Like so many people, I was initially dubious when I heard about Microsoft's plans to release a new mobile OS to compete with the likes of Apple's iOS and Google's Android. And from people's experiences with Windows Mobile 6, you can hardly blame them.
So I left it for a bit after its October 2010 release, and last month bought a new 16GB Samsung Omnia 7 (my review for which can be found on its relevant Ciao product page), and I was not disappointed.
Of the three major mobile OSs- Apple iOS, Google Android and Microsoft Windows Phone- each has a different way of deploying to devices.
iOS only runs on Apple Software, ensuring that it runs smoothly and well on devices. However, this exclusive access often leads to overpricing on Apple's part.
Android runs on pretyy much anything, which has the benefit of competitive pricing between companies, but many devices lack certain features and sensors that may make some apps and experiences incompatible with certain devices.
Windows Phone meets in the middle. The OS is licensed out to numerous OEMs, so the prices can stay competitive, but Microsoft must approve each OEM and device, and ensure that is conforms with strict regulations, so you have the ensured compatibility and efficency like iOS. The MINIMUM requirements for the system are:
- Capacitive, 4-point touchscreen with 480x800 resolution
- ARM v7 1Ghz Processor (Snapdragon)
- DirectX 9-capable GPU
- 256MB RAM (though I believe all current handsets have 512MB minimum...)
- Accelerometer, compass, ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, Assisted gps, and gyroscope
- 5MP camera with LED Flash
- FM Radio Tuner
- 6 hardware buttons: Back, Start, Search, (2-stage) Camera, Power/Sleep, and Volume Up/Down
These minimum requirements ensure a smooth and working experience for all. However, these do make it clear that the OS is definitely a high-end OS, and lower-price devices like some that are availble on Android are unlikely to be available on WP in the near future.
Metro and the Start Screen
From the moment you switch the device on you are greeted with a very different interface. While Apple and Google (and for that matter, the majority of mobile OS manufacturers) prefer a view laden with glossy icons and 3D eye candy, WP7 present a fresh, minimalist look. Most icons are replaced with simple, crisp text that, and titles that flow into different screens to create a feeling of fluidity between pages.The 'Start Screen', as it is termed, contains links to applications in the form of flat, single-coloured squares, or Live Tiles, which animate live with information relevent to the app. By default, you are presented with a useful array of the most used functions- Phone, People (WP7's answer to the contact list), Internet, Messaging (SMS), Email, Games, Music + Video, Pictures the like.
All of these are easily customisable and movable- by holding down on the tile, the user can move the tile about or remove it entirely.
It would be rather cluttered to have all of your apps on this screen, so by swiping left, an app menu appears with all of your installed applications listed in alphabetical order.
One of the most innovative features in WP7 is the introduction of hubs- large applications that combine the features of several apps on other OSs into one. Currently, these consist of:
- People Hub
- Pictures Hub
- Microsoft Office Hub
- Music+Video Hub
- Games Hub (Xbox Live)
These link certain features into one area.
The People Hub is WP7's contact list. When you, for example, link your Facebook Account, all of your friends appear on the list, along with all their public info- email, phone numbers (if they're publicly on Facebook, if not you can easily add them) and even a link to wirite on their wall, all from the same place. Also, as many people keep both Windows Live and Facebook accounts, if you add both of these you may see a few duplicates. This can be easily solved, as the contact card has a link feature, where you can consolidate contact entries for the same person into one entry.
Plus, swipe left and you'll be greeted with a live feed from the Facebook news feature, all without launching an app.
The Pictures Hub does what you'd think- it displays pictures that you have on your phone, sorted by folder or date. However, this also streams from your own albums on Windows Live and Facebook, so you'll find that if you're connected to 3G or Wifi, you'll have all of your online photos merged with your albums. Obviously these are streamed, and not actually saved on your phone, so you have a link on each of the images allowing you to save them. Personally, I would have preferred a link to sync the whole album at once, as all saved photos are ar saved to a folder named "Saved Photos". which can get pretty crowded. Also, there is little control over the folder structure; this must be done on a PC using the Zune Software.
A nice little featur is that you can set a custom background from your images for the Pictures Hub, or just have it select one at random every so often.
The Office Hub is you're access to Office Mobile 2010: Sharepoint, Word, Excel, Onenote and Powerpoint (though PowerPoint can view only). This is really only text based on Word and Onenote, with functions and formulae available on Excel. You wouldn't use this for creating too many rich documents, but for viewing and light editing of existing documents, this is a handy set of programs. An upcoming update will link and sync the phone with your Windows Live Skydrive account, so this will enable better access to your documents on the go.
The Music + Video Hub (or Zune, as many may know it as) is how you can view videos, listen to podcasts, music and radio on your Windows Phone. The first screen is the 'history' screen, where you get a button to resume any media you have paused (and that even includes Youtube videos, if you turned them off halfway through, this button'll resume it from where you left off). You can swipe left for recently played artists, albums and songs, and again to find the 'new' screen, which displays a grid with the 8 most recently synced albums. Swipe left again for the Marquee- a list of online contant providers and apps you may have accessed or downloaded. The content'll differ between countries. For example, I'm in the UK and my list consists of Youtube and Last.fm (which is an online music service). Swipe left one more time to access Zune, which will list your music, videos, podcasts, radio stations and a link to the marketplace, where you get buy tracks (basically Microsoft's answer to the iTunes Store)
The Games Hub gives you access to all of your downloaded games, trials and Xbox Live. If you've your Xbox account linked you'll be able to earn achievements for your games, customise you avatar, read and send messages, and view leaderboards. Now, I must admit there is a big flaw in the leaderboard system- it only shows data from people on your friends list, not worldwide stats. Given that I'm the only person I know who has a Windows Phone, this means the leaderbaord only shows me, which kind of defeats its objective. Hopefully they'll add this in the future, but is a bit disappointing...
However, there are a growing number of games (which only appear in the games hub, not the apps list on the Start Screen, but you can pin them to start if you wish), many of which are pored from iOS or Android. I only have a few bought games, which are Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, Plants vs Zombies and Doodle Jump. They all work well, nice and fluid, the graphics are very good, and the achievement system works well, each game giving 200GP, the same as an Xbox Arcade title.
The marketplace combines a shop for music, apps, games and network/manufacturer-specific content. Each category can be filtered based on content, type, paid/free, top-reviewed etc. Each page has written reviews for the app, and each song on Zune can be purchased separately (for 99p) or as part of a (usually discounted) album.
Messaging and Email
Text messages run in a very handy conversational thread view, which makes it easy to keep track of conversations. the built in keyboard is not bad, but you'll want to turn your device sideways and use it landscape for long messages.
The email system is very efficient, and you can choose to receive messages every so often, like every half hour, or as they come, which is what I use. emails are easy to compose, but the interface lacks a conversation view, which would be handy.
WP7 features a very useful calendar. You can add event easily and add/remove other participants, who receive an email telling them about the event. This is mainly for other WP users, who'd be able to sync this event with their calendar. I don't get much use out of it, but I think it'd be very useful for businessmen, for example. Recent upcoming events display on the phone's lock screen, and the calendar features a handy month-by-month view, an agenda view, which displays all events in a list or an hour-by-hour view useful for busy day schedules. In the upcoming update it will be possible to sync events from Facebook straight to the calendar, but this has yet to be added.
An important part of the phone is the media capabilities, so it's important to be able to easil sync your phone. Windows Phone does not show up in Windows as a device, so cannot be synced by anything (and that included Media Player) other than the Zune Software, which is available for free download. The software can be setup to automatically sync data, or just what you specify, and is also used to update the OS.
For Mac OS users, Zune is Windows-only, but a plugin is available from the App Store that allows you to sync from iTunes and iPhoto. You'll need an Intel Mac for this, running Mac OS 10.5 Leopard or later. Of course if you're running Windows under Boot Camp you can just use the Zune Software, but most users don't do this.
This is a truly amazing system, which I believe blows iOS and Android out of the water. The very strict minimum requirements to develop a device for it means that you get many handsets at competitive prices (unlike the exclusive iOS devices), but you still have the security that ensusres that all will work as well as each other pretty much, unlike the almost open-source Android.
The fresh new interface is something that has not been seen before, and is so much clearer than a screen of apps.
While it has a few shortcomings- there's not support for 3rd party multitasking (until Mango), and apps don't have open use of sensors like the compass, or the camera (again, until Mango...), but overall, if you're looking for a high-end smartphone, and you use more Windows services than you do Apple, this may well be the mobile OS for you!I will amend this review with features as I find them (I'm still quite new to the OS), but I shall post a second review dealing with Windows Phone Mango, the upcoming huge update, when it's released.