February 24, 2011

Windows Phone 7 is the Best Windows I've Ever Tried

While I am typically skeptical when it comes to products from Microsoft, I am remarkably surprised by the great quality of Windows Phone 7. Over the last few days, I have been using an HTC HD7 device running Windows Phone 7 alongside my Android devices and occasional iPod Touch use, and without reservation, I believe the Windows Phone 7 experience to be a serious challenger to both platforms in terms of quality, intuitive use and simplicity - things you usually won't catch me saying about Microsoft, or Windows specifically.

As I wrote back in June, I am trying to offer true pragmatism in a world of fanboys - a real challenge, especially when it can be fun to debate platforms, operating systems or our favorite technology innovators. Like I did in that same month with my initial tests of Android and the HTC Evo, relative to my iPhone, I've put my primary phone aside for the most part in the last few days, using it only for phone calls and the occasional app I can't get on Windows Phone 7. Fair is fair after all.

A Windows Phone 7 Syncing With My Mac? Armageddon, Right?

What I've found is that Microsoft has delivered what is quite possibly the most innovative approach to the mobile phone interface since the advent of the first iPhone. While most Android and iOS products are best represented by screens of application icons, with the occasional folder or widget thrown in for good measure, Windows Phone 7 brings tiles for some of the most useful actions to the front of the device, such as phone, mail, Internet Explorer, the marketplace and People, which draws heavily from your Facebook account, if you connect the two (and you should). Beyond the first page of tiles, accessing all downloaded apps is a simple swipe to the left away, and you can add any app to the front page by long pressing and clicking "pin to start", keeping in line with Windows' traditional message of the Start Menu.

Contrary to Android's Wild West mentality in terms of applications, due to the device being an open system, Microsoft's user interface guidelines are seen everywhere. Every app elegantly fades in and out when open or closed, and you can swipe between different aspects of the app in what's known as the panorama. Every app presents a unified top-level font and sub-level fonts for lesser important items. When necessary, these apps too use the same tiles present on the start page of the device. What is lacking in creativity is more than made up for in each app behaving in the same way as expected, and a dramatic cutdown on the learning curve.

Desktop Syncing My iTunes and iPhoto to Windows Phone 7

Calling this phone OS Windows is pretty much a detriment to the device, in my view, thanks to that OS' history and associated baggage. Luckily, there is no such thing as a Start Menu in the traditional sense, no Windows Dock, and no obvious folder structure riddled with tie-ins to 1980s-era DOS. Without being too detrimental to Android, my current mobile OS of choice, one need only look at the crazy ways users are trying to upgrade their Samsung Epic devices to Froyo to understand how much work is needed on that end to get away from the geeks and more to the mainstream.

After a year or so of being on a cloud-oriented mobile OS, I was almost surprised with how easily the Windows Phone 7 device easily synced with my Mac and the relevant files. Forget about the Microsoft vs. Apple arguments of the past. I just downloaded the free Windows Phone 7 Connector for Mac, connected the device by the included USB cable, and immediately had access to my iTunes and iPhoto content on my HTC HD7. This alone is further than I've ever come with my Android phones, which to date have simply pushed content from photos I've taken back to the computer, and not bidirectionally. This doesn't change my view that yes, the Web will be the center for the mobile world going forward, but it is somewhat reassuring to know I can always go back to the PC (in this case a Mac) as the hub if needed. I'd like to see Google offer an equivalent desktop sync for Android users, even if it did nothing else but visually display how data was moving between the phone and the cloud.

The HTC HD7 Device I've Been Testing

Within minutes of turning on the Windows Phone 7 device and connecting to my home WiFi (on Apple Airport), I registered my first Live.com email address, and was able to browse the included Marketplace, which like iTunes and the Android Market, is separated into categories for easy browsing (HTC Apps, apps, games and music at the top level), and into top apps, new apps and free apps, much like its counterparts. This led me to discovering and downloading many apps for the device, starting with the basics like Seesmic, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Stocks, the Weather Channel, YouTube and others. In each case, the apps behaved as expected, but with the simple Windows Phone 7 UI.

Where Windows Phone 7 is lacking thus far, as you can expect, is in the breadth of apps. So far, there is no Angry Birds (though that's been announced). There's no native client for Sonos or Spotify, which has me tapping into my local music library, and it's a little shy (so far) on top-quality games. That's no surprise given Microsoft's current position in the market, and relative newness of the platform, but if they can move beyond the initial reports of slow sales, there's a good quality environment for users in here. And yes, there's no copy/paste yet, or even screenshots. Too bad, or I'd show them here.

To be entirely fair, I haven't stress tested Windows' calling qualities and features as I did Android. In fact, I haven't even inserted the T-Mobile SIM card that came with the device, because I don't want to start a new number and new plan with yet another carrier. But even with simple WiFi access, I have been able to see how the device handles browsing the Web (quite well with Internet Explorer), the accuracy of its GPS, via Foursquare, and how well it handles e-mail and other social networking activity. The product's close ties to its Zune family also actually present a high quality music and video experience as well, which gets even better considering the bundling of a native Netflix app for Windows Phone 7 which means I can instantly stream anything from my queue right to the device.

When I switched to Android, I correctly forecast that Google's inroads with multiple manufacturers, carriers and eventual user growth would lead to more developers and higher quality applications. This has happened, and has steadily improved my experience on Android, including to tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab (which I own) and the Motorola Xoom, which debuted yesterday. What's interesting about the Windows Phone 7 experience is that there's no drop-off in quality from one OS to another. If forced, I could absolutely live within this device and not be too much worse for the wear. I'd miss quite a few apps today, and might find myself without the breadth of options available with Android, but make no mistake, this is the most pleasant device I have ever used that sports a Windows icon, and I am eager to see if Microsoft can overcome their rocky start in smartphones to be a real challenger. The more the merrier.