Mobile Operating System Review: Windows Phone 7

After spending the better part of the year in development and testing , Windows Phone 7 has made its long-awaited U.S. debut on five different handsets available through AT&T and T-Mobile. If you've read any of our previous Windows Phone 7 coverage, you already know that the operating system shares few similarities with its predecessor Windows Mobile 6.5. (In fact, the two have about as much in common as Michael Palin and Sarah Palin.)

We put the official release version of Windows Phone 7 through its paces on an HTC HD7; read on to see the highlights (and some lowlights) of Microsoft's new smartphone OS.

Windows Phone 7: Interface and navigation

Windows Phone 7's main locus of activity is the Start screen, a downward-scrolling list of square tiles-- and in a few cases, larger rectangular ones. Many of the tiles are "live", so they update to reflect changing information, such as waiting messages, or in the case of a weather app tile, for example, the current conditions. Tiles can represent built-in WP7 activity "hubs" (e.g. Microsoft Office, Pictures, Music + Video, etc.) apps, or things such as shortcuts to Web sites and individual contacts.

Swiping to the left or tapping an on-screen arrow swings you over to a secondary page which alphabetically lists all the phone's various configuration controls and installed applications (be they built-in or downloaded). A long press on an item produces a Pin to Start option which promotes it to the Start screen.

The Start screen can scroll indefinitely depending on how many tiles it contains. To keep your most important tiles visible with little to no scrolling, you can rearrange them into any order you please by holding one down and dragging it to a new location in the stack. None of the default tiles are anchored into place (i.e. they can be moved), and they can be removed from the Start screen entirely if so desired. On our HD7, at least, this included tiles put in a prominent position by the carrier.

Beyond adding and rearranging tiles on the Start screen, there are a couple of other customization options available. You can choose from among 10 colors for the default tiles (Internet Explorer, Marketplace, People, etc.) and set the Start screen against either a light or dark (read: white or black) background. There's no option to change the size of tiles or alter the standard two column layout, however.

Microsoft says WP7's Start screen design lets people more easily keep information they want at the fore, and we tend to agree, though we'd hesitate to pronounce it objectively better than the conventional multiple-pages-of-app-icons approach. WP7's approach does feel very intuitive and modern by comparison, but depending on whether you've used another type of smartphone before, it may take some getting used to.

Within apps, WP7's horizontal-scrolling panoramic view within applications is clean and attractive, and it makes the limited display space seem a bit less constricted by showing a bit of the next screen along the right edge of the one you're looking at. In some cases, this does have the unfortunate effect of clipping some text on the visible screen..

Overall, getting around in WP7 was very fluid and easy. Scrolling through the Start menu, app list, and within apps always felt smooth and responsive (WP7's 1 GHz processor requirement likely helps in this regard). We did sometimes experience momentary, though noticeable, lags upon opening certain apps.

WP7: Email, calendar and contacts

E-mail is usually one of the primary reasons for having a smartphone in the first place, and WP7 works with just about any mail account you're likely to have. It automatically configures Windows Live, Yahoo! Mail, Gmail, and Exchange/Outlook, plus you can manually set up other kinds of POP or IMAP accounts. WP7 can push sync e-mail so new items are downloaded as soon as they arrive at your mailbox, or you can choose less frequent options of 15, 30, or 60 minutes (as well as opt to sync manually).

WP7 can handle as many e-mail accounts as you'd care to configure-- including multiple Exchange accounts, something Windows Mobile 6.5 doesn't do-- but there's no unified inbox, and thus no way to check into all of your accounts at the same time. Also missing (and very much missed) is a threaded or conversation view for messages. On the plus side, when browsing a particular inbox, a quick swipe in either direction lets you view only unread or urgent/flagged messages, which can be a real productivity enhancer. Another nice touch is the ability to touch the left edge of any message to automatically display check boxes for multiple message selection.

The WP7 virtual keyboard is excellent. It's easy to read (high-contrast black-on-white), well laid out, and spacious, particularly on the HD7's roomy 4.3-inch screen. (It works in both portrait and landscape mode.) We're somewhat ambivalent about the inclusion of an emoticon key, however. We found WP7's word auto-correction feature to be quite accurate, and when you need to override and choose corrections manually, a horizontally scrolling row of suggestions above the keyboard makes it simple to do so.

WP 7 gives you the option to sync calendars and contacts for Windows Live, Google, and Exchange, but with an important limitation. Namely, it only syncs one calendar per service, the primary or default calendar for each-- not any secondary, shared, or subscribed calendars you might have.

The contact list/address book in WP7 is better known as the People hub, and it integrates Windows Live contacts with those on your phone. If you've configured a Gmail or Exchange account, you can search through those address books as well, with one important caveat. We were unable to access or search an Exchange 2003 company directory (Global Address List) on our WP7 device, and It turns out this is a known issue affecting WP7 and Exchange 2003 (but evidently not 2007 or 2010). While Microsoft is promising a fix in a future WP7 update, it isn't offering a timetable, so Exchange 2003 users or admins will probably want to hold off for now.

The People hub also offers the option to tie into your Facebook account, which can be a bit of a double-edged sword. Unlike with Gmail and Outlook, if you add your Facebook account to the People hub your Facebook friends are added directly to your phone's contact list by default, which inevitably clogs it up with countless people that you may very well have little regular contact with outside of--or possibly even within--the service. If you're on Facebook constantly, you'll probably love this degree of integration, but Facebook dabblers/lurkers will likely find it distracting. Fortunately, there a way to override this default behavior and display Facebook friends only if they're already a contact on your phone or in Windows Live, Gmail, etc., but Microsoft has this option well hidden (you need to open the People hub and then long press the People heading at the top to find the setting).

WP7: Browsing and search

WP7's version of Internet Explorer, which Microsoft has said is an amalgam of IE 7 and 8 technologies, definitely provides the best browsing experience on a Windows smartphone to date, and it's arguably as good as is available on iPhone or Android phones. Web pages render and scroll quickly, and the pinch-to-zoom feature is also very responsive.

An available IE setting lets you specify whether you want to automatically load the desktop or mobile versions of pages (the latter is the default). We also like the tabbed browsing feature which simultaneously displays thumbnail views of up to six open pages so you can jump easily between them.

It's important to note that IE on WP7 currently supports neither Flash nor Microsoft's own Sliverlight for Web video. (For its part, Adobe's announced that Flash 10.x is coming to WP7, though it hasn't said exactly when. Adobe's PDF Reader is bundled with the OS.)

The magnifying glass button in the lower right corner of every WP7 device brings up the default search app, which not surprisingly, is Bing. Bing works as well on WP7 as it does on a PC or any other smartphone-- which is to say it works well--and the search bar mike icon lets you speak your search rather than type it.

One notable weakness of WP7's Bing search is that it's not universal, so there's no way to search across different types of information on the phone. Also, the Bing-based search is not always directly accessible, because depending on where you are in the OS, the aforementioned search button may call up area-specific search. In the People hub or in e-mail, for example, it searches for contacts or within messages, so getting to Bing requires backing out to the Start screen.

WP7: Using Microsoft Office

Microsoft Office on WP7 is essentially a carryover of the Office Mobile 2010 software that was released for WM 6.5 phones just last spring, albeit with the added benefit of the superior UI (e.g. no more soft key menus).

The Office apps (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) do a good job of displaying documents on a small screen in some semblance of their original form and preserving that form when you open them again on a PC. Editing options are available, but they're few in number compared to the desktop versions. Word, for example, offers basic text formatting (bold, italics, underline), lets you change the size of fonts, and includes a handful of choices for font color and text highlighting, but you can't change the actual font. Both Word and Excel provide a commenting feature, however, which should come in handy when you need to weigh in on material you receive without actually editing the documents.

Both Word and Excel allow you to create new documents on the phone, but PowerPoint is limited to editing existing presentations. For the time being, you can't copy and paste data in Office apps, or anywhere else in WP7 for that matter. (Microsoft says this is coming in early 2011.) There's also integration with Microsoft's Sharepoint collaboration software, but only if you're running the most recent version, 2010.

Music, video and pictures

WP7 devices can be thought of as Zune HD players with integrated phones, so it's no surprise that WP7's Music +Videos hub carries the Zune label and works in conjunction with the Microsoft's Zune desktop software (currently available for the PC, but soon destined for the Mac).

WP7 provides an online Zune Marketplace where you can browse and download albums or individual songs (covering a dozen-plus genres of music) over-the-air. But if you're looking for movies, TV shows, or even audio podcasts, you can't get this kind of content on your phone directly from the Marketplace via 3G or Wi-Fi connection. Rather, you have to purchase and download these items from the Zune PC software and then sync to transfer the material to your phone, a process which will seem antediluvian to anyone that's used an iPhone or iPod Touch before.

WP7's only saving grace in this regard is that unlike those iDevices, WP7 can sync over Wi-Fi rather than having to physically connect a USB cable to the computer running the Zune software. Wireless sync is easy to setup up (brain-dead, really) but since you're syncing to a PC rather than a central server, it doesn't help you if you're away from that computer. Moreover, although wireless sync occurs automatically whenever your WP7 and Zune PC are on the same Wi-Fi network, there are many prerequisites--your phone must be on AC power for 10 minutes and idle for the sync to occur. There's also no way to force a wireless sync manually, so tough luck if you're in a hurry to get out the door. (You can manually sync via USB, though.)

All WP7 phones must sport at least a 5 MP camera (as does our HD7) and the Pictures Hub makes it quite easy to view and organize the snapshots you've taken with your phone, as well as any you've synced from a PC via the Zune software. Interestingly, videos you take with the phone are viewable from both the Pictures and Music + Videos hubs.

Our main reservation about the Pictures hub is that WP7's tight (vise-like?) Facebook integration rears head again here. To wit, any photos posted by your Facebook friends automatically show up in your Pictures hub, and there doesn't seem to be any way of opting out of that short of disabling Facebook integration entirely. Again, rabid Facebook users may appreciate having access to the photos this way, but more casual users may find it a bit much.

Mobile app store

In the long run, WP7 will almost certainly live or die based on the quantity (and quality) of mobile apps available, and in that regard the it appears to be off to a decent start. As of this writing the number of mobile apps available in the online Marketplace was past 2,200 spanning 16 categories (and growing by dozens apps each day). That's nothing by iPhone or Android standards, but it's not too shabby for barely a week beyond WP7's U.S. launch.

That said, if you've got a favorite app on another platform, chances are you won't find it on WP7 just yet. A number of marquee names have already ported their apps over, however, including eBay, Facebook, IMDB, Netflix, Twitter, and The Weather Channel. There's even a Google search app, though notably, you can't configure WP7's physical search button to summon it (you're free to pin it to the Start screen).

The Business category in particular could use some bulking up; it had the slimmest pickings of all the categories, with less than 50 apps on offer. We're sorry to say that fart app aficionados will have plenty of those to choose from.

We did encounter a few stability issues with the Marketplace; on multiple occasions attempt to enter the Marketplace would hang up, and while they didn't lock up the phone subsequent attempts to re-enter the Marketplace resulted in being returned to the Start screen after a few seconds. A phone reboot always cleared up the issue, albeit temporarily.

One more thing when it comes to apps-- although it comes as no surprise, it's important to note that WP7 doesn't support multitasking except for first-party apps. That means you can't, for example, stream from the Slacker music app and jump out to check e-mail or browse the Web, but you can do exactly that if you're streaming from the built-in Zune music player. Unlike copy and paste, though, Microsoft hasn't offered a timetable for adding this to WP7.

The absence of multitasking for third-party apps also means that they can't run in the background when the phone is locked. If you're running one when the phone locks, the app gets suspended, and upon unlocking, there's a brief delay while the app resumes.

The bottom line

Typically a new operating system is superior to its predecessor in almost every way. That's not quite the case with Windows Phone 7, which although a huge step forward in ease-of-use, features, and sophistication compared to Windows 6.5, is also a step behind it (not to mention the iPhone and Android platforms) in several major respects, not the least of which are the absence of full multitasking and a copy and paste feature.

If you've got a late-model iPhone or Android phone, there's probably nothing in Windows Phone 7 that warrant defecting from your existing platform. Nevertheless, there's plenty to like about Microsoft's new smartphone OS, and it's a sensible choice for those new to smartphones or carrying aging Windows Mobile devices. If you're in that latter group, however, be sure your organization isn't running Exchange 2003 and that you're not married to any of the absent features. If so, your patience may be rewarded by giving WP7 another look in six months or so, once features have been added or refined and kinks worked out.

Joseph Moran is a longtime technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7 from Friends of Ed.



Microsoft, Windows Phone, Windows Phone 7, mobile os, smartphone OS