On Monday Microsoft officially launched Windows Phone 7, its latest attempt at a mobile phone operating system. It's a radical departure from previous versions, which were known as Windows Mobile, and also looks and feels different to anything else on the market. Now that we've finally got our hands on some handsets running the OS, here are our thoughts.
The first thing you'll notice about Windows Phone 7 is its unique home screen. It consists of large square or rectangular blocks arranged in a column, with just two squares or one rectangle on each row. These blocks are called Live Tiles and they're a cross between an icon and a widget, in so much as they primarily act as a link to an application or service, like an icon, but are large and also display live information, like a widget.
So, for instance, the calendar Live Tile when pressed will open the calendar but will also show upcoming appointments on its face. Likewise the picture viewer will, when tapped, open the picture viewer but can also show a particular picture or selection of pictures on its face. As well as links to apps and hubs (which we'll get to in a moment), you can also add Live Tiles that are direct links to individual items in your other apps, so you can have favourite contacts, or albums accessible right from the desktop.
By keeping all the blocks the same size and shape, the interface has a unique uniformity and simplicity compared to the multicoloured and shaped icons and widgets of iOS, WebOS, Android, and the like. The down side is that only a few Live Tiles can fit on-screen at anyone time so, if and when you fill your phone with loads of apps and games, you will either have to scroll up and down a lot to find them on your home screen or work your way through a number of menus to get to them.
Different, also, is the general way you move through the Live Tiles. Instead of multiple separate panes of icons that you slide from left to right (Android does support vertical scrolling but most often it's horizontal) the Windows Phone 7 home screen is a single continuous vertical strip that you keep scrolling down to get to further items. So, by conventional wisdom, you put your favourite items at the top then add other items in order of diminishing importance below. In the brief time we've had with devices so far this hasn't seemed like too much of a hindrance, but again it could frustrate once you've filled your phone with apps and of shortcuts. You can't add folders to alleviate this problem, either.
You can access a more conventional list of apps by swiping left, and thanks to smaller icons you can see more programs onscreen at any one time. As it is a list, though, so you still can't get as many apps onscreen as you can with an icon based interface. Also, pressing the Start button will always return you to the Live Tiles interface.
Customising the home screen is easy as you can just drag and drop items to it and rearrange them as you please. Like the iPhone, the other icons will then sort themselves out afterwards.
The overall feel of the interface is excellent. Tap an icon to open an app and the various squares of the interface fold up and away to reveal the app, leaving you in no doubt that the app is loading, even if it is taking a moment to actually appear. This is a tactic employed by the iPhone to make apps appear loaded before they actually are, which you could construe as being misleading but when it makes for good usability we don't see the problem. Microsoft has also done an excellent job with scrolling round and flicking through menus – they have that same little bounce at the top and bottom that is so beloved of the iPhone, and there's seldom any hint of lag.