Microsoft has taken its Windows Mobile operating system out behind the barn and put it out of its misery, thank God. Now the company is pushing its brand new Windows Phone 7 OS. This is an all-new approach to mobiles from Microsoft, and it's totally focused on touchscreen phones. Windows Mobile's tiny icons and endless menus have been replaced with enormous finger-friendly tiles, but, like anything new, there are a few hiccups and plenty of room to grow.
We're still waiting for Xbox Live gaming and the Marketplace app store to come online on the official October 21 launch date. We'll be updating this review when those important features get up and running.
Windows Phone 7 has a home screen populated with 'tiles', which is what it calls the square widgets that are arranged in a grid. In our hands-on time, we couldn't find a limit to the number of tiles you can put here, although more than about ten means you'll be scrolling your fingers down to a nub.
Tiles can be as simple as a shortcut to an app, but many of them display live data, too. The messages tile, for example, shows an emoticon that winks when you have a new message, and displays the number of unread texts. You can even add your favourite contacts to the home screen -- the tile will show your contact's Facebook profile pic, animated along with their name.
Occasionally, this can be a little embarassing. If the last song you downloaded on your phone was by Coldplay, the music and video tile will insist on showing you Chris Martin's srs fayce every day.
Beyond the phone's built-in applications, it's up to developers how much they work on the tiles for their apps. During our early tests, for example, we found a Twitter app for Windows Phone 7 that didn't have a live tile updating us on our tweets. But there's plenty of room for improvement.
The tiles themselves are enormous. We found them a little too large, since there's only room for one or two of them on each row of the home screen. In saying that, they'll be a boon to fat-fingered users who may find the icons on Android phones too tiny.
You can drag the tiles around the screen to put them in order, and change the colour of most of them. You can also add and remove tiles, but that's pretty much it. This is not an OS for people who like to tweak their phone -- you can't even have a wallpaper image. If you want to customise your handset to the max, we suggest an Android phone instead.
For everything else that's not displayed on the home screen, swipe to the right to reveal a long menu of the phone's contents. This is also where you get at the settings of the phone, to set up your accounts, for example.
I like to move it, move it
Microsoft has obviously spent some serious hours sorting out the touch interface of Windows Phone 7. On the phones we tried, it was fabulously smooth and whizzy. Everything from opening a menu to scrolling through photos involves a wealth of bouncy, swooping transitions. The virtual keyboard is also excellent, with automatic suggestions that worked well for us.
The endless animations might become tedious after you've been using the phone for a while, especially when you just want to get something done quickly. But they're slick and playful, and they draw you into interacting with the phone, which helps you discover features quickly and without any stress.
That's lucky, since menus and options have been cut down to the bare minimum. There are a couple of on-screen buttons in apps like email, but in general, you swipe left and right to reveal more stuff. You can also press and hold in places to see a context-sensitive menu. Overall, we like the clean, open UI, and we found it intuitive to use. If you prefer to have all your choices laid out in front of you, you could find the lack of clear instructions confusing.
Occasionally, we couldn't figure out how to do what we wanted. During one hands-on, for example, we wanted to delete an account. We thought the logical place for this option would have been alongside the 'save' and 'cancel' buttons on the account's settings page. Instead, we had to press and hold the name of the account to bring up the option to delete it. It's not that the user interface is wrong, but it just goes to show the pitfalls of such a simple-looking UI when it doesn't quite match your own mental map.
Eye on the SkyDrive
Windows Phone 7 comes with a heap of cloud-based services, too, including Windows Live. It includes Hotmail, Office online, and a back-up and storage service called SkyDrive.
Microsoft's services aren't nearly as widely used as Google's, but there's a heap of good stuff on offer, and you can still set up a Windows Phone 7 phone with Gmail and other Google services. Some of the slickest features, however, such as the ability to automatically back up your photos to the Web, only work with Windows Live.
There's also Xbox Live for games, which connects to the account on your gaming console; Zune for music; and the Marketplace for apps. It's all very easy to set up, but beware which account you add first. You'll have to choose whether you'd rather link to your Xbox Live account, your Zune subscription, or your Windows Live account. You can add the others later, but the first one you add determines which services link up, and you can't change it later without resetting the phone.
You can also add your Facebook account, which imports your contacts' profile pics and updates, and pulls Facebook photos into the photo gallery. It's nicely done, but there's nowhere to view other Facebook features, like events and groups. For that, you'll have to go to the website -- we haven't spotted a a dedicated Facebook app yet, although we're sure one's on its way.
It's the same story for MySpace and the rest of the social networks -- early adopters will have to be patient while the big brands sort out their Windows Phone 7 apps. If you're an app addict, we'd think twice about jumping on the Windows Phone 7 bandwagon right away. Six months will mean all the difference to the app store, as it either sinks or swims for developers.
The app store itself is usable, even in the early versions we tried, although we didn't like that searching brings up songs from the music store alongside app results. Searching for the best apps can mean searching for a needle in a haystack, and we don't need that haystack made any bigger by adding another pile of music hay on top.
Of course, you don't necessarily need apps. Windows Phone 7 has a great browser, and you could always just use the websites of your favourite services. But if you choose to use them this way, you can't access them offline, and you won't see any of the features integrated with the phone or on a home screen tile. We'll just have to wait and see how well the app store manages to catch up to its smart phone competitors.
Zune is Windows Phone 7's music store, syncing software and streaming music service. It's also a music player that we can't yet buy in the UK, although its user interface inspired the look of Windows Phone 7.
Zune makes buying songs on the phone pretty painless, and there's a huge selection of music available. We also found the prices very fair -- 79p for a top 40 track and £4.99 for the whole album. Unlike the Zune Pass and Xbox software, you can use good old pounds sterling to pay for songs, instead of Microsoft Points.
Zune Pass is a subscription service that takes on Spotify. For £8.99 a month, you can stream all the songs from the music store straight through the phone, so it's a good deal if you tend to buy loads of music.
The Zune software sits on your PC or Mac, and allows you to sync with a Windows Phone 7 phone over a USB cable. It can also sync wirelessly if the desktop computer and the phone are on the same Wi-Fi network.
So far, the Zune features feel like some of the most polished of Windows Phone 7, which is unsurprising since the Zune player has had a few years working out the kinks in the US. It gives us high hopes that Xbox Live could turn out to be a treat when it's up and running.
What about the Web?
Microsoft has decreed that all Windows Phone 7 phones will have to have Wi-Fi, HSPA and a screen of at least 3.5 inches, so they should all be decent Web-surfing mobiles. As far as we've seen, the browser does a great job rendering pages very quickly and accurately.
Like all current smart phones, except those running Android 2.2 or later, there's no Flash support for Windows Phone 7. That means websites that use Flash for content, navigation or ads will be forever lost to you. There will be a YouTube app to play the best of the Web's videos of cats jumping into boxes, but it wasn't up and running on the phones we looked at. We'll have to wait and see how it holds up to scrutiny.
The browser offers multiple tabs and support for multi-touch zoom, which makes surfing simple and pleasant. That said, the search function was a disaster on one of the phones we tested. If you hit the search button from the home screen, you should get a slick implementation of Bing, Microsoft's answer to Google search. Results from the Web are all served up in a typically attractive, Windows Phone 7 interface. Hit the same search button from within the HTC HD7's browser, however, and you'll be directed to the ugly, outdated, ad-packed Yahoo search page. It looks like something from a cheap feature phone, and doesn't do Windows Phone 7 justice. Worse still, we couldn't find any way to change it in the settings. Thankfully, we didn't see the same problem on the LG Optimus 7.
We hope that's the second thing Microsoft sorts out in its update to Windows Phone, which is coming in early 2011. We already know the first thing will be the ability to copy and paste, as it's apparently one of the most-requested features by beta testers. Microsoft says you don't really need it, because everything on the phone is linked -- if you see a phone number in a text message, for example, you just have to tap it to dial it, rather than copy and paste. Numbers worked well for us in text messages and appointments, but addresses didn't get recognised as links. Even in the calendar, we couldn't click an address entered in the location field to open it in a map. We've seen this feature demoed in the past, but we weren't able to make it work on the phones we tried, which is a worry when there's no copy and paste to work around it.
Keeping in mind that Xbox Live and Marketplace are still to launch, we're very impressed with Windows Phone 7 overall. It's easy to use, fabulously whizzy and fun, and, even at this early stage, it's packed with great features. It definitely has more going for it than the first iPhone did at its launch, when it lacked 3G and an app store. But Windows Phones aren't going up against the first iPhone. They're up against the iPhone 4 and the HTC Desire HD, and both Apple and Android have improved with every iteration.
Luckily for Windows Phone 7, manufacturers have whipped up some very tasty handsets to show off the new OS, from the HTC HD7 and Mozart to the Samsung Omnia 7. Their high-end specs should help tempt people to jump on board the bandwagon.
The user interface shows a good deal of promise, and we love how intuitive and fun to use it is. But the iPhone also does a great job of making smart phone features as easy to use as possible. It also has the benefit of an app store packed with great choices, and, in all likelihood, you'll have friends with iPhones who can help you get started. Windows Phone 7's strongest weapons against the iPhone are price and choice, with several handsets sporting the OS that are sure to be cheaper than Apple's beauty.
But then there's the Android OS. Without such steep minimum specs, there are Android phones to suit every budget. Its app store tends to be overrun with chaff, but there's still plenty of wheat in there too. And, although Android lacks the style of Windows Phone, its home screens are much more customisable with wild and wonderful widgets. Android also benefits from close integration with Google, so it's a good choice if you tend to use Google services.
Despite the fact it's chasing the competition's tail, we can think of loads of reasons to give Windows Phone 7 a try. If you're a fan of Xbox Live -- or Office Live, even -- or you want a smart phone that's as fun as the iPhone but not as expensive, take a look. But if you're already an app addict and you're thinking of switching sides, we suggest you wait a few months to see what Windows Phone 7 has in store.
Edited by Emma Bayly