For now, Windows Phone 7 is arriving on six phones in the U.S.: the Samsung Focus ($199.99, 4 stars), HTC Surround ($199.99, 3 stars) and LG Quantum on AT&T; the HTC HD7 and Dell Venue Pro on T-Mobile; and the HTC 7 Pro on Sprint. Verizon has said it may support the OS in 2011, but hasn't made any clear commitments.
All the initial Windows Phone 7 models have a lot in common. They run on the Qualcomm QSD8250, 1GHz ARM Cortex-A8 chipset. They all have 800-by-480 screens, 5-megapixel cameras, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and FM radios. They vary in terms of hardware keyboards, phone performance, camera quality, preloaded software, and available storage.
The Basic Interface
Windows Phone 7's home screen is made of big blocks of bright colors, called "live tiles." Live tiles aren't quite icons, and they aren't quite widgets. They could be apps, such as the contact book. They could be individual contacts. Or they could be collections of related apps, such as "Xbox Live" (all the games on your phone) or "Music & Video." Slide the screen to the right and you'll get a more traditional app menu.
Whenever it's given a choice between pretty and fast, Windows Phone 7 chooses pretty. Screens slide and twist and flip whenever possible. This will infuriate geeks who just want to get to the data as quickly as they can; it might even be a dealbreaker for them. On the other hand, my wife (who is an artist) loves it.
Text entry is handled by two touch keyboards—one portrait, one landscape. There's no facility for third-party systems like Swype. The keyboards are fine, letters pop up when you press them, and the system autocorrects. It's certainly better than the older Android keyboards; it's about on par with the current Android and Apple solutions, at least if you don't count Swype.
Microsoft doesn't let carriers and manufacturers mess with Windows Phone 7's interface the way they can with Android. Rather, they're allowed to add six applications, all removable. On the two phones I've tested so far, AT&T adds five apps and the manufacturer gets one. For more details, check out the individual phone reviews.
E-Mail, Social Networking and Web
When you're setting up a Windows Phone, you're asked to add a Windows Live ID. You need this for the Marketplace and Xbox Live, but Hotmail comes along with it. The OS also supports Microsoft Exchange e-mail, AOL, Google, Yahoo, and POP/IMAP, all with a rich array of attachment support and all (except POP) with some sort of "push" option. There's no universal inbox; each account is its own Live Tile, showing the number of new messages. E-mail looks great in full HTML.
Contacts come from Outlook, Windows Live, Google, and Facebook. Calendars sync with Outlook, Windows Live, and Google. Windows Phone 7 doesn't sync PIM information locally with PCs, which will affect a small but very passionate group of Outlook users. You need to have your addresses and calendars in the cloud—that could be Microsoft's cloud, Google's cloud, or a corporate cloud.
The OS clearly works best with Exchange 2007 servers. It had a hard time communicating with corporate Exchange 2003 SP2 servers on two different phones, stalling out when trying to detect settings, and once it was set up, not being able to access a Global Address List. That said, a lot of phones have trouble with our company's elderly e-mail system. Our experience underscores the fact that you really need to work with your IT department if you're trying to get essential business data.
Windows Phone is very reliant on Facebook for social networking. Facebook dives into the address book, combining with the various contact lists from your e-mail programs; the OS tidily combines duplicate contacts and lets you manually combine cards as well. Facebook updates and Wall posts are displayed on both contact cards and in the address book as a whole, and you can comment on your friends' walls directly from the address book.
Since this is Version 1.0, it doesn't cover all communications possibilities. Twitter is an app disconnected from the core address book. MySpace is totally absent. There's also no IM program, yet.
The Windows Phone 7 Web browser is based on Internet Explorer 7 and 8, and it displays desktop Web pages very clearly. Pop-ups appear; Flash doesn't. Dynamic pages are semi-supported—it's hard to drag little selection handles, for instance. The browser zooms smoothly with pinch-to-zoom, and pages show up in both landscape and portrait mode, though you can only enter new Web addresses in portrait mode. You can spawn several tabs which appear as little thumbnails.
The browser isn't that fast, though. On a Wi-Fi network when compared with the iPhone 4 running iOS 4.1, the Samsung Focus and HTC Surround loaded both WAP and full Web pages considerably more slowly than the iPhone—sometimes only half as fast.
Apps and Xbox
It won't surprise you to know that Bing and Microsoft Office play major roles in Windows Phone 7. Bing, of course, is the default Web search engine; it also offers pinch-to-zoom maps. On my sample phones, Bing maps locked onto my location quickly and offered driving or walking directions. But it's still behind the leader, Google Maps. It doesn't do turn-by-turn, spoken driving directions or transit directions. When you zoom in on individual blocks, you don't see buildings or businesses tagged. And it got some addresses in New York City quite wrong, for instance putting JFK Airport in Manhattan.
The Microsoft Office implementation on Windows Phone is excellent. You can create, edit, and round-trip Word, Excel, and OneNote files, as well as edit PowerPoint docs. There's only one false note: no easy way to copy those files to and from your desktop. You have to send them to yourself via e-mail, save them on Microsoft's SkyDrive (for OneNote only) or store them on a SharePoint server.
Windows Phone 7 carries the Xbox Live brand, and gaming is one of the real weaknesses of the competing Android platform. At launch, Windows Phone 7 is probably already ahead of Android, but is behind Apple, the leader in mobile gaming.
Games you download appear under an Xbox Live icon on the home screen. There are only a few available right now, but they're very good-looking, with high-test graphics and smooth action. Even casual games such as Monopoly have 3D graphics. I'm frustrated by the lack of multiplayer XBox Live games at launch, though. In Windows Phone's interface, you can see your avatar, various gaming achievements and leader boards, but there's no option to play games with your friends. Microsoft says that feature is coming very soon, perhaps by the time you read this.
Microsoft says about 1,000 apps will be available by US launch, with "several hundred more" arriving each following week. A whole range of big names may be available by December, including Netflix, Kindle, Sling Player, ESPN, Facebook, and games from EA. The big-name apps were starting to filter into the store at the end of our review period; EA and Glu Mobile games, for instance, started appearing the afternoon that this review published.
Third-party apps aren't allowed to run in the background, though some apps save their states to resume to the same place when relaunched. Microsoft's multitasking is much weaker than Apple's and Android's here.
That said, the Marketplace is an interesting and pretty usable experience. At first it will be curated; only 2,000 developers who Microsoft prefers will be allowed in. That will (hopefully) populate the catalog with some high-quality stuff before the floodgates open. You can try any app before you buy, and you can bill apps directly to your AT&T phone bill. There's no option to return apps you don't like, though.
I especially like how you can browse the app catalog on a PC and schedule downloads to be synced over to your phone. If you choose to buy your app on the phone itself, titles under 10MB can be downloaded over 3G. For anything larger, you'll need a Wi-Fi network.
The Zune Phone
Windows Phone's biggest selling point for now—and, not coincidentally, the feature that isn't Version 1.0—is Zune. Every Windows Phone is basically a Zune HD. Okay, it doesn't have The Social, that weird feature that lets Zunes see what other Zunes nearby are playing. But that's not a huge loss as far as I'm concerned.
Windows Phones sync with PCs running the Zune software either through a USB cable or wirelessly, by connecting to the same Wi-Fi network as the PC. Microsoft will also offer a limited Mac client, which syncs unprotected music and videos from your iTunes library via a USB cable. There's no mass storage mode—you have to use the Zune software to sync.
The Zune desktop experience is richer than any other mobile-phone media option, including iTunes. You can buy a wide range of music, rent or buy movies and TV shows, or download podcasts, and browse the Windows Phone 7 app catalog and download apps. What makes Zune special, though, is Zune Pass, a $14.99 combined subscription/purchase option that gives you unlimited music access, plus 10 song purchases per month. For big music fans, that's a good deal.
The Zune interface relies so much on sliding panels that it's a little too easy to get lost in it, but after a little while, you adapt. It certainly beats the 1999-era music player on most Android phones. Music sounds clear over wired headphones plugged into the 3.5-mm jack that's standard on every Windows Phone, and videos look sharp.
Zune is a finished-looking, smooth, rich experience. Microsoft has immediately vaulted itself into the top rank of entertainment phones. It would be on par with the iPhone, if the iPhone didn't have an overwhelming number of third-party apps such as Hulu Plus and SlingPlayer on its side.
Microsoft is already planning new features for Windows Phone 7, and the company says that updates will come promptly. While manufacturers aren't allowed to mess with Microsoft's updates, carriers still have to approve them, which could slow down the process. We still think it will go more smoothly than the Android upgrade mess.
So what's down the road? Copy and paste is high on Microsoft's priority list. The compant demoed the feature to a group of journalists, and it's pretty straightforward: tap, drag a few handles, and you're copying or pasting. Multiplayer games are coming soon; ditto for high-quality, third-party entertainment options like Slacker, Pandora, and Netflix. Turn-by-turn navigation and better SkyDrive integration may also be coming soon. I assume third parties will also fill the instant-messaging gap.
My biggest concern is Microsoft's snubbing of a landscape-format interface, which can make using Windows Phone 7 a bit awkward on some devices. If every Windows Phone was portrait-mode like the Samsung Focus, that would be fine, but phones like the HTC Surround and LG Quantum practically beg to be held sideways. I hope Microsoft makes the OS more compatible with that usage.
Windows Phone 7 is a very impressive effort. It brings a great-looking new design to the market, along with powerful Office productivity and Zune entertainment features. The XBox linkage is interesting, but really dependent on third parties writing multiplayer games. Windows Phone 7 might cut into iPhone sales slightly, but it's more of a threat to the chaotic Android consumer experience. What we have here is an iPhone alternative with Apple's level of curation, but different priorities and choices. Notice I'm not mentioning BlackBerry. Windows Phone doesn't match BlackBerry's core messaging strengths yet, and I think enterprise buyers will want to wait for the platform to settle down a little before evaluating it for big business purchases.
The battle is now shifting to apps. Windows Phone 7 has the basic features to make it in the marketplace. But Apple has a massive head start, and Android has huge market share which could make it appealing. If Windows Phone can draw third-party developers over from Android, it could sap some of that platform's energy. But it's clear here that despite the rough edges, Microsoft is a mobile player again.