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Microsoft has taken its Windows Mobile operating system out behind the barn and put it out of its misery, thank God. Now the company is pushing its brand new Windows Phone 7 OS. This is an all-new approach to mobiles from Microsoft, and it's totally focused on touchscreen phones. Windows Mobile's tiny icons and endless menus have been replaced with enormous finger-friendly tiles, but, like anything new, there are a few hiccups and plenty of room to grow.
We're still waiting for Xbox Live gaming and the app store to come online on the official October 21 launch date. We'll be updating this review when those important features get up and running.
Windows Phone 7 has a home screen populated with 'tiles', which is what it calls the square widgets that are arranged in a grid. In our hands-on time, we couldn't find a limit to the number of tiles you can put here, although more than about ten means you'll be scrolling your fingers down to a nub.
Tiles can be as simple as a shortcut to an app, but many of them display live data, too. The messages tile, for example, shows an emoticon that winks when you have a new message, and displays the number of unread texts. You can even add your favourite contacts to the home screen -- the tile will show your contact's Facebook profile pic, animated along with their name.
Occasionally, this can be a little embarassing. If the last song you downloaded on your phone was by Coldplay, the music and video tile will insist on showing you Chris Martin's srs fayce every day.
Beyond the phone's built-in applications, it's up to developers how much they work on the tiles for their apps. During our early tests, for example, we found a Twitter app for Windows Phone 7 that didn't have a live tile updating us on our tweets. But there's plenty of room for improvement.
The tiles themselves are enormous. We found them a little too large, since there's only room for one or two of them on each row of the home screen. In saying that, they'll be a boon to fat-fingered users who may find the icons on Android phones too tiny.
You can drag the tiles around the screen to put them in order, and change the colour of most of them. You can also add and remove tiles, but that's pretty much it. This is not an OS for people who like to tweak their phone -- you can't even have a wallpaper image. If you want to customise your handset to the max, we suggest an Android phone instead.
For everything else that's not displayed on the home screen, swipe to the right to reveal a long menu of the phone's contents. This is also where you get at the settings of the phone, to set up your accounts, for example.
I like to move it, move it
Microsoft has obviously spent some serious hours sorting out the touch interface of Windows Phone 7. On the phones we tried, it was fabulously smooth and whizzy. Everything from opening a menu to scrolling through photos involves a wealth of bouncy, swooping transitions. The virtual keyboard is also excellent, with automatic suggestions that worked well for us.
The endless animations might become tedious after you've been using the phone for a while, especially when you just want to get something done quickly. But they're slick and playful, and they draw you into interacting with the phone, which helps you discover features quickly and without any stress.
That's lucky, since menus and options have been cut down to the bare minimum. There are a couple of on-screen buttons in apps like email, but in general, you swipe left and right to reveal more stuff. You can also press and hold in places to see a context-sensitive menu. Overall, we like the clean, open UI, and we found it intuitive to use. If you prefer to have all your choices laid out in front of you, you could find the lack of clear instructions confusing.
Occasionally, we couldn't figure out how to do what we wanted. During one hands-on, for example, we wanted to delete an account. We thought the logical place for this option would have been alongside the 'save' and 'cancel' buttons on the account's settings page. Instead, we had to press and hold the name of the account to bring up the option to delete it. It's not that the user interface is wrong, but it just goes to show the pitfalls of such a simple-looking UI when it doesn't quite match your own mental map.
Eye on the SkyDrive
Windows Phone 7 comes with a heap of cloud-based services, too, including Windows Live. It includes Hotmail, Office online, and a back-up and storage service called SkyDrive.
Microsoft's services aren't nearly as widely used as Google's, but there's a heap of good stuff on offer, and you can still set up a Windows Phone 7 phone with Gmail and other Google services. Some of the slickest features, however, such as the ability to automatically back up your photos to the Web, only work with Windows Live.
There's also Xbox Live for games, which connects to the account on your gaming console; Zune for music; and the Marketplace for apps. It's all very easy to set up, but beware which account you add first. You'll have to choose whether you'd rather link to your Xbox Live account, your Zune subscription, or your Windows Live account. You can add the others later, but the first one you add determines which services link up, and you can't change it later without resetting the phone.
You can also add your Facebook account, which imports your contacts' profile pics and updates, and pulls Facebook photos into the photo gallery. It's nicely done, but there's nowhere to view other Facebook features, like events and groups. For that, you'll have to go to the website -- we haven't spotted a a dedicated Facebook app yet, although we're sure one's on its way.
It's the same story for MySpace and the rest of the social networks -- early adopters will have to be patient while the big brands sort out their Windows Phone 7 apps. If you're an app addict, we'd think twice about jumping on the Windows Phone 7 bandwagon right away. Six months will mean all the difference to the app store, as it either sinks or swims for developers.