Windows Phone 7

Last Updated: 02-Feb-2011

Iíve decided to post this as an editorial, rather than a review, because once Iíd finished writing it I discovered that it was more a rant on the shortcomings of Windows Phone 7 than it was a truly neutral review. You should therefore be warned up front that this article is written from the perspective of a techie user who is much more at home with an Android device than Windows Phone 7.

This is the first time Iíd actually reviewed a phone operating system, but not because I never had the opportunity in the past. Numerous new operating systems came out since I started this web site back in 1998. In truth, I might never have owned a Windows Phone 7 device at all if it werenít for an unexpected turn-of-events back in November of 2010.

Iíd gone with a bunch of friends to a Windows Phone 7 user group meeting at the Microsoft building in Mississauga, Ontario. Iíve been to numerous other group meetings there (mostly for .NET) and I knew that door prizes were a common occurrence. However, Iíd never won anything major there, and so I just assumed the trend would continue. However, when they called the ticket number for the grand prize, it turned out to be mine. Iíd won a Windows Phone 7 device on my carrier, which was Rogers. That meant Iíd won a Samsung Focus, which Iíd read was widely considered the best of the first crop of WP7 offerings.

When I finally received my new phone I was immediately enthralled by the 4-inch Samsung Super AMOLED display. The black theme in Windows Phone 7 showed off the incredible depth of black on the phone. I then tested the audio quality of the phone and while it was a little tinny on some voices, it actually sounded damned good, and it was quite loud to boot. Overall I was impressed with the hardware and that feeling only got stronger over time. Sadly the same wasnít true for the operating system, though things did get off to a reasonably good start.

The first thing I noticed about the O/S was the fluidity of the graphics. Everything scrolled with a silky-smooth feel and the deceleration algorithms were extremely well implemented. There was plenty of eye candy in the form of screen transitions that were just as liquidy-smooth as the scrolling. Over time however, the eye candy did loose some of its appeal, because it took longer to get from place to place. It would have been nice if Microsoft had included an option to limit the graphics somewhat.

Microsoftís advertising campaign is squarely centered on the operating systemís ease-of-use, or more specifically the speed at which you ďget in and get outĒ. To a large extent this is true, but itís also a bit misleading, because their ads focus on text messaging aspect and there is nothing about WP7 that allows you type the message more rapidly than on other phones. Granted, the virtual keyboard is well-engineered and it does a better-than-average job of helping its users type what they meant. Unfortunately most input has to be done in portrait mode (and its resulting skinny keyboard) because there is limited support for landscape input. Itís odd, because the phone clearly supports a landscape keyboard, bit it fails to use it whenever possible.

The organization of most content is handled through what Microsoft calls hubs. They are best thought of as extra-wide screens on which you have a sideways-scrolling view. With simple swipe motions on the screen you can move fluidly from one view to another. You always know whatís coming in the next view because the UI gives you visual clues at the edges of the current view, and with a list of continuous view titles that flow off the screen. I was reasonably impressed with this concept and I found that it almost always provided me with a natural way to view things.

For the first few weeks I was able to ignore the limitations of Windows Phone 7, during which time the things it did well still had strong novelty value. Eventually however, the novelty of the good stuff wore off and the reality of the limitations began to sink in. In the end it wasnít what WP7 could do that mattered, it was what it couldnít do. Almost like a technological equivalent to the old adage ďyouíre only as good as your last bad deedĒ.

The list of omissions in the WP7 is a long one, but at the top of that list is the lack of 3rd party multitasking. Apple strung its users along with lame excuses why multitasking wasnít necessary, but eventually even they had to cave. WP7 is the ONLY smartphone operating system without 3rd party multitasking and the excuses Microsoft makes for it are as lame as any Apple ever devised. Now Microsoft has hinted that this oversight will be remedied in an update to the OS coming out in the fall of 2011, but thatís a long way off (its only January 31st as I write this).

But why is multitasking so important? Perhaps the most compelling is the background music argument that notes that unless you are willing to listen to music provided by native apps, you canít do anything with the phone while listening to music. Fans of or Slacker Radio (or virtually any online radio or music services) will become immediately aware of this limitation if they ever need to check their email, post a Tweet, or check a map while theyíre listened to their music.

Beyond the obvious limitations however, the biggest issue with lack of 3rd party multitasking is that it virtually ensures that certain classes of applications cannot be written for WP7, even if there is a demand for them and a cache of programmers willing to put the effort into it. Microsoft has tried to get around some of this by offering a scheme that allows apps to setup notifications from a server even when the client app is not running. However, this works only with services that are attached to a server over which the app developer has control. It doesnít work with apps that strip information from an unrelated server, or those that donít use servers at all.

Another severe limitation of WP7 (which is still admittedly a limitation of iOS on the iPhone and iPad) is the inability to access the native file system. All apps on WP7 have access only to their own limited sandbox (with a few minor exceptions, such as the ability to access files in the photo gallery). This means that applications cannot share data in any meaningful way and the only means of getting data out of an app is to email it to yourself (or some similar means of internet-based communication).

Virtually everyone who has commented on external storage has been bewildered by the way in which it is implemented (or isnít, as case may be). Initially Microsoft hadnít intended WP7 phones to have external storage options at all, but when a few companies made the MicroSD slots accessible to users, Microsoft had to capitulate. However, these slots donít work the way you think they should.

WP7 does not support external storage in the true sense. In any other O/S the mounting of a memory card appears in the O/S as an independent drive or storage area. The card can be swapped with another on a whim and the file system used on the cards is compatible with other devices, including card readers for PCs. In WP7 however, the inserted memory card becomes part of the overall memory of the device and you must hard restart your device (that is, repave the O/S) when you insert the card. Once inserted, it cannot be removed without repaving the O/S again. Worse still, the card is now formatted in a way that is foreign to all other devices and you canít even reformat it.

Then there is the app store limitation. Like Apple, Microsoft only allows WP7 phones to install apps that come from their app store, and they have full discretion over what appears there. A few attempts have been made to provide a means of side-loading applications without going through the app store at all, but theyíve turned out to be duds (unlike the jailbreaking efforts on the iPhone).

So as not to sound completely down on this, I should note that for a wide range of users these severe limitations have one very useful advantage. Itís pretty much impossible for a rogue application to do any harm or steal any data (even if it did get by the app store censors). This is whole point of having a walled garden. However, as I stated at the beginning of this review, Iíve written it from the point of view of a techie type and not a casual user, and from point-of-view these limitations are extremely annoying.

At the end of the day it was all of the things that WP7 couldnít do that finally turned me of it. Perhaps in the future (6 months to a year from now) the O/S will be worth a second look. I still have my Samsung Focus (which I occasionally use to play Flowerz) and so I can install the upgrades as Microsoft brings them out.

Perhaps one of the oddest side effects of my time with the Samsung Focus was my subsequent decision to buy a Samsung Galaxy S Captivate (an Android phone, just in case you didnít know that). While WP7 might have been disappointing to me, the hardware it ran on was not. The Captivate comes with the same 4-inch Super AMOLED display and virtually the same hardware specs as the Focus (though the Captivate comes with 16 GB of internal memory vs only 8 GB on the Focus). On top all that, it runs Android 2.2, which is light years better than WP7 to a techie.

It is unlikely that WP7 will ever appeal to me, no matter how many fixes Microsoft makes. That doesnít mean that WP7 isnít a perfect fit for others. Iíd image that a typical iPhone user (assuming theyíd ever give up their Apple) would be a better candidate for WP7 than a typical Android fan.