How the mighty has fallen. Once upon a time, Microsoft could sell garbage and people would still buy them because it was the only garbage in town. Now it’s desperately playing catch-up to iOS and Android with its late-to-the-game abysmally-named Windows Phone 7 operating system.
I’ve been using the Optimus 7 for a few days now. It is a decent phone with powerful hardware and some flaws, which puts it on par with most higher end Android phones. In fact, given that all WP7 phone OEMs are also hedging their bets and making Android phones, the hardware difference between the two platform is more or less purely cosmetic, so the real competition lies in the software.
The WP7 OS is basically Microsoft’s attempt at out-Appling Apple. For every difference in philosophy between the iOS and Android, Microsoft went with iOS. This makes the end product anathema to my usual preference for customizability, but I can see its merits.
Microsoft chose to adopt Zune’s UI directions when designing WP7, completely abandoning its Windows roots. This is a good thing because Windows Mobile is and will always be the ugliest smartphone OS ever created.
The unified UI design (Microsoft calls it Metro as it resembles subway signs) is very much in line with my personal sense of aesthetics — san serif, flat and minimalist. I never liked the 3D chrome and shininess that both Android and iOS employ in their icons and UI. Some people would see it as lazy design (*cough* like this blog *cough*), but I just find the flat display visually appealing.
The UI elements are all very smooth and responsive and in terms of human interface there is nothing that really differentiates the WP7, for better or worse, from the iPhone. You have all your standard swipes and pinches.
The OS interface taken from Zune media players is fantastic. Combining real-time information and application icons into so-called Live Tiles offers no real practical advantage but does stylize the home screen a great deal. The flip side of this is that for all purpose and intent the home screen is not customizable beyond rearrangement of the Live Tiles.
Microsoft calls its app-design concept Hubs, but that moniker makes zero sense to me. What they mean is that what would normally be different screens within an app on Android or iOS are combined into one giant side-scrolling screen. You swipe horizontally to see different aspects of the application. For example, in the Music and Videos app, you swipe rightwards to see play history, recent additions, etc. This implementation reduces the number of on-screen UI elements needed to navigate the applications, which is great, but some people may be annoyed by the way the screen crops.
Oh and I really love the media player interface. It’s an exact representation of my ideal interface. Indeed, I would be all over the desktop Zune player, which uses the same design motif, if it wasn’t missing so many features like global hotkeys or minimizing to tray.
Taking a page out of Apple’s world domination guide, Microsoft has set very specific guidelines for WP7 hardware. The end result is that all the launch phones look like clones of one another. They are all extremely boring in their perfection.
For example, all WP7 phones (Windows Phone 7 phones? Please shoot the marketer who came up with the name) come with three physical buttons below the screen: Back, Home and Search.
By default Search launches a hidden Bing app but this behaviour can be overridden by the active application with an app-specific search. For every new app you use, there is no way to know what the Search button will do when you press it until you give it a try. It’s like Heisenberg’s cat except that instead of death you are forced to use Bing half the time. There is no way to change the Search to launch Google instead, making this particular compulsory hardware button completely dead to me.
The Home button works like it should. You can hold it down to activate voice commands. The only thing I don’t like about it is that, unlike the iPhone, you cannot use it to wake up the phone. You have to press the Power button to unlock your screen. Again, there is zero options to modify this default behaviour.
The Back button not only goes “out” of a screen/app like in Symbian phones, it literally goes back like in a browser. For example, you can press it in the Home screen and end up at the previous app screen that you just closed. This can be useful or annoying depending on who you are, but I think it’s useful.
The 480 x 800 capacitive touchscreen is really nice, but then it’s standard by now. The Optimus 7 has a TFT screen but some of the other launch phones have AMOLED. There are some slightly dark spots at the bottom of the LCD similar to the PSP screens, but they are not noticeable in normal use. Personally, I think it’s good enough.
The battery life is like 5 minutes or something. But apparently it’s still rated as one of the longer ones in today’s smartphone world. Certainly, I don’t think it is shorter than most Android phones, so it’s more of a limitation of physics than anything.
Some hardware gripes specific to the Optimus 7: the power button is awfully small for a button you have to press all the time to unlock your phone, the volume rockers feel terrible to press on because they are small and hard and the USB cover feels flimsy as they all do.
I’ve also had problems with applications opening up in landscape mode (the main UI has no landscape mode) even when I hold the phone upright. I am not sure if this is specific to the Optimus 7’s accelerometer implementation, or if there is something wrong with WP7’s software algorithms. It’s a minor problem that can be easily solved with an orientation lock. Hilariously, Apple unsolved this problem for the iPad in the latest update.
This is where you can tell that Microsoft really rushed this puppy out of the door.
Most default applications come with close to no customization. For example, Internet Explorer has a total of three options plus delete history and there is no way to change the home page. (Arguably you don’t have to since you can just create a shortcut for it but that’s a dumb argument.) Now it works fine, scrolls well and is generally bug-free, but it’s no Opera Mobile.
Functionalities like YouTube and World Clock were added in through official Microsoft apps in the Marketplace probably because they failed to meet the deadline for the production ROM.
The official YouTube app is just a browser window with YouTube’s mobile version, but you must install it to play YouTube videos because it comes with some critical backend that should’ve been native to the phone, given that the vanilla OS already plays H264 videos out of the box.
There are supposedly thousands of applications on the Marketplace, but most of them cost money so I am too cheap to try them. The free Facebook and Twitter apps are decent if slightly lacking.
On another note, Bing Maps sucks monkey balls especially when it comes to location search. The WP7 app doesn’t even have turn-by-turn directions. I often find myself using the horrible web-based Google Maps (or gothere.sg which uses Google API). I can only hope that Google finds the time and incentive to make a WP7 Google Maps app.
My favourite part of the WP7 software is the People app/hub (i.e. the contact list). The phone can synchronize all your Windows Live, Google and Facebook contacts and create consolidated information of every person. It does so by matching email address across accounts, but you can also manually tell it to link contacts that it cannot automatically match. The end result is that I can easily see the Messenger accounts, Facebook statuses, email addresses and phone numbers of people in one single interface and use their Facebook display pictures for Caller ID.
The drawback to this implementation is that the master list defaults to your Windows Live contact list. There is a setting to hide Facebook contacts who are not linked to anyone in your master list, but you can’t do the same for Live because it is the master list. And of course there is no way to change the default option.
So if you have a habit of adding random strangers on your Messenger account, you will have a lot of unrecognizable email addresses in your contact list. Fortunately, this is more of a matter of aesthetics than usability since there is instant search. Bizarrely, there is a software button for instant search in the People Hub, rendering the dedicated hardware button moot in this case.
What is even more bizarre is that Microsoft decided not to implement Outlook contact sync. In the past, this was done with ActiveSync (brings back memories of my old HP iPAQ), but that ancient relic has now been replaced by the Zune software suite, which, being a media-centric software, provides zero contact management functionality. Ironically, this makes iTunes superior because it does sync local Outlook contacts.
Of course, this problem is specific to contacts stored locally. There is no issue when syncing with contacts stored on Outlook Exchange servers because you can simply add the Exchange account like any Gmail or Live accounts.
Amusingly, the easiest solution to this problem is probably to export all your local Outlook contacts into Gmail using a CSV file and then syncing with your Gmail contacts.
But in general the Zune desktop software is pretty sweet. It feels more lightweight than iTunes on Windows, no doubt because it uses native Windows APIs and does not need redundant memory hogs like Bonjour or Apple Software Updater. It even plays Xvid AVI files, auto-converting them to H264 when syncing with WP7, but unfortunately it does not recognize MKV containers.
Zune also does all the iTunes stuff like Marketplace, photo album management, song ripping and transcoding and region-locking you out of Marketplace if you live in the wrong country… God bless Microsoft.
Of course Zune comes nowhere close to replacing what I use Winamp for, but I actually find it orders of magnitudes more usable than the horrible spawn of Satan that is iTunes for Windows.
Facebook v. Google
The level of Facebook integration in WP7 is actually quite amazing. For Microsoft, this may be a strength worthy of further leveraging.
You can find both the individual Facebook status updates of your contacts and a general feed in the People hub. There is even a built-in interface to read and write comments.
Facebook is also the only other built-in upload option for photos taken with a WP7 phone, with SkyDrive, Microsoft’s cloud offering for photo sharing, being the other option. Picasa Web Albums is nowhere in sight.
In the Pictures hub, both your Facebook and SkyDrive albums are listed alongside your local albums/folders. You can also find a feed of Facebook albums uploaded by all your friends and comment on them from within the native UI.
Plus the fact that the stupid hardware search button is hard-coded to Bing, it appears that Microsoft and Facebook are really getting in bed together to form a united front against Google. I can see WW4 in the making (after we emerge from our nuclear bunkers in the aftermath of a second Korean War).
It looks like I have more complaints than praises because finding faults is what I am good at. The truth is that for all its lack of multi-tasking and copy-pasting, WP7 is not any worse an OS than iPhone’s first iteration. In fact, I much appreciate the general design and UI innovation that WP7 brings to the table. I find the minimalist navigation more to my liking than iOS or Android and that is the main reason why I have a generally positive final impression of the WP7 OS.
That said, the road ahead for Microsoft is long and treacherous and it faces a Sisyphean task ahead. There is much taint associated with the Microsoft and Windows Mobile brand names, and being as good as the competition is not good enough to overcome that. Given that it is already late to the game, it may never get the momentum it needs to redeem itself.
The Metro UI design is highly subjective in its merits and works for me, but in terms of pure technical advantage the WP7 has nothing. In fact, it is functionally inferior to the iOS at this stage even if you do not take jailbreaking into account, much less the open Android platform.
Microsoft needs to first fix all the things that are wrong with the OS (crappy calendar, copy and paste, lack of settings, locked to Bing for most dedicated functions), which it may or may not manage to do with the rumoured massive patch that is coming.
Then, even more importantly, it needs to bring something new beyond aesthetics. Perhaps something to do with the existing Xbox Live integration. After all, the 360 seems to be the only bright spot on Microsoft’s resume these days.
I’m selling away my Optimus 7 when I leave Singapore next year so I’m only intending to experiment with WP7 for a short while. Despite how much I adore its UI, my conclusion for now is that Android will probably be more suitable for me in the long term because I need things like tethering and USB mass storage support (which even a jailbroken iPhone can do)…
But perhaps Microsoft will make me change my mind with updates in the next few months. Do you believe in miracles?
If only there were some way to get the best of both worlds.
P.S. I would totally love a Windows desktop OS that uses the Metro design.