Microsoft Windows Phone 7 review
Microsoft made its first entry into the smartphone arena eight years ago. It beat Apple to the punch by five years, and it was a fully fledged product before Android was even a twinkle in Google’s eye. But after that initial flush of success Microsoft took its eye off the ball, and left its mobile OS to gather dust.
Finally, and not before time, it has gathered its resources and put all its might behind a new mobile operating system.
Designed from scratch in just 18 months, Windows Phone 7 aims to take on the might of Apple’s iPhone and Android. And we’re pleased to report that it’s an impressive first stab.
Keeping it simple
The big thing that strikes you as soon as you start using Windows Phone 7 is how unlike any other mobile OS it is. It’s certainly eons away from its predecessor. Gone are the fiddly dropdown menus and checkboxes of old. The tacked-on ugliness of the Windows Mobile 6.5 start grid has been banished and the tangle of settings screens has been shown the door.
Windows Phone 7’s front end is a refreshing change, not only from the bad old days of WinMo, but also from the rest of the smartphone industry. It has a clean look that’s very different from the iPhone’s grid of icons and Android’s widget-based approach. The home, or Start Screen as Microsoft calls it, is based on a series of flat-looking “Live Tiles”.
The Start Screen is customisable, and you can pin anything to it, from apps through website bookmarks to destinations from Bing maps. We like the size of the icons: they make it easy to tap the item you’re aiming for accurately. We also like the live element, which means individual tiles can display rich information right on the home page. A good example of this is the People tile, which dynamically displays an animated grid of photos from your contact lists.
We’re not totally convinced by the aesthetics of the Start Screen. Compared to iOS’s neat grid of rounded icons and HTC’s slick Android customisations, the tiles have a tendency to look messy. The twin-tile layout means the Start Screen becomes very tall once you’ve added a few apps and items, which means a lot of vertical scrolling.
Elsewhere, however, elegance reigns. All Windows Phone 7 handsets have three buttons, and only three buttons, beneath the screen: Back, Start and context-sensitive Search. And there are a host of neat touches that add to the sense of slick simplicity. You can take a photo, for instance, without unlocking the phone. The small battery life and network status icons at the top of the screen disappear unless you call them up with a swipe, reducing clutter.
Unlike iOS or Android, Windows Phone 7’s UI doesn’t finish at the Start Screen. Beneath the layer of Live Tiles sits a collection of themed Hubs. There are six to start with – People, Xbox Live (games), Office, Pictures & video, Music and Marketplace – and they all share a similar design. Clean text flows over the top of a background image, which also scrolls as you sweep left and right between the various views offered in each hub, creating an attractive parallax effect.
It looks good, and the way content on neighbouring screens peeks out from the edges of the phone’s display to show you where to go is a lovely touch. In the Pictures hub the first view is a series of simple text links to help you drill down into your photos, with a recent photo forming the backdrop. Sweep that out of the way and you reach a horizontally scrolling thumbnail grid of recent shots, then go right again and you’ll see photos sucked in from social networking accounts.
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Operating system support
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