Windows Phone 7 Challenge: Week 2, the verdict

At Microsoft's challenge, Molly Wood put aside her Android phone for two weeks and tried out Windows Phone 7 Mango to see if it could win her heart. This week, the verdict is rendered. Will she move in with Mango or run back to Android?

It's the end of my second week of life with Windows Phone 7 Mango, and it's time to render a verdict. I should say at the outset that two weeks doesn't sound like a lot of time to live with an entirely new platform, and I might have lasted longer but for serious problems with the HTC Trophy I've been using (one-day record for spontaneous reboots: 15, including 3 in 15 minutes). That said, since my smartphone is a device I'm using almost constantly, I feel like I got to know the thing pretty well.

So, what's the verdict? It's like, but it's not love. This is not going to be my next smartphone OS.

If Mango had come out two years ago, this challenge would have been a slam dunk. Android was still nascent (the first killer Android device, the original Droid, appeared in November 2009), the then-iPhone OS didn't yet have copy and paste or MMS (both would come in June 2009), and Apple was still holding the line on features like multitasking. Mango would have killed it.

Even a year ago, and Windows Phone 7 Mango would have been a powerful contender. Android was even more of a fragmented mess than it is today. Plus, the iPhone hadn't yet moved to Verizon, and non-AT&T users were begging for more options. On top of that, Windows Phone 7's interface is more intuitive than Android, in many ways, and it's easy on the eyes, iOS-style; it integrates smoothly into the Microsoft universe; and services like SkyDrive and Zune Pass would have hit just at the bleeding edge of cloud integration and the rising interest in music subscription services.

Fast forward to today, though, and you have all the above benefits: an intuitive and attractive UI, feature-matching (for the most part) with Android and iOS, and a powerful multimedia smartphone experience...but no significant differentiating factor, and a betalike new-platform feel that's hard to pick over the mature Android and iOS options. Yes, I know the version of Mango I'm using is, in fact, a beta, but Microsoft is in the awkward position of having to promise things like future app support and future location-specific database improvements, because this OS is still downy like a newborn.

Android, iPhone, Windows Phone 7: And then there were three?
And then there were three? CNET

I spent this past week getting to know WP7 a bit better, trying out the Zune Pass subscription music service, unifying my inboxes (which I quickly undid--turns out I get way too much spam to unify three inboxes anywhere), uploading photos to SkyDrive, and using the built-in voice commands to compose texts, conduct searches, and launch phone calls. You can get my detailed thoughts on the speech-to-text integration here (along with my rant about WP7's turn-by-turn directions), but here's some quick feedback on the other services.

The Zune Pass subscription service is pretty good--although, at $14.99 a month, it's expensive. Unlike, say, Spotify, it integrates the benefits of a subscription music service with a music discovery service, like Pandora. Go to the Marketplace, search for a song, and once you find it, you can long-press the specific song and choose "Play Smart DJ mix." Zune Pass will find similar songs from the Marketplace, and unlike with Pandora, you can actually see what songs are coming up next, and then choose to save the whole shebang as a playlist. Nice. Plus, you can download and keep 10 songs a month. If you have an Xbox Live account, you can stream music through your Xbox, as well. Zune Pass is, no question, a good subscription service--with a few good-size drawbacks.

First, the on-phone multimedia app isn't very intuitive. Hit the Music+Video live tile and you get a Zune-branded menu of music, videos, podcasts, radio, and Marketplace. Choose music, and you'll get a blank menu that says only, "It's lonely in here," and advises you to tether your phone to a computer to load up some tunes. At this point, I went back to the home screen and hit the "search" soft button on the phone's menu options--in Android, this lets me conduct a search in any app I'm in. But nope, here it launches Bing search. My bad. Back to the Zune menu, and I hit Marketplace instead. Now there's a menu for HTC Apps that lists apps, games, music, and podcasts. I hit music again; now I get a dedicated search icon on the onscreen menu, and can start searching for music. Clunky.

I also wish it were easier to handle playlists on the actual device. When you search for a song, you can long-press the selection and add it to "Now Playing," but not to a specific playlist, as you can on Android. In fact, there's no way that I can tell to add a song to an existing playlist on the device--you can only create new ones via the "Now Playing" list, make a Smart DJ mix, or make an individual song its own playlist. That latter option is so unhelpful I hope it disappears by the time Mango comes to the masses. It's possible I'm the last great control-freak playlist maker, but I don't think so. (On the plus side, I love that I can pin a playlist to the start page for superquick access.)

Windows Phone 7 smart DJ and playlist options
Smart DJ: Cool. Save this song as a playlist? Why? Windows Phone Secrets

Finally, I really wanted to see Zune Pass offer some kind of untethered cloud experience. Both Amazon and Google let you upload music to the cloud and then sync it with devices; Apple is promising to at least scan and match your iTunes library and stream it back to your device; and even Spotify lets you find and manipulate music either on your computer or on your device and sync it up wirelessly. Zune Pass stands alone in the now ancient-feeling request to "connect your phone to your computer" to load up music.

That brings me to SkyDrive. In theory, I could upload all my music to my SkyDrive online storage account (25GB of free storage) and then maybe sync or download it to my phone. But there's no integrated option within the Zune/Music+Video menu options to do that, and although Mango does add music streaming from SkyDrive, the only Microsoft-enabled way to access SkyDrive on the phone is through the browser. No, seriously. There isn't a SkyDrive app for WP7. That just flabbergasted me. Also, when I tried the music streaming, I got a player, but also an error that said, "Sorry, we can't play this file on your phone." (Update: Thanks to the commenters and tweeters who pointed out that all I have to do to access SkyDrive on the phone is tap the Office menu, then swipe three pages to the right, under Locations. I can't believe I missed that.)

I did find a third-party app called SkyDrive Player that will supposedly let you stream your music from your "cloud" storage, but I didn't really want to give it my cloud storage credentials--or I wouldn't if I were using SkyDrive for storing documents any more valuable than music files.

So, although many of you exhorted me to try SkyDrive as a benefit of WP7, I'm afraid I can't consider it much of a feature. Sure, you can upload any pictures you take to SkyDrive directly from the phone, but to what, an online file system? I'd much rather upload them to, say, Picasa or Google+. And the SkyDrive Web interface is a disaster--I had to install Silverlight and switch to Internet Explorer to drag and drop files for storage, and even then, you can't upload an entire folder (say, a music or photo album), just individual files. No, thank you.

This is Microsoft's cloud solution? I can't drag a folder in here!?
This is Microsoft's cloud solution? I can't drag a folder in here...and I'm using IE!? CNET

Look, I recognize that no phone is perfect, no mobile OS is perfect, no technology is perfect, I'm not perfect, all of that. And Mango is, by and large, a good effort. But at this stage in the game, it's got to be on point if Microsoft has any hope of convincing people to turn their adoring eyes from iPhone or pull them away from the massive marketing machine of Android. Mango is good. A lot of people could use it every day and be totally happy with it. But it's not great.

Does this absolve Android of all the problems I detailed in my first post on this challenge ? Absolutely not. The buggy Gingerbread update my Droid X received was inexcusable; the fragmentation on that platform has got to stop, and it's got to stop now, and I almost certainly won't buy another Android phone that isn't a pure Android Nexus-branded phone. All that said, though, my next phone will almost certainly be an Android phone, and not a Mango phone. Sorry, Microsoft. (And sorry, HTC, you've got some 'splainin' to do about this Trophy before I'm convinced about you guys, too.)

So, as far as the challenge goes...hey, Brandon Watson, can we call this one a push? I do like it, you did your job there. But I'm not switching. So, how about we split the difference. You donate $500 to the Alameda County Community Food Bank, I'll tell everyone who asks me what smartphone to buy that Windows Phone 7 is, at a minimum, worth a serious look, and we'll call it a day. Sound good?

 

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