Windows Phone 7 as a Mail Device

It's now about a month since Microsoft officially launched Windows Phone 7 (WP7). I've had a chance to spend some time using a WP7 smartphone as my primary daily mobile device. Although I don't have the space in one UPDATE to cover every nuance of WP7 as a phone or as a platform, I thought it would be interesting to survey where it currently stands as an email and calendaring device for power users.

The executive summary: The mail and calendar experiences on the devices I tested are excellent, although there are still some missing features that Microsoft needs to deliver to reach the full potential of WP7.

Let's start with the good stuff: The email client itself is fast and fluid, with a beautiful presentation of message data and metadata. The WP7 Metro interface really makes mail look good, although there's no way to tailor the font sizes used so screen space isn't necessarily used as efficiently as it could be. This situation is a tradeoff: aesthetics versus efficiency. In this case, I think the attractiveness of the interface is worth the loss of display space.

The client itself incorporates the basic functionality we've all come to expect from Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) clients, and it does so properly. For example, WP7 uses the server-side EAS reply and forward verbs so that messages retain their proper formatting (as opposed to what happens on iOS devices). Deleting or moving multiple messages is simple. Interestingly, the email client always presents mail on a white background, even if you've chosen a different background color for the interface. That's because it's hard to correctly render background colors and images in HTML mail with non-white backgrounds. Microsoft is aware of this problem and should fix it in a future release. I love the ability to flag messages for quick triage, a feature that I use heavily and have missed in iOS.

The calendar client is a joy to use compared to the iOS equivalent. It properly handles recurring meetings and meeting requests, although it doesn't let you remove instances of cancelled meetings from your calendar when you get a cancellation. The calendar display is sharp, with the ability to display multiple calendars. Each calendar gets its own color; the visual display is easy to read. Creating and responding to appointments is simple and fast.

Now, what about the negatives? There are several drawbacks, which is not unexpected in the 1.0 release of a new platform. There's no conversation view, despite its appearance in Outlook/OWA 2010 and Windows Mobile 6.5 (remember, Apple didn’t include conversation view in iOS for several releases), nor can you aggregate messages from multiple accounts into a single view. I've heard it said that keeping different accounts logically separate is a feature, and I can see that point of view, but I look forward to getting my unified Inbox back.

WP7 doesn't support the full set of EAS policies included in Windows Mobile 6.5; see the TechNet Wiki article "Exchange ActiveSync Considerations When Using Windows Phone 7 Clients" for a list of the policies that are supported. It omits the SMS synchronization features included in WM 6.5 as well. From a navigation standpoint, it's more difficult to switch between folders in the mail client than it should be, and there are quirks in the sync process—for example, after you start syncing a folder, there's no easy way to cancel the sync partway through.

Overall, though, WP7 combines speed, a beautiful interface, and solid email and calendaring functionality—better in my opinion than what ships with Android, and a solid competitor to iOS, although the two take different approaches to providing mail and calendar support.

A quick word about the hardware: I tested a Samsung Focus and an HTC Surround, both from AT&T. Of these two, the Focus is far the better device: thin, light, with a superb screen and decent battery life. I've seen a lot of excitement about Dell's Venue Pro because of its portrait-format sliding keyboard, but Dell has not yet been able to ship the devices in quantity, and they haven't responded to my requests for a test device. One of the big selling points of WP7 is that there are different form factors, including devices with hardware keyboards for those who dislike software keyboards (though WP7's soft keyboard is excellent—don't knock it until you try it!).

Microsoft has been unusually tight-lipped about the roadmap for updates to the WP7 operating system. This strategy isn't unusual; Apple, for example, is famously silent about its plans for updates to iOS and discloses details only when its good and ready. Microsoft has adopted this model, in contrast to the way the company normally talks about forthcoming (or even notional) products. I think on balance that's a good thing, but it does introduce an element of suspense into the process that has largely been absent with Redmond's product offerings.

Expect to hear more from me about WP7 as a calendaring and email device in future columns. In the meantime, check out my colleague Paul Thurott's SuperSite for Windows, which has plenty of WP7 tidbits.

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