A Case of Thinking Different: Windows Phone 7

A Case of Thinking Different: Windows Phone 7

Gregory Han
May 24, 2011

Something totally unexpected happened recently. I've found myself converting from a cell phone-less Apple user begrudgingly intending to break ties with Cupertino and join the Google Android invasion, but then suddently finding myself using a mobile platform I admittedly previously didn't even consider: Windows Phone 7. But after three weeks of use I've been converted by the most unlikely of companies, a company I was last invested in when a 486DX PC was my machine of choice, Madonna's "Like a Prayer" was the number one song in the nation, and smart phones were still a prayer of a concept…

This morning Microsoft liveblogged an upcoming update codenamed Mango for Windows Phone, which you can get a taste of from the video above, promising 500 new features to add to the stable of their user-friendly GUI experience. But there's a good chance you aren't even acquainted with the Windows Phone platform at all, just as I was in the dark about Microsoft's foray into mobile devices until we were given a review unit to play around for all this month. Here are some bullet point notes I've taken down since adopting the Microsoft designed mobile platform:

1) Windows Phone 7 offers a unified user interface arguably easier to use than iOS and definitely better than Android OS. Microsoft's tile-based UI is designed with the normal person in mind, a person who wants to simply check their emails, get online, keep tabs with their social networks and occasionally fire up an app. And by utilizing a "Live Tile" system (where text and images can be be updated within each tile), the UI offers a near real-time experience which stagnant icons cannot. The Live Tile option will be further enhanced with the Mango update by allowing groups of contacts to be kept together under a single tile, alongside more user control of what type of information is displayed within each tile for 3rd party developed apps (e.g. one airline app tile displayed gate number, flight time and status updating in real time).

Android users are likely to cry "foul" when it comes to Microsoft's closed philosophy in regards to UI, a common criticism of the iOS experience. But for this Apple user, I found the stricter consistency of graphical elements and UI behavior a relief after dealing with the inconsistency and poor design rampant with the Android platform thus far. Your mileage and opinion may vary, but if you're an Apple user who wants a viable alternative to the iPhone (perhaps until whichever iPhone X model strikes your fancy), then there's an argument a transition to Windows Phone will be smoother than migrating to the wild west atmosphere of Android.

2) Out of the box joy. The Samsung Focus has been out for awhile, but it's arguably the best phone out there if Windows Phone 7 is your cup of tea. The Focus' 4" Super AMOLED screen is in my opinion only second to Apple's Retina Display, with a bright, pleasantly saturated image which presents a crisp touch screen experience (the Super AMOLED made our iPad almost painful to look at after use). But equally important, the Windows Phone is easy to get setup, even for someone like myself who has been out of the game of using a cell phone in 5 years, and I was up and running using the phone in a single day like it had always been part of my tech arsenal. I was surprised how quickly I was able to integrate the Samsung Focus into work/play, especially during my week in New York when meetings with colleagues, reps and friends were pockmarked all across my Google calendar and the Focus aptly kept me in notified through a non-intrusive notification system.

I was also impressed how responsive the hardware and operating system worked hand in hand in regards to navigation; no lag and you're always just a touch/swipe away from what you need and my better half noted how quickly of a virtual keyboard typist I became over a week despite my stubby type-prone fingers (solid auto-correction). Features and options are rarely more than 1-2 presses away, and the asinine habit of hiding option controls is avoided for the most part. The glaring omission right now which is to be addressed again with the Mango update is multi-tasking (was Microsoft just following Apple's feature trajectory?), which can be a pain if you're someone who likes to switch back and forth constantly between apps, and definitely slows down the UI because each app has to restart upon reopening. All in all, on a scale of 1-10 for ease of use, I'd award the Windows Phone experience a 8.0 overall.

Just in case you're wondering, integration with OS X is a spartan affair. A Microsoft Phone 7 Connector application is available, allowing synchronization of music, video, photos and podcasts directly from iTunes and iPhoto, but the control and customization is limited. That being said, we were able to integrate all of our Google and Facebook contacts easily.

3) Windows Phone 7 is all about being social. It's clear the Windows Phone was designed with social networking in mind, even at the expense of a more robust email system (no threaded emails: boo!). Facebook integration runs deep throughout the Windows Phone experience, for better and for worse, with Facebook being at the center of a People hub/tile where all your contacts exist. Since many of my personal and professional contacts are connected via Facebook, I found the integration helpful for contact access and connection, but it can be a bit of a hassle if you're a friends list offers hundreds of contacts to scroll through (we're using a "favorite contacts" app which keeps our most common contacts in their own tile, a feature which will be integrated with the next Mango update). Yet Twitter integration is still noticeably missing currently, annoying if you like to snap photos and upload to Twitter directly (you can still use the Twitter app to do this).

Overall, I've found using a Windows Phone 7 a very enlightening experience, both from the perspective of someone who has lived without a smart phone (though I would occasionally use my better half's iPhone, so I'm not a total ignoramus) and also from the perspective of someone who didn't want to compromise and adopt something that would complicate my life, rather than simplify it. And that's where I can commend Microsoft: the Windows Phone 7 experience is simple...in a good way. In many ways, Microsoft has created the most savvy touchscreen based UI, diverging away from the desktop icon visual language both Apple and Google adopted with their respective platforms and creating a touch-based visual narrative of the user's life easily glanced or accessibly with a tap/swipe.

On a side note: a great deal of the positive experience was due in part to the markedly improved 3G service available in New York compared to my hometown of Los Angeles. AT&T's service in the Big Apple felt like broadband versus the dialup like speeds here in LA.

Yes, there's a lot Windows Phone still needs to improve, notably offering a better email system, more available apps (perhaps the platform's current biggest Achille's heel), groups within tiles, AIM/Twitter integration, options for more premium handsets on par with the iPhone 4, and modest user UI modification features (how about a color wheel for custom color tiles?). Most all of these issues and many more are supposedly being addressed with the Fall-slated 7.1 Mango update. But for this Apple user, who has long avoided most Redmond designed software, the Windows Phone experience has been one that has indeed made me "think different" about living and using a cell phone as an integrated and enjoyable extension of my online life. I always thought I'd be amongst my iPhone-toting peers when I finally would rejoin the cell phone legions, but alas, I find myself passing up the apple and most eagerly awaiting mango season now.

In the meantime, we recommend venturing over to our friends at Gizmodo, who got an opportunity to play with the preview of Mango (sometimes being on the West Coast sucks).

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