Zunited reviews: Windows Phone 7 operating system

 

I know that many of you have already read countless Windows Phone 7 OS reviews and probably could not care less for another one. To those people, I say: skip this post, then (but please don’t because I think you’ll find this review pithy and awesome!!). I recently bought the Samsung Focus (because I had enough with my old iPhone) and tweeted about said occasion. A person or two thought it would be worth their while for me to review the phone but I pondered that reviewing just the phone would seem incomplete without an OS review, as well. And I have a lot to say in that department. This is my first attempt at reviewing something like this so bear with me as I reveal all the good, the bad, and at times the truly disastrous of Windows Phone 7.

Initial look and feel: the start screen, live tiles, apps menu, search, the status bar, and loading

There’s no doubt that I will compare WP7 to iOS constantly (and perhaps repeatedly in this review), as the iPhone is what I’ve used for the last two and a half years! And there’s no contest: WP7 wins this round. When you first look at the phone, what you’ll think is just how beautiful it is. It’s fluid, playful, colorful, and overall just a lot of fun! The tiles are amazing and much more fun to look at than docile applications buttons on a grid. Granted, they do take up a lot more space than the iPhone but the difference here is that these are the applications that you will use the most, or at least that’s what I believe is the philosophy that Microsoft was trying to take. Although, I do have to say, you can’t really call them live tiles when all of the third-party app tiles do nothing but stay stagnant. They sometimes stick out like sore thumbs. Without scrolling you see six tiles, so choose wisely since switching applications is forced on going back to the start screen. I understand the same is true in some way for iOS or maybe even Android but since those operating systems allow for multitasking a hold of the home button gets you to your recently used apps (or the ones that are open for iOS). That’s a lot less button press-y than WP7 is at the moment–and if you’re going from, let’s say, Facebook to your settings app the process is: Home Button > Swipe > Scroll > Press Settings App. That’s a lot of movement (assuming you didn’t pin the settings app to the start screen in the first place). Especially considering that Microsoft’s slogan for Windows Phone 7 is something along the lines of “In. Out. And back to your life.” Well, this is more like “In. Out. Go to the right. Go down. Click there. Change setting that you wanted. And back to your life.” Surely they don’t mean to use that slogan when you’re changing the settings on your phone, but the same is true for any app you don’t pin to your start menu.

 

Alphabet tiles: searching on Windows Phone 7 proves to be pretty efficient (and just pretty).

Which brings me to the applications menu gripe: there’s no way to search for your apps! I know that many mobile operating systems didn’t have this when they first debuted, but at this rate, the apps menu is just a list of all your applications. A list that can get really long if you get app-happy… even more scrolling. It seems like such a glaring omission, everywhere else–your contacts, music, and so on–you can click on a letter headlining those data inputs and a table of the alphabet comes up. Click on a letter and it redirects you to that corresponding letter. For example: Looking for John Smith? Well open up your contacts, press the first letter on the list, then press ‘S.’ I’ve got to say this is the best implementation of that system I have ever seen! It’s by far faster than scrolling on letters and hoping you hit and lift your finger off the right one (like iOS, which I could never get right, I would always hit the letter above or below the one I wanted) and it’s just a lot easier. Plus, it looks nice too. Speaking of search: another useful feature… but at times confusing. Whenever you’re in an app without a search feature (or just the start screen) and click the search button, you go straight to Bing. Fine. But some apps should use the search button to search within the app: Messages, Calendar, Photos (if you have that many albums), are among the few native apps that you cannot search within; third part apps too–like Facebook and Twitter. I’m sure this is some API restriction but it shouldn’t be.

Moving on to the status bar up on top: this bar shows you battery life, carrier connection, the time and so on. But it’s obsessive with being minimalist which I’m okay with. The information disappears after a few seconds and to retrieve it you just tap on the top. But it doesn’t always work in certain applications even though there’s space to read the information or it doesn’t work in certain parts of the applications. That’s still great, too. Then comes notifications, like getting a new text message. Hands down it beats iOS because it doesn’t pop a window in front of your face; instead, it shows who sent you the message with a few short words of what the message contains on the top. Tap it fast, though, because once the notification is gone you can’t retrieve it like Android! Another issue is that, in iOS, tapping on the status bar scrolled your screen all the way to the top. That can’t be done here since tapping shows you the cellphone information, the input can’t do both. And that’s a real bummer because a lot of times you just want to go to the top to access something different… though it’s not a huge detriment. Also, quickly about loading, I would like for those little circles swiping in from left to right to actually indicate how much longer I will have to wait. But I will say it’s amusing and pretty to watch (and that’s not sarcasm)!

People. And contacting those people.

People app

Okay now that we’re over the initial ughs, on to things I think the OS excels in! Getting to your people is as easy as just tapping “people.” It gathers contact information from wherever you let the phone access it–Google, Facebook, Windows Live, Yahoo! This can lead to some double contacts or weird information (like seeing a lot of people you wouldn’t necessarily want in your phone contacts from Windows Live, which by the way there’s no way to edit what you receive from your WLID so the alternative is to just delete those contacts altogether) but that can be solved by linking multiple contacts’ accounts, though that can be bothersome if you have a lot of contacts. The people app is otherwise fantastic–you can really go there to contact someone in as many ways as possible: email them, text them, post something to their wall, get a map of their house, see their birthday, read their Facebook profile stream, and… oh, yeah… you can call them, too! Posting something on Facebook through the phone rather than the actual Facebook app didn’t allow me to receive notifications if someone posted feedback on my comments or statuses and such. I hope that’s just me? Regardless, it’s a great, fast way to check up on the actual people instead of just a stream. I wish there was better filtering of it. Funnily enough, if pinning someone to your start screen, their live tile shows their latest status update. So interactive!

Messaging app

The messaging app is probably one of my favorites. Pictured above is Windows Phone 7 on the left and an iPhone on the right, which also shows the difference in keyboard (and yes that’s an emoticon button!!! Perhaps I’m the only one happy about that…). Some key (pun) differences is where the text input goes. On the iPhone the bar on top of the keyboard is where the text is entered, on WP7 it’s in the actual text bubble. I actually like this a lot more. Besides, WP7 uses that would-be space for their predictive text feature; which, by the way, coming from an iPhone is needed… a lot. I like the iPhone’s keyboard more but I think that’s just because I’m used to it. Which is weird because WP7 uses the standard Windows keyboard I’ve been using on computers since Windows 98. I’m sure this will change with time until I get accustomed as to what keys are placed where and the phone begins to learn how I type to better suggest words. I’ve only had the phone for a couple of days, the iPhone I had for a couple of years. It’s hard to make a switch like that.

Words per minute: Can an iPhone user type on WP7?

Other things to take note of in the messenger app: the send button and the attachment button is at the bottom of the keyboard as opposed to the sides of the text input like the iOS. Now, you may think that you’ll accidentally press “send” because of where it’s positioned but no!! I have not sent one accidental text since I had the phone (and for me, that’s saying something). Many a-text was sent by accident with my iPhone, I think those days are behind me. Or at least I won’t send as many accidental texts. The application doesn’t really tell you if a message sent or when it sent. Don’t misunderstand, each text has a timestamp (which is great) but it doesn’t indicate if the message was actually sent after you click the send button. Also, this is probably an OCD thing but I don’t care for the text being bigger when you’re typing and then being smaller when it sends. Lastly, I’ve already said that I love how it notifies you when you receive a new message. Not having the notification stay there like in Android isn’t really a con because in just two clicks (Home and then Messaging) you’re back!

Email and Calendar app

No real issues here. I use Gmail and sometimes it can take a little long to receive a message, or have Google register you’ve read the email (or delete it!), and sometimes attachments don’t download correctly. Okay, perhaps some issues. But those aren’t really Microsoft’s fault. I used Google Sync before and that’s currently not available for WP7, once (if at all) Google sets this up then I think all those problems will settle themselves out. What Microsoft has done here is quite well and I like it! The same is true for the calendar. This was much smoother on the iPhone but then again… Google Sync. I bet if I used Live these would be nonissues.

Media: Internet, music, video, games, and photos

Internet Explorer

All’s well here, too. Love the browser. Like… love the browser. It’s very non-intrusive, even though it kind of is, but I think the black theme makes up for that. I wished they would get rid of the superfluous “http://” of the website address and the width of the address bar is questionable since there are no buttons on either side, but small annoyances to say the least. Back on iOS, the address bar would disappear once you scrolled down the page (which is why clicking on the status bar to go to the top was so vital) but this isn’t an issue here since the address bar stays where it is. And since (well, the Focus’s) the screen size is 4″, there’s no space issues. Zooming in by pinching or double tapping is very fluid. On the bottom of the browser there are three buttons: Add to Favorites, Favorites, and Tabs; plus there’s a menu button to rise the following options: Forward (instead of back), Share page, Find on page, Pin to start, and Settings.

 

Options: From left to right is "Add to favorites," "Favorites," and "Tabs"

Now this is where it gets a little weird. I know that no one really uses the forward button on their browsers, but at times when you mistakenly press back on the device (and this will happen to you), the forward button is no where to be found (at least I couldn’t find it the first time) even though there’s enough space on that bottom bar for more than just three buttons. If you’re going to take screen real estate for buttons, well then add all of them, otherwise use those towards rendering the website. What I basically mean is there are valuable pixels being wasted when all you need is the three dots menu button. I hope Microsoft allows us to edit the buttons that are shown… or allows us to take away all the buttons at some point in the future. Oh and another issue, pressing a link or a button on a website has to be scary accurate for it to register sometimes. (Like clicking on the “new” button for threads in our forum…). Plus when you view a webpage in landscape there’s no way to change the website URL and that doesn’t make much sense. I think they’re worried about it taking up too much space (as even the menu buttons disappear) perhaps using Apple’s approach of a disappearing address bar no matter what would be a little better?

 

Control: forward the webpage and share it with yourself and others with the IE menu

But back to good things: FIND ON PAGE! Oh, man! You can’t go from one word that matches the criteria to another but it highlights the words and that’s just as good on a mobile device, really. A very welcomed feature. Tabs: as far as I’ve seen, tabs don’t technically reload, I think there’s some background work happening there but it’s not visible so it looks like the tab has just been sitting there waiting for you. Amazing! No more going to a tab you haven’t opened in an hour and then seeing a white page for 10 seconds waiting for it to load up again. Pinning to start and Favorites work as you’d expect them to. And before you ask: yes, you can save a picture from a website to your phone.

Zune: Music + Videos hub

Wanna know where the operating system truly kicks the snot out of any other phone? It’s Zune. The Zune experience has always been one-of-a-kind and there’s no exception here with Windows Phone 7. WP7 creates the best music experience compared to any other OS, bar none. Add Zune Pass and it’s like the best music experience on steroids. And yes, that’s a good thing. I’m not just saying that because we started out as a Zune fansite… I truly mean it. Let’s start with the first menu option: Music. Well first, you can click the play button next to the the Music option to immediately begin playing music (I wish this was an option on your lock screen, as well) in shuffle, if you decide to click on the actual Music option, however, you’re met with the usual — Artists, Albums, Songs, Playlists, and Genres. This works exactly as you think it would. While playing a song, the album artwork is shown with a background of that artist’s picture. And yes, the white text is actually legible. Also, swiping does change the track (which the next few tracks are listed below the album artwork, snazzy!). Plus, that awesome search feature is available… now you can’t tap the search button to find music but there’s a neat little tidbit I have in the end to help satisfy that. Oh, and you can delete songs right from the device. I do wish that the artist pictures that are always updating the background of the Hub were of better quality. Since they’re zoomed in when you’re rummaging through the menus, there’s a lot of pixelation and lossy images and it looks a little grade school. That said, it’s leaps and bounds over any other implementation.

 

Musically adept: Zune albums list on WP7

Next is Videos: self-explanatory. Works just as you’d think, as well. And yes, you can see the video you shot on the phone from here, as well. Podcasts, too. Though it was weird that my name was plastered (and bigger than “Zunited Podcast”) all over the screen when playing an episode of ours. This may be better consumer-wise for Albums, but I don’t think people consume Podcasts that way. Radio works just as fine, too. It didn’t identify the actual song (in my testing) as it did so well on my Zune 80 (therefore I couldn’t see if I could buy the track) but you can switch from earphones to the phone’s loudspeaker, which I used to go to Shazam and find the song and click the Zune Marketplace button. Almost the same thing. And lastly, Marketplace.

Marketplace

The Marketplace deserves its own subsection because it’s more than just Music… it’s Apps, too! But sometimes the Music can take precedence. For example when you search for something, if you don’t specifically go into the Apps part of the Marketplace, then no applications results will show up. But no matter what you do, music results always show up. This can get a little aggravating. There’s also no way to look at all the apps by one developer. I find that there are some apps that Microsoft left out for no reason, like a weather app (even though there’s one, kind of, in the Now hub). Now, Microsoft has made a weather app that you can download and it’s searchable but you can’t click on “Microsoft Corporation” to see what other apps they’ve made that you should probably also download. It’s puzzling. The Music part of the Marketplace is a lot more like the experience on the software. No issues there. I was confused when I couldn’t find the top songs but all you have to do is click “All” in Genres and then go from there.

Games and Photos hubs

Now, I’m not much of a gamer so there isn’t much to say in that department. But so far I’ve personalized my avatar (fun if not a little annoying) and played ilomilo. On the latter, I can say it is so cute. That’s right. Cute. I haven’t kept it hidden that ilomilo was my most-anticipated game to play and it has not failed me… and it’s actually quite difficult at times. But this isn’t a game review. The game’s load time seems justified and gameplay isn’t sluggish in the least.

Pictures, however. Pictures is a whole different… game. It may have seemed weird to place photos in a category of its own but you’ll understand why once you try out the phone. What I like that Microsoft has done is made it easy to find videos in as many places as possible so that you’re not confused. You can find videos in the Videos hub or right here in the Pictures hub. Photos also takes a stream from Facebook and Windows Live to show you albums (and comments on pictures) which is very welcomed. I think it’s actually very easy, fluid, and looks nice too. Way better than opening the Facebook app.

 

Your choice: what to do with your photos is up to you

Taking pictures and shooting video, though, is weird. Now, I love that you can just click the camera button and take a picture from anywhere (if I had a nickel for all the shots I missed with my iPhone… well, I’d have a lot of nickels that I’d put in a jar and go to the supermarket and dump that change in CoinStar and change it for a few bucks) but there are some glaring omissions. Like no use for the accelerometer when taking a picture. The menu buttons stay fixed as if you were holding it in landscape mode, and I predominantly shoot portrait pictures. The pictures, however, do know what rotation to save in and are viewed in the way you shot them. But when you view pictures through clicking the camera button, the screen does not rotate in any which way (it stays in landscape). Viewing them through the Pictures hub works all right because the pictures do in fact rotate when viewing them that way. Double tapping to zoom into pictures isn’t smooth, it just zooms in like a jump cut, and I guess that’s faster but not as pretty and seems out of place with the rest of the OS. Sharing a picture is easy — just “upload to Facebook” (or SkyDrive or send it through MMS or email, etc) and that all happens in the background, so you can click for it to happen and then just go somewhere else on the phone and feel secured that it will upload. It saves to your Mobile folder on Facebook so don’t worry of a separate “Windows Phone 7 Pictures” folder that’s automatically created. The aforementioned automatic upload to

Sharing is caring: send pictures through email, text, to Facebook, or SkyDrive

SkyDrive is a GODSEND. Never worry about accidentally deleted pictures again. Or embarrassing pictures of other people that they think you deleted. Drunken parties just got a lot more exposure (as if they needed them already). Shooting videos, though, is a mystery. The OS doesn’t save your camera settings. So you have to reset 720p each time. The only way to share videos, though, is after you’ve sync’d the device to your computer (which if you drag the videos onto your computer icon in the Zune software it also removes it from your phone, which I personally like since I only have 8GB of space at the moment but others might not… I imagine this is a setting you can change somewhere).

Final thoughts, tidbits, and all the things I forgot

  • Yeah, yeah, I know I forgot Office. Well here’s what I think: it works pretty amazingly and of course is the best use of a word document on any device. (Un)fortunately, I’m not ever without my laptop whenever I need to make a Word document but definitely it would have seemed pretty stupid if Microsoft left this out. For notes, I actually downloaded “Notesly Freely” from the Apps Marketplace and love it! Go get it.
  • I also forgot Maps. Well, I think it’s great. Very buttery smooth (actually anything Bing on WP7 is butter smooth) and I love how they show you directions… but they need to add Transit directions. Stat!
  • There isn’t really a way to search for your music, but if you search the Marketplace for music and click on the artist that you want, it shows you music from that artist that’s “in [your] collection.” Only when you’re on an artist’s Marketplace page, though.
  • I was scared that the Music + Video background would show everyone around me on my commute my guilty pleasure music (namely something like Taylor Swift or Ke$ha) but when you’re on the lock screen it doesn’t show album artwork or anything like that… just your lock screen’s wallpaper… and from the lock screen you can change tracks and such so it works out really well.
  • The back button: I don’t understand why you would want a very important feature happening outside of the screen. It would be like if computers only had back buttons outside of the virtual window that is your computer screen… it doesn’t make much sense to me. Since there’s no back function on the screen itself, there’s no way to get to the home of a certain app or hub and it gets really baffling. Like, let’s say I go to Music + Video > Music > Artists > Maroon 5 > Hands All Over and then decide that I actually want to listen to the radio, well there’s no way to go back to the main menu of Music + Video easily unless I press the start button and then go back into the hub which is somewhat of a crock sometimes because you want it to remember where you were. No apps remember where you were within the app (unless it’s a game, it saves your level and such) and it’s maddening. Like in Twitter if I go to my timeline, click on a tweet, and then click on that person’s profile, well there’s no easy way to get back to my timeline without hitting “back” a few times. Or in Internet Explorer, “back” really means whatever website you were on previously, not really whatever function your phone was doing before. It’s all too hazy. Pressing and holding back should bring you back to the beginning of any app or hub. I say the same thing about Facebook… but that’s a rant for another day.
  • I wish there were more meticulous settings in the settings menu. Screen brightness is just low, medium, or high (and automatic) but a slider of some sort would be better to get that perfect brightness level. Or a percentage for the battery life. Among other things.
  • Message notifications on the lock screen are a little too minimalist. Saying who sent the message would be nice (I’m talking about after the initial notification). Also does it notify you more than once for a text? I’m not sure.
  • The current ringtones are really nice and elegant (even if they all sound the same). I like them. Or maybe that’s me tired of Marimba on iPhone. Even the alarms sounds are nice… but they do get you up. Unlike that one week I had a G1. Yeesh!
  • When someone calls you if your screen was locked and then you finally end the call, the phone should lock again. But it doesn’t. It waits there for a minute (or whatever time you set up in the settings) to lock.
  • Can someone make a good remote app already (as in controlling your computer’s cursor), please? Oh, and make it free, too!
  • You may have read (but most likely you have no idea) an editorial I did about WP7 devices perhaps not sounding as great as standalone Zune devices. Well no problems here. It sounds great! Maybe that’s more the Focus’s credit.
  • I would like for WP7 to make use of Facebook’s tagging feature. Or perhaps it can allow for tagging on the phone. Imagine just going to someone’s profile in the People hub and being able to see all the photos they’re tagged in on your phone!
  • Music and video apps are listed in the Music + Video hub but they don’t all work in the background. Example: iheartradio. Microsoft, please don’t confuse consumers. If the app cannot work in the background then don’t list it in the hub because as far as the consumers know, anything in the M+V hub is multitasking friendly. Better yet: allow for multitasking.
  • Syncing media onto the device doesn’t handicap the phone. In other words, you can sync and still text and make a phone call. But! You can’t go into the media hubs while doing so, so no syncing and listening to music or looking at pictures… but why would you do that, anyway?
  • I found syncing to be 10x (no real statistics there) faster than iPhone + iTunes. Thank goodness!
  • Don’t allow information to be sent to Microsoft. Not because I don’t want the phone’s OS to be improved, but because this will severely improve your battery life.
  • Custom ringtones needs to happen, like, yesterday.
  • Also, push for email and calendar and such is not on by default. You’re going to want to change that if you’re someone who needs data rightnow!!! If not, you still might want to change the default 30 minutes to 15 or shorter.
  • Cedric (in the comments below) just reminded me of a few things I didn’t talk about: (1) Turn-by-turn navigation. Yeah, that’s a bummer for people that need this feature. I don’t drive so I didn’t even think about it. On AT&T, however, there’s a for-pay application. (2) IT DOESN’T RECOGNIZE MORE THAN JUST THE FIRST CALENDAR FROM YOUR GOOGLE CALENDAR!!!! I can’t believe I left this out. I was vehement!!! I had to move a lot of stuff from my school calendar to my personal one. Ugh! (3) Apparently, in the email app, you can’t attach anything but pictures. Yeah. Gotta change that.
  • There’s no way to screen capture.

And yeah! I guess that’s about it. I don’t think I can think of anything else. Now why shouldn’t you hate me? This is me guessing that you’re an avid Microsoft fan and do not like that I mostly critiqued them here. Well, one: complaints are always much louder than compliments. I plead you to go back and see how I tried to be just and objective. But if I did sound a little to one side it’s because the bad things are more noticeable. Just assume I love everything else. Two: just because we’re Microsoft fans doesn’t mean we like everything they make, and that shouldn’t be the same for you, as well. For example, I’m a huge Kristen Bell fan but have you seen When in Rome? Me neither and that’s because everyone said it was absolute trash.

But getting back to why you shouldn’t hate me. I’m sticking with Windows Phone 7 even though I can move on to the iPhone 4. And that’s truly saying something. Perhaps I just need to get away of the same blue and grey look with lines and grids that iOS offers but whatever it was, WP7 has captivated me. It’s beautiful… nay, gorgeous… it’s fun, it’s just amazing. And I’m willing to buck it out a little until Microsoft gets some things right. Heck, I did that with Apple when I got the iPhone 2G. I can certainly do it again. There are a lot of things Microsoft has gotten right and much better than Apple. Namely, media. It’s on a whole different level than anything out there right now. And for me, that’s actually important.

It may not be perfect. But it’s certainly a wonderful experience.