Windows Phone 7 (WP7) marks a fresh start for Microsoft's mobile system strategy. In some ways WP7 is an amalgam of the popular systems available for smartphones today, as well as featuring concepts that are refreshingly unique.
This guide is an in-depth first look at the new system for anyone who is considering a Windows Phone device, but it's not intended as a review. If you want to know.
Before you start
To log in to the various services on Windows Phone 7 you will need a Windows Live ID. Most people will have one after using Hotmail's email for years and years, but if you don't have one you can sign up here.
Microsoft has invested heavily in not only redesigning its Windows mobile operating system, but in re-imagining a system that it believes will fit in better with the way we use our phones. The result is something that lives between Apple's iOS and the BlackBerry OS, in that most of the action happens at the home screen, like the iPhone. Microsoft has also taken a leaf out of BlackBerry's book and combined similar tasks under a common banner — like Facebook and the address book under People.
User interface aesthetic
The most sincere compliment we can give the Windows Phone design team is that the result of their work will polarise people — you'll either love it or hate it. The design is bold and daring, with refreshingly unique elements you won't find on other platforms. The home screen is a customisable grid of tiles allowing the user to place and reorder their apps to suit their usage best. Swiping right to left across the menu switches to an alphabetised list of all apps installed.
The icons on the home screen are what Microsoft calls "Live Tiles". These icons will change as the info in the apps they represent is updated; for instance, if you have an upcoming calendar appointment, the calendar tile will show its details, if your friends update their Facebook status, their picture might hover over the People tile.
Entering an app, especially a Microsoft designed app, brings up the other major element of Microsoft's "Metro UI". Lifted straight from Microsoft's beautiful Zune media player user interface (UI), the design is described as "full bleed", meaning the words disappear to extend off the edge of the screen, suggesting to the user that there is more content in that direction. Side swiping will scroll through the various menus in an app.
Apps, hubs and panoramas
When you turn a Windows Phone on for the first time you may think all of the coloured tiles on the home screen do pretty much the same thing, but according to Microsoft this is wrong. The following is how Microsoft define the three kinds of home screen shortcuts:
- Apps: this is the straightforward one. Any app you have installed on the phone can have a shortcut "pinned" to the home screen.
- Hubs: a name for an app that executes other apps from within it. A good example is the Xbox Live hub, from which all of your games are stored and launched.
- Panoramas: what is a hub when it's not a hub? A panorama is a detailed app that makes use of the "Metro UI" design, but doesn't execute other apps from within itself. The example we have is the Telstra One app that Telstra is offering its customers on the Marketplace. Telstra One aggregates news, sport and weather, and is designed in line with the Metro UI but is not a hub.
One of the stipulations Microsoft laid out for manufacturers is that all WP7 handsets need to have three buttons aside from the touchscreen: a Windows button for returning to the home screen; a back button; and a search button, which launches a Bing web search (there's no universal search function in WP7 yet).
There's no menu button on any of the launch phones, and while some third-party apps will include a menu button as part of the app interface, all core WP7 apps have their settings dumped in a central Settings menu, much like the iPhone.
Any settings that can be accessed from within an app are discovered by long-pressing on the title of the app, or on the menu heading for that section of the app. For example, in the People menu a long-press on the word "People" will bring a drop-down option to enter the settings menu. You'll also find a long-press gesture will work when you have long lists on things. Long-pressing on an album in the music player brings up options, as does long-pressing on a contact in your address book.
The backbone of any mobile operating system is its ability to keep you in touch with the people you know and keep you on time to the appointments you make. In our opinion, this is one area that WP7 really excels.
Accounts and syncing
In this first release, WP7 can connect natively with Windows Live, Outlook, Yahoo Mail and Google accounts, as well as having an option for users to add a different email account with the correct credentials. You can also log into Facebook and have your latest feed info updated automatically.
Once you set up an email account you can choose whether you want to sync details from your account with the phone, contacts, calendar and email. This is true for all accounts except your Windows Live account, where you are forced to sync your contacts and calendar, and if you're like us, this means your Windows Phone will be full to the brim with email addresses of old high school classmates — and there is no way to turn this off or filter these contacts out of your address book, which is very annoying.
As we saw with the Zune, the Metro UI is outstanding when it comes to organising long lists of data — and for most people, the largest database on their phone will be the people in their address book, and the multiple ways in which we can contact each person. We really like the way the People app is laid out; in three easy-to-read panels you'll find all your contacts, Facebook updates and recently contacted people.
If you sync your phone with multiple email accounts and find you have duplicates, you can easily select a contact and link other details about that person under a single heading. If after you've pared down your contacts lists in this way and still have too many to scroll comfortably from A to Z, you can press on any of the letters heading each collection of names, and skip to another letter in your address book with a single touch.
If we could pinpoint one truly outstanding section of this OS, it has to be the email experience. The layout of the inbox is fantastic, the size and font of the text is easy to read, and managing, reading and replying to new messages is a breeze. When using Google Apps, we found that the WP7 mail client had no trouble identifying the multitude of labels we tag our mail with.
Manipulating mail in your inbox is a breeze, you can either long-press on a message to bring up a list of options (move, delete, flag, etc) or you can press on the left side of any message to bring up multiple-selection check boxes, for deleting or moving messages en masse.
There is one obvious shortcoming and this will annoy some more than others. Every new email account you create gets its own "app". There's no unified inbox, rather a separate inbox for each mail account, so you will have to go in and out of these apps if you want to skim from your personal to your business inboxes.
Unlike email, you can create a unified calendar for all of your appointments across all of your accounts. By default, the calendar will sync your Windows Live account, but it's easy to add any other account you need visibility on.
As with calendars on all other major platforms, the layout is fairly commonplace. You can view either an Agenda view or a Day view, and there's a button at the bottom of the screen to bring up a month view. Again we applaud the aesthetic design, the fonts are large and it's extremely easy to quickly see what you have on each day.
Online: IE and the Marketplace
Both the Internet Explorer browser and the Windows Marketplace have received major make-overs since we last saw them on Windows Mobile 6.5.
Like the entirety of Windows Mobile 6.5, the Internet Explorer browser was in serious need of an overhaul. You'll be glad to know that Microsoft has given this browser more than just a spit polish, with IE now being almost on par with the iPhone's Safari browser, and Android's Chrome-derived web browser.
In its favour is a new focus on speed. Loading pages is fast, its ability to render full-desktop sites is good, and scrolling over pages and the pinch-to-zoom gesture work as you would expect them to on a top-line smartphone.
Where it falls down is in what you don't see; Adobe Flash and HTML5 content being the standouts, though look out for both areas to receive attention in the next few WP7 firmware updates. There are also no options for determining whether to render the desktop version of the page or to automatically defer to the mobile site.
At the time of writing this guide, the Marketplace is still in a demo phase. We can see how the store will be laid out on the phone, but there are only several dozen apps ready to download. There are a few things we definitely like from the outset. Firstly, we love the "try or buy" options, which all but guarantees there won't be thousands and thousands of "Lite" version apps clogging up the store. We also love the refund option, though we're yet to find an app that support it (again, this could be a demo phase phenomenon).
The menu option for the Marketplace doesn't break any new ground, there's still the dozen or so "games, health, photography, travel" categories, with sections for featured apps and the store's most popular downloads. Each category features an updating list of apps, pulling new apps when you reach the bottom of the current list to form a seemingly endless collection.
App updates are indicated on the home screen Live Tile, showing you how many apps need updates, and there is an option within the Marketplace to download all the latest updates in one go — a very handy option.
Bing Maps is, in a lot of ways, similar to Google Maps. You can choose to view the map as a traditional mix of lines and names, or you can choose an aerial view to see the buildings and roadways as they appear from the sky. You pinch-to-zoom to increase and decrease your view on the map, and you press the on-screen Search key to scan for points of interest.
Long presses on the screen will search the address on the map below your finger, but disappointingly this won't show you any points of interest at this location. With an address selected you can save the map tile to the home screen for quick reference later, or you can send this reference as text (not as a web or map link) via email or SMS. The map looks great and is easy to use, but Microsoft has a long way to go before it is offering a comparable product to Google Maps.
WP7 features a renewed focus on mobile gaming for Microsoft, and Xbox Live is its major drawcard. Current Xbox Live members can log into their account on their phone and pull in their latest achievements and avatar. Games played on the phone add to a player’s overall Gamerscore, with these new achievements visible to friends of the player either on the phone, or on an Xbox console.
The only real disappointment with this service at launch is that it doesn't offer a true multiplayer experience. Players can communicate with friends, and can participate in turn-based multiplayer, but you can’t challenge someone to a game of virtual soccer and play simultaneously.
Zune media player
Microsoft has carried over a lot of its success with the design of the Zune UI to Windows Phone 7, and music lovers will be happy to know that they will find most of the excellent Zune music player features on a new Windows Phone device. There's no Apple-like CoverFlow album view, but this doesn't detract at all from the well-organised media menus.
Windows Phone users will use the new Zune media-syncing software to get their media from their PCs to their phones. Natively, a Windows Phone device will play MP3, eAAC+ and WMA audio files and MP4, H.264 and WMV video files. However, the Zune software will convert any files that won't play natively on the phone as they are transferred, similar to what iTunes users can expect when syncing an iPhone.
Camera and gallery
Unlike older versions of Windows mobile, Windows Phone 7 seems to have a stronger focus on camera phone photography, with a decent camera app, a great touchscreen gallery and simple two-touch uploading to online services like Facebook and Microsoft's SkyDrive.
The camera looks similar to the iPhone and Android stock camera tools, but unlike those phones, all Windows Phones will have a dedicated camera key on the side. All settings adjustments, including zooming, are controlled by the touchscreen buttons, and if you swipe from left to right you'll drag the most recent image taken to centre stage, giving the impression that the camera's viewfinder is just the next image in a film strip of images taken.
The picture gallery is well designed, and gives you access to online galleries as well as the local camera roll. If you've synced your accounts from Facebook, Windows Live or SkyDrive, your photos will be available in the gallery to view.
As you might expect from a Microsoft mobile OS, WP7 offers a pretty rich Office experience out of the box. Users can view and edit Word and Excel documents, plus view (you cannot edit) PowerPoint presentations. There's also OneNote integration, so you can keep track of notes you create on your phone using any PC with an internet connection. If you work in a collaborative environment, you can use SharePoint Mobile to edit documents that your colleagues have saved online.