I have always been curious about Windows Phone 7, Microsoft’s newest mobile operating system. It is not another attempt to bring Windows to mobile devices. You won’t find a Start Menu, desktop, files, or folders on Windows phone. You will find people, places, hubs, and apps displayed as large tiles in a new visual design language called Metro. Windows Phone is as different from Windows, as iOS is to Mac OS X. It does not run legacy Windows Mobile applications, or execute traditional desktop programs. For the first time since I can remember Microsoft has forgone compatibility with the past, and is inventing something new. It is just a shame they had to call it Windows.1
Windows Phone, like iOS, is a mobile operating system built around a multitouch display. You won’t find a stylus, or BlackBerry style keyboard on any Windows Phone.
You will find:
- A Capacitive, 4-point multi-touch screen with 480 x 800 WVGA resolution.
- A single core ARM compatible CPU with a minimal speed of 800 MHz.
- An integrated GPU capable of rendering DirectX9 graphics.
- A minimum of 256MBs of RAM, with at least 4GBs of Flash memory.
Every Windows Phone shares these specs. Every Windows Phone includes features such as an accelerometer, ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, assisted GPS, FM Radio, and a 5MP or better digital Camera. Every Windows Phone has six dedicated hardware buttons for Back, Start, Search, Camera Focus/Shutter, Power/Sleep and Volume Buttons. With all of this similarity you might find it hard to believe it took me over a year and a half to find a Windows Phone worth reviewing.
The Nokia Lumia 900 is Microsoft’s flagship Windows Phone in the United States. It includes all of the hardware listed above in an appealing one piece polycarbonate body with a 4.3″ ClearBlack AMOLED 800×480 capacitive touchscreen that stands head and shoulders above competing Windows Phone handsets. I choose the Lumia 900 because it is the best Windows Phone money can buy, and my only chance at trying Windows Phone 7 without a compromised experience.2 For the past month I have been using the Nokia Lumia 900 to make phone calls, send messages, listen to media, read Instapaper, and check Twitter on the go.
If it wasn’t for AT&T’s spotty voice network, the Lumia 900 would make a great phone. Its one piece polycarbonate body is easy to hold, and call quality is loud and clear. The 4.3″ screen makes the Lumia 900 taller than an iPhone, and that extra height brings the microphone closer to my mouth while keeping the speaker next to my ear. Without an external antenna to blame, I just don’t understand how AT&T can get away with dropping so many calls.
The best part about making calls on Windows phones is the people. Contacts are organized via the “People hub.3” Contacts can be manually entered or imported from Facebook, Windows Live, Twitter, and LinkedIn. This integration made adding numbers for my long time Twitter friends a breeze, and the changes synced back to my Mac using Microsoft Exchange. I just wish more of my friends choose a sensible picture of themselves as their Twitter avatar, and not something stupid like the QuickTime logo.
Email, Office, & Messaging
With an intelligent multitouch keyboard, and Microsoft behind the wheel, Windows Phone 7 might be the best messaging phone since the BlackBerry bit the dust. Its Exchange integration is hard to beat, and its native support for viewing and editing Microsoft Office documents makes Windows Phone 7 a strong player for the corporate arena. I found it frustrating that native PDF support is not built-in, and that the optional free Adobe Reader app is almost worst than no PDF support at all.
Dare I say the copy and paste support on Windows phone is even better than on iOS. Selections are usually made one word at a time, and images and text can be copied and pasted multiple times without waiting for a popover menu to appear. This makes constructing complicated emails and Office documents quick and painless.
Messaging on Windows Phone does not rely on an exclusive OS specific cloud service to get your message heard. Threaded conversations with SMS, Facebook, and Windows Live are all unified under one app. The best part is you can use the built-in voice recognition to dictate messages to your phone. As messages are received Windows Phone will read them back to you. This is a great hands-free feature to use while driving. In addition to messaging, Windows Phone voice recognition can be used for calling a contact, checking voicemail, dialing a phone number, launching an application, or searching the web. Windows Phone may not be able to tell you how many calories are in a bagel, but it does a reasonable job recognizing my commands.
Music, Videos, & Podcasts
Music, videos, and podcasts are handled by the integrated Zune app. It makes browsing your media collection fun, by downloading background images of your favorite artists while you search. Videos and pictures look gorgeous on the Lumia 900 4.3″ ClearBlack AMOLED display, but I am not the right person to ask about pixel density. Audible audiobook support is not available for Windows Phone 7. The Windows Phone Connector, (available from the App Store), makes putting music, pictures, and video on Windows Phone easy. I just wish I could mount my Lumia 900 and transfer media to it like a USB Flash Drive without the need for additional software.4
BringCast is my solution for downloading podcasts to my Windows Phone. AT&T restricts the delivery of most podcasts to WiFi, meaning you must prepare your podcast playlist before leaving the house. Unfortunately with less than half the features, and none of the polish, it is hard to compare BringCast to blockbuster apps like Instacast, or Downcast on iOS.
Weather, Instapaper, Twitter, & More
What AT&T’s network doesn’t deliver for voice it makes up for with 4G LTE data on the Lumia 900. Getting the current weather conditions, updating my reading list, and refreshing Twitter, is so fast on 4G LTE I thought more of my apps were running in the background. Unfortunately there is such a lack of quality apps in the Windows Phone Marketplace that much of that data went unused.
Browsing on Windows Phone has made a noticeable improvement since the introduction of Internet Explorer 9. The original Windows Phone rendering engine was based on Internet Explorer 7, and it was horrible. Still several years behind Webkit, Safari, and Chrome, the web browser on the Lumia 900 is at least usable with features such as multi-touch gestures, dynamic inline search, and support for six tabs that can load independently of each other.
Weather is one of the optional Microsoft developed apps available in the Windows Phone Marketplace.5 It should have been included with every Windows phone as it is an excellent example of the Metro user interface. Users can select different destinations, and pin them to the home screen. These live tiles update with the latest forecast, and multiple locations can be shown at a single time. Tapping a live tile gives the user a more detailed view including an hourly and ten day forecast. A more detailed prediction with colors, maps, and animation can be found in other apps, but none feel as at home on Windows Phone.
The Lumia 900’s 4.3″ ClearBlack AMOLED clearly lends itself to reading. That is why I was eager to check out Stacks for Instapaper, “The best Windows Phone app for Instapaper addicts!” Stacks offers the basic Instapaper experience in a Metro user interface that looks at home on Windows Phone. A Instapaper subscription is required to download, read, sync progress, organize, like, and archive all of your favorite articles. I appreciate the background synchronization Stacks has brought to the Lumia 900 and Windows Phone 7.5, but wish the application was a little more stable.
Twitter has become synonymous with mobile phone use, and Windows Phone is no exception. The official Twitter client on Windows Phone exhibits the same abandonment towards user interface standards as the official Twitter client on every other platform. Simply put the Twitter app lacks the native interface you would expect from a native Windows Phone application, and you are forced to look elsewhere if you want a Twitter client that conforms to the Metro visual design language.
Birdsong is my favorite Twitter client for Windows Phone. It may be missing some of the more advanced features common to the blockbuster Twitter apps on iOS, but it looks and acts like a Metro app designed by Microsoft. I only wish other third-party apps would subscribe to the Metro visual design language with similar conviction.
Despite the Lumia 900’s superiority over other Windows Phones, it fails to measure up to today’s iOS experience. The Metro interface may have gathered critical acclaim when it was unveiled more than one and a half years ago, but the platform has seen few updates since then, and Microsoft cannot gain market share on an interface alone. Market share is important for platforms because handset sales drive the development of apps. With so few Windows Phones being sold today, and competitors like iOS 6 right around the conner, it is hard to see Windows Phone gaining the momentum it needs to remain relevant in the future.
Windows Phone 7 contains no windows. ↩
As far as I can tell a Hub is a collection of local and online content grouped together in a single app. ↩
One of my favorite features from Android and WebOS. ↩
Other optional apps that ship with the Lumia 900 from Nokia and AT&T can be deleted by the user. ↩