One of the perks of working in software is occasional access to sweet, new hardware. I’ve befriended the super-busy Mobile team at the office, and asked to borrow one of their spare Windows Phone devices. Craig handed me a Samsung Omnia 7 and asked me not to destroy it. I had been wary of the Windows mobile experience having used Windows-based Palm devices (not great compared to their PalmOS counterparts), but had been prepped by blog posts that this Windows Phone 7 experience would be totally different.
Short story: the hype stands up – the user experience of this phone is excellent. There are small issues that I’ll go into in detail including frustrations with the hardware design, but ultimately the overall package is slick, functional, and at times even beautiful.
The physical hardware of the phone is a generally great. The phone has a large, bright, and easy to read screen, a single recessed button, very few creases and edges that collect dirt or grime. No MicroSD card slot, but lots of RAM. Normal (3.5mm) headphone jack that took my iPhone mic’ed headphones just fine. The light vibration you get when you touch the dedicated “back” and “search” areas reminds you that this device is very touch sensitive. VERY touch sensitive. In my first day or two of usage I pocket-dialed, Facebook’ed, mapped about half of my contact list – until I learned to lock the device every time I wasn’t explicitly performing an action (with the dedicated “lock” button).
The lack of physical keyboard made my transition from a Blackberry Bold difficult for typing-heavy tasks like email, though the live spelling correction works great. The orientation sensing works well (smooth and predictable), so I learned to type my emails with the phone laying horizontally, with just a few lines of my reply visible outside the on-screen keyboard.
Compared to my Bold, the reception was weak. I dropped out of 3G far more often than I’m used to. The point here is that Blackberry devices have great reception, more so than the Samsung having poor reception. Same goes with the battery life. On a full-night charge I got 8-10 hours of normal usage including WiFi internet and calling at a business-user level. Apparently that’s endemic for these large touchscreen devices. Definitely not a showstopper, but news to me.
Lastly, the dedicated search button got in the way far more often than I found it useful. For example when I was holding the phone with two hands when taking pictures with the Samsung’s excellent camera, I would accidentally press the search button and jump out of the Camera app into Bing Search. Oh man, that happened about four times before I started digging through Settings to try to re-map (or at least disable) the search button. No luck. This is my least favourite feature of this phone, and I would gladly do away with it (or at least have it recessed so the click has to be more deliberate).
This is my first look at the Windows Phone operating system, and a it’s stunning piece of software. The lack of fake 3D buttons was jolting and refreshing. The home-screen Tile view is far more useful, customizable, and interactive than any other phone home-screen I’ve used. Little features about the tiles were really nice: when you drag the screen the drag arrow gracefully rotates, the numbers for email counts flip rather than just changing, the text messaging tile gives me a wink with one message, and an Oh No! face :-O when I have four unread text messages. All of it seems refined, friendly, and inviting.
The Little Things
I started customizing my home-screen immediately – added all of my frequently-called friends to the home page, local weather, Twitter, Facebook, work Outlook (seamless), personal email (less than seamless). After the second day, I rarely ventured past my home screen other than to browse Facebook and play with phone settings.
The ability to bundle contacts from your phone with ones from Outlook, together with their Facebook profiles was amazing. My friend Mike has three different identities on my Blackberry (unless I go through contact-synch hell to combine them), while he has only one on my Windows Phone, which is hugely convenient.
One thing that is often not well executed on phones is a good range of alerts, alarms, and audio stuff. It’s obvious that great care went into the audio landscape of the phone. The clicks, pings, boops sound downright beautiful. The alarms are gentle but effective, rather than being grating and amateurish like some Linux sounds (*cough*). The external speaker could be louder in phone-call-at-the-train-station situations.
Considering this phone and platform is new to the market, I was impressed by the availability of applications (as I read that is one of the fatal flaws of this platform). I know that Microsoft has been shitting bricks about the app experience as it compares to the Apple App Store, but Facebook, Twitter, Score Mobile, Yelp, and many of my favourite heavyweights were there, and were executed pretty well. There is no Google Maps application available, and the Marketplace in general has some obvious holes – Foursquare, for example, but apparently that’s coming soon and it’s hawt as hell. Bing Maps isn’t as good as Google Maps, as the location based searching for stuff sucks in Canada and elsewhere outside of the US.
The Facebook app doesn’t react as well as it does on the iPhone, as everything is clickable … while nothing is a button. There’s a theme of explicit “this will do this” actions being ambiguous in these apps, so I ended up changing screens and navigating away by accident – a side product of the really fluid and draggable design of the operating system.
While this may not be a highlight for a lot of people, the integration of Office viewers for Powerpoint, Word documents, and other documents was welcome. The experience with attachments from within the email client was the best I’ve ever dealt with, and made both the Blackberry and Apple offerings seem Web 1.5. This isn’t game-changing behaviour, but certainly helped me get over previously discouraging experiences with document-handling on my phone.
The combination of the hardware and new Windows Phone 7 software is immediately slick and usable. Little touches such as the smooth transitions, crisp fonting, and contact linking are a pleasure. The hardware such as the case and camera are first rate. The touch sensitivity of the device has forced me to pick up habits that I don’t love (locking the device constantly, being careful about interactions in Facebook, etc.) and the “search” touch button is infuriating when I’m in a hurry trying to take a photo. This being my first introduction to Windows Phone / Mobile 7, I am excited about its future. If anyone is listening, bring on Google Maps and Skype, please
This is a list of bugs I came across that didn’t warrant being in the main review, but hopefully will get addressed as the platform matures:
- Something is off about the audio system. Occasional jitters, noticeable when you’re playing games or are doing web browsing that involves sound, were a nuisance.
- You have to click “all” photos before being able to see the ones you took with your camera (“Camera Roll”), rather than having them show up on the front page of the Photos app.
- After the phone is unplugged from its charger, the little charge indicator stays on, sometimes until the phone is turned off.
- Making corrections to settings when setting up an email account requires you to retype everything on every retry. Super annoying when you’re trying to debug your email connection.
- Can’t change which Windows Live account is associated with your phone unless you do a software reset?! A bit ridiculous.