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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

October 20, 2010 at 5:42 PM

Window Phone 7: Huge improvement, more needed

If you think Microsoft is withering away because it can’t figure out how to make a decent phone, you should spend a little time with one of the new Windows Phone 7 devices.

They won’t lure iPhone fans over to the dark side or revive Microsoft’s stagnant stock price.

But the Windows Phone 7 platform is a strikingly nice system with a refreshingly different design that shows the team in Redmond still has enough vision and talent to be a serious contender.

samsung_front_view.jpg

The software is elegant, fast and battery efficient. A set of Web services connect to the phone and extend its usefulness, but some still have kinks to be worked out.

Windows Phone 7 devices go on sale in some European markets Thursday and in the U.S. on Nov. 8. AT&T and T-Mobile USA will carry five models made by HTC, LG, Samsung and Dell in the U.S., each priced at $200 after rebates (T-Mobile’s HD7 has a $50 rebate to get to $200, AT&T’s devices are $200 on the shelf). More phones and service from Verizon and Sprint are expected next year.

Microsoft is late to the game, after stumbling with its previous phone systems, and may not catch up to phones based on software from Google and Apple. But Windows Phone 7 gives Microsoft a strong chance.

Remember, it’s still early days for smartphones. Despite all the buzz around the iPhone, Android and the market’s dramatic growth, most people are still using basic phones. Only 19 percent of the phones sold in the second quarter were smartphones, according to research firm Gartner.

That means most of the world is up for grabs. So winning over gadget enthusiasts who are already on their second or third smartphone wasn’t as important to Microsoft as making a phone that’s accessible and appealing to everyone else.

That’s why Microsoft’s phone ads make fun of annoying smartphone users who are always staring into their tiny screens.

It also helps explain the design of Windows Phone 7, which is built around large square “tile” buttons that fill the primary screen. Microsoft calls them hubs, and uses them to organize what you’ll do on the phone. Tap one to make a call, another to check your e-mail or send a text message. Some are dynamic, with Outlook listing the number of new e-mails, for instance.

The home screen shows seven tiles at once, but you can move them around and change the selection by pressing and holding the top of a tile for a few seconds, then sliding it around the screen.

You can slide the tiles away by brushing a finger sideways across the screen. Then you’ll get a vertical list of icons for applications and services loaded on the phone.

By Microsoft’s design specifications, all Windows 7 Phones must have three physical keys below the screen – for “home,” “back” and “search.” Also required is a dedicated camera shutter button on the case that wakes the phone, if needed, to take a picture.

Cameras also must have at least 5 megapixel resolution. An AT&T Samsung Focus that I tested took nice pictures (sample below, of the 520 bridge) and its 720p camcorder would easily replace a Flip camera. They all have a nice on-screen keyboard, good phone capabilities and gesture controls like “pinch” and “swipe.”

wp7photo-bridge.jpg

This is subjective, but I think having a back button is a big advantage for Windows and Android phones. Apple uses a single home button, plus on-screen buttons that may appear in applications. Apple and Microsoft have been going different ways here since the dawn of the PC, with one- and two-button mice, but I think new smartphone users used to PC controls will like having a physical back button.

My preference for the back button was highlighted when it acted fritzy and stopped working on the Samsung Focus. It came back after I temporarily removed the battery. Otherwise I loved the Samsung’s ultra-bright screen and slim case (it’s 9.9 millimeters thick, compared with the iPhone’s 9.3 millimeters). At first a Microsoft spokesman said it was the first time he’d heard of such a problem. But a contact at a wireless phone company told me I wasn’t the only one to see a hardware issue on early devices.

A Microsoft manager, Greg Sullivan, later told me that the phone was a “pre-production” model and the company has seen a “very low single digit percent” of devices with issues.

An AT&T spokesperson didn’t have an answer before deadline.

I didn’t have button problems on the HTC phones I tried. They were thicker and heavier but had more multimedia features, including fancy speakers and, on one, a machined kickstand for propping it up to watch videos.

HTC HD7 from T-Mobile - Kickstand (2).jpg

One thing that works well – almost too well – is the integration of Facebook. When you log in to the social network, it populates a “people” tile with your Facebook friends and pulls their info into your contact list. Tapping the “people” tile calls up a unified stream of their updates and photos. Their photos also stream into the “pictures” tile.

The phones come with a mobile version of Office, including Word, Excel and the OneNote note-taking application. They can also run PowerPoint, but you can’t create a presentation from scratch on the phone and have to import one from e-mail or by connecting to a corporate SharePoint collaboration server.

There are places on all smartphones where the software maker’s business objectives butt into the experience. The Office suite does this by pushing SharePoint and OneNote.

Another trick of the Windows Phone is automatic synchronization with “cloud” services, such as Microsoft’s SkyDrive online storage service.

If you’re signed in to the service, you can have the phone automatically send slightly compressed versions of photos to SkyDrive, where you can share or download them. Microsoft gives everyone 25 gigabytes of free space on SkyDrive but only 5 gigs can be used for phone storage.

Another service tied to the phone is Xbox Live, the online network developed for the Xbox console. There’s an Xbox Live tile on the phone that connects you to a game store and Xbox Live profile. Microsoft is still working on the phone features, so I can’t say for sure how they’ll work. I was able to buy one game over the phone network, but another required me to connect via Wi-Fi or a PC cable.

Most phone shoppers will care more about search and mapping capabilities. Bing shines on the phone, with maps that zoom into aerial photos of your location and provide driving and walking directions. Bing search will be good enough for most users, and its daily home-page image looks great on the phone. But I wish the on-phone search tool wasn’t so minimalist. I couldn’t search just apps in the marketplace, for instance, so my search for a particular app returned a long list of songs with similar names.

Bing lacks a few killer features of Google’s map service on Android devices, including free turn-by-turn navigation that audibly tells you where to drive. AT&T and T-Mobile are making up for this by loading TeleNav’s similar service, but it has a recurring fee.

AT&T is also loading a mobile version of its U-verse cable TV service – basically cable TV on the phone. A few shows are free but you’ll have to pay $8 per month for a fuller selection. T-Mobile is also offering a pay TV service based on the MobiTV, and preloading a Netflix application that streams movies and TV shows to the device.

To load music and other videos, you connect to Zune software on a PC or an application Microsoft developed for Macs. The phones have a Zune tile that calls up their music, videos and FM radio. It’s a very nice media player.

Applications are offered through the Zune marketplace, similar to the way iPhone apps come through iTunes. There are a lot of apps and more coming, but not as many as Apple and Google have now. If there are particular apps you must have, be sure they work on the phone you’re buying.

A bigger concern is the raw state of the PC software you use to manage the phones. On the Zune console, apps you purchase won’t appear in the console’s “apps collection.” Zune also wouldn’t let me load some of my own music onto the phone because it couldn’t find copyright protection information. I paid for the music, except for an album distributed free with no copy protections, by an artist who was working for Microsoft at the time. Grrr.

Microsoft’s Live.com offers to let you manage your phone on the Live.com portal. But the “manage” button is a dead-end to basically nowhere. It makes you wonder if the Live team lost a turf battle with Zune over who would run the phone console.

Updates are in the works. Microsoft’s promised improvements and new features such as cut-and-paste in the first half of 2011. We’ll have to see what’s in that service pack but Microsoft has already turned the corner with Windows Phone 7.

Comments | Topics: Microsoft, Phones, review

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