A month with some Windows Phone 7, er… phones

I’m in the privileged position where I can buy whatever the fuck I like. No kids […] and no debt – just disposable income and a bloodlust for gadgets. Some people smoke, do drugs, drink booze, gamble, go out, whatever. I like buying electronics I have no use for, other than to say “I’ve used that”, and to be able to throw my opinion into nerdly discussions with some sort of authority. The pinnacle of this is my T-Hub – currently acting as a glorified clock in the living room.

via Anthony – An Apple loving nerd from Melbourne.

* give or take a few days

Pretty much this. It’s not that don’t like having money, but what use is money if I can’t do anything with it? This way, my “bloodlust for gadgets” — as Anthony so eloquently puts is — is satisfied and no one gets hurt in the process. Win-win, really.

I don’t know quite how it happened, but at some point during the last month I managed to acquire not one, but two Windows Phone 7 Phones; a HTC 7 Mozart and a Dell Venue Pro. I’ve already written about the hardware of those a little, so this will mostly be about Windows Phone 7 as a platform and how it compares to, say, the iPhone.

Small note before we get into things proper: in the above review of the hardware and intro to Windows Phone 7, I (incorrectly) say that even though the HTC 7 Mozart includes a notification LED, WP7 doesn’t seem to use it. That is just plain untrue — it just doesn’t flash for things like unread emails or messages. It’ll definitely flash for missed calls though, but whether the notification LED is a standard thing or something HTC has tacked on still remains to be seen.

The next small note before I start giving you opinions on stuff: I used the release of Windows Phone 7 called NoDo (7390), as well as the as-yet-unreleased (to the public, anyway) Mango (7712) for my evauluations. Besides Twitter integration, groups, and threaded messages across communication platforms, there is little else that I discovered in terms of differences between the two. There may be a few little changes between the developer beta 2 refresh of Mango and the final, carrier-released version, but your mileage may vary.

Final small note: if you haven’t read Lukas Mathis’ excellent Windows Phone 7 write-up, you should go read that. I echo a few of his points here, but he also looks at WP7 from a usability perspective (something I don’t do much of here).

Windows Phone 7 Phones

If you’re ready to get this show on the road, take a deep breath, and read on.

The Good

Windows Phone 7 is very polished. Like, seriously polished. It’s like Ballmer took one step back and said “whoa, hey, what the hell is this?”, and actually got some design teams to work on the interface and overall UI of WP7. The result is the Metro UI, and by all accounts it’s very polished and very slick indeed. The general feel of Metro is that things animate nicely, there are separate horizontal tab panes, and using app hierarchies uses the same “flip-in” animation across the board. I won’t go into too much detail about the Metro UI design as I’m no graphic designer, but suffice to say it’s very text-oriented. Once again, not necessarily a bad thing. Someone from Twitter actually said that if they hadn’t seen the iPhone then they would probably give the UI crown to WP7, and I agree wholeheartedly.

Like I hinted about in my other quick look at WP7, there’s a lot of consistency within the UI and UX of WP7. It’s similar to the iPhone in that there’s not a whole lot of customisation, but what customization there is quite well done. Case in point: the so-called “accent colour”. Set it once, and that’s the colour that you will see pretty much everywhere selection, text, or highlights are displayed; it’s tasteful without being over-the-top.
That some, some parts are a little off in terms of consistency. If I’ve got a dark theme, why does the mail app show me a light theme (and every other app is dark)? Perhaps the mail app has been designed like that, but it’s still a little weird (and inconsistent).

Also quite excellent in Windows Phone 7 and something I’m quite surprised to see: social integration within the OS. Out of the box, iOS doesn’t have social integration, period, and the Twitter integration that is coming in iOS 5 is a little different. No, in WP7 the social integration is an entirely different breed — it’s quite deeply ingrained into the various hubs (more on those later), means that contacts and calendars are a whole lot more useful, and is, quite frankly, welcome on the platform itself. It’s refreshing to see Microsoft embrace the social without relying on third parties to pick up their slack.

The hubs are quite welcome, too. Take the People hub, for example. Instead of being just a static list of contacts, why not use some of that social integration to pull in your contacts’ latest updates from Facebook or Twitter? Why not allow you to reply, comment, and make your own status updates on your social network of choice? That’s exactly what Microsoft have done in WP7, and the social integration means that all of your contacts are right there and you can see all of their latest status updates. I said earlier that Metro UI is predominantly about text, but wouldn’t it be nice if the People hub pulled down your contacts’ profile pictures from Facebook too? It does. It feels a little stalker-ish at times, but thankfully you can just use that social media integration to simply augment your existing contacts, rather than pull in all 500 of your Facebook friends.
In the Pictures hub, it’ll pull in all of your Facebook photo albums thanks once again to that social integration. Hubs mean that it’s a one-stop-shop for related items, and that makes WP7 feel… coherent, designed that way. Someone put a lot of thought into this idea of hubs, and it shows.

The Marketplace has this brilliant thing I would want Apple to implement in the App Store — trials. Find a paid app, hit the Trial button, and you’re given a limited version of the app that allows you to get a feel for the app before forking out your hard-earned. For the life of me, I can’t seem to work out why developers aren’t using the Trial functionality like it’s the best thing since sliced bread, instead offering separate, free, “lite” versions of their apps (fully-functional but ad supported). If Microsoft provide the tools, why aren’t you using them? I’m guessing there’s some major disadvantage to using the Trial method, otherwise developers would be using it in droves. I guess it comes down to the age-old argument of “fully-featured but ad-supported” (and hence much more useful to the user), or “limited-features without ads” (which is much less useful to the user).

The Mediocre and/or just plain Bad

Live Tiles sits squarely in this category. It’s more “meh” than it is bad, but if you think of it as an extension to the badges concept on iOS combined with the dynamic-icon of, say, Calendar.app, then you would be right on the money. What is cool is how the People tile dynamically rotates your different contact profile photos, as the Pictures tile rotates your (locally-stored) photos around. Don’t get me wrong though, the Live Tiles serve as a nice way to quickly access the most frequently-accessed things instead of using the massive vertically-scrolling app list, and the fact that the tiles are animated and can show you information is just the cream on top.

The method of navigation within apps in WP7 is a little weird. Instead of tabs at the bottom or drill-down lists, Metro uses these vertical panes arranged horizontally. If you’re familiar with iOS programming, think of them as UINavigationControllers, only without the automatic back arrows buttons. If you’re not and have an iPhone handy, look at the settings app and go into some of the menus, then use the button on the top left to back out again. It’s very similar to that, except the drilling across part doesn’t happen automatically — you’re swiping to change between different areas of the app.
Normally these horizontally arranged vertical tab panes would be fine — I’m all for alternate navigation UI as long as it works — but in some of the apps I used it was far too easy to trigger a pane switch, and I even managed to do so while just scrolling vertically. Perhaps it was just the app I was using though, as pane switches always had to be deliberately triggered elsewhere by either tapping on the other heading or using a horizontal swipe gesture on the current pane.

Say what you want about iTunes, but the Windows Phone 7 Connector for Mac works quite well. Zune Player on Windows less so because it tries to do a whole lot more (as it also includes a Marketplace browser as well as media player), but syncing your content from existing iTunes/iPhoto libraries (on a Mac) is ridiculously easy. A bit harder on Windows, but still definitely possible.

Apps

In actual fact, the only place where I can fault WP7 is in the area of third-party apps, and even then it’s really no fault of the platform itself. Third party app selection just isn’t there like it is on iOS, and while there are an acceptable number of games and most of the normal popular online services (Tumblr, Twitter, WordPtess, Facebook, IMDB, and whatever other sites you frequent), the number and quality of apps is somewhat lacking. It’s not that there aren’t any good apps, it’s that good apps are few and far between on an already-parched app landscape. (And no, I wasn’t being a cheapskate and only using free apps, I purchased apps where it seemed that there were no free alternatives available.)

I was having a small talk with a WP7-using friend, who said that good apps didn’t exist not because good developers were making bad apps, but because Microsoft have done such a good job with the overall UI and UX of the WP7 platform that it’s hard for developers to replicate the look and feel of Metro apps. So much of the Metro UI is about design elements such as typography, layouts, and usability, and so many developers just don’t have the right designer skills to executed their app well while still being functional — and again, that’s not a derogatory comment about the quality of WP7 developers, it’s a comment about what a fantastic job Microsoft have done with Metro UI.

Indeed, my favourite app was a Foursquare client called Fourth and Mayor. Beautiful, minimalistic, functional — everything a third-party client for Foursquare should be. There wasn’t much colour beyond the accent colour and a map or profile picture here or there, but moving back to the iOS client genuinely made me miss the lovely typography and overall design of Fourth and Mayor. A fantastic app.

Overall

Overall, there’s very little to fault about Windows Phone 7. The UI and UX is definitely up there — perhaps not quite on par with iOS, but I’m a huge fan of features such as the dark and light themes, as well as the accent colours. Windows Phone 7 is pretty similar to iOS in that you don’t have control over every aspect of the platform, but it’s also like iOS in that what has been implemented, has been done so well.

There’s lots to love about Windows Phone 7, too. The accent colour feature is a thing of beauty — possibly the most simple of features that adds the most value, but they’re excellent and I want them in all my other devices. Toast notifications are nice and subtle as well, as are the lockscreen notifications for missed calls, unread emails or SMS messages, or anything else. The screen isn’t cluttered with icons that tell you how much battery you have, what the time is, or anything like that; the minimal design is very appealing and works brilliantly. I used to laugh at the idea of a Zune, but the Zune music player in WP7 isn’t actually all that bad either (if you overlook the fact that until Mango 7712, there was no feature to “repeat one” like there is on every other media player I’ve ever used).

Comparison to the iPhone and iOS

Hardware considerations aside (all Windows Phone handsets are very, very similar in a lot of regards), there’s actually not all that much different. Perhaps the best way to compare the two platforms is to tell you what I’ll miss about WP7 going back to iOS, which consists of:

  • social integration (seeing/responding to status updates and whatever is kinda meh, but pulling in contact information and photos is cool even though I’ll use an app for actually interacting with people on social networks),
  • the suggestions-above-the-keyboard bar (even though it takes up precious screen real-estate, it’s handy when the first suggestion of the word isn’t exactly what you want as you can just scroll to see other similar words [as a side note I have no qualms about the WP7 keyboard — again, perhaps not quite on part with the iOS one but it’s alright]),
  • two-stage hardware camera shutter (I know, I know, it’s just so darn useful and feels far more natural),
  • the accent colour system,
  • hardware back button for navigation (useful, feels more natural).
What I won’t miss:
  • battery life (or rather, lack thereof — the battery life on my 7 Mozart was atrocious and the Venue Pro wasn’t much better),
  • no custom ringtones (c’mon Microsoft, it’s 2011),
  • app selection/range/quality (I know this is improving, but there are a lot of popular web things which don’t have official clients, e.g. Dropbox, Tumblr)
  • capacitive buttons (yeah, these are a pretty bad idea. Activated far too easily accidentally).
  • hardware search button (which isn’t exactly integrated into the system like it is on iOS, basically only allows you to search the web, which brings me to…)
  • Bing (Maps aren’t quite there. Search is not Google. Etc, etc.),
  • Internet Explorer (strange rendering behaviour, slow even on fast connections, re-rendering after zooming also quite slow).
What’s next? Well, I won’t be switching to Windows Phone 7 on a permanent basis anytime soon, but apart from that you’ll just have to wait and see — but now I’m in two minds about my HTC Mozart (the Venue Pro was a loaner). On the one hand it was cheap and lets me play with WP7, on the other I don’t really need to keep it (and I’ll get money if I don’t). Decisions, decisions…

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  • Nice write up Bling. Would be curious to hear whether you would take an Android based phone over a W7 phone?

  • Yeah, it’s a tough question. A lot of it comes down to what you use your phone for, and for me, it’s mostly about the social (Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare) rather than the phone, and on WP7, the third party apps aren’t quite there yet (compared to Android). Like I said to someone else who commented on this on Google+, I don’t have enough Android experience to really tell — but watch this space 😉