Windows Mobile 6.5. Oh, how we laughed. Remember the stylus? Remember the apps that looked nothing like the OS ? Heck, it didn’t matter too much and Windows Mobile was still king of the ring. Business users loved it, power users loved it.
Then the iPhone turned up. BlackBerry turned up the heat and people started to move away. Power users went to the iPhone or, if they didn’t want one, they started switching to Android instead. Business users went to the BlackBerry and Microsoft struggled to make the existing OS work. Icons were stretched, the interface was bent and tweaked.
Enough was enough. People wanted updates to just “happen”. People wanted fluidity and an interface that wasn’t a mash-mash of various bits from here and there. Windows Mobile 6.5 has now been re-branded as “Windows Phone 6.5” and is still actually being marketed but, at least in my opinion, it’s best left in the bin.
This, then, is Windows Phone 7. You’ve seen the screenshots, you’ve seen the previews. The problem, though, is that they’re all very misleading. In the images it looks a little flat, perhaps a little uninteresting at times. When I finally got a device it was almost a relief. The change is…. shocking.
It’s now an OS with big fonts, angular lines and a very simplistic but stylish interface. Everything slides and flips into view without stutter or grief. It’s clean and the experience is maintained throughout.
I should just point out that, due to copyright rules and lots of very dull reasons, it’s not possible currently to get screenshots from the Windows Phone 7 OS in the current build. We’ve had to go all low-tech and simply take a photo of the screens in question.
– Power on
The standard HTC boot sequence – at least on the HTC HD7 I’m looking at now – fires up, followed by the operator logo and, within a matter of seconds, the door-swing effect kicks in with the “Windows Phone” logo. This effect is something you’ll quickly get used to – complete no-stutter sliding, swinging and bouncing. It’s all over the shop but, no matter where you are, it’s familiar.
The lock screen is a drop-down blind – wake the device from its’ slumber and you’ll see it bounce a little. Slide it up a little and you’re into the phone, but you can always take a look at the time, date and how many emails or texts you have – right from the lock screen.
– Main screen, Programs List and interface
Microsoft will bang several drums over the next few months. One drum, the “ease of use” – there’s less searching and more “glance and go” as they put it. Amongst the other drums, probably labelled “new” and “Xbox Live” there’s a main drum with “looks nothing like an OS you’ve used before” written in a big-ass font. Why is it so new? Well, Microsoft will tell you that all the phone OS’s out there look the same – rows of icons and shortcuts into all your favourite apps.
So, is it new? Well, let’s talk about all these live tiles in a minute shall we eh? Slide to the right and you get .. err.. a row of icons. Oohh.. that’s a bit naughty. Still, let’s take a look down here shall we.
First there’s an Alarm function and, joy of joys, it’s a million times better than the oh-so-bland (and hugely annoying at times) system in Windows Mobile 6.x. On this one there’s no saved alarm and… what’s that at the bottom ? It’s a “+” symbol. Hmm.. I wonder what that does eh? Yes, it’s obvious but, if you’re stuck or want to dig around for more options, you’ll quickly learn that three dots on the menu bar are important. Look for “…” and, when you press it you’ll get some more info. In this case it’s just a word – “Add”
Woah there, before we get carried away, let’s take a moment to rotate the screen around. Stick the screen into “landscape” mode and you can actually watch the thing spin round – oh, it glides. It’s almost like there’s a ball-bearing in there or something. Smoooooth. That menu bar will still stay in the same place – right next to the three main hardware keys (Back, Windows Key and Search).
Tapping into the “Time” field brings switches you into a big and friendly interface. It currently states “7:00”. Tap the “7” and you’ll see a column appear – 5 and 6 appear above, 8 and 9 below. Just slide those numbers up and down to choose a time and blam – you’re done. Two options appear at the bottom – Done and Cancel. Hit done and you’re back to the main Alarm screen where you can choose how often the alarm repeats (Once, or on specific days) and then you can choose the alarm sound. There’s 16 to choose from on the HTC HD7 I’m basing this on and they’re all very lovely. Give the alarm a name and hit the small “Save” icon on the bottom, then you’re done. Back on the main alarm screen you’ll now get a switch next to the alarm you’ve created – toggle it on or off or add some more. It’ll tell you on your lock screen that there’s an alarm set and, if you “Pin” the Alarm app to your homescreen, it’ll tell you in the Live Tile too.
A big, lovely, bold calculator is just what every smartphone needs. There’s no keyboard feedback on this unfortunately, which we will get used to on other screens.
Black and white isn’t perhaps the most sexy interface but this whole minimalist approach certainly helps to keep you tuned into what’s going on. Here I can slide up and down through times and see what’s coming up. Sync’d up with Windows Live (you can turn this off if you wish) you can choose between “day” view or “agenda” view. Add an appointment and the QWERTY keyboard pops up. This is a real joy to use and the feedback is great – each row seems to have a slightly different tone response as you type, almost like the slight variation in typing sound as you hit your computer keyboard. I don’t truly know why it’s useful to me, but somehow it works.
I couldn’t find a week view within the calendar system, which was a little disappointing, but if you tap the calendar button on the bottom you’ll get a monthly view with some VERY tiny text. You can’t read it, but you can at least see that SOMETHING is due for that day. Tap into the day and up it’ll pop. Everything is colour coded and you can set a reminder, how many times the appointment occurs, whether you’re busy and you can add someone as an attendee. Although Exchange is supported I kinda got the feeling that working with “the cloud” (i.e Windows Live and Google) is the future with this system. Your calendar appointment for today will display on the lock screen and your live tile, but more on those in a minute.
Again. Slick, slick, slick. Everything is so smooth and rotating the device will spin the screen. You’ll actually see it rotate around. This isn’t a “screen fade, then new screen gets displayed”, you actually see it move round.
I was impressed with the camera on both the HTC Mozart and HTC HD7 we tested for this review. Sometimes though it wouldn’t focus in time and would produce blurred images. This even happened in bright light, but mostly the shots are sharp and the preview screen is fluid – it’s almost like looking through a piece of glass, there’s no delay and, once you’ve snapped a shot, you can add it to your favourites and… hang on. Let me just stop here. I have to stop because, in SO MANY reviews of Windows Mobile 6.5 and earlier versions I had one minor but irritating issue with Windows Mobile, and that was the American English that got peppered around the OS. Here I’ve set the phone to use English (UK) and yes, it actually does. IN the browser you get “Favourites”. In the camera system you can “Add to favourites” and not the old “Favorites” option that always appeared. It might sound small but, believe me, I really appreciate it.
Also on your preview screen you can share or upload the shot to SkyDrive – the Microsoft online service. If I choose “Share” I can send via any of my email accounts, Facebook or Messaging. Great, but on the HD7 I’ve just installed Seesmic – the excellent Twitter client. However, it’s not listed. At this point I’m not sure why. It could be that it’s due to me using Seesmic version 1, it could be that the OS “hook” hasn’t been added, it could be that it’s not possible. Either
way, it narked me a little to see Facebook and Windows Live (even Google to some extent) given such prominence but Twitter completely ignored by Microsoft. It’s not just for “techies” any more
You can also delete or use the picture as your wallpaper from here. If you do this you’ll get an option to crop, but the crop selection is fixed and you can merely move it to a certain section of the photo – not resize it. Also, it’s not really the backdrop that you’re changing – it’s the background on the LOCK screen, nothing else. A quick look into the “Settings” screen reveals a fairly limited selection of theme configurations. Click into “Settings->Theme” and you can change the main screen background from “light” to … err.. “dark”. That, I hate to say, is it. There’ll be no other colours in your main Windows Phone 7 background, or a picture for that matter. You can also change the “accents” – the links and highlights you see across these screenshots – there’s 11 colours to choose from here.
The camera allows zoom and a few option settings including turning the flash on and off, effects (negative, sepia etc), resolution, flicker adjustment. It’s not a vast array of settings but it’s enough. Once a snap has been taken it gets pushed to the side as one of your stored photos. It’s a nice touch – you can move to the side and see the snaps you’ve taken or your live preview screen to the right.
OK, the hot topic. I firmly believe that this, more than anything else, will pull in customers to Windows Phone 7. The few free games I’ve tried (not being a big XBox person myself) were really, really good and very smooth. You can buy games through the Marketplace (more on that in a moment) and personalise (oh, that’s spelt correctly too!) your avatar. Glide to the right to see your games and then click in to play. At the stage of this review (which is several days before the systems all go live on October 21st) we weren’t able to test a great deal of the online personalisation or XBox integration unfortunately.
– Internet Explorer.
Wow, and I mean wow. Remember the old IE in Windows Mobile? Yeah, forget that. Really, delete it from your memory. Finger-driven and smooth as butter on a hot plate this is a world away from the clunky, slow-to-render IE in previous Windows Mobile versions. Windows Phone 7 lifts the browser off the page and, although Flash isn’t there and certain sites like YouTube need you to have the free YouTube player downloaded to work, it’s a solid browser.
Move to a corner and it’ll go off the “edge” of the website and bounce back – it’s a little touch but really nice. Multi-touch pinch / zoom let’s you go straight into the part of the site you’re interested in and you can double
Bing Maps is of course here, as is an element of navigation too. It may not be a full turn-by-turn solution and sure, you’ve not got those Google Street View options (get Android if you want that) but there’s the ability to view areas in satellite or map mode or a combination of the two.
It’ll tell you how to get places but, even if you did want to use it as a navigation aid, you’ll find that the screen turns off after it’s predefined time, leaving you possibly staring at a blank screen at the crucial time.
As we write this is in “Test Mode” so there are, according to the text we an see in our snapshots, more apps arriving on October 21st. As you glide through there’s categories (Applications, Games, Music etc), featured apps (with previews) and more. We picked out a couple of free ones, but there’s plenty of sub-categories. For example, hit “Apps” and you’ll go into another screen with more categories. Strangely “Games” is listed again but you can also choose from “Lifestyle”, “News and Weather” and so on.
We can’t really comment on how many apps are truly available at this stage. From the “Test Mode” we’re seeing here it seems that there’s definitely enough to choose from, but it’s no-where near the choice you’ll be getting with the iPhone, Android or other apps stores. It’s a good start, don’t get me wrong – this is an OS that’s only days old in reality.
We installed Seesmic – a leading Twitter application which has already won many fans on the Android platform. We were already pretty impressed with the games we’d installed – they ran quickly and are gorgeous to look at. Seesmic is free so I installed it and was delighted to see that the OS style was maintained throughout the application. You didn’t need to switch gear – the top menus maintained the “just off the side of the screen” style and you just slide as you would in the main OS. Brilliant. Although, there were a few issues. Firstly, when I wanted to update my status and send a Tweet the predictive dictionary didn’t fire up. I had to make sure I was typing on the keyboard properly because the intelligent on-screen prediction just wasn’t there. Secondly, I found that Seesmic (and who knows, possibly more apps) didn’t integrate into the main OS much at all.
Take, for example, the camera. It should be simple enough to snap a photo and upload it into my Tweet via Twitpic or another photo sharing site. Not so. Sure, SkyDrive is there, as is Facebook, but they’re included in the base OS. My new Seesmic Twitter client wouldn’t let me upload photos this way, it wasn’t listed. To make things worse, the whole lack of multi-tasking in a lot of apps suddenly smacked me in the face at this point. Sure, the “in built” apps like IE and Messaging will let you quickly snap between them and it looks like session data is being saved somewhere. However, if Seesmic is anything to go by, frequently used third-party apps are going to quickly annoy you, even if they’re great.
I’ve just done what many smartphone users do on a daily basis. I hopped into Seesmic, read some tweets, went back to the main screen, checked some stuff, then went back into Seesmic to do some more Tweets. Simple enough huh ? In Windows Phone 7 this turns into..
1 – Wait for the app to load up. Watch splash screen (Seesmic), slide to Tweets, update.
2 – Press Windows key, go back to the main Live Tiles screen. Check some email maybe.
3 – Doah! I forgot to send a Tweet – I’ll go back into Seesmic. Doah. I have to wait for the app to load again. Watch the splash screen, slide to Tweets…
It might sound like I’m picking flies here, but it’s nearly 2011. Mutli-tasking is a given. Having to wait, watch splash screens (there are two or three in some apps) is a painful occurance which slows down the whole experience. This, unfortunately, is crazy because the GUI is so slick and smooth. It’s almost Catch 22 – do you add full multi-tasking and possibly have a slightly slower front-end GUI experience, or remove it and have people getting horribly annoyed at
constant wait-times to reload apps. I should point out that not all apps do this, and yes – that’s weird. More on this in a bit.
This works very well indeed and I have to say that it’s possibly my most favourite part of the phone. The texts are threaded into conversations with bubbles appearing for messages from the sender (in the “accent colour”) and yourself. Down the bottom the “+” sign starts a new message and then it’s just a matter of starting to type the name of the person you want to text. As you type the first couple of letters it’ll start searching for people in your contacts system and they’ll appear in the drop-down. Select them and then start typing. It again uses the excellent predictive text system to determine what word you’re typing. Just hit “space” to select the one it’s chosen or select another word if you wish. A small paper-clip sits at the bottom of the screen so that you can add MMS / picture messages – just choose the picture from the gallery system or take a new picture.
New texts will appear on the lock screen or they’ll show in your Messaging Live Tile on the main screen. You can also get into the settings screen and change SMS delivery confirmation and the SMS centre number – oh yes, it’s spelt the proper way too. 😉
– Music and Videos
Hooking into the Zune platform this brings an experience close to the iPhone / iTunes system on the iPhone. Listen to music, buy music, preview music, watch videos you’ve filmed or hop into the YouTube videos if you wish. This is a system that has been designed to co-exist with the Zune desktop software but you can get straight into the Marketplace here and buy music or directly.
The Marketplace changes frequently with the latest artist or album taking up the main screen along with featured artists and groups, new releases, top albums, genres and more. Choose an artist, see the album artwork, check the tracklisting, listen to a preview. Once you’ve listened you may find that the artist appears on the relevant Live Tile on the main screen too – it goes some way to making your device “your own” very quickly. The Pictures and Videos app shows the pictures you were looking at, this will show what tunes you’re listening too, the “People” tile will show who you’re communicating with and so on – it forces all this information from every corner of the phone right to the front, making it “glance and go” according to Microsoft.
I should mention that Microsoft call all of these sections “hubs”. The Office Hub makes Windows Phone 7 the only phone with Office Mobile built in. You can take notes on your phone and access them from your PC later. You can dictate some notes, add them into your document. Review, edit and send documents on the go. Menus will pop up to let you send
– Outlook / Email
I was kinda surprised to see how easy it was to set this phone up and get going. Even more so, I was surprised to see how well Google Email / Google hosted email worked on Windows Phone 7. The “Outlook” section is laid out in a familiar way, with “all”, “unread”, “flagged” and “urgent” sitting up the top. At the bottom there’s four options – New, Select, Folders and Synchronise. Click the “…” for more info and you can either add another mail account or check into the settings of this one – change your signature and so on.
Email displays in both standard and HTML format with the option of downloading images. It’s a very simplistic and minimal approach with the senders’ name in large font, subject in the “accent colour” and the main email and timestamp below
The people hub brings your contacts and Facebook into one place. It’ll remove duplicates and gives a fast way to find people. Click in, click a letter and then you’ll get a display showing you all the letters with associated names. Skim around to find your Windows Live feeds, photos and Facebook updates integrated into your friends details. Microsoft will tell you that it’ll “update your contacts with information from social networks”. In practice this is mostly Facebook, but you can respond and add comments instantly. Windows Live is in there somewhere too, but I don’t know too many people who use it.
The Search button let’s you search through names – just hit a few keys and it’ll find the person you’re looking for. Whack their name and you can see their profile picture, call them (numbers are brought in from Facebook, Outlook or whatever). You also get the chance to send and email, read the postal address, add that address to Bing maps and locate them, check birthdays, notes etc. If it’s someone you interact with a lot then you can pin the contact to your start screen. You can also link the contact to other contacts, so you can build up a relational link – it’ll even suggest a link for you.
The people hub also lets you edit each contact and add an individual ringtone too. There’s plenty of ringtones to choose from and they’re all very nice indeed.
Again, we’re looking at a simple and clean interface. You press the call tile from the main screen – it’ll already show you the calls you’ve missed. Click in and you get the call history. Down the bottom there’s three options here – Voicemail, Keypad and access into People. You can also tweak settings like call forwarding etc.
The keypad is simply and pure and it’s easy enough to dial numbers.
Microsoft will say “Pocket to picture to Facebook in seconds”. Now yes, it’ll do that, but so will many other phones. I still can’t upload to Twitter from here though (even with the recently announced official Twitter app). You can sync photos to your PC, see all the latest shots from social networks (yep, Facebook again) and scrolling through everything is lovely. Albums can be created, captions can be added when uploading to Facebook etc and you can change the wallpaper… well, the lock screen.
I can add pictures to favourites, delete, upload to SkyDrive, Facebook, email or MMS. Microsoft wanted to let me know that Facebook images will get downloaded on the fly with the picture starting low quality, then higher quality, the higher still. It means that you can see the picture quickly and it’ll get sharper as you view it. Yeah. You can do that on other phones too.
There’s a range of settings. In “Ringtones and Sounds” I can turn the Ringer on or off, same with the Vibrate. Choose a ringtone, choose a text message tone, voicemail tone, email tone and whether you’d like to play a sound for key presses, appointment reminders etc.
The “Theme” settings will let you change the background (as we mentioned before, there’s two options – light or .. dark) and the accent colour. You can also activate flight mode, setup WiFi, Bluetooth and tweak the email and accounts (Facebook, Outlook, Windows Live etc).
Lock and wallpaper lets you alter screen time-out and whether there’s password, plus the wallpaper of course.
You can change whether the system allows location access, the date and time, screen brightness, keyboard type, speech and details about the phone itself.
There’s also a bank of Applications options which take you directly into all the options available to installed software. You can, for example, change whether to connect to Xbox LIVE or Zune (for Music and Videos) and the options available for pictures and camera (that camera setting which allows the camera button to wake up the phone can be altered here).
Bing search is pretty dominant on this phone. You really are buying into the Microsoft experience in every way, including all the products and services Microsoft have to offer. Bing will let you search the web and works in an intelligent way depending on the application or hub you’re in. If you’re in the “People” hub the search button will let you filter contacts, if you’re in IE it’ll.. well.. let me explain. If you’re in Internet Explorer (and we’ve tried this on multiple phones) and you’ve browsed to a site, just press that dedicated “Search” button on your phone. What do you think it’ll do? Yep, it brings up Bing, but it’s the dedicated stand-alone search app, not the web search function. To get that you actually have to click into the address bar, then click the search button, then it’ll display the web search. When you get there the results are pretty good, with results split into web results, local results and news results.
This disjointed interface happens again in the Maps hub / app. When you go into Bing maps you get a search button on-screen. Press this and you can find a place on the map. Great, but press the dedicated hardware search button and boom – it’ll flick back to the stand-alone Bing search app again. No, no, no.
I should also mention at this point that you can press and hold the Windows key to activate the voice activation feature. You can tell it to “Open Calendar” or “Call (someone)”. It’s pretty decent.
Overall Microsoft have done really well. They’ve thrown everything that die-hard supporters were comfortable with into the bin and have restarted from scratch. Doing something like that definitely requires some balls. This has had a lot of work and it’s a polished and smooth experience. I loved the slick interface, I enjoyed the on-screen keyboard and the camera system. The speed, the transitions, the fact that information is put into a clear and precise order is clever and needed. The flow of the OS, the fact that there’s no fragmentation and the fact that updates and fixes can be pushed down to all Windows Phone 7 devices is great.
The Zune intergration and on-board store is very nice, although the amount of apps and proportion of free ones will be a sore subject for some time.
I have some issues though. Most can be fixed through updates from Microsoft. If I’m in an app like Bing Maps I don’t want the screen to go off when I’m looking for directions. I want to at least be able to add a backdrop to my phone – to my main screen. It’s admirable that Microsoft are taking such control, but this is a little too far. I can only choose “light” or “dark”. I can only choose from a limited selection of “accents”. Yes Microsoft, I get it. If I <i>Was</i> to have more colours and I was able to add a strange backdrop or another background colour it could make the whole interface look a little “bleugh” but that should be my decision.
The “rows and rows of icons” aren’t really assigned to the dustbin either. The more apps you install, the more you have in the programs list. Sure, you can pin them to your start menu, but then you’ve got lots in there too.
The biggest problem though, and one which may need more than just an update, is the “multi-tasking”. I don’t care about the lack of copy and paste. It’s the fact that a lot of apps we tried don’t save any “session data” so you can’t continue from where you left off. A lot of apps also lack that back-end system integration. Seemsic isn’t listed as an upload option when I’ve snapped a picture. Why? I grabbed the official Twitter app and it’s still not an option. Why can’t I add it as an option? Why is it that Facebook, Windows Live and SkyDrive are the only options?
Microsoft on-board apps work well, they have some element of multi-tasking and you can flip around quite easily. However, I’m shocked that a lot of third-party apps I’ve tried just reload when I hop back in and they don’t care what you were doing before hand.
Most of the Windows Phone 7 OS is good. I just feel like it’s version 1.0.
What has become apparent is that there’s two problems at play with the multitasking. We thought initially that apps couldn’t save their “state” and remember what data was being looked at. We had a look at the Tesco app, which lost the shopping list and the Seesmic app which had to keep re-loading the Tweets from the server. However, it’s not strictly true. Apps can write to a local cache – a bit of space allocated to them – so that you can hop back into the app and get back in where you were. An example is the official Twitter app, which loads and grabs the cached data which has already been downloaded earlier.
So great, the multi-tasking issues aren’t huge – provided an app uses its’ storage properly you can get back in quick enough and you won’t have to wait for it to update and load everything from the web again. Why are these apps being let into the Marketplace with such “click, wait, splash screen, load, load, wait, wait” behaviour ? We’re told that it’s not “essential” practice to get into the Windows Marketplace, but.. it should be.
The other issues we’re seeing is that, for example, Twitter apps like the official Twitter app or Seesmic will probably never tell you if there’s a Tweet – unless you’re in the app itself. Background notifications have to come via a Microsoft “Push Notification” system and, currently, it doesn’t look like any app developer us doing this.. other than Microsoft themselves. Live Tiles remain “Dead Tiles” for third-party developers and merely become icons, and Tweets arrive without you ever knowing.. unless you go into Seesmic or the Twitter app yourself.
Check out this video to show the OS in action and the app resuming behaviour in some apps…
Link – Windows Phone 7 Picture Gallery (Contains all the shots in this review and more)