In our Nokia Lumia 800 review earlier in the term, we skipped going into too much detail on the Windows Phone 7 operating system it was playing host to, since that alone could fill a whole review. So that’s exactly what we’ve done.
Windows Phone 7 is a complete overhaul of the Windows Mobile software that Microsoft has been touting for the last decade or so. Having been thoroughly eclipsed in success by Apple’s iPhone, in a fraction of the time, Microsoft finally ended development of Windows Mobile in 2010 and released the inaugural version of Windows Phone 7 in October that same year. Since then, it’s undergone only minor tinkerings until the first major update: 7.5, codename ‘Mango’, was rolled out last September. This is the version you’ll find installed on all available WP7 handsets, if you can fight through the heaps of Android handsets and avoid tripping over the worshipping congregation surrounding the iPhone.
On the Tiles
The home screen is the first iteration of Microsoft’s soon-to-be ubiquitous ‘Live Tiles’ interface, which is set to make it’s second appearance in Windows 8’s tablet mode. Rather than simply a static array of icons, the tiles that link into apps and menus are fully colour customisable and can be configured to display pertinent information at a glance. Things like RSS feeds, news headlines and Facebook notifications can be set up to show in tiles, which is really useful if you find yourself checking the same sites constantly for updates. Unlike iOS, the home screen shows only apps that you want to be visible, and a full list of installed apps can be quickly accessed with a swipe. However, the tile bar is oddly off-centre in order to accommodate a single icon, which feels like wasted space, and it doesn’t display the signal indicator in the top bar unless the area is pressed. Nevertheless, such a feature-rich home screen gives the Live Tiles interface a very lively look that was really fun to use and behold.
Windows Phone 7 has been created with social networking in mind, and is capable of an unprecedented level of integration with these websites, effectively turning your phone into a all-purpose social hub. While this will be jarring for people who like to keep a clear distinction between social networking and real-life, it is a lot of fun to play with. When you link it to a Facebook account, your contacts are incorporated into your phone book, and it will allow you to unify old contacts with Facebook profiles. The ‘People’ tile then comes alive with an ever-changing mosaic of your friend’s profile pictures which was quite entertaining to watch. Looking at individual contacts will give you a full range of contact methods (from texting to poking), as well as run down of their most recent updates. This will also create a ‘Me’ tile, pasted with your profile picture, that allows you to access all your myriad accounts under one banner. From here, you can check notifications and push new updates to many accounts at once; and, as it updates in real-time, you won’t have to wait for new notifications to download and can check for them from the home screen’s Live Tile. Whilst I really enjoyed these features, the packed menus and plethora of options became a little overwhelming to look through and I did get lost. There are still superb dedicated apps for Facebook and Twitter, but the social features of WP7 are so quick and enjoyable that you won’t feel the need to use them.
The relative infancy of the OS means that the range of available apps for WP7 is lacklustre. Whilst it has most of the biggest and popular apps, it lacks the same diverse developer base that the iOS and Android enjoy. Although you could argue that it trims the fat of the arguably bloated Android store and allows easier app discovery, this will nonetheless hurt sales. Whilst Microsoft have bundled in a great deal of useful native apps, it still lacks the quirkiness and creativity that its competitors have in spades. Sadly, this will create a viscious cycle: independent developers, that add this character, won’t code apps for a platform that still has a market share in single figures, whilst the barren app store will be a deal-breaker for a lot of potential users.
You cannot be Siri-ous.
Another nifty native feature on the OS is limited voice control. It’s not quite Siri, but it’ll dictate text messages, dial contacts and initiate searches (albeit using Bing) with reasonable accuracy and with no prior configuration needed.
Internet Explorer 9 Mobile
Web browsing is perfectly functional, once you get used to the disheartening feeling of seeing the Internet Explorer logo each time and being constrained to use it. In fairness, it does seem to lack most of the faults of its clunky computer-based cousin. There were no overly offensive mistakes in rendering web pages, though it certainly has a better time displaying mobile sites than normal ones. Whilst it’s perfectly fine for most purposes, I’d definitely like to see a few alternatives pop up in the app marketplace soon, just to drive up the competition.
The Mango update also imbued the browser with HTML5 support, but until that gains wider support on websites you’ll have to get used to not being able to view pages that lather on the Flash too heavily. To remedy this slightly, WP7 ostensibly comes with a YouTube “app”, which is actually just a direct link to its mobile site. Google have specifically designed their mobile site for YouTube to be flash-less so you can watch these with impunity, but otherwise you’re out of luck. However, this is not a WP7 issue but rather an issue with mobile web browsing on any device. Hopefully, either the uptake of HTML5 video players or the expedience of Adobe’s mobile flash support will put this issue to bed soon enough.
Microsoft bundles music functionality on the OS under a ‘Zune’ app, a fairly unremarkable music player that takes its name from Microsoft’s line of MP3 players. The ‘Zune Marketplace’ allows subscription-based music streaming, but with a recently released Spotify app available for WP7, boasting a wider music selection for a lower price, this is not likely to be a widely-used feature. Like most of the menu systems in WP7, the Zune player have so many menus and sub-menus that it’s very difficult to keep track of where you are or how to do key tasks. Managing media syncing from your computer requires installing Zune software on your computer, which was difficult to set up and will seldom be used. Unfortunately, Microsoft seems to be electing to roll out updates via the Zune software, so doing battle with it can’t be avoided.
Though Windows Phone 7 supports multi-tasking, the way you use it leaves a lot to be desired and it clearly hasn’t been properly thought through. With an app open, pressing the ‘Start’ button (the Windows logo on the front of the device) will take you back to your home screen, but the app is still open. Holding the ‘Back’ button shows you the apps currently running and allows you to zip between them, but you can’t close them from here. To do this, you need to go into the app itself and can reportedly close apps by double-pressing the ‘Back’ button rapidly (which we only found out by searching forums). However, most of time rather than closing the app we simply got thrown unceremoniously back through it’s multitude of menus. In the web browser, this simply meant going back two web pages, but the browser remained resolutely open; only when it ran out of web history did the app finally terminate. If you’re willing to do the legwork to find ‘how-to’ guides, you can master the multi-task madness, but that kind of speaks to how unintuitive it really is. Hopefully, this will be refined in later updates but it’s a pretty elementary feature that Microsoft really shouldn’t be getting wrong.
Best of both worlds
For updates, Windows Phone 7 strikes a neat middle-ground between it’s two rivals. Apple’s careful exclusivity of OS to hardware in the iPhone puts off those who want a wider choice in specs. Meanwhile, Google’s liberal distribution of Android to anything more powerful than an abacus gives a lot of choice, but means that software updates are not be compatible with large numbers of Android handsets. Microsoft impose “tough, but fair” minimum spec requirements on devices that they’ll license WP7 out to, which presumably any future updates to Mango will be tailored to. But with an OS that clearly needs further development, we would hope that this is the case.
Windows Phone 7 feels like an OS that has had a lot of time and energy put into it’s look, and doubtless this is what has fueled it’s promising start. The problem is that it largely feels like so much effort was put into the interface that it falls down in other areas, so we end up with labyrinthine menu systems that stand in stark contrast to the relative simplicity of iOS. Further, it’s lack of apps do it a great disservice and lend the OS a feeling of untapped potential. It’s a powerful OS that demands a powerful device, but it lacks any software or features that fully make use of it. With a hostile app environment to break in to, it may be too-little-too-late for Microsoft’s renewed foray into the smartphone market, but they might yet surprise us.