November 8th marked the launch of the newest contender in the smartphone market. Microsoft, amid a metric ton of advertising, launched Windows Phone 7. It came in a couple different flavors from both AT&T and T-Mobile. The one I went with was the Samsung Focus, and after living with it for a couple of weeks, I want to share my impressions. If you’re thinking of jumping off of the iPhone or Android bandwagon, then Phone 7 might be right for you.
Before I had the phone in my hand, I had already been doing research on it. I had heard about the issue with the expandable memory slot. If you don’t know, some of the phones launched with a slot available for expanding the memory up to 32 GB using a MicroSD card. Unfortunately, once you put in the MicroSD card, it will become bonded with the phone, rendering it useless if removed. The OS assigns it a random password that makes it impossible to use in another phone. That is, unless you have a Nokia phone running Symbian, but that’s another story. So, until the issue is worked out and there are some Microsoft approved MicroSD cards available, I am living with the built in 8 GB of memory.
During the setup process, you are asked if you have a Windows Live login. This is the same e-mail address and password you would use if you have Xbox Live or a Hotmail account. Upon putting that in, the phone immediately had my Xbox Live user information, complete with my Avatar in the tile. It also populated my address book from my Hotmail contacts. I was then able to set up my GMail address and pin it to the start menu. Pinning items to the start menu is as easy as pressing and holding your finger on the item. Once you do that, a menu will appear with your options. Choosing the People tile asked me for my Facebook account information. Once logged in, the tile populated with my friend’s latest updates and pictures. Facebook is seamlessly integrated into the OS, making uploading pictures, sending messages, and commenting a breeze.
Taking pictures and video is quick and easy. Holding down the physical camera button on the side of the phone will start the camera application, even if the phone is asleep. You’re in the app and taking pictures within a matter of a couple seconds. Flipping to taking video just requires you to tap the picture/video toggle on the screen. The flash works well, but can be bright to your subjects, especially if they’re not expecting it.
Xbox Live is also built into the phone perfectly. Going into the app shows you what games you have and, with a swipe to the side, shows you the items in Spotlight and then your Avatar, gamerscore, and most recent achievement. You can edit your Avatar on the phone, so if you just have to, you can change clothes or features on the go. I haven’t heard that any of the Xbox Live enabled games have Avatar awards, but hopefully in the future.
Speaking of Xbox Live enabled games, yes, there is a difference between games that come complete with achievements and Xbox Live support and the ones you can buy in the Marketplace. Browsing the Marketplace, you can filter buy all games, Xbox Live games, or free games. There are a few freebies that I picked up immediately. Halo Waypoint, ilomilo, and Flowers. I also downloaded the free Avatar editor, which for some reason is not pre-loaded. I also purchased The Harvest. It’s a great looking isometric RPG that features real-time combat. It was $6.99, which is a bit steep for a cell phone game, but I couldn’t resist the lure of achievements on the go.
Speaking of cost, most of these Xbox Live enabled games will cost you at least $2.99, with the AAA titles weighing in at $6.99. The non-Live enabled games pretty much stick to the pricing model set by the iTunes app store. The upside is that any purchases you make on your phone, be it an app or a game, will show up on your monthly bill. Play now, pay later. I like it.
Since I’m coming from the world of iPhone, there have been some adjustments to make. Syncing the phone requires downloading the Zune software. I’ve had experience with this software before, but that doesn’t mean I love it. It’s less intuitive than iTunes. Downloading podcasts requires more attention. One of the features I was most excited for, wireless sync, has yet to work for me. It’s frustrating knowing that it’s there and I can’t use it. I also miss the ability to take a picture of the screen like on the iPhone using the home and lock buttons.
Also sending pictures to people, whether by media message, e-mail, or Facebook, is quick and easy. For some reason, there is no option to send videos using any of these options. I could understand if it was limited to Wifi, but that’s not the case. The only way to get your videos off the phone is to sync, then click on each one and add it to your collection. It’s only then that you can find it on your PC and upload it to whatever service you choose. While this might sound like a small complaint, but for a device that can record video in 720p, uploading to Facebook or YouTube should be built in.
I’ve also been adjusting to the touch-sensitive home buttons. There is a back, home, and search icon at the bottom of the phone. These are not physical buttons like on the iPhone, making them much more easily hit whether you want to or not. I’ve found myself back at the home screen many times when all I was doing was trying to tilt the phone to play a game or take a picture. I can’t say this is an issue with all Phone 7’s, but it is with the Focus.
All in all I’ve been having a great experience with my new Windows Phone 7. I have yet to feel any major regret for not buying an iPhone 4. The inability to copy and paste at launch is a small complaint. Even the lack of video sending isn’t a deal breaker when you weigh in things like having Xbox Live on the go and the ability to use voice commands for things like search and phone calls. For a brand new OS, this feels like a true contender.