About a year ago, I sold out as part of the Windows Phone 7 Telstra Review Team. I was really curious about the WP7, which was getting a lot of buzz and certainly looked very different from most smart phones on the market. The deal I made myself at the time was to use the Windows Phone ((For those curious, it was a HTC Mozart)) exclusively for a week, so I could write a fair and honest review. I broke that deal on the second day. The Windows Phone, though very pretty, was just too frustrating and unfinished to use. So instead I carried two phones for a week. I tried as much as possible to use the Windows Phone, but for most things – listening to music and podcasts, posting to Twitter, checking the bus timetable – the iPhone was just so much easier an experience.
At the time, all the Windows Phone blogs and rumour sites were saying “Just wait til January” and “Mango will save us all!”. Mango, or Windows Phone 7.5, was supposed to be bringing cut and paste, multitasking, and a slew of other features to that would bring Windows Phone up to date with iPhone. It didn’t actually drop til September, and by then my lil Mozart was long gone. But I was still really curious, did Mango really fix all the issues I had with the WP7? Was good ol’ Microsoft back in the game?
So when a lovely friend offered to lend me a review unit ((this time a HTC Trophy)) running Mango I jumped at the chance. The hardware looked identical to the phone I played with last year, but that’s not what I was interested in, and that’s not what this review is about. It’s all about the software. So, looking back on my review last year, lets see what they’ve improved.
First, to do this properly, I set myself the same challenge of a week using the Windows Phone and nothing else. This time it was easy. The only thing I really missed was over the air podcast downloading with Instacast or Pocketcasts. Everything else was at least doable this time round.
The greatest improvement to Windows Phone 7 was the operating system itself. The pretty was back, but this time it was a hell of a lot more stable. The phone didn’t crash once in the week I used it. Cut and Paste is there, and its actually a little faster than in iPhone. Or at least it feels that way. Mail has a unified inbox, which helps with Tile management (more on that later) and the Mail app itself it gorgeous, and I think superior to iOS’ Mail. The Font Heavy Metro UI just makes email look pretty, and i guess its understandable. Microsoft made its empire on the back of Exchange and Office, and with WP7 it feels like the rest of the UI was designed to make email look good. The Calendar App now supports multiple calendars and sub or delegate calendars,which is handy, but will still only show the next upcoming appointment on the lockscreen. In a way, I kind of like that though. WP7 seems all about cutting down the options and distractions. Sometimes that gets annoying, but here it really works. IE for WP7 was a solid browsing experience. Websites loaded quickly, bookmarks (sorry, favourites) we’re easy to access and pages could be pinned to the homescreen. There were a few annoying little glitches though. WP7 still doesn’t save drafts in SMS, so if you’re half way through an SMS and get distracted, you’ll lose the SMS when you reopen the app. Bing Maps is still quite ugly compared to Google Maps, and I stand by the description of it looking like “varicose veins on a pale, chubby leg.” There’s also no way of using the WP7 as a 3G modem, or at least I couldn’t find it. There’s also no real multitasking to speak of. Sure, there’s no real multitasking on iOS either, but the facsimile of it is good enough. With WP7, you’re thankful the homescreen is just so pretty, because you see it all the time. EDIT: Thanks to the Nick’s comment below, there is a way of fast-app switching between the last few open apps, by pressing and holding the back button, you get a sexy little app switcher screen:
Most annoying, there is still no goddamn way of taking a goddamn screenshot on the goddamn phone. I can understand Android leaving this feature out, them phones is ugly, but WP7? How do they expect people to review the phone, or post screen shots on twitter, or whatever? I realise this is a very small market or use case to cater to, but its the most important market, the social media douchebag. Get on it Microsoft. What is cool is that Microsoft have a full screen demo you can play with right now on your iPhone or Android. I found it looking for screenshots for this post.
The most well know feature of WP7 is its tiled homescreen, possibly because its so different to iPhone and Android. I still really like the idea, and how some tiles can be “live” (showing moving images of friends for instance on the “People” Tile) but it’s still just not that great in practice. I still had the issue of trying to find the one tile I needed amongst a sea of similar coloured tiles. The size of the tiles means the default home screen (before scrolling down) can only hold 8 applications to iPhone’s 20 ((more if you use folders)). And the 8 applications become 6 or 7 if you include Calendar or Photos, which for some reason are the size of two tiles each. Making app finding harder is the fact there is only one homescreen available. To use WP7 effectively I’d suggest having only 16 apps on the home screen, 8 at the top, then 8 if you scroll down. Any more than that and the homescreen will scroll with no clear snapping point in either direction, making finding apps in the middle of your list a chore. Of course, there is still the back up homescreen, the long list of apps you havent “pinned” to the start, but thats not much better. Its still just one long list of apps, only smaller. I’m sure WP8 will bring multiple homescreens, so you can organise into Daily Apps, Camera apps, Social apps, etc, but until then, i found myself booting one app off the homescreen before adding anything new. Perhaps this is the WP7 “forced simplicity” idea at work again, and for many users it won’t be a big deal, but for the app obsessed, its a bit of a drag.
My biggest complaint, one I bothered to photograph, is the colours of the tiles. I know I just finished complaining about similar coloured tiles making finding things harder, but it does make the homescreen prettier. And until we, the end user, can change the colour of an individual tile, I don’t see why developers are allowed to. It’s such an odd complaint, I know, but in an interface so obviously governed by a strict HIG, to allow any old app to be any old colour is really bizarre. Some apps seem kind, and will change colour to match the theme you’re using, but most simply ignore your colour theme completely. And Microsoft makes this decision acceptable by making their Xbox app lime green, and pinned to the start of the homescreen by default, regardless of the theme you choose. I know it sounds small, but in an interface where 7 out of 8 apps are blue but one stays green, mocking you, just to spite you, it really drives you insane, as the following re-enactment shows. Here we have a beautiful homescreen of calm azure tiles, with 6 built in WP7 apps and the official Twitter app.
In the next shot, I replace the Twitter App with the Seesmic App. Note how the built in apps stay blue, but Seesmic stares back, mocking me, in defiant cherry red. The devil’s red.
Of course, the only rational reaction at this point is to reject the app and all it’s works, or to give in to temptation and force the app to rule your theme.
Umberto Eco wrote a famous essay that the Mac experience was quite a catholic experience of “we know whats best for you, so stick to our rules and you’ll make it to heaven”, where as the Windows PC world was far more protestant, it allowed for “free interpretation” of the rules. The point is, WP7 is trying to be the Catholic experience, but to stretch the analogy too far, its only a Catholic experience for the end users, but its letting the clergy do whatever it wants, and that’s not the Catholic church I’m familiar with.. Ok, i’ll stop now.
3rd Party Apps
Despite all the above complaints, Mango is a damn fine OS. It’s beautiful, intuitive and fast, and in many ways a joy to use. What lets WP7 down the most, especially as an iPhone user, is the quality of the 3rd Party Apps. In my original review, I complained about how many third party apps I used daily did not yet exist for WP7. Most of those apps exist now, (Tripview for example) or have equivalent apps (the store is now full of Google Reader Apps). But there are still some notable exceptions. Dropbox is missing, Instapaper will probably never be ported. Stranger still, there’s still no official Skype app, despite Microsoft buying them back in May. And while the Apple App Store remains the biggest game in town, developers will always go there first. Every week a new iOS app like Discovr comes along that has been assembled with such thought, care and style, I’m constantly amazed. I can’t see Android or WP7 closing that gap any time soon. But what was really surprising was how awful the official Twitter app was ((all unofficial Twitter Apps were just as bad)). It still refreshed every time it was launched, meaning it never kept your spot in the timeline or a draft saved. It always threw you up to the top of your twitter stream, it would load each section (timeline, then replies, then messages) painfully slowly, and always from scratch. For a twitter app to work, it needs to be something you can open and close quickly, not giving it to much thought. It has to be disposable. WP7 made you work for twitter. I guess its a limitation of no multitasking, but I still think the experience could be improved. I just don’t get it, because, like people who need to take screen shots, twitter people are the most vocal, annoying people on the web (face it, we are) so you really need to please us first. And there really is no need for the Twitter App to be crap, many others aren’t. Facebook for WP7 is better than it’s iPhone equivalent. It’s still a native app, not just a border around a web page as the iOS App has become. Foursquare is brilliant, its functions have been moved around and re-emphasised to work best in the Metro UI, and again, it may just be better than the iPhone version. But I spend most time on my phone bouncing between a Twitter app, a browser, and a Google Reader app. Nextgen Reader was fine, IE as mentioned above was fine, Twitter was awful.
Syncing to A Mac
The Windows Phone Connector for Mac hasn’t really changed much in a year, although it is now downloaded from the Mac App Store, so there’s that. It’s still a big, dumb interface that just sits on top of iTunes, but at least now you can select a little more granularly- choosing only “the last 3 unplayed podcasts” for instance. A year ago, it was all or nothing.
Buying from the Windows Phone Marketplace (via a browser) is pretty slick though. Apps are immediately downloaded to the phone, which Android did first, and iOS does now, but its still cool, ok? I didn’t try the Zune Subscription Music Store, which sounds both incredibly cool and quite painful.
From a standing start, Windows Phone has become an polished, fully featured, beautiful platform in just one and a half releases. Mango really did bring the Windows Phone up to about iOS 3 in most areas, and in specific apps like Mail, I think they may have even leapfrogged iOS ((I have no idea how WP7 compares to Android, but if anyone wants to lend me one running Ice Cream Sandwich, I’ll happily give it a go )). And they’ve got the time and money to keep building from there. What is really letting WP7 down now, apart from a few little OS niggles that I’m sure will be addressed, is the lack of interesting 3rd Party apps. I have no idea what Microsoft need to do to lure iOS and Android developers (developers, developers) to their platform, but then need to do it now.