Windows Phones have been around for more than two years but spotting these in the wild has been rare. I always was curious about how these phones performed as they did seem good enough to stay in the news, after all this was Microsoft’s move to become relevant in the mobile arena again. What made me buy a Windows Phone was hearing good things about it from a friend who had one of these, letting go of my Galaxy S2 and Android was hard but curiosity won me over. I’ve had my Windows Phone handset for more than two months and here’s my experience with it. Before I get into it I would like to point out this is a user review and I won’t be getting too technical. Reading this should give you an idea of what Windows Phone is and might aid you in deciding whether you should get a Windows Phone.
Choosing my Windows Phone handset
There were quite a few Windows Phones I could choose from but I narrowed down the devices based on my needs. Having a Micro SD card slot and internet sharing support are a must to me in my phones, and this made it a bit hard for me as I ran into a weird dilemma. Most new Windows Phone handsets (launched late 2011) didn’t support a Micro SD card, those which did support it did not have internet sharing support. I finally narrowed it down to two phones, Samsung Focus and HTC Radar. Both were nice phones, the Radar was the newer phone but due to having a low budget I went with Samsung Focus (a first gen Windows Phone). This would have been a huge issue as it was an Android phone as we all know Android phones get old fast (but seems like Google’s getting a grip on the fragmentation issue). Microsoft is taking an Apple like approach and has retained control over its operating system (OS). They have set a bar with minimum specifications for the hardware manufacturers so that the Windows Phone experience is equal, if not better on all WP7 handsets. Before I get to how the phone performs, here’s some background behind Windows Phone.
Windows Phone 7? Windows 7 on a phone?
Whenever I mention Windows Phone to a friend or a colleague I get a similar response as the heading. Most have no clue about what it is or don’t care about it unless they get to play with it. I would blame Microsoft because this is clearly is a marketing fail, or shall I say they don’t quite “get” marketing. This isn’t the first instance where a good product by Microsoft has been under hyped. Nokia has been trying really hard to sell their WP7 Lumia phones, which might count for something. So here’s a bit of a background on what Windows Phone 7 is and how it came to life. It was unveiled back in February 2010 during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Its development had started in 2004 and it was called Windows Mobile 7 back then (codename was Photon) but it didn’t take off internally at Microsoft as they were busy buying Danger (the company that powered those Sidekick phones) and making those Kin phones which they killed later on. In Fall 2008 Microsoft finally decided to stop all Windows Mobile 7 development and started fresh with a new team who were behind the Zune media player and Windows Media Center. If you have had a look at any of those two apps you will know how nice these are and you can see the same design, which is now called the Metro UI throughout Windows Phone 7.
The Metro UI
So what is the Metro User Interface? When asked that most people didn’t have a clue or described it to me as “the new interface with tiles and squares all over”. Which is true but if I told you that it would sound silly. These squares are called Live Tiles and are displayed on the homescreen of the phone. They are “live” because they can also display information relative to the application or hubs similar to widgets. Cool thing about the OS is that most apps follow some strict design guidelines which force the developers to make their apps look similar to the core OS apps, which is a real plus cause it all looks consistent; which results the apps being intuitive as the user already knows the basic controls in the apps. The whole experience is somewhat controlled by Microsoft to an extent. They aren’t as strict as Apple but do have some harsh guidelines for developers, and this is where WP7 beats Android on some aspects because most Android apps look different from each other and have a flow of their own which results in some user confusion. I must note that Android 4.0 (ICS) addresses that issue as Google has laid down a few “recommended” design guidelines to aid the developers to make sure the experience is consistent, but they can’t push anyone due to the whole open-source thing. (Yep, open sourcing does hurt a bit). Aside from the Live Tiles, something I should also mention a control called Jump Lists in WP7 might take time to get used to. These are buttons to sort through stuff in apps and just a unique way to navigate the app.
Notifications are important and there are a few different types of notifications in the OS. There are system notifications, which are displayed on the status-bar. Then there are app notifications, which are notification toasts on top of the status bar. And those Live Tiles on the homescreen which always keep you updated about each app the tile represents. Some might get confused as they don’t see an actual status-bar throughout the OS as it’s a semi status-bar where only the top right portion stays, which is the time. The other stuff such as the battery level, type of network connection, Wi-Fi status, Bluetooth etc. is displayed only when you tap on the status-bar area on top. It’s hard to understand but it’s a unique design feature.
Windows Phone has a complete touch UI but does have a few hardware buttons., but there are only three main buttons that control the OS which are the Back, Home and Search button. Aside from those there’s a volume rocker, a cam era button, and the power button. Out of the three main OS buttons you’ll be using Back the most as the other two aren’t used much. Back takes you a screen back (obvious) and if you hold Back for a few seconds it opens up the multitasking view where you can navigate through the open apps (which I have to admit is cool). Then there’s the Home button, doesn’t differ from the Home buttons we have on an iPhone or an Android phone. Holding down the Home button will activate the Speech recognition feature powered by Microsoft’s Tell Me (which also powers the speech recognition features on the Xbox 360+Kinect and other Microsoft’s services like Ford’s sync). It can do three things; call one of your contacts, open an application or do a Bing search. This by no means is Siri but does do basic tasks via speech, and never misses (they deserve a point for that!).
The Basic Apps and Productivity
Let’s get into the software now, Windows Phone is marketed with the tagline ‘Put People First’ and it does indeed live up to that. I included productivity in the heading because the core includes the productivity part full on. There are four main apps which fall under this category which is the People’s Hub, Email, Calendar, and Messaging. There’s also the Phone app but it’s just the dialer, nothing special going on there. What’s cool about those four apps is that they work together, when you turn on your phone for the first time it walks you through the usual setup. It asks you for your Windows Live logins (Windows Live is mandatory for Xbox Live, Twitter and Facebook to work properly), then you have a choice to add your email; there’s Office 365, Exchange Server, Yahoo Mail and Gmail. You can even add in your social network profiles; it has Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn built into it. Once you’re done with it, it syncs for a few minutes and your phone’s set up. It syncs with your contacts, email and calendars across all the services (even includes FB events in the calendar). There’s a nifty Tasks page inside the Calendar app but unfortunately it only works with Windows Live Calendar, Google Tasks support is rumored to be added in on the next update. The Messages app has Facebook chat and Windows Live IM built into it with the normal texting, which is gold to me because I use FB/MSN chat a lot. Coolest thing about this all is the apps talk really well to each other. Opening up a contact will show you all the info about the contact in one place; will show their recent social updates, recent contact history (email, texts, etc), and you can even tweet or post on their Facebook wall from in here. This is something that I am hooked to as I can check up on my friends from one place. It just works (I know, I used an Apple reference but it does work!).
What’s anything Windows without Office?
There’s one thing Microsoft has done right all along (it should make sense since it’s a software company) and it is their productivity suite, Office. The Office Hub is everything you expect it to be. Has support for all Office document types and you can make/edit documents on the go too. It also supports One Note which is a huge to me because I have been using One Note for years, even before I got the phone. It supports SkyDrive and can fetch your docs from the cloud and let you edit those too. I haven’t had any issues with it so far.
I have had issues with the browser, it fails to render a few websites correctly and the reason behind it would be IE on Windows Phone is based off the Desktop IE7 (they claim the browser in WP7 7.5 Mango was redone and based in IE9 but it still feels the same). You would expect a modern mobile browser to support Webkit but Microsoft has decided to do things its way. It does make sense that they use IE standards but every single touch based mobile web app I’ve tried on an Android phone or an iPhone has either been inaccessible or completely broken in IE, so don’t count on using familiar mobile web apps that you’ve used on competing platforms. This is a huge let down and I hope they do something about it in the next WP7 update.
Windows Phone has a really strong multimedia suite and I can safely say that you won’t find such an experience on Android or iPhones. The multimedia features have been a huge selling point for Windows Phone 7 and here’s why. There are 3 multimedia hubs; Music+Videos, Pictures and Xbox Live (Games).
I am going to start with the Music+Videos hub because I use it the most. This is basically Zune inside WP7, and this reminds me of Zunes early days. I was an early adopter to one of those fat Zune players back in 2006 and I absolutely loved it. This hub is exactly the same thing, it has the Music, Videos, Podcasts, Radio and Marketplace apps. All the apps work really well, a feature in the Music app worth mentioning would Smart DJ, which is like Genius playlists on iDevices. Other than that these app just look more beautiful than iOS. I can’t really compare this to Android as it doesn’t have a native multimedia suite and neither does it have a desktop client.
The pictures hub is where all your pictures and videos you take appear. It has four screens. When you first open up the hub it displays the What’s New screen which shows photos posted by your friends on the connected networks to the phone. The next screen apps that fall under the pictures category. Then there’s the a basic menu with the camera roll, albums, date and people. Cool thing about the albums view is it loads all the albums on your Facebook (similar to how Android loads in Picasa web albums to its Gallery). You can even browse your Facebook friends’ photos via the people screen. The last screen is the favorites screen, useful for when you wanna show your pics to friends. It’s really neat.
Xbox Live (Games) Hub
Microsoft is leveraging the Xbox live brand name and calling the Games hub the Xbox Live hub, which lives up to the brand expectations. When you open it up it shows you your game collection, the next screen shows you your Xbox Live profile with your avatar, then any Xbox Live requests and finally a Spotlight screen for recent news on Xbox Live. This is a nice app as you can check up on the Xbox Live network from your phone; you can message your friends, see what they are doing, browse their profiles, edit your profiles, explore game achievements and basically do everything you can do on the Xbox Live website from here. I actually made my Xbox Live avatar via the phone as I bought an Xbox 360 after the phone. They also have an Xbox Companion app which lets you control your Xbox from your phone. Really sleek experience as it becomes a part of the Xbox 360.
You may call this iTunes for Windows Phones. As I mentioned earlier, you can’t compare the Multimedia part of Windows Phone to Android as it doesn’t have a tight knit media ecosystem. The Zune Desktop app is beautiful too and is at the same level as iTunes in media management. You can manage music, videos and pictures via the desktop client. They also have a thing called the Zune Pass which has been around for years (I used it when I had a fat Zune player). It’s exactly like Spotify. You can download however much music you want, and even stream it. You are free to put/play Zune Pass music on your Phone and Xbox. There’s no download limit, you just have to pay for the Zune Pass. They also have Zune Social which helps you discover new music, I prefer Last.fm for such stuff but am locked in for now. Zune Social isn’t as good as it used to be years ago but I won’t be getting into that in this review. The Zune app is also used to sync and receive WP7 updates. It’s close to perfect.
The Marketplace app can be used to download Apps, Music, Games and Podcasts. If you have a Zune pass the Music Marketplace will allow you to stream all the songs on there and you can even download songs to your device, all downloaded songs will automatically be added to your desktop on your next sync. WP7 has more than 80,000 apps and has most apps you need such as Netflix, Youtube, Facebook and more on there. You do miss out on a few popular apps but I’ve learnt to live with it as it was expected when I got into WP7, but I do not have many complaints regarding the app catalog except not having Angry Birds Space and Draw Something. We have an unofficial Instagram app which is satisfying. The Apps issue will be gone with time & as the WP7 gets more popular the developers will be forced to make apps for it. (It’s also good to have less quality apps than thousands of useless apps to browse from.)
The Ecosystem and SkyDrive
Microsoft gets some major points on here because from what I see in Windows Phone 7 it seems they have it all figured out and gets me excited about the future of Windows. The Operating System at core level syncs to the major social networks, plays nice with Google Services (Gmail, Cal, Contacts) and Windows Live services are really useful. They also offer 25GB of free cloud storage via SkyDrive and the recent SkyDrive Desktop App update made things even easier. It isn’t perfect as of yet but does perform like the iCloud. It uploads every photo you take to SkyDrive (you can turn it off if you want to) and Office hub also utilizes SkyDrive to its full extent. There’s a SkyDrive app which lets you browse whats in your cloud. I have already mentioned the multimedia & marketplace features up there.
Day to Day use
I just got through the main feature highlights of Windows Phone 7 but do the features perform just as well for anyone who uses them? My answer would be yes with a few buts. I can get everything I did on my Android phone done on Windows Phone. The Facebook and Twitter apps I use are beautiful. The phone performs way better on the productivity side but I do feel like things could be better. Something that I was concerned about when switching to Windows Phone was how well will I be able to customize its looks, answer is you can’t customize it a lot. You can just switch accent colors and background colors on WP7, it isn’t as bad as it sounds and I actually have come to like it now. There is some frustration though, most won’t face a similar case as mine but is worth mentioning. I have been using Last.fm as my music recommendation/discovery service for years. I had to stop using it as can no longer scrobble (send listening info) to Last.fm when using the Zune music player. Reason would be because Zune has its own music discovery service called Picks under Zune Social, some might see this as a feature but when you have a play history on Last.fm it would be obvious to use that. I used to use Last.fm on Android via a third party app but since Microsoft has locked down the Zune app, such a thing cannot be done. This is something Apple users already face as due to similar app policies.
I wanna love it but…
Leaving my fanboyism aside for a second, I really want love this but it just doesn’t satisfy needs. I mentioned the lack of apps as it was a small issue up there but it does indeed get in the way as you can’t try out new apps because they don’t support WP7. Another drag is that Microsoft is trying to push you into their playground (the Windows Live Ecosystem), which some people don’t like. I mention how useful having all social networks linked into the phone is but if I tweet an image, the image gets uploaded to SkyDrive and the SkyDrive link appears on my tweet stream. This kind of makes people go outta their way and get onto SkyDrive. I would be cool with it but SkyDrive has been notorious to make some visitors sign into Windows Live on certain occasions. Same goes with the todo list inside the Calendar app, it syncs with Windows Live Calendar but won’t sync with Google Tasks. Can get frustrating at times as Windows Live services aren’t robust, they work well and do their thing but they do have bugs. It’s one thing to push users into your ecosystem if you have it all right, but if your services make your users want to pull their hair it just gives you a bad name.
In the state Windows Phone is right now I would not recommend it to someone who already has an Android phone or an iPhone as they do miss out on a few features but those operating systems have all the core level issues sorted out. By saying that I do not mean WP7 isn’t good, just saying there’s a lot of room for improvement. So should you care about Windows Phone 7? Yes, as it’s developing rapidly and the next version of WP7, Windows Phone 8 Apollo should be out around November right after the iPhone 5 release (all rumors strongly hint at the new iPhone being out in October). Even Wozniak called Windows Phone more beautiful than iPhone the other day so Microsoft is late to the game but it is catching up in the right direction. Would suggest to keep an eye on Windows Phone 8 news as it will decide its fate,
So where does that leave me.
My experience with Windows Phone has been a bumpy ride. I like a few things, others I don’t. I really used to love Android but I am a bit hesitant to go back because I really will miss my multimedia suite I have right now. But I have realized open source doesn’t necessarily mean good, the closed nature of Windows Phones make it a bit easy to receive the latest updates opposed to waiting months for updates on Android. It has also made me realize that Apple is already where Microsoft is heading. It’s just a matter of a few more months before Microsoft catches up but their users are taking a few hits with their transition into Windows 8. I am looking forward to tomorrows Galaxy S3 announcement as I might be going back to Android, for now. I really like it and want a Lumia 900 but not in the state the operating system is right now. Will be following Windows Phone closely though.
It’s time to go back to Android. Hope you had a good read. If you have any questions or any comments, please leave them below. You may subscribe to future blog posts of mine via this link.