Hands-on Preview: Windows Phone 7

Windows Phone 7, which launches later this year, is Microsoft’s attempt to make up ground on Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android phones.

The home screen, or Start, can be customised with "live tiles" that show web updates. For example, create a "live tile" of a friend and gain view of that person's latest pictures and posts. Photo: Microsoft

Looking for a foothold in the smartphone market, in which Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android smartphones are currently ruling the roost, Microsoft is all set to officially launch its Windows Phone 7 mobile operating platform later this year.

From the outset the next Microsoft’s mobile OS appears extremely slick, smooth and attractive. Windows Phone 7 also seems to have taken heed of its rivals and incorporated a lot of what is best on both Android and iOS. The social networking capabilities of Android are present and so is the simplicity and ease of use of the iPhone.

During a short hands-on test it was clear immediately that Microsoft might have a genuine chance at challenging Apple. The iPhone’s success lies in its user interface (UI) and App store, both of which are simple to use yet extremely powerful.

The Games Hub delivers what Microsoft is calling the "Xbox Live experience" on the phone. Photo: Microsoft

Windows Phone 7 has a UI that is just as quick and straightforward as Apple’s offering. Much of it is based on the operating system that powers the Zune, Microsoft’s personal media player that remains unavailable outside the US

Rather than sticking strictly to the box-based application and icon system we now see on the majority of other mobile OSs, Microsoft has created a 3D-like effect for Windows Phone 7. Large text floats in the background which points to your position in the phone’s menu system and sub sections are selected by scrolling left and right.

HTC have produced some great social networking and cloud integration for Android with their Sense UI. But getting the most out of Sense still drains battery and demands heavy data use.

The Office Hub provides access to Office Mobile, SharePoint and OneNote. Photo: Microsoft

Microsoft say they have spent a long time making sure that Windows Phone 7 will go easy on the battery but it is difficult to be sure without spending more time with it.

Nearly all the applications and software on Windows Phone 7 are cloud-connected with contacts, photos and home screens constantly updating.

However, once you realise how deep the social networking capabilities of the OS run, its potential becomes clear. Rather than feeling confusing the phone seems to develop a life of its own, as your contacts change so do the various applications and the home screen.

PEOPLE HUB: The People Hub lets you see photos and live feeds from social networks. It's also where you post to Facebook and Windows Live. Photo: Microsoft

This means each time you look at the phone it is never quite the same. This is a big risk for Microsoft: many people may enjoy the personalisation and life the OS provides but others may find it overly confusing and simply too social network heavy.

In an attempt to make the new OS attractive not only for consumers but for the business class as well, Microsoft has equipped it with a tool called ‘The Office integration’, which will enable users to edit any text, which has been type by them on a computer, on their smartphone.

Despite all of Windows Phone 7’s social networking bells and whistles it still seems to have strong business potential. Microsoft has made sure that anything typed on a computer can be edited with Windows Phone 7.

The Pictures Hub brings together photos from phone, PC and online albums into one view. Use this screen to share to social sites such as Facebook and Windows Live, and online albums that friends are sharing. Photo: Microsoft

The idea is to remove as many barriers between content generated on a computer and a phone as possible. One problem, however, is that there is little to separate the Office menus of the phone from the rest of the OS.

It means that it is hard distinguish between the social networking sleekness of the rest of Windows Phone 7 and the what should be serious business side of Microsoft Office. This may be enough to put off those who are considering adopting Windows Phone 7 as a business-based mobile phone.

Microsoft have been strict about what can be done to Windows Phone 7 as well as the hardware it will run on. This should prevent some of the fragmentation and ‘processor wars’ currently going on with Android.

At the moment any handset expected to run Windows Phone 7 will need to have at least 8GB of memory and a 5 Megapixel camera as well as all the usual smartphone staples such as GPS and an Accelerometer and some other specific features.

The Music + Video Hub is media central - from music to streaming radio to podcasts to video Photo: Microsoft

Perhaps best is the control Microsoft have put in place regarding adapting and skinning Windows Phone 7. HTC may work magic with Android and their Sense UI but some of the lesser offerings from Sony or LG could do serious damage to Windows Phone 7’s slickness.

What is most likely is developers and manufacturers will make their mark on a handset by building apps that sit on the home screen rather than slowing the phone down with heavy UI changes.

It shouldn’t be long now before we start seeing some of the many manufacturers associated with Windows Phone 7 showing off their handsets.

From the looks of it Microsoft have built a genuine contender with Phone 7 and if the release hardware is up to scratch could have a shot at topping iPhone sales at Christmas. [Windows Phone 7 and Microsoft via Telegraph (UK), Engadget and The Next Web]

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