Review: Windows Phone 7
Even with the drama around iPhones, iOS, Android and Blackberry, the market bears yet another contender: Microsoft. In the unusual position of being the severe underdog, they bucked almost every UI trend in Windows Phone 7. This is a review.
Call me crazy.
I bought a phone with Windows Phone 7 as the operating system.
All of you are laughing. That’s cool. I wasn’t tricked. I didn’t lose a bet. I could have gotten the latest Android, or a Blackberry Torch, or even the iPhone 4S now that Sprint — the ’99 Ford Taurus of service providers — has managed to get into Apple’s good graces. But I chose Windows.
After spending a solid month with the device, I don’t regret my decision. Below is a review of my experience.
Side by side, the user interfaces of iOS, common Android derivatives (Samsung, HTC, Motorola, etc) and Blackberry OS 7 are cut from the same cloth: a neat grid of painstakingly detailed icons, with emphasized ones in a row at the bottom. Inside the OSs, separation starts to occur, but they still feel close. Drop shadows, gradients, fabric/leather/carbon/wood/aluminum textures, exaggerated button states — they’ve all adapted a highly polished, tactile, designed UI.
The first thing you notice about Windows Phone 7 is that the user interface is the complete opposite aesthetic. Instead of copying iOS like the Android and Blackberry teams did, Microsoft’s Metro UI dives off the deep end of minimal design and surfaces somewhere between Josef Müller-Brockmann and PlaySkool.
Squares are the New Squares
Each app in Metro is represented by a large square tile. The home screen is radically two-dimensional, but it works. The flatness is fresh. It lacks pretense and rejects almost all current trends — I couldn’t find a single rounded corner or shadow anywhere.
Digging deeper, apps are faithful to this direction. Typography (all in Segoe UI) is large and crisp. Actions are reduced to spartan icons at the bottom of the screen. The OS offers a neat twist on the flatness of the UI by presenting menus and action screens on different depths of field, so as you flip through screens side to side, there is a distinct “foreground” and “background”. While in writing this sounds like a mere effect, in action, it presents an elegant way to reinforce the hierarchy of information a screen contains — menus across the top scroll at a different speed than the active pane of content.1
On top of this, animations are buttery smooth and have real personality; app tiles fold cleverly away when one is tapped, emails collapse when deleted, transitions move pieces of content around like a stripped down Minority Report interface. The end result is a UI that feels fast and responsive. After years working in iOS, I find myself flying through email, SMS and Twitter at a speed I never achieved inside Apple devices. No, I’m not joking.
Sometimes Minimal is Lacking
Note that the UI is not perfect. The icons along the bottom are gratuitous and sometimes obtuse; they really should be replaced with verbs. Example: why is there an icon of a diskette for the save command? Why not just say “save”? Details like that remind you that you’re still inside a Microsoft world, where even their most forward-thinking OS is hampered by antiquated metaphors and Windows 95 thinking. (I can seriously imagine the design review of the UI, and the project manager demanding a diskette because that’s what is in Word and has been in everything since 1992 and Jesus how will anyone ever in a million years know how to save anything without the shining beacon of hope that is the diskette icon?)
Another issue is the growl-like notifications that pop up incessantly at the top of the screen. Most of the time they appear and disappear without issue. However, when they are active, the top 30 pixels or so becomes unusable — you can’t touch anything underneath — a real issue when you’re trying to edit text. Microsoft could improve the experience of these by simply adding a button to dismiss them. Or alerts for available Wifi networks could be done with a tiny green circle near the 4G bars instead of a fat, dumb, uncloseable notification dropping in and out every time a wireless router beeps a come-on.
WP7 comes with an email client, photo management, a calendar, messaging, contact sync and management, and all of the other standard stuff you’d expect to find. It also comes with a stripped down Microsoft Office.
I connected the email client to my Gmail account, and it has become my go-to mobile client. The UI is crisp and snappy. Performing actions like multiple select, filing to folders, and navigating between messages is instant. The digital keyboard is excellent. Auto correct is not quite as smart as Apple’s, but the UI does give you a live read-out of suggested words as you type. This is handier than you think.
Another killer feature of the email client: a dedicated delete button. Why Apple dropped this from iOS is beyond me.
Contact syncing works well, and the people app gives me a pretty comprehensive list of just about everyone I know. It automatically pulled in all my old Hotmail contacts, current Gmail contacts, contacts transferred from my previous phone, plus my LinkedIn contacts, and merged them into a single intelligent list. I’ve found myself doing very little record merging or corrections.
Social media networks are a key ingredient WP7. Facebook, for instance, is a core tenant of the OS in the same way Twitter is baked into the crust of iOS 5. If I had a FB account, I could report back on all the wonderful things they do together. Twitter and LinkedIn are also embedded at the ground level, but have a blessedly less parasitic presence, and if you don’t want use their services, they pretty much stay invisible. Google Plus integration is non-existent.
The Microsoft Office apps are limited to functional versions of Word and Excel and a view-only version of PowerPoint. Features, as you might imagine, are limited. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The UI cruft necessary to control formatting is completely hidden as you type, and the result is the simplicity of a pared-down text editor. Overall, the apps work pretty well in an opens-stuff-reliably-without-destroying-the-formatting-too-much kind of way.
App sluts who need millions of apps to download, play with, buy, delete, review and blow time with are not going to do well with WP7. The catalog is a fraction of what’s available for Apple, Android or even Blackberry. I’m sure Microsoft claims the selection is “growing every day”, but let’s be honest — this platform is an afterthought to all but three kinds of developers:
- Companies that are so big that they have to support every mobile platform (think Facebook)
- Developers (maybe ex-webOS) looking for the next frontier
- Microsoft employees
On day one of owning the device, I had zero issues finding and downloading my daily must-have apps: Twitter (the official app), Weather.com (announcement), a news reader, and Runkeeper. For those keeping score, there is Foursquare (again, official), sports apps, Facebook stuff, productivity stuff, and much more. (For fans of Windows 3.1, you will be pleased to find Minesweeper and Solitaire available gratis.)
I purchased the news reader app (99 cents) and the experience is as smooth as Apple’s app store. No problems.
Some important observations about third-party apps.
- Apps in general are more expensive.
- Most apps have a trial period/version baked in. This is better than downloading the “lite” version of the app, and then downloading a separate paid version. When you’re ready to commit to an app, you can pay for it right away, and it becomes “unlocked” — no going back to the app store.
- Third-party apps do a great job of meshing right into the Metro UI. Every one I opened played along perfectly with Microsoft’s style, even the Weather Channel, whose look and feel across platforms is about as consistent as Republican policy. This means that panels are always a swipe away, options are in the same place, and the homepage tile fits nicely with the native stuff.
- The app store is not the PG-rated playground of Apple. While most material is completely innocent stuff, it’s surprising how often you encounter very adult content mixed right in — even featured on the app store’s homepage. I’m sure there’s a filter for this, but it’s interesting that Microsoft has no qualms peddling what Apple explicitly forbids by default. To some, this could be a major turn-off; to others, this could be a major selling point. This is noted without judgement.
Updating and Zune
When an OS update is available, the phone flags you with a tiny icon. You don’t update the phone via the phone though: you must download Microsoft’s Zune software and perform maintenance via a PC.
Zune is the iTunes of Windows Phone 7. It is a required download for your PC (or Mac, lol), and basically fulfills the same purpose: a browseable media and app store, a media player, and the technical mothership for the phone through which all OS updates are downloaded and installed.
It has all the problems of iTunes: sluggish UI, massive memory usage, feature overkill. Unfortunately, like iTunes, it doesn’t do any one thing well, and I only open it when the phone requires an update. (Side note: I really wish companies would release an ultra light “tether” app for phones — a simple utility that can back up, restore, and perform maintenance — instead of these elephantine Super Star Destroyer applications.)
Zune installed fine, and once connected, the phone went through the entire updating progress unprompted and without a hitch. Small updates took about 10 minutes; the Mango update took about 45.
The killer mobile app for me is web browsing. I love having full interwebs anywhere I go, and I’ve been spoiled by the stellar Webkit browser inside my iOS devices.
Had I written this prior to the Mango update, I would have laid Microsoft out for the worst browsing experience since Blackberry OS 5. The original rendering engine was IE 7. Really. Without fail, it utterly fucked up every site I visited with display bugs and font rendering problems we as a web design community stopped stressing about four years ago. I mean, it was atrocious, like falling-head-first-into-a-bucket-of-nails-right-after-you-found-out-your-dog-died atrocious. For giggles, browse today’s web with IE 4 and you’ll see what I mean. Broken.
As a nod toward parity in the market place, it is nice to see Microsoft actually blaze their own browser path without defaulting to Webkit. Competition breeds development.
I suppose I should write about this. Microsoft do not own the full software-to-hardware chain like Apple and RIM, and thus are at the mercy of vendors like HTC, who suffer from The More Buttons The Better syndrome. There are the three Android-like buttons along the bottom, a power button on the top, volume buttons, a camera button, etc, etc.
I’ll leave it at this: Sprint only offers one WP7 model, and it has a slide-out keyboard, which I hate more than Yankees fans that don’t live in New York. If I could get the pure-touch interface form factor of the Galaxy or Evo, I would have done so in an instant. I truly enjoy everything about the phone’s user experience, but the hardware is a flat-out embarrassment.
Other vendors like AT&T have better options. And things might get even better with the energy Nokia is putting into the platform. (See this gorgeous bit of kit as an example). But let’s be honest: Apple and RIM are the leaders here.
I have only managed to crash the entire thing once, and that was because water was on the screen and it sent the touch sensors into a drunken tailspin.
For people that want/need something different, this is it. And when I mean different, think Apple circa 1997. A radically different design philosophy, hardware that’s still playing catch-up, and a userbase that represents a fraction of a fraction of the overall market.
The experience of Windows Phone 7 is great. The system has immediate personality. But it’s not for everyone. If you crave apps, get an iPhone; if you want the latest gee-whiz hardware, get Android; if you detest change and don’t care about the web, stick with Blackberry.
I do find it interesting that when their condescending and incompetent entries in the marketplace failed (Windows 5/6 for mobile), and their backs were against a wall with flatlining marketshare, Microsoft went out on a limb and created something radical. If they had the balls to innovate on this scale earlier and with more frequency — instead of riding a 10-year tide of complacency and arrogance — they would not find themselves almost out of the race in the mobile sphere.
In order to be truly competitive again, Microsoft are going to have to push this platform hard. They certainly have the product to compete, but I question their marketing intellect and whether they’ll actually be able to sell it.
1 I know that some Android apps use a depth of field effect, but in their case, it is only an effect: usually a background image. And it is also inconsistent across that platform’s apps.