By Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla
With their backs against the wall and surging competition from the likes of Apple (iOS), Google (Android) and Nokia (Symbian), Microsoft knew it had to replace its ageing Windows Mobile platform with something better. Enter Windows Phone 7, a completely revamped, user-focused and cloud-connected smartphone OS that's launched Canada recently.
Microsoft strives for uniformity in its Windows Phone 7 strategy. Each manufacturer has to abide by minimum requirements for each device to be considered as WP7 smartphone. Everything from the processor speed, the RAM allocation and the Megapixels on the camera is preset. This control ensures tight integration and that the software will perform optimally.
Hands on Impressions
We recently spent time with the HTC Surround which will be sold in Canada by Telus for $99 on a three-year plan and around $500 no contract price.
Specs on the HTC Surround include a 1GHz processor, internal storage of 16GB, 448MB of RAM and a 5 Megapixel camera with an LED flash as well as the ability to record HD video in 720p resolution. You also get 250 minute talktime on GSM networks and the ability to use the phone as a Zune player. This are standard specs across most of the Windows Phone launch devices.
The LG Optimus 7 is another premium handset which is a purely touchscreen device. The candybar's form factor is slim and sleek and geared towards the best touch experience possible.
HTC also includes its own HTC Hub suite of software widgets since there isn't any way for it to implement its popular HTC Sense skin that's been available in Windows 6.5 as well as Android devices. Windows Phone is different from Android in that it doesn't allow third party skinning of the OS, which means if you like HTC's widgets, you need to download them as apps but you won't have them taking over the screen.
The first thing we noticed about Windows Phone 7 running on the HTC Surround is the startup speed. Once the device is powered on and the requisite HTC and Telus screens come and go so soon find yourself in the OS and its ready to go in less than 10 seconds.
The HTC Surround runs Windows Phone very smoothly, no lag is perceptible and smooth-scrolling and fast app launching has been the norm so far.
Windows Phone's OS approach is refreshing. Unlike iOS and Android, which require you to flip through screens full of buttons that lead to apps, Microsoft only gives you two main screens to work with.
The first screen where the main Live Tiles interface can be found can be managed by your thumb. Some of the tiles give you updated information such as the number of new emails or messages that haven't been checked. Click a tile and "boom" you're in the application. Nothing seems to be loading or installing, it just appears as the information floats in. When you're done simply tap the Windows logo and your're back to the Live Tiles.
The second screen is where the settings, preferences and apps can be found and this too can be managed with one thumb. You can pin applications and shortcuts to the main screen which just gets longer as you add more components.
Setting up email accounts is fast and easy, simply write down your address and password and Windows Phone figures out the rest. It helps if you have a Windows Live account but it isn't a requirement.
With mail, we found that images sent as attachments open but had no luck opening Word attachments, which is surprising since Windows Phone comes with its own version of Mobile Office.
The lack of multitasking and cut-and-paste ( the latter a heavily requested feature that is coming soon, according to Microsoft) does pose some limitation to functionality. There are other things we find to be missing, like the signal strength indicator which doesn't always appear so you need to tap the screen to see the kind of signal your phone is getting.
We find, however, that of all the smartphone operating systems today, Windows Phone is the easiest to pick up and learn. It is straightforward and works well because the experience is limited to what the OS dictates. If you can press buttons and scroll, you can use Windows Phone.
Each smartphone OS has its own way to move files and synchronize information. Google's Android doesn't require a computer to be connected to the device to sync. For as long as you have a Google Mail account, everything runs through that. Apple devices need iTunes to synch everything together.
With Windows Phone its a mix of both. You can use the device without hooking it up to a computer but if you need to move images, videos and music you will need to plug in. Thankfully, Microsoft offers both PC and Mac support for this.
Windows Marketplace and Games
It wouldn't be a smartphone OS if it didn't have applications and these are accessed by The Windows Marketplace, which offers a surprising number of applications, many are available for free to try before you buy, which is a really useful feature that all smartphone app stores should adopt.
The problem is the pricing seems to be all over the place for these apps. In a world that's been spoiled by .99 cent apps mobile apps, its just weird to see a range of $5.99 - $8.00 applications on a spanking new OS.
In terms of gaming on the Windows Phone platform, looks like Microsoft has taken its experience running XBox and integrated it into their smartphone OS. Games we've seen look great and transcend the cheap and chintzy quality we've come to see in mobile titles. Integration with XBox Live is certain to be a big feature upon launch that allows you to access mini-games from console games you already own.
We played a few titles, like Star Wars: Battle for Hoth and the old favourite Bejeweled and found the graphics, speed and detail to be impressive. Gaming is Windows Phone 7's ace and the one feature that may create new market opportunities for these devices, specially with their 1GHz processors and large touchscreens.
As a phone we found Windows Phone 7 to be above average in call management and features. This was never a problem since even earlier Windows Phone 6 devices were very good communication devices.
Call quality was above average and we were surprised to find that the device held a signal in some of our familiar dead spots.
Windows Phone 7 has come to the mobile space with serious intentions of clawing back to the top of the market and what it is releasing this month is a great start. The basics of the OS are innovative and very user-centric. The selection of handsets is good and while we've only seen a handful, Canada is expected to get as good a variety as the US and Europe.
The question is, is there space in the already crowded and ultra-competitive smartphone space for another major player and does Microsoft still have what it takes to usurp the incumbents.
From what we've seen, Windows Phone 7 has a lot of potential but its going to need monumental developer support and all of Microsoft's muscle to generate more awareness and to continue to offer users an equally robust, evolving and compelling mobile platform but it needs to work quickly.
Rating: 4 out of 5