RIM's BlackBerry brought smartphones before the public eye; Apple's iPhone made them a must-have fashion accessory. Google's Android provided a platform on which a multitude of manufacturers could build its own competing devices. Late last year, Microsoft finally replaced their own lacklustre offering -- Windows Mobile 6.5 -- with the new and wholly distinct Windows Phone 7 (WP7). Here we look in-depth at the latest smartphone operating system, what it offers and what you should know as a consumer.
In the December/January issue of PC World we gave you a peek at WP7, wrapped up in the lovely HTC 7 Trophy. The phone as a whole scored a 4/5 "excellent" rating -- largely due to the feature set, as well as the slickness and ease-of-use offered by the operating system. The HTC 7 Trophy, however, is a top-shelf device: some of the best WP7 hardware on offer, from a manufacturer known for its premium phones. But what about devices aimed at the more price-conscious?
Well, there you've actually got some protection. While not manufacturing the phones itself (there is no Microsoft-built WP7 device), Microsoft has laid down a fairly stringent set of minimum hardware requirements aimed at providing "the confidence of standard specs" and "universal capabilities that are easy [for developers] to target".
Both of these advantages are offered to an even greater degree by the iPhone, with Apple's total control over the hardware and software platform. With standard specs, you know what you're getting -- an app designed for WP7 will run on any WP7 phone, with performance comparable to any other high-end smartphone today. This advantage is lacking in the world of Google's Android, with device manufacturers offering wide variations in hardware and laying thick UI skins, such as Motorola's MotoBLUR, over the basic OS to give each device a unique look and feel.
If you're a stickler for consistency but don't have (or want) an iPhone, you're going to prefer Microsoft's approach over Google's. WP7 simply can't be skinned -- what you see is what you get. Once you've used one WP7-based phone, you can pick up and immediately use any other -- regardless of make and model. Some may have superior cameras, others may have hardware keyboards, but all will offer the same on-screen interface and the same smartphone experience. Don't like the interface on one WP7-based phone? Then you're probably not going to like it on any other.
So what, exactly, is that experience? I've been using WP7 daily for the last two months, so I can clue you in on the neat advantages -- and the nasty annoyances -- of the latest contender in the smartphone arena.
To use an Apple iPhone, you need to sign up for an iTunes account. Similarly, any phone based on Google's Android operating system is tied to a Google account. Here, Microsoft has gone down much the same path as Apple and Google. You can use your WP7 device as a regular old phone without any kind of registration, but to purchase or download apps, use the phone's Xbox Live integration (more on that later), or really use the 'smart' part of your smartphone, you're going to need a Windows Live account.
It's free to sign up and doesn't require too much of your life story but it does mean your contacts, appointments and other such information sit on Microsoft's servers. Whether you consider that an advantage (access from anywhere) or a disadvantage (privacy concerns) is really a matter of personal opinion.
It's worth noting that if you use Windows Messenger, MSN, Hotmail, Microsoft Passport, SkyDrive, Office Web Apps or any of a host of other Microsoft services, you'll already have a Live account you can use.
Keeping in touch
Think the advantages of storing your contact information in the cloud outweigh the downsides? Windows Phone 7 convinced me of that with its seamless Facebook integration. In fact, after years of stoically avoiding all attempts of friends and family to shift me onto The Social Network, WP7 had me signed up and 'friending' people within hours of unboxing the phone.
Why? I'm tired of maintaining a contacts list. People are forever changing their email addresses and phone numbers. Want an image alongside everyone in your contact list? Try doing that manually for your twenty (or two hundred) closest friends. With WP7, you just add your Facebook account to the People application, and the details of your Facebook friends are all automatically imported -- names, profile pictures and any contact information they've supplied.
Whether from Facebook or Windows Live, your contacts all appear in a single list. Got contacts that aren't on either service? Just add them from the phone, and they'll be added to your Windows Live account in the background.
Many of your Facebook friends probably don't have their phone numbers listed. Know their number yourself? Add it to their contact on the phone, and WP7 will create a matching Windows Live contact with the extra details. The two contacts are 'linked' behind the scenes, so you still only see one entry with the combined Facebook and Live details.
Flick your finger across the screen, and you can immediately see any Facebook friend's recent status updates, right from their contact entry. Posting your own status updates is equally simple.
Downside? Despite Twitter's massive popularity, it lacks equivalent integration on WP7 for status updates and images. A standalone Twitter app is available, but this seems clunky in comparison to the near-perfect integration of Facebook. At this stage, Microsoft has no public plans to offer Twitter integration; if you're after a better Twitter experience than iPhone or Android devices can provide, you're out of luck.
Getting the message across
So, you've got Facebook and Windows Live to keep your contact list updated. You can communicate via either of those networks and -- via a downloadable app -- Twitter as well. But what about more direct and immediate ways to keep in touch?
WP7 provides a simple phone interface, with an on-screen alphanumeric dialing pad. Calling established contacts is even easier, by tapping on the appropriate phone number or using the mostly-accurate voice-dial feature.
Text messaging and email are both well supported via a simple interface and on-screen keyboard. Texts are shown in threaded conversations, while email takes a familiar inbox view. Sadly all the various forms of communication are treated quite separately: I'd have loved to see those conversations contain all of the texts, calls and email I've shared with a particular contact.
Each of these core apps make use of WP7's Live Tiles feature, which shows the number of missed calls or unread messages on each application's home-screen icon. Still, you have to check each app separately to see what you've missed or received.
WP7 includes a simple, yet functional, Calendar app that can be synchronised with Windows Live and Microsoft Exchange. Despite the strong integration elsewhere, Facebook 'Events' are not supported -- if that's how you manage your social life, those events must be re-entered into Windows Live (via the phone or website) or your Outlook calendar manually.
Amazingly, WP7 lacks a to-do list. Various applications are available, but at the time of writing none matches the power of Outlook's with repeating events, reminders and other advanced features. Drive your life through lists? Look elsewhere, or see if the WP7 marketplace can offer up an app that satisfies. Still, seems like a pretty core application for a smartphone to me.
Portable versions of Word, Excel and OneNote are included, along with a viewer for PowerPoint presentations (useful as a prompter, or for those on-the-plane rehearsals). I found Excel and OneNote well-featured: OneNote even includes the same voice-recording capability found on the desktop version. However, Word is extremely cut-down, lacking features such as Word Count and including only exceptionally basic formatting. It's not great for composing documents, but at least it serves as a viewer for Word docs received as email attachments.
Out & about
When I looked at the HTC 7 Trophy in December, I commented on the lack of functionality in Microsoft's Bing Maps. Compared with the wonderfully feature-filled Google Maps available on iPhone and Android, this would have been a major let-down (and probably ended my tour with WP7 two months ago). Fortunately, I was wrong.
Back then (and still at the time of writing), a localisation issue with Microsoft's Bing search engine means map results simply aren't displayed for New Zealand. This makes the Maps app next to useless: you can zoom in and pan around, but you can't actually find an address or get directions.
Fixing this is relatively easy, but obscure: change your 'Browser & search language' to US English. Once Bing has been properly localised for New Zealand, this should no longer be necessary. However, I do wonder why this wasn't done before the global launch: New Zealand was the first country to receive Windows Phone 7.
With that setting changed, searching for addresses is a breeze and the phone provides good step-by-step driving directions. However, there does seem to be some issue with either the GPS positioning or the accuracy of Bing's map data: I found many street numbers were displayed a few houses off, which is a pretty major shortcoming.
Xbox to go
Like to pass time at the bus stop with a quick game on your phone? WP7 offers Xbox Live integration for great gaming on the go. Don't use an Xbox? Neither do I. You can still sign up for a free account and get all the same advantages.
What advantages are those? Good question.
You can see your little Xbox Live avatar, gain Xbox Live achievements in compatible games, view your Gamerscore and play online games with friends. If you're not already familiar with Xbox Live and hooked on raising your Gamerscore high into the sky, the "online games" bit is probably the only thing that's going to interest you. I must say, phone-based games of Scrabble that last days or weeks are a good way to kill hours while keeping in touch. Apart from that, Xbox Live is really just a place to find the games you've downloaded.
Hitting the market
In the early days of PDAs and smartphones, rivals Palm and Microsoft both boasted a huge range of free and paid applications. However, such applications were traditionally downloaded from the developer or publisher's site via your desktop and then synchronised onto the phone. When it comes to over-the-air 'app stores', Apple set the trend.
Microsoft's app store... er... 'Marketplace'... has 6,000 apps at the time of writing -- nowhere near the number Apple does. However, it's growing at an impressive rate. Developing for Windows Phone is easy -- in my personal opinion as a programmer, I'd say it's easier for the casual software developer than developing the equivalent iPhone or Android app. I'm sure opinions on this will vary wildly. However, the number of popular iPhone and Android apps that have already made appearances on WP7 is encouraging. If growth continues at the current rate, WP7 users will find no shortage of apps to fit their needs.
Extended application trials make sampling programs about as easy as it could be -- few time limits and no separate free versions required here. Updates, too, are well handled, so you receive improvements (or more often, bug fixes) seamlessly. The OS itself is updated via Microsoft's Zune desktop software: while WP7 supports over-the-air updates, the feature is currently disabled to prevent 'bill shock' -- particularly relevant in New Zealand given our 3G data costs.
One criticism I have is the Marketplace's blanket ban on "objectionable content", where 'objectionable' is defined by Microsoft alone. I was unable to get any clear criteria on what constitutes "objectionable", how such a decision is made or who might make it. Mark Bishop, Windows Phone Business Manager for Microsoft New Zealand, did explain that banned content would vary by country -- different material would be allowed in New Zealand than in, for example, the Middle East. However, he was unable to give specific examples of such differences. A similar black-box classification process has led to criticism of Apple's App Store; anyone hoping for a more lenient -- or at least clear -- line from Microsoft will be disappointed.
The overall experience
So, is WP7 a real competitor to established platforms like the iPhone OS, or Android? Yes. It has its faults, and its limitations, but offers brilliant integration with Facebook and Windows Live for personal users. I've heard that Microsoft Exchange integration for corporate types is equally good, but I'll withhold judgement on that until I've tested it.
If you're looking for a smartphone to check your email on the go, keep in touch with friends via Facebook and to use for cheating at pub quizzes, a WP7 device is most certainly worth considering. Just be wary if one of your primary requirements is a good GPS navigation solution: with its current annoyances and inaccuracies I can't recommend Bing Maps, however slick and polished the UI might be.
DEVELOPER: Gergely Orosz; PRICE: $4.99This should be the first item on any responsible, cocktail-drinking adult's application wishlist. At its simplest, Cocktail Flow offers ingredient lists, recipes and example photographs for a wide range of mixed beverages both alcoholic and non. More useful however is its 'Cabinet' feature where you can mark the spirits, liqueurs and mixers you have available. From this, Cocktail Flow tells you exactly what you can make with what you have, and offers shopping tips to expand your bar.
DEVELOPER: Microsoft; PRICE: FreeDespite WP7's strong Facebook integration, there are things you just can't do. To send and receive private messages, work with events and handle friend requests, the free Facebook app from Microsoft is a must-have. The interface is quite similar to the Facebook website; even as a complete Facebook newbie, I found it easy to navigate and use.
DEVELOPER: Ace Widgets; PRICE: $3.49If you travel and don't use tripit.com, you need to start today. Sign up for free and forward all your travel-related emails to email@example.com: flight bookings, hotel reservations, car rentals, whatever. Tripit automatically builds an itinerary for you, which you can refine and alter as necessary. My Trips gives you access to your tripit.com itineraries right from your phone, without requiring internet connectivity: you can keep track of your travel plans anywhere in the world, without incurring huge data roaming charges.
Need For Speed Undercover
DEVELOPER: Electronic Arts; PRICE: $8.49I'm not a fan of racing games -- primarily because no matter how much I play, I'm always terrible at them. Despite that, Need For Speed Undercover is my favourite game on WP7. Like previous Need For Speed games on the iPhone, your car automatically accelerates all the time. You tap the screen to brake, and tilt the phone left or right to steer. The controls work marvellously, the graphics are good, the tracks varied and the whole thing is just a good bit of fun.
DEVELOPER: Dr Develop; PRICE: $2.19New Zealand's own TradeMe in your pocket. View listings, complete with images and full descriptions. Log in and you're able to place bids on the go -- great if your ever-important auction closes in the middle of an unmissable meeting, lecture or dentist appointment. It can be a bit laggy at times and doesn't look as close to the established WP7 theme as other apps, but it beats trying to wrangle the website in a tiny Internet Explorer window.
DEVELOPER: Twitter Inc; PRICE: FreeA fully-functional Twitter client for WP7 with a shiny, simple interface. Miss the Old Twitter website, now that you're stuck with the heavyweight look of New Twitter? Maybe it's time to take your tweeting away from the desktop and onto your phone. TwitPic support is a nice touch when combined with WP7's camera and media gallery features.
DEVELOPER: Microsoft; PRICE: FreeEver played with one of those little plastic boxes where you roll it around in your hand to try to get a metal ball into a hole? Unite is the WP7 version of that -- you tilt your phone and the ball on screen rolls around in the same direction. In this game, you have to solve puzzles to merge multiple balls together in the shortest time possible. It's also very pretty, and free.
DEVELOPER: Microsoft; PRICE: FreeFind and watch YouTube clips on your phone -- simple as that. Many have mistakenly viewed this as a mere shortcut to the YouTube website. In fact, this app also handles the video playback. Without it, you can browse YouTube via Internet Explorer but you won't be able to watch anything you find. PCW