to portrait once again.

Now, is this really such a big deal? Not necessarily. But I do have to bring up one important point. Here in Canada, WP7 launched on two devices, the aforementioned LG Optimus and HTC Surround. The latter has a unique, slide-out design that features an integrated speaker and kickstand. Which orientation does the kickstand support? Landscape only.

Does the music player support landscape at all? No. Not one bit. So you have a phone whose major, awesome feature is that it has the best speaker in the smartphone world and you are basically limited to using it when watching videos. Even though I have issues with Apple’s CoverFlow in iTunes, at least the iPhone supports landscape when listening to music.

Here’s hoping that Microsoft and WP7 developers are working hard on enabling landscape support in more applications.

Speed

The interface feels fluid and it is easy to move quickly through the tiles and menus. One issue I do have is that when you press a switch (say, to enable WiFi or Bluetooth), there is a lag. These blue dots fly across the top of the screen for a few seconds, and then the switch moves over to the other side. This is not intuitive, and I still find myself pressing the button again and canceling the action that I initiated.  The dots feedback is throughout the OS and I’m not sold on it just yet.

Copy and Paste

Not much to say here, except that WP7 has no copy and paste functionality. Yep, that’s right, Microsoft is taking a page out of Apple’s book, circa 2007, and is not enabling copy and paste.

“We don’t enable copy and paste and we do that very intentionally,” Windows Phone executive Todd Brix said in an interview.

“It’s actually an intentional design decision,” he said. “We try to anticipate what the user wants so copy and paste isn’t necessary.”

Due to public outcry (or geeky online cry), Microsoft has lamented and is promising copy and paste functionality sometime in 2011. some form of copy and paste functionality in 2011.

Multitasking

Get ready for even more déjà vu. There is no third-party multitasking support in WP7. Core apps like phone and email will run in the background, but right now there is no way for developers to take advantage of background tasks.

These last two points really beg the question – did Microsoft really do their homework? Apple haters have been harsh when talking about the iPhone’s lack of copy and paste, multitasking, and customization. Some of these people have gone on to become Android fanboys and girls (we’ll leave Android’s pros and cons for another discussion), some are CrackBerry addicts, and some are long-time Microsoft and Windows Mobile fans. Now that WP7 phones are out, I will be really surprised to hear any MS lovers / Apple haters putting the iPhone (or Android devices) down.

What I Like

Though I have focused on some negative aspects of WP7, the interface itself is a pleasure to use. I do like this operating system. It is simple and beautiful. It’s also refreshing to use something new, something that is quite unique. I love the live tiles, especially unread counts (even if they do disappear after viewing the inbox).

There are two bundled apps that I’m impressed with – ScanSearch and Panorama Shot. ScanSearch uses the camera and GPS and overlays dots on your live image to show restaurants, banks, etc. The app isn’t the fastest, but it’s a fun take on a familiar smartphone app. Panorama Shot helps you take five pictures and stitch them together. I haven’t had a really successful image yet, but it shows promise, and it’s a nice bonus feature to throw in.

I like the slightly futuristic look, feel, and sound of Windows Phone 7. The ringtone choices are very limited, but they are quite nice. They are more soothing than alarming, though, and I find them hard to hear when the phone is in my pocket. Overall, however, they are completely different from what is bundled in other smartphones, and it’s a nice change.

Lastly, the lock screen is great – easily the best on the market right now.

Verdict

Windows Phone 7 is a huge, ginormous leap in the right direction. But it is brand-new, and it has a lot of growing to do. For a first iteration, this is a home run. It is fully functional, fast, and fun to use. But in this hardcore competitive smartphone market, that might just not be enough. It’ll survive, but whether or not it thrives will come down to how soon (and often) Microsoft updates WP7 to keep up with the rest of the players, let alone get ahead of them.

Author: Matt

My name is Matt. I live in Nova Scotia, Canada. I am an educator, a photographer, and a lover of all things technology. Check out the About page for more information.

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