Windows Phone 7 preview: Part 1

Microsoft isn't expected to ship Windows Phone 7 devices till the holiday season but CNET has a preview of what to expect from the operating system with hands-on impressions.

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It's been six months since Microsoft introduced Windows Phone 7 at Mobile World Congress 2010 , and we still have several months to go before we see any devices hit the streets.

At the time, we were excited and hopeful about Microsoft's revamped mobile operating system, but a lot of time has passed since then and the rest of the smartphone world hasn't stopped, so we were, and still are, a bit worried that Windows Phone 7 may be too far behind to catch up .

Well, we recently had a chance to find out. On July 19, Microsoft will begin shipping preview devices from Samsung and LG to developers so they can begin real-world testing of their apps before the big holiday launch. We were treated to one of said devices and had a few days to take Windows Phone 7 for a test-drive.

A couple of caveats before we get into the preview. First, this isn't final software, so some services, such as Windows Marketplace and Xbox Live, weren't available for us to test. In addition, Microsoft said it's continuing work to improve general performance and battery life, so though we made some general observations in these areas, this isn't indicative of the final experience. Last but not least, the handset we used, the Samsung Taylor, is only a prototype device and will not be released to market. It does, however, meet the hardware specifications that will be required on all Windows Phone 7 smartphones, including a 1GHz Snapdragon processor and the three navigation controls (back, start, and search).

Given that Windows Phone 7 is essentially a new operating system, there's a lot to go over, so we're going to break up our preview into two parts, starting with the phone's user interface and core features. As we continue our coverage throughout the week, please let us know what you'd like to hear about the OS and send along your questions, and we'll do our best to address them in following posts.

A fresh start
As we said at Mobile World Congress, Windows Phone 7 is a complete and refreshing departure from previous versions of Windows Mobile. Microsoft essentially pressed the restart button and worked with a team of designers to create a mobile operating system based a number of principles, including elegance and simplicity, typography, motion, and relevance, which we mostly saw during this preview.

The change is immediately noticeable as soon as you pick up the phone. Microsoft stripped away all unnecessary information (almost too much actually--the status bar displaying battery life, signal strength, and so forth goes into hiding after a couple of seconds) and soft buttons, and created a Start screen that consists of "live tiles," which are essentially dynamic widgets to your favorite apps, contacts, and hubs and also display alerts, such as new e-mail and missed calls. You can rearrange the order of the tiles and remove them by doing a long press on the screen. You can also "pin" new tiles, but to do so, you must first navigate to the list of apps or the People hub, find the item that you want to add, and then pin it to the Start screen.

The Windows Phone 7 Start screen is a complete departure from Windows Mobile.
The Windows Phone 7 Start screen is a complete departure from Windows Mobile. Bonnie Cha/CNET

The look is simple, to be sure, and provides easy one-touch access to information. However, customizing and navigating the screen can sometimes be a cumbersome task. For example, when you're moving one of the smaller square tiles, it doesn't swap places with the tile above or below it; instead, it creates one or more empty spaces and consequently, takes more of your time to get the arrangement right.

More importantly, we're just not sold on the layout. As it is, the Start screen and the app list, which you can access by swiping to the right, reads as a long long list and requires a lot of scrolling up and down. As you add more tiles and presumably as you add more apps, we can only see it getting more unruly, particularly the apps list. True, Android employs a similar list view but it also better utilizes space with a grid layout.

A world organized by hubs
The Start screen and apps menu might have left us a little lukewarm, but we were heartened by the platform's Hub system. The idea behind hubs is to bring together related content into a single place for consumption and interaction, and it really showcases some of the work Microsoft has done on relevancy, organization, elegance and typography. There are six hubs in total--People, Pictures, Games, Music + Video, Marketplace, and Office.

The names of the hubs are fairly self-explanatory, but as an example, the People hub merges contact information from your various accounts and then displays them in one long list. A swipe to the right will show you Facebook status updates (unfortunately, Windows Phone 7 will not have Twitter or MySpace integration at launch) and lets you add comments, while another swipe will bring you to your most recently contacted people.

This type of panoramic user interface runs across all the various hubs with bold, attractive text splashed across the top to identify different subsections (aka Pivots) and in some cases, a small contextual toolbar along the bottom of the screen to help you perform specific tasks to the app.

Now, some might complain that this type of navigation requires too much scrolling and can be overly complicated and admittedly, when compared to iOS and Android, this is true we fear this will be a turnoff to consumers. On the flip side, it was absolutely wonderful to be able to do so many things from one place, without having to launch several different apps, so we have to give Microsoft kudos for thinking of this kind of organization. We also very much appreciated the consistent user interface, since it made it easy to work each of the other hubs.

General navigation
Overall, Windows Phone 7 provides a more pleasant navigation experience than previous iterations of Windows Mobile, mostly from an aesthetic standpoint but in other aspects too. As much as Microsoft focused on the typography and creating a chromeless user interface, it also concentrated on motion and as you launch apps and navigate through the different screens, you'll notice that some of the transitions are marked by turnstile motions. It's modern and fresh, but sometimes it can slow down navigation.

The back and Start buttons did their assigned jobs of returning to the previous page and Start screen, but we wish there was a way to bring up a list of your recently used apps like Android does, since it's easy to get lost once you start diving deeper into an app. (We'll talk about multitasking in Part 3.) In general, however, we found that even with a preproduction device, the touch interface and general navigation felt zippier than past versions of Windows Mobile.

What's interesting about Windows Phone 7, though, is, at times, it feels like you're getting two completely different experiences on the phone. The Start screen/menu list, and some apps like the phone dialer, e-mail in-box and calendar, are completely minimalistic, while other aspects of the phone, like the aforementioned hubs and multimedia features, are more sophisticated and elegant. It doesn't hurt the navigation, per se, but is doesn't really make the phone feel like a cohesive unit either.

Will this resonate with consumers? Frankly, we think it'll be a hard sell initially. Despite all the improvements made to the user interface, it's still more involved than other operating systems. That said, we'd also caution you not to dismiss it completely, simply because it's different. Change is scary, but it can also be a good thing.

Contacts
Like many other smartphones, Windows Phone 7 is able to merge contact information from different e-mail accounts and social networking sites, but it's a bit limited in scope and capabilities right now. The OS draws mostly from Facebook, Windows Live, and Exchange for contact data, and after setting up your device with these accounts, the phone immediately pulls in all information without any options to sync only existing contacts or the like. It's all or nothing.

That may be fine for some people, but if you have a Facebook account with hundreds of friends, you're going to have a pretty hairy contact list. Sure, you can bring up an index or find a specific contact using the search button, but we'd still like a little more control over our contacts. In addition, it'd be nice to have a Favorites category in the People hub.

As we briefly mentioned in the Navigation section, the People hub also provides real-time updates to your friends' Facebook statuses, and allows you to quickly add a comment if you wish. You can easily update your own by tapping on your individual card from the contacts list.

It makes social networking easy but one notable omission that might irk a lot of people is the lack of Twitter integration. This isn't to say it won't be offered in the future, but as of now, it looks like it won't be available at launch. It'd also be nice to have a Favorite category in the People hub. The Recent list doesn't quite cut it, and for reasons explained earlier, we don't want to pin a bunch of contacts to the Start screen.

E-mail and calendar
Windows Phone 7 offers a variety of e-mail support, including the standard POP3/IMAP accounts and of course Exchange. For most personal accounts, setup is a simple matter of entering your log-in ID and password, and we were able to sync up our Gmail account in a matter of seconds. Setting up Outlook requires a little more information, such as server and domain info, but again, we didn't encounter any problems here.

The e-mail app is strikingly simple in appearance, though that isn't a reflection of the app's capabilities. Messages are filtered by all, unread, flagged, or urgent, and also features a robust search function that can find keywords within the text of the message or within the e-mail fields. It's also a treat that you can simply tap to the left of a message(s) and press the small trash icon at the bottom to delete it. Sometimes, it's just the little things that impress you.

Windows Phone 7 offers combined calendars with a simple yet elegant agenda view.
Windows Phone 7 offers combined calendars with a simple yet elegant agenda view. Bonnie Cha/CNET

You can configure the device to sync e-mail at different time intervals, ranging from manually to as items arrive. For the most part, we received our messages on time, but also experienced delays throughout our preview period. There were other issues and omissions that bothered us.

Again, with the caveat that this isn't final software, some things we noticed were problems downloading some attachments, having to manually sync folders, and the lack of a combined in-box. For now, each account creates a separate in-box, which in turn requires a separate tile if you want to pin it to the Start screen.

You do, however, get a combined calendar, with appointments color-coded by account. The calendar apps provides views by agenda, day, and month, with a similarly clean and minimalist view as e-mail. You can also easily create new appointments using the contextual toolbar at the bottom of the screen, and set such options as a reminder, occurrence, and status, but we weren't able to access our corporate directory to add attendees, only those listed in our contacts list.

Messaging and keyboard
There's not much to say about the text and multimedia messaging capabilities, other than it works and is easy to use. You also get a threaded chat view. As we're quickly realizing with Windows Phone 7, you really shouldn't judge anything by looks because even though the keyboard looks like a cramped mess, particularly in portrait mode, it's actually incredibly accurate and fast. It's also smart in the sense that when entering text in an e-mail's To field or a Web address , the keyboard provides a .com shortcut and when composing a message, the keyboard surfaces a shortcut to a list of emoticons. Again, it's the little things.

Office support
Similar to Exchange, we expect good integration between the Microsoft Office Suite and Windows Phone 7, and the elements are certainly there. It offers the OneNote note-taking application. You can view, edit, and create Word and Excel documents, while PowerPoint files are limited to just view and edit. That's all fine and dandy but the editing options are pretty much limited to formatting, highlighting and changing font color. What's even worse, Windows Phone 7 doesn't offer copy/paste. If your company uses SharePoint Server 2010 for storing documents to share and edit, you can access them by entering the URL.

Windows Phone 7 preview: Part 2

 

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