What’s Awesome About Windows Phone 7 and What Isn’t


I admit it. As many of you've suspected and accused me of over the last few months, I'm not a huge fan of Microsoft. I wouldn't exactly characterize myself as an Apple fanboy, but I'm sure others would (and have).

My own view is that any attachment as fierce as "Apple fanboy" implies to anything other than a body part is emotionally unhealthy and a waste of time and energy. I have extolled Apple for its innovations, and have equally excoriated Apple for its idiocies.

Which brings us to Windows Phone 7. Initially, I was at best cynical, and then lukewarm up to WP7, the Kin phones, didn't help (although I wasn't as hard on Kin as other reviewers were). But I've been playing with the HTC Surround Windows Phone 7, and, God help me, I really like it — the OS, not necessarily the phone. I like WP7 in many ways more than iOS.

Yes, there are many things I don't like about WP7 — what kind of cynical Apple fanboy/Microsoft hater would I be if I didn't? — but there aren't many. Instead of stupidly listing 7 things I like/and or dislike (been there, done that), suffice it to say most everything I like about the Windows Phone 7 is how you get to stuff.

Home Screening

Android's and Apple's interface (and even BlackBerry's) consists of multiple swipable screens filled with rigid 3 x 4 tiny icon grids. Once you get past the first screen with your most-frequently-accessed apps, I'll bet you have trouble remembering what screen other apps are on. As we all know, we Apple and Android owners have downloaded dozens of apps but actually and regularly use few of them.

Microsoft has cleverly recognized this smartphone not-all-apps-are-accessed-equally differential and added a whimsical quality to the whole GUI proceeding. WP7 limits the primary app access to two screens — a main vertical scrolling home page to which you can pin not just as many regularly accessed apps as you'd like, but as many websites, contacts, games, song tracks, whatever, as you'd like. Swipe left and you get an easily scrollable alphabetical list of all your apps, pinned to the home page or not. No more muttering "What page did I put that app on?"

With its gentle pastel color schemes, the whole WP7 gestalt is clean, light and airy like a House Beautiful layout, non-tech non-threatening, unrushed, inviting, almost effeminate — especially when you change the theme from white-on-color/black to color/black-on-white, which I highly recommend.

Icon Find What I Want

I also love the large, square two-across or single wide rectangular icons. They are easier to quickly identify than the small iPhone and Android icons, and numerical update notifications (new phone messages, emails or texts, app updates, etc.) are large and obvious.

And some of the icons are alive! Thumbnails from your contact list pop and move around the People icon. Put a song on pause, and the artist's photo culled from… someplace… appears and does some Ken Burns movement in the Music & Video app. A photo from your collection is arrayed across the wide rectangular Pictures icon.

In fact, all the entire WP7 interface is colorful and ebullient, the large sans serif font announcing each page with joy.

What I'd Change

I'd like to choose the color of each home-screen square, and I'd like to choose either a square or wide rectangle for a particular icon, and I'd like to choose the photo in the Pictures icon. I'd also like the phone's status — battery meter and signal bars — to be a permanent on the home screens. Right now you have to tap the top of the screen to have them pop up.

And there's no need for separate icons for each email account; it's actually annoying. Let's just have a single "Email" icon, or at least an option for one, behind which would be a list of each of your accounts and a unified inbox.

And once more apps become available, that alphabetical list on the second page is going to get longer than I-80. What's needed is what Apple does in its Contact list — a vertical tab stop alphabet to navigate to a particular alphabetical section.

Miscellaneous Pros and Cons

Having the Zune software to sync music, video, games and apps, and being able to shop for apps on a PC, is a huge relief compared to Android, which offers none of these conveniences. But while convenient, the airiness that works on the Windows Phone doesn't work on the PC software. Zune software's expansive layout limits the number of song tracks in view, and offers little of iTune's flexibility (for instance, listing tracks in order of size to make it easy to eliminate huge files from a phone's limited memory).

I love being able to press and hold the camera shutter key and have the camera app activated regardless of where I am on the phone, including sleep. It saves the trouble of having a camera app pinned to the home screen. You also can have snapped photos automatically uploaded to Microsoft's cloud, SkyDrive. But, at least on the HTC Surround, the camera app wouldn't remember adjusted camera settings. Resolution defaults are 5MP for still photos, VGA for video. If you choose a lower resolution for stills and/or the higher HD resolution for video for a particular session, Surround reverts to the default resolutions when you leave then return to the camera app. Laughably, there's a "Restore to Default" choice in both the camera and video settings. Gee, thanks.

WP7 merges as many phonebooks as you'd like to import (Google, Facebook, SIM card, Outlook, etc.), bringing all communications and social networking options into a single People contact card. But like Android, I cannot figure out how to get the app to list alphabetically by last name. I'm sure, like me, many of you remember the last names of business contacts but can't remember their first names on a dare. Even if someone can tell me how to change the listing to last name first, it shouldn't be an issue — just default to last name listing, or at least give me the choice. And the contact list needs the same go-to-a-letter option as the apps. Scrolling and scrolling and scrolling - and scrolling -down to the W's to find my family members in a list hundreds of names long is untenable.

WP7 is the only phone with included official MS Office apps, which is remarkably handy and for which I have no corresponding complaint. And WP7's predictive text is the best I've used. You get multiple choices for each word, including proper nouns. I make far fewer errors and have to stop to correct my mis-typing far less frequently on the Surround than on iPhone.

My Recommendation

If you've yet to switch to a smartphone, I'd definitely choose WP7, at least over Android, if for nothing else because of the syncing Zune software. And I'd wait for either a Verizon version or the bitchin' HTC HD7 from T-Mobile. AT&T is still AT&T.

So, you may be thinking: you love WP7 so much, are you going to switch from the iPhone 4?

Are you nuts? I'm way too invested in the iPhone ecosystem. They got me. And there are still way too few apps for WP7. And, no matter how much I like it, you should never buy v1.0 of anything. But, conversely, WP7 is a damn good v1.0.

And, after all, I am an Apple fanboy.

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