Anyone that knows me will tell you I’m an enthusiastic early adopter of new technology, although since having two kids the desire doesn’t always turn into reality, and as soon as I watched the unveiling of Windows Phone 7 back in February 2010 I knew I wanted a one. When they announced availability as being towards the end of 2010 I was even more pleased, my T-Mobile contract would expire in September meaning I’d be ready for a new handset at about the same time as the devices became available. I’ve had quite a few Windows Mobile phones and lived with their limitations, the most dreadful of which being the fact the interface was totally unsuited to touch with anything other than a stylus. I feel that the HTC HD2, with it’s HTC Sense UI that replaces almost entirely the Windows Mobile interface, was the only device I’ve had that came close to being a pleasure to use. The new Windows Phone 7 interface looked fluid, simple, but most of all it was begging to be “touched”. I was hooked but for now there was nothing to do but wait and seek out what ever rumours about the OS or it’s devices that leaked prior to launch.
Now the wait is over and at this point I’d like to highlight another great post by SheldonW entitled My First Few Days With Windows Phone 7 which gives his opinions on both the new mobile OS and also the HTC HD7 (which was the phone I had originally planned on obtaining). Unfortunately due to carrier exclusivity that handset is only available on o2 but my contract is with T-Mobile which left me with the “choice” of the Samsung Omnia 7. As the owner of an HTC HD2 this meant the prospect of going from a 4.3″ to a 4″ screen which I wasn’t sure about. I really liked my HD2, the screen certainly creates an impact when you first see it, but if I am being objective it was just a little large for using one handed. After reading reviews on the Omnia 7, along with great comments on that 4″ AMOLED screen, I was feeling positive about using a device with a slightly smaller screen.
Before I continue I will say now that this isn’t a review of with Windows Phone 7 or the Samsung Omnia 7 as there are plenty of these to read already. What this post is are my own personal, and admitedly not always objective, thoughts on both the OS and the phone. I’m sure there are details I’ll highlight that aren’t new, that the insert device here did first, so I’ll be clear; I’m not claiming all features are new or innovative they are just what has impressed me about Windows Phone 7 and why “It’s my kind of phone“.
I’ll start with my impressions of the Samsung Omnia 7 in terms of specifics that seperate it from other Windows Phone 7 devices (since due to the requirements of the platform the devices are very similar in many ways). The screen is really bright and vibrant, thanks to it’s AMOLED technology, and I’ve found that the capacative screen is perhaps more responsive than that on the HD2. Performance of native applications have been completely smooth with no lag although I’ve found 3rd party applications to be less than perfect but my impression is this is an issue with the application rather than the OS. I’m also finding the 4″ screen and subsequent width of the device (it’s actually slightly taller than the HD2) to be an improvement since the device fits better in one hand and it’s also lighter than the HD2. Overall I’m pleased with the Omnia 7 and on balance I’d personally be inclined to choose it over the HD7 based on my experience of the HD2.
The three reference buttons on the front of the device are split between touch sensitive (back and search) and a home physical button that depresses. This will depend on personal preference but I like the tactile response of the home button which is the one I use most. The touch sensitive buttons work exactly like the rest of the capacative touch screen so respond well, a little too well as on one or two occasions I’ve caused the back button to be activated by mistake. I’m sure that issue would be the same on any of the new Windows Phones that use touch sensitive buttons.
So far I’ve not used the 5 megapixel camera, with it’s LED flash, but there are plenty of coverage on this within the many reviews that can be found using your favourite search engine. The bundled Samsung “Now” application is adequate giving quick access to weather (only manually selected towns/cities as there’s no GPS integration to give you weather based on your location) and there’s also a canvas for news and another for stocks. The application fits in with the Windows Phone 7 UI in that you side-swipe to move between each pivot (canvas). I must admit I do miss the animated weather that was present on the HD2, as part of the Sense UI, and which I believe is part of the new “HTC Hub” on the HD7. That is only a small thing so I’m not including it as part of the “bad” which I’ll come to below.
Moving onto Windows Phone 7 itself I have not been dissapointed. The interface is clean and perfectly suited to touch which is exactly what it begs you to do with its live tiles and flowing animations. Customising the “home” screen is simple and fun to the point that I found myself spending far more time than is healthy just moving tiles around to watch the animations. I’ve positioned the tiles I use most at the top so that they are always visible but anything else I need is also there and easy to get to with a quick flick down on the screen. Anyone coming from a HTC device that used the Sense UI will feel comfortable using the new home screen since in many ways it is very similar (you could already pin applications, contacts, or web pages to the home screen but moving them around involved deleting and re-adding them).
There are little details found all around the interface which shows how much thought has gone into making it friendly to use. An example of this is where information flows off the bottom of the screen, the list of programs or options within an application for example, which you can access by scrolling up/down by swiping the screen in the required direction. Now when you reach the top/bottom in Windows Mobile that was it, the movement just stopped, but with Windows Phone 7 the information squeezes up/down and compresses slightly to give you a visual clue that although the action is correct there just isn’t anywhere to go.
Finding the information you need is also really simple with the list of contacts, for example, being split by a box containing the letter with which the next group of names start with. This means that you get a coloured box with the letter “A” in it followed by all the people who’s first or last (you can decide which order your contacts appear in) starts with the letter A, then another box with “B”, etc. Pressing one of these letter boxes brings up an overlay of boxes A-Z (sized for touch of course) and pressing one jumps to that letter. Compare that with the tiny, non touch friendly, interface of Windows Mobile and it’s no wonder you find yourself smiling. That same interface works for songs within the Zune software so it’s amazing this wasn’t also implemented for the full list of programs as this would make perfect sense for those that install many applications.
As has been mentioned in reviews, the interface hides information that you don’t need to see all the time. This means that, apart from the clock, the signal strength, battery meter and wireless strength are all hidden unless there is a problem. This works fine since they do appear if, for example, the battery is running low requiring your attention but stops them being a distraction. This does take a little getting used to if, like me, you’re accustomed to seeing that information all the time. Initially I was always pressing the clock to check on signal strength but I’m breaking that habit slowly. When this does become a problem is with applications that run full screen as they sometimes hide these notifications (I’ll cover this in more detail later on). Since I’ve touched on battery life I’ll just say that I’m not going to discuss this in detail since everyone uses their phones differently but the battery does have a higher capacity than the HD2 and HD7.
Moving away from the visual interface and onto the speech recognition which I am really impressed with. I actually used this for the first time when demonstrating my new phone to colleagues and I blurted out “it works with speech too” before realising the demonstration which was being demanded might end in public humiliation. I held down the windows button and tentatively uttered the words “open internet explorer” and without any training it repeated my instruction and a moment later IE was running. I tried the same with “Open Hotmail” and the email application appeared (after it repeated the request) With my new found confidence I tried the same with phoning a contact and again it worked immediately without any prior voice training. This is a great way to interact with the phone and also an impressive party piece.
I don’t want to delve too deeply into applications, they are a personal thing and also I suspect version revisions will happen quickly in the early weeks, but I will mention them in the context of multitasking (or lack of) since for many this will be of concern. I’m not one for installing loads of applications and for the most part I used to go about shutting them down when I wasn’t using them on Windows Mobile. This has translated into me not having any issues with Windows Phone 7 since I like that applications close when I exit them. The exception to that is the lack of Twitter integration which relies on 3rd party applications unlike Facebook (that I don’t use), which is included in the core OS, and has the freedom to run in the background. I’ll cover this more in the next section.
The Zune software has been discussed by others so I don’t want to go into too much detail and I’m also not someone that listens to music much on a mobile device. This was mainly because when I did think of music I wanted to put onto my Windows Mobile device I’d have to think about where it was and then try and locate a USB cable. I’ve configured the wireless sync abilities of the Zune software and so this might be the device to change my habits. I’ve already found myself adding random songs or albums to the device when on the PC which are then sync’d over wi-fi to my Windows Phone. Some have said that the requirement to have the device plugged into the mains as a limiting factor but in my experience, with both Windows Mobile and Windows Phone 7, I need to charge the device up overnight anyway so it’s a non-issue for me.
This section is longer than I’d anticipated so lastly I’ll cover the keyboard. The HD2 I had was the first Windows Mobile device I had without a physical keyboard and I have to say that on the most part I got along just fine. That said there were frustrations and so I’m really impressed with the on-screen keyboard used in Windows Phone 7. Even though the on-screen buttons are quite small it does predict which letter you want and so increases the sensitive area of a button even though there is no visual change on-screen. Combine that with the auto-correct, both as you type for when you type “rhe” instead of “the” and after when you go back and press a word, and the whole experience is just lightyears ahead of Windows Mobile. There are some odd inconsistencies in the keyboards used but again I’ll cover that in the next section.
I’m pleased to finally have a Windows Phone 7 device, the experience has been really positive (hence the length of this section), and I couldn’t go back to Windows Mobile now (no surprise there though really). There are some negatives however so I feel it is only fair to mention them too.
As with any new platform there are always things that can be improved and I’m confident that as updates are released Windows Phone 7 will overcome these small complaints. As I mentioned before, I can see the program list becoming an annoyance for people installing lots of applications and why they haven’t implemented the same way to jump between letters of the alphabet, as is used for contacts or Zune, here is surprising. Hopefully that oversight will be quickly remedied.
Then there are the status indicators (battery, signal, wi-fi, etc) which are hidden from view unless there is a problem. This does work well in keeping the interface clear but the problem is full screen hubs (pictures for example) and applications (the official Twitter for Windows Phone 7) actually hide that information, including the clock, even when there is a problem. This has meant that I’ve found myself waiting for my twitter feed to refresh only to give up, go back to the home screen, and realise that I’ve lost connection to my carrier. The only solution would be to return back to the home screen but with no multitasking that isn’t really an option since the application would close. Interestingly the Seesmic twitter application doesn’t do this so this does show that there are inconsistencies which I hope will be resolved over time.
Since I’ve mentioned multitasking I’ll stay on that subject. As I said I’ve found the lack of multitasking to be an non-issue but there is an exception and that relates to my twitter client. This is very personal but I follow a lot of people within the Windows Media Center and SQL communities and they like to “tweet” alot. This means that unless my twitter client is running all the time I miss updates that are of interest to me. When I was using Windows Mobile it was the one application I always had running, refreshing in the background, then when I had time I would flick through to catch up. This also means that I can catch up in areas where perhaps there isn’t a signal as the feed was already pre-loaded. This is no longer possible with Windows Phone 7 since 3rd party applications can’t run in the background, this means that I have to start the twitter application (I’m using the offical app because I prefer it and also for reasons I’ll cover below) and wait for the feed to refresh. Now some of this is down to early adoption since I’m sure the applications could do better to ease the pain here. What I mean is that sometimes the official twitter application doesn’t re-load the local store and you can’t specify a specific number of tweets to fetch so you’re left continually scrolling down and hitting the “get more” button to catch up. Another example is that when the application loads and refreshes it jumps to the most recent tweet instead of staying where you were (when it has loaded the local store). As you can see these are all areas of the application that can be improved to make the experience more seemless. I’m sure other twitter clients will come along too that implement solutions to these limitations.
As I mentioned before the keyboard is far superior to Windows Mobile and I’m typing much faster since I know that either the highly accurate auto-correct will take care of me or that I can simply press a word and either select the correct spelling or just re-type. The problem is this isn’t the only keyboard included with Windows Phone 7 as there are actually three. The first is the clever, predictive, auto-correcting, style used in SMS messages (for example) but there is another used for filling in forms (where predictive text is normally less useful) and a third used for entering web addresses (this has a dedicated “.com” key). The problems arise when applications call up the wrong keyboard (for an example of an application performing as expected try posting a tweet with the official Twitter application) as I’ve discovered with both the Seesmic twitter and Xbox Live Extras applications. If you type a new tweet in Seesmic, or send an Xbox Live message using the extras app, you get the keyboard that is supposed to be used with forms hence no predictive text or auto-correct. You can’t even go back and press on a word to select alternatives. This is yet another example of an issue that can be resolved by the developers themselves so hopefully they’ll soon do that. It does raise the question of why this isn’t part of the certification process an application has to go through before being published to the marketplace.
So these are my three main negatives on Windows Phone 7 but they are relatively small when compared to the joy of using the device so far. If Windows Phone 7 receives the support and frequent updates that should be forthcoming (and will receive thanks to the common hardware specifications) then these should be resolved quickly.
I’m certain that Windows Phone 7 is going to be a great device to use and it can only continue improving from a solid foundation which for me is even more important than getting everything right first time. I’ve used Microsoft solutions for more years than I care to remember and something I always say is they might not get things right at the first attempt, sometimes it goes horribly wrong, but if they continue to focus on something then eventually they get it so right. As a long time user of Windows Mobile I’ve got used to it being treated like the ugly duckling, which lets face it was well deserved for many reasons, but for me Windows Phone 7 has emerged as possibly the most beautiful swan in a
sea market of already dominant smartphones. I really do hope that it receives the promotion it deserves, both in advertising and by the carriers themselves, as I believe that it could grab peoples attention and make them stop and think before simply purchasing one of the alternatives.
By Jason Coombes (DatabaseJase)
Update 1 (03/11/2010)
The Seesmic application has been updated to version 1.1 today and now uses the correct keyboard when composing tweets, that is you get predictive text and options to change a word by touching it. Seems I was right, this was an easy oversight for the developers to correct.