A Windows Phone 7 'review' from a non-reviewer

I am not a reviewer. I also am not a smartphone user. So how the heck did I end up with not one, but two, Windows Phone 7 review units? (And more importantly, what do I think?)
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

I am not a reviewer. I am a news reporter. I've never written a product review in my life. (And I don't intend to start now.)

But I did -- by a stroke of luck plus a little persistence -- talk my way into Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 reviewer's workshop, which Microsoft held in New York City earlier this month. And I walked out with two loaner devices: A Samsung Focus WP7 and an HTC Surround WP7.

There are a lot of places you can go to read about speeds, feeds, and comparative performance data for Windows Phone7. Here are a few:

Hands-on with the Samsung Focus and HTC Surround (from my colleague Matthew Miller)

Video walk-through through Windows Phone 7 third-party apps

Windows Phone 7 screen shots (phones and software) galore

To set the stage: I also am not now and never have been a Windows Mobile or Windows Phone user. I have considered getting a Windows Phone in the past, thinking as a reporter/blogger who writes about Microsoft, I should try to use/learn their products. Every time I asked (different carriers in different stores in Manhattan), the clerks talked me out of getting them. They said they were hard-to-use, unreliable and just not all that functional compared to the competition -- even the cheaper competition.

I use a feature phone -- an LG enV touch. Don't laugh: It has the best mobile keyboard I've ever tried -- and I text a lot. I find soft keyboards unusuable. (Yes, I know many people think I'll get used to them one day. I won't.) My enV also never broke even though I've dropped it on New York sidewalks, in a deep puddle in the gutter (yes, I sanitized it well afterward) and off my kitchen counter onto my hardwood floor.

(Microsoft is counting on feature phone users as one of its primary targets with Windows Phone 7.... so maybe my word has more weight than I thought originally.)

Coming into this WP7 'review' process, I was still not 100 percent sure I'd want a Windows Phone, even this time around. I was perfectly willing to get a Droid, except the keyboard on the one I tried was awful. I wasn't keen on an iPhone, especially when I heard it wasn't so good as a phone. (I also use my phone for phone calls. What a concept!)

After a week-plus using a Samsung Focus WP7, I can say I am thinking seriously about getting a Windows Phone 7.

But. (Yes there are a number of buts, actually.)

I hate the soft keyboard. I keep hearing the one on WP7 is better than anything out there. If it's the best, the state of the soft keyboard world is pathetic, in my view. Because of my soft-keyboard loathing, I will not be getting the Focus. The bright AMOLED screen, the super thin body, the responsive performance (except for the letter "O" on my soft keyboard which cannot be pressed in portrait mode) -- not enough to win me over. I really would like to try the Dell Venue Pro -- the vertical slider model. Or an LG with a real, easy-to-type-on keyboard.

I also am not sold enough on WP7 to break my contract with Verizon. I am half way through a two-year contract. Verizon has said they will have WP7 phones in 2011. I sure wish they'd say when. If it were early in 2011, I'd be more content to wait. If I hear nothing more from Verizon by next spring, I will start looking at other carriers and/or other non-WP7 options.

The phones I tried are definitely generation-one at this point. There are going to be about 1,000 apps in the Windows Phone Marketplace by the time the first WP7 phones go on sale in the U.S., which is November 8. (They go on sale in Europe, starting October 21.) That number pales compared to the competition, but that's not my objection. As I've found with my iPad, there are lots and lots and lots of apps in which I have zero interest. I've only found about a dozen I've downloaded to my iPad. So as long as the basics are there for WP7 -- a Twitter client (check), Facebook (check), a level (for making sure the crooked pictures in my apartment look straight, check) -- I am OK with what's out there.

However, it's pretty clear to me that WP7 version 1 phones are built to be consumer phones. The biggest category of apps for them is games. Xbox Live integration obviously was a huge priority for Microsoft. I don't game, and I don't care about gaming. Especially not on a phone. So for me this is not a draw.

The other places where integration is flawless on WP7 phones is with Zune music/videos and Windows Live activity streams (letting you see what your contacts are doing). I have a ZuneHD and I think the many, many people who don't are going to be really pleasantly surprised by the Zune experience and ZunePass subscription model. But I would still rather listen to my music on my ZuneHD and not my phone (because of battery drain, first and foremost). So while Zune support handy, it's not a killer for me.

Read on: So Is 'my next PC is a smartphone'? Hmmm

Regarding Windows Live integration: For me, it's another nice-to-have, but not all that useful. Very few of my Windows Live contacts are my actual "friends" (sorry, guys and gals!) in "real" life. I don't really care about their photos and updates and don't want to call or email them. I realize in both of these cases, I may be an outlier and not "the typical" user, but hey -- I warned you. This is not a review!

The SharePoint integration is pretty solid on the first generation of phones. Surprisingly, the SkyDrive integration is a lot less intuitive. (It sounds like that is on the near-term list of things to fix, like copy-and-paste.) If/when that is fixed, Office Web Apps access on these phones should be a lot easier.

E-mail set-up and integration is very easy already, though. I was able to sync my Hotmail, Outlook and Yahoo mail quickly.  Now I understand why Microsoft chose to focus its ad campaign around how easy it is to "glance and go" without having to navigate painstakingly through little icons on your screen. I can look at my home screen and see how many mail messages I have in each account, as well as any upcoming appointments. No need to click around. The Microsoft "Metro" text is easy to read.

I like the new interface on these phones. I am happy that Microsoft made it so users can drag and pin tiles to the front of the phone -- people, photos, even the Notes app. The top four tiles -- "Phone," "People," "Messaging" (SMS) and "E-mail" are not movable and removable. The next group -- Internet Explorer, Zune, Marketplace, Calendar, Pictures and Xbox Live -- are movable/removable. There are also a set of front-screen tiles which are customizable by the carriers and handset makers (and which also can be removed). In short, you can remove/add almost anything from the front of your phone. (I immediately added Twitter, for example.) Many (not sure if "all") of the things you can delete from the front panel are still available, however, on the apps listing screen.

My last observation about Windows Phone 7 has less to do with the phones themselves, and more to do with the constant barrage of analyst and (some) vendors' claims that the smartphone is the future. I still found myself using my Windows 7 PC and my iPad just as frequently as when I didn't have a smartphone. The browsing experience on a smartphone is just not that useful. The screen is too small to do the kind of Web surfing I do.  The IE 7/8 hybrid on the phone is OK, but it is not really that functional. It's fine for looking up directions (via the Bing button). It's fine for checking mail. It is not the replacement for a real computing device. I believe Microsoft's tile design obscures the browsing limitations of a phone and makes you notice them less. But they are still there (and not just on WP7 phones, but all smartphones).

All this said, I think those who haven't written off Microsoft in the mobile space -- and especially those for whom a PC, Zune and/or an  Xbox gaming console are part of their tech worlds -- will find Windows Phone 7 worth a closer look. I will be sad to see my Focus go, but hoping to see some more Windows Phone 7 phones and more business functionality available for them in the not-so-distant future....

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