Microsoft badly needs Windows Phone 7, officially unveiled on Monday 11 October, to be a success, given the competition that its completely revamped mobile OS faces from Symbian, Android, BlackBerry OS and Apple's iOS. This may prove an uphill struggle, though: according to both Gartner and IDC, the Windows Phone/Windows Mobile platform currently languishes in 5th place behind its aforementioned rivals in terms of market share. On the plus side, initial reactions to Windows Phone 7 previews have been positive, particularly concerning the finger-friendly tile-based Metro user interface. Microsoft has also gone out of its way to make it easy for developers to embrace its new platform: a sizeable population of third-party applications is vital to the health of any mobile OS.
The other key to a successful mobile operating system is getting it onto devices that people want to use. Microsoft has specified pretty exacting minimum hardware requirements for Windows Phone 7, which should help, although manufacturers currently have less scope to tinker with the OS than they did with previous Windows Mobile offerings, or do with Google's Android for example.
HTC's flagship Windows Mobile 7 handset is the much-leaked HD7, which will be available exclusively from O2 in the UK. We got hold of one on launch day (Monday 11 October): the HTC HD7 will ship on 21 October with prices ranging from free on a £40/month 24-month tariff to £379 on Pay & Go.
The 4.3in.-screen HD7 is the biggest of the quintet of HTC Windows Phone 7 handsets announced on 11 October
Those who recall the Windows Mobile 6.5-based HTC HD2 will recognise its heritage in the HD7 — indeed, this new Windows Phone 7 handset was known as the HD3 during the rumour phase. Like its predecessor, the HD7 has a massive 4.3in. TFT touch-screen with a resolution of 480 by 800 pixels, making it the largest-screened handset among the first batch of Windows Phone 7 devices. It's a high-quality display, although colours aren't as vibrant and viewing angles aren't as wide as they are on the Samsung Galaxy S's 4in. Super AMOLED screen:
The Super AMOLED display on Samsung's Android-based 4in. Galaxy S (left) is more vibrant, and has wider viewing angles, than the 4.3in. TFT on HTC's HD7 (right). The latter is still a high-quality display though. Both devices were set to 'automatic' brightness control.
Naturally that 4.3in. screen makes for a bulky handset: it measures 68mm wide by 122mm deep by 11.2mm thick, so people with small hands may find it challenging to grip. At 162g the HD7 feels pleasingly solid, without being overly heavy. Like all of the first generation of Windows Phone 7 devices, the HD7 runs on a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, with 512MB of ROM and 576MB of RAM. There's a generous 16GB of internal storage, but (again as with all other current Windows Phone 7 devices) no external microSD card slot.
Beneath the screen are three touch buttons: the Windows button in the middle takes you to the home screen; the search button on the right brings up Microsoft's Bing; and the left-hand button takes you back a step. Slim speaker grilles sit between the top and bottom (or sides in landscape mode) of the screen and the metal band surrounding the device — in a clue to its largely consumer focus, the HD7 supports Dolby Mobile and SRS surround sound. Embedded in the metal band are a power button at the top, a volume rocker and a camera button on the right, and a 3.5in. audio jack plus a micro-USB port for battery charging and PC connection at the bottom. We prefer our audio jacks in the more pocket-friendly location at the top.
The camera button will also fire up the device, if held down for several seconds. The camera, a 5-megapixel unit with dual LED flash (with flashlight capability), is at the back — there's no forward-facing camera for video calls. Cleverly, the metal surround for the camera/flash unit is hinged, popping out to double up as a kickstand for the device in landscape mode (see photo above). The camera is capable of recording 720p HD video. The battery, a 1,230mAh lithium-ion unit, is removable.
All the usual top-end smartphone connectivity options are present: quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE, HSPA (7.2Mbps down, 2Mbps up), Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n), Bluetooth (2.1, with A2DP for headsets) and GPS. There's an accelerometer, a digital compass, plus proximity and ambient light sensors.
Windows Phone 7 offers a very different smartphone experience to the iPhones and Androids of this world. Instead of a grid of application icons, the home screen is built around movable, dynamically updating 'tiles' representing applications and 'hubs'. Hubs are uber tiles that access related content — the People hub, for example, merges your various contact lists, displays Facebook and Windows Live updates and your most recent contacts. A second 'home' screen, a swipe to the right away, presents all applications and hubs as a long scrolling list. You can 'pin' any app or hub listed here on the main screen.
We mentioned that vendors have little scope to tinker with Windows Phone 7's look and feel: however, HTC has tried to slip a flavour of its Sense user interface into the HTC Hub, which delivers the familiar clock and weather display — with extra, and somewhat unnecessary graphics — and provides access to a number of featured apps. For business users, the Office hub gives you OneNote for capturing notes, images and voice memos; view, edit and create access to Word and Excel, and view/edit access to PowerPoint. Depending on your IT setup, you can synchronise your Office files with Windows Live Skydrive, or with SharePoint Server 2010. The remaining hubs are Pictures, Music & Video, Games and Marketplace.
Talking of Windows Live integration, once you've signed in, your HTC HD7 will appear under Devices on your Windows Live web page, where you can add calendar and contact items, view and share photos uploaded from your phone and more. Usefully, there's a 'Find My Phone' page where you can locate a mislain phone on a map, ring it (even if on silent or vibrate), lock it remotely (with the option for a 'please return' message) and, in the last resort, erase all information on it and restore the factory settings.
If you mislay your phone, you can log into Windows Live and get its approximate location: you can then ring it, lock it or erase it.
The Windows Marketplace is currently in test mode, and therefore sparsely populated with free and paid-for apps. The position should improve by the 21 October launch, although there's no official word on how many apps are to be expected on that date. Clearly, Microsoft has a lot of catching up to do here, and its cultivation of developer support will be critical. We downloaded a Twitter client, Twitt, which looked pretty but only managed to display two or three tweets on the 4.3in. screen thanks to its enormous header: more content and less style would be welcome here (and in places elsewhere).
For consumers, and off-duty business folk, Windows Phone 7 and the HTC HD7 have a lot to offer: the 4.3in. screen is great for photos and videos, although you'll have to wait for both Flash and Silverlight support in the browser (Internet Explorer). Gamers with Xbox Live accounts can log in and battle one another, and you can sync your music, videos, pictures and podcasts with Zune software on your PC.
After a short acquaintance with both Windows Phone 7 and the HTC HD7, we're impressed, in a cautious way. We look forward to further investigations of the OS, this handset, its stablemates and its competitors. Stay tuned.