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Back in the phone game
By Nick Burklow

Microsoft once owned the market when it came to mobile operating systems. Research In Motion stepped up with its Blackberry and took out a big chunk of that share, and later Microsoft let Windows Mobile go stagnant. Apple released the iPhone, and Google now has Android. Microsoft finally got its act together and went back to the drawing board to create a fresh new mobile operating system from the ground up. The result is Windows Phone 7.

General user interface
Windows Phone 7 has one home screen, unlike that of Android and Apple's multiple home-screen setup. WP7's home screen is filled with tiles. These tiles could be a third-party application, your SMS or e-mail inbox or pretty much anything else you fancy. You can add as many as you want, and instead of swiping left or right, you simply scroll down to access your content.

You have one large image that you can scroll through, seeing one panel at a time, along with part of the next panel. Microsoft has dubbed this interface the Metro UI.

Swiping right off the home screen takes you to a list of your installed applications. Beyond that, some of the tiles or applications launch a hubs page. This isn't really a full-on application, but more of a gathering of information for a particular set of content.

Notifications for things such as a new e-mail or SMS message drop down from a shade at the top of the screen. This is similar to how Android handles notifications, and is an improvement to how Apple's iPhone pops up with very intrusive notifications. Pressing one of the volume buttons displays your music controls.

Of note is the fact that WP7 does not support third-party application multitasking, and at launch, it will not have copy-and-paste support. The latter will be coming with a software update in early 2011. But for now, Microsoft has no plans to allow true third-party multitasking. This means no streaming music while viewing a Web page. This puts it a step behind its competition.

Input methods
At launch, all the WP7 devices in the U.S. will be touch-screen-only devices.  Fortunately, the guys and gals in Redmond got the keyboard right. It's fast, responsive, has a good layout and is second only to the iPhone.

Besides the keyboard, you will find that performing a long press will provide you with what equates to a right click on a mouse. This function is present throughout the UI, but its exact function varies from app to app.

Social networking and contacts
This is where we start to get into what a "hub" constitutes. There is no true stand-alone contact manager. WP7 is a very social platform, giving you the option to integrate Facebook into your contacts. Be forewarned, though, that doing so adds everyone from your Facebook account into your people hub. It even goes so far as to add photos they upload into your "what's new" section. Do you really want images from the third-grade friend you haven't talked to in 25 years showing up?  

Many people are used to having 100, maybe even 200 contacts on their phone. Imagine having to scan through four times that many because everyone you have friended on Facebook is in that list.

For being such a social platform, it's a shame that WP7 has zero Twitter integration. Not to mention that the likes of Linkedin and MySpace are not present, either. This seems like a faux pas, given that these social services are still major players - and in the case of Twitter, getting more popular by the day.

Messaging
E-mail in WP7 is clean and straightforward. Setup for most major e-mail providers is automated, as it is with most smart phone operating systems these days. You also have the option to manually setup IMAP and POP accounts. And of course Exchange is supported. The only real issue is the omission of a unified inbox. 

SMS and MMS live in a tile on your home screen (as does each individual e-mail account you set up). There is nothing really out of the ordinary to report here. WP7 takes the speech-bubble approach, just as Android and the iPhone do. It would be nice if the incoming and outgoing speech bubbles were different colors. Pictures in your MMS show up in line with the text and can be saved to the phone.

Finding stuff
Search is big business these days, and it's becoming increasingly important to have search implemented well on your mobile device.

The WP7 search is accessed by the search hardware button on the phone (however, this button may have a different function depending on the app you are using). This brings up Bing search, of course, and you can search by voice or text entry. Unfortunately, the search function is not a universal search, so you won't be seeing results that include content on your phone.

Music, maps and the Web
Microsoft did not make a Zune phone, as many had expected, but it was sure to include the Zune platform in WP7. If you have ever used a Zune HD, there will be no surprises here. An additional $14.99 on top of your cell-phone plan nets you a Zune Pass subscription. Having unlimited access to all that music on a phone is a very nice thing, indeed. You may also side-load content to the phone via wireless syncing with the Zune software on your PC. Microsoft has even thrown Apple OS X users a bone and built a Mac-compatible sync client for WP7. (Note: it is still in beta.)

Just as Bing is used for search, you will find the maps app uses the Bing service as well. The implementation in WP7 is solid, gaining a GPS fix quickly and giving the option of satellite imagery. There's even the inclusion of real-time traffic information. While there is no turn-by-turn navigation built in, a la Android, the maps app does handle directions well.

We all love to hate Internet Explorer, but its implantation here is done well. The Web browser in WP7 is made using desktop class code from both IE 7 and 8 that has been heavily modified for handheld devices. All the features you would expect are present, including pinch to zoom (in or out). You can "pin" bookmarks to your home screen as well, creating a tile with a small image of the site on it for quick access. Pages render well, and the speed is comparable to other major smart-phone platforms.  

While the browser's performance is  solid, its video support is null. There is no Flash Support, no Silverlight support and Microsoft even left out the new standard that is HTML5.  

Microsoft Office
Windows Phone 7 includes two major things that differentiate it from the other players. The first is the inclusion of a mobile version of Office, which will excite the suits.  

You will find Word, Excel and PowerPoint here. You are able to view, edit and create documents (view and edit only for PowerPoint.) Keep in mind this is still a mobile platform, and while there are a lot of editing options for Excel, don't expect the full-blown version. Editing options for Word are a bit weak as well. However, in a pinch it will suffice, and what is there works smoothly.

WP7 includes access to SharePoint servers and offers OneNote access as well. For the power business user, this could just seal the deal. Keep in mind, though, when using Office, you still won't have copy and paste.

Xbox live gaming
The second major advance is the inclusion of Xbox Live integration. Just as Apple has positioned the iPhone (and iPod Touch and iPad) as a major handheld gaming device, so too can Microsoft with all the WP7 devices, thanks to Xbox Live.   

Single-player and turn-based games are available, with head-to-head games coming later. Achievements can be earned as well during game play. Xbox Live on WP7 is great, and with some development time will be even more amazing.

Third-party applications
Currently, third-party apps for the platform exist, but they're terrible. Reports show that the applications are slow to load, stutter during scrolling and have to save-state, so that every time you lock the phone, the app has to reload. This will unquestionably result in a frustrating user experience until further development remedies the situation. Microsoft needs to allow third-party apps to run in the background, and until that happens, this device is good but will never be great.

Conclusion
Microsoft has done well to ditch the old Windows Mobile platform and start anew. With the creation of WP7, they have built a mobile operating system that has staying power and should get them through the next several years. 

My recommendation is give it time. While it's good now, it has the potential to be great one or two years down the road. Once developers get solid, working third-party apps - and with any luck multitasking gets added - WP7 will be a major threat. For now, there are better choices out there from Apple and Google.

That said, if WP7 is the choice for you, you will find one device each on AT&T and T-Mobile starting Nov. 8 for an entry fee of $199.99 with a two-year agreement.

 

Story published Friday, December 3, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 7 )

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