In part 2 of our Windows Phone 7 preview, CNET highlights the fun side of Microsoft's revamped mobile operating system and also shares some final thoughts on the platform.
Bonnie ChaFormer Editor
Bonnie Cha was a former chief correspondent for CNET Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.
As promised, here is the second part of our Windows Phone 7 preview. This time around, we focus on the more entertaining features the platform has to offer, including the music and video, photos, and Web browsing. For more on the user interface and core functions, check out part 1 of our Windows Phone 7 preview.
Mobile Web is such a huge part of smartphones nowadays, and fortunately, Windows Phone 7 provides a relatively good browsing experience, certainly much improved from Windows Mobile. The Internet Explorer browser offers support for up to six windows and thumbnail views of all open pages, so you can easily toggle back and forth. You can also bookmark sites, and if you feel like it, you can pin pages to the Start screen for easier access.
Load times were relatively quick. Over AT&T's 3G network, CNET's full site came up in 18 seconds, while CNN's and ESPN's mobile sites loaded in 8 seconds and 7 seconds, respectively. In the settings menu, you can indicate whether you want the browser to display mobile or desktop versions of a site. When set to the former, the browser was able to detect and load mobile versions of pages in most cases, but also missed some. For example, CNET's mobile site loaded, but we got the full New York Times page.
Zooming can be handled either by using the pinch-to-zoom gesture or by double-tapping the screen. Both are smooth and zippy, but there's a slight delay when rerendering text and images. Other available tools and settings include keyword search, the ability to share links, and page suggestions by Bing.
Now, for the bad news. As of right now, there's no support for Flash, Silverlight, or HTML5, so despite taking several steps forward, Windows Phone 7's also several steps behind the competitors. There's some consolation in the fact that Adobe did say at Mobile World Congress that it's working with Microsoft to bring Flash to the browser, but it just won't be in time for the holiday launch.
Music and video
If there's one area where Windows Phone 7 really excels and gives the competition a run for its money, it's the music experience. (Xbox Live might be another, but hard to say without testing it.)
Windows Phone 7 now includes full Zune integration, so anyone who has used an Zune HD will be familiar with the interface of the Music + Videos hub. If you're new to Zune, there's a slight learning curve, but the interface is fresh and fun. The player offers simple controls and displays both the album art and an artist picture in the background. That said, it'd be nice to have better player control when multitasking.
When working in another app while listening to music, nowhere on the screen do you see your current track or any type of controls for advancing or rewinding tracks. It was only when we pressed the volume rocker by accident that a small toolbar dropped down from the top of the screen to expose the media buttons. This treatment is fine and we can learn to live with it, but we just wish it was more apparent from the get-go.
To get music and videos onto your phone, you will now be required to use Zune desktop software, and it's not just for multimedia. All synchronization and content management between your device and your computer will be handled through the Zune software; there's no more Exchange ActiveSync. We received a prerelease copy of the software, and the client is much more attractive and easy to use than ActiveSync.
We dragged and dropped songs, videos, and podcasts with no problem, and playback was fine. You can, of course, purchase and download new music and video from the Zune Marketplace, directly from the phone or from your PC. However, with a Zune Pass subscription, you'll also be able to stream unlimited music to your phone. The catch is that this feature costs an additional $14.99 per month, but we absolutely loved having it as a way to discover new music. Even if you opt not to get Zune Pass, the good news is that Windows Phone 7 handsets will all have FM radios and presumably support third-party streaming services, such as Pandora.
Camera and photos
The camera app offers a healthy set of options and editing features, including white balance, auto focus, effects, ISO controls, exposure compensation, and saturation levels, just to name a few. Once again, the interface is simple yet elegant, and we love that once you take a photo, it's shown to the left of the camera screen so you can quickly swipe over and view the image without having to launch the photo gallery.
Any photos you take with the camera will show up in the Photo hub under the Camera roll. With any photos, you can do a long press on an image to share it either via e-mail, MMS, or Facebook or you can upload it to SkyDrive, Windows Live's online storage system. Unfortunately, right now you can't upload or share any videos directly from the phone. You'll have to transfer the file to your computer if you want to do so.
The Samsung Taylor might be a prototype device, but we were pretty happy with the photos taken by the phone's 5-megapixel camera. More importantly, it was fast with very little shutter lag, so hopefully that's a glimpse of what's to come.
In mid-May, Microsoft updated its Bing application to bring voice-guided navigation to Windows Mobile devices, and Windows Phone 7 will offer the same. A press of the phone's search brings up the delightful Bing app where you can enter your search term either by text or voice. Results are listed based on your current location, and by tapping on a listing, it will bring you to a new page with the address, phone number, link to directions, and if available, Web site, hours of operation, and reviews.
Turn-by-turn navigation is offered for both vehicle or pedestrian mode, but there's no option for mass transit or bicycle modes as there is with Google Maps. This probably is fine for a majority of people. However, in cities like New York and San Francisco, it would be nice to have those options, since mass transit and bikes are popular modes of transportation.
Overall, we were quite happy with the navigation experience. The Bing search engine was quick to return with results, which were mostly relevant to our searches. Our position on the map was sometimes off by a block or so, and map redraws definitely take some time. This is one area where we miss Nokia's Ovi Maps. Directions were also accurate, and we liked that Bing showed both a smaller map view and text-based instructions on the same page so you don't have to switch back and forth. You can view each separately, though, and Bing offers traffic data as well as an aerial view.
Some final thoughts
It's absolutely mind-boggling that Windows Phone 7 is missing some very fundamental features, like copy/paste, third-party multitasking, and universal search. In the past, competitors like Apple were lambasted by the public for not having such features, so you'd think Microsoft would take precautions not to repeat such mistakes. What's worse, the rest of the smartphone world isn't slowing down, and with Windows Phone 7 not scheduled to launch till the holidays, the divide could get deeper.
Criticisms aside, there's a lot we like about Windows Phone 7. The Zune integration is killer, and the core apps are much improved. We also commend Microsoft for being able to acknowledge that its old OS wasn't working and taking a chance on rebuilding something from the ground up. In the end, we think the company's created a pretty solid foundation on which it can grow, but it's got a lot more work and fine-tuning to do between now and the holidays.