Windows Phone 7 review: The OS

posted by Jeff | Sunday, December 19, 2010, 11:48 PM | comments: 0

I previously wrote short posts on developing for Windows Phone 7 and the phone I have, the Samsung Focus. Now I want to write about the bigger picture, the operating system itself, and everything that goes with it. This is the thing that ties the various phone models together with a common link. I again make the disclaimer that I work for Microsoft, and therefore got my phone for free. I got another free for Diana, since AT&T had a two-for-one deal. I also had an iPhone (original and 3GS) for three and a half years, and it's no secret that I'm a big Mac fan. In both cases, I think I try to be fair and honest about what I dislike about Apple and Microsoft, even though I work for the latter. iPhone comparisons are inevitable, as it really established the bar for modern smart phone expectations.

The unlock screen is the very first thing you see, and it's useful! Small icons show the counts for new text, phone and e-mail messages, as well as the next few things on your calendar, in addition to the time and date. I've been wishing that the iPhone did this from the day it came out, and I don't understand why it still doesn't. Because people are so accustomed to touch, there is no slider switch, you just slide up anywhere. If you aren't aware of this, touching it causes it to bounce up a little and show you what's underneath, encouraging you to slide it up. Brilliant.

Let's talk about the start screen. It is without question the thing that differentiates it from all of the other phone platforms. They clearly spent a lot of time thinking about it, and it shows. I wouldn't go as far as to call it revolutionary, but it is definitely an evolution from the "icon grid" found on iPhone and Android. Because developers can do whatever they want with these tiles, there is plenty of innovation to come here. You're not limited to a simple numeric badge. These things can do anything you want. Pinned people tiles are a little bit of a gimmick, but the Weather Channel app shows current weather, the people tile is always putting up new pictures that draw me in, the music/video tile reminds me what I was listening to, and of course the traditional phone, message and e-mail tiles have current counts. The advertising talks about the "glance and go" this involves, and I think it delivers on that... if it weren't so inviting to jump in and look around.

The visual cues in scrolling are smart as well. Scrolling to the top or bottom causes the icons to squish a little, giving you an indication that you've reached the end. When you get to the bottom, the side arrow to the full app menu does a little bounce to point you to where there is more stuff. These simple actions make it so intuitive and obvious. It's really smart design.

The full app menu is fairly unremarkable, but since it's alphabetized, logical. If you want to arrange stuff as you would on the iPhone, you can do that on the start screen, only you'll be scrolling vertically instead of horizontally.

They've been really careful about cultivating consistent UI experiences in the various apps, with the panorama control being one of the dominant things you'll see. The disrespect for capitalization aside, what I like about this is it too lends itself toward discovery. You can see there are additional things to navigate to, and there's a hint about what they might be.

The color and background themes are a pretty good idea, emphasizing white on black or black on white, with an accent color. The e-mail app doesn't respect the colors, and most of the better apps don't either (see IMDB, Weather Channel and Netflix), but that's OK. I will say that these default themes are a complete pain in the ass to override in your own app, especially since you can't do implicit styles yet, the way you can in Silverlight 4 for the desktop.

As I said, the panorama convention is effective, and the sub-menus and icons that pull up from the bottom are good ideas. The back button concept is a better idea than I thought it would be. Given the limited screen real estate, adopting Web page-like navigation works really well. That it can actually work across applications is a pretty neat trick too.

One of the greatest strengths the platform has is its aggregation of data. You can add accounts for Windows Live, Google, Yahoo and Facebook and it will mesh contacts from all of these sources. There's an option to not include Facebook friends that don't also appear in other contact databases, which doesn't default to on, but you'll want that. It manages to associate some accounts right away, like Diana from my Gmail gets matched with Diana from Facebook, and it gets her address from Facebook but her e-mail from my contacts. It works incredibly well. Joining a pair of contacts it didn't match is also easy, and it often suggests who to merge. So while I might know a Jeff who uses "Jeffrey" on Facebook, but I called him "Jeff" in my phone/e-mail contact, it figures it out.

The people hub does a nice job of looking at what's going on with people from Facebook, better so than the actual Facebook app. It's very fast, shows who you've recently been stalking, and has an alpha list, again filtering if you have the "all friends" option disabled. You can further pin people to the start menu, where the tile will rotate between photo, name and status. From the "me" tile, I can quickly update my FB status.

In an era of gradients and rounded corners, there was some criticism about the minimalist graphic design, but I think I really like it. In the text messaging, for example, the text is so sharp and readable, vastly superior to the iPhone. In fact, text everywhere is rendered exceptionally well.

E-mail works pretty well, even though I tend to avoid using a mobile device for it. I just don't feel like I need to be that connected. Again, I find that it's extremely readable. Not having a consolidated inbox doesn't really bother me, as I like to compartmentalize different accounts anyway. Gmail is a little quirky, in that "deleting" e-mail does in fact archive it, but I can't seem to "move" it to the real deleted folder. I do archive most e-mail, but marketing e-mail and account notifications and stuff I don't keep.

The calendar works pretty well, and it's standard stuff. The tile tells you what's coming up, and that's also pushed to the lock screen. Again, I can't understand why Apple doesn't do this. The whole month view isn't that useful, since you can't see what's scribbled on each day, and I wish they had a week view. That would be useful in landscape orientation.

Internet Explorer as the browser scared me, particularly since it's a hybrid of IE7/8, but it seems to work OK on everything I've looked at with it. I can only imagine that once IE9 is baked, they'll push it to the phone, and that will be a very exciting day. IE is something we developers curse at, but especially in a phone factor... meh, it's just a browser. It works.

The mapping is amazing. First of all, it's prettier than Google Maps. Again, the text is super readable. The UI for directions is just easier to follow, using the upper third for the map, which you can tap for a bigger view. It also does the zoom out, move, zoom in flow when moving between steps, which gives you a fighting chance at seeing at the least the general direction you're going, instead of just racing over a dataless grid. Love that.

The Xbox Live integration is absolutely great. So far I have three games: ilomilo, which was free, Need For Speed and Solitaire, all three of which score achievements and gamer points. You can mess with your avatar, see other avatars, and do all of the friend interaction stuff that you'd normally do on the Xbox. Live translates surprisingly well to the phone experience, and it's very polished looking. You can tell they've been doing this for a number of years.

I was very skeptical of the whole Zune music experience. I have no interest in doing the Zune subscription service, since I have XM in my car and I don't spend that much on MP3's, but the UI for browsing music is really quite good. What I particularly enjoy is the background pictures and bio information on bands that it pulls down. It also seems to find album covers that iTunes can't find. There's a panorama that shows what you've recently listened to, and what you've recently added. I particularly like that new pane, because I don't have to hunt for stuff I recently bought or added. That's such a great feature. This too is vastly superior to the iPhone experience. One little tweak I'd like to see: Put a semi-opaque background behind the bio text... some of them are hard to read over certain background photos.

I stopped buying from iTunes when Amazon started selling DRM-free MP3 and undercutting the iTunes pricing. I reluctantly paid Apple for the honor of freeing my music and "upgrading" it to DRM-free. I still have two or three albums they haven't upgraded, and at this point I think I'm out of luck. But generally speaking, all of the AAC stuff plays fine on the phone. The .m4v files I made from my own video, as well as the music videos from iTunes, also play no problem on the phone. The newly updated beta of the Mac Connector syncs to iTunes well, including playlists. I'm very happy about that. Diana has had less success with the iPhoto sync, but I suppose since it's beta they get a pass.

Let's talk about sync for moment. Generally speaking, you don't really need to sync much of anything beyond music files. Your various accounts are where most of your stuff actually lives. That said, it would be nice that if something bad happened, your apps and associated data could be restored. The Mac Connector doesn't do that, but neither does the Windows-based Zune software, which is absolute crap. I don't get this at all. I had to zap the phone when I got the memory card (see previous posts), and it meant reestablishing all of the account associations, losing save game data, reentering account info, redownloading apps, etc. Total pain in the ass. I suspect this is a rare event, as I only had to do it when upgrading my iPhone in the past, but I wish they had a solution for this.

The photo hub is nuts. By the time you get to it the first time, you'll find that it sucked in all of your albums from Facebook. In other words, there really isn't even a need for it to sync with your desktop, since presumably your Facebook albums already appear as edited "best of"collections of photos. This is what all of that cloud nonsense is really about. Plus, the "what's new" page will actually show you a photo stream from all of your friends.

The camera needs some work. A lot of work. I'm convinced that the hardware in my Samsung Focus is actually fairly nice, and I love that it has a dedicated button to get to it, but the software driving it is total crap. First of all, it doesn't retain settings once you leave the app. This is unlike every camera in the entire world. Nowhere is this more annoying than with turning off the flash, or setting the video mode to record in HD. I just don't understand how it shipped that way. It also prefers to do slow shutter speeds instead of just cranking up the gain, like any other camera. The result? Anything not outside will probably be blurry. Shit, even most of the photos using the flash end up blurry. Setting a minimum shutter speed isn't an option either. This is a simply awful implementation for a camera. For all of the amazing wins throughout this OS, I can't believe this sucks as much as it does. It has to be better in the next version. I'm tired of seeing my fellow employees upload blurry shit to Facebook. Although uploading is really fast, with an extra tap to do so. It even seems to upload the photo while you put in the caption. Would be nice if you could tag people in said photo. Did I mention the camera needs a ton of work?

Not often talked about is the Office hub. Do most people really care about viewing spreadsheets and Word docs on their phone? I'm gonna go with no, but it's there. The real strength comes from OneNote. It syncs your notes with your Live account, and you can go from your desktop using any browser (even Chrome) to a totally Web-based version of OneNote and edit the synced documents. It's awesome. This is totally undersold. I'm really impressed with this functionality.

In terms of other, third-party apps, so far I've been impressed with the ones I used the most in the iPhone world, and most are better than their counterparts. IMDB, Weather Channel and Netflix are pretty outstanding. The free Stocks app should've been installed by default, but it's also nice. The Facebook and Twitter apps need a little work, but they're not bad. This platform is so easy to develop for, that I'm not surprised with how fast the app store is growing. A full compliment of fart apps are ready and waiting for you! :)

The marketplace itself does not make discovery very easy. But then, I never found it very easy on the iPhone either. This is a problem that will only get worse as there are more apps. I criticize, but I don't have a solution, and it's a problem not limited to this platform. The best stuff still comes with brand names you know and recommendations from friends. I'm sure that's not going to change.

There are some issues I encounter now and then that need to be resolved. The marketplace will crash now and then, and the only way to get back into it is to reboot the phone. That's odd. You also can't change your LiveID at all without resetting the phone and starting from scratch. Look, I understand that causes a massive sync problem, but you don't need to protect me from myself. This became an issue for Diana and her Xbox Live account. The ringtones all suck, and I hate that you can't add any (again, a forthcoming feature, they say on the Internets).

All things considered, the platform overall is a winner. They need to trash the camera app, polish up a few areas, and add the cut-and-paste to quiet the idiots who think the phone is useless without that (honestly, I used it two or three times total since it was introduced on iPhone). I think the whole thing is a remarkable effort, and I think it will succeed in the long run. It generally feels evolved over the now ubiquitous "icon grid" of iPhone and Android. I'm a fan, even with my frustrations. Aside from the camera issues, I can't say that I miss my iPhone. That's surprising. I think the platform has a bright future.



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