Windows Phone 7 review

Windows Phone 7 review

On the yardstick where the iPhone's devilish detail makes it Satan, the HTC HD7/WP7 combo is a priest who has taken to drink, wine, women, song and has started exploring the filthier parts of the internet.

That is to say, it's had quite a lot of wickedness added (especially compared to its forebear), but there are areas where it hasn't quite got the idea. Some of that is inherent in the interface, which means that you'll simply have to accept that that's how it works; others are tweaks that can be, well, tweaked by Microsoft at some point in the future so that the overall user experience improves. It needs apps, it needs to have YouTube included, it needs copy/paste, it needs multitasking, and it needs dozens of apparently small but actually important details to be corrected to put it truly on the top level.

Microsoft has ordained (we're back with the priest again) that all Windows Phone 7 phones must
• have three buttons: Back, Home and Search, in that order
• have at least a 5 megapixel camera
• have a touch screen at least 4.3" diagonally
• have a minimum speed processor (a 1GHz ARM or equivalent).
(Wikipedia has a list if you like.)

The three buttons are context-sensitive, so Back always takes you back one screen (and it's got a long memory - you can keep going back through all your actions), while Search will search within your app (say, email or maps). Home is always home. It's a good, robust arrangement.

Physical keyboards are optional: among those going on sale from the 21st is one with a keyboard. The HTC HD7 doesn't have one.

What this means though is that you could (in theory) pick up any Windows Phone phone from any manufacturer and be able to find your way around it without trouble. That's good - really good.

Carriers and handset makers will be able to add their own software to it, but Microsoft controls the base software, and controls the timing and content of over-the-air updates. Quite how intrusive the carrier software is going to be remains to be seen - on the HD7 there was nothing from O2, though the Marketplace (its app store) included a large "HTC" category which you can't, of course, remove.

The HTC HD7 is a lovely phone, with a huge (4.3") screen. It's thin, and never felt heavy. Battery life was good - always more than a day, and often up to two or three days on standby but with data use and Wi-Fi turned on. It did sometimes feel a little large - making a phone call, the top of the screen bumped a little uncomfortably against my ear (there's a metal bevel at the top that would be better flattened) - but fine.

This is where it happens, right? The landing page. Numero uno. Well, Microsoft has come up with something that's simply unlike any other mobile platform at present. The front page has room on first view for 8 little "tiles", or six plus a broad one ("Pictures" or "Calendar" are the choices there). Each tile is meant to represent a function, rather than just an app: so the top right one in the default is "People", which is meant to indicate when someone has updated their Facebook or Windows Live (err.. aren't those being shifted to Wordpress? - Ed) feeds. Presently it doesn't include MySpace, Bebo or Twitter by default, which seems like a mistake - but also indicates, I think, how desperate Microsoft was to get this out of the door so it could sell it in time for Christmas. Little pictures within the "people" tile slowly blink on and off, indicating that things are happening among your folks.

The home screen is pushed to the left, because it has a little arrow at the top right so that you can go over to a long - potentially very, very long - list of apps.

Here, the icons are a reasonable size - but they're simply laid out in a long list. No way to putting them into folders; no way to line them side by side. In its basic form, this list is fine, but as soon as you get to iPhone-level numbers of apps, it's going to start feeling untenable. You only get 10 icons per screen. (The iPhone has up to 16, plus 4 that are persistent.)

In short, it feels like Microsoft's team have designed this a little too cleverly to be useful to real people. Where you can take in an iPhone screen pretty much at a glance to find an icon, you have to read up and down the WP7 screen. If you get to more than four screens' worth, it will quickly get boring - and the buried apps will stay there.

I'll admit miserable failure to own a Windows computer to add songs from, so I didn't test the capabilities as a music player. I did test the Zune Marketplace, which in the pre-release stages that I was testing the phone was like a 1950s Soviet supermarket: damn big, and damn empty.

I tried a Twitter client called Twitt, which was horrendous: the background interfered with reading. I later found Seesmic, a better client.

Detail, detail: signal strength, battery and Wi-Fi indicators

Windows Phone 7: missing details What would you expect to see at the top of this screen? You'll have to guess whether you've got a data connection. (This is a screen for synchronising calendars.)

As an example of missing detail that would make a huge difference: while every other phone on earth shows you in the top of the screen how strong the phone signal is, how much battery power is left, and (if it has it) what strength of Wi-Fi you're getting, WP7 shows none of those by default. It only shows them when you unlock the phone, and if you press the top area of the screen for some time (in which case you get a brief view, which then goes away).

You do get the phone strength when you're making (or about to make) a phone call, but not at other times. Given that this is a device where you'll be accessing data via mobile, I think that's a mistake. It's like a clock you can't glance at.

I sense that Microsoft's designers were motivated in this by the desire to be really different. The motivation is good; the result, not so much. You quickly discover that you do need those bits of information on a phone, in the same way that when you wake up in an unfamiliar place your first instinct is to find out what time it is and whether it's night or day.

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