Find out how these two devices stack up
Back in 2008, I wrote an article that compared the Apple iOS version 2.1 OS (as implemented on the Apple iPhone 3GS) to the Windows Mobile 6.1 OS. In the world of computing -- especially mobile computing -- four years might as well be a decade (or more). Since that review, both platforms have evolved significantly, with new hardware, software, features . . . and challenges.
In this review, I want to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the most recent iterations of these two platforms: iOS 5.1, running on the iPhone 4, and Windows Phone 7.5, running on the HTC Mozart. Each OS runs on other hardware, too. But to keep things simple, I'm going to leave the hardware out of it and focus on the user experience and software. I'm also leaving out Research in Motion (RIM) BlackBerry and Android devices: BlackBerry because its email experience has been static for years and Android because its fragmented nature means that making blanket statements about stability, behavior, or functionality is difficult without qualifying statements about the specific device and patch level.
What a difference four years makes. Both Windows Phone and iOS fully support the Microsoft Exchange Autodiscover protocol, so all you need to do is type in an email address and correct password. The device should then be able to connect to the Exchange server and fetch all the needed information to communicate with that server. However, on iOS, you must enter both the email address and the username that's associated with that address. On Windows Phone, you need to enter only the email address and password, as you would on the desktop version of Microsoft Outlook.
On either platform, if Autodiscover fails for some reason, you're prompted to provide the server name and Windows domain. Neither OS provides especially useful error messages by default. There doesn't seem to be an equivalent to the detailed logging that's available in desktop versions of Outlook on iOS; on Windows Phone devices, you can enable logging. On both device families, though, you can turn on logging through the Outlook Web App (OWA) Options page, which provides a mail message containing the logged Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) data. If you run into Autodiscover problems with either device family, your best bet is probably to use the Microsoft Remote Connectivity Analyzer for Exchange Server to troubleshoot the problem.
Basic Email Functionality
Both iOS and Windows Phone provide a good email experience. With push email enabled (something almost all users have), email shows up automatically in the inbox. In my experience, synchronization problems are rare on both platforms.
The look of the respective mail applications is quite different. Figure 1 shows my inbox on both clients. The Metro design language on Windows Phone calls for a lot of white space and large text labels. The Windows Phone mail app follows this design language faithfully, whereas the iOS mail app looks pretty much like every other list-based iOS app.
Within an individual account, both platforms use the long-established list view for displaying messages. On Windows Phone, you swipe horizontally to change mailbox views -- all, unread, flagged, and urgent messages can be displayed separately. iOS includes a default view labeled All Inboxes; this view does exactly what the name indicates, lumping email from all accounts (e.g., Exchange accounts, IMAP, POP, Gmail) into a single view. The Windows Phone client requires you to perform a one-time manual process to link inboxes; any unlinked inbox remains accessible through its own Live Tile. Live Tiles are animated, continually updated mini-windows on the Windows Phone start screen. Live Tiles present selected information, and the email Live Tile shows you how many unread messages have arrived in the associated email account since the last time you opened that account. (This isn't the same as the number of unread messages in that account.)
Inbox linking in Windows Phone isn't easily discoverable, but it's a welcome feature. Linking simplifies the process of separating accounts so that personal or sensitive mail is displayed only when you want it to be. To link inboxes, open any inbox and tap the Settings icon (i.e., the ellipses icon on the far right of the icon bar). Then tap the Linked Inboxes command, which lets you pick the inboxes that you want to link. Any account that you add to the linked inbox disappears as a separate inbox, but you can bring it back by unlinking it. Here's a quick video tutorial showing how to link inboxes:
Both platforms support conversation threading, providing an inline indicator that a conversation exists. On iOS, the number of messages in the thread is shown on the right, whereas on Windows Phone, the message preview is indented and the number of messages is shown in place of the second line of the preview. Tapping the conversation on an iOS device brings up a list of the messages; tapping the conversation on Windows Phone expands the conversation in the message list, much as OWA 2010 does.
Individual messages are displayed differently on each OS, as you might expect. Figure 2 shows a side-by-side comparison of a complex HTML message displayed in the respective clients. In this case, the iOS device (an iPhone 4) benefits from a higher screen resolution. But the bigger difference is that the iOS email client tries to fit HTML messages to the display width. Windows Phone does not do so. The practical effect of this behavior is that some messages look better on one device, whereas other messages look better on the other device. In general, I prefer the iOS appearance, which takes advantage of the native device resolution. Your preference will probably depend on the mix of HTML-formatted messages that you receive.