Hands-On: Windows Phone 7 looks cool, but is it cool enough?

Windows Phone 7 is on target to ship by the holidays. Are you interested in dumping your phone for one running this new mobile OS?

I've been playing with the developer edition of Windows Phone 7 for a couple of days now. First off, let me send a congrats out to the folks at Redmond. I had seen many iterations of Windows Phone 7, and I'm happy to report that a lot of improvements have come along since that time.

Since many people haven't had hands-on time with the device, consumers have been relying on folks like myself and Matt Miller (I put him into a different class since he writes a definitive guide while I just write up some impressions) to get their fix.

Well, I'm happy to say that the interface is solid, the interaction is great, and the visual effects are impressive.

Startup

I started up the device and setup was pretty straight forward. The only issue I encountered was that the phone requires that you have a LIVE ID. I'm still not sure why Microsoft would force that these days, especially since the goal at this point is market share, and you want to create a great first impression. At any rate, after I registered for an ID, I then added my Facebook ID, and then set up the Exchange Server settings to pull my Google account. From there I watched as the phone populated with my calendar, contacts and e-mail.

Interface

Just like every other smartphone these days, you swipe and multi-touch your way around. However, Microsoft has reinvented the Start interface and now you have tiles that you can move around, click on, and interact with. There's a tile for People, E-mail, Messaging, Phone, Calendar, and just about anything you want to pin there. If you're not a fan of the tiles, you can also click on a right arrow and see a complete list of all applications and settings.

Again, it's pretty intuitive. In my case I am testing on an LG phone that also has a slide out physical keyboard, but I found that the on-screen keyboard and touch experience overall was very responsive and almost error free.

There are also a couple of physical keys, including a back button, search, and a Windows key. These provide the ability to override the touch experience and get back to basics in an instant.

Size and Weight

This has more to do with the hardware, but I was surprised at how bulky and heavy the LG felt. These days you have great phones with amazing screens that barely weigh anything. I'll chalk this up to being a developer model and hope that fancy ones are coming out soon enough.

Marketplace

Unfortunately there's nothing to be had in the Marketplace as of this moment, aside from a test app. It was free, so I clicked to download it, put in my LIVE ID information and it downloaded straight away.

XBOX LIVE

This is a pretty graphics-rich area, but as of right now you can only see your Avatar and some associated content related to your game. That said, I can see this definitely driving some XBOX sales, provided that people adopt this phone to begin with.

Web browser

Unfortunately, Microsoft needs to work on the browser a bit more. I noticed almost immediately that while the browser was fast, it didn't render nearly as well as Webkit-based browsers. It also had a box where a Youtube video should be. It was far from a positive first impression. I'm hoping that Opera is working on a tile for the operating system as we speak, or that some improvements are coming with the final version of Windows Phone 7.

Initial Thoughts

So far I'm very impressed with what Microsoft has done with Windows Phone 7. That said, I'm left wondering why someone would want to switch to this new mobile operating system. It used to be that Microsoft provided the best Exchange experience. Nowadays though, Google has come up to speed, and so has Apple. In addition, Apple and Google have hit the enterprise pretty hard, so Microsoft can't force its way in there like it did with Windows Mobile while the Blackberry was dominating the enterprise space.

I've shown the phone to a few people,including some teenagers and they look, play and then move on. I think the key differentiator will be Apps, and that part is all up to Microsoft. The company has some catching up to do, but as history has shown, Microsoft can suddenly come into a market and take a nice piece of it. Unfortunately, I think that this time, Microsoft may be a little too late to the party.

By the way, one of the things that bothered me about the new interface was how locked down it was. I was concerned that manufacturers like HTC couldn't innovate within the walled garden of the new OS. Thankfully, I was very wrong.

Jason Dunn at Windows Phone Thoughts unearthed some videos showing off some new tiles that launch some pretty cool apps by HTC. You can see one of the videos below (click over to his article for the other).

As you'll see in the videos above, HTC is definitely about to differentiate itself and its hardware yet again.