A couple of days ago, Android problems with my Exchange calendar at work triggered a need for a new smartphone.  After seriously considering an iPhone 4, I decided to get a Windows Phone. It's not every day you get to learn a major new phone OS, so I thought I'd share some of my novice experiences with it. The executive summary: So far (and admittedly that's not been very far yet), it's been excellent, while granting leniency for its young age.

Why did I choose a Windows Phone? I've used an iPhone 3GS for quite a while, and this little HTC Aria with the Exchange 2010 calendar sync problems for about six months. I've also used a Blackberry, if using one counts back when the device actually LOOKED like its namesake blackberry. I work in an Exchange mail environment, use Office, and I'm a huge OneNote fan. It seemed like a good idea to try the new player, especially since I'd heard good early experiences about it from several people. I happen to work with a fellow named Paul Thurrott, who I hear is big on the platform :). But honestly, I just spent a week with the guy and never once asked him to show me what Windows Phone can do. I've read almost no other reviews of the platform, choosing to judge it for myself. And I've been using smartphones since back when they were merely above average. So I like to think I'm a reasonably objective evaluator of a mobile platform.

 The Hardware

The new phone I'm using is a Samsung Focus on AT&T, and it really is a beautiful device. It's veryIMDB on Windows Phone sleek.  A little larger than an iPhone, but thinner and surprisingly light, I'm not finding it cumbersome after my tiny Aria. The 4” Super AMOLED (that's an active matrix organic light emitting diode, in case you were wondering) display is simply stunning. When an app like IMDB takes advantage of this display, combined with the Windows Phone UI, the results are so distracting you almost forget why you launched the app in the first place. The photo doesn't nearly do it justice.

Phone calls on the device have been great so far, with good clarity on both the phone and a headset. An added bonus is that I can finally use all the features of my BlueAnt Q2 headset, which includes sophisticated voice dialing from the phone book downloaded from the handset. I waited in vain for AT&T to update the Aria to Android 2.2 to support this, though it's been months since the update has been released. The voice dialer it even shows you a cool spectrum display on the phone while it's listening.

The handset has 8GB of internal memory, and it's expandable with a microSD slot. However, even though it's user accessible it's not removable - at least not without a big impact. Once inserted, the microSD card is formatted, encrypted, as used as shared memory for the OS. The phone hard resets if you remove it. Plus, because it's integral to the OS you can't throw just any old microSD in there; the chip must be Windows 7 certified to guarantee good performance. You can try, but at the cost of a hard reset each time it's time-consuming to experiment. As an OS geek, I really appreciate the simplicity and security of the design, but there are going to eventually be a lot of disappointed people out there when they try to replace a small chip with a larger capacity one. Personally, I'm still hunting for a good price on a 16GB chip for the phone to triple my storage capacity.

The User Interface

If the iPhone user interface was formed by Lego designers, and the Android UI was put together by a team of engineers, the Windows Phone UI was conceived by Wired Magazine's art department. For such a large, brilliant screen, the interface is surprisingly minimalistic, with lots of space around screen elements.

It's big, bold, and easy to see. All the colors are primary and heavily saturated. The black background isn't just black, it's 2001-Monolith black. As the owner of an older pair of eyes, I appreciate this simple design concept. Paul posted a blog entry recently about the New Yorker page that's supposedly the genesis of the Windows Phone UI concept, focusing on keeping the interface simple so you can spend more time with what's important in real life. The hilarious Microsoft "Really?" ad also wryly points out the consequences of being bent over your phone, oblivious to your surroundings.

Everything is a tile, including the phone function. The "phone as tile" configuration isn't a big deal to me, as I use it as a phone only about 5% of the time I pull it out of my pocket. Don't you? Think about how many times you look at your smartphone over the course of the day. How many of those times are to make or receive a call? I think even 5% is high.

This is not an obvious descendent of any previous Windows phone. Get the preconception out of your head that it's going to "look like Windows", whatever that means. It bears NO resemblance to the Windows OS or its user interface. The closest you'll get are familiar components like Bing search and Zune for media playing. Internet Explorer's there, but it works more like Safari than IE.

I was trained on soft keyboards with the iPhone (remember when the soft keyboard was so radical, and was a big consideration in what kind of phone you chose? That seems so long ago.) This keyboard's no problem. The Android has haptic feedback, which gives you a teeny little vibrate for every key touch as feedback that you've it it. The Windows Phone just beeps. I like the haptic feedback for the keyboard, but it's not a big deal. (And that's probably my last opportunity to sneak in the very cool phrase "haptic feedback".) Autocorrect is pretty good, maybe not quite as good as the iPhone, but far better than Android's. I was hugely frustrated with Android autocorrect.

Apps

Of course, there's a relatively small number of apps for this new platform, but I expect the Nokia deal will really turn that around. For example, it took me five minutes of searching to find a decent free countdown timer (which the Windows Phone lacks). However, from my iPhone and Android experience I've realized I'm not a serious app collector; I probably use less than ten apps heavily, while the rest are occasional launches. IMDB, Kindle, The Weather Channel, Facebook, FourSquare, and Wikipedia are available. There's no decent third party Twitter app yet. Wonderfully, there's a fully functional and beautiful NetFlix streaming app, which I missed on Android. As a result I'm not crippled, but I do look forward to apps like Tripit, FlightTracker, and Tweetcaster. Paul tells me the development tools for Windows Phone are superior to what's available for either iPhone or Android, so that will certainly help. I've loaded some music and a video on the phone, but haven't played with the Marketplace or a Zune pass at all yet.

OS Updates

The Windows Phone syncs and updates in much the way an iPhone does, using Microsoft's Zune software the way Apple's iTunes works. However, the Zune interface is much prettier and easier to maneuver, and gives you much more real-time information on your phone synchronization and remaining available free space. A nice plus is that it supports automatic wireless sync over your primary wireless network so you don't have to always plug the thing in. I have hopes that updates will be quick with this configuration; I gave up waiting for Android 2.1 to show up on my Aria.

Wish List

My enhancement requests? I wish the home page tiles could be configured as folders so you can group applications together (e.g. Travel). It would be nice to choose your tile color, so for example the phone tile would stand out a bit more. You can't customize how the apps window is displayed; right now it's the equivalent of Windows Explorer's Details mode or Content mode. Changing to Tile mode would allow you to see more apps on a page, but I recognize it would lose the simplicity the design now has.

Reservations

For the handset itself, I can't seem to turn the phone off when charging. if it's off when I attach the charger, it turns on. If it's on when it's charging, if I hold the power button it reboots. When I first started the phone, the space and backspace key bounced to two activations, so. My. Words. All. Looked. Like. This. Fortunately, it went away after I rebooted the phone.

Conclusion

All the players are battling for dominance in a mobile market we're recognizing to be the "PC of the future". But in what I call a BFO - a blinding flash of the obvious - it doesn't matter to me, or to you, if the phone you're using dominates the market. All the thing needs to do is satisfy your requirements. If you're Steve Jobs or Eric Schmidt or Steve Ballmer, that means market dominance. But for me, satisfying my requirements means that it integrates with my work environment (i.e. email, contacts, and calendar), handles social media, SMS, photos, travel apps, has good note-taking abilities, and a few simple games. Oh, and I have to be able to see the darn thing :). "Love" is a strong word to use, but I definitely like it a lot. And I'm looking forward to OS improvements and a growing variety of applications.

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