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Windows Phone 7 takes clean approach to touch UI

With its upcoming reboot of the old Windows Mobile OS, Microsoft has wisely swept up the thicket of menus, checkboxes and other teeny, tiny interface elements that cluttered its outdated mobile platform and chucked them into the trash bin.
Yahoo - Indeed, Windows Phone 7, which I was able to take for a brief test drive last week, almost (but not quite) errs on the side of being a bit too Spartan. Instead of the cool wallpapers now possible on the iPhone or those nifty animated weather widgets on HTC’s Android phones, Windows Phone gives you a spare grid of “live,” 2-D tiles on its home page, which swivel open to reveal even more minimalist menus when you tap.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Boasting a design inspired by street and subway signs, I’m told, Windows Phone 7 (which just hit its “technical preview” milestone, meaning that prototype WP7 devices from the likes of LG and Samsung are heading out into the hands of developers) goes for more of a “clarity of message” feel (as a Microsoft rep put it) than a razzle-dazzle approach.

That means simple, strategically placed arrows on the screen that point toward more options, or text peeking out from the side of the display and inviting a swipe to see more. Instead of funky 3-D icons and drop shadows, plain flat tiles make up the WP7 home screen. Rather than a permanent status bar along the top of the screen, icons for signal strength and battery life slide down from the top of the display only when needed, or when you tap for them.

As we saw during the initial demo of Windows Phone 7 in February at Mobile World Congress, the new home screen boasts a list of apps on one panel and a series of “live” tiles — complete with your unreal e-mail count, Facebook updates, recent pictures, favorite contacts and Xbox Live info — on the other. And you’re free to add, rearrange or delete the various tiles at your leisure.

Then you’ve got your main Windows Phone 7 “hubs” of content: people (your contacts), pictures (including video and any uploaded Facebook or Windows Live snapshots), games (featuring your Xbox Live avatar and achievements), music and video (with access to your Zune Social card), marketplace (for downloading new apps) and, naturally, Office.

Microsoft is making a big deal of the fact that these “hubs” will mingle your off- and online content in handy, contextual ways, similar to what we’ve been seeing on Android and WebOS handsets. For example, you won’t need to open a Facebook app to see the latest photos from your pals; instead, they’ll be available in the Photos hub along with your Windows Live photos and locally stored pictures, while the People hub will automatically load up your Outlook and Facebook contacts.

Besides the broad strokes, Windows Phone 7 adds some interesting small touches. Take, for instance, the camera app: You’ll be able to fire it up instantly via the hardware button on the side of a handset even if your phone is locked, good for snapping a quick photo without having to fumble with a key code. (If that sounds dicey from a security standpoint, Microsoft reps insist that the app will be locked down so you won’t be able to do anything but take photos without unlocking the phone.) Another interesting feature: the ability to quickly preview the last picture you took by swiping the viewfinder to the right.

That's not to say that Windows Phone 7 doesn’t come without its share of annoyances. Top of the list: no cut-and-paste, which is something of a stunner given the sleek mobile Office suite we’ve been promised. Also, those hoping for full-on multitasking will be disappointed: Windows Phone takes Apple’s iOS 4 approach, which calls for freezing apps in the background while allowing activities like streaming music and Web page downloading to continue unimpeded. There’s no combined inbox for your various e-mail accounts. No Flash or even Microsoft Silverlight support. And when Windows Phone 7 devices finally launch this holiday season, I’m guessing we won’t see more than a couple thousand apps in the Windows Phone 7 app marketplace, a pittance compared with what’s available for Android or the iPhone.

Still, Windows Phone 7 is the best thing I’ve seen come out of Microsoft’s mobile phone division in years. It’s the kick in the pants that the old Windows Mobile OS badly needed. The interface may be spare compared with iOS, Android and WebOS, but it’s pleasing to the eye, functional, peppy, and different enough from the others to make it worth a serious look. And since we still have a few months before the first WP7 handsets go out the door, there’s still time for Microsoft to go back and add copy-and-paste functionality (would it really be so hard?), a unified inbox and other refinements. In short: I’m not sold yet, but I’m fascinated and guardedly optimistic.

While I only had an hour or so with Windows Phone 7, other reviewers were lucky enough to get a few days with various prototypes. Check out in-depth previews from PC Magazine, Engadget, ZDNet and SlashGear.

Jul 20, 2010 15:49

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