After recently saying goodbye to my HTC HD2 Windows Mobile 6.5 device, a few weeks ago I started an experiment. Grabbing a SIM Only Deal from mobile carrier, Three – I would, in turn, use an iPhone, a Windows Phone device and an Android device for a few weeks at a time each, using them in anger as my sole device for day-to-day activities, both business and leisure.
A couple of weeks ago, I put my iPhone away in a drawer (more on how long that lasted, later…) and thanks to my friends at Staffordshire University, got my hands on a shiny new HTC Pro 7 Windows Phone Device.
Now as I’ve stated before, this experiment isn’t about the handsets themselves – it’s about the mobile Operating Systems. Which is just as well, because the HTC Pro 7 is heavy and felt like a throwback from 2003.
The reason it’s heavy is it has a built in QWERTY keyboard. I used this keyboard once during my time with the ‘phone… and then went back to using the on-screen keyboard – which is excellent, even for use with my “pound-of-sausages” like fingers. As somebody who bemoaned the loss of a QWERTY keyboard when I moved to touch-screen only devices, I’m shocked at this – but I found sliding the keyboard out and using it much more hassle than simple typing quickly on-screen. The mechanism for sliding the keyboard out and using it felt awkward and a touch delicate too – I was fearful of snapping the keyboard off.
That side note apart, let’s move onto the real reason for this experiment – to find out more about Windows Phone 7 (or WP7 to its friends).
I liked the interface, which consists of a number of customisable “tiles” on the home-screen (or Start screen, to use official terms) which you easily add or remove. The tiles are, for the most part, “live” – meaning that they reflect at a glance information – number of e-mails waiting, number of SMS messages unread, and in the case of the “People” tile (your mobile phone contacts) constantly rotating between mini photos of all your contacts. You can add just about anything to your home page as a tile – you simply “pin” a web-page, contact, application or anything else to the page. It’s a neat interface and one which I liked.
Jumping right in, setup of the device was very simple.
Firstly, you absolutely need a Windows Live ID to use this device. No problem here, as I already have a Live ID I use every day.
Charging is done via a USB cable. Thank goodness. Can we all standardise on USB please? (I’m looking at you, Apple).
Connecting to a Wi-Fi signal was simplicity itself, as when WP7 detects a new Wi-Fi signal it gently tells you so in it’s notification area at the top of the screen. Unlike Windows Mobile 6.5, it does this is a non-intrusive manner though. You’re aware of the info, but if you choose to ignore – you can.
Once you’ve setup a number of Wi-Fi signals in different locations, WP7 automatically and seamlessly connects to them as you move around. What’s more, leaving Wi-Fi turned on all the time didn’t seem to hammer the Battery life too much. I got a full day out of the ‘phone without having to re-charge. Very impressive.
My e-mail is hosted with Microsoft BPOS Hosted Exchange and Google Mail, and both of these were easy to configure through the e-mail connector. I have more than 2,000 contacts in Exchange, and these were synchronised extremely fast – I liked how WP7 gave me status updates on the progress of synchronisation too.
Using Google Mail, there is no support for additional features such as one-touch archiving of messages in the WP7 e-mail interface (as there is on the iPhone) and no ability to “send as” as alternative address. There was also no Google produced App for GMail either.
There’s no consolidated e-mail inbox, which I enjoyed using on the iPhone. Apparently, this feature is coming in Mango. Remember that phrase, we’ll be using it a lot.
But overall the e-mail interface was a pleasure to use. It’s clean and bright, it allows easy scrolling through messages – I happily used it day-to-day to read and reply to e-mails. My only irritation was that after replying to an e-mail, I was dropped back to my inbox – which meant if I wanted to delete the e-mail I’d replied to – I’d have to open it again to do so.
Incredibly though, there was no support for Microsoft Exchange Tasks or Notes. This was an active feature in Windows Phone 6.5, so this is a step backwards in my eyes. When I asked around about such integration, I heard a phrase that I’d become very familiar with during this experiment – “It’s coming with Mango”. Mango being the next update for WP7, due mid-September 2011. Much more on that later…
The SMS client was easy to use. It provides threaded SMS conversations, so you can easily see who said what to who and when. I didn’t find any way of forwarding SMS’s to new recipients though, and deleting all the messages from certain recipients (in my case, Spam SMS) left their details on the SMS screen but with zero messages underneath. Odd.
The Calendar was decent, and it was nice to have my upcoming appointments shown on the Home screen – a feature badly missing from my iPhone. No ability to categorise Calendar appointments as say, personal or business though – a feature WinMo 6.5 again used. There was the ability to flag Appointments as “Private” though, which I use a lot.
My two favourite features of WP7 were the physical “Back” and “Search” buttons.
The Back button allows you to step backwards through the last applications you used. So if you’re reading a web-page and an SMS comes in, you can read the SMS, then press the back button to return to your web-page. At least, you could if WP7 supported multi-tasking – which to my amazement, it didn’t. Well, not for every application anyway. Many of the “native” applications, like E-Mail, Contacts and Web Browsing *did* support multi-tasking. But many others, like Twitter and Facebook, didn’t – so if you were reading Facebook and then read an SMS that came in, when you wanted to return to Facebook you’d have to load the application from scratch.
When I asked around as to why multi-tasking wasn’t supported, the answer I got was, surprise, surprise, “It’s coming in Mango”.
The Search button is context sensitive, so if you press it from the home screen it’ll pop up a Bing web search box. If you hit the Search button in the Contacts screen, it’ll allow you to search all your contacts. Use it within Marketplace, and you can search for Apps. Very useful.
Windows Phone 7 is quick in use. I saw no lags at any time, and no applications crashing either.
At this point I’d been happy to use WP7 but had seen no “WOW!” features. The closest I got to this was the Speech Recognition. Press and hold the Start button, and after a few seconds you’ll be prompted to speak. Say something like “Call Richard Tubb, Mobile” or “Open Facebook”, and low and behold WP7 will action your request. I was pleasantly surprised to find this worked for all my contacts, and all my applications – even 3rd party installed apps – regardless of how unusual the name was. Very impressive indeed!
There is integration with Xbox Live from WP7, which I was looking forward to seeing. Sadly, I was distinctly underwhelmed. Apart from my Xbox 360 avatar and contact list appearing on my ‘phone – I couldn’t see what was cool about it. I’m told there are games that you can carry from your Xbox to WP7, but I asked around and nobody had used them. The games I did play were fun, but I didn’t see much evidence of being able to share the gaming experience with friends. Clearly, I didn’t “get it” – but I’d be open to taking a second look if somebody could help me to understand the features.
The music player aspect of WP7 is very good, it just works and works well. I liked that when playing a tune and locking the ‘phone, the Lock Screen allowed you to pause or resume the tune and adjust the volume. Neat.
Talking of the lock screen, I loved it! As well as displaying my next calendar appointment, at a glance it showed me how many outstanding e-mails and SMS I had.
There are some lovely integration surprises throughout WP7. For instance, the camera (which was excellent on the HTC Pro 7, and had a Hard Key to wake up the camera and take shots) is connected to Windows Live Skydrive, so you can upload snaps to store in the Cloud, and keep private, share with certain friends or everyone. There is also integration for photos to send directly to Flickr, or e-mail. There was Facebook upload support too, but I never got it to work – but this was easily circumvented by using a Facebook e-mail upload.
Whereas the iPhone requires you to open specific apps to get to information, with WP7 you had access to information through multiple avenues. I like this a lot. An example would be that Contact entries show the person’s latest Facebook status update (Twitter integration coming in, you guessed it, Mango) their FB photos and a link to Bing Maps to their home or work address.
That’s twice you’ve heard me mention Bing now. It’s no surprise that Microsoft have made their own search engine the default for WP7, but I saw no way of changing this to another Search engine of your choice. If you don’t care for Bing, WP7 isn’t for you.
Likewise, I’ve mentioned Windows Live Skydrive but there is no support for Windows Live Mesh (that I’m aware of) and to use Dropbox requires a Paid-For 3rd Party App. For this test, I found myself having to e-mail myself certain files to get them on the WP7. Yuck.
Which leads us onto the sticky (and I’d find out, emotive) subject of Apps.
I’m of the belief that nowadays, a Smartphone without Apps is merely an expensive Mobile ‘Phone. 3rd Party Apps make a device so much more than just a ‘phone – and it’s this feature that makes so many people fall in love with Apple’s iPhone or Google’s Android O/S.
The good news is – the WP7 Marketplace is a vast, vast improvement over WinMo 6.5 – for a start it has a good variety of apps, and they are much easier to find.
Microsoft are very proud of the fact that the Windows Phone 7 platform got to 25,000 Apps faster than Apple’s iOS, and twice as fast as Android.
The trouble is, WP7 is still a distant 4th behind iOS, Android and even Blackberry in the minds of 3rd party app creators.
This statement is going to open up an absolute storm of protest from Windows Phone fans, but I’d argue it’s true. There is no Skype, many of the popular Zynga Casual Games (such as Words with Friends) are not available on WP7. The Time Out travel guides can’t be found. The Trainline and Laterooms app isn’t available. I could go on. This isn’t an iPhone vs WP7 comparison, but it’s undeniable that many, many of the 3rd Party Apps that made me fall in love with the iPhone and overlook its failings were not available on WP7.
The fact is, there are simply not as many apps as iOS and Android, and the apps that are available feel more expensive. The abundance of free and 79p apps on iOS make it more likely you’ll explore new apps. Games and apps on WP7 marketplace tend to be £3 and upwards. This price difference made me reluctant to casually buy interesting looking apps as I would on iOS. That said, there are a lot of “try before you buy” trial options for Apps – but I’d still argue apps are overpriced compared to iOS and Android.
It’s at this point that my fun with Windows Phone stopped. I’d decided that it was a functional but unspectacular device. If I was marooned on a Desert Island (that inexplicably had Wi-Fi available) then I’d happily live out my days with WP7 as it does everything I need a business device to do, but none of the exciting stuff that my consumer facing iPhone friends had.
I missed my Apps, badly. I got bored of WP7. I put it down, and found my hand creeping to the iPhone. I couldn’t go without my apps for a fortnight.
For a few days during this experiment, I’m ashamed to say I returned to my iPhone to get my fix of all the stuff I was missing on WP7.
If this was a movie, I’d fade the screen to black at this point…
… before the black screen brightens again and you see me using a Mobile Phone, and it is a Windows Phone 7 device!
Determined that I wasn’t giving WP7 a fair shake of the stick, I sought out advice from the very passionate Windows Phone 7 community (My thanks to Andy Parkes, Richard Gibbons and the many other folks in the Windows Phone 7 Community who helped me get to grips with WP7! I appreciate your help!)
To my surprise, I was pointed in the direction of a plethora of Apps that would help me make more of WP7.
I found 7PassFree, for my KeePass Password management. MoTweets for my Twitter use. BBC News Mobile (a 3rd Party app, not affiliated with BBC News). Last FM for music. Poynt and Yelp for location services. Graphic.ly and the DC Comic book reader. An Amazon Kindle e-book reader. FlashCards for learning from, and many games such as Pac-Man DX, Pro-Evolution Soccer 2011 and others.
My Smartphone became Smart again. I could use it to do more than make calls, browse the web and read e-mails. I could use it to do all that consumer stuff that has become so important to me nowadays.
I even used it to fire off an e-mail to my friends at Staffordshire University asking if I could possibly keep their handset for another week or so to do some more testing!
My conclusion with Windows Phone 7 is that it’s a great platform which I could see myself using, but it needs to mature. Ask any WP7 fan and they’ll argue that the iPhone and Android went through these same troubles (lack of multi-tasking, lack of 3rd party apps) before they fixed them – but my response to that would be. Yes, they’ve fixed them. They are fixed. Am I supposed to cut Microsoft, a behemoth of IT, slack because they were late getting to the party?
If I had a straight choice between an iPhone and a Windows Phone 7 device today – right now – then I’d be hard pressed not to choose iPhone.
However… that phrase “It’s coming in Mango” does have some merit to it. Many of the 3rd Party App developers I’ve spoken to have promised versions of their apps when Mango arrives. Mango will fix the multi-tasking issue, and add Twitter integration. Mango adds MS Exchange Tasks and Notes support. Mango brings some *very* cool Speech Integration tools with it. What’s more, Mango has been RTM (Released to Manufacturing) and so should make it to the market by mid-September 2011.
Today though, here and now – I couldn’t see myself using WP7 over iPhone (and I suspect, Android – which I’m testing next). It’d just be too frustrating.
I’d be very interested in getting hold of a Mango device when they are released and then using it in anger. A Samsung Omnia or another thinner, lighter, sexier Windows Phone may improve my view of WP7 further – I’ve simply no need for the HTC Pro and it’s bulky QWERTY keyboard.
I suspect, I *strongly* suspect – that if I did this experiment again in 3 to 6 months time, once Mango has been released, I’d end up saying Windows Phone 7 would be my platform of choice.
But I’ve still got an Android handset to play with. Thoughts on that coming soon!