Full disclosure: I don’t like MOST of Microsoft’s products. I love my Xbox, but other than their console, I don’t think I have any Microsoft products in my house. I use a Mac, love my iPhone and use Hotmail as a spam dumpster. The Zune caught my interest a few years ago, and I admire what Microsoft attempted to do with Zune Social, but to me the service always come up short. Please don’t ask me about Windows Mobile.
But something has happened in the last few years.
Bing is an interesting look into search. And I was REALLY interested in the possibilities of the Kin, especially the online timeline of activities, and the Kinect is amazing. Then Windows Phone 7 was released a few weeks ago and I may need to reassess everything I thought I knew about Microsoft.
Windows Phone 7
What I Love
The interface is beautiful. Easily the prettiest OS I’ve ever seen. It’s very minimal, the typography is great (something I never thought I would say about a mobile OS) and it doesn’t look ANYTHING like an iPhone. I’m sure people will see this both as a positive and a negative, but honestly, with all the iPhone clones out there it’s refreshing to see something different.
The start screen
The phone lock screen shows your next calendar appointment, unread emails, time and date – a great step towards delivering on the promise of you getting your life back from your device. I actually find myself opening my phone less as I have a better snapshot of what is going on.
I’ve always believed the iPhone has too few buttons. There are some cases when reduction becomes oversimplification. I think most Android phones get a little button happy, but the WP7 gets it just right. It has a hardware back and a search button (I now miss their presence on my iPhone) as well as a hardware camera button. The iPhone has always been handicapped when trying to capture spontaneous actions, but the Windows Phone can fire off a shot even when locked.
Bing search works well and is customized to search the feature in the phone you are currently using. The built in voice search is very accurate, assuming you aren’t in a loud room – I attempted to use it in a bar and the results were hilarious. I love the idea of Zune pass, and think a music subscription built into a phone could be huge, but right now it only works on a PC. Bing maps aren’t quite as useful as google maps (and I miss the subway stations being tagged by train) but the integrated nearby features with ratings are really great. And while the Xbox features are still early stage, this has the potential to be a game changer.
Facebook is integrated deep into the OS. Your Facebook pics appear next to your other photos in your library, and you can share photos you take to Facebook with one click. Your address book and Facebook friends mesh seamlessly, and your Facebook friends feed is available with your contacts. You can also add your Facebook friends to your start screen and bookmark their profiles for easy access.
There are a few aspects of the phone I can’t totally get behind. These are not all bad, and in some cases are partially great, but have some aspect that doesn’t quite live up to expectations.
On the iPhone you can scan multiple screens to the right, and on Android you have a combination of multiple screens as well as a list of apps. The Windows Phone has one LONG screen for all of your favorites and a list of apps. Those are the only options. You can’t group items together, and as your list gets longer it gets hard to manage quickly. The tiles are large enough for it to be easy to stop on the app you are scanning for, but it’s less than ideal.
Personally I think the animations in the OS are tasteful and add to the beauty of the interface. I think this today. It’s easy for me to imagine a time when they become repetitive and some early adopters are already complaining about animation fatigue.
I love the ability to see unread, flagged and urgent emails. Deleting emails is incredibly easy and this is the only phone I’ve seen that supports Hotmail. Exchange support is top notch. But there are some big downsides. The phone is hard to type on (more on this later) and all of your inboxes are completely separate. Not just segregated within a single mail app, but totally separate apps, and checking emails from multiple accounts can be arduous.
What I Don’t like
The other side of the coin to relying on Microsoft platforms is having to use their awful browser, Internet Explorer. And to top it off it’s IE7, which was originally released 4 years ago. Let that one sink in. One of the most sophisticated internet devices on the planet is running a four year old browser. You often end up being redirected to wap versions of websites, not even to a proper mobile version. And not only does it not support Flash, but it doesn’t even support Microsoft’s multimedia platform Silverlight.
Apps and Marketplace
I hate to bash on this too much as it’s a new platform, and there is limitless potential here for games, but the app store is small, confusion and the apps in it (even from major brands) are of questionable quality. There are also a TON of preinstalled AT&T apps bringing you the same dirty feeling from when you first boot up a new PC to your phone. Carriers have too much control over these devices, from apps to gross branding on the actual device, and we’ve all seen how this one ends.
Syncing and Connecting
There are some real ups and downs here. Apple has gone predominately with an iTunes based syncing method, while Google is all cloud. There are obvious pros and cons to both but the WP7 fits poorly in the middle. Calendars and email sync nicely to the cloud, but content has to be synced using PC only software. It seems like Microsoft is stuck between being an entertainment device, and a window into the cloud, but accomplished neither.
Input is another huge blow to the phone. The on screen keyboard is one of the worst I’ve used. The buttons are too small and it often makes mistakes that other devices would catch. Inserting the cursor into text is great when you get used to it, but with no copy and paste it’s really handicapped. Also, the four way swipe paradigm that all the apps use can easily be confused if you swipe too quickly. The screen accidentally swipes to the right about 10% of the time if I swipe up too quickly. Hopefully most of these issues are software based and are not some shortcoming in the hardware of the phone.
Does anyone know what “pin to start” means? I realized it after a few seconds, but the start paradigm doesn’t exist anywhere else on the device except in this menu. Some of the interfaces go beyond minimal and begin to feel unfinished as you dig deeper into the device. The grey, black and white start to feel too much like wireframes and not enough like finished interfaces. Clicking “home” always takes you to the first tile, so managing a long list becomes tedious. There is no sharing of video. As far as I can tell, the only way to get videos off the phone is by plugging it directly into a PC.
While this is one of the best V1 devices I’ve seen, there are times where it is very clear it’s a new platform. It’s different, some might even say experimental, but I wonder how much becomes novelty over time. All in all I think this is a solid platform, with the only unforgivable flaw being the browser. I find myself enjoying using my phone again, but would never be able to switch permanently until Firefox/Opera/Chrome appear in the Marketplace. If you are in the market for a new smartphone, especially if you are a PC user, this could be a hit for you. It’s stylish, different, yet user friendly. It feels less like a phone, and more like a portal into the social web. It’s great seeing Microsoft taking a stance against their competitors and I think long term, this platform has all the right underpinnings to be a huge success.
Posted on: 11/15/2010