Or how the little things destroy the big picture
I have written this post over the course of a few days. There are a lot of ideas half-formed in my head, and two weeks has not been long enough to tease them all out. As much as I would have liked longer, I suspect I simply would have procrastinated further and watched the deadlines fly right on by regardless.
I have tried hard to like Windows Phone 7 (hence forth to be referred to as WP7 – don’t get me started on the name), I really have. It’s a likeable platform and operating system, and it does get an ‘A’ for effort. However, I just couldn’t warm to it. While it sure is pretty, and the phone’s hardware is top notch, I found myself turning back to my iPhone 3GS time and time again. I simply could not bring myself to fully commit to the Mozart. For an anti-social shut-in, my life is somewhat complicated and certain features like subscribed Google calendars, the TripView app or even a half-decent Twitter app or an app marketplace with, you know, apps in it, proved too hard to let go. In contrast, when my wife took part in the first social review with the HTC Desire, she was using the Desire almost exclusively by the end, despite her well documented struggles with the device at the time.
Regular glances at the official #telstrawp7 hash tag seemed to show a number of the other reviewers really getting into their phone and enjoying the experience. I certainly feel like I’m a minority of some sort. I don’t like to think that I’m “that guy”, the Apple fan boy, particularly as I’ve raged against platform fundamentalism for so long. Yet, I found myself constantly comparing WP7 and the Mozart to my 3GS, which is particularly odd given that the 3GS is yesterday’s technology, the shininess of iOS 4.2.1 notwithstanding.
Perhaps the failing is mine? I would not be surprised. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
The Microsoft ad campaign that accompanied the launch of WP7 was an interesting and uncharacteristically brave one. It went out of its way to point out the thing that every good self-hating smartphone user already instinctively knows – we spend too much damn time looking at our screens and not enough at what is actually going on around us. Living in Sydney I see this a lot – people walking through peak hour pedestrian traffic staring at their phone instead of looking where they are walking, people at social media events who will experience the entire event through Twitter while physically sitting in a room together, and douche bags on the phone in public toilets.
Microsoft’s angle seems to be “You’re not like those other people. You want a phone that does fancy things, but on your own terms. You own the phone, not the other way around”. It’s clever, and it is a point of differentiation in a consumer smartphone market that is rapidly becoming a two-horse race between Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS (keeping in mind that it is still early days and who knows if either platform will still be around in 5 years).
On this level, WP7 is a resounding success. I found when I deliberately spent more time using the Mozart as my primary device, I actually spent less time using the phone. There are different reasons for this, of course. The selection of apps is woeful at this point in time, and of those that are available, most don’t look that great to me. There are serious issues with battery life, even with the APN workaround (although as of Thursday this problem has now been fixed after Telstra pushed through an update). Ultimately though, the phone is just not fun to use. It does not engage you the way that an iPhone or high-spec Android phone does. The user experience does feel very much “get in, get out”. It doesn’t invite you to stay a while, do a little surfing, tweet a bit with your friends, maybe take a few retro-filtered photos from the camera app du jour and put your feet up for a while. Apart from the selection of Xbox Live games (which generally are a fucking awesome experience on the phone, let’s not beat around the bush here), there is very little to stick around for.
It’s the little things that kill
I spent a couple of days in anxious self-examination (yes, yes, that’s what she said, very clever), trying to work out what it was about the phone I just couldn’t engage with. The interface is sound, the phone is responsive and what apps I did purchase did the job with little fuss or bother.
Then while shopping with the headphones tucked in my shirt, it hit me. The attention to detail just isn’t there, and it is neatly encapsulated in the headphone experience.
First off, who the hell did HTC test the feel and fit of these headphones on? They are large, uncomfortable (with or without the foam), oddly shaped, badly lacking in clarity (even with the fancy audio Dolby and SRS WOW equalisers) and with a cable that is way to god damned long. A Mozart doesn’t give you a lot of change from $1,000. I don’t think some decent bundled headphones is too much to ask.
But wait, there’s more. Although the headphone remote is a good addition, and clearly someone has been watching the success of the iPhone, it is not very responsive nor does it allow for much control. Maybe it’s all tied up in patents, and maybe my cognitive pathways are already set in treacle, but I don’t see the point of a remote control if all you can do is play/pause, and change the volume. Where’s the skip track, or scrub through options? Maybe i missed these options. I did try experimenting with various combinations Also, pressing pause should stop the audio instantly, not wait a second or two before stopping the sound.
And while I’m on the subject of the microphone and remote, whoever designed its placement should be summarily beaten with a clue stick until their bruises are black and clue. The microphone rests at the headphone cable “fork”, where it splits in to two. This places the mic somewhere around nipple level, which is hardly conducive to hands free use. Sure, a clip is provided that you can add on if you want, but a clip dangling off the wire adds extra weight that my already overloaded which my giants’-ear-buds-jammed-in-my-skull ears can’t take, not to mention the extra bunched up cable dangling around. Given the absurd length of the headphone cables, I had intended to run the headphones under my shirt while wheeling through Woolies but this was also a bust as the remote was buried deep within my shirt instead of neatly nestled near my jawline. As a consequence the ear buds were ripped out of my head with monotonous regularity as the cable got caught on shelves, other people’s over-sized handbags and my own shopping trolley.
You’re probably wondering why have I wasted hundreds of words talking about headphones? “They’re not even part of the phone so stick to the point!” The headphones are my point. They are a symptom: a symptom of a larger disease. It looks pretty but in practice it doesn’t feel like it’s been tested on actual people at all.
External volume buttons are a great idea but they are too easy to bump, either blasting your ear drums or accidentally turning off all notification sounds. A camera feature where you can take photos when the screen is locked via the hardware button, but it only seems to work half the time (probably operator error, but why is it even possible for me to stuff this up?). Having apps either as annoying large tiles of my choosing or an absurdly long alphabetical list of every damn thing installed on the phone, both with only vertical scrolling and with no ability to neatly scroll a screen at a time. A “photos” hub that doesn’t seem to show any photos that are on my camera roll, but really does if you look at it in just the right way. Capacitive touch buttons that meant I was constantly accidentally going back, home or launching the okay-but-it-ain’t-no-Google Bing.
I could go on but I’ve already complained long enough. Needless to say, the usability finish just has not been applied.
Wow, really :-D
In amongst the gripes, there are still some things that I love and that I will miss.
The lock screen is actually useful in that it shows the next upcoming event from my Outlook calendar. I can’t do that on the iPhone without jail breaking it.
The auto correction experience is first rate (look at my typing in my testing Word video to see it in action). It is much closer to Android’s system than Apple’s. I would like to see Apple implement something like this rather than the current method which has spawned creations like damnyouautocorrect.com.
Notifications are done right in the same way that they are on Android. In iOS notifications are very obtrusive. You can’t ignore them and you have to decide immediately whether to address them or dismiss them. In WP7 they appear in a bar across the top of the screen. You can ignore them and look at them at your leisure. Another thing that Apple can learn from its competitors.
Wireless syncing. Sweet zombie Jesus, wireless syncing. Once you set up the Zune for PC, you can sync wirelessly between your computer and WP7. It happens automatically if the phone is connected to your network and the phone has been plugged into an AC charger for 10 minutes. Word of warning though: even if you are finished syncing and have closed down Zune, the phone will still re-sync on a regular basis. It does get tiring have to shut down a relaunched Zune every 10 minutes. I’m sure there is a setting I’ve missed (or maybe not – it’s an attention to detail point after all).
Ring tones and notification sounds. There are dozens of them, and most of them sound more modern and less harsh than what is available on the iPhone. In face, there are too many sounds. I gave up scrolling through them all and just settled on something pretty.
The way that press-and-hold menus appear like a sci-fi stargate before the little drop-down menu appears. It’s purely chrome, but it’s a nice touch.
The Mozart comes with a startlingly large supply of stock alarms, ringtones and notifications sounds. Many of them are much nicer than on iOS. I will especially miss waking up to Alarm 04. I may have to try and rip it and turn it into a ring tone.
Games. Oh, the games. Xbox Live has made some really tasty looking games available. I’m not much of a gamer and didn’t even own an Xbox before the review (disclaimer: Microsoft gave each of the reviewers an Xbox Arcade edition. I still haven’t taken mine out the box nor do I have any games. I guess it can sit and gather dust next to the Wii I haven’t played in months). I haven’t tested any of the funky sounding stuff like racking up achievements on the go, editing your avatar and so forth. If you’re an existing Xbox gamer, this will be way more use to you than Apple’s GameCenter. There’s no Angry Birds or my favourite tower defence game The Creeps, but there is ample choice and some big looking titles, too.
Word and OneNote integration is fantastic. The apps are stripped back with few features, but they work very well and get the job done. I am experiencing some trouble integrating these notes with Office web apps on Skydrive. At this point I’m prepared to blame operator error as I haven’t looked at it closely enough.
I didn’t test proper Exchange support beyond integration with Google services. From what I could tell from the #telstrawp7 stream, it worked very well. I don’t have sufficient seniority for remote access so this is not something I could test. I did notice that the WP7 Exchange support only imported my main Google calendar. iOS on the iPhone imports my subscribed calendars as well. This is important to me as my wife and I organise our lives through Google Calendar. There’s no point if I can’t easily access her appointments as well as my own.
The Zune media player is a competent if unremarkable built-in app. A big negative for me is that I can’t play podcasts at double the speed like I can in later versions of the iPod app on the iPhone.
WP7 is both impressive and disappointing. It has the slickness of Apple, the alternative attraction of Android and the history of Nokia’s Symbian. It also has the freedom of Apple, the attention to detail of Android and the app quality of Symbian.
WP7 is a first generation product. I have read the arguments that the underlying technology builds upon previous versions of Windows Mobile. It is still a v1.0 philosophy – new interface, new hardware, new branding, new marketing. Despite the “Really?” campaign, the phone is squarely in the same market as Android (now at 2.3) and iOS (latest version 4.2.1). The smartphone market is not yet a zero sum game and Microsoft still has time to carve a profitable niche out for itself. This is a Good Thing. Competition breeds innovation after all.
But (and there is always a but), it is not there yet. The operating system is still a little crash happy. The apps simply aren’t there. The interface is not minimal but simple, which will frustrate many existing advanced smartphone users. There is no tethering (Android and iOS have this). There is no wi-fi hotspot capability (Android and a jail broken iOS device have this). I remain unconvinced about the tiled home screen or the list of apps that doesn’t allow for any meaningful sorting or grouping.
The Mozart is an excellent phone that is a joy to hold and interact with. WP7 is a phone operating system whose time is yet to come. It could be worse. It could be Blackberry desperately clinging to relevance with terrible touchscreen phones that no one wants.
Would i recommend a WP7 phone to someone else? Absolutely. If someone doesn’t want an iPhone and isn’t “techy” but still wants to buy a smartphone for the first time, WP7 is probably the right choice, and the Mozart is a nice piece of kit.
Will I continue to use WP7 myself? God no. This operating system is not the right one for me. I have too many iOS apps that are an essential part of my life that simply don’t exist on his platform yet.
Would I use WPx in the future? Maybe. It depends. I choose my tools for what I think will get the job done in the easiest way possible. Whether that includes Windows Phone in the future is in Microsoft’s hands.