Back on September I installed a version of windows phone mango on a HTC HD2. I have been using a Nokia Lumia 710 for about a month now and I feel I ought to write a review based of more extensive real world usage. In general there is a lot to like about the platform, however there are things that are odd or make you think – why did they do that. So read on to get my thoughts on Windows Phone 7.5.
(Apologies in advance for the pictures – there is no screen-shot app available)
Windows Phone requires certain hardware and so with your windows phone handset you will always find an 800 x 480 pixels screen, with 3 buttons below it for Back, Home/Start and search. You will also always have a way to change volume and a dedicated camera button and a lock/unlock/power button. All in all, good to know that is all pretty standard, but also I hope this will change and evolve – We have seen the N900, N9 and Android Ice cream Sandwhich show a button-less phone is possible, and better support for other form factors would also be a nice thing (i.e blackberry/E72 style, or better use in landscape mode for landscape QWERTY devices to shine).
Home-screen and menu’s
I really like a lot of what Microsoft has done here but it feel like it’s missing some level of customization to really make it work. The main feature of the home screen (or “start” screen) is two columns of “Live Tiles” which are kind of app launchers and widgets in one, to some extent. Flat square information providers. They actually work pretty well ad do present information to you that you need like how many messages, emails you have missed, or perhaps what the weather is. Of course, to do anything with that information, you need to tap the tile and launch an app but still, it’s there for you, up front. You can move them around, remove any and add one for anything from the main app list, and some apps will provide chances to add tiles that when clicked go to a specific part of an app. They look great and especially if you have pictures, people, XBox or Me hub live tiles, there will always be something moving or changing there.
However, this is the screen that will divide opinion more than any other when it comes to Windows Phone and I can see why. For one, the email tile can only give you a number to say you have X unread emails – there isn’t space to say who sent them, and certainly a widget might allow you to interact with the music player or whatever it is. Also, there are two columns of these live tiles with a blank white space to the right where a solitary arrow occupies the top bit – no way to hide this and have 3 columns, or make the 2 bigger.
One more thing many may not realize is that apart from the default installed ones, these tiles are not all that live at all – they are images that can be updated every 30 minutes, often enough to be up to date in most cases but for example, which a stop-watch widget is entirely do-able on Symbain or Android, there is no-way to start a similar app in windows phone and have a tile show the elapsed time.
At the top you will see the time – Microsoft has chosen to hide information like signal strength, battery life and if you have a Wifi or Bluetooth connection. Certainly the look is very clean, but I think a lot of users would like to see that information on their home screen just as much as home many missed calls they have. When you tap the top of the screen to show this it stays for 10 seconds or so then is gone again, and tapping any of the icon that show does nothing. I feel they could have made more use of this. The other thing that will appear at the top is notifications – they will show for 10 seconds or so then disappear. There is no place to see missed notifications within windows phone so if you don’t have the app that generated the notification pinned on your start screen (and perhaps even if you do) it could be hard to figure out what the notification you missed was for.
The arrow I mentioned takes you to the main menu which is a list of all the apps on the phone, including various hubs and settings menus. Everything in the list can be pinned to start and removing from the list is to uninstall. As the list gets longer you get letter headings inserted into the list to help you get to apps more quickly.
So overall, the home screen is very pleasing on the eye, clean, functional and useful, but for me, a bit restrictive.
Settings and Personalization
I said earlier that a bit of customization could help and so what exactly can you customize about the OS – as it turns out, not much. The background can be black or white, and there is a fixed choice of colors for tiles (and some apps will ignore your choices – Email is black text & white background, Music and Video hub is always white text & black background). One tip is that if you have an AMOLED screen, the “dark” theme will increase your battery life. You can set the lock screen image which is nice.
As for audio, there are a selection of pre-installed ringtones to choose from and you will use one of those as adding your own is so much hassle it really isn’t worth it and I can’t believe they chose sucha convoluted and unfriendly method of dong this. On your PC find a track that you like that’s really short, like 45 seconds. If it’s longer, use Audacity or something to re-record it and trim it to that length. Set the genre on it to Ringtone and use Zune to copy it to the phone. Now it will show up in the ring tone list.
So as most of us understand it, that is the extent of the personalization. It’s also the first time you might have come across text truncation as the heading for “ringtones+sounds” is way to long for the screen and just fits “ringtones+sou” get used to it – you will see this in many other places.
As for the rest of the settings, it’s mostly what you expect, options to pair Bluetooth devices, configure WiFi, change language or time settings. There are two exceptions: Speech and Accounts.
Accounts is where you can configure accounts for Email and some social networks. The Live account is necessary for many features of Windows Phone, such as the Marktplace, SkyDrive, XBox Live and more. The other accounts get integrated in Windows Phone, usually pretty well. It would be nice if 3rd Party developers could add to this list, and have their services integrate well with windows phone, but its not possible right now.
The Speech settings page is small but contains one of my favorite features. Basically, you can long press the start key any time and ask it to open an app or do something e.g “Text Sam”. This becomes really useful when driving and used with a Bluetooth headset or hands free. And even better, not only can you dictate a text message, but if you get a text while driving, it can read it out to you.
There is a second settings page for various apps to use.
This is nice and easy in Windows phone – A long press of the Back key will open up a card view of your open apps and tapping one will take you to it. Very simple. However, I have to say I don’t like the it. It still feels half baked and is one of the few places where you can see real lag. But if it’s simple like this, how is it half baked and how does lag come into it? I’ll tell you.
Windows Phone apps are not running in the background – they are toombstoned as soon as you leave them via the start button with their state saved (and at that time a jpg of the current screen is created for the card view). When you go back to them, lag can occur as an app reloads this state and perhaps catches up with recent events. For example, in maps while you walk along it follows your location. If you switch to the music player (using multitasking or the start button so maps is still “open”) and then 5 minutes later go back to maps it will take some noticeable time to catch up with where you are again.
In addition, you can have the same app in the list multiple times, and the multitasking list will only show 6 apps, and there is no way to close an app from there – you have to open the app and then use back to get out of it (if it’s Internet Explorer and you’ve had a long browser session, open the tabs menu and close the current tab, it will be quicker).
Phone and communications
This is an area Windows Phone gets right. Windows Phone does put people first, with the impressive people hub, social integration and well implemented communication tools. The People hub is your center for your contacts across all forms of communication. However, the Phone dialer, Messaging app, Email app, Me Hub and others all contribute to communications on Windows Phone.
The People hub is where your contacts live. Contacts are synced with your Live ID, your Gmail, Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook accounts. As you may have contact information about the same person on more than one place, you can link contacts to give a single contact card for that person. The contact list is sorted alphabetically and uses the same grid system to go to (for example) the T’s quickly.
The People hub has several pages to it, one for your contact list, another of contacts you recently interacted with and a “What’s new” page which shows a collection of status updates from all the social networks you have set up such as Linked in and twitter that have been posted by your contacts. You can choose which services are used to populate the What’s New page. You can group contacts which creates a group with a similar set of pages pertaining to just that group. Each contact also has a What’s new page, as well as a profile/contact card, and History which gives a history of your interactions with a given contact. A pictures list can also show for a person if they have connected in the right ways (Facebook or MSN Messenger). So you can see this has plenty of useful information and I really like what they have done here.
The dialer is simply laid out and easy to use, and the in call menu likewise, with large, tile – like buttons for bluetooth, speaker, mute and hold.
The messages section of Windows Phone does a good job. The threads section has text messages as well as IM messages with those from the same person appearing in the same thread. Messages appear in a conversation view with your messages to the right and those you receive to the left – though I wish each would make a bit fuller use of the space. Lastly, there is a screen there to see which of your IM contacts are on-line which is useful.
The email client is in one separate client but is done really well. It supports conversation view for your messages, plus allows linked inbox’s – i.e you can get your GMail, Yahoo and Hotmail to show up in one single list which is great and saves from having lots of Email tiles on your home screen. The screens for reading email and writing replies are nicely laid out, though sadly only pictures are supported for attachments. Frustratingly, if you have decided that some email should go directly to folders, you won’t get any new mail notification unless you have a live tile for that specific folder, and you can’t add folders to a linked inbox.
The Me hub is a small hub which is a bit of a mishmash of stuff really, and seems a bit thrown together. Much like a Contact it has a What’s new section showing all your social network status updates. There is also a Profile section allows you to check in to social networks or post a message to one or many at a time which is great. The Notifications page shows users who have sent you a message or mention. Sadly it doesn’t show any content of that message, just the name of the contact who sent it, so it’s not as useful as it could be.
Windows Phone’s on screen keyboard
Messaging or email are one place you will need a good keyboard and the on screen keyboard on windows phone is about the best on any mobile OS. My only complaint is that it takes over half the screen, and about 2/3rds of it in landscape mode, which sometimes can mean it’s hard to see much around what you are typing. However, the keys are well sized and easy to press and hit accurately, and the auto-correction is pretty forgiving.
The search button is your launchpad for search from anywhere. It isn’t context sensitive and always launches the same search screen. The default is Bing’s web search, and you simply type what you want to search for and it will give you results for websites, images and local/nearby items. The latter are usefully shown with a map view. At the bottom of the screen are icons for 4 other search methods – Local Scout, music, vision and voice search. Voice search does the same as the usual search but rather than type the search entry, you say it. Local Scout is simply a list of what’s nearby, mapped and in categories such as eat+drink, see+do. Music search works like Shazam – it will listen to something playing and try to match it so you can see what it is, and then where to buy it. Bing vision can be used to scan bar codes, qr codes, and CD, book and DVD sleeves. Again, when a match is found it will usually suggest places to buy as well as other product info. I find this to be a really useful search tool overall.
Music and Media
Like people, Music + video has a hub. Within the hub you will find Zune, a history page, a list of new items and apps. Apps shows a list of apps that integrate with the Hub which means music played in those apps can also be controlled with the play controls on the lock screen, and will also appear in the History page. This is actually really convenient and so I know if I open the music hub I can resume listening to music on Last.Fm or TuneIn Radio as well as music stored locally. The Zune page is where you find your media libraries.
Music takes you to your music library with pages to see the library organized by artist, album, song, genre and playlist. Pick a track and play it. The player screen is nicely laid out and shows images related to the artist playing in the background, as well as the album art in the foreground. You get the standard buttons and track info, but also a favorite button and the titles of the next 2 tracks. One nice thing is to skip forward or back you can swipe anywhere on the screen. Frustratingly, the progress bar is the only control that doesn’t responded to touch and to can through a track I have to push and hold the skip buttons. To me this is almost unforgiveable in the touchscreen age. With small progress bar and other buttons and information, and oddly left justified layout I have to see it as a triumph of form over function to some extent.
Next up in Zune menu is Video with pages for all, TV, music and movies, including a much cleaner UI and dragable progress bar. Videos you take with the phone end up here. The podcast area has audio and video podcasts which you can sync from the marketplace or your PC – by default it only downloads new episodes over WiFi. Radio has a nice clean looking radio player interface. You need to plug a headset in of some sort for the phone to use as an aerial. Just swipe along the dial to change frequency, and when you have found something you like, you can add it to a list of favorites. Marketplace is the last Zune menu option is simply another place to launch the Windows Phone marketplace app. In the marketplace you can subscribe to podcasts (though this option may not be available globally) and download music (as well as see apps/games etc).
All in all, the media package with Windows Phone is impressive, just a shame you have a limited range of recognized formats and have to go through all that transcoding stuff to deal with when you sync music and videos from your PC.
Photography was clearly something Microsoft wanted to treat well when envisioning the OS. They mandate that all Windows Phones have a dedicated Camera key and a press for this any time (including a long press when the phone is locked) will launch the camera app. ready to go. The camera interface has a simple UI and one really nice feature – simply swipe the viewfinder to get to the first photo in your gallery and vice versa. This makes it quick and easy to check the most recently taken photo and switch back again, without leaving the app. The camera options do vary by device, but they will support various scene modes and flash options. When you leave the app you can open the Pictures hub to see your photos, or the Music+Videos hub to see video you recorded.
Sadly, it seems Microsoft values Bing Vision more than the camera and those phones that expose the Focus mode options will reveal the default is Macro (focus mode is different from scene mode) which will speed up bing vision performance when scanning barcodes and the like close up. However, it does slow down the camera and reduce performance. If you have a Windows Phone and you see a Focus mode option, make sure it’s set to Normal.
The Pictures Hub
This is your photo gallery and can be browsed in a variety of ways, and like the music hub, has apps that also integrate, such as Flickr. The Camera Roll, albums and date sections are all ways you can see your pictures, with people being your gate way to the pictures your contacts have taken. Pictures can be shared on social networks/email/apps,or to skydrive, as well as opened with a given app or auto-fixed (there is no built in photo editor). Auto-fix usually does seem to improve a picture. You can also set them to be your pictures hub wallpaper or add them to your favorites. All in all a simple hub compared to the others, but does what it says – it’s your central location for the pictures on your phone.
The text “XBox Live” is in the icon for the Games hub for a reason. Microsoft has used the Xbox name to entice game makers to make great games for the platform. Your XBox Gold points travel from your Xbox to your windows phone and you can get points in Windows Phone games just as you can on the XBox. Some games are graphically nice and others are very plain and simple. And of course, there is Angry Birds. Games can be installed from the marketplace and like many apps, a lot of games have a try option you can use before you buy them, something I think is great about the Windows Phone Marketplace.
This is the app store you go to when you want to get new apps, as well as music, podcasts and games. You will probably also find a dedicated section for the handset maker of your phone. At the bottom of the page is a search button but it searches all sections, not just the one matching the page you are on. Apps will often have try options as well as buy, so you can check it out before paying which is pretty nice. Once the download starts, it will go back to the app list or Game/Music hub where the item is added to the list and a progress bar shows it’s download and installation progress. Pretty smooth, but with 2 flaws. One is that there is no place to see a download history, and no apps show anything to say you have already downloaded them. Another is that if you want to find a few different things you probably don’t want to be kicked out of the marketplace once you start a download. Ah well, easy enough to go back in.
The marketplace now has over 70,000 apps including many major titles and so whatever it is you need, you will probably find an app for you in the marketplace.
Maps and Navigation
Maps are increasingly important on smartphones. Bing maps does a decent job overall. When you open Bing maps it shows your current location, with places of interest nearby indicated. You can quickly get to see information about each place, which might include directions and hours, possibly reviews and related apps. You can navigate and get directions too, and these directions can be voice-guided. The voice guidance is a bit different than most navigation tools. You tap the screen to get the next vocal instruction, although visually, the directions update as you move. Overall, pretty good though the voice guidance not always being on will throw some people. Maps can also show live traffic info- great for that busy morning commute.
Windows Phones calendar is simple and does the job well. It can be synced with Windows Live and Google calendars. Events are shown on the lock screen and the live tile. The calendar can show day, agenda, and to-do views of events and also has a separate month view. To-do’s don’t show on the lock screen or live tile, but you can set reminders to notify you.
Windows Phone obviously has excellent office integration and comes with One Note, Word, Excel and Powerpoint Viewer apps installed. You can open documents from Skydrive, Sharepoint or Office 365. When creating a new document, yo can start with blank word or excel documents or choose from a range of templates. Most of the basic features for Word and Excel are supported and you can pin documents and notes to your start screen for quick access. As usual the layout is clean and easy to understand while minimalistic. Ultimately this, combined with the great on screen keyboard, makes for the best document editing experience in mobile right now.
My one complaint is this – you can’t transfer a document to the phone in Zune or over Wifi in terms of the phone having a browse-able storage area. So when I’m next to my PC and want the document on my pc to get to my phone, even if the phone is using the same WiFi network my PC is, I have to go to Skydrive or Sharepoint to get the document to my phone. This means if I want to edit it in a place with no mobile connectivity, I’m out of luck.
So when yo get a phone with great media centers and document editing you want a way to get stuff to your phone from your computer and that way is Zune. Sadly, you can’t use Windows Phone as a USB thumb drive and even Zune won’t transfer any file – it will just sync music, photo’s and videos. It does a decent job of it too and can even do it behind the scenes via WiFi if the PC and phone are on the same network. However, whenever you force users to use one app there will be people who don’t like it and really think it’s a mistake to limit users to just Zune, just as I think it’s a mistake that iPhone owners have to user iTunes. You can also browse the marketplace in Zune and send apps to your phone but sadly, that’s not a seamless experience either, usually resulting in a message that the app will appear on the phone at some point in the future. Aside from that, Zune is a full feature media organizer and player for your PC and many will prefer it to Windows Media player. If you use Linux, you are out of luck, although there is a tool with a reduced feature set for Mac users.
So what is missing
OK, So Windows Phone is still the new kid on the block and isn’t as mature as other OS’s. Sadly, in some respects, it has less capabilities than MeeGo on the N9 which isn’t exactly long in the tooth. So there are a few bits not mentioned above which are just not there yet – not that they are there but done badly, but they don’t exist. Here are a few of them:
- Bluetooth support is minimal – this means you can’t do multiplayer games via Bluetooth, or use Bluetooth to send a contact or picture to the person sat next to you.
- No support for TV-Out (that Netlix app would be great with this)
- No real support for expandable memory – If you get lucky enough to have one of the few Windows Phones with an SD card slot, once you insert an SD card it will format it and use it as part of the OS – you will not be able to take it out and read it on a PC or put it in another device.
- No way to use it as a USB drive – as there is no user accessible file manager either.
- No central notifications history
- No quick way to control wifi/bluetoth or other hardware without diving through the menus
- Poor support for landscape orientation – some screens do rotate, most don’t.
Hopefully some of these issues will be fixed in coming releases. Having said that…
Windows phone performance is pretty smooth and lacking in lag. 99% of the time it just works and is responsive and smooth. This is great, especially as the platform doesn’t yet support multi-core processors that are common in the Android world. The biggest performance issue really is when some apps are restarting as mentioned in the mulit-tasking section. But still, it’s a hugely efficient system that seems to be less resource intensive than most other platforms, and as hardware and software improves, that can only be a good thing.
Windows Phone is a growing and developing platform. I say that I don’t mean that it’s user base is increasing (though it is) but that with each release, features are coming together. And that’s where Windows Phone is right now. In some ways, it still has a way to go, it’s lacking features. But that said, what they have done is for the most part very, very good. It’s a platform that has put people first. It’s a platform that has some good integration with services, that seems resource efficient, and for which it’s clear Microsoft has invested time and money courting developers and making sure those who develop for their other products will be able to develop easily for Windows Phone.
Windows Phone is a good platform and worth looking at and trying. There are people who will not like some aspects, especially the home-screen with the Live Tiles, but many will and there is plenty of reasons to recommend it to people.