Windows Phone is a great smartphone platform and even in it’s first release does quite a few things better than the competition, but things are not perfect by a long way. My previous reviews have already mentioned a couple of issues, but I want to go into some more detail on two big problems I’m experiencing at the moment.
Microsoft’s account management hell
This is a much wider issue than the Windows Phone platform but is something that must be affecting a fair few users of multiple Microsoft products and services. By continually throwing out new platforms like Live and Zune on top of existing services like Hotmail and Xbox Live, Microsoft has created an account management nightmare which manifests itself in a particularly frustrating way on the Windows Phone.
When I first set my phone up I let it create a new Windows Live ID for me. I had a long-dead Hotmail email account, and an Xbox Live ID I use on my 360 linked to an old Yahoo email address, but as I was choosing to invest in a new platform I thought it best to start over with a nice new live.co.uk identity.
What a mistake that turned out to be. A new Xbox Live account was automatically created for me and linked to my new Windows Live ID. This meant my real avatar and achievements off my Xbox Live account wouldn’t appear on the phone, and there was no option to switch gamer tags as you get with the Xbox 360 itself.
Over the next few weeks I researched numerous discussion areas on the web to find a way to sort this mess out, but it is presently unfixable. The only option is to reset the phone and set it up again using the Xbox Live account, but doing this completely wipes the phone including any purchased media and apps. I’d been putting this off as it sounded like torture but earlier this week I took the plunge. Fortunately, with almost all my personal information being stored in the cloud I didn’t have any issues with reloading data, and the music I’d purchased was non-DRM’d so that could be copied back across from the synced copy on my PC. But paid-for apps are a different story.
When I completed setting up my phone it the Marketplace wanted me to pay again for apps I’d already purchased. I phoned Zune support (0203 450 5855) and asked nicely that they transfer two key purchases across for me – Wonder Reader and Rise of Glory. My other purchases turned out to be apps I didn’t really use so wasn’t that bothered about them. Zune declined my polite request and refused to offer me any help at all. They said that it was not possible to transfer purchases between accounts – but they also declined to credit me for the apps so I could download them again.
To be fair, the representative I spoke to did apologise for the less-than-ideal situation, but it rings hollow when they won’t do anything to resolve it. Zune’s response is that I do have access to them if I re-wipe my phone and use the other account – but of course then I’d lose my Xbox live integration again.
Microsoft does not provide any tools for managing/merging accounts and I had no choice but to switch my phone over to the Xbox Live account – this is actually their recommendation although they skirt around the fact that users will have items they’ve paid for taken away from them.
Once more we get screwed over despite choosing to pay for goods rather than pirate them for free. If I’d jailbroken my phone using the Chevron unlock tool it would allow me to install any app I could get hold of for free.
Microsoft desperately need to provide a web-based tool to handle the tangled account structure across their messed-up ecosystem. They should also credit me the £4.48 that I’ve spent on apps I can no longer access – fuckers!!!
Zune music player
Firstly some good news to report – the sound quality of music via my htc HD7 and Sennheiser CX-300 earphones is excellent. It blows my iPod Classic 120Gb and iPhone 3G out of the water – mainly due to the worsening sound quality of Apple products in recent years – the first generation Nano sounded much better than my current devices.
The hub interface of the media player is a different story though. As with other WP7 apps it makes use of the panorama control to show a six-screen wide application surface. The problem is that what the panorama shows is almost entirely rubbish.
The first screen is just a history page with an oversized icon of the last item played. The next screen is more history. Then you get two pages of “new” items which is really pointless. The fifth screen is an oddly-titled marquee which shows links to other media items you can play from other installed apps. Finally the sixth screen shows the menu of music, videos and podcasts you wanted in the first place. Eventually you learn to work around this by scrolling left rather than right when the app loads up.
Things also start to go wrong when you browse music. In general I like the cut-off text used across the Windows Phone interface – it’s a clever indication that there’s more content off the screen. But when it’s a track title and you have no way of reading the hidden part it’s just dumb. The Marketplace displays track titles in exactly the same way so in some situations it can be a pain to work out whether the songs you’re looking at are the ones you actually want to buy.
To make matters worse, track lengths are not displayed anywhere within the player or the Marketplace. I wanted to buy a movie soundtrack the other day but was wary of ending up with a bunch of 30-second long ditties, so I had to resort to viewing the album on Amazon to see the track lengths. An essential requirement of the Marketplace (or indeed any e-commerce site/app) is to not make it difficult to spend the money I want to spend.
Overall, the Zune music player needs to be more application-like rather than the content-optimised interface it currently uses. Although it flies in the face of the Windows Phone user interface guidelines there desparetely needs to be some more navigation options like a breadcrumb to help with moving easily through the hierarchy of artists and albums.
Maybe if the hardware back button worked on an application level rather than wreaking confusion by trying to function globally it wouldn’t be as bad. When task switching back to the music player from another app it can be bewildering to work out how to move upwards from a song to pick a different album or artist.
A contradiction with the Zune player is that many of it’s problems stem from the stylistic use of over-large text – yet when a track is playing the list of other tracks in the album is pitifully small and easily missed – and once again there’s no track lengths.
A very nice part of the aesthetics of the player are the background images that are automatically displayed for artists. This is a great idea but is hopelessly unreliable – only one song in my collection has this content working and it seems impossible to figure out what is wrong (see nine page XDA discussion thread).
On a brighter note…
Now that my Xbox Live integration is working properly it’s a treat to see my real avatar and achievements displayed in the phone, plus gamer points on phone games now count towards my total. If only the thousands of gamer points from my offline Xbox account could be merged into my online account – but that’s yet another account management gotcha I’ve fallen foul of.
It’s possible the music player issues can be worked around with an third party player if any arrive in the Marketplace – either that or we’ll have to hope that Microsoft rewrites the built-in player in a future release, because it needs more than just a few simple tweaks. It’s just doesn’t do the basics of music playback well enough.
Tags: Windows Phone 7