Windows Phone review
Windows Phone 7 has been available here in the UK since 21st October and I managed to get hold of one –an HD7- 6 days later hence I’ve spent 10 days getting used to it and feel I’ve learnt enough to share some experiences in this blog post.
First of all I should reiterate what I said in my recent blog post My thoughts on Windows Phone 7 and why I shall be getting one. I have been excited about this phone for a long time because I feel its the first realisation of the latent potential that Microsoft have with their various consumer products and services. With that in mind, let’s dive in.
A word first about availability. I took me 6 days to get my hands on a phone and that wasn’t through want of trying. It seemed that if you wanted to get a Windows Phone here in the UK then you had little choice but to sign up with a carrier on a new contract which is not something I wanted to do – I wanted a contract-free, SIM-free phone. The online retailers (Amazon, Expansys etc…) had no stock but O2 offered a way out as they were offering the HTC HD7 on a pay-as-you-go contract. I took up that option and got the phone unlocked, in-store, for a small extra fee. Job done – I had my contract-free, SIM-free HD7. Its not the device I wanted –that was the Samsung Omnia- but it was the only one I could get without waiting for weeks.
The limited phone availability could be interpreted as there being an unexpected high demand for the phones – I suspect that the phone manufacturers’ inability to meet the anticipated demand is also a factor.
I pretty much new my way around the phone before I got it due to the plethora of online videos so there wasn’t much new to learn about it but still I was looking forward to finally getting one in my hands. I can safely say that the phone is a delight to use; it is quick, it is easy and very intuitive. Do I say that because I already knew my way around the phone? Possibly, yes, though I am still of the opinion that this phone’s base interface (known as Metro) is both a refreshing change and a step ahead of any of its competitors. Microsoft have clearly spent time dreaming up ways that the phone can impress and delight be that with an entire feature (such as OneNote sync) or a user interaction (such as email notifications on the lock screen).
The Music and Video hub is new to me because I have never handled a Zune HD before (which is where the interface borrows from heavily). The backdrop to the hub changes to show the artist that you last listened to which contributes heavily to the overall positive aesthetic. The best word I can think of to describe the Music and Video hub is “classy”.
The calendar too is a work of art. I have four different calendars (meaning four separate accounts) syncing to the phone and the calendar does a beautiful job of displaying them all. The vibrant colours used for each calendar contrast fantastically with the black background and make the simple act of looking at one’s agenda a real pleasurable experience. The app bar has a button that takes you back to the current day no matter where you happen to be browsing within the calendar – a very smart idea indeed.
All that being said there are still problems with the phone, niggles if you will, some of which leave me scratching my head and thinking to myself “What on earth were they thinking?”. Moreover lots of features are not complete (calendar and office being classic examples) which is no doubt due to Microsoft’s desire to get something in front of consumers for holiday season 2010.
The main activity that I use my phone for is sending/receiving email and this is where Windows Phone shines; I have two email accounts synced to the phone and am happy to report that triaging email on this thing is a pure joy. Simple things like a single click to delete an email and then being returned to your inbox rather than showing the next email brings a smile to my face. The animation when deleting an email is a delight and navigation is both simple and efficient. For me though the real high point of email is the presentation of information on the lock screen which is probably easier to show rather than explain:
The first number in this image represents unread text messages whereas the second and third represent unread emails in each of my two email accounts. What I particularly like about this is that the O/S isn’t relying on space-consuming verbiage to tell me which account has unread messages, it is simply communicated by location on the screen and it takes no time at all to get to grips with which is which. Its a great example of Windows Phone taking something that might seem fairly insignificant but that serves to make the whole overall experience easier, more intuitive and, quite simply, better. Truthfully, that’s a microcosm of the whole phone.
I have seen lots of reviews on the web complain about the lack of a unified inbox (i.e. the ability to view email from multiple accounts in one place) but that is not a feature that I require. I point it out here because evidently this is a feature that people do want so if you’re one of them you should be aware that it does not exist today.
The second feature that I have fallen in love with is OneNote syncing. I am a fairly regular OneNote user and recently added all of my OneNote files to http://office.live.com knowing that this would enable me to view them on my phone. There’s something deeply satisfying and delightful (there’s that word again) about being inside a OneNote page on your phone, hitting the camera button on the app bar to take a picture, then watching that photo automatically turn up on your laptop screen just a few seconds later. I can think of many scenarios where this will be useful and is definitely a very unique differentiator for Windows Phone.
What else is good? I mentioned the the Music and Video hub and truly it is an awesome aesthetic experience but with some foibles that I’ll cover later. Zune related info also shows up at http://windowsphone.live.com which is a nice touch.
Speaking of http://windowsphone.live.com, I should explore that a little more deeply.
Its an online companion to your phone and displays Zune, Xbox, OneNote notebooks, calendar items, photos and contacts; its also the site from which you access the fantastic Find My Phone feature (locate your phone if you lose it) – again, another great differentiator. In many ways http://windowsphone.live.com is the embodiment of the integration potential that I spoke of in My thoughts on Windows Phone 7 and why I shall be getting one and its a great first stab at an online “portal” for all your interactions as a consumer with Microsoft. I’m expecting lots of enhancements to this site in the future and am hoping that those enhancements include a universal search feature that enables you to search all of your “stuff” (you may know of my belief that personal search is going to be huge in the future).
I’ve talked about some of the things I love but I’m afraid I have to report that not all is well with Windows Phone. I find it to be teeming with foibles that detract from the overall experience and I’m going to list some of them out here.
- I wrote above about how I love being able to sync my OneNote notebooks from http://office.live.com to my phone but I can’t ignore that setting up syncing of a notebook up in the first place is a very difficult thing to do. I managed to get myself into such a pickle first time around that I believed my OneNote notebooks on the phone were in unrecoverable state (for more details go read my thread on WinPhoneJunkies) and had no option but to do a hard reset of the phone. As it transpired the proper remedial action was not quite so drastic but I wouldn’t have known that had it not been for Jon Noble’s blog post How to open your existing OneNote notebooks on Windows Phone 7 that explains the decidedly intricate process required to do this. This whole process is not in keeping with the positive first impressions that I spoke of earlier. and nowhere do Microsoft try and explain it to you
Other issues with OneNote:
- if you have any section groups in your Notebooks they and the sections/pages within them are completely ignored
- there is no search function which is a fundamental need in a note taking app.
All of these OneNote foibles are indicative of the “unfinished” nature that is prevalent throughout the phone.
- The Music and Video hub is indeed a delightful experience as I emphasized earlier but still its missing things and, quite frankly, some of the foibles I find downright bizarre. For example, I can shuffle all of the songs on the phone but I can’t shuffle a playlist. Huh? That seems like a glaring omission to me and is one that I miss a great deal because in general I make great use of my playlists but listening to them in the same order each time is not really what they were designed for. (UPDATE: Thanks to Chris in the comments who pointed out that you can shuffle a playlist although given the obscurity of it I don’t feel bad for not finding it. Read Chris’s comment here.)
I had already purchased a Zunepass (to enable streaming of music) prior to purchasing the phone but streaming wasn’t immediately available when I first took delivery of the phone and plugged in my Windows Live ID. I can happily report that it is working now but I have no idea what caused it to be “triggered” and I don’t understand why streaming wasn’t working from the get-go.Speaking of streaming – here’s another issue. One would assume (I did anyway) that having opted to stream (say) an album that the whole album would be getting downloaded as the first track was being played. Not so, it only downloads a track when it reaches it in the playlist and hence we get a 10-20 second pause in-between each song – not an ideal way to listen to music I’m sure you’ll agree!SmartDJ. Where is SmartDJ? Its a great feature in both Zune on Windows and on Zune devices but its not here on the phone – a glaring omission.Zune Social. Again, where is it? It simply aint here! One of the reasons I got on board with Zune a long time ago is because I liked the notion of building social into it so I find it strange that they haven’t built it into the phone.Again, the word that springs to mind when using the Music and Video hub is “unfinished” and to be honest that is a common theme across the phone.
- The Home screen is in keeping with the pleasing aesthetic of the phone but, as Charles Arthur was quick to point out in his Guardian article Windows Phone 7 review: you sure Microsoft wrote this software?, quickly becomes unwieldy as you add more and more apps to it. Granted it is possible to launch an app using your voice but in my limited testing thus far it doesn’t easily my recognise my gruff northern England twang. Admirable though the home screen is Microsoft need to fix this.
- Copy and paste. Ah, copy and paste. its well known that this feature is currently missing from the phone and some observers have commented that you don’t really miss it. They’re wrong – copy and paste is a fundamental need on a smartphone and I find it bizarre that Microsoft thought they could leave this out in version one. The expected update in early 2011 that is going to bring copy and paste can’t come soon enough.
- I spoke about the Calendar being beautiful, and it is, but its sadly lacking in functionality. I am subscribed to many many calendars at http://calendar.live.com but only one of them, the primary one, shows up on the phone.
My biggest complaint is reserved for apps written by Microsoft or, more accurately, the lack of them. I have just searched in the Windows Phone marketplace for apps created by Microsoft and have found ten (they are YouTube, Facebook, Unite, Last.FM, Level, Weather, Translator, Unit Converter, Shopping List). I think that’s a pathetically paltry number for a company that sells software by the bucketload and whose target market for these phones should be the existing customers that already know and trust them.If Microsoft truly are serious about this phone then their product teams should be churning out apps for this thing by the boatload; where’s my mobile MSN viewer (the MSN Celebrity app doesn’t interest me), my Remote Desktop client, my mobile SQL Server admin tool, my Microsoft Dynamics client, my Live Meeting client, my Windows Live Writer Mobile program (yes, I believe there is a need for such a thing), my Microsoft Connect client, my OData viewer, my Codeplex client and (most of all) my Windows Azure admin client? These apps and many many more are conspicuous by their absence and it highlights the inherent problem Microsoft have in effectively being many many different companies under a single brand. Somebody should be banging down the doors of product teams throughout the company and getting them to build apps for this thing but clearly that is not happening.
I’ve talked about my main complaints and here’s a quick-fire list of more minor issues that irk me a little:
- When typing a URL into the address bar in Internet Explorer there’s no “/” on the facing keyboard. What the….? [OK, its there if I long-hold on the period but still – you’d think this would be front and centre when typing a URL]
- After installing an app from the marketplace you have to come out of the marketplace to actually launch it. Why can’t I simply launch it from the marketplace when it tells me that its finished installing it?
- Maps app doesn’t work in landscape
- Searching in marketplace will return playlists that people have shared on Zune Social. All I can do though is view the playlist or play individual songs from it via my Zunepass, I can’t play/download the whole playlist.
- I can upload photos from my phone to SkyDrive or choose to have them sync up there automatically. Strangely these two functions put the photos in two completely different places; one sends them to https://photos.live.com/browse.aspx/.MobilePhotos and the other sends them to https://photos.live.com/browse.aspx/.WMPhotos. WHY????
- When I logged onto the Music marketplace recently the main promoted release was Cheryl Cole’s recent single release. Anyone that knows me tell you that Cheryl Cole isn’t exactly my cup of tea and Zune knows this too given I share all my music plays with them so why are they trying to flog me Cheryl Cole trash? Surely they should try and sell me something they have an inkling I might like!
- Long-holding the period on the keyboard will present a submenu of different punctuation marks that I can add to wherever I’m typing. This submenu includes a dash, an exclamation mark, a colon and a question mark but unbelievably no apostrophe. It seems like a small thing but I’m left incredulous at this omission.
- I can pin a person to the home screen which is kinda cute n’all but its not what I want; I want to pin a person’s phone number up there. That would be useful.
- In my use of apps so far I haven’t found the Live Tiles on the home screen to be particularly, well, live. A very small percentage of all the apps I have installed so far actually make use of Live Tiles which is disappointing given that Microsoft’s whole sell about the phone is “glance-and-go”.
- I find the functionality of the Bing search app to be distinctly underwhelming. One of the features I like about the main Bing site is Instant Answers but they don’t turn up on the phone unfortunately.
- I have lots of content on the phone (email, text messages, OneNote notebooks, Excel spreadsheets, Word docs) but the phone doesn’t allow me to search through all of that content. It needs a universal search function.
- The Marketplace Search is annoying because it presents all content types in a single list. I don’t understand why they don’t use the now-familiar pivot interface and produce a page for apps, albums, playlists etc… Presenting all of this stuff in a single list is not helpful.
There’s a lot of complaints in this blog post and that is indicative of this being version one of Windows Phone – I used the word “unfinished” a couple of times and that sums up the whole phone pretty well. Happily the majority of these irksome foibles are not core to the phone and can be easily fixed and I’m sure that will happen in the not too distant future. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m not enjoying the phone –I am, I’m loving it- but be aware of its shortcomings before you decide to jump in!