Windows Phone 7 early review: A breath of fresh air from Windows

It'll be almost Christmas before we start seeing phones with Windows Phone 7 Series in the shops, but we've already taken the operating system for a spin

Flora Graham
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Windows Phone 7 Series has swept out the Windows Mobile cobwebs and Microsoft has finally realised that a phone is not just a teeny, tiny PC. Instead, it's made an innovative operating system that focuses on finger-friendly clarity on the small screen.

It's not an entirely new OS -- it's still based on the Windows CE kernel that has served us loyally for years, Microsoft told us, which gives us hope that some of our Windows Mobile apps could potentially work on future Windows Phone 7 phones.

But the user interface is a total re-thinking of how Windows looks on a phone, and we got our hands on a prototype device running the pre-beta software. The flat, cubist graphic design reminds us of Vodafone 360 on the Samsung H1, but that was our favourite part of that disappointing UI, and Windows Phone 7 takes the design to a new and pleasing place. We especially like the incredibly crisp, elegant typeface, which should look good on all Windows Phone 7 phones, thanks to Microsoft's strict rules for minimum screen resolution.

This is far from a final version of the software, so you'll have to wait for our full review for our view on the speed and responsiveness of the OS. But even in this pre-beta version there are lots of dynamic, fun transitions and animations that testify to some serious creativity at work.

Watch our hands-on video, then click 'Continue' to see what the boys and girls in Redmond think we'll be poking by the end of 2010.

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Say goodbye to the honeycomb of standard Windows icons that seemed so new on Windows Mobile 6.5 -- you won't be seeing MSN Messenger or Windows Media Player logos on Windows Phone 7. Instead, there's a home screen of square widgets, called 'tiles', with nary an icon in sight.
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You can add, remove and drag tiles, and they each display rotating, live data relevant to their app. The People tile, for example, shows tiny profile pics from your contact books, and they fade in an out as it cycles through your peeps.
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For access to apps that aren't on your home screen, you swipe to the right for an alphabetical list of apps -- from here, you can add tiles to the main screen.
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The calendar supports multiple Exchange calendars, as well as Windows Live calendars. Different calendars are shown with different colours, and you can choose which colour you want for each one.
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For an event on your calendar, orange text indicates that the location is linked to the maps app.
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The graphic design of the Windows Phone 7 maps is as flat and neutral as the rest of the UI, and it has smooth, fading transitions as you zoom in and out of the area.
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Zoom into a map and it automatically shows the satellite view. There's multi-touch zoom in the maps, as well as in photos and the Web browser. Multi-touch was working on the pre-beta version that we saw, but Microsoft says a lot of work is still being done to make sure zooming is insanely smooth in the final version.
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The agenda view lists your events in order, with plenty of white space. This should work on light days, but on days with dozens of events it could mean lots of scrolling up and down.
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The calendar shows your events in invisibly tiny text on the month view, in a bid to show you how busy your days are without trying to actually display the details.
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Unsurprisingly for a Windows phone, Microsoft promises Exchange email support that's second to none. That includes the ability to work with several emails at once -- to file them away or delete them, for example.
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The people hub combines your address book and updates from your social networks. Microsoft promises Windows Live and Facebook here, as well as an unknown number of other popular social networks.
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The address book combines information from the phone and the cloud, and there's a feature to help you merge people from various places into a single contact.
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The people hub also has a screen dedicated to friend updates, sticking everyone's news into a live stream.
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The pictures hub includes photos from the phone's memory and from the cloud -- your Facebook photos, for example.
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There are already several ways to share your photos from the phone, and Microsoft says you'll be able to add more by installing third-party apps from sites such as Flickr.
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The games hub is a portal to Xbox Live, and you can earn achievements and gamer points by playing games on the phone.
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The games tile on the home screen shows your avatar, and alerts you when you have updates or it's your turn to play. We love the thought of playing a game with a friend who's on an Xbox while we're on our phone on the train.
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Every Windows Phone 7 phone is a Zune, says Microsoft. The Windows Phone 7 plan includes Zune desktop syncing software, similar to Apple's iTunes. It's the first time we'll see the software in the UK, but Microsoft says we'll be getting all the features Zune owners in the US have seen.
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The background of the music player and the music tile on the home page is automatically set to the last album you listened to, so beware of those guilty pleasures -- your love of show tunes could be broadcasted to everyone who sees your phone.

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