Hands on with Windows Phone 7 Series

Microsoft has put a lot of effort into this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) conference. Its Silverlight programming language is one of the event’s title sponsors, the panel and talk schedules are peppered with Microsoft employees and, best of all, the company brought working examples of its brand new Windows Phone 7 Series to Texas.

The phones were on show at a party held by gadget website gdgt, and appeared to be the same models used in the unveiling of Windows Phone 7 Series at Mobile World Congress last month.

Microsoft’s team at SXSW told us the models were “dev units” made by Asus that are extremely close to what shipping products will be like. The phone was iPhone-esque in terms of thinness and weight, although squarer and more angular than its Apple rival.

Microsoft has eschewed the soft corners, bevelling, shading and shadowing that’s so prevalent in the iPhone, and it really does make the Windows Phone look and feel instantly different

Its screen also appeared to be physically bigger – and it’s the screen you first notice; it’s absolutely fantastic, bright and extremely clear. The 800 x 480 resolution helps, but the impression of precision, of sharpness and clarity is enhanced by the elegantly thin font and super-flat, well-defined ‘tiles’ motif Microsoft has adopted for the UI.

Microsoft’s designers spoke about making the UI “chromeless”, eschewing the soft corners, bevelling, shading and shadowing that’s so prevalent in the iPhone, and it really does make the Windows Phone look and feel instantly different.

The big vision is married to clever little touches too; the lock screen carries not only time and date but upcoming appointments and an inbox counter, for instance.

Hubs vs apps

The OS tries to move away from the idea of apps, and opts for hubs instead. The Microsoft employee demonstrating the phone said the team realised end users didn’t think of their family’s photos or their friend’s Facebook posts as an app, so the OS tries to bring scattered content together.

We scrolled through the contacts list – pulled, we were told, from an Exchange server – and saw Facebook and Twitter statuses integrated, along with images posted from those services.

In the pictures hub, images stored locally on the phone are presented as a single album, along with albums from Facebook. The multimedia app will integrate music from online services such as Pandora as well as MP3s stored on the phone itself.

Windows Phone 7 Series music

As much as Microsoft is confident in the idea of hubs, there’s also a long list of functions and features that should appeal to power users. We asked the team about the Office functions that were demoed at MWC, and while they confirmed all Windows Phone 7 Series models would ship with a version of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, they had to keep quiet about how these will integrate with Office 2010 – these are features Microsoft wants to unveil at a later date.

Snappy performance

So, overall, how did it feel? The phones we used were dev units, and so had some quirks, but in general, the OS felt very snappy – perhaps not surprising when you consider the likely 1GHz CPU, which is much faster than the 600MHz unit inside the iPhone 3GS.

It is very different though; while an iPhone user might pick up an Android phone and get to grips with it almost instantly, Windows Phone 7 Series is a unique piece of design through and through.

Crucially though, it felt to us that while Microsoft had gone its own way in terms of design, it had replicated perhaps the most important part of the iPhone’s design: its enticing sense of fun.

As with the iPhone, we found ourselves wanting to touch the phone and explore the UI; the sideways scrolling through the large panels is fun and feels right. Our time with Windows Phone 7 Series may have been brief, but we still feel Microsoft has a phone with real potential on its hands.

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