I’ve been using an iPhone 3G for nearly as long as it has been available. It has served me well over the years but I’ve been wanting something different for a quite some time. As the end of my 2 year agreement approached I started looking at other smartphones. Back then there were only a few serious options: iPhone 3GS, a few Android phones, and Blackberry. For a while I was leaning heavily toward the Nexus One but then I started hearing rumblings about a new phone operating system from Microsoft, one that would replace the much hated Windows Mobile and was going offer a significant departure from the traditional smartphone experience.
The more I heard about this new OS the more interested I became. Tiles and hubs, social network integration, “smart links”, it all sounded like an obvious evolution. I decided to put my upgrade on hold and see if Microsoft’s experiment could be a contender in the arena.
As the months passed I attended a few preview events and watched several “first” look videos. Everything I was seeing was getting me more and more interested. With the majority of the post-launch reviews I read being largely positive I made the decision to jump to a WP7 enabled phone upon their release. This past Monday morning I purchased a Samsung Focus. Now that I’ve had it and used it for a few days was it worth it? Does it deliver on its promise?
Now before my friends who were joking about the odds of me giving it a negative review get too excited about being right let me clarify. I said it was worth the wait and that it delivers on its promise, not that it’s perfect. WP7 is a first generation release. With any first generation release there are going to be rough spots. There are going to be features that seem obvious but are missing. I got into this fully aware of the shortcomings and I really haven’t found any surprises.
I’m not going to go into any depth about individual features – that’s all available elsewhere and most of the major reviews say pretty much the same things. Instead I’m going to highlight the pieces that have had the biggest impact on my overall impression of the phone.
On the Surface
The first thing I noticed about the Focus as I lifted it off the display stand is how light it is. Compared to the iPhone 3G it’s a featherweight. Some reviewers thought that the device felt plasticy but I haven’t really noticed.
When I woke up the device for the first time the Super-AMOLED display really brought it to life. It’s bright, it’s crisp, and it’s vibrant. Just for fun I held it side-by-side with the neighboring HTC Surround and the difference was immediately noticeable. For a device geared toward multimedia applications the HTC’s display was a big disappointment.
The physical buttons are adequately sized and well placed although I still find myself trying to press the non-existent top sleep button like on the iPhone but I’m adjusting fairly quickly. I haven’t had much occasion to use the dedicated camera button but it’s definitely a welcome touch as is the LED flash when used from a moderate distance.
There are only two things that I’ve found annoying about the Focus hardware. First, the power connector is located at the top of the device making it difficult to use when plugged in for charging or syncing. Second, the lack of a silent mode toggle switch means turning off the ringer takes four button presses.
After three days of usage I’ve found the battery life to be a tad short but still acceptable. I can generally make it through the work day using around a half charge. I plug it in on my way home and it lasts the rest of the day pretty easily. A good overnight charge and it’s ready for the day. The fact that the battery is user-replaceable is a welcome change from the iPhone.
Generally speaking though there’s very little that makes the hardware stand-out.
It’s What’s on the Inside that Counts
The Windows Phone 7 operating system is what makes this phone interesting. Being apprehensive about this new OS is completely understandable. Couple this being a first generation release with the well deserved hatred of Windows Mobile and the quick failure of the doomed from the start Kin and the apprehension about this OS is magnified. Complaints about missing features or being a bit rough around the edges in some areas is also standard fare for reviewers of the first generation of any brand new system and WP7 is no exception. After three days of heavy use on the phone I feel that I can say that the apprehension is unnecessary and with a few notable exceptions the “unpolished” areas have hardly been troublesome.
In the time that I’ve had the phone I’ve used most of the features at least a little bit. I’ve connected to Windows Live, facebook, my work and personal email and calendars, and Xbox Live. I’ve surfed the Web, I’ve made calls, I’ve sent and received SMS messages, posted status updates, taken a few pictures, played some games, and installed some apps. About the only thing I haven’t done is played some music.
Now that I’ve exercised nearly everything on the phone in real-world usage I can highlight some of its strengths and weaknesses. As I mentioned, I don’t want to simply restate what virtually every review has already said but some overlap is inevitable. I’ll be commenting more on some of the nuances I’ve encountered along the way.
The overall feel of the system is incredibly clean and intuitive. Scrolling, panning, and zooming have all been smooth and snappy but there have been several occasions where the touch screen has treated swipes as taps and taken me into something I didn’t want to go into. As mildly annoying as this can be the system is fast enough that tapping the back button causes minimal interruption. That said, I do find myself missing the back button quite regularly but that’s due to me not being used to the button positioning.
Of all of the platform wide controls the keyboard really stands out. The keys are responsive and the predictive text is both unobtrusive and useful. The dictionary even includes proper names! I already find myself typing faster on the focus than I ever did on the iPhone.
As many reviewers have noted one notable feature that’s missing from WP7 is copy and paste. When I first heard about the feature being cut from the initial release I was baffled. It seemed like a huge mistake and I knew that reviewers were going to include it in their list of cons but after using the phone for a few days I’ve hardly noticed that it’s not there. The “smart links” that make the system components work together so seamlessly have almost eliminated the need for it. I’ll still be happy when it’s added though.
The People Hub is easily one of the best features of WP7. I like this feature so much I’ve placed its Live Tile in the upper right corner right next to the messaging tile. At this time the People Hub integrates contacts from address books, facebook, and Windows Live. As I added my accounts I found that the software did a really good job of linking the “duplicates” under a common contact. For those few exceptions where it didn’t link them manually establishing the link is just a matter tapping the Link button and browsing for the contact.
I have several hundred unique contacts across all of my accounts. Scrolling through all of them on the all panel can be cumbersome but there are three alternatives. One method is to jump to a letter of the alphabet by clicking one of the letter icons. We can also tap the search button and start typing. Both methods are quick and easy. Frequently accessed contacts can pinned to the start screen for one tap access.
Individual contacts show their aggregated information (determined by linkages) on the profile panel. This makes it really easy to interact with that person be it through phone call, text, email, or other available methods. If the contact is linked to a social networking service the profile panel will show their most recent activity and there will also be a what’s new panel that shows the contact’s recent activity across all sites.
Like many others my biggest complaint about the People Hub is the lack of integration with services beyond Windows Live and facebook. I’d really like to see support added for these, particularly twitter and flickr and I know others want more too. In fairness though, this really is the first phone to offer this level of integration with any social networking site at all. The fact that it feels so natural that users are already demanding more speaks volumes.
My other complaint with contacts is that there doesn’t seem to be a way to easily share contacts nor does the phone properly handle any received .vcf files. My wife tried to send me a .vcf file from her iPhone through both MMS and email. For MMS the phone said the message contained content that couldn’t be displayed. The email showed the attachment and opened it as a contact but the only information it contained was the contact’s name. Hopefully support for .vcf files will be added. Being able to merge contacts with information contained in a .vcf would be a big plus.
The email and calendar support is pretty strong. I don’t really care about the lack of a unified inbox or message threading though I know some people do. I would prefer to just have a single mail app that listed my inboxes individually rather than having a separate tile for each one.
Each inbox has panels for viewing all, unread, flagged, and urgent messages. Composing a new email works as expected. One stand-out feature is the ability to select an attachment (read: photo) from the new message panel.
The calendar is really well implemented. The only thing I’ve noticed missing is a week view. The fact that the agenda is integrated into the lock screen is a huge plus. The “I’ll be late” button is a nice convenience feature but I haven’t used it yet.
One of the nice subtleties that illustrates the attention to detail is the use of typography rather than icons to distinguish various statuses. In place of icons to identify unread messages WP7 uses a colored, bold subject line and color coding to identify the source calendar for a calendar item.
Gone are the days of the mobile version of Internet Explorer. WP7 comes equipped with a hybrid of Internet Explorer 7 and 8 for a more desktop-like experience. This version even supports “tabbed” (I use the term loosely because this is still a mobile platform) browsing. In general the browser works quite well.
By default the browser will display the mobile version of a site if one is available. This can be changed adjusting the “Website preference” option in the IE settings panel. I switched mine to prefer the desktop version and have been really happy with the result. Of the sites I’ve viewed I haven’t noticed any real problems aside from one site that didn’t fully build the contents of a canvas tag. I was pretty impressed with how well it handled an iframe on another site.
One minor annoyance is that although the browser supports landscape mode the address bar is inaccessible there. I really haven’t found this to be too troubling but I can see where people that prefer browsing in landscape would find it irritating.
Something slightly more obnoxious is the search. That’s not to say that the search doesn’t work well because it does – it is Bing after all. What’s annoying is that entering search criteria into the address bar switches over to the search app to display results and clicking any of the results jumps back to the browser but opens the page in a new tab rather than reusing the original tab. This leads to a lot of unnecessary tab cleanup.
There is currently no Flash support and although the phone’s development platform is Silverlight the browser doesn’t support it either. The lack of Flash and Silverlight support is a bit of a disappointment but it’s not the biggest problem. I’ve been managing just fine without either technology on the 3G for over two years. The real problem, the one problem with the phone that I actually get angry about, is that the vast majority of videos aren’t accessible from the browser!
Want to watch something on YouTube? I hope you’re using the mobile site because they won’t work on the desktop version (you can change the URL from “www.youtube.com…” to “m.youtube.com” as a workaround). Found a site with a Flash video? You’re out of luck. To me this is easily the phone’s biggest weak spot and I really home Microsoft addresses it soon.
The marketplace works basically as one would expect. The fact that apps, games, and music are all available through a single utility is a nice touch. The try before you buy model is probably the best marketplace feature. I’ve already downloaded and installed a few things (mostly games) that way.
Of the free apps I’ve already installed:
- Flickr Manager
Other sites have already remarked on most of these apps pretty heavily. I’ll readily admit that I haven’t used most of them all that much yet but there are a few things to highlight.
If you’re a flickr user you’ll immediately start wishing for flickr integration in the Pictures Hub. Flickr Manager partially integrates into the Pictures Hub as an “extra” so you can upload photos to flickr without having to manually open a separate app first. When selecting Flickr Manager from the Extras option the app will load and automatically go to the upload screen with the image already selected. It’s not as tight as a native integration but it’s a step in the right direction.
There are no native weather apps in WP7 so when I saw that WeatherBug already had an app available I thought I’d check it out. I’m not one that normally cares much about the weather but WeatherBug could change that. WeatherBug actually has a Live Tile that shows current conditions (sensitive to time of day) and temperature so unlike on the iPhone it’s not always 73 and sunny.
The Games Hub has been one of the most talked about features of Windows Phone 7 for as long as I can remember. Connecting to Xbox Live was easy but I found it interesting that I needed to download Xbox Live Extras in order to get the full integration. It seemed odd that the extras pack wasn’t included automatically.
Have a game you find yourself playing frequently but tired of going through the Games Hub? Long pressing a game tile in the Games Hub will display a menu that allows pinning it to the start page. Once pinned the tile can be moved around like any other tile.
In the End
After reading so many reviews and watching so many demos I really had a good understanding of what I was getting into. As a result very few of the “rough” features have surprised me. Even with the big problems like playing videos from the Web or the combination of smaller annoyances like the lack of a silent toggle switch or lack of integration with services beyond facebook and Windows Live, I’m still incredibly happy with Windows Phone 7. It’s ease of use is simply incredible. The common UI and virtually seamless integration of the various components makes jumping between apps transparent.
Overall Windows Phone 7 is a great addition to the smartphone market. It is already a solid product even in its first generation. It’s certainly not for every user but it shouldn’t be ruled out as a contender. I stand by my decision to switch and am looking forward to the first update.
Until this point I’ve only tried connecting my phone to my home WiFi network. Setup with known networks is quick and easy but what if you need to connect to a network such as an enterprise network that doesn’t broadcast it’s SSID? Just like with video, you’re out of luck at this time. Not including support for connecting to hidden networks is a huge miss and will be a show stopper for many users. Hopefully Microsoft will patch this hole soon.