Monday, 5 December 2011

[Review] Three days with Windows Phone 7

Put phones seventh?

Windows Phone 7, Microsoft’s current foray into the wonderful world of smartphones, has just gotten a three-day run-down by yours truly in the form of the Dell Venue Pro. Can it stand in for a top of the line Android handset? Is it worth your time? Why is a site about Android devoting space to a competing OS? All these questions and more will be answered – read on, if you dare.

[Note from the Editor in Chief: I firmly believe this is a must-read. Even though we're obviously Android fans here, I think having an open mind to what else is out there is a great attribute to foster. Regardless of how you feel about competing OS, there is no doubt that we're all better off for competition and innovation - if you want the best from Android then I think you should also be wishing success to it's competitors. I was actually going to write a piece like this, but my colleague has beaten me to the punch (probably for the best, he's a better writer than me). Enjoy this one, for me it's one of the best articles I've seen all year at an Android site, and do try keep an open mind people!]

The Introduction:

Good day, good people, and welcome to the first instalment of what’s intended to be yet another series of articles, in this case “How the other [percentage] live”. In the interests of being fair and balanced (Well, no, this is Android NZ, not Mobile Operating Systems Assorted NZ) I’ve temporarily put down my Galaxy S II and picked up a Windows Phone.

I’m interested in Windows Phone for a number of reasons – It has the potential to be a real third ecosystem, it is now leveraging significant brand value from Nokia, and it’s actually pretty damned good - but not least because of Android. Why, you ask? Well, I’m here right now because Android best meets my needs out of all the competing options in the smartphone arena. It’s not so much a sense of devotion that has brought me here, nor a loyalty to all things El Goog, rather an appreciation of the power and functionality behind Android, and a desire to share what I’ve learned with the good folk that make up whatever audience this article garners. 

I came from a Windows Mobile background, and it was in fact the venerable HTC HD2 that introduced me to Android, when a number of very clever chaps over XDA-way ported Google’s finest to it.
There were, and still are, things I miss about WinMo – as it was developed when mobile data was extraordinarily expensive, it was particularly transparent about what could be sent where, a far cry from these days of Carrier IQ. Not to mention that HTC’s Windows Mobile Sense suite was, in my humble opinion, a lot better than its Android Sense overlay. 

Of course, we’re talking Windows Mobile, here, not Windows Phone, which is an entirely different container of sealife. Windows Phone’s much-touted tile-based Metro UI has laid the groundwork for what seems to be the company’s direction in all other areas, as Windows 8 and the latest dashboard update for the Xbox 360 also use Metro. It’s clean, typographically delightful, and generally pretty functional to boot. Not to mention that it has its fair share of appreciators in the Android camp, as the sheer number of themes and wannabe apps clearly show.

Android is my favourite, again, because it does everything I need it to do reliably and pleasantly, can be customised to a satisfying extent, and comes ready to use on the hardware I want to use it on. It would be foolish of me not to give consideration to the alternatives, and I’m always up for a challenge, so I thought giving a vastly different experience a shot for a few days might be worth my while. All the better to appreciate Android, no?

The device that caught my eye originally did so at the time of its launch in November last year – the mighty DELL Venue Pro. Make no mistake; this is an absolutely gorgeous device. A curved 4.1” gorilla glass AMOLED touchscreen with a sliding portrait QWERTY keyboard underneath makes for a form factor I can only wish more OEMs would take up. It has been ages since I last used a physical keyboard – the original HTC Titan, in fact – so this was a bit of a re-learning curve. With a 1ghz Snapdragon and 256 or 512MB of RAM depending on who you ask, these are clearly last year’s specs, but hold up very well, considering. The Venue Pro has been updated to the latest version of WP7 – Build 7740 – which falls under the mantle of Mango, or Windows Phone 7.5. Mango brought many changes with it, including task-switching, integrated Facebook chat and Twitter, and a mobile version of IE9.

Listed below are some of my experiences I thought worth noting, broken into the Good and the Not So Good, although some fall inbetween:

The Good:

The iconic tiled Start screen
-          UI consistency. Metro is a wonderful design language, and one of the real draws of the OS. Being text and symbol-based, it’s very easy to tell what you’re looking at and where you’re going. There are familiar usage paradigms repeated throughout, such as panning to additional sections of each app (Or ‘hub’, if you prefer, they really are the same thing), and tapping on three little dots to bring up contextual menus. It’s simple, intuitive, and eye-catching, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out on Microsoft’s other platforms. There are wonderful subtleties here, like the signal strength, wifi connectivity, and battery status being hidden, and only appearing when the top of the screen is tapped. This may not appease control freaks who love them some percentage battery indicators, but is right up my alley – I like to use my phone without worrying whether it’s dropped five percent and ohnowhatifthere’sanemergency, et cetera. Additionally, it’s built with screen tech in mind. By default, the UI is largely black, which saves power on AMOLED screens. It can, however, be switched to white, to save power on LCDs. I dig this.

-          Social media integration. Hey, you know that thing that Samsung, HTC, Motorola and friends do, where they include a bunch of stock social networking utilities that propose to aggregate your updates and contacts into one or two helpful, easily-managed, content-focused areas rather than have you jumping from specific, dedicated app to specific, dedicated app like some kind of networking frog? You know how they almost all fail miserably in that attempt, and you end up using dedicated Twitter and Facebook apps anyway? Yeah. WP7 sports integrated Facebook and Twitter updates that populate each contact’s profile in a way the other platforms can only shake their fists at. Of course, it’s not like I didn’t use the Facebook and Twitter apps, but for rather different reasons – WP7 ended up dividing my social networking into contact-based activity vs. news-based activity. Y’know, sometimes you want to hear what cousin Tom is up to, and sometimes you just wanna check out the latest article on The Verge. This division is apparent because you can select from a big, aggregated content feed, or click on individual contacts for their individual updates, which is made more convenient when you group contacts into ‘Friends’, ‘Family’, ‘News’, et cetera.

Desktop Zune. I like Desktop Zune.
-          Dedicated desktop sync app that doesn’t suck. Okay, okay, I know Google like to tout their independence from the desktop, but at this point it almost feels like they’re doing it just to spite everyone else despite the benefits such an app could have. I mean, hey, what about a sync app for those that own both an Android tablet and an Android phone? As much as it makes me feel dirty to say this, iTunes has shown that a desktop program can be a wonderful content gateway for mobile hardware. Microsoft’s Zune does the same sort of thing, but is less of the eye-stabbing teeth-grinding experience one gets using iTunes, and more of a ‘Hey. That’s actually pretty cool’. I use Zune as one of my primary music programs even when I’m not using a Windows Phone, because it’s functional, pretty, and shares content nicely to my Xbox. Wireless sync and marketplace browsing are cool inclusions too. I’m not really a podcast person, but if you’re so inclined you can set it to download the latest episode of your favourite podcast overnight, fresh for the morning commute, which is very cool. The downside being that, like iTunes, you sacrifice drag ‘n’ drop file explorer support. I’m reminded, here, of how so many Android OEMs attempt to plug this gap by providing their own, inevitably awful sync/update suites (Yes, I’m looking at you, Kies). Google could easily do such a thing with simple web apps, like they already do with the Android Market. One could argue that Google Music is their attempt to skirt right around the music sync business, but that’s hardly representative, being US-exclusive. I feel it’s time to take a stand with the OEMs on this.

-          Wonderful system-wide animations. Rather than appearing overly flashy, they complement the minimalistic design language nicely. Little touches, like the way the page elements rearrange themselves when the browser rotates, give the transitions a real sense of polish. Others, such as the transitions from launcher->app, or from text messaging->one specific thread, see all other UI elements fly away, and linger on the selected element briefly before switching to the selection. It gives a real sense of purpose, serving to highlight what you’ve tapped on without making the selection glow gaudily. Reminds me of some of Android’s finer moments, like the overscroll glow in Gingerbread+. Live tiles will pull in contact images and animate them, your Xbox Live avatar will do various things, your photos will slideshow across the photo tile, everything bounces and scrolls in just the right places to make navigating the UI a pleasant experience. My personal favourite is the email app, which will zoom out and flick a sent email up, up, and away, or slam-dunk a deleted email into the ether.

The Metro lockscreen. Curved glass = glare in photos.
-          Notification alerts, and the lockscreen. WP7 compromises between Android’s anti-intrusion notification ticker on the taskbar and iOS’s LOOK MUM LOOK LOOK LOOK YOU’RE NOT LOOKING in-your-face pop-up text message boxes by having a small bar at the top drop down with a preview when you receive a notification. This can be tapped, and will take you to the app (But, unfortunately, not necessarily to what spawned the notification – more on that later), or it’ll dismiss itself after a second or two. On the lockscreen, these still pop up, and upon tapping them, you’re prompted to slide the lockscreen up to unlock the phone with a cute little bounce animation. The lockscreen itself shows the aforementioned battery, wifi, and network status, as well as your next calendar event, and will display badges for emails, texts, and missed calls. It has persistent music controls whenever the music app is running, and can even pull in photos of the artists playing, rather than album art (More on that later, too), mirroring the desktop Zune program.

-          Multitasking is well-implemented. Long-press Back to bring up the WebOS card-style task switcher, which reorders itself depending on which app you’ve most recently accessed. While I have yet to play with the ICS task switcher, I hope it’s this good. It’s only missing the ability to close apps from within it, as you have to enter an app and hit back to remove it from the task switcher. Interestingly, the Start screen is dealt with like an app as well, and you can hit Back from it after hitting the Windows/Home key to, er, go back to the last app you had open, very different from other platforms. I dig it. Additionally, upon digging in the settings, you can see exactly which apps have the ability to run in the background, and enable or disable them at will. Android, take note.

The Not So Good:

-          Regional restrictions bite. We all know Android reserves some very cool features for the US market, like Music and Voice, but there’s a lot of functionality that’s removed from Windows Phone if you don’t live in an area lucky enough to have access to it. Some of these don’t even make any sense, like music ID and the ability to display artist photos on the lockscreen. There are ways around this, the easiest being to set up a spare Windows Live email address with the locale set as the US, but then you can’t do useful things like use a non-US credit card, or your Xbox Live gamertag.  Given the devices’ limited and generally non-expandable storage, cloud-based services are a big selling point, and to have many of them completely unavailable does little to sell the OS in quite a few markets.

-          The Windows Phone Marketplace is pretty bad. Not because of an overall lack of apps, but because there’s so much crapware, and many of the apps are of low quality, with ugly icons and graphical styles that go against the simplicity of the design language. This is obvious even on the official Facebook application, which displays notifications in a hideous red badge counter when the app is pinned to the start screen. There’s only one Google app, and it’s naturally a search one, and not very good at that (Although better than Bing is). One really glaring omission is a decent file explorer. It must be remembered that the OS has only been on the market for one year. With time, more apps will come. Or so I hope.

-          It takes Forever to navigate at times. This is not to say the OS is slow, far from it. Transitions are speedy, and your content is readily available, making it easy to forget the device is operating on a single core. The problem is more in apps themselves, and in suspending/resuming. When starting apps, it’s common to see a splash screen, then wait for them to pull in content, while not displaying any content to distract you with in the meantime – the dedicated Twitter and Facebook apps are very guilty of this, as the integrated social networking feeds will at least show you old content. I get mighty sick of that little ‘loading’ animation when every non-stock app displays it prominently every time I want to pull content from somewhere.

It's better than a badge counter because it says "new items"
-          Live tiles are a great idea with largely useless implementation. Live tiles are WP7’s answer to both Android’s widgets and iOS’s badge counters. Great idea, updating with dynamic information using push notifications, alerting you to the latest tweets from a select group of friends (Even when you’ve already read that tweet), telling you the latest weather updates, or, um, working exactly like a badge counter while taking up four times as much space as necessary. Hmm. For the most part, live tiles combine the cumbersome size problems many Android widgets have – taking up half the screen space to tell you something that could’ve been contained in a much smaller area – with the annoying necessity that iOS apps have, in needing you to look at them before you realise you have a notification. iOS has since gotten past this with its lockscreen notifications, and by handily thieving the notification drop down from Android, but WP7 cheerily alerts you to a new ‘something’, then leaves you to stumble around the OS trying to work out what that something was. Even worse, the Facebook app will alert you to someone’s new comment or similar, but when you tap the notification, it dumps you into your news feed, not the app’s notification screen. I found some notifications entirely unreliable, too, as they’d pop up on one of my other phones much earlier, or I’d simply not be alerted at all. Desperately needs some sort of notification aggregation, like, say, the third notification page employed by Nokia’s N9.

-          It’s simply not as widely supported as iOS or Android. Of course, it’s also a whopping one year old. Android has had to claw its way into mainstream acceptability, especially here in NZ, where businesses seem to have only become vaguely aware that people carry computers in their pockets over the last year or so, and prefer to develop for iOS if they’re going to bother developing anything at all. That said, there are a surprising number of regional applications, but I say surprising only in the context of my not expecting many at all.

The WP7 app list. Note 'redundant' search button.
-          Lack of customisation. Yes, you can pin just about anything you like to a giant space-hogging tile on the Start screen, yes, you can set lockscreen wallpaper (Can’t set it anywhere else, gr) and yes, you can change the system theme colours, but that’s really it. I suppose it’s intended that by showcasing ‘your content’ in the form of photos you’ve taken and your friends’ terrible Facebook contact pictures, you feel the phone is ‘yours’ even if ‘you’ can’t change terribly much. In all honesty, I feel like the Start screen is missing a ‘Desktop’ screen. Like it’s the app drawer, even though the actual app drawer is a list to its right. Of all things, I miss the WinMo OEM overlays, and think WP7 could really benefit from some bloody Sense or Touchwiz or SPB shell, or ‘something’ to give it a bit more pizazz and an alternative way to navigate its damned good set of stock apps. As mentioned, I love the multitasking, I just find the Start screen and app list static and annoying, not as intuitive and fluid as it should be. Again, Nokia’s N9 springs to mind, with its three UI paradigms of task switcher, notifications, and app list. This is similar, just without the notifications, and with a less useful app list. You can actually un-pin all the tiles and ‘just’ have an app list, which is kind of amusing. I really miss the text-based list UI of the original Zune devices, as well as the ‘Titanium’ UI of Windows Mobile 6.5.

-          Bing. Bing just isn’t very good. It can never find what I’m searching for, even when it’s helpful things like a nearby address in the sucky Bing Maps app. Given an entire hardware button is dedicated to Bing, and all it does is bring in a big flashy and utterly useless Photo Of The Day with a search bar when you press it, without even the good manners to bring up the on-screen keyboard, I think I’m justified in being annoyed, here. It features no contextual search (There are seemingly-redundant on-screen search buttons that accomplish this) and lots of wonderful-if-you-live-in-the-right-place gimmicks like music ID and ‘local scout’. To its credit, scanning text and translating it natively is neat, but it’s pretty damning when the browser includes a search engine switcher and it’s set to Google by default.

Customisation! I selected that background.
-          The mobile web is built for webkit, not IE. This isn’t really a criticism of WP7, since the Mango-updated mobile IE9 browser is actually pretty good, if a touch slower than I’m used to (Which I’m inclined to blame the year-old hardware for, rather than the software). The extensive use of HTML5 means flash isn’t as glaring an omission as it might otherwise have been (Flash isn’t available for Ice-Cream Sandwich just yet, either). The problem is that sites simply don’t recognise the useragent for WP7, and generally deliver stripped down dumbphone versions rather than the functional iOS & Android web apps we’re used to. You can trick a few into delivering the smartphone versions, like Facebook, but they’ll often render incorrectly, a shame. One other pet peeve of mine is that the pre-Mango Mobile IE had a handy tab-switching button, which has now been dropped into a menu, vexing. On the plus side, having the address & search bar at bottom is a lot more intuitive than having it at the top. Alas, there aren’t any decent alternative browsers right now. Perhaps in time WinMo staple Opera will release a WP7 version that solves all of my problems. Please?

The Wrap-Up:

So, to wrap this experience up, WP7 is definitely worth a look. I’d handily recommend it to friends and family who’re less tech-inclined, especially if they already use a Windows ecosystem rather than an Apple one. There are elements that I didn’t mention (Since I didn’t have much to say about them), like the Microsoft Office suite, pretty damned good email client that auto-configures exchange servers, voice integration that performs better than Android’s despite being largely offline (Text messaging dictation is online. I also wish it had the same wonderful music integration as did Voice Command in WinMo of old, but I digress), the really good stock keyboard, and it’s a consistently solid and functional experience that, I’m sure, will delight many. I sincerely hope that, with Nokia’s help, this becomes the third ecosystem. It’s drastically different from everything else out there, and in a good way at that.

Putting groups first
WP7 could, and did, stand in for my Galaxy S II for a few days. I’m glad to be back, however. Android’s real strength lies not in its out of box functionality, but in the ability to replace any element you dislike with another one, be it the browser, the camera, or the crappy OEM social networking integration, ahem. The sheer number of Android phones coupled with competition between OEMs mean Android devices have the best hardware specs on the market, while WP7 is stuck on single cores, et cetera, due to MS’s tight restriction on what their OS supports – this means, theoretically, faster updates, but has left their device pool lagging with things like WVGA resolution and no 4G (For markets where that matters). WP7 has a reasonable cadre of loyalists and homebrew devs, a number of which have carried over from the WinMo days, yet there’s just not a lot that can be modified at this point.

 I’m watching the WP7 development with great interest, and again, I wish Microsoft all the best with this endeavour. At this point, however, Android remains the most functionally diverse operating system and hardware set, and meets my needs more efficiently than the competition while reflecting my digital identity through its many customisation options. When I use an Android phone, I can fiddle around with it until it functions the way ‘I’ want it to, with shortcuts to everything I need accessible from wherever I bloody well want them to be. I don’t want to learn the way ‘you’ think I should navigate my device, Microsoft (And Apple, et al), although I’m happy to give it a shot. But if I think I can make it function more efficiently and effectively, I want to have the freedom to do that.