Feb 4, 2011

Windows Phone 7 (OS) review


Ah, Windows Phone 7. I said it once and I’m going to say it again. This is my dream phone. Ever since I had a Zune I am pretty much in love with what Microsoft has been doing with this typography driven operating system. It has been my inspiration with my designs; as you can see with this blog. So, if you’re a Zune HD owner, a Windows Mobile owner, or a non-Microsoft device owner at all, do you consider on getting a Windows Phone? Well, I hope this review will get your questions answered.

  
START SCREEN


I thought it was just proper to "start" off the review with the Windows Phone 7’s "start" screen. Yes, it's an equivalent of a home screen, but the same metaphor that Windows have had since Windows 95, when you click on the "Start" button on the taskbar will give you your list of applications. It was later replaced with the recent applications and replaced the word "Start" with just the Windows logo. Same here with Windows Phone 7. You tap the Windows logo and whatever you are doing, it will send you to the start screen. 

In the start screen you'll get two panes. Your pinned items, and when you swipe to the right, you'll get your alphabetically organized application list. You can pin almost anything on the start screen - games, apps, documents, artists, websites, and more. Some "tiles" are live; so you'll get some information like miss calls, new email or text, etc. It serves as like your notification system, in a non-intrusive, see-when-you-want-to approach. Because with Android for example, when you get a miss call or a text, the notification will always show up on the top bar of the screen and will always be prone to clutter.


I said you can pin almost anything. That's because there is one thing that you can't pin, and that is, the individual settings. Yes you can pin the "settings" app, but you cannot pin things like brightness settings, wifi settings, airplaine mode, or color scheme settings. Quite annoying at first specially I don't have any data plan so I'm constantly going through the WiFi settings, but now, with the help of homebrew, you can get these settings to be pinned on the start screen. But I didn't change mine yet.As I got used to just having the settings app pinned on the start screen.

Settings pinned on Start Screen.

These pinned tiles are almost like widgets on Android. but their difference is, Tiles are just squares or rectangles, unlike widgets where they have different shapes and sizes. I have no problems with Widgets, but with tiles, you get a uniformed arrangement of your pinned items. Sometimes widgets are really scattered to look at, and that's Microsoft's reason why they decided to limit the flexibility of these tiles.


And it won't be a review if I didn't address the "just one homescreen" that everyone has been complaining about the OS. True, you only get one customizable homescreen, but when I was using Android, I found myself not really using the multiple homescreen feature of Android. On the left, I got the toggle settings widget, on the center I have the Google search widget and some app shortcuts, and on the right I only have, guess what? The Advanced Task Killer widget. Plus, the home homescreens on Android are not scrollable from top to bottom, are they? So technically, you'll get more shortcuts and tiles to the Windows Phone 7's start screen as you can pin unlimited amount of stuff than you could ever do with Android, even if you have 7 or 9 homescreens.

Swipe the start screen to the right -- you'll see the alphabetically arranged application list. There's no Grid view here. Microsoft has made it clear to not use a grid of application icons as that has been quite the norm for mobile OS's today. Which really feels like they've become to look so similar today. 

A side note: When my Windows Phone came with all that AT&T clutter on the app list, I was surprised that you can uninstall those apps if you don't want them. Unlike with Android which you cannot do anything with it unless you root your device.

TOP BAR

With Android, the different notifications I talked about earlier on its top bar will not go away unless you pay attention to them. So most of the time you'll have a busy and unnecessarily occupied top bar. With Windows Phone on the other hand, most of the time it will just show the time of the day on the upper right corner. That's it! When you tap on the upper edge of the screen it will show you some icons that are not app-related, but related to the device as a whole. Things like your signal strength, WiFi indicator, battery, and silent mode indicator. Some of these indicators will show up just when there is something going on involving them. For example, when you're charging, the battery icon appears with a charging animation. If the device connects to a wifi, a wifi signal animation appears. 

Some people don't like the idea of tapping on top to get these indicators, but honestly though, do you always look at the signal strength, the battery level or the wifi settings? I don't think so. And if you do, they're just a one tap away. I think it would be good to have an ability to always show the indicators to shut up the complainers, but for me, I just love how genius this implementation is that makes your screen look cleaner. Here's a comparison between an Android top bar versus the Windows Phone 7.



See, less clutter and way more beautiful.


LOCK SCREEN




The Windows Phone 7's lock screen is a lot similar on the lock screen of Zune HD's where a background image covering all of the screen and you'll unlock the device with a swipe up gesture. But with WP7, you'll get information about the time, day of the week, the date of the month, and the indicators such as battery, signal, wifi and silent. On the bottom of the screen you'll get your notifications. Your missed calls, unread texts, unread emails (you'll see the icons if it is on Hotmail, Yahoo!, or Gmail.). If you have a calendar appointment coming soon, it'll show up too -- with the complete location information and time details. 

The information laid out on the Windows Phone 7's lock screen is far more informative than any of the other mobile operating systems, and yet it feels like it is the simplest and cleanest-looking lock screen from the rest.


NAVIGATION AND USER EXPERIENCE

Navigating and the user interface on Windows Phone 7 is simply put, you'll always feel that it is in motion. Everytime you get out of a screen, you'll see the tiles or items flying in or out on the view. It's not the typical zoom out or zoom in animation that you see with iOS or Android, it is much better. I just realize how important these transition animations to the user experience. For example, when you tap on something on your start screen, the tiles will quickly fly through the left and the item that you tapped is the last one that will move; making you know that that is the item that you tapped. So even though there is an animation effect, it still gave you information. Unlike on iOS or Android, which has these unnecessary zoom in effect.

Another major contributor of a good user experience is a good user interface. I have talked about how ugly mobile operating systems has become and the largest reason for that are those non-evolving UI elements such as buttons, icons, and those gradient or striped backgrounds. On Windows Phone 7, all of that are doesn't exist. The way how Windows Phone 7 was designed to not include gradients, gloss, reflections, shadows and any popular UI elements today, is beyond my understanding on how Microsoft can make the user interface look absolutely beautiful. And instead of having gradient or patterned backgrounds, Windows Phone 7 has usually just has a black or white background. If you're on a hub or an app with a panorama view, you'll have a background COMPLETELY relevant to the app or the hub. These backgrounds also change; meaning you'll not going to be bored with a single and none moving background image.

Windows Phone 7's UI design

When we go to Windows Phone 7's buttons, you'll have icons that is outlined by a circle or a square; for you to know that it is a button. No unnecessary gradient or bubbly effect in to them that is proven to look old over time. Windows Phone 7's Metro UI design language looks simple, clean, classic looking yet modern; kinda like retro. Hey retro and metro!

Small things that they have added to the UI sometimes contribute a lot to the experience. An example for this is that when you tap a tile or a list, the item you pressed will react to the corner you pressed. It's a small thing that makes you feel that the OS sits on a rich 3D environment. But what a surprise for me in the user interface is that how you long-press items. Wait, what? How can someone love long presses? They're a pain! (Or at least what Android people are telling us.) But anyway, on Windows Phone 7, long press is all throughout the platform. If for example, you want to pin an app, delete a message, uninstall an app, you'll need to long press. But what really is a thing to love for with them is how an item reacts when you long press it. When you long press an item on a list, a small line will appear until it reaches the edge of the screen to show the menu available. And you can cancel the long press as long as it didn't touch it. That's an indication from long presses that you don't get with other mobile OS.  And then, other items displayed that you didn't tap and hold will be somehow shrink in size and dim a bit; a visual cue that letting you know that the item you pressed is the one that is closer to you.

And I gotta refute what Pocketnow had said about there are 30ish locations where you can tap and hold. I thought that was a little bit misleading, as there's just only 4 UI elements that you can tap and hold. Here's the list:
  1. Tiles
  2. Lists
  3. Backgrounds(on certain apps)
  4. Websites and links
See, way shorter than what Pocketnow had suggested. I think it's automatic when you see these elements, you immediately assume that they can be long-pressed. But if they can't be, then you move on.

KEYBOARD

Portrait and Landscape keyboard in Windows Phone 7.
I probably don't need to tell you how great Windows Phone 7 keyboard is, as I think every review I have read agrees with me. But what is really awesome about the keyboard is how it sounds. There are different tones when you press a key and it's soothing to hear. Sometimes, when I am in silent mode, I feel a little sad to not hear the key sound, so I immediately turn off the silent mode before I begin typing. I think it even helps to minimize errors while you type.

 HUBS AND INTEGRATION

Another important feature of Windows Phone are hubs. These hubs are like mini-collection of things that are categorized with one another. Think of hubs as places to visit to. People hub is like a club that you meet people to socialize. The games hub is like a game store where you get your games from. The office hub is like your desk with documents in it. You get the point.
The People Hub

First you have the people hub, in where all of your contacts (Hotmail, Facebook, Yahoo!, Gmail) are in one place. If you synced with your Facebook account, when you go through a person's profile, it will show his/her latest status, friend comments, etc.Of course you can comment on these updates as well as comment directly from the person's wall. This is also similar with the Pictures hub. In the pictures hub, you'll see your captured images and videos from the device, as well as recent photos from friends, and yes, you can comment on them. A great feature of Windows Phone is that your photos uploaded from Facebook and Windows Live are also viewable on this hub and saves you the time into syncing them manually. Think of that as your cloud storage for photos. It really seem that way.

The games hub

Next up is the games hub. I really like the idea of all of your games in one place. Sure you can put games inside a folder on iOS or Android, but in Windows Phone 7, once the app is classified as games, it'll be automatically placed on the games hub. I think it helps a lot to minimize clutter. As for Android, you'll see every game application icon on your app drawer. Which often makes me scroll up or down just to find yourself lost while getting the game application you want.

Also in the games hub is your Xbox Live avatar. I don't have an Xbox so the experience is new to me. I love the idea of having a centralized place to find all of your achievements. But unfortunately, I don't know any friends to boast my profile in the moment as 1; my gamerscore's pretty low and 2; I have no xbox live friends yet. So add me! (MichaelJacob02)

Then there's the marketplace hub. In this hub you get all of your application downloads and updates. You'll also see some of the featured and newest apps and games. But also included in this hub are items on the Zune marketplace. I am kinda wishing that they include movies and tv show purchases as well in the future. Speaking of purchases, when you purchase an app and tried to download it again in the future, you'll no longer be charged again as long as you have the same Windows Live account signed in with the device.

And no, apps on Windows Phone aren't downloadable and syncable via the Zune Software. Yes, you can purchase and make the Zune PC application to install it to your device, but applications are not visible anywhere on the PC software, unlike the Zune HD.

The Music + Videos hub
The next hub is the Music and Videos hub. Here, you'll see all of the media you synced with the device. Your music, videos, and podcasts. You'll also see an image of the last artist that you recently played. Some of the applications can also be viewed in here, such as YouTube and Slackr Radio. Although I love the new interface of the now playing interface, I am missing such features from the Zune HD like the changing artist background (you only get one artist image with Windows Phone) and the screensaver mode. But no biggy, I can honestly say that I have been using my Windows Phone Zune player than my Zune HD.

But what is really missing from Windows Phone is the ability to go into a part of a video instantly. You'll have to press the fast forward button or rewind to get to the part you want. Plus, the overlay of these controls are a little bit too big in there. It often intrudes your video viewing as it covers almost half of the screen.

Windows Phone 7's Video player overlay is too big.

And the last hub is the Microsoft Office hub. Similar with other hubs, this hub has all your office files like documents, powerpoints, and excel files. When you download a document from an email, it'll be automatically be saved and located on the Office hub. Synchronization with SharePoint I am sure is great, although I do not know how to set up one. I am hoping in the future to be able to sync documents through the Zune software.

MULTITASKING, WEB BROWSING, SPEED, AND THIRD PARTY APPS 

Right now, Windows Phone lacks a real multitasking. But it does have some sort of multitasking. For one, music playback on the Zune player can be done even when you're on a different application. Plus, throughout the operating system and for some third party apps, it'll let you continue where you are the last time you accessed the application. And, when you're in the start screen, when you press the back button, Windows Phone will send you to your recently opened applications. It's there when you need it, but doesn't bother you when you don't, unlike Android and iOS that needs task killers to free up some space; in Windows Phone, it don't let you worry with that. It gets you to the application you want at the moment, focuses you with that, and then go to another application without even thinking about closing your last app.

I just know that the web browsing experience will be really fast and fluid with Windows Phone as the Zune HD performs so well. I think with the loading times, scrolling, pinching in and out on webpages are faster than any of the other mobile OS. Here's a video proof for that. The guy making the test doesn't even believe with the results.

Talking about speeds. I honestly have not experienced any lag from this device at all. Although with Microsoft's requirement to get at least a 1GHz processor, I think Windows Phones are way more responsive not only during web pages but also on games compared to Android at least. I don't understand why Android is so laggy. Here's a video of the not yet released Motorola Atrix 4g, in which it has a dual core 1 ghz processor and still experiences sluggishness. I think I understand the need for better processors on Android, but I think the 1GHz specification for a Windows Phone will be a standard for a long time.

Thought you'll miss Twitter? Twitter has an official Windows Phone 7 app along with many third party Twitter apps. Most of them are free!

But what do you really need a good processor for? That's right. Applications. Windows Phone 7 might only have 7000+ apps, which is not that bad considering webOS has been here for almost two years now and they only have 5000+ apps and it survived. Windows Phone's three months in the market I can safely say that on the games department -- it has better games than what is offered to Android. I really like "The Harvest", "Fruit Ninja" and "Jame's Patterson's Women's Murder Club" all of which are Xbox live games that has been making me waste time. But there are also free games such as "Ice Ball," "Chicks'n'Vixens" and "Swipy Man" has been making me not do my work as well.

CONCLUSION

So, Is Windows Phone 7 good for you? Well, one thing's for sure. It is good for me. It's not perfect, as you read, but the only person who can tell if you would really enjoy a Windows Phone is you. If you are impressed with it, then get one. You can always return it if you don't like it. I'm sure you'll be in the spotlight and be envied by friends if you decided to.


 
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