Starting Over: The Windows Phone 7 Review

Media

The Music & Video Hub is the single splashiest part of a generally splashy OS.
Unlike Android phones (and, for that matter, the Palm Pre and Pixi) Windows Phone 7 handsets ship with a comprehensive set of apps and services for consuming music and video. You can subscribe to Microsoft's Zune Pass service for $15 a month, which gets you unlimited music downloads for as long as you belong, plus ten MP3s a month to keep. (Zune Pass music can be downloaded onto a PC and then transferred to the phone, or streamed directly to the handset-although in my tests, loading up albums on the phone sometimes seemed to take longer than with streaming music services on other mobile OSes.)

The Zune PC software also gives you access to a respectable selection of movies (for rental and purchase) and TV episodes (to buy). You can download them and transfer them to your phone, but can't acquire video directly from the handset.

The experience isn't as seamless as Apple's all-encompassing iTunes ecosystem. For instance, items you buy in the Zune PC software continue to be priced in the inexplicable alternate-universe currency known as Microsoft Points, which serves no discernible purpose except to make it tough to figure out how much anything costs. Music you buy on the phone itself, on the other hand, is priced in dollars and cents, and gets billed (on the phones I tried) to the handset's AT&T account, not your Zune one. And as far as I can see, there's no way for Zune members to claim their ten free monthly tracks on the phone itself.

Unless you're serious about subscription music, WP7's entertainment offerings don't beat the iPhone's. (And even then, there are multiple nice third-party subscription services for iOS.) Still, this is the first post-iPhone mobile OS for which music and video are more than afterthoughts, and I'm sure that some folks who are torn between Android and WP7 will opt for the latter on the strength of its media features.

Internet Explorer

WP7's IE gives you a low-end mobile version of Gmail.
How good is Windows Phone 7's browser? It depends on what you're trying to accomplish with it. When all I wanted to do was read the Web, it worked just fine-pages loaded quickly and even complex sites such as Slate looked good, with the minor exception that fully zoomed-out text was blocky and crude. You can bookmark sites and bop between six tabs in much the same way you do on iOS and Android, and the address bar doubles as a search field (albeit one that only lets you use Bing).

What IE doesn't do-at least in my experiments-are the sophisticated mobile Web apps that work so well on the iPhone and Android handsets. You get very basic versions of Gmail and Google Voice, for instance, not the richer versions that work on Webkit-based mobile browsers. (The lack of a great Web-based Google Voice isn't a disaster, since GoVoice, a third-party Google Voice client, is in the Marketplace.) The mobile version of instant-messaging service Meebo didn't work for me, either. Nor did some app-like features in content sites, such as the quick-switch tabs in the mobile version of Techmeme.

WP7's Internet Explorer isn't based on the upcoming, standards-supporting IE9; instead, it's a variant of the four-year-old IE7. I'm not sure whether Web apps failed to work because IE simply can't handle them, or because the apps sniff for certain browsers and don't yet recognize WP7. But if you buy a Windows Phone, you'll be happiest if it turns out that you have enough company that Web sites start to go out of their way to please WP7 users.

Office

In theory, Microsoft should have a gigantic advantage over every other company on the planet when it comes to bringing its own Office documents to a smartphone. But the Office apps included with Windows Phone 7 aren't a gigantic advance over third-party suites for other phones, such as Documents to Go and Quickoffice. Actually, Office Mobile feels underpowered, except for the ability to add notes to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files (useful for collaborative editing) and to view documents in outline form.

In one case, I couldn't edit a document, period: A PowerPoint presentation that worked fine in the iPhone's file viewer and in Documents to Go wouldn't open at all in PowerPoint Mobile. Word Mobile also didn't display graphics in one Word file, even though the iPhone viewer handled the same file with aplomb.

Word, Excel, and PowerPoint all have an adequate selection of basic features, but only adequate-Word, for example, doesn't let you change fonts and only has three text colors to choose from. (DocumentsToGo for iPhone permits font editing and offers sixteen colors.) Office is also the one place in Windows Phone 7 where the lack of cut and paste-which Microsoft says it'll fix early next year-is a major deal. (Word Mobile may be the only word processor shipped on any platform in the past thirty years that doesn't permit you to move text around.)

I also expected the Zune software, otherwise used for shuttling files between a Windows PC and a Windows Phone, would have features for moving Office documents back and forth; it doesn't. Nor does the file-attachment feature in the mail application let you attach an Office file. (Instead, you need to start with the Send option in the Office programs.) OneNote lets you sync your documents to Windows Live's SkyDrive online storage; the other apps don't.

Oh, and I don't understand why Word and Excel use an on-screen icon for search but OneNote (like other areas of WP7) uses the hardware search button.

Bottom line: If I were drawing up a to-do list for Windows Phone 7.5, a beefier Office Mobile would rank near the top.

Gaming

Other than playing Bejeweled-one of the first third-party apps I looked for in the WP7 Marketplace-I haven't delved into Windows Phone 7's gaming features much yet. Microsoft, logically enough, is trying to leverage the strength of the Xbox platform to boost its phone OS: It's helping developers build WP7 versions of major games, and it lets your avatar and other aspects of the Xbox live experienc travel between console and phone.

Stay tuned for an in-depth looks at Windows Phone 7 gaming from Technologizer's game maven, Jared Newman. (Here's a story over at Joystiq to tide you over.)

Third-Party Applications

Bay has done a decent job of WP7-izing its interface
Let's get one thing out of the way: Windows Phone 7 isn't going to launch with 300,000 apps. Microsoft says it expects 1,000 to be available by the time the OS hits the US in a few weeks. The real question isn't whether WP7 can match the scale of the iOS and Android app stores-if it does, it'll take years, and it may never happen-so much as whether it will have a critical mass of the most important applications that people want, in well-done form.

In some ways, I'm guardedly hopeful. For one thing, Microsoft knows how to get third parties to support its platforms. (I wrote about some of the WP7 apps it's helped jumpstart here.) Just as important, the OS provides a coherent interface that's a solid model for third-party developers: As with Apple's iOS, apps that pick up on design elements that are already there have a head start.

The apps I've tried so far, including some that Microsoft preinstalled on the Focus and others I downloaded from the pre-release version of the Marketplace, tend to make use of Panorama and other aspects of WP7's Metro interface. (That's eBay to the right; Fandango, Foursquare, Twitter, IMdB, and other apps are also good examples.) They're not warmed-over iPhone apps, and they're more consistent in interface than early Android programs.

But most of the third-party software I tried is quite rough, lacking the polish of the OS itself. Scrolling in eBay and Twitter, for instance, is oddly herky-jerky. And when a Windows Phone 7 handset times out and locks itself when a third-party app is running, what you encounter when you unlock the phone is really ungainly: You see a "Resuming" screen for s few seconds, and then the app reloads but doesn't pick up where it left off.

If Microsoft's promise of cut-and-paste by early next year has you placated, Windows Phone 7's single most glaring omission is probably the fact that third-party applications can't multitask. This isn't necessarily fatal-all iPhones prior to the 4 seemed to sell just fine without multitasking-but Microsoft needs to fix it by the time it releases WP7's first major update.

To be fair, some of the third-party apps I tried don't claim to be finished: Twitter is a "preview" edition and AT&T's U-Verse is labeled as a beta. Keep your fingers crossed that better versions are on their way.

Ultimately, the people who determine whether Windows Phone 7 thrives as a platform for third-party software will be...third-party software developers. Most of them will make their decisions on support for WP7 based on how handsets seem to be selling. The summer of 2011 might be a good time to come to some conclusions about how things are going.

Speaking of postponing verdicts, it's clear that Windows Phone 7 cries out for at least one more meaty upgrade, and needs it soon: iOS and Android are going to just keep getting better and better, and the worst-case scenario for Microsoft involves the distance between them and WP7 growing, not shrinking.

There's also a best-case scenario, though-one that involves this operating system giving iOS and Android their most serious competition in the years to come. WP7's fresh start is only a start, but it's a liberating, clever one. It bears the burden of great potential, and now it's up to Microsoft to follow through.

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