I promised an article about Windows Phone 7, and my first impressions after using it for a while. I must say, it’s damn impressive what this manages to do, and washes away any and all preconceptions about Microsoft i can ever have. It’s ballsy, colorful, no-nonsense, reliable, smooth, fast…… really… All these qualities, a few years ago, would never crowd a sentence containing Microsoft. Something must have been right, and the fierce competition from Android and Apple surprisingly made Crosoft the outsider, for once. What makes it feel so right? Let’s review a few of my observations.

Experiential qualities

This OS is smooth as butter, all in terms of look, behavior and performance. The transitions are very smooth, the touch response and controls are super-awesomely responsive, the UI feels very coherent and well thought-out. All this, and yet it doesn’t look or feel as any other existing phone OS. Looks are dramatically different, animations are dramatically different. Put side by side with an iPhone, i can’t help feeling the glossy controls and physical imitations terribly dated and clunky. Some may argue that the new “Metro” style that Microsoft has borrowed from the Swiss Design style looks boxy and a big step back in terms of aesthetics. In an Android world riddled with clutter and an iThings universe enclosed in sanitary gloss, this is a breath of fresh air. Those who voice such an opinion haven’t paid enough attention to the inspired typography and the superb animations. It’s simple, but it lives at your every move and that’s what counts.

Functional qualities

No zizi-panpans

Functionally, lots of people were bitching about WP7 at the beginning, saying it was playing catch-up with Android and iPhone, but missing lots of functionalities such as multi-tasking, high speed processor, full hd screens and such. Truth is, most people shouldn’t care about these bells and whistles. (zizi panpans)

Insofar as “multi tasking”  is concerned, it’s there. What you need to do is play music at the same time you’re doing something else. All audio apps can do that, and be controlled from the screensaver as well. There is also a way to see the last opened apps, and switch back to them, and a way to let apps run in the background, do their updates and business.

Performance is well optimized for smaller one-core processors, booting times are low. Battery life is slightly bigger than iPhone & co.

Connectivity sans STDs

The main impression about wp7 functionalities is that it’s a really nice connectivity powerhouse, without the Android STDs.  Most meaningful apps are ads-free,(ads which clutter the screen and drain battery). There are so few Wphones out there that all viruses are made for Android instead anyway…

Picture Hub is a nice example which takes advantage of online albums to display

What wp7 offers is built-in support for facebook, windows live, gmail, linkedIn, office 365 / outlook, and twitter. Concretely, that enables the phone to merge all sorts of contacts and centralise all updates / new photos and present them in a nice manner, often right from the start screen via the “Live tiles”. You can make shortcuts to your favorite contacts, and see their latest updates regardless of where it comes from.

On the screenshot, extreme left: start screen with mailbox, messaging and phone tiles. Little lower, outlook, gchat, hotmail, whatsapp; Further down, the People hub, my own tile (“Me”, allows to post updates in the mentioned networks), and 3 tiles for groups of friends where two of them show updates directly from their tile.

All in all, that system is the strong point of WP7, and offers enough customization to be usable and feel connected without getting tangled in every different service.

Productive tingles in the pants

As said, this phone supports natively the connection to office 365, which enables me to get emails from work, or see instant messages from Lync without bothering to install all that mess at home. It also has nice support for Skydrive (25Go of space for every Live account), and reads all Office file formats (yes, even the annoying powerpoints that whole family sends you).

The 1-million dollar app that i like and it supports, is OneNote. Even if Evernote seems a bit more trustworthy and platform agnostic than OneNote, it just doesn’t cut it compared to what OneNote does. It’s simply the best note-taking app ever (maybe more on that later). You can fling any file, picture, drawing, sound, webpage clip at it and it will save it. Evernote segregates content, but OneNote allows to paste everything together and link your notes, share them easily, work with multiple people …. just awesomeness. And all this (except drawing) is accessible through the Office app on windows phone 7. Tingles in the pants. Yes. No more sending pictures to emails, just slap it on a note and seconds later it’s on my desktop computer, ready to be scribbled on, sent around or added to previous stuff. Really helps the workflow.

Oh, and also the different accounts that you connect (gmail, facebook, live, outlook) all get shown together in the calendar. With colors for where it comes from, and showing the next meetings / events right from the start screen (and even screensaver).

Gamesy.. but not too much 

The games are currently a question for debate. On the one hand, major hits (angry birds, fruit ninja, plants vs zombies, word feud …) are already there, ported by Microsoft it seems. These major titles are also branded “Xbox live”, which means they are connected to achievements in the Xbox universe and such. While i dont have any xbox, nor plan to have any, it’s nice to include them somewhere. On the other hand, these games are way pricier than on other platforms and often have no free version (with ads). Personally, i prefer that. I hate ads and i’d rather pay much more for stuff i use than send my info around to all sorts of shady companies. It’s just something to think about. Also, the games are noticeably less pretty than other platforms but performed well. Some outrageous titles, even when paid, remain smaller versions than other platforms. That’s unacceptable (yes, fruit ninja, i’m looking at you…)

BUT there are some really nice – original games. First, Tentacles is a nice action/adventure/reflexes games where you control a little creature in the intestines of an evil professor. Awesome concept and awesome execution.

Second, BBB (Bye Bye Brain) is a tower-defense game but you place villagers with guns, swords, flamethrowers to kill impending zombies. It’s fresh, 3d, full of good ideas and incomparably more interesting than Plants vs zombies. Awesome game, music, style, humor.

Coherence is in the house.

Mostly, apps adhere to the Metro (swiss design) style. Some big apps infringe the user’s preferences (like games app, office and mails in white while my theme is black and blue).  But all apps use the same navigation style, controls and such which makes it very easy to know how to use the apps. That’s a feat that iOs and especially Android majorly fail at. That’s the number one feat that makes this phone very good from a usability perspective. Everything is predictable, and lets you focus on what matters: the content; your friends; your documents; NOT why that button turned blue and suddently says “back”.

Always disliked how the Android apps can be widgets, apps, pinned on “desktop” without widgets.

Always disliked how all iPhone apps are visible on the main screen, with no personalisation.

These two aspects are really nicely integrated with the concept of tiles (both a shortcut AND a widget) and personalisation, but not too much. Strikes a really good balance between reflecting yourself and not turning into a mess. Pin people, pin groups, pin pictures, pin websites, radios, etc. etc.

Third party apps

More on that later, but for now the impression is that all essential apps you could need are covered. The Nokia apps are really cool, too. TuneIn radio is my favorite, able to stream almost any radio in the world, even Radio Béton :) :) :)

Some bumps on the road

Alas, all’s not pink in the bunny house. Some things could be improved, such as the home screen. While it’s manageable when you don’t have many contacts or apps, soon it becomes hard how much to slide down unless you’re dedicated to keep some order down there. Perhaps some separation in categories and “snapping” to these categories would help. Anyone else than you looking at that screen will exclaim what a mess it looks like ! But for me it’s clear :)

Control panel screen is nice but would gain having visual separation between categories, and icons. Sound support is sometimes flimsy, on the Nokia Lumia 800 though i suspect it’s hardware (interferences can be heard clearly).

A big big downer is the ZUNE app. For all people who know and use iTunes, ZUNE is Microsoft’s clunky and underfeatured shameless copy. The sync process has to go through that app, and it sucks. Zune app for music and video also sucks for playback on the phone itself (no scrollbar to jump at a specific point in a video/sound? Come on!!) It really does the job nicely, but for a music enthusiast, it’s very weak. Unlike other apps, it’s very questionable the way it works and presents content.

Credits: Screenshots obtained via the tool mentioned at : WinSupersite (because yes, like Android there’s no way to make screenshots by default… wrr)

Conclusion

I like that phone. It’s simple enough and modern to keep me in the loop, it’s much more a phone to me than android or iOs based phones, in that clearly the main aim is communication. Communication has changed, moved to internet, introduced chat, mail, VOIP and social networks. So has the phone, and hats off for Microsoft to present such a nice alternative.

I’m especially interested to see what happens once Microsoft DITCHES ZUNE (it was announced), and when the syncing happens between WP7 and Windows 8. For having tried Windows 8 as well, this all seems very promising the integration that could arise between phone and desktops / laptops / tablets.

On the other hand, it’s still too good to be true, and unless there’s more user traction this great platform risks tumbling down and lose the race. Apps are few and pricy – not an obstacle for me, but plenty of people NEVER PAID FOR AN APP EVER, 51% according to an Android survey.

Would i get a “windows” phone again? Yes.

Will anyone else?