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Windows Phone 7 Challenge: End of Week 1 (updated)

It’s the end of the first full week of my Windows Phone 7 Challenge (catch up with previous installments here), and in simple summary, my feelings on Windows Phone 7 Mango are decidedly mixed–with the exception of the Maps and navigation, which I despise. Read on for that. Oh, and I wish it had a screen capture feature, which would make these blog posts a lot easier.

It’s probably easiest to do a simple list of pros and cons. And, for context, this week has just been about setting up the phone, establishing basic use, getting familiar with the interface, and easing it into my daily tasks: e-mail, texting, social networking, and getting directions to various Bay Area locations. I have not yet established any other services–namely Zune Pass. That’s coming next week, so stay tuned.

Also, for those of you who’ve asked about the technical details, I’m running the Mango developer’s build (build 7712) on a Verizon HTC Trophy. I won’t be evaluating things like call quality, necessarily, since that’s such a subjective determination between phone and mobile OS, but I can say that compared with my Droid X post-buggy Gingerbread update, this phone is doing a much better job staying connected to the Verizon 3G network overall.

OK, with those details out of the way, let’s start on a positive note, shall we?

The pros
• Interface: The Mango interface is lovely. The screen tiles are attractive and the “live tile” behavior (they update constantly with new Facebook images, flip-board incoming e-mail counters, and so on) is dynamic without being annoying. Plus, the tiles are nice and big, which makes it easy to see things at a glance.

I like the notifications on the lock screen (although I really, really, really wish they carried over to the top of the home screen, along with the 3G signal strength and battery indicator), and I love the “infinite scroll” behavior in the menus. In e-mail, for example, flip sideways to the right to see All, Unread, Flagged, Urgent, and then right on back to All without having to back out through the previous screens. I’d like to see more long-press options built into the entire interface (like, long-press a phone number to add to contacts, for example), but the ones Mango does have are useful (like pinning an app to the Start page or deleting a chat thread).

It took me a long time to realize that long-pressing the “Back” button brought up Mango’s version of an application switcher (I’m trying to skip the reviewer’s guide and learn as I go), but once I figured that out, everything got a lot more usable in terms of multitasking. A few of the onscreen icons are a little mysterious (especially in the Map application), but after some exploratory pressing, you can usually accomplish what you need.

• Social: I went back and forth on this, but finally decided it’s a “pro.” Mango has integrated Facebook and Twitter support (and Windows Live and LinkedIn, for the record), and it’s pretty nice. The little “People” tile lets you immediately see what’s happening on Facebook and Twitter. This feature was much improved when I realized I could sort by either Facebook or Twitter. And you can post a status update to all the services at once–mighty useful. Plus there are benefits like Facebook Events integrated into the calendar, and, of course, easy uploading of photos to Twitter or Facebook. Facebook chat is built in, too (yes, I missed that when I bemoaned the lack of the standalone Facebook Messaging app on Buzz Out Loud).

I’m slightly mixed on Mango’s Groups feature; I think categorizing your friends and family always sounds better than it is in practice. But you can create groups of friends and pin the groups to your home screen, which is handy for seeing all their updates at once, but much more handy for starting a group chat or text or e-mail with them. That assumes your address book is in order like it should be, but more on that later.

• Local: The feature is called “Local Scout,” and the button on the Maps page is a little hieroglyph of buildings: if you press it, and you have location enabled, you get a cool little list of places to eat and drink, things to see and do, and places to shop–plus something called “Highlights,” which in the case of things near my office includes a lingerie shop I didn’t even know existed. Long lunch! This is local done well, it’s useful, it doesn’t require an external app, and although the list isn’t super comprehensive, Microsoft says it’s building out the database over time.

There are reviews attached, the place pages are clean and simple: address, directions, phone number, etc. And you can pin the Local Scout to your Start page, so wherever you are, you just hit the tile and see what’s around you. Simple and elegant, and I dig it. Android, by comparison, obviously lets you search and then filter by Places, or use a Yelp app, or whatever, but this is much faster, and I’ve been complaining recently that Google’s search results don’t offer up clickable phone numbers like they used to unless I click Places–slightly too complicated compared with Mango.

• Autocomplete: The autocomplete is awesome. It’s accurate, it’s less aggressive than the post-Gingerbread Android dictionary, and it seems to have a lot more words. Love it.

• Speech: Press and hold the Windows (“home”) button on the bottom of the phone and you can control a ton of things with voice commands: call or text someone in your address book, launch a search, or open an app. It’ll even read back a text you compose, so you can double check it without having to look, and then you can say “send” and off it goes. I like. I’ve used it several times for composing texts and for launching searches. I have some constructive criticism, though, about the speech integration, so let’s move on to…

The cons
• Speech: Speech is there in Mango, but it’s not there in Mango. I can’t, for example, say “Navigate to” an address from the home screen speech commands. But more importantly, while there’s a little microphone for speech-to-text on the onscreen keyboard when I’m texting, there’s no speech to text in any other app (that I’ve found): not e-mail, which I need, not mapping, which I need, not in the browser, which I need. You can voice search with the Bing app, but it’s just not enough. Android is doing speech to text light years better than Mango at this point, because it’s integrated across the OS. This little bit of speech in Mango is almost more frustrating than helpful because it just highlights what’s not available.

Also, compared with Google, the speech recognition just isn’t as good. I have to recompose texts multiple times, whereas Android has an uncanny ability to know what I’m saying. And there’s no way to speak punctuation, as you can with Android; Mango inserts it for you, which is nice if you only ever want to compose a long, run-on sentence that ends in a period, but I’m kind of a grammar freak, even in speech to text.

Worse, though, there appears to be a predetermined point after which the phone stops listening and starts transcribing (it interrupts you with a beep and starts thinking), and there’s no way to append one spoken sentence to another. With Android, I frequently speak a sentence or two of a text or e-mail, check its accuracy, then speak a few more sentences. Mango gets overwhelmed by long spoken sentences (it panics and says “can’t connect” instead of transcribing), so I find I need the appending more than I did with Android, and it drives me crazy not to have it. Am I nitpicking? A little. Is this how I actually use my phone all day every day? Yes.

• Turn by turn: The pro part of the navigation on Mango is that it has turn-by-turn navigation…kind of. Also, the mapping is beautiful, and I love the very human-friendly directions, which include helpful little notes about traffic (moderate congestion, etc.), local landmarks (“You’ll see a 7-Eleven on the right”), and also, as your near your destination, notes like, “The last intersection is Woodhaven and if you get to Potter you’ve gone too far.” That’s awesome. More awesome if you have a passenger in the car with you to read them, but still very helpful.

Here’s what I don’t understand, though. Why is the turn-by-turn navigation only audible when you tap the screen for directions!?

In one of the most bizarre interpretations of mapping I’ve ever seen, Mango offers spoken directions, but only user-initiated spoken directions. You can only get audible directions by reaching down and tapping the screen for the next move. Um. What? Worse, early screenshots of Mango seem to indicate that it would have standard spoken turn-by-turn directions, but…what happened!?

The way the audible turn-by-turn navigation experience has existed since the beginning of time is that you map a destination, then sit back and relax and wait for the nice map lady to tell you to turn a few hundred feet before the turn. Mango’s navigation leaves you adrift, and caused me to literally miss turns as I waited for some kind of instruction, like I’ve been trained to do by navigation systems that work. Oh, and instead of a verbal alert that it’s time to turn, you get a nice little chime after you correctly execute a turn (that you’ve memorized), and that, I guess, is supposed to compel you to feel around blindly for the phone and tap the screen for the next audible instruction.

Let me not mince words, here: I hate this. I’d rather just know that I’m going to get a written list of instructions, iOS style, that I have to look at it or memorize it–and then, to make matters even more baffling, sometimes the lady does announce the next turn or instruction, but I can’t figure out why. Maybe the phone bumped the side of the cup-holder? Hate. Seriously hate.

Also, there’s no rerouting on the fly, as there is with Android. If I make a wrong turn (which happened twice last night as I was navigating the foggy, confusing, overgrown El Cerrito, Calif., hills where the street signs are impossible to see and a little audible direction might help), the app informs me that I’ve gone a different way, and then asks me if I would like to tap to reroute. One of these days, “tap” will equal “smash.” Let’s move on.

• Fit and finish: I know I’m running a developer’s build of Mango, but I also know it’s probably not far off from finished, and there are more than a few oddities that make Mango feel like a first-gen product, instead of the 7.5th iteration on a long-lived mobile operating system. They’re niggling, but they annoy. For example, I entered three e-mail accounts, each with its own address book, and synced with Facebook, and there are still phone numbers calling or texting me with no names attached–even though the contacts exist somewhere on the phone. And I can’t long-press a recent phone number to add it to my address book (it just wants to delete it).

If you’ve entered someone’s phone number in your address book as “home” instead of “mobile,” and you say, for example, “Text Emily,” the phone refuses to text her, and insists on calling instead, because her mobile number is listed as a home number. In point of fact, it’s both, but it really shouldn’t matter, and come on.

If you accidentally text someone’s land line, because you used a voice command to text them, and the contact isn’t merged and things are a little vague, the phone will convert an entire existing message thread to the wrong number–even if you were previously successfully texting their mobile number. So, every reply you send from then on will go to the wrong number, until you just start a whole new thread with the right one.

Mapping isn’t integrated into the search, Web, text, or e-mail experience the way it is in Android. I can’t click an address in a text message and launch maps for navigating, as I can in Android, for example. Again, this may sound nitpicky, but if someone texts me an address, and I’m already in the car, I can’t very well copy and paste it into the Maps application (which I have to do) without, well, crashing.

It’s really hard to click the screen and place a cursor at a specific location; you always end up selecting an entire word, when you just want to edit. And again, a long-press for “select all” in a URL field window or similar would be superuseful.

• Apps: I know I mentioned this in a previous post, but the lack of app support is problematic for me, personally. I actually don’t know that it will be for everyone. But yesterday, I needed to download the Square app for a video piece I was working on, and I couldn’t; I was actually hamstrung in my work as a result of the lack of app support (and the guys at Square seemed to have little inclination toward building a version for the platform, which has got to hurt). That won’t be everyone’s experience, I know.

On the plus side, I did find OpenTable, MyFitnessPal, and the Flight Tracker app I’m obsessed with, although there’s no free version of Flight Tracker, only the $5 version. And there’s no Google Voice. Ouch. There’s just no getting around that fact: the app support isn’t quite there yet, and it’ll have to get there before this platform can be truly competitive. I, at least, don’t want to be the one at the party, or on the field shoot, who can’t get the cool app that everyone else is downloading all around me.

Phew! That’s it for my first full week’s worth of thoughts. I know you’ll agree and disagree and offer tips and tricks in the comments below, so have at it. I’ll be back next week with thoughts on more of the integrated services, like SkyDrive, Zune Pass, and maybe even Office. See you then!

UPDATE: Thanks to the commenters and tweeters who pointed out that long-pressing in a text box gives you an easily placeable cursor. I had tried that, since it’s the default behavior in Android and iOS, but hadn’t had any luck. I went back and tried again, and after some fussing with the cursor, got the placeable version to appear. I’ll chalk that one up to the HTC Trophy: its touchscreen is pretty unresponsive, and I often have to press live tiles twice to get them to activate, etc. Appreciate the heads up from all of you, however. That one complaint is withdrawn.



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