Windows Phone 7 OS initial review on htc HD7

Last week I was faced with having to decide whether to replace my iPhone 3G with an iPhone 4, or try and live with something else for the next 18 months. I didn’t really consider an Android phone for a number of reasons but despite a lot of initial scepticism I had become very interested in the new Windows Phone 7 platform. Conventional wisdom says that you should never buy a 1.0 release of anything by Microsoft, but then WP7 is not a conventional Microsoft product. It’s a total rethink of their mobile operating system strategy, which they desperately needed in light of the crushing defeat Windows Mobile 6 has been dealt by iOS and Android devices. Rather than clone what the competition have done, WP7 includes a lot of original thinking and some genuine innovations.

Decisions…
After deliberating for almost a week, I still couldn’t resist the temptation of the new and unique experience of using a WP7 phone. It was a classic head vs. heart decision, where common sense told me to get the iPhone 4 for it’s great build quality, stunning screen and superb performance. When I first got my 3G I loved it, but the iOS4-on-3G upgrade mess really annoyed me and I just felt that the iPhone 4 was only a small evolutionary step forward from the 3G. It was going to work in exactly the same way and run the same apps.

In contrast, WP7 has some really neat tricks up it’s sleeve such as deep social networking integration, live tile updates on the main screen and the beautiful Metro user interface. Providing it can get a decent foothold in the market place, it has massive potential over the next few years if Microsoft keep up the same level of effort as they’ve put into the initial release. To top it off, the htc HD7 handset I was considering has a huge 4.3in screen that was very appealing for reading web pages and consuming all the other content I view on my phone these days.

I finally made my decision on Friday and signed up for the HD7. The monthly cost was the same as the iPhone 4, but there was an up-front saving to be made of around £140 on the handset cost – the HD7 was free. After owning the phone for a couple of days I thought it would be an idea to write up a quick review that covers a few key experiences so far…

The overall experience of using the phone is outstanding – the interface is slick, amazingly responsive and it always looks beautiful. You can choose an accent colour and a background colour of either light (white) or dark (black). The dark option with white text on a black background looks absolutely stunning, although in a brightly lit environment like the office you see a lot of reflections and fingerprints. The light option solves this problem while still looking very nice. I would like to try and find a third party app that switches this preference on a timer so that in work hours it’s light, and outside of that it uses the dark scheme. One feature I like is that while many apps follow your theme preferences, some override it and choose the setting which best suits the content they will be displaying. For example, Office and Mail always use a light theme, while the media hub is always dark to show photographs off to best effect.

Setup was incredibly simple and automatically took care of importing a lot of my data – I added my Google and Facebook accounts to the phone via an amazingly simple page that asked for email address and password only. It then automatically determined that it would sync mail and contacts with Google, and contacts and status updates with Facebook. As soon as these accounts were configured, the phone automatically built the People Hub and the phone was awash with content. It cleverly links contact details together and shows everything it possibly can for contacts. Many entries in my address book now have a photo stored against them (from Facebook), combined with email and phone numbers from Google Contacts. The people hub scrapes up new photographs and status updates and displays them intelligently. There is also a Me tile which shows your own status updates and responses. It’s actually possible to use Facebook directly from the built in features of the phone, although there is stand-alone application available too.

Text entry – the onscreen keyboard is top notch and in my opinion betters iOS, although the 4.3″ screen on my device is perhaps an unfair advantage. The layout is  clear and uncluttered, and the prediction options are much more frictionless than the iOS equivalents. Above the keyboard is a word suggestion area that serves two purposes – it is populated with suggestions after you’ve typed a few letters to offer an auto-complete facility that can save you from typing the whole word. In this mode it never tries to forcefully replace what you’ve typed (unlike iOS), but if you do mistype an obvious word the area usually contains the corrected word in bold to indicate that it will automatically replace what you’ve typed. It’s seems to calculate a confidence factor and only actively fixes what you’ve typed when it’s convinced you’ve typed something wrong. Clever.

Web browsing – although the reviews I read generally rated WP7 Internet Explorer highly, I was disappointed with page load times which are sluggish compared to mobile Safari. The overall load time might be similar but it takes a lot longer for anything to appear in IE – you stare at a blank page for a lot longer. Safari also does a better job of rendering zoomed-out pages – unreadable small text is nicely blurred and looks better to me than the blockier rendering of IE. I’ve also noticed font size issues on a few web sites which rendered perfectly on iOS Safari, so WP7 IE doesn’t quite offer the perfect desktop-quality browsing experience you get on iPhones. In most other respects the browser is very good – tap to zoom and pinch to zoom are both available and must use serious hardware graphics acceleration because they are very fast and smooth. Tab handling is also excellent and the browser will load multiple tabs with content in parallel!


Search facilities – this is my first major annoyance with WP7. When you hit the search button on the home screen, it loads a superb native Bing application. Although mentally conditioned to use Google I was more than happy with using this app because it displays web searches, news and local search results on separate filtered areas and the presentation is very nice indeed. So when I clicked the search button inside Internet Explorer I expected a similar experience – but this is not what happens. It doesn’t load Bing, nor does it load Google for that matter. It loads a disgusting mobile Yahoo page inside the browser. Apparently Microsoft left the choice of search provider inside the browser as a customisable option, and my mobile carrier (O2 UK) set it to Yahoo. This needs fixing desperately, or at least an option must be provided to change it. Microsoft should do themselves and their users a favour and integrate the Bing search into the browser. Apple have found a way to sell mobiles without allowing operators to change things like this so it isn’t impossible.

Zune media player – in general, media playback works very well. I was delighted to find that it will natively play AAC files so I could use the PC Zune software to copy music from my iTunes library over to the device and they play perfectly. In fact on my HD7 handset the sound quality is noticeably better than my iPhone 3G. I was also delighted to find that after importing a couple of Joy Division albums, they were presented against a lovely background of a black and white picture of the band, probably taken by the great Anton Corbijn. The image isn’t album art – the system must have grabbed it from the Zune Marketplace based on the artist name.

Messaging – this is one area where the phone is remarkably similar to iOS, with messages organised by conversation rather than date, and displayed in a conversation format using speech bubbles. It’s nice to see MMS pictures inside the speech bubble of the message rather than in two separate bubbles like iOS though.

Youtube – currently a complete mess on WP7. There is an official Microsoft application which plays videos when invoked from links on web pages – although I’ve seen reports that it doesn’t always work. But more seriously, if you launch the app stand-alone it doesn’t have a native interface, it just uses an embedded browser window and displays the mobile version of the standard Youtube site. As you can imagine, this looks really poor. There is an htc Youtube app which has a nice front-end but it has to be installed alongside the MS application because you need that installed to play video embedded in web pages. There are a few third party applications but none of the ones I’ve seen so far allow you to log in and view your favourites.

Office – the built in office application lets you create, view and edit Word and Excel files directly on your device. The editors are simplistic but get the job done fairly well, although I haven’t tried editing complex documents created on a PC. There is a Powerpoint viewer but presentations cannot be edited, which seems like a sensible decision for small devices like phones.

Third party applications – the marketplace is filling up rapidly with applications and many big players such as Facebook, Twitter, Amazon Kindle, eBay, IMDB are already present, sometimes with a few third party alternatives as well. The official Twitter client is weak because it doesn’t update it’s live tile on the start page, but an app called Beezz is much better and does implement this. The IMDB app in particular deserves special mention for looking gorgeous, it’s currently using stylised faded-out stills from the film Inception as a background and looks very smart.

Marketplace – Microsoft has taken a different approach to Apple and there is no separate music/video and app store – everything goes through the marketplace application. The search engine returns results from all three areas which is a nice idea but fails miserably in practice. Search for “Amazon” to try and find their apps and you get dozens of songs with that work in their title. There are ways round it but they’re not obvious. Another bugbear is that the marketplace application is buggy and prone to crashing, but this is made into a much bigger issue because it seems to mess up it’s state and therefore won’t restart until the phone is rebooted. Fix this NOW Microsoft!

Email – the email client is simple and elegant, displaying information in a fuss free manner. It does most of what you need although I was annoyed to find there are no settings to fine tune loading of images inside messages. Also, HTML formatted messages are initially displayed zoomed in which I’m not convinced is correct, on messages with complex formatting it’s better to show a zoomed out view and let the user decide which area they want to read.

Camera – the camera application and photo hub work well and are automatically populated with any Facebook or Windows Live pictures you have. It has been well covered elsewhere that the camera application doesn’t remember it’s configuration settings such as whether the flash has been disabled, which is pretty miserable and hopefully one of the first priority issues Microsoft will address.

Closing thoughts

My overall first experiences of Windows Phone 7 are very positive, and other people I’ve shown it to have also been impressed. It’s fresh, modern and very powerful, and absolutely moves the smartphone game on from the competition. Yes, there are some important features lacking, but ridiculing the lack of copy and paste  – as half of the internet seems to have done – is a bit harsh considering the massive amount of functionality that has been delivered in the initial release. And the exciting part is that things can only get better.

In general the htc HD7 handset itself is very good although not perfect – my thoughts on this will be in a future review because I wanted to focus on the new operating system this time round.

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