Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Ed Baig's first impressions of Windows Phone 7

USA Today

You'd be hard pressed to tell that the new Windows Phone 7 devices that Microsoft publicly unveiled Monday come from the same corporate lineage as the Windows Mobile phones of yesteryear. For Microsoft — and Windows Mobile users put off by clunky interfaces and cumbersome menus — the new mobile operating system represents a refreshing change.

The latest handsets boast new designs and a new strategic approach. My initial impressions are mostly positive; a full review will come later.

Microsoft's hardware partners in the U.S. are Dell, HTC, LG and Samsung. AT&T (on Nov. 8) and T-Mobile are the first wireless carriers to offer Windows Phone 7 devices in the U.S., but Sprint and Verizon Wireless devices are to arrive in 2011.

The first devices — the Samsung Focus, HTC Surround and LG Quantum — all will cost $200 with a two-year AT&T contract. T-Mobile and HTC aren't saying what the new HTC HD7 I spent a little time with will cost.

Best I can tell, there's nothing you can do on Windows Phone 7 devices that you can't do on an iPhone, BlackBerry or Google Android device. But Microsoft isn't so much emphasizing third-party apps for Windows Phone 7 as focusing on the experiences that consumers want to do with their phones. (That's probably smart, given how far Windows is behind the iPhone and Android in the apps sweepstakes.)

The Windows Phone 7 screens, which I like, are built around customizable "tiles" and "hubs" that are tied to Web services, and in some cases, some third-party apps. You make hubs come alive by tapping them; no more reliance on styluses.

In the People hub, you can pull in fresh feeds from Facebook and Windows Live. In the Photos hub, you can arrange automatic uploads to Facebook. The Music & Videos hub is closely connected to Microsoft's Zune experience. If you subscribe to Microsoft's Zune Pass service, you can play on the spot any of the thousands of songs that are available in the "cloud."

Business people will likely appreciate the Office hub; you can jot down notes in a mobile version of OneNote, edit and view PowerPoint documents and more. The Games hub makes nice with Xbox Live and some Electronic Arts titles.

The first devices all have snappy Qualcomm processors. Designs vary, but all the phones (at Microsoft's insistence) have the same three buttons below the screen — back, home and search. Bing search and maps play a major role. Microsoft dictated most of the terms, though its partners do have freedom in the apps and features they offer. For example, AT&T is making a version of its U-verse TV platform available on Windows Phone 7 devices. T-Mobile is offering a tile called Family Room, kind of a mini-Facebook with updates and calendar entries for your family.