Windows Phone 7: An Alternate View

Fanboy, while poorly defined, is probably the most common among the many pejoratives flung my way by coprophagous  internet monkeys. Despite my teflon exterior, some of that shit sticks, yo. In pursuit of some balance, I’ve lent a Windows Phone 7 device to Dylan Reeve. You may have heard him as a guest on New Zealand’s best podcast, or via his A Social Video project. Dylan is a fellow tech geek, but doesn’t really hold a phone preference. Forced at gunpoint, he’d probably admit to batting for the Android team.

Once I get the phone back from Dylan, I’m going to find a less geeky subject to join us on the precarious see-saw of internet opinion, because God knows you’ll only be happy when I’m suspended in mid-air, unable to climb down for fear of injuring the poor delicate Android users on the other end.

Without further dalliance, let me hand over to Dylan, unedited and unabridged:

My smartphone experience is a little different to many others – I started with a Nokia 5800, then moved through two Android phones in reasonably quick succession. My main phone now is a Samsung Galaxy i5503, which is a entry-level Android 2.1 phone.

So with that in mind I’ve been an interested observer of Windows Phone 7, and was happy to spend a little while rocking the LG Optimus 7Q. What follows are my thoughts about the phone, itself, Windows Phone 7 and, unavoidably, my comparison of it to the Android and Symbian phones I’ve been used to.

My very first impression of this phone upon using it seriously was that it’s heavy, and pretty big compared to my current small phone. It’s also well engineered – despite having a sliding keyboard it feels solid and well built.

I’d have to characterise my overall Windows Phone 7 experience as frustrating. I like many aspect of the concept of the operating system, but in practice there were many things that annoyed me.

So first, we’ll start with what I do like (some of this will also be revisited in the “don’t like” section)

  • User Interface – The overall Windows Phone 7 UI is consistent and uses common gestures and concepts throughout, this even extends into many of the apps.
  • Design Concept – WP7 has a bold design. Square, two-colour, large strong sans-serif fonts. I like the way it looks.
  • Good Core Applications – The built-in apps such as email, browser, calendar, messaging are all well designed and easy to use. I felt no need to seek alternatives.
  • Dedicated Buttons – I hate Apple’s anti-button ethos, using the iPad annoys the hell out of me for having just one useful button! The WP7 back button is especially welcome. Camera and search buttons are also nice.
  • Camera – The camera was great, as well as nice 5MP stills it will also record pretty decent 720P video.
  • Keyboard – The LG Optimus 7Q has a slide-out keyboard. It’s a nice feature.

Now on to what I didn’t like so much

  • Speed – Despite having better hardware that all the phones I’ve owned previously this phone constantly felt slow. Coming out of lock especially, but also within apps.
  • No Multitasking – I thought MS was mental when I heard WP7 was not going to have multitasking. I was willing to believe application hooks and saved state might make it okay – it doesn’t.
  • Search Button – I like that is has the button, I don’t like the implementation on this phone. As a touch-button it’s easy to accidentally hit (especially while using the camera) and it dumps you out of what you were doing and into Bing.
  • Apps – It’s still early days of course, but there doesn’t seem to be a huge variety of apps in the Marketplace. I tried all the free fully-featured Twitter apps (only 4) and none really suited me.
  • Unintuitive – Despite the common swipe-to-next-page convention throughout the system it’s not always intuitive or obvious that what you’re looking for requires a swipe to the left.
  • Settings – One of my favourite things in Android is the ‘Menu’ button, it is used within apps to display a contextual menu, which will usually include access to settings. There’s no similar convention in WP7. It can be hard to find settings, or impossible from deeper in the app.
  • Status – There’s no persistent status bar. In many apps it seems to be impossible to see battery status, signal level and time. Sometimes it can be revealed with a downward swipe, but not always.
  • Design Concept – It’s good, but it quickly gets broken.
  • Keyboard – It’s good that it has a keyboard, but the physical design isn’t quite right. The Shift and Function keys especially are awkward and small.

That’s the summary. There are obviously heaps of little details, so I’ll go into a few things, mainly about the things I struggled with.

We’ll start with Multitasking, it was my biggest issue. I’ve been used to be able to effortlessly switch apps in my various smartphones, as well as leave applications running in the background (Twitter as an obvious example). While most apps seem to do a good job of saving state, there is significant startup times usually. For example to get from browser to the my Twitter timeline in Beez (the client I used most) would take no less than 8 seconds plus however long it would take to actually load the stream.

Which brings me on to speed – I don’t know why, but everything seemed slow. It takes a while to load apps, and then often a while to draw the user interface stuff, and then a while longer to populate it. I’m fairly sure hardware wasn’t an issue, but not sure what is going on in the OS that made it so slow.

The design concept of Windows Phone 7 really stands out in the shiny-curvy design of most other mobile platforms. It’s bold and simple. The primary pinned application icons are white line-art on a solid background, and the background accent colour can be changed. But that’s doesn’t last long – very few apps seem to conform to this idea, and as soon as you start pinning third-party apps to the homescreen you end up with a multi-colour patchwork. Even the core setup breaks this – Microsoft’s XBox Live and Office icons flout the style.

So? I like it in theory, and it’s a very capable platform overall, but for me it just wasn’t quite right – the balance of like vs. frustrate didn’t pan out. Perhaps new versions may improve some of these issues?

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15 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review from a non-fanboy status, Dylan (and Ben). I’m hoping to be in the market for a new smartphone in the next month or two, and am having a hard time deciding which way I should fall. My wife owns an iPhone 4, but I’m currently erring on the side of an Android device even though I know the iPhone is such a nice piece of kit (the geek in me craves something new and different). What is holding me back from committing 100% to this though is the fear that I’d forever regret paying $1000 for a phone that is sorely lacking the spit and polish that iOS brings to the table.

    To that end, I’d love to see more reviews such as this, with iPhone and Android users giving their unbiased opinions of the other side of the fence. Sadly this is something that is very hard to find, with most people blinded by their fanaticism for their phone OS of choice.

    1. If you want the polish, but your inner geek wants something different then try cracking open the iOS SDK and building something different for the phone yourself.

    1. Although it brings up the main reason I don’t like Android phones – you’re reliant on the OEM for upgrades. The one thing Microsoft fixed between Windows Mobile and Windows Phone 7 was the upgrade path.

      1. Is that always the case? Specifically, if you were to get a Nexus S, how is the OS upgrade experience then? Are you still reliant on Samsung for upgrades after Gingerbread? And can the OS upgrade problem be worked around by sourcing a custom ROM with the Android flavour of choice on it, or is that not a workable solution to the problem?

      2. Rob will know more detail, but I think the answer is “it depends on the phone”.

        In some cases handsets can’t be flashed at all, in others only some flavours will work (e.g. similar phones, different radios).

      3. @Parsely
        Is that yet proven? I can see that with minor OS bugfixes and updates.

        But will there be a seamless update to WP8?

        Or will it be a 6.0, 6.1, 6.5 “every phone left behind” again. I hope not

        @Ben
        If you stick to the main Android vendors, HTC, Samsung and Motorola; or go with a Nexus then the upgrades aren’t too probelmatic.

        HTC have a proven track record with updates (OK we won’t mention the Hero 😉 ) particularly with their newer models. They have made a firm commitment to Android and it shows.

        Samsung has been pretty good apart from the U.S. CDMA versions of the Galaxy which seem to be more at the mercy of the carriers than the OEM’s

        Motorola are the reverse, the US models seem to get updated in a timely fashion, while teh offshore ones lag

        Nexus is usually pretty up to the minute. (Or it was when HTC made them anyway)

      4. @David
        Custom Android roms from a reputable dev like Cyanogen work well for many phones, particularly HTC models that have an unlocked bootloader (Nexus, Desire etc)

        This will get you to the newest Android release pretty quickly, however you need to bear in mind that hw vendors release minor patches on a regular basis for security, hw fixes etc.

        Going custom can mean missing out on these.

  2. Yeah, I’ve had a brief play with a colleagues HTC Trophy WP7.

    Having had the unfortunate experience of being forced to use an HP Ipaq with Winmo 6.1 for a couple of years I can definitely say this is a step up on previous MS mobile offerings. Particulalrly with teh latest release.

    It does feel like a bit of a work in progress at present still though. It will be interesting to see how it develops.

    I wouldn’t be that concerned about the number of apps at present.

    Android only had a couple of thousand when I got my phone in 09 and is now pushing close to 200,000.

    What matters more is whether quality apps are being written or ported for the platfrom and there are some indications that the more popular mobile apps are starting to appear on WP7 as well as Android and iPhone.

    It will be interesting to see whether MS can leverage their advantage in the back office to make WP7 the corporate phone of choice. I think Blackberry has more to worry aboout in this regard than the other two major platforms.

    Still, early days eh?

    @Ben – LOL, have you never been trolled by Apple Fanbois for mentioning an iThing in a less than favourable comment? 🙂

    PS for the record I still prefer Android, but its interesting all the same.

  3. The problem with comparing Android phones to iDevices (or even WP7 possibly) when it comes to upgrades is that it’s comparing Apples to Oranges (heh) – Apple controls every aspect of their ecosystem (as they have done through most of their history with hardware), whereas Android is essentially an OEM operating system deployed by manufacturers on their hardware. WP7 is sort of a hybrid – third-party manufacturers developing a platform for standard OS with minimum hardware spec.

    Is it a problem that updates aren’t as readily available (if, in fact, they aren’t) for Android phones? I dunno – do more users expect to be able to download updates? Or do they simply expect to buy a new phone when they want improvements?

    I think selling crappy Android 1.5/1.6 phones with absolutely no upgrade path and limited app support is a bit shit, but hardly representative of Android as a platform overall.

    And out of the box the Android phones I’ve used were significantly less frustrating than this WP7 phone. So the fact I may not be able to upgrade isn’t so important, whereas the ability to upgrade easily to a new version that doesn’t exist on WP7 isn’t a selling point 🙂

    1. Hi Dylan,

      I think updates are important and an area in Android that could use some significant improvement.

      I’m not so concerned with major releases; as noted above the major vendors come out in a timely enough fashion.

      When looked at dispassionately it’s about 1 per year in practice even though Google release the source for new versions more frequently than that.

      It just looks worse than IOS because of the flurry surrounding the Google announcement of a new version and the inveitable delay before the major OEMS get it into their hw release cycle.

      My concern is more with security patches and bugfixes, as Parseley points out, Windows and IOS are pretty good at this.

      The problem with Android is (as Matias Duarte said in a recent interview), Google essentially just provide the engine to the OEMS and they build the car. Google make some ‘concept cars’ (eg Nexus) to showcase their engine, but really the rest is up to the OEM vendors.

      The Android project has a pretty robust bug reporting and management process, however it ends with “updated in source”.

      The OEMS are then meant to take this and package their own incremental updates for their products.

      Take the recently publicised (and somewhat hysterically overblown) SMS bug, or the pretty serious security issue uncovered by the researcher who produced the ‘Angry Birds extras’ demo exploit.

      Both of these have assigned bug numbers and fixes under development, but it’s not immediately clear how and when these updates will get to handsets.

      FWIW I think as part of the condition of OEM;s licensing the ‘Google Experience’ an getting full access to the Google Android apps and Market, they should be required to sign up to a coordinated patching regime.

      There was some talk of future versions of Android modularising some parts so that they could easily be updated through the Market, so maybe we’ll see something along those lines in Honeycomb or ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’

      Sorry for hijacking the thread…normal WP7 conversation will resume shortly.

      1. I agree with all of that, and certainly see that as the most valid criticism of Android overall.

        Of course the same has been true with any embedded operating system for ages. We just have higher expectations now. Perhaps the implementation between OEMs and Google needs to be tweaked to make the base operating system more readily upgradable.

  4. I was tweeting away on twitter trying to find something to cure my boredom – and ZAP – somebody I follow tweeted this post. Now, I am not quite as bored. Thanks for posting nice material. – Frisbee

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