It’s now time to take an in-depth look at Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 mobile operating system now that the project has finally seen the light of the day after years of tumultuous developments. This review is quite long so I’m first going to give you a quick history reminder about the development of the OS followed by description of the product’s features and my opinion of it.
Officially unveiled back in February 2010 during MWC in Barcelona, Windows Phone 7 is Microsoft last attempt to be relevant in the mobile market after the slow demise of Windows Mobile 6.X that took place during past few years. Contrary to popular belief Windows Mobile as we knew it wasn’t a bad OS, but it greatly suffered from Microsoft’s total lack of support and interest in its product and the only reason why it managed to survived this long was because OEMs like HTC poured R&D and money into developing alternative UIs to compete with Apple’s iPhone and later, Google’s Android. What many people don’t know is that Windows Phone 7’s development initially started back in 2004 when it was called Windows Mobile 7 (code named Photon) but because of a lack of motivation, foresight and some relatively stupid decisions taken by the Redmond company (like the Danger acquisition that later gave birth to the Kin devices) the development was a total mess and in Fall 2008 Microsoft finally decided to stop all ongoing Photon / Windows Mobile 7 development and re-start everything from scratch with a new team composed of the developers of the Zune media player and Windows Media Center.
The core of Windows Phone 7 is, as far as we know, based on a version of the Windows CE 6.X kernel tailored for handsets use and features what is now known as the Metro UI. Many sites have claimed that CE 7, which isn’t even out yet, is at the core of the OS but Microsoft has never commented on this and the latest CE7 delay sort of confirms that WP7 is still based on the sixth kernel version of the ARM compatible Embedded OS. One of the biggest and most important evolution compared to previous version of Windows Mobile (which were based on CE 5 since) is the fact that OS can now fully take advantage of the ARMv7 CPU architecture and also the introduction of a fully GPU accelerated UI based on a new version of Direct3D Mobile. The first thing that you will notice when using a Windows Phone 7 device is how fast and smooth the user interface operates even when compared to the current industry benchmark that is Apple iOS (which is OpenGL ES based and also GPU accelerated).
To achieve this, Microsoft has decided to set pre-defined hardware specifications chassis that OEMs have to use to build their WP7 devices and one of the most important part of this is the use of one single SoC; the Qualcomm QSD8250 and its Adreno 200 GPU. As of right now this is the only certified SoC for Windows Phone 7 so all the devices currently on the market have essentially the same hardware specifications (you can find all WP7 device specs here). What this means is that contrary to previous versions of Windows Mobile and now Android, Microsoft only had to develop and test the OS for a single architecture thus greatly reducing the risk of having early hardware fragmentation in the ecosystem and ensuring that the product will be perfectly optimized and run as fast as possible on every single device. To put it simply: WP7 is like the perfect mix between Android’s vast selection of form factors and Apple’s tightly controlled OS + hardware integration. Microsoft essentially controls nearly everything this time around. From the minimum screen resolution, to the amount of ram and speed of the interface and if an OEM doesn’t conform to these guidelines he can’t launch a device. The same applies to software but I’ll talk about this later.
The OS UI is entirely hardware accelerated by the Adreno 200 GPU and locked at 60fps. This is why the OS feels so snappy and smooth. One other thing that Microsoft got right in WP7 is that hardware component drivers also have to be certified by their engineers before OEMs get the right to use them. All this control was put in place to insure a perfect user experience for the end user across all devices. The Scorpion CPU which is Qualcomm’s custom variant of the ARM Cortex-A8 architecture has also never really been pushed to its limits by Android or WM so it will be interesting to see if Microsoft’s decides to really take advantage of its deeper FP pipelines and 128bits SMID engine (compared to 64bit on other Cortex-A8 SoCs). As a matter of fact, Qualcomm’s Scorpion with its NEON and VFPv3 floating-point extensions (known as the VeNum engine), deep FP pipelines and 128bits SMID is closer to a Cortex-A9 than a regular A8.
The first thing you will notice when you first turn on your Windows Phone 7 device is the speed of the boot-up sequence compared to what you are probably accustomed to with other mobile platforms on the market. This is something I haven’t seen mentioned much but you will definitely be surprised to see that such a new product can be up and running nearly as fast a vintage Nokia device.
Once the boot sequence ends you will be prompted to enter your Live ID or else you won’t be able to fully use WP7. This is because the OS’s cloud services rely entirely on Microsoft’s Live infrastructure to work. The usual Date/Time, regional setup screens will then finalize the phone setup. Speaking of regional settings… you should also be aware that the current version of the product only supports five display languages (but you can select any region or language for the browser and date/time format) this means that the OS’s native applications and Keyboards are only displayed in German, French English Spanish and Italian and most of the Bing services like speech search, traffic, Address and Phone number auto-detection are only available in the US . Once you finish your initial setup you will finally be greeted by the home screen (and an automatic sms containing a link to windows Phone 7’s official resources page on the net).
The Lock Screen
Windows Phone 7’s lock screen is the first thing you will see every time you turn on your device and also the only background in the entire OS that you can customize with an image of your choice (either one of the pre-installed wallpapers or any other picture of your choice). The screen is simple and effective with only the necessary information displayed: Date / Time, Calendar events and number of messages/mails and missed calls. To access the home screen you’ll just have to swipe your finger up (just like on the Zune HD) and type your lock password if you have one.
The Start Screen
There’s no need for me to introduce you to the now famous Metro UI so I’ll just give you a quick glance at what you are going to see and what kind of features are available to you here.
To differentiate itself from other mobile platforms Microsoft decided to bring something brand new to the table. Instead of having grids of icons or a plethora of widgets, the Windows Phone 7 start screen is populated by Live tiles that can give access to Hubs, applications or different phone functionalities, games and other third-party apps, contacts, music albums, videos etc… They are “live” because they can also display information relative to the application or hubs similar to widgets.
Along with the imposed hardware specifications Microsoft isn’t allowing OEMs or carriers to modify any part of the Windows Phone 7 UI. Ironically this is what made Windows Mobile survive for so long, thanks to HTC’s TouchFlo/Sense, and also what helps manufacturers differentiate their products. But as we have seen in the past with WinMo and presently with Android, this openness can also be a double edged sword. On one hand you can sometimes have some really nice looking and functional UIs while on the other hand OEMs don’t put much effort in them and just screw things up. This also has the effect of diluting the Windows Phone brand which is something that Microsoft doesn’t want at all. For example just ask the average Joe which OS is the HTC HD2 running or the Desire and you can be sure that the answer will probably be Sense or some other funky stuff. UI customization is also one of the principal factors behind the horrible delays between the official release of an Android update and the actual availability of it because OEMs have to customize it before pushing it out etc.
The only things that OEMs and carriers are allowed to do here is pre-install up-to 60mb of applications on the devices (which can be deleted by the user), have their own Hub and a dedicated section in the Marketplace where the user can download free applications for their phones and finally add different settings to the camera application.
The only UI customization available to the user is the ability to change the background theme from Dark to Light and the accents colors.
Navigating through the OS
Windows Phone 7 is a fully touch enabled OS so everything is done with the use of your fingers. Microsoft has also specified that every device should feature a capacitive digitizer that can track up to four fingers at the same time. Applications making use of this capability are fairly rare to come by right now (the Fruit Ninja game currently supports 4 fingers multi-touch) but rest assured that the OS is fully multi-touch enabled (2 fingers) in the places where it makes the most sense like the browser, photo library, mails, Office etc..
Every WP7 devices also feature features three hardware buttons:
1) Back: the back button is probably the one that you will use the most given that it is your only way to quickly jump from one application to another (usually the previous one) because WP7 doesn’t currently feature any task-manager or quick task switcher. Hitting the back button will always go back to the previously opened application unless it’s used in the browser where it will navigate to the previous internet page. The button’s “history” isn’t infinite so after hitting back quite a few times and going through the previously open apps it will just drop back to the start screen when it has ran out of memory (the “history” is depended on the devices RAM: the more memory is available the “bigger” it will be).
2) Search: The search button will most of the time open the OS’s integrated Bing search application which I’m going to talk about later in the review. It can also be used to search into some native applications like the email client, People hub or open the search functionality of the Marketplace when used in the Music + Videos hub. Unfortunately there’s no universal search functionality build into Windows Phone 7 and third-party developers can’t use the search button to search through their app.
3) The Start / Home button: Pressing the home button will always send you back to the Start screen whether you are on a call, third-party application or anywhere else in the OS. But long pressing it will activate the Speech recognition feature of WP7 powered by Microsoft’s Tellme (which also powers the new speech recognition features of the X360 Kinect and other Microsoft’s services like Ford’s sync). Voice activation and search can be used to do three different things: call one of your contacts, open an application or hub on your device and finally do a Bing search just by talking to the phone. I’ve extensively tested it and can tell you that the recognition itself is better than what is available on Android or on the iPhone. Also note that it can be triggered when the phone is locked if the user chooses to enable it in the settings.
The Start screen can be scrolled vertically and be entirely re-arranged just by long-pressing on a tile and then moving it around or deleting it. To access the full application list, all the user has to do is swipe to the left. Every single application in this list can be pinned to the start screen. You can also pin a contact, a web bookmark, a location directly from Bing Maps, a playlist, a song, an album or a video.
On Screen Keyboard
Being a fully touch based OS means that the only way to enter text in Windows Phone 7 will be through the on-screen keyboard unless the device features a hardware keyboard like the currently available Dell Dell Venue Pro, LG Quantum or the upcoming HTC 7 Pro. Thankfully Microsoft worked hard on it and even though it isn’t the best looking one it can definitely rival the iPhone’s keyboard in accuracy and ease of use. There’s simply no lag at all when quickly typing unlike what is present on past WinMo handsets and current Android devices (Google has apparently improved it in Android 2.3 thought) The keyboard also has a pretty good auto-correct functionality that perfectly works out of the box. The user can select multiple languages keyboards in the settings menu and then quickly jump from one to another just by tapping on the dedicated key (the dictionary will also automatically change)
A long tap on some of the keyboard keys will also bring up shortcut keys as seen in the screenshots above.
Landscape support in Windows Phone 7 is kind of quirky though and as you will see in the screenshot below the keyboard doesn’t span the whole screen when the device is rotated. It does look weird and really is a waste of screen estate in my opinion. But I guess that is has to do with the fact that the application bar is always the right (or left) and Microsoft wanted to always have the keyboard centered. It would be interesting to see if this gets changed in future updates (I hope it does). Selecting letters in a textbox is done by a long tap and then using the cursor that pops up over your finger. Unfortunately I find that a magnifier similar to what’s on iOS and Android is a lot easier to use. I personally still find the iPhone’s keyboard to be more accurate especially when used with one hand.
Live Tiles and Notifications
Before diving deeper into the OS’s native applications and features let’s take a look at how the notifications and important information are displayed in Windows Phone 7.
The first thing you will notice is that there’s no status bar in sight. At first glance you will only be able to see the hour displayed on the top right corner of the screen. The Status bar is actually hidden on top and a simple tap in this region will bring it down and display all the current information like the battery level, type of network connection, Wi-Fi status, Bluetooth etc. The same region of the screen is also used to display the Toast notifications when they are pushed to the phone. These can include SMS/MMS messages, Mails, missed calls, or other third-party applications notifications. Tapping on the notification when it’s still displayed will send you directly to the application which it is related to (for example if it’s an sms message notification you will be directed to the message). You can also swipe it to the right to hide it.
Microsoft also uses the top of the screen to display the progress bar that appears when applications are loading data (also note that third-party developers can choose to use any type of progress indicator in the apps and place it where ever they want).
Finally, there’s the Tile notification system that updates the icon, info or background image of the Live tiles pinned on the Start screen.
The Application Bar provides a place for applications to display up to four of the most common application tasks and views as buttons. This bar isn’t present in all applications (native or third-party) and it’s up to the developers to either use it or not. It will always be located above the three hardware buttons of the device even when rotated in landscape (the icons will just rotate).
Taping on the three dots located on the right of the application bar will give you access to a menu which can display up to five additional items depending on the application and also display the labels of the icons (swiping the application bar up will have the same effect).
The Phone Dialer
The Dialer can only be accessed by tapping on the phone tile as there is no hardware key dedicated to it. You will be presented with your detailed call history and three other choices located on the application bar at the bottom of the screen: Voicemail (which can be setup to directly dial your carrier’s voicemail service), the keypad, and a shortcut to the People hub, which is your contacts list. Tapping on the three dots will also give you the option to delete the entire call history and access to the call settings.
You can end the call, bring down the dialer or select one of the four other features available: Speaker, Mute the Microphone, Put the call on Hold or add another call to the current conversation.
The People Hub is probably one of the most talked about feature in Windows Phone 7 and really embodies the new philosophy that Microsoft is trying to bring to the table with this new OS. This is basically where you will find all your contacts and their “social” updates.
As you can see above the first tab of the panorama control is where the user can access and edit all of his contacts which can originate from his Live, Gmail, Facebook etc.. The list is alphabetically sorted and can be navigated by scrolling up and down or simply by taping on one of the letters and then choosing the first letter of the contact in the jumplist.
Once in a contacts card the user can edit it, pin it to the home screen or link other contacts to it. This last feature really comes in handy when you have different contacts card for the same person (usually one for work and one for home for example.)
The People Hub is also one of the only places in Windows Phone 7 that can be searched by hitting the hardware search button of the device. Windows Phone 7 doesn’t support any kind of universal search functionality right now and Microsoft chose to enable search via the search button only in three native applications: The Email client, People Hub, Marketplace. Other applications will have a search icon instead (like Bing Maps or third-party applications). The hub’s second tab is the” What’s new” feed that Microsoft loves to talk about. So what is it all about? Well, good and bad things so let me explain to you how it actually works.
Once you setup your Windows Phone 7 device with your Windows Live ID all your Live contacts will populate your People Hub. By default the “What’s new” feed will only display mails from your contacts containing photo attachments, Messenger status updates , pictures (when a contact uploads a picture to one of his public Skydrive folder) and mails containing Office Docs (but only if they are sent via www.hotmail.com which is totally RIDICULOUS). Why aren’t regular mails supported? This is frankly one of the biggest omissions in Windows Phone 7. Unlike other platforms or for those of you who are familiar with e PalmPre, or HTC’s Sense etc.. Contact cards in WP7 include most of the contact’s info but are not really connected to the OS’s email client. So if you check one of your contacts card you don’t have a direct access to all the mails he has sent you or even the SMS/MMS conversations. But for some weird reason the opposite works: If I open a mail from one of my contacts in the email client and hit his name it will work as it should and open his contact card. God knows why Microsoft only did half of the job here. What is also really annoying in the “What’s new” feed is that when you tap on an update it will always open it the browser unless it’s a Photo hosted on Skydrive or Facebook. Instead of sending me directly to the corresponding mail in the email client the damn thing will direct me to my www.hotmail.com account in IEMobile. Microsoft really has to finish working on this thing because not correctly connecting the People Hub to the email client is really screws up the whole UX flow. It actually seems like all Microsoft did here is port Messenger’s social feature into Windows Phone 7 without changing anything because this is exactly how it works on the desktop (clicking on a social update in Messenger will always open a new browser widows etc..).
The user can also choose to add as much as 60 other social services to the “what’s new” feed. Unfortunately this isn’t what most people think it is and is actually a bit awkward to setup and use. As a Windows Live user you are given the choice to connect your Live account to services like Hulu, Picasa, LinkedIn, Blogger or even Twitter so that when you update one of these services all your contacts will be aware of it through the what’s new feed on their WP7 device (if they have one..) or in Messenger. For this to be really interesting all your contacts must do the same thing but this is usually far from being the case (and all items are always opened in the browser so it is still a bit annoying too…).
Another disappointment is the absence of most of the myPhone features on Windows Phone 7. You can no longer manually back up your contacts (this is automatically done now), no more SMS back up, no more browser bookmarks import/exports etc… As of right now the only thing left of the old WM6.X service is the find myPhone feature that lets you freely geolocate your WP7 device and then ring it, lock it or wipe it. It works pretty nicely and can come in handy in many cases but I really hope that Microsoft is at the very least working on bringing back sms/mms back-up to Windows Phone 7 in an upcoming update.
Windows Phone 7 also gives users the ability to connect their Facebook account to the People Hub so that all of their friend’s photos and wall updates are made available through the “what’s new” feed. It basically works in the same way as the Windows Live/Skydrive updates. You can directly comment or like an item without getting out of the hub, but if you tap on an update containing a link the phone will open it in IE Mobile. I’m not really into Facebook myself so I would have preferred if Microsoft correctly implemented the whole thing (full email support as I stated earlier) or even built in Messenger or Twitter support.
The Messaging application is basically the SMS and MMS application so all things related to cellular messaging are handled here. Messages are presented in the form of conversations with your contacts. It’s really straightforward to use and the whole application is extremely snappy and smooth even when opening conversations containing tons of messages and pictures. Taping on the contacts name will send you to his contacts card in the People Hub (but unfortunately the conversation isn’t integrated in there). Sending an MMS is done by taping on the clipper icon and choosing a picture from you library or directly shooting a new one with the camera application.
The only missing feature is the ability to send or share videos (yes, you can’t even send them by mail) and I really hope that Microsoft will add this in the next update. There aren’t many settings related to this application other than choosing to activate SMS delivery confirmations.
Windows Phone 7 has probably the best email support in the mobile market right now. Supported protocols include Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync® (EAS) as well as POP/IMAP for web–based email like Gmail or Yahoo or other email providers. Setting up a Windows Live account is nearly automatic (same for a Gmail or Yahoo account) but the user is also given the choice to setup up everything manually if he prefers to do so. Windows Phone 7 obviously support Push emails so it’s up to the user to decide whether he wants to receive mails when they arrive, manually or every few minutes/ hours (this setting can be found in the accounts setup menu or directly in the email client when accessing the settings menu of the current email account). Exchange support is obviously one of the platforms biggest selling point, so here’s what is currently supported in Windows Phone 7:
Features in Windows Phone 7 RTM:
- Exchange ActiveSync version 14.0
- Multiple Exchange ActiveSync accounts
- Multiple Exchange ActiveSync policies
- Exchange Autodiscover Service
- Remote Device Wipe (by user or admin)
- E-mail & calendar features
- Coloured calendars for easy overview of appointments (personal/work/etc.)
- Pivot All, Unread, urgent or flagged
- Multi-message actions (delete or move multiple messages to a folder)
- Nickname cache sync (shared with OWA 2010 and Outlook 2010)
- Integrated e-mail and calendar
Features not in Windows Phone 7 RTM:
- Conversation view & actions
- Access to online archive mailbox
- Synchronize SMS messages between device and mailbox (via ActiveSync)
- Enable or edit Out of Office settings (OOF)
- View free/busy information for other Exchange users
- Search for e-mail message in mailbox on Exchange server
- Warning when multiple bad PIN codes has been entered
- PIN code phrase challenge
- Support for UM cards (read a preview of a voice mail)
- Integrated voice mail player
- IRM support
- Synchronize Outlook notes (but you can Syncronize OneNote Notes)
- Different Peak/OffPeak synchronization schedules
And the Policies:
- Password Required
- Minimum Password Length
- Idle Timeout Frequency Value
- Device Wipe Threshold
- Allow Simple Password
- Password Expiration
- Password History
- Disable Removable Storage
- Disable IrDA
- Disable Desktop Sync
- Block Remote Desktop
- Block Internet Sharing
You can also take a look at a full comparative chart comparing Windows phone 7’s Exchange Active Sync client support to all other mobile platforms. As of today Windows Phone 7?s Exchange ActiveSync client supports fewer features than Apple iOS 4 and is still far behind Windows Mobile 6.1 and 6.5. Microsoft has already stated that the initial version of the OS was principally aimed at the consumer market and that future updates should bring more enterprise oriented features to the table.
The Windows Phone 7 email experience takes full advantage of the Metro UI and uses a Pivot control to filter through the inbox. Microsoft calls this Smart-filtering: the ability go from your inbox to your unread mails, urgent mails or flagged mails just by flicking your finger to the left or right. Unread emails are easily distinguished from those that have been previously opened. The inbox UI also indicates if an email has previously been replied forwarded flagged or whether an attachment is included. Selected multiple emails can easily be done by either taping on the left had side of an email header (check boxes will then appear) or by taping on the Select icon in the Appbar. The user can then; delete them, move to folder, forward, mark as read or unread, set flag, complete, and remove flag. With Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 accounts, users can get a voice-to-text preview of a recorded voice message delivered to their inbox and search their organization’s global address lists (this feature also works with Exchange Server 2007). Searching in the email client is done by hitting the hardware search button of the device similar to how it works in the Peoples hub. The email client is also one of the few places in Windows Phone 7 where landscape viewing and typing is supported.
Users can attach Office Docs (Excel, PowerPoint, and Word) which are located in the Office Hub, voice notes created with Microsoft OneNote, and pictures from the pictures hub (no videos sorry). On the other hand they can receive the same types of documents (which will then be saved in their respective hubs), plus PDFs (which can only be viewed and saved if the Adobe Reader application is installed on the device) and PNG, GIF images (which will automatically be converted to JPEG when saved to the Pictures gallery). This is currently the easiest way to get Office documents on a Windows Phone 7 device given that the Zune Desktop software only support Media files transfers (music and video). The only other way would be to download them directly through the IE Mobile browser if they are hosted online (in your Skydrive for example or something similar, like DropBox).
I have several complaints Windows Phone 7’s email client:
1) HTML mails are always rendered zoomed-in so you always have to zoom out to get a full view and HTML content also don’t load up images when connected via the cellular data network on my devices (works perfectly on Wifi)
2) The HTML content of an email has to be re-downloaded every time you reboot your device
3) There’s no unified inbox solution. It can be annoying to always have to go back to the home screen to check another email account. The more accounts you have the longer it takes to check them all out.
4) Last but not least, there’s no way to sync your Windows Phone 7 device with Outlook on your desktop if you don’t have an Exchange server. Everything is done over the air so you will have to first find a way to sync Outlook contacts, mails, calendar with your Live account and then get them on the device by using Outlook Connector.
Windows Phone 7 has really good calendar support which integrates nicely with the email client, people hub and the mapping application. Users can sync multiple calendars from Live, Google of Exchange within seconds. Unfortunately there’s no easy way to sync your outlook calendars mails or contacts right now because everything is done OTA (there’s no more ActiveSync on the desktop). I highly suggest you take a look at the video below to see how it all works:
Contacts can send you events requests by mail which will be automatically recognized by the OS so that when you tap on it will automatically open the calendar so you can either schedule the event or see if it overlaps with another one, see who is also attending it with the People hub integration etc… If an address is also included in the events description the OS will also automatically parse it and allow you to tap on it and open Bing Maps to see where it is located or get directions (works only in the US). Upcoming events are displayed on the lock screen and also on the calendar Live Tile on the home screen.
Windows Phone 7 wouldn’t be a real Windows product without support for Microsoft Office support. So it should come as no surprise that the number 1 productivity suite is included in the OS. The Windows Phone 7 Office Hub features the following applications and features:
1) Microsoft One Note Mobile: Lets you open, edit and create Microsoft One Note notebooks directly on your device and automatically sync them to your Skydrive (or SharePoint workspace if you are using one). Notes can then be edited directly from the WP7 device, Microsoft One Note 2010 on your PC or Microsoft OneNote Web App in the web browser. The notes can contain text, voice clips and pictures (from the Pictures Gallery or directly shot with the phone’s camera).
2) Microsoft Word Mobile: Lets you create Word documents or read and edit the ones that are on the devices (received by mail, synced or shared with Skydrive or SharePoint). Opening a big Word document can surprisingly take a while but once it is done editing it and navigating it doesn’t feel too sluggish. The use of the outline view is really helpful in this case: it lets you quickly jump from one section of the document to another so you don’t have to scroll endlessly.
3) Microsoft Excel Mobile: Similar to Word Mobile but this time it’s Excel on the phone.
4) Microsoft PowerPoint Mobile: Unlike Excel and Word documents it is not possible to create PowerPoint presentation directly on a Windows Phone 7 device. What is possible thought is to edit, view and share presentations via mail or the cloud. PowerPoint Mobile also allows remote viewing of presentations. This means that if a presentation is broadcasted through the internet the user will have the ability to watch it live on his phone. This is done by sending a directly link to the broadcast via email (hitting the link in the mail will open the live PowerPoint slideshow). PowerPoint Mobile also supports custom shows created with PowerPoint 2010.
5) Microsoft SharePoint Workplace Mobile: Lets you open, edit and save Office documents hosted on a SharePoint 2010 site (but not Microsoft SharePoint Online). You can also browse and search through the SharePoint site directly from here. Once a document is opened only a lightweight read-only version is quickly downloaded to the phone. The full document will only be downloaded if the user chooses to edit it or save it to his device. Using SharePoint Workplace within your company will require the WiFi connection to be enabled but if the user wants to use the Cellular data connection instead he will need to configure the settings for a Microsoft Forefront Unified Access Gateway (UAG) server.
Last but not least, here’s the list of document types that can be opened by Office Mobile 2010 on Window Phone 7:
Word Mobile: .doc, .docx, .dot, .dotx, .dotm, .docm .txt, .rtf
Excel Mobile: .xls, .xlsx, .xlt, .xltx, .xlsm, .xltm
PowerPoint Mobile: .ppt, .pptx, .pps, .ppsx, .pptm, .ppsm
OneNote Mobile: .one
The browser has become one of the most critical and important feature on a smartphone thanks to Apple who set a new standard in terms of ergonomics and fluidity with Safari Mobile on the iPhone. So how does the new version of Internet Explorer Mobile stack up against Safari Mobile and Android’s browser? Well, first off you will have to forget about Microsoft’s past attempts in Windows Mobile 5/6X. As a matter of fact it was so bad, the vast majority of the devices shipped with Opera Mobile as the default browser. The release of the Zune HD which had a fairly capable browser (only in terms of fluidity) gave people some hope but I must admit that even I was worried about Microsoft ability to deliver a competitive browser in Windows Phone 7. It’s only when I had the chance to handle the beta version back in May that I saw that WP7 would probably provide one of the best browsing experience on a mobile device. To put it simply: IE Mobile on Windows Phone 7 is the closest thing to Safari Mobile in terms of ease of use & overall smoothness and is miles ahead of the current Android browser in this department as seen in the video below:
Panning and scrolling is extremely smooth and practically never slows down even on heavy pages. Zooming in and out works exactly like on Safari Mobile: double tap to zoom in on region and the device will zoom until the text fits perfectly with your screen width. The user can naturally also use two fingers to pinch to zoom in or out and just like on Safari Mobile the page can still be moved around while doing this gesture. Just like Apple’s offering, IE Mobile on windows Phone 7 is GPU accelerated. The web pages are rendered as a texture then transformed and translated buy the GPU. This is one of the reason why icons can look extremely blurry when the page is fully zoomed in. There is, thankfully, no text re-flow like on Android (or Opera Mobile) and I’m glad that Microsoft decided not to include it. I personally never liked this feature and think that navigating through a webpage feels a lot more natural and fluid without it.
IE Mobile also supports tab browsing and does it in a perfect way. It is, in my opinion, even better than on Apple’s offering. Just tap on the tab icon in that application bar and you will be presented with thumbnails of the currently opened tabs (it supports up to 6 tabs). Tapping on one will make the thumbnail zoom and fill the full screen. Adding and closing tabs is done by tapping on the + button in the app bar and the X icon on the thumbnail. It should also be noted that tabs stay active even when they are not in full view. This means that if the user loads a webpage then decides to open another tab to check out another page the first tab will keep loading in the background so that quickly navigating between tabs is lightning fast. It also goes without saying that the browser also supports bookmarks (that can be pinned to the home screen) and a history. The only downside to this marvelous user experience is the total lack of UI in landscape mode. As you can see in the video above; once the device is rotated all the UI just vanishes and there just no way to correctly navigate. Even the URL bar disappears and makes it really annoying to have to always rotate back into portrait mode to type in something. Strangely, the URL bar is still present in landscape on devices that have a hardware keyboard like the LG Quantum.
Unfortunately everything isn’t perfect and this great UX can’t always hide the fact that the current version of IE Mobile is still mainly based on Internet Explorer 7 (with some enhancements made for mobile layout) which is severally lacking when it comes to web standards and page loading performance compared to webkit based browsers. Microsoft has apparently implemented tweaks from IE8 (some scripting capabilities) but you will often find yourself landing on websites that don’t render correctly on your device. There’s obviously no HTML5 support and this probably won’t come until IE9, which isn’t even out yet on the desktop, is ported to WP7. Is it a deal breaker? Frankly no. Because 95% of the time you will be able to correctly browse the web without any major issue. The lack of Flash support also isn’t really that serious especially when you experience it on Android devices and see that’s it’s nothing more than a performance hog. Microsoft thankfully developed a YouTube plugin so that embedded video can be played (it isn’t perfect thought…) but more importantly they will have to hurry up and provide HTML5 support in the not so distant future because many websites are going to start to rely on this now and adding Silverlight support for the browser is IMO going to be a waste I personally don’t think that it’s going to be done anyway). I just hope that Microsoft will provide updates to IE Mobile independently from major OS updates because the platform actually supports it.
It’s now time for us to take a look at Windows Phone 7’s multi-media capabilities which are currently the platforms main selling features. Microsoft isn’t a new entrant in the consumer market and thanks to its Xbox & Zune products alongside the cloud services associated with Windows Live, Windows Phone 7 is the only smartphone OS to have such a feature rich multi-media ecosystem.
Every Windows Phone 7 device features at least a 5Mpix camera and a dedicated hardware button to initialize it and shoot pictures or videos. Microsoft supplies a fairly barebones camera application that OEMs can enhance by adding more camera functionalities in the settings menu like; resolution, EV control, white balance control Macro, HDR/WDR or even link to other camera powered applications like LG does with Scansearch and its Panorama app. The number of settings and the quality of the photos will obviously depend on the OEM and the device (the same thing applies to the camcorder functionality). So far every WP7 device on the market can shoot 720P video but unfortunately the quality isn’t that good, unless you are using one of the Samsung devices, even though all the videos shot in HD on WP7 have exactly the same bit/rate because of the QSD8250 chipset (MPEG-4 Simple Profile Up to 24fps @720p (1280×720), 6Mbps). Ironically the camera quality a functionalities is where Microsoft has basically the less control over what OEM can do and this definitely shows when you look at what HTC and LG have done (poor lens/sensor lack of features on HTC devices etc..).
In practice there are 3 ways to launch the Camera application:
1) Simply press on the hardware shutter button of the device when it’s on.
2) Tap on the camera application icon.
3) Press and hold the shutter button when the phone is off (if the user enables the feature in the settings menu). This won’t work if there’s an object close to the proximity sensor so that it won’t accidentally launch when in the pocket. If the phone is locked by a password the camera app will be the only application accessible (the user will have to unlock his device to normally use it after taking pictures or videos).
Once a picture or a video is shot it will “move” to the left of the screen and a simple finger swipe to the right will give access to the whole camera roll (pinching the pictures will further zoom them out and enable faster scrolling through them.). This is definitely a nice little touch that enables you to review your pictures without having to get out of the camera application..and you definitely don’t want to get out of it… Why? Well because it’s seems to suffer from a nice little bug that prevents the settings to be saved once the camera application is closed. This means that every time the camera application is launched it will revert back to the factory settings and you will have to re-set the video resolution to 720P for example or the EV setting, disable flash etc. It’s really mind-boggling to see that this hasn’t been fixed yet given that it was present in all the OS versions I have used (pre and post RTM). One has to wonder if this isn’t a feature…
Several other features are available in the camera application like the ability to geotag the pictures (GPS), auto-upload to Skydrive (or other cloud based services in the future), keep Geotag information on uploaded pictures.
The Pictures hub is simply were all the photos & video you have shot and all the pictures you have transferred to your device (via the Zune desktop software) are located & easily accessible. Pictures stored on your Skydrive will also show up there and be downloaded on the fly once you access the folder for the first time which is really a great feature (it’s also possible to comment on those pictures and save them to your phone’s internal memory). Let’s say for example that I create an album/slideshow using Windows Live Mail (or Hotmail.com) and then share it via email: it will automatically show up here in the Pictures hub and I’ll be able to ad comments to the pictures.
The hub uses a panorama control similar to the People hub with the same “What’s new” feed included in there. Pictures can be browsed by date or by favorites via a pivot control. I’m sure that you have already seen in action so I won’t describe it again but I will instead point out some interesting bits of info that many people don’t know about (well unless you have been seriously following my posts on MobileTechWorld).
One thing I would to make perfectly clear is that all the pictures you see on the device are actually resized and compressed versions of the originals (yes even the ones that have been shot with the handset’s camera). This is done so that browsing through lots of pictures is super-fast and responsive. This is similar to what is done on the iPhone (and all iOS devices) and some Android devices too. Two versions of every picture are stored on the phone (and this obviously takes precious memory space): The original full resolution version (in this case: the ones shot with the camera or pictures transferred to your phone via Zune with the settings set to “Original”) and a lower-res version that is displayed to the user. Pictures received via email and then saved to the phone are treated the same way. The only way to get the full res pictures out of the phone is to use the Zune Desktop software because sending them as mail attachments is also restricted to max vertical resolution of 1630 pixels. This means that if a user tries to send a picture that has a vertical resolution higher than 1630 it will be automatically resize to XXXXx1630.
Each picture in the hub can be:
1) Added to Favorites
2) Deleted but unfortunately there is no way to bulk deleted pictures. It can only be done one by one either by long pressing on the thumbnail or hitting delete in the appbar.
3) Uploaded to Skydrive
4) Shared via email or MMS
5) Use as a lock screen Wallpaper
6) Extras: opened in a third party applications linked to the hub.
Lastly, the Panorama background and Live Tile of the Pictures HUB periodically changes to one of the pictures in your library or be manually select just by long tapping on the background and drop down menu will appear and give you the choice to select a picture or let the device automatically choose one. Third party application can also be integrated in the Picture Hub so that they can easily be launched from there. Check out the LG PhotoStylist application in the video below:
Music + Videos
The Music + Videos hub is where the serious multi-media action takes place so let’s start with the layout.
Once again Microsoft used a Panorama control here which is divided in four distinct sections:
1) Zune: Gives you access to the Music, Videos, Podcasts, FM Radio and Marketplace
2) History: Shows thumbnails of the latest media content played on the device. 3rd-party developers can also code their application so that the videos viewed with their app are shown in the Hub’s history.
3) New: shows thumbnails of the latest media files copied to the device via the desktop software
4) Marquee: access to the third-party applications linked with the hub. This is where the Hub philosophy really shines: play a song, swipe to the marquee section and hit lyrics. The MusicMatch application will launch from there and display the song’s lyrics (you’ll need to download the free app from the marketplace).
As you probably already know by now, Zune is Microsoft’s music and video entertainment platform that was first introduced back in 2004 with the launch of the original Zune player. Since then, things have evolved and Zune is now also available on the Xbox 360 and now Windows Phone 7. Ever since the announcement and launch of the Zune HD player more than a year ago everybody asked for a Zune phone because of the product’s quality and the innovative interface. With the integration of the platform into Windows Phone 7 it’s is now safe to say that every WP7 handset is actually a Zune Phone. Sure, the devices are not manufactured or designed by the guys in Redmond but every single model has exactly the same multi-media capabilities. Zune is basically the Windows equivalent of Apple’s iTunes. You can rent or purchase music videos, TV shows, Movies, download podcast, buy music and subscribe to the Zune Pass which will let you stream unlimited music for a monthly fee (the offer actually depends on your country)
I won’t type an essay on Zune and all of its features here but will discuss the Zune Desktop Software further down the review.
The music playback section of the hub uses a pivot control divided in five sections: artists, albums, songs, playlists and genres. The artist section will basically only show you a list of artist names in alphabetical order that can be tapped on to get access to all their content on your device or directly played by tapping on the play icon next to the name. the same thing applies to the Albums section (taping on the album’s name will get you to the songs while taping the album cover will start playing the whole album). There’s unfortunately no search functionality in the hub (hitting the hard search button will only launch the Marketplace) so the only way to quickly find an item is to use the JumpList control (tap the letter to jump from A to Z etc..).
Things get interesting once you select an artist (or an album). First the background will normally change to an image of him/her and you will be presented with another pivot control which will display the artist’s current albums on your device and a link to the marketplace below so you can download more songs from him/her. The second tab will show you all the songs (again with a link to the Marketplace at the bottom) and finally the last tab will only show up if your device is connected to the Zune network and display a Bio of the artist (in the case of an album it will show you a review of it).
As you can see in the picture above the playback page is fairly simple to understand. You have play button previous and next button that are also used as fast forward and fast-backwards when long pressed (because there no other way to scrub through a song or video by using the time line). Swiping your finger across the screen to the left or to the right will also change songs. Right below the album art you can see the time line, the name of the songs being currently play and finally the name of the next three songs. But where are the repeats and shuffle buttons? Hidden behind the album art! Tap on it and a repeat, love and shuffle button will appear.
Music playback is one of the few multi-tasking scenarios that the user will encounter in Windows Phone 7 right now. This means that when you play a song and exit the player by hitting the home button or do anything else with your device (besides launching a third-party application) the music will keep playing in the background (even when the screen is turned). You can also have music playing when using third-party applications (if the apps allows it).To have direct control or what is going one a simple press on the device’s volume rocker will bring down a top down menu which includes music playback controls as seen in the picture above.
Video playback is a no-brainer on Windows Phone 7 and essentially works like music play black but with less frills and features. The UI is composed of a pivot control made of five sections:
1) All: sows a list of all the videos on your device
2) TV: all the TV shows on your device
3) Music: all the music videos on your device
4) Movies: all the movies on your device
5) Personal: All the videos shot with the devices
There’s nothing too complicated here but I would like to point again that Windows Phone 7 doesn’t “officially” support HD video playback unlike what you can read in the vast majority of the reviews out there. I’ve already talked about the whole process back in august and this has been known ever since the final list of codecs supported by WP7 was published in July. To put it simply: The only HD videos natively played back on a Windows Phone 7 device are the ones shot in HD with the devices camera and nothing else. Every video that is transferred to the phone via the Zune software is automatically converted to an MP4 or WMV with a maximum resolution of 800X600 (Videos are either .WMV or .MP4 but they are all transcoded to WMV9 (syncing an .MP4 will result in a WMV9 contained in a .MP4 ). If you use my USB mass storage trick you will be able to extract the videos back to your PC and see that what you thought was copy of your original HD video is actually a scaled down version of it. The decision to do this was made by Microsoft because of the hardware limitation of the QSD8250 chipset. It can only decode HD videos with the following specifications: MPEG-4 Simple Profile Up to 30fps @720p (1280×720), 10Mbps (Edit April 2011: and now H.264 High Profile v3.0 Up to 30fps @720p (1280×720), 10Mbps) . Microsoft can’t guaranty that every 720P encoded video can be decoded by the hardware or be re-encoded to these specs with sufficient quality so they decided that the most user friendly solution would be to re-encode everything to something that the hardware can easily handle but with a relatively high bitrate. Apple did the same thing on its iOS devices. This restriction will surely change in the future once we have more powerful Windows Phone 7 devices on the market (with the next generation chassis specs) but hopefully Microsoft will give users the choice in the Zune software via an update in the near future (a user selectable option maybe) because the QSD8250 can easily playback 720P content as long as the bit-rate doesn’t exceed 10Mbps. You can easily bypass this right now by copying 1280×720 .mp4 <10Mps videos directly to the device using the USB Mass Storage trick.Videos should play smoothly without any problem.
Playing back video is a child’s play; just tap on the thumbnail and it will start playing. Unfortunately the only way to fast forward (or backwards) is by using the on-screen button since it’s impossible to scrub through the video by sliding your finger on the time line. This can be really nerve breaking when watching long video or movies because it can take a while to jump from one to point to another (taping forward once will skip 30secs, backward will skip 7 secs and keeping your finger pressed will just playback the vid a 10x the speed). This can also become really annoying thanks to a little hidden feature implemented in the Zune Desktop software.
What happens is that when you playback a video in the Zune player on your PC, then copy/sync it to the phone and start playing it back it will resume where it was left on the PC. This can be neat in some odd situations but most of the times you just want to play it back from the beginning (so you have to rewind it). What’s stupid thought is that if you re-sync your device again to your PC the video will reset its self to the last position it was last viewed on the PC! It will stay this way until you re-open the video on your desktop and rewind manually.
This is where podcasts are located once there are syncing with the device via the Zune Desktop software
Every Windows Phone 7 device has a built in FM radio (with RDS but this never worked for me) but only activated when headphones are plugged-in. Taping on the screen will give the user the option to pin the radio station to the home screen and the option to playback the audio through the device’s speaker (the headphones still have to be plugged in because they act as the antenna). The radio is also multitasking enabled and be accessed via the devices volume rocker just like when playing back mp3s). To play the radio via the handset’s speaker (and not the headphones) all you have to do is long tap on the screen and choose this option while keeping the headphones plugged in.
This is the Zune section of the Marketplace the lets you find, preview and buy albums of individual songs wirelessly on your phone. Videos can only be searched and bought (and downloaded) using the Zune desktop software (the same applies to Podcasts). I’ll talk more about the Marketplace later on.
Xbox Live and Games
Xbox Live is probably one of the most distinctive features in Windows Phone 7 and Microsoft’s chance to really differentiate its mobile platform from its competitors who don’t have experience in the video gaming sector.
Everything related to gaming on Windows Phone 7 is handled through the Games hub which can be connected to an Xbox Live account. This really helps with the organization of the whole OS. The user knows that all of his games can be accessed through the Games hub so there no wasting time scrolling through the whole application list to find something. Games can also be pinned to the start screen to make things even more convenient.
One thing that wasn’t really talked about elsewhere so I would like to point out that having an Xbox Live account isn’t necessary to play games on WP7 (yes even Xbox live branded games). The user just won’t have access to achievements and leaders or the Avatar customization (with the Xbox Live Extras application). There’s an Xbox Live on/off toggle in the settings menu (applications/games) of the OS. Oh and just in case you didn’t already know: Xbox Live on Windows Phone 7 is totally free.
The Games hub panorama view is dived in three sections:
1) Collection: This is where all Windows Phone 7 games are located. On top you find the Xbox Live enabled games and below the “regular” games.
2) Spotlight: A Xbox Live news feed
3) Xbox Live: A static view of the Avatar with all the achievements. Taping on the Avatar will open the Xbox Live Extras application if it’s installed on the device.
4) Requests: Game invites and turns notification for Multiplayer games. Windows Phone 7 currently only support turn based multi-player games but real time multi-player is currently being worked on.
It goes without saying that all games are downloaded via the Marketplace. I’ll discuss the Marketplace later one, but for now let’s take a look at how games look like on Windows Phone 7.
XNA and Gaming
Developers have the choice between two different frameworks to develop games on windows Phone 7: Silverlight and XNA. The first one isn’t really tailored towards serious game development and is mostly used in regular applications so most of the games will be based on the XNA framework.
XNA is a multi-platform framework that allows developers to create Xbox 360, Windows and Windows Phone 7 (and Zune HD) games with maximum code-re-use. It is hardware accelerate on all platforms which means that all Windows phone 7 games can take advantage of the QSD8250 Scorpion CPU and Adreno 200 GPU. Unlike the vast majority of the current mobile platforms Windows Phone 7 doesn’t support OpenGL ES 1.X & 2.0 but uses a newer version of Direct3D Mobile (through DXGI) which means that porting 3D games already developed for the iPhone or Android isn’t really straight forward (WP7 also support HW acceleration of 2D sprites). The current 3D implementation also doesn’t fully take advantage of all the GPU capabilities so developers have to scale down things a little bit to make everything work (check out my interview with Southend interactive who developed Ilomilo).
Windows Phone 7 / XNA game studio 4.0 currently doesn’t support HLSL/programmable shaders so Microsoft is providing the following profiles which are composed of 78 different Shaders:
- 0-3 Directional lights
- Blinn-Phong Shading
- Optional Texture
- Optional Fog
- Optional Vertex Color
- For light maps, detail textures, decals
- Blends two textures
- Separate texture coordinates
- Modulate 2X combine mode
- Good visuals at low pixel cost
- For billboards & imposters
- Adds alpha test operations (pixel kill)
- Standard blending is free with all effects
- Only need alpha test if you want too disable depth/stencil writes
- For animated models and instancing
- Game code animates bones on GPU (Skinning is currently faster on the CPU)
- Vertex skinning performed by the GPU (Skinning is currently faster on the CPU)
- Up to 72 bones
- One, two or four weights per vertex
- Diffuse Texture + cube environment map
- Cheap way to fake many complex lights
- Fresnel term simulates behavior when lights reaches a surface and some reflects, some penetrates
Check out some of the 3D Rendering effects:
|World, View, Projection||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
And here’s a table comparing the Reach (WP7) XNA profile and HiDef (X360/PC) courtesy of Shawn Hargreaves :
|Supported platforms||Windows Phone 7 Series, Xbox 360, and any Windows PC with a DirectX 9 GPU that supports at least shader model 2.0||Xbox 360, and any Windows PC with a DirectX 10 (or equivalent: see below) GPU|
|Shader model||2.0 (but Windows Phone does not support custom shaders)||3.0+ (Xbox 360 supports custom shader extensions such as vfetch, which are not available on Windows)|
|Max texture size||2048||4096|
|Max cubemap size||512||4096|
|Max volume texture size||Volume textures are not supported||256|
|Non power of two textures||Conditional: cannot use wrap addressing mode, mipmaps, or DXT compression when the size is not a power of two||Yes|
|Non power of two cubemaps||No||Yes|
|Non power of two volume textures||Volume textures are not supported||Yes|
|Max primitives per draw call||65535||1048575|
|Index buffer formats||16 bit||16 and 32 bit|
|Vertex element formats||Color, Byte4, Single, Vector2, Vector3, Vector4, Short2, Short4, NormalizedShort2, NormalizedShort4||All of the Reach formats, plus HalfVector2, HalfVector4|
|Texture formats||Color, Bgr565, Bgra5551, Bgra4444, NormalizedByte2, NormalizedByte4, Dxt1, Dxt3, Dxt5||All of the Reach formats, plus Alpha8, Rg32, Rgba64, Rgba1010102, Single, Vector2, Vector4, HalfSingle, HalfVector2, HalfVector4. Floating point texture formats do not support filtering.|
|Vertex texture formats||Vertex texturing is not supported||Single, Vector2, Vector4, HalfSingle, HalfVector2, HalfVector4|
|Render target formats||Variable (see below)||Variable (see below)|
|Multiple render targets||No||Up to 4. Must all have the same bit depth. Supports alpha blending and independent write masks per rendertarget.|
|Separate alpha blend||No||Yes|
|Blend.SourceAlphaSaturation||Only for SourceBlend, not DestinationBlend||Yes|
|Max vertex streams||16||16|
|Max stream stride||255||255|
But how do the games look like? Well, it really depends on the game and the developers. For a platform that has just launched a few weeks ago the level of quality is pretty high compared to what was available early-on on the iPhone or even now on Android. The one major problem I can see right now is the loading times on the vast majority of the big games out now. This also seems to be an issue with many third-party applications too. For example The Harvest, which is probably one of the best looking 3D games on any mobile platform, can take up to 3 minutes just to load a saved game and if you load Fruit Ninja or Pocket God on a WP7 and iPhone 3GS or 4 side by side you’ll see that the Windows Phone 7 device is really far behind in this department but Microsoft has just recently announced during CES that this will be addressed in the first OS update. Things aren’t super smooth either: taking Fruit Ninja as an example again, the iPhone version seems to be running at nearly double the framerate even though the game isn’t really graphically intensive at all (it isn’t slow by any means on WP7, but just not as smooth as it could be). This may have something to do with the fact and all XNA developed applications and games on WP7 have their framerate capped at 30fps unlike the iPhone were developers can cap their game’s framerate at whatever they want.
Marketplace and Third Party Applications
Like any modern smartphone OS, Windows Phone 7 has a fully integrated applications and music marketplace which is accessible directly on the devices via its own app or on the PC via Zune Desktop software (which also gives access to the videos and podcasts). Yes, there’s no “official” way to side-load applications. Is this a bad thing and does it really matter? Well this depends on your needs and as Apple has shown with iOS the vast majority don’t really care and prefer to have a centralized (and hopefully secured) store to get all their need application. Microsoft will probably have to allow in some way homebrew application development in the future but this is definitely not a priority in my mind.
So how’s the whole experience? When everything is working fine you will be presented with the familiar panorama UI which is perfectly suited for this kind of usage scenario and a dynamic background that changes every day to promote a featured application or music artist. I said “when everything is working fine” because the Marketplace application’s stability seems to be depended on the phone’s Data connections. Before updating my Samsung Omnia 7 ROM the Marketplace application constantly crashed when it was having hard time fetching data from the cloud and the only way to get it back to work was to reboot the device. Now that the Omnia 7’s radio stack has been improved the user experience is like night and day: searching through the Marketplace and scrolling through long lists of applications is quick and responsive but I still managed to get it to crash just by quickly searching for applications.
The first accessible section of the Marketplace will be the OEM section which will depend on the device being used. Right now you have the Samsung Zone, LG Store and HTC Market which is where manufacturers offer free applications for their handsets which are developed by them or some of their partners (you can check out Samsung Photogram here, LG’s ScanSearch here). Once you start browsing through the market you will quickly realize that even though the UI is quite convenient, it not really easy to quickly find a specific application or game so the search functionality will come in handy here. Unfortunately when you submit a search query the application will return results for applications, games and music (songs, artist, album). This can be really annoying when you are only searching for a specific application and all you are getting is a totally messed list composed of nothing related to what you were looking for. Microsoft should add the option to filter through the results (via a pivot control with Applications, Games, and Music tabs) or give the user the choice to search in a specific section of the Marketplace. Fortunately they have just announced that they have streamlined the Marketplace search to make it easier to find specific apps, games, or music. Pressing search in the games and applications sections will only return apps and games results. Pressing search in the music section will only return music results. One has to wonder why this wasn’t implemented from the get go…Anyway, it’s good that Microsoft is fixing this so quickly.
Users can also rate / review applications and games directly from the Marketplace or by doing a long press on the app’s icon once it’s installed on the device (this will redirect to the rate & review section of the marketplace). Most applications have trials versions available so you can try them out before taking the plunge. Unfortunately there’s a small annoying bug that prevents trials from being updated when a newer version of the app/game is made available. The only way to get around this is to uninstall the trial version and re-install it (it will download the latest version this way). Microsoft has been aware of this bug since October and still hasn’t fixed it. Once an application is successfully installed it can also be “shared” via sms or email. What actually happens in this case is that a direct link to the application will be included in the message so that when it is clicked on by the recipient he will be automatically re-directed to the app in the Marketplace application of his WP7 device and be able to quickly try it out. Small useful tip: you can pause and resume downloads by long-pressing on them.
Unfortunately there’s a really important issue that Microsoft doesn’t seem to really care about: it is impossible to change your Zune/Xbox Live country location once it is create and linked to your Hotmail account. I created it nearly 5 years ago just to check an Xbox 360 demo that was only available in the US and I’m now stuck with it because it’s tied to my main Hotmail account. The end result is that I can’t buy anything using this account (needs a US credit card). Come on Redmond! Just give me the ability to choose the local Marketplace I want to buy from on the fly. Let me download free apps and trials in the US and buy apps where I live. Or simply allow me to correct my location
A lot has already been said about the current state of the Windows Phone 7 Marketplace so I will try to share with you my thoughts about it now that it filled with more than 5500 applications. The main complained about third-party applications has always been the same since the very first WP7 reviews started to appear back in October: Most of the time there are performance issues with the UIs or the data read/write loading. You may remember that Microsoft tried to heavily evangelize the platform this summer by giving away free developers phones to some developers (and even paying some to port their iPhone/iOS apps). Unfortunately this didn’t really result in what I would personally call a super successful launch given the vast amount of buggy and slow performing applications available (even from top developers). Contrary to popular belief Microsoft didn’t hand out 10Ks prototype phones to developers around the world and the majority of the developers who were planning on getting their apps ready for prime time could only use the Emulator which unfortunately isn’t representative of the real device’s performances (many devs only found out later that their application ran like crap on a real device because the emulator was running it smoothly on their powerful Desktop PC). Lots of hard working devs never had a chance to extensively test their apps on real hardware before the launch and either decided to submit anyway (and get poor reviews because it performed badly etc..) or just hold up and submit once they buy their own device later on. Speaking of performance…Only the Samsung Taylor was somewhat representative of the performance of a retail device because the LG GW910 / Panther suffered from hardware issues that made everything run like crap on it (the screen’s refresh rate was totally busted too) so people developing on it weren’t really happy either (I had the opportunity to use it & the Taylor and the same code running on both devices acted differently so it was really a pain to debug stuff). For my part, I decided to postpone the launch of the MobileTechWorld WP7 application until It can run as it should (also waiting to see If MS updates the OS/SDK soon..) and until Microsoft fixes the gigantic security issue plaguing the Marketplace right now.
The current ratio of crappy apps vs good apps is similar to what you have in the iOS and Android Market and several of the top applications like AP Mobile, IMBD suffer from serious bugs (both apps never auto-update) and have yet to be fixed. The official Twitter application also sufferers from relatively poor performance and should be able to run under the lock-screen but has yet to be updated more than 3 months after its release. This doesn’t mean that there is no quality stuff in here, far from it. Some pretty good applications are starting to show up and some of the early ones have recently been updated to improve performance and ad new features (like Facebook). Lots of independent developers have done a pretty good work and some high quality applications like Amazon’s Kindle reader or the IGN app are starting to appear. One has to remember that third-party applications can’t multi-task so the developer has to implement tombstoning instead (save the apps page/view state before it closes so it can come back to it when the back button is pressed). This is something that isn’t easily coded and many applications currently on the market seem to suffer from tombstoning issues. Microsoft also didn’t allow 3rd party apps to run behind the lock screen at first (when the screen is turned off), once again this results in a relatively poor user experience. The company quickly made an update to the SDK to allow this functionality to be implemented and it’s now starting to appear in many applications. Hopefully the vast majority of the developers will give their users this option. But keep in mind that Microsoft will probably never allow full multi-tasking for 3rd party applications on Windows Phone 7 and will instead adopt a similar approach to what Apple has done with iOS4. The most important thing right now is to improve the read/write performance of the OS (which results in abnormally long load times). Fortunately Microsoft has just recently announced that application loading and resuming performance improvements are part of the first OS update. Something that Microsoft hasn’t really talked about is the fact that carriers get a small $ cut out of the every application sold on the Marketplace. this means that developers still get their 7% but Microsoft giving away some of the 30% they get. This is done to appease the Carriers a little bit given that unlike Android (or Bada and the previous WinMo), carrier can no longer mess around with the OS and user experience.
One thing I would also like to point out is that a good .NET / Silverlight developer doesn’t auto-magically becomes a good mobile developer and I think that many applications are currently suffering from this. Take the Deezer app I talked about not long ago; it was developed by a team who has never done anything on a Microsoft platform (they are an Apple, Oracle, Falsh dev house) but have an extensive background in mobile application development and this really shows up because their first WP7 app is one of the best performing one on the market right now. Developing for mobile applications requires a lot of fine tuning because of the software and the hardware limitations of the devices (not a lot of memory available, usually depended on network connection and relatively slow processing power compared to a desktop PC) and many devs sometime fall into this trap and think that “pasting” the same PC code into their WP7 project will do the job. There are plenty of great applications out now) and surely more to come but I was relatively disappointed to see that Microsoft was really rushing things out and chasing quantity over quality.
Bing Search and Bing Maps
Bing Search and Bing Maps are fully integrated in Windows Phone 7 and thanks to the hardware search button mandatory on every device you will find yourself using Bing more than you probably originally had thought. As of right now, most of the Bing’s local content like, POI (Point Of interest), reviews and are only available if you are located in the US and the UK. People living in other countries can still try to have access to them by settings up their phone’s region to United States. Unfortunately Microsoft doesn’t have a huge data base of POI outside of America so there won’t be much to see anyway on the maps or the search results. This is probably where Android shines the most compared to Windows Phone 7. Bing Maps is really smooth and responsive it quickly locates you using WiFI and Cellular triangulation when you are in-doors and GPS outdoors (there’s no GPS settings or toggle, it’s all done automatically) but it really lacks in terms of content compared to Google’s offering. Anyway, let’s go back to search for a minute.
Hitting the search button will greet you with the daily Bing image correctly formatted for portrait and landscape viewing and also the little fun facts and info associated to it. There are 3 different ways to search on Windows Phone 7 right now:
1) Typing your search query and the hitting the search icon.
2) Tapping on the microphone icon and speaking what you want to search for (works only in English and when phone region is set to US).
3) Long press the device’s home button and speaking to the phone from anywhere within the OS (works only in English and when phone region is set to US)
Like I just said above, most of the interesting features are currently only available in the US. For example if you type or ask “Los Angeles Lakers” the first results will show the team’s latest game scores. If you ask or type “Inception” the service will return the current theater showing near you (if you enabled the location tracking feature). Finally just type a flight number or ask for its status and Bing will return the departure/arrival date/time/gate. I could give more examples but you should just try it out because it is really awesome.
The search results’ layout is probably where Microsoft’s Metro UI and panorama control shines the most. The integration with Bing Maps is also marvelous. The web tab displays the web results, Local tab shows the POI located near you and is totally integrated with Bing Maps with a nice map control that can be tapped on to jump directly to the mapping application and finally the news tab which displays all the latest news result related to your search query. There is one really important thing missing thought: Image results. I don’t see any reason why this wasn’t implemented yet and really hope that it will be added this year.
Bing Maps is really easy to use thanks to its outstanding rendering performance. Locating you only takes a couple of sucks and uses cellular and Wifi triangulation when the GPS can’t lock any satellite. You will be given the choice between the regular map view or satellite imagery (which is also automatically trigged when you zoom in closer to the ground) and real-time traffic layer but unfortunately only if you for the US. You can also search for POIs located near you and get turn-by-turn navigation driving and walking directions.
Zune Desktop and Synchronization
As you probably already know by now, Windows Phone 7 devices no longer require Microsoft’s ActiveSync (renamed Device Center in Vista) software to sync with desktop PCs but exclusively use the Zune desktop client that was first introduced with the Zune MP3 player. This is the main reason why it is impossible to directly sync Outlook with a Windows Phone 7 device because the Zune client can only handle media content which means that it will only recognize pictures, music and video files. The software can be described as Microsoft’s version of Apple’s iTunes but with a sleeker look and immensely better user experience and performance. I won’t go into a fill blown review of the software here but will just point out the different phone related features that it currently includes.
The Zune client will always automatically launch when a Windows Phone 7 device is plug-into the desktop PC and the first thing you will have to do is give a name to the device. You can then easily sync your pictures, videos and music content by dragging them from you collection and dropping in the Phone icon in the lower left corner of the application. There are many music and pictures conversion and sync options available in the settings section but keep in mind that you have zero control over the videos conversion part. The Zune software can recognize the following media formats:
|Audio formats||File extension|
|AAC audio created with AAC-LC audio codec||.m4a and .m4b|
|Windows Media Audio||.wma|
|Video formats||File extension|
|MPEG-4 media created with the H.264 video codec and the AAC-LC audio codec||.m4v and .mp4|
|MPEG-4 media created with the MP4pt2 video codec and MP3 audio codec||.avi|
|QuickTime movie created with either the MP4pt2 video codec or the H.264 video codec and the AAC-LC audio codec||.mov|
|Windows Media Center DVR||.dvr-ms|
|Windows Media Video
It is also possible to wirelessly sync a windows Phone 7 device while it is being charged up. If the WiFi connection is enabled and connected to the home network (this can be setup in the Zune software settings) the device will automatically start syncing after approximately ten minutes. This really comes in handy if you are the type of person who doesn’t often bother to hook up your device to your computer.
Besides managing your multimedia content the Zune software also gives access to the Windows Phone 7 marketplace and allows users to download and purchase application directly from their pcs. There’s seems to be a little bug or missing feature related to this functionality though. If you ever reset your device you will probably notice than some of your previously purchased/downloaded applications will be automatically re-downloaded and installed on your device. But you will quickly realize that these are only the ones that were initially downloaded/purchased via the Zune desktop software and not directly from the phone. For some totally weird reason the Live ID doesn’t save your device’s marketplace download history. But not only that! It also doesn’t remember which apps a have been previously uninstalled so you will find yourself wasting time downloading apps (you can’t cancel the ongoing downloads) that you only tested for few minutes a couple of weeks ago and quickly deleted.
Users can also partially manage their Windows Phone 7 devices via the www.windowsphone.live.com where there easy access to the phone’s SkyDrive folders, OneNote files, and the free Find MyPhone services.
Connectivity and the rest
Windows Phone 7 in its current release has support for the following connectivity features:
- Cellular Data Connection: GPRS, EDGE, RTT, 3G, HSDPA, HSUPA, EVDO, EVDV, WiMAX and LTE as detailed in the official FAQ that was later taken down.
- WiFi: 802.11b/g/n but currently can’t connect to hidden WiFi networks (that don’t broadcast their SSID)
- Bluetooth: BT 2.1 +EDR GAP / SSP / SDAP / HSP / HFP1.5 / A2DP / AVRCP / SPP / DUN / FTP / OPP / PBAP. But only to connect to wireless headsets and in-car systems. There’s no file sharing capability in the OS right now.
- GPS and aGPS: Automatically triggered by the Bing Maps application (or Big Maps control used in third party applications) when the phone is outdoors. There’s no settings or on/off toggle in the OS.
Unfortunately there’s no quick access to the Wifi, Cellular and Bluetooth settings and you will find that always having to navigate to the OS’s settings menu can be a major waste of time and breaks the whole UX flow. I really hope that Microsoft will turn the status bar into a shortcut (similar to WM6.X) so that tapping on it when it’s visible will lead you directly to the connectivity settings.
The OS also includes a built in alarm application that is relatively easy to use but seems to suffer from weird bugs on HTC devices (reboots or locks up the devices) and also a built in calculator that you can see pictured below.
Missing features and updates
It is a well-known fact that Windows Phone 7 currently lacks a lot of features that were previously supported in the Windows Mobile and also supported now in competing platforms like iOS and Android. To make things easier for you and for me I’ll just list some of the most important features that I think are missing in the current version and what I think Microsoft should fix in the forthcoming updates (in no particular order):
- Copy and Paste: Do I have to say more? This one is coming in the first update which should be pushed out in February.
- Third-party applications multi-tasking: I don’t think that Microsoft should go all out and allow any application to run in the background but they should at the very least do what Apple has done in iOS 4 and to do selectively for certain type of applications. Microsoft should also make it easier for developers to implement tombstoning in their applications. A quick task-switcher would also come in handy because going back and forth with the back and start button can be tedious.
- Tethering: This one is more important to me than third party multi-tasking. Windows Phone 7 supports it but the functionality is not yet exposed to the end user. It can already be activated on LG’s and Samsung’s devices via their diagnosis tools. See here and here.
- Fix camera settings not being saved issue.
- Implement HTML5 support in IE Mobile.
- Fix the Marketplace security issue.
- Outlook synchronization without having to jump into loopholes and export everything to a Live account.
- Allow users to change / edit their Zune Xbox Live account or simply give the ability to select the Marketplace region directly from the phone.
- A unified email inbox.
- Separate volume controls for Zune playback (music & video), Phone, headphones and ringer
- Better MMS support: Video and Audio attachments.
- Video sharing in mail and MMS.
- Give users the ability to scrub/seek trough a video by sliding their finger on the timeline.
- Synchronizations of Office files and other types of documents (PDF) via USB (via Zune software?) because it can currently only be done by mail.
- Correctly integrate Contacts with WP7 email client and Messages app. Same for the What’s new Feed.
- Better landscape support throughout the OS and especially the browser. Can I have my URL bar back please?
- MyPhone 2.0 with SMS/MMS, Bookmarks backup.
- Ability to load up and use custom ringtones.
- Improved Microsoft Exchange support.
- HTTP sockets support for third-party developers like Skype and IM apps.
- VPN support.
- Allow third-party developers to have access to the raw camera feed and finally provide a Digital Compass API so that they can start developing augmented reality applications.
- Get Bing out of Beta in European countries (other than the UK where it’s no longer in beta). This is supposedly scheduled for H1 2011. Add more regional POIs to Bing Maps.
- Native remote application for Windows Media Center / Zune similar to the iTunes Remote application on iOS
- Add Bing image results
- Show traffic in Bing Maps in more countries (currently only available in the US)
- Enable Bing Voice search in more countries (currently only available in the US). This is supposedly scheduled for H1 2011.
- Enable Smart-Sensing hyperlinks in more Countries (currently only available in the US).
- Add Voice Activated navigation to Bing Maps.
- Add augmented reality and Bare Code scanning feature in Bing Maps (it’s already available in the iPhone Bing application).
- Add Programmable shaders / HLSL to the XNA Reach Profile.
- Add a native weather and stock application similar to what’s available on iOS.
- Enable real-time multiplayer gaming.
- Universal search and allow third-party developers to use the hardware search button.
- Only re-encode videos that are over 1280×720 10Mps when transferring them with the Zune Software.
I could go on & on but I think that this is will probably be enough for now.
There’s also been a lot of controversy about a so called “data bug” in Windows Phone 7 that I think doesn’t really exist at all. A handful of users have reported that they have far exceed their monthly cellular data cap since they started using their Windows Phone 7 device and are now blaming this on a mysterious OS bug without proving anything. So I would like to list all the services that consume data in Windows Phone 7:
- Live services: Every time the People Hub and Pictures hub is opened the device updates the What’s new Feed.
- Zune Service: The Music library is updated every time it’s opened with artist Bios and Album review. Can be manually disabled in the settings.
- Xbox Live service: Updates the Spotlight feed of the Games Hub every time it’s open. Connects to XBL when Live enabled games are opened. Can be manually disabled in the settings.
- Location services: Bing Search and Bing Maps. Uses Cellular and Wi-Fi triangulation or GPS to locate the phone. Both can be disabled in the settings.
- Find My Phone: Uses Cellular and Wi-Fi triangulation when GPS isn’t available to locate the phone and then upload the coordinates to Microsoft’s servers. Can be disabled in the settings
- Marketplace service. Checks application updates.
- Phone Update service: Checks for OS updates. Can be set to only work via the Wifi connection or be disabled.
- Feedback service: Sends OS usage information logs to Microsoft. Can be set to not use Cellular connection (it will then only upload via Wifi or USB when connected to a PC) or be disabled. But it will always be re-enabled after each device reboot (this is hopefully a bug).
Finally I will always point about that the device will always shut off the WiFi connection when the screen is turned off. So, all the services will always use the phone’s cellular data connection when the phone is idle. The only time the Wifi connection doesn’t shutdown is if an application is currently being downloaded from the marketplace (or if the device is being charged). But if the Wifi connection is lost during this process the download will continue via the cellular data connection and thus potentially mess up your monthly data usage.
Microsoft is planning to push out updates to the phones several times a year and has already disclosed details about the first one scheduled to be out in February. Contrary to some urban legend, Windows Phone 7 updates are not done OTA (over the air) but always through the desktop PC with the Zune desktop software (or Mac connector on Macs). Only the scanning and notifications is done OTA and carriers have zero control over the push process once the update is validated by Microsoft this is done for security reason . Updates are only done via the Zune client for security reasons: a disaster recovery backup is created prior to the installation of the update in case something goes wrong. I really highly suggest reading my past post on this subject to learn how the whole process works.
To be competitive, Microsoft will have to push more than one update a year and try to do its best to constantly add new features to the OS in hopes to compete with Android and iOS. Unfortunately the first one coming out next month only looks like a compilation of fixes that should have been out earlier and not a full blown update that will add anything really new to the platform. The next important update that will bring some must needed features is still a few months away but Microsoft will officially talk about it in a few weeks during Mobile World Congress so I won’t start speculating on what is going to be in there or not. The fact remains that Microsoft better hurry up because Android is currently moving at a really fast pace and Apple is about to announce iOS5 shortly (and probably launch it in July).
Adding copy and paste isn’t really something I would brag about if I was Microsoft so they better stay low key on this one and announce some brand new addition to the OS later this year or they will once again be left in the cold when the Apple marketing blitz goes in full effect and when Android’s overabundance of features start to really make Windows Phone 7 look like a feature phone OS.
I’ve tried to predict what Windows Phone 7 would be back when I started MobilteTechWorld more than a year ago and lamented the fact that the HTC HD2’s hardware was being wasted with Windows Mobile 6.5 in my review. So, what do I really think of Microsoft’s latest attempt to survive and conquer the mobile market? Well, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised to see that Microsoft finally managed to integrate most of its products and services into one single platform that can effectively compete in the booming smartphone market. I admit that was really skeptical at first especially after all the delays, Windows Mobile 7 (Photon) cancellation and most importantly Microsoft’s past history with Windows Mobile. But once you experience it first-hand there’s no denying that there is a huge potential in this platform. People must realize that Windows Phone 7 is Microsoft’s first and only product that connects and interacts with the company’s whole software and services eco-system (Office, Live, Bing, Maps, Zune, Xbox, SharePoint etc..). Sure, there are many missing features that are now standard on any mobile platform and that were even present in the company’s past offerings (WM) but Windows Phone 7 was built to grow into something bigger in the future. Keep in mind that it is the smartphone OS that currently has the highest minimum hardware requirements so that the user experience is always first class. Microsoft has probably brought one of its most ambition products to date and the only way for it to succeed will be through the company’s ability to execute on time and correctly and market it. It was rushed, there’s no denying that, and Microsoft now has to move quickly, faster than its competition, to have chance in the market. Updates are going to be crucial in the coming months and hopefully Redmond will also have a more effective Marketing campaign in place too. If you are looking for an OS loaded with features then Windows Phone 7 is not yet ready for you and Android (or even iOS) may be a better choice. But if you are ready to bet on Microsoft’s vision don’t hesitate a second and go try a device for a few minutes and I’m sure that you will be pleasantly surprised.
for more Windows Phone 7 news.