I’m an iPhone user, and I just spent the last two weeks using a Samsung Focus as my primary phone. The Focus runs Windows Phone 7.5 as its operating system, and I was curious to see how the software stacked up.
Am I biased? Well, yes and no: I’ve owned every iPhone since the original one came out, but I’m not so blindly loyal that I shelled out money for an iPhone 4S. My iPhone 4 is good enough, and I’m not the kind of guy who wants to be seen walking down the street telling my phone what to do. I live in a loud, windy city, and voice dictation isn’t the best way for me to work with my phone. I’ve used Siri, and I understand that it’s great for people who hate typing, but I love typing, and I’m pretty good at it. I offer up my unwillingness to buy an iPhone 4S as evidence that I don’t live entirely on Kool-Aid.
For this review, forget screen size, pixel density, CPU speed, camera quality, and any of those hardware specs that reviews usually focus on. I’m going to talk to you about what I do with my phone, and how Windows Phone fared in my day-to-day use. Instead of features, we’re going to talk about use cases.
Use Case #1: What’s New Since I Last Used the Phone?
Every morning, I spend 30-45 minutes walking Ernie around Chicago parks. Every afternoon, we do it again. During most of that time, I’m on the phone doing email, reading news, and tweeting.
When Ernie and I get to the park, the first thing I do is pull the phone out of my pocket and ask it, “What’s happened since the last time I looked?” Here’s how those two phones answer the question with their lock screens:
Windows Phone 7.5 shows me a little email icon informing me that I’ve got mail.
The iPhone shows me a list of tweets and messages right on the lock screen. I can scroll up and down through that list, and here’s the killer feature: if I make the unlock slide motion across a message, I go directly to that message inside the particular app.
If you don’t want people to see your incredibly secret messages on the lock screen, no problem – just go into Settings, Notifications. All iOS apps use a central notifications service, so for each app, you get to pick:
- Whether the app is allowed to show notifications at all
- Whether it shows up in the lock screen
- Whether a preview of the actual notification shows up, or just the fact that you’ve got notifications
- Whether the notification shows up as a popup, a banner (aka toast), or only on the app’s icon
- How many notifications it can show (1 most recent, 5 most recent, or 10)
- Whether the notification gets repeated (I like my incoming SMS messages to beep repeatedly every couple of minutes)
These notifications aren’t just available in the lock screen – they’re also available anytime in the phone by sliding down from the top of the screen.
Rather than using a central notification service, Windows Phone 7.5 uses a concept of Live Tiles: you can pin whatever you want to the home page of the phone. This does have some cool capabilities, but it just doesn’t work for notifications. I can’t go to one place and see everything that needs my attention, in the format that I want it. For example, take the “Me” Live Tile. At the moment, it shows “44 new items”, but if I click on that icon, it takes me to my own profile – not the new items. I can slide over to areas for “notifications” and “what’s new”, but it’s not clear which one of those is the new items. I’ve learned over time that if I want to see my 44 new items, I don’t go to what’s new – I go to notifications. That’s the kind of basic usability problem that makes me want to drop this phone into the sewer. But deep, calming breaths, and let’s get through this review together.
Use Case #1: What’s New Since I Last Used the Phone – iOS5 wins. The Live Tile concept may come from behind and catch up, but it’s going to require a lot of work from developers. Right now, the lock screen is useless, Live Tiles just don’t have enough information density, and the Me/Notifications screen is all but useless.
Use Case #2: Typing
I prefer the iOS keyboard, but that’s not fair – I’ve been using it for years. Rather than giving personal opinions, let’s take a really simple use case – spelling the word “one.”
“One” seems to pose a problem for virtual keyboard for a two reasons. First, you might have hit “o” instead of “I”, and I by itself is a completely valid autocorrect option. If I typed “O eat bacon,” the phone could see the oh-space-eee and autocorrect the O to an I. Second, you might hit the space bar instead of “n”, and the space bar really freaks out autocorrect software.
In your phone, whatever phone it is, fire up a new email and try that test, but move your fingers carefully. Try to inadvertently hit the space bar instead of the N. Try it repeatedly, and see how far into the space bar you can go before your phone’s keyboard decides that it’s a space instead of an N.
I can’t take a decent video of this, but side to side, iOS does a much better job of predicting when you want an N and when you want a space. Windows Phone 7.5 switches over to the space much faster, and once it’s entered a space, it won’t autocorrect back over to “one” instead of “o e”.
The WP7 software keyboard has something akin to IntelliSense – it shows several options for completions of what you’re typing, as opposed to iOS which just offers its best guess. If you don’t mind staring at the WP7 autocomplete options as you’re typing and consciously thinking through which word is right, then you’ll prefer the WP7 keyboard. I would rather bash keys mindlessly and have the autocorrect make the best guesses. My style works better with iOS because it seems to make better guesses.
Use Case #2: Typing – iOS5 wins for me, but your mileage may vary. I do have to give my personal opinion here though: the WP7 keyboard logic infuriated me so much that I started calling it AutoIncorrect.
Use Case #3: Sharing a Photo
Both iOS5 and Windows Phone 7.5 have the ability to take a picture and share it via email, SMS, or Twitter, and that’s alright – but it’s nowhere near good enough for power users.
Camera + effect filters + GPS location database + social networking = Instagram, a free iOS app:
Game over. And in my case, the photos even show up on my site because I’m using a WordPress plugin.
Use Case #3: Sharing a Photo – iOS only wins with the help of an app, and that’s like cheating, right? Thing is, Windows Phone 7.5 doesn’t have a photo-sharing app anywhere near this good. As of December 2011, the WP7 app marketplace is a lot like the OS – it covers the basics the same way Windows Mobile 6.5 did, and there’s some new shiny gloss on top, but this isn’t where innovation lives. WP7 gets Instagram copycats like Apict and Bubblegum that offer buggy subsets of Instagram’s functionality. Since I’m not a developer, I don’t know whether that’s a problem with the platform itself, the coding tools, the lack of app buyers, or what, but as an end user, I just know it’s a problem.
I have a couple of other personally important use case needs that iOS solves with apps:
- Manage tasks with RememberTheMilk.com – RTM is a fantastic site that I’ve used for years. They’ve got wonderful iPhone and iPad apps, but no WP7 app. I don’t know whether that’s a demand problem or a developer problem. 3rd parties have stepped in to provide apps that use the RTM API, but they fell down on functionality.
- Syncing passwords with 1Password – my phone, tablet, and laptop always have my passwords synchronized. I can log into sites with browsers on any of them. They don’t have a WP7 app yet.
I can’t say that the iOS app market wins overall, though, because these are just my needs. I can only say that for my needs, the iOS marketplace fulfills things that I couldn’t live without, and WP7 can’t do it yet. I keep trying to justify WP7 by saying, “Well, but I’m weird, and most people don’t want to share photos.” Then I hear that out loud and just shake my head – I’m weird, but I’m not that weird.
Use Case #4: Find Interesting Stuff Nearby
I travel a lot, and when I get somewhere, I want to know what’s going on. Is there a concert or festival nearby? Any museum exhibits? Where’s a good spot to eat or shop? I can answer those questions in iOS5 with several different apps, but it’s scattered.
On Windows Phone 7.5, the built-in Local Scout app is pretty gosh-darned good. It has screens for:
- eat+drink (restaurants) – with distance, cost, style, and rating all listed on one screen with a tiny map
- see+do (events and attractions) – with thumbnail photos and names that grab the eye.
- shop (uh, shops)
- highlights – although I have no idea how they’re coming up with this list other than paid placement, because these were nowhere near the best things near me
It’s not perfect – for example, near me, see+do listed a long-closed museum. See+do also offers an “apps” tab for each attraction, and the apps list is laughably unrelated, showing things like “Stockholm Travel” and “Pick a Park at Walt Disney World” here in downtown Chicago.
(I’d love to show you screenshots of the app in action, but Windows Phone 7.5 can’t take screenshots. As I grew more frustrated with various apps, I became convinced the lack of screenshot ability was part of a conspiracy to keep bad UI design a secret from the public. Argh.)
Use Case #4: Find Interesting Stuff Nearby – WP7 wins. The Local Scout app is awesome. It’s so good that it sparked me to look for travel apps again on the iPhone looking for a competitor, but in cases like this, the iPhone’s abundance of apps can be a drawback. Sometimes it’s tough to pick through the vast volume of apps.
General WP7 User Interface Frustrations
Whenever I go into a new app, I want to be able to interact with it as naturally and quickly as possible. To do that, consistency is everything: apps can look different, but the basic way I interact with each app needs to feel at least roughly similar.
Take the different ways each system app handles deleting a message or thread:
- Email app method 1: click on the left side of the thread (there’s no icon for this, you just have to know it) and click the trash can
- Email app method 2: click on the thread, click the trash can
- Messaging app: click on the thread, click the “…” area, click “delete thread”
- Phone app history: click “…” area, click “delete all” (because you can’t delete one, and heaven forbid you try the email app method #1 in the phone app, because it will try the call again rather than deleting the history)
Another example is knowing when Windows Phone 7 is doing something over the network. Sometimes there’s a series of blue dots racing across the top of the screen. Sometimes it’s a series of red dots racing across the middle of the screen. Sometimes it’s a progress bar at the bottom of the screen, and all of these are just with the apps that shipped with my Samsung Focus. I don’t understand what the differences in these displays mean, and I can’t understand why a brand-new platform would have such differences from screen to screen. It’s not like we’re talking about a system with years of piled-on development – this thing’s supposed to be the brand-new rethink of user interfaces, and it’s a mishmash.
The example that really kills me, though, is the three buttons on the bottom of the phone and how they interact from app to app:
- Windows button – takes you back to the home page of the entire OS. Only use this when you’re ready to bail out of an app altogether, and since most apps don’t support multitasking, be prepared for a 5-10 second wait if you accidentally press this button and have to go back into the app – it’ll relaunch from scratch again.
- Search button – does this search inside the app or inside the entire phone? Actually, it fires up Bing, which does neither. It searches the web. As a result, apps like email have search buttons at the bottom right of the screen to designate a search function inside their own app.
- Back button – takes you back one screen in the app. Use this everywhere – all apps rely on it. I hold the phone in my right hand, and on the Samsung Focus, it’s simply impossible for me to reach the back button with my thumb, and yet THIS IS THE BUTTON I’M SUPPOSED TO BE USING CONSISTENTLY. But I digress.
Now what does each button do when you hold it down?
- Hold down the Back button, and it switches between apps like alt-tab.
- Hold down the Windows button, and it offers voice dictation.
- Hold down the Search button, and it…well, it just does search.
This is where iOS’s lack of buttons seems to pay off. When you want to do something, you click the button on the screen for it, and there’s no misunderstanding of what it does. The three buttons on Windows Phone 7.5 are already overloaded with functionality that don’t match up to their labels, and that’s not off to a good start for such a youthful platform.
Lastly, about hardware buttons – I promised I wasn’t going to review hardware, but there’s one aspect of the Samsung Focus that I just can’t ignore. The back/Windows/search buttons on the phone are backlit – but only AFTER you press them. I don’t need them to light up AFTER I press them, I need them to light up BEFORE so that I know where to press. This is especially important with a screen as good as the Samsung Focus’s – the blacks are so impeccably black that you can’t tell where the screen ends and the buttons begin. I absolutely loved this screen (except for how it renders text in IE, but I’m not sure if that’s an IE problem or a Samsung problem.)
WP7.5 Doesn’t Fit Most of My Use Cases – Yet
After two weeks, I appreciate that Windows Phone 7.5 has come a long way. The Live Tiles concept is exciting and different, but … well, it doesn’t solve a use case for me. I don’t doubt that it enhances the phone experience for other people, but it doesn’t help me deal with the things I use my phone for every day.
I’m sure WP7 will continue to improve and the app scene will get better, but is it a question of too little too late? My Zune-using friends tell me that Zune was the Betamax to the iPod’s VHS, a technically superior solution that just never caught on in the marketplace. My Xbox-using friends tell me to hang on, because WP7 will eventually catch up and dominate just like the Xbox did.
I look forward to using a future version of Windows Phone with better apps, but one thing is for sure: the Samsung Focus isn’t the hardware I’d want to run it on. The phone felt cheap and flimsy, the battery life was awful, and the button placement drove me crazy. I’m willing to pay premium prices for a premium user experience, and the Samsung Focus wasn’t it. Picking up my iPhone today with its solid build quality and premium feel really drove that point home.
Note: I received the Samsung Focus with voice & data service free from Klout.com for being a tech influencer in the Chicago area.