Windows Phone 7 – First Impression

I recently decided to expand my mobile experience horizon and acquired a Window Phone 7 from Brian Henderson, who I met a few years ago at the Seattle Alt.NET conference. Brian got the phone from this year Microsoft PDC and it is a LG Optimus 7 (a.k.a. LG-E900 outside North America). Having spent about four days with it, here is my raw first impression.

Disclaimer: This is not intended to be a hardware or software review. For that you can find them on the web easily. Here I would just point out things that stick out to me, especially comparing against the iPhone 4/iOS.

Hardware

The phone very light but well constructed for a plastic body. Not many phones on the market can reach the level of construction detail like the iPhone 4 so I am not unhappy with it. However, there are a few things that shows a lack of attention to details. First, despite having three hardware buttons near the bottom of the phone, none of them will actually active the screen. Only the power button on the top right allows you to do that. Why? Is this a simple oversight, or a deliberate departure from the iPhone usage of home button just for the sake of being different?

Then there is the external camera button. I like it that there is a dedicated hardware button for taking photos and that it will wake the phone up, bypass the lock screen, and allow photos to be taken quickly. What I have problem with is the placement of the button at the side of the phone. It is at the exactly place where my fingers land when I grab the phone. So I keep pressing the button every time I pick it up. Nothing egregious but annoying nonetheless.

The most annoying thing I’ve found thus far is the Back button on the bottom left. It serves like the back button in the browser so it will bring you back to the screen before. Sounds good, right? Not until you have to use it all the time with one hand, which I prefer, verse two hands. That means I’ve to bend my thumb down in an awkward position in order to hit that button. The Home button is in the similar position but doesn’t cause as much issue because you will only hit it occasionally, unlike the Back button.

Unlike the iPhone, the touch screen is not glass but it is as sensitive and accurate so I am pretty impressed by it. Sometimes it is too sensitive to a slightly diagonal swipe that I inadvertently change ’tile’, e.g. change from Timeline to Replies in Twitter. I assume it is something Microsoft can tweak in upcoming OS update. The actual display is very bright and vibrant but the font anti-aliasing algorithm is definitely not as good as the iPhone/iOS. Although my opinion on this may very well be clouded by nearly a year of using the iPhone 4’s Retina-Display.

Software

The Windows Phone 7 OS is really the reason I get the phone in the first place. Generally it is a huge step up from the Windows Mobile 6.x but when compares against latest iOS, it lacks refinement in numerous places. Here are my run down of the refinements I think the OS needs in the next updates:

  • Wi-Fi requires access point to be broadcasting (i.e. visible) to connect. Really? I can’t connect to a Wi-Fi access point then turn it back to non-broadcasting?
  • The keyboard is too narrow to type fast without making mistakes. I thought the iPhone one is narrow but this is even narrower. The word detection algorithm is as good, if not better, than the iOS one. And I like the letters on the keyboard actually shift to uppercase when the shift key is tapped. Apple, please take note on this one.
  • Microsoft needs to rethink the tile paradigm of the WP7/Metro UI. The start screen with large tiles works great but can only accommodate a small number of tiles (8). After that, you have to scroll down which kind of defeat the purpose of having a start screen. With larger number of apps installed (I’ve around 10 plus the ones that come with the OS), I have to constantly scroll down to find my app. The ‘folder’ concept in iOS isn’t much better but at least I don’t need to scroll as much.
  • Speaking of scrolling, unlike iOS, there is no shortcut to scroll to the top of the screen. Again, small annoying detail.
  • While music is playing in the background, as far as I know there is no way to bring up the music control UI at the top of the screen other than adjusting the volume via the hardware buttons. Really? I know double-clicking the Home button is a iOS concept and probably patented by Apple but all those engineers in Microsoft haven’t been able to come up with an alternative other than adjust the volume?
  • This is a minor thing but there is no way for me to take screenshot of my phone as I use it. Kind of make it more difficult for me or any tech journalist to write review about the phone/apps. It’s all in the details, believe me.

For third-party apps, most of them are at the ‘good enough’ level when stacks against iOS equivalent. Some of the issues I face are probably limitations of the OS but some just lack spit and polish. I do like the strong adhesion to the Metro UI by most apps so the user experience is very consistent.

Conclusion

I am impressed by WP7 so far. The hardware is good but not at the exceptional level of iPhone 4. The software has lots of potential. Right now WP7 OS feels very much like iPhone/iOS was at around 2008. But this is year 2011 and for Microsoft to catch up with Apple and Google, it needs to push out OS updates with new innovations in much faster pace than their rivals. (Note this is just to catchup, let alone leap ahead)

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2 comments

  1. Kelps

    To bring the media player controls when playing audio, just press the volume buttons. Also the volume works even with the device locked.

    • Alex Hung

      Yes, that’s what I’ve found. My issue is why the volume buttons? I don’t want to change my volume. I want to do other things like pause.

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