Windows Phone Review -- Smartphone Round Robin

It's the end of the first week of the Smartphone Round Robin so it's time to wrap up our thoughts on Windows Phone in a full review. There's a lot to be said about where Windows Phone is headed and we joined the choir for this one but honestly, we like the direction it's showing with 6.5. And before anything, we're going to have to say it, we like Windows Phone 6.5. *gasp*

But let's be honest, there's more similarity with Android and Windows Phone than Android has with any other smartphone platform on the market. Heck, they basically share HTC. The biggest difference between the two platforms? Time. Windows Phone and Android hail from two different smartphone eras, Android being the splashy new attention stealer, Windows Phone a part of the old guard. And though many people are quick to write off Windows Phone, to do so would be foolish. Us Android users have a lot to learn from Windows Phone, both from their success and from their mistakes.

So let's take a look at Windows Phone and see what it has to offer for us Android users!


It's really amazing how embedded HTC, a third-party manufacturer, has become in the smartphone world. A little company that no one knew 5 years ago consistently pumps out great phones with great design, excellent build quality, and just all around spec'd out power. Imagine where both Android and Windows Phone would be without HTC? That's a question we both don't want to know the answer to.

What's most amazing about HTC is that HTC Windows Phones, though familiar, are uniquely Windows Phone. The device footprint is larger compared to its Android cousins which extends a more 'powerful' feel. They tend to be glossier and glassier which suggests more 'professional'. And the Touch Pro 2 offers the 'tilt' mechanism of the screen which almost likens the device to a laptop. Basically, the design of HTC Windows Phones prepares you for the power underneath.

It's interesting because with Android devices, HTC has more or less gone after the same 'look', there seems to be more variance with Windows Phone devices. After using the Touch Pro 2, I'm kind of wishing for a 'power' model Android device with a huge footprint, a big expansive keyboard and a gigantic screen. How many times can HTC re-do the Magic/Hero styling?

The Touch Pro 2 keyboard is vastly superior to the T-Mobile G1 and Motorola Droid. The buttons are huge and easy to press and seem to have a million keys and options. Windows Phones with keyboards always include multifunction buttons for actions like launching mail, internet browser, etc. I love the idea of multifunction buttons but doubt we'll ever see it Android. It's Google, we search.

Truth be told, the resistive screen of the Touch Pro 2 wasn't even noticeable. I didn't even realize there was a stylus in the equation when I was using the device. So kudos to HTC for delivering a great resistive screen. But a great resistive screen is still a resistive screen--why they still do resistive I'll never know (maybe to appeal to the users of the past?) but capacitive screens are simply better and easier, it's time to move on.

Now for the HTC HD2, only one word: Wow.

Okay, maybe more words but really, the HTC HD2 can't be adequately explained in just words. It's an injustice to chain down such magnificent hardware with words. You have to see the thing in real life, hold it in your hand, flick the ridiculously large screen, and go back crying wondering why your platform doesn't have a phone like that. Not enough praise can be given for the HD2, it's the type of device that you drool over, the type of device you feel like you're using the future with. It's so ridiculously amazing that it's almost unfair. I'm not kidding. Superlative after superlative, it's awesome phone hardware. I don't know what's the hold up with a US release, but if people just saw the dang thing, it would immediately bring new users to Windows Phone. I have no doubt. As for an Android version, I've been doing everything short of animal sacrifices to make sure it happens.

Windows Phone OS

Windows Phone OS is in a weird spot. It's not advancing as fast as users would like, with most users simply waiting for Windows Phone 7 to come out and hopefully blow them away, while others have already abandoned ship and jumped to other platforms. The problem, in my opinion, is the fragmented landscape of Windows Phone. And not just the different flavors you can get (6.1, 6.5, TouchFLO 3D, Sense, etc), but by just poking around the device you can reveal many different faces. Sense does a great job beautifying everything with widgets, only when it doesn't. Windows Phone 6.5 is nice and friendly enough, but dig a little deeper and it can sometimes scare the heck out of you.

This is an obvious concern for Android users, since we also have multiple UIs and different OS versions available, but I think we'll be in a good spot given the solid base we're building. Even still, I think Google definitely needs to make it a point of emphasis to not allow the Android OS experience to become so fragmented it fractures.

Android users are familiar with HTC developed software, and Windows Phone has the same ideas. TouchFLO 3D is a lot easier to use then I remembered and it still offers the same beauty. Sense UI on the HTC HD2 is beautiful. Basically, the HTC stuff is all gravy. You know how good Sense UI is on the Hero/Droid Eris? It's just as good on Windows Phones.

Obviously the beauty of Windows Phone is the ability to tinker and customize, to install new ROMs and basically do whatever the heck you want with your phone. Windows Phone is so mature, compared to Android especially, that the problems we're beginning to have, are old news to Windows Phone fans. Screen resolutions, OS versions, different form factors? Pish posh, they say. Windows Phone had apps before apps were in style, so they have more deeply entrenched applications on their platform than any other platform. It's a great thing because Windows Phone developers know their way around the OS and know what to do with it. It's a not-so-great thing because their progress may have been hunkered down by the stagnant OS.

I'm not going to lie. I like Titanium in Windows Phone 6.5 and heck, I like Windows Phone 6.5. The big scrollable list akin to the Zune is lovely. The facelift that brought Windows Phone to the modern ages was much needed. I don't think they should bury Windows Phone 6.5 under all the third-party software UIs, I think it can stand on its own. I'm a little sad that we don't see Titanium enough but that's probably due more to the poor timing of 6.5's release than actual flaws in the UI. I think Titanium could easily attract new users to Windows Phone.

What's funny about Windows Phone is that it's from the 'old guard' of smartphones. In this current smartphone age of big fancy icons and shallow depth of use, Windows Phone is intimidating. The truth is, smartphones have been dumbed down in recent years while Windows Phone has stayed advanced (only sort of becoming friendlier with 6.5). The power users who've gotten used to the way of Windows Phone would be hard pressed to leave all their customization, cooked ROMs, and dear stylus behind. But the problem for Windows Phone is that outside of the HD2 there is no excitement around the platform. It's not getting their future users excited, it's hardly getting future users at all.

Windows Phone Present & Future

I've said it before, but I've always thought that Windows Phone had the highest learning curve of all smartphones which meant it had the highest potential or ceiling. Basically, it's the smartest smartphone available. Which sort of means that hardcore Windows Phone users are unique in that they've learned all the intricacies of the platform--so they know exactly what they want to get out of their phone and they usually know the way to do it. It's a sign of a mature platform with mature users, because anything you want to do, they can do, because it is able to do so.

I guess the bigger question now is, is it worth the time to invest in a platform that may see sweeping changes since Windows Phone 7 is coming? I personally don't think it is, not because I don't think Windows Phone won't eventually succeed (it will) but because I think Windows Phone 7 should be dramatically different from previous iterations. It's the customer mindset that Windows Phone is struggling with right now, a re-introduction is necessary for the platform and Windows Phone 7 is the best time to do it.

I posed this question to Windows Phone users in the WMExperts forum: Is Android the most logical destination for former Windows Phone users? And most of the answers were leaning towards yes, that in fact many of them have considered Android and were simply waiting for the platform to mature. I think Windows Phone users will see some familiarities in the Android platform (HTC devices, customizable UI) and gain some new usage patterns (widgets, quick search bar). I think overall, Windows Phone users will enjoy their time with Android. We welcome you with open arms.

Final Thoughts

Some users may stay on Windows Phone, but no one is running in joy to join them. And that bothers me. I can't wrap my head around it. Microsoft makes great products. In some cases (Xbox, Zune) they're even exciting products. Why isn't Windows Phone a great product? Why can't they make it exciting?

Think about the moves that Google makes with Android. Take Google Maps Navigation for one. The notoriety and wow-factor gained from releasing Google Maps Navigation outpaces the product itself. Google Maps Navigation is decent but not great, but that's beside the point--it excites people. It starts conversations, people don't even have to see it in action but they know it exists. Stuff like Google Goggles, or Voice Search, or anything from Google excites people. Microsoft needs to introduce cool ideas as products, that'll excite people. Xbox app on Windows Phone? Whatever it takes.

Think about how well Android ties into the whole Google ecosystem, how come Windows Phone doesn't take advantage of its inherent advantages? I'm grateful for it, but it's silly to me how other smartphone platforms have a chance to succeed. Windows is everywhere, Xbox is great, and the Zune is amazing. How come Windows Phone doesn't fit in?

Windows Phone 6.5 is a good start but not the final answer. They're righting the ship but more dramatic changes are need. I think for the first time in years it's exciting times for Windows Phone, the spotlight will soon be on them. I don't think Microsoft will streamline a fairytale Xbox/Zune/Windows Phone, but it'll still manage to pull through. Can't wait to see what's next.

Casey Chan