Review: Windows Phone 7 OS (LG Optimus 7) from an Android users perspective

Similar to the Palm Pre and WebOS combination, it isn’t especially the hardware of the LG Optimus 7 which is the interesting subject, but the mobile OS it’s running on. Windows Phone 7 marks a complete reboot for Microsoft’s approach to mobile operating systems. A long time ago i wrote a short article about Windows Mobile 6.5, were i was disappointed to see that even after a decade Microsoft didn’t make any noteworthy progress to the early Windows Mobile versions, while the competition was already way up ahead on the mobile OS race. Back then it was clear that Microsoft either has to think about the whole mobile OS concept from scratch, or lose the market once and for all. I was equally surprised later when Microsoft showed off Windows Phone 7 for the first time. It was a whole different thing. Recently i got an LG Optimus 7 testdevice from Vodafone germany which was my main smartphone for three weeks, in order to check out if Windows Phone 7 can compete with other modern mobile operating systems like Android, iOS and WebOS.

Windows Phone 7 – Homescreen

Upon bootup the first steps will guide you through the ususal steps like language and time settings, as well as providing your Windows Live credentials or creating a new Live account. This account will be used i.e. for your app/music purchases through the marketplace as well as synchronizing your emails, calendar and tasks. Restarting the LG Optimus 7 is actually very quick, much quicker than my Nexus One running Android 2.2.1. I didn’t check the exact time it took until the homescreen is shown, but i’d estimate 15-20 seconds roughly.

You don’t have to play around with an Windows Phone 7 device a lot to realize it’s uniqueness, because the homescreen layout is already the first evidence of the new and fresh approach. The graphical style of elements distinguishes itself from the competition, as there is no usage of color gradients or other kind of usual eye candy. All elements are perfectly readable and have great contrast, because Windows Phone 7 uses white icons on uni-colored tiles. It’s a great approach which looks stylish and is easy on the eye. Another nice feature is the possibility to chose between different general color settings, with black or white background on colored tiles.

Reaction to user input is also nearly flawless, the touchscreen response is very quick without any stutter or delay. This is really at the same level of iOS and ahead of Android, as the stock Android launcher tends to lag every now and then. It’s a shame that Android users still need 3rd party apps like LauncherPro to get a fluid homescreen experience.

Microsoft decided to use square shaped elements called ’tiles’ which can be placed on the homescreen, and act as shortcuts to apps, hubs, pictures, music and more. It’s possible to rearrange, add and delete any tile on the screen. Furthermore ‘realtime’ information like weather updates or the number of new emails can also be directly viewed on the homescreen via live tiles. A live tile can show additional information at a glance like i.e. upcoming appointments without the need to open the corresponding app. Touching a tile will result in a nice paging animation which will blend into the app.

There is also no multiple homescreen pages like on iOS or Android devices, you are only able to scroll vertically on the homescreen view. At first i wasn’t sure how this will work out because i use five homescreen pages with folders on my Nexus One, but after a while it’s not a big issue anymore. It’s easily possible to live without multiple fully packed homescreen pages, if you concentrate on the apps you use most frequently. You can still access an complete app list by swiping to the left, or touching the arrow icon on the top-right corner of the screen.

Notifications are shown android like on the top edge of the screen, there is no pull down drawer though. Pressing the notification icon will open the corresponding app, and it’s possible to dismiss the notification by swiping to the right. It’s a mixture of Android and WebOS, as you have unintrusive notifications but not a seperate drawer like Android does. Interestingly Windows Phone 7 doesn’t show battery and net status by default, you have to touch the upper edge of the screen to blend in this information. Only when the battery is low, or there are connection problems, you’ll get automatic notifcations.

Windows Phone 7 – Contacts hub

Besides regular apps Microsoft also implemented the so-called hubs, which are basically a unified view of different data sources. The contacts hub has three main pages which show all contacts, social media updates and recently viewed persons. It’s possible to synchronize your contacts from your Windows Live account, Outlook, Facebook, Gmail, Exchange Server and more.

Contrary to the homescreen which scrolls vertically, one of the main design element Windows Phone 7 uses is the horizontal paging in apps and hubs. You’ll see the first page of an app, and on the right edge of the screen it’s possible to get a glance at the next view. By swiping horizontally the next page will be shown, and this can go on for multiple pages depending on the app. The idea is that you don’t have to access different kind of menues to get to the needed informations.

At first it’s a little bit unusual because the app layouts feel like wide webpages, which need to be scrolled horizontally because the smartphone display is not big enough. But ultimately it works and is a nice change compared to the usual app controls on other mobile operating systems. The contacts hub is always very fluid and fast, which is great to see because this will be one of the most used hubs for regular users.

By touching any letter on the left side you can access an overview to jump directly to any name. This is a nice detail and an effective way of finding specific contacts directly, and in my opinion better than the current Android solutions where you have to use a slider to scroll through the letters. Furthermore you have the option to use the search function and input the name of the contact.

I love the way the contacts hub is designed, Microsoft did a great job of providing all important functionality and combine it with great visuals. Text and images are very readable, the hub is fast and fluid. The UI approach of Windows Phone 7 pays off here. Even though this is the first Windows Phone 7 version, the contacts app is already better than the stock Android offering in my opinion. In this case you can see that Microsoft has a long history with creating PIM apps for smartphones.

Windows Phone 7 – Calendar app

Another important PIM app is the calendar. I was expecting the same quality as the contacts hub, but actually the calendar app is not such a clear winner as it has some issues. The today view is allright, although not as visually appealing as the other Windows Phone 7 apps, and shows all upcoming events of the current date. Different colorbars are used for each calendar. By touching an entry you’ll open the detail view, and the bottom icons are used to switch to another date or open the month view. By swiping to the right you’ll see the agenda view, which is a list of upcoming events. Like on the contacts app you can synchronize your Windows Phone 7 calendars with Windows Live, Outlook, Google and Exchange Server accounts. Of course it’s possible to hide specific calendars if needed.

Placing an calendar tile on the homescreen is another option. The calendar live tile will show the next appointment only. For my use cases this is not enough information, because i want to see the next few days at least. Therefore it would have been nice to have an option for a bigger tile with more content, but sadly this is not supported yet.

Actually i prefer to use month or week views in order to get a quick glance of the upcoming events, instead of daily views. This way i can notice appointments some days ahead, which can be very helpful when having to take some preparations. Sometimes i forget a meeting, and it’s good to be reminded prior to the actual meeting date. Windows Phone 7 also provides a month view, but i don’t find it really useful.

Microsoft took the strange decision to provide only one view which shows the appointment subjects on the month view. But the text is so small that you can’t read it, so it defeats the point of having subjects shown at all. I would have liked to see colored time bars like on the stock Android calendar or 3rd party apps like Pocket Informant (iOS, Android). Currently it’s not even possible to differentiate which calendar has an upcoming event, since there is no color used on the month view. Hopefully Microsoft gives us an update soon which provide a more polished calendar experience.

Windows Phone 7 – E-Mail app

The E-Mail client on Windows Phone 7 supports all usual mailing protocols like POP3 and IMAP. Setting up an account is straightforward and easy. By selecting the E-mail provider (i.e. Google, Yahoo) and providing the credentials everything is set up automatically. Outlook and exchange server support is also there of course.
Design wise it utilizes the general Windows Phone 7 app concept of horizontal scrolling. After opening the email app you will start out with a view showing all emails in your inbox.

By swiping to the right you can access filtered lists like unread or flagged emails. Four icons can be found at the bottom of the screen: new email, multiple selection, folders list and refresh. Furthermore you can access the options by touching the three dots on the bottom right edge.

On the detail view those icons change to reply, delete, next email and previous email.

Since the email app uses very similar coloring and design to the Windows Phone 7 contacts app, all benefits are also shared. Everything is very readable thanks to the simple but stylish black text on white background layout (or other way around depending on your color setup). The app ist very responsive and scrolling through emails and views is a breeze. Notifications for new emails are handled unobstrusive with little icons at the top of the homescreen.

Windows Phone 7 – Messages app

Messaging looks very iPhone like with text bubbles representing the communication. You start out with the overview of the messages in your inbox.

And by touching an entry the dialogue view is being showed. It’s very basic, you can delete single entries or forward messages but not much more.

Windows Phone 7 – MS Office support

MS Office support is a crucial subject, especially if you use your smartphone as a business device. Android phones come with different preinstalled viewers, but none of them is suited for editing and they are not highly compatible with different MS Office versions either. Naturally Microsoft gives you MS Office support out of the box with Word, Excel, OneNote and Powerpoint mobile.

I didn’t have enough time to play around with each MS Office app in detail, but tested some Powerpoint presentations and basic Excel sheets. Everything worked without any problems and editing of the files is also possible. As long as you don’t need to edit complex excel sheets on the go, the provided functionality should be fine.

Another nice feature is sharepoint server support, which can be interesting for corporate users.

Windows Phone 7 – Zune hub

Music, video, podcasts and radio apps are accessible over a Windows Phone 7 hub. The overview page lets you decide which kind of app you want to open.

Like on all hubs you can either start one of the main apps or swipe horizontally to access further pages of the hub. The second page will provide a list of recently heard songs and podcasts as well as viewed videos.

On the third page newly added files are being presented.

Opening the music app will start out with an artist list. Swiping through the pages there are also views for albums and songs as well as playlists.

The same approach is used for video files and podcasts. Each app looks great, is very straightforward and easy to understand, but only provides basic functionality. No fancy stuff here.

Windows Phone 7 – Pictures hub

Next up is the pictures hub, where you can directly jump to all images, view them by date or open a list of favourite images.

On the following page the hub shows recently viewed pictures, while the last page provides your friends updates from the connected social media services like Facebook and Twitter.

Windows Phone 7 – Bing Maps

Google maps made a huge splash when it introduced free navigation for everybody, and Gmaps 5.0 added offline storage of frequently used routes as well as an impressive 3D-Model feature. This is quite a juggernaut to match, and while Bing Maps works fine with the functionality it provides, it can’t really compete with the Google product at this stage.

You only have general routing functionality for cars and pedestrians which provides a list of directions, but isn’t a fully fledged navigation solution by any means. So either you have a good memory or you’ll primarily be using Bing maps routing when you are going somewhere by foot.

It’s also possible to add any location as a tile on the homescreen, which can come in handy if you want to access a specific map location more frequently or save a location for later usage.

Animations when zooming and scrolling through the maps are very smooth, and the automatic switch to the satellite view when zooming-in to a specific point is a nice idea. As a current Android smartphone user i have to say that Bing maps can’t compete with Gmaps, not only because of the missing functionality like real turn-by-turn navigation but also based on the maps database. On Google maps i can find nearly any point of interest by searching for a single phrase, while Bing maps just doesn’t seem to find nearly as much POIs. Microsoft still has some way to go in order to match Google’s maps service.

On a side note Windows Phone 7 devices use the Bing search by default, although there is an Google search app available in the market. The search results are pretty good, and pressing the search button in other apps like the contacts app opens a context sensitive search. Overall the Bing services are very solid but basic offerings at this point, since the web search doesn’t capture the richness and variety of the web like the Google search does. It all depends of course on your search topics, and therefore it’s perfectly possible that you’ll be happy with the Bing search results and don’t miss anything. Just keep in mind that the whole SEO sector is basically concentrating on optimizing their clients webpages in order to have good search result positions on Google since the huge majority of traffic is coming from this channel. This also helps Google’s search engine to find more stuff than other search service providers, because nearly all webpages are trying to be as Google search friendly as possible.

Windows Phone 7 – Internet Explorer

Even though there seems to be an official app for nearly anything nowadays, the browser is still the most important app when it comes to accessing the web. Android and iOS as well as many 3rd party developer use the WebKit engine as the basis of their mobile browsers, but Microsoft chose to rely on their Internet Explorer code and optimize it for mobile experience.

Sadly the result is not up to par with the competition. Rendering on the Internet Explorer mobile looks bad compared to the Android and iOS browsers, since webpages don’t have the same look as they would have on a desktop computer. Text is not readable when zooming out a bit to see more of the webpage, because it seems like the browser is switching to bold-text on the fly but doesn’t utililize the WVGA resolution the same way the WebKit browsers do. Furthermore it uses some weird text sizes when displaying pages like engadget. Take a look at the engadget article header on the next screenshot, the text size is way too big. This is probably on purpose of keeping the text readable at zoomed out levels, but at the same time it destroys the page layout.

On the Nexus One (SLCD) or the Motorola Milestone as well as the iPhone 4 it’s basically possible to read a webpage from fully zoomed out view, because text and pictures are rendered razor sharp. But this is not the case on the Windows Phone 7 Internet Explorer. Even though all high-end Android phones have the same WVGA resolution as current Windows Phone 7 devices, the Internet Explorer does a poor job of text rendering.

Speedwise i couldn’t see any big difference to other mobile browsers, at least i didn’t notice any huge lags. But i’m sure there are articles out there which determine how fast each browser is in milliseconds. From a pure endusers perspective i can say that i didn’t have to wait too long for a heavy page like to be loaded, which is good enough for me even though i didn’t conduct any scientific testcases.

One huge feature that i was missing is textflow, which reformats the on-screen text depending on your zoom level. This way you never have to scroll horizontally because all line breaks are automatically aligned to the screen edges. It makes reading webpages distinctly more comfortable, but Internet Explorer mobile doesn’t support that feature yet. I really hope Microsoft adds this soon, as you will never want to go back once you used a browser with textflow functionality.

Flash support is another topic which is not taken care of, and while Steve Jobs is dismissing flash as obsolete technology it will take quite some time until it really vanishes from the web. Until this happens it’s a feature that many customers would like to have on their smartphones, so Microsoft should think about supporting it.

Windows Phone 7 – XBox Live

Xbox Live is the gaming hub of Windows Phone 7. You can create an avatar which is being used to store your game highscores, archievements connect with Xbox live friends and more.

Downloading games is also done via Xbox Live hub or the marketplace app which i will explain in detail later.

I’m not an Xbox user so i can’t tell much about the connectivity between an Windows Phone 7 device and the Xbox, but i tested some popular Windows Phone 7 games like Assassins Creed and Need for Speed Undercover which both had pretty good graphics. The performance of the LG Optimus 7 is not outstanding, but it gets the job better done than i.e. my Nexus One. IPhone games still have more polish currently, but this is due to the young Windows Phone 7 OS which needs a little bit more time to be embraced by the 3rd party game developers. I’m convinced that we will see some impressive games when the number of available apps increases.

Windows Phone 7 – Camera

A 5 MP camera is used to take snapshots with the LG Optimus 7. The picturequality is nothing special and in dark surroundings it even gets pretty bad. General picture settings are very basic.

LG added an panoramic picture feature as well as an augmented reality view which will show points of interest on the display.

Windows Phone 7 – Marketplace

Recently the Windows Phone 7 marketplace hit 5000 apps, and while this is far behind Android with 200.000 apps and the iPhone appstore with over 300.000 offerings, it’s still much better than what was available in the old Windows Mobile marketplace which only had a few hundred applications to download.

It wasn’t even Windows Mobiles fault that there were nearly no apps on the old marketplace, because there were actually thousands of apps available via direct purchase from the developers webpages, but Microsoft did a horrible job of getting them into the Windows Mobile app marketplace. Luckily it looks much better on the Windows Phone 7 ecosystem. Besides apps, games and music there is also an LG app store option for the LG Optimus 7 device which provides a number of free downloads. At first it was strange to see that Microsoft would allow such a kind of update to the marketplace, but on the other hand it’s great to see that those downloads are only optional and LG didn’t preinstall all of their own apps onto the phone.

Similar to other mobile phone marketplaces there are a number of categories like games, entertainment, music, video, photo, lifestyle, news and sport available to choose from. Further views in the marketplace hub include top apps, featured apps as well as a list of app updates.

There are already a lot of important 3rd party apps available on the market. Facebooks official app is there as well as Twitter, IMDB, Google Search and many more. Microsoft did a good job in drawing developer support for the new platform. I like the fact that you can try out most paid apps before buying them, all apps i checked had some kind of demo version which could be downloaded. So you don’t have to go through the hassle of buying a product and then returning it like on the Android market. I don’t know if this is a Microsoft Windows Phone 7 policy to provide demos, but it’s nice to have this option for most apps anyway.

Most official apps like Twitter, IMDB and Facebook are using the same astethics and design philosophy like the default Windows Phone 7 apps, which generates a very seamless experience for the user. I really love how well the 3rd party apps blend into the Windows Phone 7 concept by using it’s design and usability ideas.

Of course the variety of the Android and iOS marketplaces is much higher than the comparatively small Windows Phone 7 marketplace, but if i look back at how many useless hobby programmers apps the Android marektplace had in the beginning i have to admit that Microsofts first throw is better. To be fair though i have to note that Microsoft also had a few more years to prepare the launch of their own marketplace while learning from the competitors errors.

Windows Phone 7 – Settings

Many areas of Android are still inconsistent, from copy&paste functionality and strongly varying user interface concepts of apps, to hidden settings menus. And i’m not even talking about 3rd party apps here, but the Android stock applications. In example a lot of regular smartphone users don’t know when the Android menu button actually does anything useful and when not, and the OS doesn’t try to guide the user at all. Therefore it’s a good idea that Windows Phone 7 provides one place to access the settings for all apps and system options.

Through the different pages you can switch between apps settings and system settings. Even though it’s possible to access settings directly through an app too, having one unified view will help many people which are not that experienced in setting up a smartphone.

Windows Phone 7 – The Verdict

Windows Phone 7 is an OS which reminds me of the innovation that Palm brought to the table with WebOS. Back then the Palm Pre was the device which launched a completely new, fresh, intuitive and modern mobile OS with great usability and design. I still love the WebOS UI, but the biggest problem was that Palm just didn’t have the financial power to keep up with juggernauts like Google or Apple. I already stated that in my WebOS review, and we all witnessed the nearly demise of Palm until HP stepped in and bought Palm. Microsoft on the other hand has enough assets to keep on going until their OS marks a success, and Windows Phone 7 is an impressive start. I have no doubt that Microsoft is serious about the mobile OS market, because the reboot of their mobile OS approach shows that there is real commitment.

Windows Phone 7 has a unique look and feel concept which is more stylish than Android or iOS, as well as good support from hardware manufacturers and app developers. Especially compared to the early days of the Android app market it’s very evident that Microsoft put in a lot of effort to get professional apps ready for the Windows Phone 7 launch date.

There are many things to like about Windows Phone 7. The homescreen which supports regular and live tiles, and reacts to user input without any delay. Hubs which combine different data source into one single information stream. The unintrusive notification system which is somewhere in between Android and Palms WebOS approach. Both being better than Apple’s iOS notifications. I still think the Android notification drawer is the best concept though, as it is directly accessible from any app and has a lot of space to store multiple notifications. It’s just the most flexible notification system out there on mobile devices. In my opinion Microsoft also took the right decision regarding preinstalled UI skins, as they are not allowed for Windows Phone 7 devices. This should lead to a much better situation for OS updates compared to Android devices with custom skins, because there are no skin updates to be taken care of. Hardware manufacturers which want to offer additional value to their customers, can do so by developing their own apps which can be downloaded from the market.

On the bad side you have issues like the missing multi tasking and no copy and paste. Everybody was surprised to see that Microsoft decided to ditch multitasking support on Windows Phone 7, despite having supported it for decades on Windwos Mobile phones. And as an Android user it really hurts the experience when you have to look at the same old startup animation everytime you open an app like Facebook. Apple needed a long time to introduce their multitasking concept, but at least they realised that there is a user demand for it. Copy and paste will be included in the upcoming Windows Phone 7 update, so this shouldn’t be an issue anymore.

The Windows Phone 7 marketplace has a nice collection of apps, but there are still many important apps missing like a customizeable RSS reader. Many offers are pretty basic, but there are also some great examples like the official Twitter app. And while many people will like the zune software which is required to use in order to sync your music, videos and files with your phone, there will be people which prefer having direct USB access without any software restrictions.

I can recommend the LG Optimus 7 and Windows Phone 7 devices for people which want to have an easy to understand, modern, stylish yet effective smartphone OS with great potential. As long as you don’t expect the same amount of app selection as on Android and iOS devices from day one, there is not much to go wrong with an Windows Phone 7 device. Of course there are a few issues where Microsoft has to catch up, but i’m convinced that Windows Phone 7 will mature and become a legitimate option besides Android and iOS.

You can find over 100 further screenshots in the Windows Phone 7 gallery.

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