Introduction

This isn’t going to be a story about Microsoft’s return to dominance. Nor is it going to be the story of Microsoft’s failure to compete in the smartphone space. These mobile wars have only just begun and despite the advantage enjoyed by Apple and Google, there is no end in sight. In another twelve months we will see fierce competition from HP, Microsoft and Nokia. There’s a lot at stake, and no company is willing to give up the opportunity to own the next-PC market without a hell of a fight. Today is the beginning of Microsoft’s fight.

In the old days, when Microsoft tried to deliver a prettier UI it would just add lots of blue and make everything huge. That’s how we got XP. We never really lost the blue or hugeness, they were just made more refined through the years.

Windows Phone 7 is a significant departure from anything Microsoft has ever done in the past, from a UI standpoint that is. In my opinion it’s more beautiful than anything else on the market today - including Apple’s iOS. That’s a big statement for anyone to make about Microsoft, a company that has tried so very hard to prevent Apple’s increasing market share but always seemed to be at least one step behind in the user experience department. The Windows Phone 7 user experience is a big enough step forward to not only build a lot of faith in Microsoft’s mobile strategy, but also to give hope that future versions of the Xbox and desktop Windows OSes may be just as impressive.

The underlying architecture is well engineered, high performing and extremely efficient - a testament to the fact that Microsoft continues to employ some of the world’s most talented software engineers. Microsoft’s engineering talent is often masked by the bureaucracy of a company with nearly a hundred thousand employees and multiple billion dollar businesses, but it exists.

From a technical standpoint, Microsoft has never lagged Apple. In many cases, features Apple offered in its Macs were first enjoyed by Windows users. Where Microsoft fell short was in delivering these features in the cleanest way possible. The focus was on functionality, not the best way to use it. I continue to believe that anything you can do on a Mac you can do on a PC, it’s just the manner in which you do it that separates the two. Apple’s growing marketshare is testament to the notion that a significant portion of the population doesn't want to do it Microsoft’s way.

With Windows, Microsoft had to worry about legacy. It had to worry about maintaining a very large existing user base. With Windows Phone, Microsoft began with a clean slate. And it doesn’t disappoint.

Not the King, but a Start

I’ll say it now. Flipping through pages upon pages of square app icons just isn’t the most efficient way to do it. Folders help reduce the clutter, but they don’t fundamentally address the problem.

Microsoft had a similar problem back in Windows 3.x. You had a desktop, groups of application icons and the application icons themselves. Microsoft addressed the growing problem of managing tons of application icons by introducing the Start Menu. You had a way of getting access to frequently used applications without a lot of searching, and you could get to everything else without any clicking.

Apple never really tried the Start Menu approach but it achieved similar functionality in its desktop OSes. OS X gives you access to frequently used applications via the dock and for everything else you can either use Finder to navigate to them or Spotlight to search for them. Apple attempted to bring these features to iOS, but unfortunately not all of them translated well.

Using the system-wide search to launch applications doesn’t work as well on the iPhone simply because typing takes a lot longer on a smartphone than on a desktop/notebook. The dock is nice but it’s not nearly as wide on the iPhone. I’ve got 21 icons in my dock on my MacBook Pro, but you’re limited to 4 on the iPhone.

When you unlock your iPhone or Android phone you’re dropped into what’s effectively your smartphone desktop. In iOS, that’s just a collection of app icons with a 4-icon dock at the bottom. Android gives you more of a modern desktop with icons and optional widgets. Windows Phone 7 effectively drops you into the first layer of a start menu - that’s your desktop.

Microsoft calls it the Start screen. It’s a two page screen. The first page has a collection of square and rectangular tiles. These can be links to applications, web pages or even Bing Maps directions. The tiles can also link to Hubs, which are collections of applications and data under a common genre (e.g. the Xbox Live Hub is where you’ll find all of your games).

By default, the first four tiles are the same on all Windows Phones: Phone, People, Messaging and Email.

The next four are open for carrier customization. Carriers/OEMs can choose to populate as many of the next four as they’d like. While Microsoft won’t enforce a clean install on every Windows Phone, it does ensure that anything your carrier/OEM installs on top of the OS can be uninstalled. My Samsung Focus for example came with a bunch of AT&T apps. Not only can they be unpinned from the start menu, they can also be completely uninstalled. Carriers get the option to differentiate, but users get the option to say no, it’s a win-win situation. If you do a factory reset of your phone however, it will restore the phone to its original state - which will include reinstalling carrier/OEM installed apps.


An example of an OEM installed app


...and the list of AT&T installed apps on the Samsung Focus

The start screen is completely customizable. You can change the order of the tiles and remove any or all of them if you’d like. I found Microsoft’s start screen to be more useful than the default home screen on both Android or iOS. There’s less clutter and more of what you use most frequently is front and center. It’s like the left hand side of your Start Menu in Windows, except instead of automatically populating based on frequency of use it’s static. I suppose at some point we might see a more dynamic Start screen in Windows Phone. The only complaint I really have is that the camera tile isn’t there by default, but a quick pin later and all is well with the world.

The Windows Phone UI is built primarily to be used in portrait mode. While many apps will rotate to landscape, the intended use is in portrait. To deal with the obvious width limitations of a portrait phone, Microsoft made it very clear that nearly every app is wider than a single screen. While Android and iOS treat each screen as a discrete page, Windows Phone gives you a little preview of the next page to help convey the wider-than-visible UI. As far as how it works, the experience couldn’t be more natural. Virtually all apps implement this wide UI, including the start screen.

 

The start screen is the most traditional of multi-page UIs in Windows Phone. There’s a little animated arrow in the top right telling you that there’s more to be found at the next screen. Tap the arrow or flip the page and you’ll get to the second page of the Start screen: a list of all of your apps on the phone. There’s nothing more to it, just a simple list of everything on the phone. The GPU accelerated UI makes scrolling through the list super fast and smooth. And to be honest, a list of apps in alphabetical order is a lot simpler to navigate through than pages of app icons. I suppose eventually Microsoft may have to introduce another organization element to the app list (nested folders anybody?), but for now it works well.

Embarrassingly Smooth
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  • Kentcomp - Friday, October 22, 2010 - link

    I really appreciate you guys so thoroughly reviewing WP7. Your review was like reading a really well illustrated, yet candid owner's manual. Thank you!

    PS I find the home screen to be kind of boring too but I'll choose functionality over style 99% of the time. After all, the homescreen is just there to get you to where you really want to be.
    Reply
  • Riccardo - Friday, October 22, 2010 - link

    That's a remarkably in-depth review. Thanks guys! Reply
  • rye222 - Friday, October 22, 2010 - link

    amazingly thorough article. i've been eagerly awaiting these phones ever since i bought the Zune HD and thought, "if MS made this into a phone, they would own". thanks Anand, great job as usual on your articles! Reply
  • lewchenko74 - Friday, October 22, 2010 - link

    The interface is too minimalistic. Hate the massive two color icons. Just looks ugly.. and really not that functional if you have a lot of these 'icons' to wade through.

    Then there are the limitations that mean it isnt quite as feature rich as an iphone or Android in certain areas.

    There is absolutely nothing compelling to sway me to this phone (at all).

    Anyone with an app library (android or iOS) is hardly gonna part with their spent money on a new device and lose that investment... plus it barely has an app library yet.

    I wish MS well as competition is important... but it really doesnt give an iOS / Android owner anything new, plus if I was buying fresh... I think that the iOS / Android phones and app-sphere etc are just more compelling.

    Nice thorough review though.... just read a little too enthusiastically MS focussed at times, but a good read.
    Reply
  • hakime - Friday, October 22, 2010 - link

    "The UI is a thing of beauty. Microsoft got the style, customization and performance one hundred percent right on this thing. It makes iOS feel old and utilitarian. It’s funny to think that Microsoft was the one to out-simplify Apple in the UI department."

    This sentence summarize by itself how not objective and professional this review is. I mean no one on Earth being a little bit rational can think that this Metro interface is beautiful let alone functional or easy to use. I mean how a hell can a text based interface with half displayed text all around and ugly flat colors on top of black background can be called beautiful? This interface just lacks taste, it is different yes, but it is bad, it lacks interaction. You are so Microsft driven that you come to think that a different interface is necessarily easy to use and functional. Nothing is right here, the theme, the colors are ugly with little sense for giving some wish for the user to use the phone, there are too many steps needed to go to what the user wants to do, the tiles are a mess as they can be anything and hubs are an obscure UI concept that serve little interest. You want to browse through your apps, you are presented with only a list view and good luck with that. The calendar and SMS apps are a horrible vision for the users, they are just ugly. The email app looks like it was design by a bunch of students in GUI design with no clue on how to present the information to users. And everything else is just a mess in itself hidden behind a ton of useless animations.

    In contrary, iOS just looks easy to use, clean, beautiful. You have your phone and that's it, not extra useless UI concepts and distractions. They are nice for a demo, but for daily usage, they rapidly get useless.

    Then you continue with the Zune pass, noting that it is better than iTunes, but in what regard? You are strange enough to like the Zune pass, that does not make it better than the iTunes model. Again non objective argument.

    Best integration of Facebook in WP7? Is it a big deal or even a nice feature? The question is if it is really a good thing. Why should I have all my contact and photos all mixed up in an almost uncontrollable mess? Someone objective would surely recognize that such exaggerated integration of Facebook just makes little sense. A well designed app is more than enough to access the Facebook content without having to have all the time friends and non-friends popping up with messages and photos. Distractive and useless like the UI of WP7.

    And what about not being more reserved with the major shortcomings of WP7. How many times we have been told about the lack of multitasking in iOS? And now an os comes to a market where all the other mobiles os have multitasking and this is not called a deal breaker! It is a deal breaker, not having multitasking on WP7 is just inexcusable from Microsoft.

    Same thing with copy and paste, in 2010 an smart phone should have an efficient copy and past implemented, and WP7 not having it is a total shame. Sure, most implementation out there sucks, and only the iOS has a real efficient and easy to use implementation, but that does not forgive Microsoft for that.

    What about also the significant lack of unified mail box in the email app, the lack of robust security features, the lack of tethering, the clumsy Exchange support, the pour performing third party apps, the lack of universal search, the excessive $14.99 for zune pass, the inexcusable lack for support of HTML5 which is even more unacceptable as the os does not support flash either, no YouTube app, weird interface concept when you need to long press to reach some options and in-app menus, etc...

    The list is long, WP7 is surely full of animations but it is little functional. And the authors fail to give an objective review of this system which is new but far behind the competition. Having a different UI style does not make this os more functional or even attractive. It just sacrifices too much on real usability for bringing useless UI concepts. The authors wishing so much that their lovely Microsoft brings something to save itself from the mobile market that they have forgotten what objectivity means.

    Reply
  • dustcrusher - Friday, October 22, 2010 - link

    It's a review. Reviews are inherently subjective. The only parts that aren't are the benchmarks, and even those are arguably not 100% objective. I think at points they were gushing over what worked well but there were other points where they did bring up some valid objections, even if they tinted them a little with rose-colored glasses.

    Thanks to this review, I learned enough to realize I'm probably better off going to an Android phone when I am able (disclosure: I'm on WinMo 6 right now). Android simply fits my wants and needs better. I don't see WP7 taking giant chunks of market share from Apple or Android, but I think it will do better than WinMo did.

    Microsoft is trying to do something different; seems like they are trying to make a smartphone that is as easy to use as a featurephone. It's risky but it could pay off big time. If their sole intention was to cram all of Android and iOS's features into their new OS, it'd be closer to WinMo 6.6 w/HTC's UI shell on top.

    A couple of reviewers decided they like the way WP7 does some things. You are clearly happy with your iPhone, so why are you letting it bother you so much? Do you really want to come off as a trollish fanboy?
    Reply
  • cjl - Friday, October 22, 2010 - link

    Have you read any of Anand's Iphone reviews? If anything, Anand is biased towards the iphone at the expense of pretty much anything else, so the fact that this review is so positive speaks volumes about the phone.

    Also, to everyone complaining about the interface, you should really try using a Zune HD sometime. It's amazing how natural the interface is.
    Reply
  • headrush69 - Sunday, October 24, 2010 - link

    There is a big difference between saying an interface is natural to use over saying it is a thing of beauty.

    Frankly many of the screen shots make elements of the interface look very basic, dated and rushed.

    Example: plain square flat buttons on call screen, on/off toggles in setting screen.

    Of course these things are pretty trivial to improve and I'm sure they will, but statements like this in the article

    "The UI is a thing of beauty. Microsoft got the style, customization and performance one hundred percent right on this thing. It makes iOS feel old and utilitarian."

    I just can't agree with and believe exactly the opposite.
    Reply
  • Smilin - Monday, October 25, 2010 - link

    Have YOU seen the UI? Not screenshot of it. Have you seen it? Used it?

    Your opinion is worthless.
    Reply
  • Smilin - Monday, October 25, 2010 - link

    smells like hater in here.

    Sorry man but this is the most comprehensive and *objective* review I've seen yet. Most of the things you're griping about are IN the article. Did you read it?
    Reply

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