Windows Phone 7 Review: Can You Really Get In and Get Out?
For a week and a half I lived with the Windows Phone 7. I put my iPhone away and bid adieu to mobile phone paradigm I was used to. Microsoft sent me a Samsung Focus a few days before Christmas. I considered it an early present (on loan, of course), but did Windows Phone 7 zap my holiday cheer? Read on.
The Samsung Focus is itself a thing of beauty. It was lightweight with a gorgeously large 4-inch 480×800 AMOLED screen and felt good in my hand. The Focus booted up quickly and had a 75 percent charge out of the box. Wonderful. The first thing I noticed was the deep, inky black on the AMOLED screen, which makes colors pop and the screen look almost unreal. In a dark, unlit room, you couldn’t tell where black areas of the screen met up with the black bezel of the phone. It was that good.
Sound quality was crisp, and both vibration and sound alerts were loud enough and strong enough to get my attention. The phone features 4GB of storage space with a micro-SD card slot to accommodate expansion, which I didn’t test out because I didn’t have a micro-SD card to use. The 5-megapixel camera took acceptable photos, although the photos always looked slightly green (I suspect that adjusting the white balance may solve this). Google Sync linked right up like it was an Exchange account and all my contacts, calendar appointments and Gmail downloaded quickly. The phone was fast, and Windows Phone 7’s GUI was as sexy as it was responsive.
And man, does that sexy shine. Pages flip, tiles float, messages fade in, bounce in and bounce out. The system sounds for the keyboard, alerts and calls are so modern and pleasing — there’s not a shrill ding, beep or ring in sight. (Apple should take note here.) There’s a feeling of cohesive fluidity between applications and some of the transitional animations are so futuristic they make you smile. The onscreen keyboard is comfortable to use, and both it and the auto-correct work very well.
But look under the polish and it’s clear that there are a few nuts and bolts missing. Sadly, as much as I love what Microsoft has done with its mobile version of Windows, there are still some real issues. Microsoft’s catch phrase for the device is “Get In, Get Out.” Problem was, I didn’t see the phone living up to that promise.
The phone’s lock screen alerts you to how many messages, missed calls and e-mails you have, but it doesn’t preview them for you. (Only an initial preview for text messages scroll across the top of the screen briefly.) Both Android and iPhone give you more specific information in some shape or form on the lock screen. You still have to open up a messaging app, a phone app or an e-mail app to get at the messages (just like many other phones). When you receive an e-mail, the number of unread e-mails appears next to the mail icon, be it a big O for Outlook or an envelope for non-Exchange accounts. But the tiles on the window screen are big enough that they could fit short previews of e-mails. Microsoft designed the People tile (or contacts) to live-cycle through images of contacts (from Facebook or Google), but it couldn’t give me the first two lines of my latest e-mail or text?
So far, I’m failing to see how I’ve gotten access to my information quicker than my iPhone or Android.
Inside the e-mail app, everything works just fine. But if you want to move between your inboxes and folders, you have to ‘swipe’ the screen to the left or right, forcing you to cycle through every folder, instead of tapping one button to exit the inbox and another button to get into the folder you actually want (like a lot of other smartphones do).
Unsurprisingly, Bing is the center of this phone and — like the Android phones — this phone has a dedicated search button. The button brings up the Bing search bar and the accompanying pretty picture. Search results provide a few different options — a “web” column, with traditional results, or “local” and “news” columns related to your search that are accessible by swiping the screen to the left or the right. What’s missing is image search — that would’ve been so useful.
The largest inefficiency for this phone (which for me, is the nail in the coffin for the “Get In, Get Out” motto) is the very limited options you have to personalize your home screen. Tiles on your home screen are either 1×1 or 1×2, and there’s no rationale to which tiles are 1×1 and 1×2. If you want to have your “Photos” tile on your home screen, it seems appropriate to use a 1×2 space (but you can’t opt for using a 1×1 space). You can, of course, move them all around, so ostensibly you have two ‘columns’ with an unlimited amount of rows to put tiles on. To keep it uncluttered, you can ‘swipe’ to the left and get a list of all the other apps you don’t have on your home screen. Except they’re all in one massive single column. So if your app starts with any letter at the end of the alphabet, (hmm, like XBox Live?) you need to whip your finger to scroll down the entire list. There are no such things as folders, either. At the very least, both Apple and Android solutions provided a grid with a 5×5 or 5×4 list of apps. For a 4-inch screen, this is an incredible waste of space and inefficient use of time.
Also, there’s really no multitasking. There’s no double-clicking or long-holding the Windows button for an alternative menu, and there’s no quick switching between apps. The back button has the same woes that Android back buttons do — it’s non-dedicated so it can either take you back one screen inside the app you’re using, or back to the last app you used, without you knowing which it will do.
On-the-fly information like battery power, WiFi signal and connection, and connectivity (how many bars you have and/or if you’re on a 3G network) are not always available. They float away into the ‘top’ of the screen, and only return once you tap the top of the screen. Again, that’s information I could use to ‘get in and get out’ but couldn’t. Likewise, the volume control and track controls outside the music app live inside the volume menu, which pops up only after you hit the volume button.
Adding to the confusion and frustration, the Windows Phone 7 marketplace is messy. Search results are returned inside a single column of tiles, which is all well and good, but if a Marketplace search turns up songs, albums, apps and games in one search result, you have to read the subtitle description of each result to figure out what each one is. Yes, you can swipe left and right to filter the results, but it’s a tad clunky to sift through both music and apps in the same search results. Plus, games exist both in the Windows Marketplace and in the Xbox Live app. What’s more, some games are accessible only after you open the Xbox Live app, so essentially you have to load up an app to run an app.
3D games on the Windows Phone 7 look especially gorgeous with DX9 graphics, but I’ve never experienced such long loading times on a mobile device. It made it especially painful if I wanted to quit a game quickly to reply to a text message. I had to reload the entire game, and it didn’t save my spot. Really frustrating.
On the whole, good apps were few and far between, but the market is young. The official Twitter app was great, and melded with the Windows Phone 7 GUI and theme. I picked up a free RSS reader and WikiPanda for Wikipedia. Maps worked great, but I didn’t have a use case to try out the GPS. There was no native DropBox app, and though I read up on a few workarounds, I didn’t try them. The Netflix app was the most entertaining app on the phone and felt very polished. Internet Explorer for Windows Phone 7 got the job done, but it’s no Mobile Safari or Android browser. The rendering times for web pages seemed slower than other mobile browsers I’ve used.
I also had a hard time staying connected to a Wi-Fi connection, both in my house and in other places. The phone — for no reason — drops the Wi-Fi connection and sometimes fails to re-establish it. I think this is a power-saving feature, but to me it was more a nuisance. I also couldn’t tell Windows Phone 7 to connect to a Wi-Fi network with that had a hidden SSID.
My final issue is that neither a dial pad nor a menu of most commonly used in-call features show up during a call. Instead, you have to work from a small menu with buttons to bring up a keypad or hit another button for a different set of options like speakerphone or add-a-call. Again, woefully inefficient (though I suppose this is to prevent face-dialing).
Microsoft has come a long way from Windows Mobile 6.5 and other past iterations of Pocket Windows, but Windows Phone 7 feels like it hit the market about two years too late. Even with all the GUI polish and pizazz, there’s just too much that Android, Apple and even HP/Palm have a leg up with, which puts Microsoft at a disadvantage, especially multi-tasking. For the time being, if I had to give up my iPhone, Android is still my first alternative.
Perhaps greater adoption will fuel consumer demand for a more robust environment, and Microsoft will churn out Windows Phone 7 SP1 (now with folders!). But for the time being, Windows Phone 7 feels like it can’t decide if it wants to be the no-fuss business phone to compete with Blackberry or the Xbox phone to go against Apple/Android. Sadly, it does neither in a particularly paradigm-changing way.