Close up with Windows Phone 7
NEW YORK--I can say one thing with certainty about Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7 smartphone software, introduced here this morning: It's no Windows Mobile 6.5.
Windows Phone 7 looks nothing like that woeful release or any of its earlier attempts at updating Windows Mobile since the turn of the century. Although WP7 runs on an updated version of the kernel software inside Windows Mobile, everything built on that foundation is new.
That's good. Microsoft needed to reboot its phone efforts, and a half-measure like Reseach In Motion's BlackBerry Torch wasn't going to do. But as a new release, Win Phone 7 also requires potential buyers to bet on two things; updates to fix bugs and fill in missing features, and an increasing variety of applications to extend its capabilities.
For now, here's what you get with Windows Phone 7:
* Of AT&T's three phones, pictured at right, the Samsung Focus (at the top left) seems the most straightforward. The LG Quantum, at right, offers a slide-out physical keyboard--but notice its bizarre exile of the Shift key to a small, out-of-place circular button. And the HTC Surround, at bottom, features a slide-out speaker that looks wildly practical. All sell for $199.99; the Focus will ship Nov. 8, with the others arriving "in time for the holidays." These phones will include a U-Verse Mobile app that pairs with AT&T's U-Verse TV service; if you don't subscribe to that, you can pay $9.99 a month to download (over WiFi, not 3G) and watch about 60 shows.
* T-Mobile's HTC HD7, seen in the photo below, will ship in mid November for an unannounced price (bet it comes in at around $200 too). This follows the Focus's design, except for its use of a bigger, 4.3-in. screen. World travelers take note: T-Mobile's usual, liberal SIM-unlock policy will apply to this model, meaning you won't be stuck paying its roaming rates overseas. Pay little heed to the Dell Venue Pro, a WP7 device--mentioned in the last paragraph of T-Mobile's press release--that will only be available online and in "select retailers."
* Yes, Verizon and Sprint aren't included. Microsoft product manager Greg Sullivan said WP7's first release only supports the GSM wireless standard used by AT&T, T-Mobile and most carriers overseas; a CDMA version compatible with Sprint and Verizon should arrive in the first half of next year.
* I saw surprisingly little carrier-installed applications on these things--and each had an "uninstall" command available. When I used that on one program, it was gone in about a second.
* Windows Phone 7 does multitasking like the iPhone, but less so. Microsoft expects most third-party applications to save their work and suspend their operation when a user does something else. WP7 provides software to allow background media playback, even for Web radio, but many other background uses will have to wait for software updates. This looked fast enough in demos; then again, doesn't everything?
* The user interface sometimes isn't--even the battery gauge and signal-strength display often vanish, reappearing when you tap the top of the screen. Simple multi-touch gestures and taps of large, clearly labeled links and buttons get most tasks done. But watch out for apps that only function in one screen orientation: I couldn't type in a new Web address in WP7's Internet Explorer browser with the phone held sideways.
* I only saw a handful of third-party apps, from such companies as Netflix, Twitter, IMDb.com and the Slacker Web-radio service. All looked remarkably like the core apps; there doesn't seem to be a huge amount of room for developers to show off (or screw up). Nobody would offer even a rough estimate of how many apps would be available for WP7 on Nov. 8.
* Battery life is a mystery too. That's usually not a good sign.
* WP7's Internet Explorer had no issues displaying the Post's site but flunked HTML5test.com's Web-standards trial, scoring 12 of 300 points.
* Bing Maps for WP7 is far inferior to Google Maps on Android. It doesn't provide turn-by-turn routing for drivers, transit directions for those on foot or cycling guidance for those on two wheels.
* Other features I did not see: visual voicemail to allow out-of-order playback and deletion of messages, "tethering" support to extend a WP7 phone's mobile-broadband access to nearby computers; text-to-speech software to read aloud new e-mails or text messages; copy and paste functions (though that's due in a free software update early next year); and support for video-conferencing software (notwithstanding the lack of front-facing cameras on the WP7 devices seen today).
My overall impression: Microsoft has done a fine job of catching up to where the smartphone industry was in this spring. That may sound like a backhanded compliment--but last year's Windows Mobile 6.5 compared poorly to the iPhone of 2007. Will this reboot of Microsoft's smartphone efforts deliver enough value to stop the bleeding for the company? You tell me.
| October 11, 2010; 2:34 PM ET
Categories: Gadgets, Mobile, Telecom
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