Having heard all about Windows Phone 7's ‘always delightful' consumer-friendly user interface and swish functionality even for ‘making a phonecall,' (dig at Apple maybe?) I was surprised to find that test driving the new devices was pretty much, well, delightful - or easy and fun at least.
Andy Lees, president of mobile communications business at Microsoft said current smartphones present users with a ‘sea of apps and people are becoming slaves to their phones.' WP7's ‘live tiles' home screen, which aims to rectify that problem really does look and behave like a different animal and is more like a grid of bright and tessellating widgets that give users information without having to enter an app or function.
Removing steps from the process of opening individual apps and using phone functions like a camera seems to be a huge focus for the new platform. You can take a picture using a physical button when the phone's locked and post it on your Facebook wall without the need to open any apps.
Stephen Fry, who enthused about the new offering (although kept saying he hadn't been paid) said the UI has a ‘sleek, liquid feel' and I completely agree- the graphics were slick and bright, animations glided seamlessly and swiping through screens -mostly horizontally instead of vertically- was fast and incredibly smooth.
Instead of a number of customisable home screens full of apps and widgets, the phone divides apps and functions into ‘hubs'- like People, Pictures, Office, Games, Marketplace, Music and video, for example, which might take a little getting used to, but are pretty logical.
For example, the Pictures hub groups all photo functions together and photos can be synced with a PC and are automatically moved from phone to a computer archive or vice versa every time the handset is charged- I saw the results and it was pretty impressive. Zune is also loaded onto the phones (although I didn't really get to play with it) but it looked pretty slick in its layout- more like a media player on a computer than a cheap MP3 offering.
One of the most exciting features has to be the addition of Xbox Live, which appears as one of the ‘live tiles' on the home page. At the moment, the section displays a gamer's avatar, game ID and score. Talking to various handset makers, I was told although Xbox users will be able to see their stats and view their Avatar from day one of launch, it could take longer, perhaps the first half of next year, until all the functionality can be taken advantage of.
Microsoft revealed EA will join the line-up on the WP7 platform and we saw a version of The Sims which looked super smooth. Microsoft said it hopes the new feature will make WP7 the automatic choice for Xbox gamers.
The ‘People' hub builds on current smart phones' friends streaming functions and there is quite a cool feature, where you are the top of your list of friends and can change your status on Windows Live and Facebook by tapping on your picture instead of having to go into separate apps. The contacts are linked with Facebook and any notifications appear on the home screen without having to venture into the People hub.
More in the individual handsets on the next page but, all in all, I was really impressed with the UI and handsets, which look like they'll give Microsoft a good chance of playing with the big boys of the mobile platform world- Apple and Android. I found the UI more immediately intuitive than Android but also saw ways I could customise the home screen and features to suit my needs. It also had a familiar Windows feel about it and looked more imaginative than an iPhone in its layout, but similarly easy to use.
I have to admit like Stephen Fry, I am slightly surprised to admit that Microsoft ‘gets it' and now all that remains to be seen is whether consumers are as enthusiastic!