Camera and photo management
We'd heard before that one of Microsoft's big goals for Windows Phone 7 devices was stellar camera performance -- not just in terms of picture size and quality, but speed, too. After all, if your camera app takes too long to load or you're waiting for five seconds between shots, the phone's utility as an easy way to capture impromptu moments the same way a point-and-shoot can is significantly diminished. Fortunately, it seems like they're making good on the promise so far -- on the Taylor, we were regularly clocking about four seconds from camera button press to the first shot, and around two seconds between shots. We didn't evaluate the pictures or video for quality since we're dealing with hardware that'll never be released, but needless to say, Windows Phone 7's minimum specs should ensure that you're getting at least moderately decent shots no matter what device you choose.
Once you take a shot, something pretty cool happens: it advances to the left, almost as though you're looking at an actual roll of film, and you can see a dimmed sliver of the shot you just took on the left side of your viewfinder. You can then swipe to the right to see shots you've taken in the past, starting with the most recent, and returning to viewfinder (camera mode, as it were) is as simple as swiping all the way to the left again. It's a neat user experience that we suspect novice users will pick up on very quickly. The available camera options and modes can be extended by phone manufacturers, but the default list is pretty impressive and includes configurable white balance, image effects (grayscale, sepia, and the like), saturation, ISO, exposure, and even metering mode -- and most of these options are still available even when capturing video. Naturally, you can also set the flash to fire automatically, always, or never.
Once you've taken your shots, the phone can be configured to automatically upload them to your Windows Live SkyDrive account in the background with your choice of privacy level (private, friends only, or public). You can also zip pictures over to your Facebook account using a menu item in the Pictures app, but interestingly, you have to choose between "upload to SkyDrive" and "upload to Facebook" menu items in the app's settings -- you can't have both. Menus can scroll, so why not?
Speaking of the Pictures app, this is your one-stop shop for imagery on the phone -- both your shots (locally and from supported online services) and those of your friends show up here. You'll come here to view and send pictures, change your lock screen wallpaper, and -- because this hub is extensible -- use any third-party services that developers have plugged into it. In a way, it's kind of the prototypical Windows Phone 7 app "hub" in that it cycles through your own pictures for its background and has some cool time-dependent features; for instance, it adds a "moments" page that summarizes pictures on the phone that were taken in the current month. It's all very pretty, though we wish there was a way to configure the background image [turns out you can change it by long-pressing on the hub's title! -Ed.] -- and as we mentioned before with the People app, the "what's new" page tends to get cluttered with countless updates from Facebook friends you barely know. Instead, we'd love a way to be able to select an inner circle of contacts from whom we wanted to see a photo stream here.
Microsoft has already started handing out prototype Windows Phone 7 devices (the same ones we're reviewing here, actually) to developers, and it's going to continue to do so in liberal quantities as it gets closer to launch -- oh, and the side of the box says "developers. Developers! DEVELOPERS!!" on it. So yeah, you might say that Redmond understands full well how important third-party apps are going to be to the success (or failure) of this platform. Those will end up being exposed through the Marketplace hub, which as you might expect, is a thoroughly different experience than the one you might be used to on Windows Mobile 6.5. Instead, you get something more akin to what Apple and Google are offering -- with a few twists.
The first thing you notice when you open the Marketplace is that you've got music as an available category, whereas iOS breaks it out into a separate iTunes app and Android leaves that to third-party providers like Amazon. It's not quite as integrated as you think, though -- tapping on music just bounces you out to the Zune Marketplace, which is fine since you wouldn't want two disjoint places to purchase tracks anyway. Likewise, hitting the games category sends you over to the Xbox Marketplace, which sadly isn't live yet and wasn't available to test. Swiping to the left takes you to the Featured page of the Marketplace, which interestingly mixes up both music and applications into a single view -- kind of a neat way to keep people interested in everything Microsoft has to sell without trying to send users' attentions to two (or more) completely unrelated places.
That leaves us to the final category: apps. Though there's just a light smattering of Microsoft-built demo apps available in the Marketplace at this point, it was enough for us to get an idea of the purchase process. Tapping on it takes you into a separate marketplace hub that, by swiping around, gives you the typical views you'd expect: newest, most popular, and featured. You can also search by pressing the phone's hardware search button; on the plus side, it searches across all of Microsoft's marketplaces so you get apps, games, and music in your results, and that's kind of cool. On the downside, though, it appears as though there's no search suggestion functionality as you type.
If you're just browsing, you can delve into the whole list or narrow it down by category; presently they've got Tools, Lifestyle, News & Weather, and Business Center, though we wouldn't be surprised to see this list grow by launch day. Once you've selected a category, the list view is interesting -- it shows you the typical icon, app name, and rating on a five-star scale, but it also shows you a short description of the app directly below the name. Goodness knows not every app has the most descriptive title, so we imagine this feature's going to come in handy fairly frequently. Tapping on an app takes you to its information page, which is pretty much what you'd expect: you've got the price up top (everything appears to be free so far), a full description, screen shots, reviews, version number, supported languages, and a list of phone services that the app needs access to, similar to what you find on Android. The screen shots you see on this page are hilariously small, so you need to tap 'em to get an idea of what's going on -- not a big deal, though this would be a pretty easy one to solve by showing two or three thumbnails at a time rather than four.
Once you've decided to buy, the entire process happens in the background -- just as it should -- and after a few moments, you'll find the app has been added to your applications list. We'd like some sort of unobtrusive notification when the app's installed, though, because as it stands now, it seems to be a guessing game -- you just have to keep checking until it shows up. Microsoft's sample apps are quite small, but with bigger items that third parties will undoubtedly be developing, this could become more of an annoyance.
Tight Office integration, complete with an awesome on-phone document and viewing experience, stands to be one of the biggest differentiators for Windows Phone 7 -- a feature that could almost singlehandedly make these devices impossible to ignore for serious business users regardless of their seemingly consumer-centric slant.
Instead, we came away feeling that Microsoft may have spent too much effort focusing on the collaborative side of Office and not enough time on the actual document editors themselves. Though Word seems to do a decent job rendering pages onto the small display, the editing capabilities are weak at best -- you can't change fonts, for example, and you can only choose from four font colors: orange, green, red, and black. Though there's a spell-checker (you'll recognize the familiar red squiggly lines), there's no copy / paste capability -- and in an app like this, it's hard to imagine being too productive without any sort of clipboard whatsoever. Excel seems similarly gimped, though it's got a pretty solid set of built-in functions; we don't know what percentage of the full app's functions are supported, but it's a long list.
PowerPoint documents, meanwhile, can't be created on the phone at all. And really, that's totally fine -- if you're creating your presentation that you have to give in half an hour on your phone during your train ride into the city, you've probably already blown it. The important thing with PowerPoint is probably the slide show capability -- especially for retail devices that have TV-out -- and in that regard, it seems to do just fine (cheesy transitions and all).
We mentioned collaboration -- indeed, Windows Phone 7 supports SharePoint servers, which'll undoubtedly come in handy for some business users. There's also OneNote, which in many ways is simply Word by another name; Microsoft gears it toward freeform note-taking by making it easy to attach pictures and voice recordings, but really, you should be able to do this from Word just as easily (spoiler: you can't). You can configure it to automatically synchronize to your Windows Live SkyDrive account any time you make a change, which basically means your up-to-date notes are accessible from any computer with an internet connection -- you know, that whole "cloud" thing. Magic!
As we stated above, there really isn't much in the way of Xbox integration on the device right now. You can add your Live account and you get your avatar into the phone... and that's about the extent of it. We're hoping that before long Microsoft shows off just what these devices will be capable of. We were told by Joe Belfiore during a meeting that there would be two kinds of games on Windows Phone 7 devices -- turn based, "app" games, and Xbox Live content which would be full-on arcade experiences. We're dying to get our hands on something more than just a brief demo of The Harvest, but that's not possible yet.
Though it's not quite as full-featured as the latest renditions of Google Maps on Android have been, Microsoft's Bing Maps implementation on Windows Phone 7 is pretty great -- they've done a fantastic job of blending the experience of using a mapping app into their so-called Metro design language. You've got access to satellite imagery and real-time traffic information; location fixes happen quickly, though we found that they tended to be a little less accurate than Google's when indoors and out of GPS reception. Pinch-to-zoom is smooth and fast, and we liked the almost ethereal appearance of the map tiles as they loaded after panning or zooming in -- it's hard to describe, but it's a pretty neat (though admittedly unnecessary) effect. Likewise, we liked the zoom-out, zoom-back-in effect when locating your position on the map while a different area is being displayed, which gives you a better idea of your relative position than the iPhone's rapid scroll.
Since this is straight-up Bing Maps on the back end, you can expect the same database of locations here that you get when you search for stuff from your computer. On the phone, you can search either by text or voice (more on this later), which will call up pushpins for matches near your map view. As you'd expect, tapping a pin brings up the name of the result; a second tap calls up a page of information where you can find a phone number, URL, average rating, and even hours if they're available -- this is extremely handy for restaurants since it can save you an awkward trip to the business' inevitably non-mobile-friendly website. Swiping around calls up a screen with nearby points of interest, and another screen with individual reviews; Microsoft is aggregating several sites for these, and we regularly found entries from both Citysearch and JudysBook. No Yelp, it seems.
Our favorite part of Maps, though, has to be the directions list when navigating to a destination. It's no voice-guided turn-by-turn navigation, of course, but the app has a cool split-screen mode that shows the list at the bottom and the map corresponding to the currently-selected list item at the top. As you swipe through the list and highlight different items, the map moves around -- in other words, you can quickly see where (and how) you need to turn. Both pedestrian and car modes are available, but no mass transit, which -- when you're living in a big city, anyhow -- is a feature we'd definitely miss coming from Google Maps.
Like Maps, Windows Phone 7's search capabilities are naturally powered by Bing. Microsoft has done a neat job translating Bing's well-known home page layout to the small screen, complete with gorgeous rotating imagery and hotspots that reveal factoids when you tap them. There's a mic to the right side of the text box that lets you conduct a voice search, and while we wouldn't bother trying to find anything with an odd name this way, common mobile searches (think "burritos") worked really well. Once you run your search, you get not just web hits, but also news (burritos come up in the news more often than you may think) and local results -- basically a tie-in to Bing Maps that uses your location to find stuff nearby.
Though it's a great search app at its core, the details of the implementation fail on two levels. First, accessing it is somewhat arbitrary -- you can get to it by pressing the phone's hardware search button, but not always. Apps can override that key's functionality (People, Maps, and Marketplace all do this, just to name a few), but if they don't, you fall through to Bing -- so there are times when you really have no idea what's going to happen when you press that button. Secondly, the Bing app isn't a universal search, and that's a huge misstep in an age when smartphone users can easily have fifty or more apps and thousands contacts and tracks of music installed.
What we've been presented with here doesn't exactly feel like a complete mobile operating system in many ways. Some parts of Windows Phone 7 are more like a wireframe -- an interesting design study, an example of what a next-gen phone platform could be. That's both good and bad. On one side, we're still really excited by the prospect of Metro as a viable, clean-slate approach to the mobile user experience, and there are lots of smart moves being made that could lead to greatness. On the other side, Microsoft has to turn this into a viable retail product that can hang with the fiercest competition in the history of the cellphone in just a few months' time, and there are some serious issues that need to be addressed. Frankly, it's a little scary.
By any measure, Microsoft's got its back against the wall in the mobile game, and becoming competitive quickly is vital to the company's success -- and in that regard, we understand why they've been so adamant about getting Windows Phone 7 on shelves in time for Holiday 2010. The thing is, putting out a product that's half-baked risks alienating early adopters at the worst possible time, especially considering that we see a clear-cut (and pretty painless) path to fixing the most egregious shortcomings. Seriously, if the WP7 team put their heads down and added a clipboard and some rudimentary multitasking, Microsoft could have an exceptionally solid version-one product in Windows Phone 7 -- especially when coupled with the company's fierce outreach to developers.
Of course, that's a big "if" -- the clock is ticking on Windows Phone 7, and the industry has already proven that it won't wait around for companies to play catch-up. It's not about lapping the competition at this point, it's about just being in the race -- and if Microsoft doesn't know that by now, it may already be too late.