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Windows Phone 7 Review, Part 3: Choosing a Phone and the Unboxing Experience

While it's important to prepare a Windows Live ID for Windows Phone 7 as outlined in the previous part of the review, that's not all you'll need to do in the days leading up to The Big Day (tm).You also need to pick a phone, and that decision comes with a lot of general advice as well as some specifics that are, sorry, relevant only to the US and only the initial Windows Phone launch. And you may be curious about the Windows Phone out of box experience (OOBE) too. I'll discuss all of this information in this part of the review.

Understanding the standardized Windows Phone platform

One of the smartest things Microsoft did with Windows Phone was to seize control of its own platform. With previous versions of its mobile OS, Windows Mobile, Microsoft allowed its wireless carrier and mobile device maker partners to customize the hardware and software on the resulting products. It did this for pragmatic reasons that may have been sense at the turn of the century, but one of the lessons we all learned in the wake of the iPhone is that tighter control over the underlying platform leads to a standardized platform that is easier for developers to target and easy for consumers to identify as a single, cohesive product.

With Windows Mobile, Microsoft lost control. And over time, the only popular devices based on that system were the ones that completely replaced the UI with a custom experience, like HTC's Sense. This loss of identity made it hard for Microsoft to promote the Windows Mobile brand, such as it was, since consumers couldn't even tell what it meant to use Windows Mobile. And because hardware makers were free to endlessly customize their devices, a proliferation of wildly different products made releasing software updates next to impossible. (In real life, doing so was in fact impossible, thanks to the wireless carriers, which were far more interested in selling new phones to customers than in providing free software updates, often over their own expensive wireless networks.)

Windows Mobile, put simply, became a disaster over time.

So it's all (mostly) different with Windows Phone. Microsoft has specified a fairly rigid hardware platform for Windows Phone, specifying precise minimums for what each device must include. It is preventing its partners from replacing the Windows Phone UI with some abomination of their own creation and setting strict limits on how they can extend the existing UI. And they have reined in the wireless carriers' worst habit of all, and will be able to deliver software updates to all Windows Phone users going forward, and will in fact do so.

These changes make Windows Phone dramatically more valuable to the people that count the most: Those who actually buy into this platform. Microsoft is essentially ensuring that all Windows Phones will offer a high-value, consistent user experience, that its partners will not be able to screw up that experience, that users will be able to uninstall any partner software they do not want, and that in the future, the system will be upgraded with fixes and new features, and that the wireless carriers--for the most part--cannot prevent any of this from happening.

The result is another interesting best of both worlds compromise. Windows Phone offers all the sophistication and extensibility of Apple's iPhone, but offers as many hardware and carrier choices as consumers get on the Android side of the fence.

So let's break down what's happening here.

Hardware that is included on every single Windows Phone

Every Windows Phone must include a 1 GHz or faster ARMv7 Cortex/Scorpion or better microprocessor, a DirectX 9-capable graphics processing unit (GPU), at least 256 MB of RAM, and at least 8 GB of storage. Such a system, running the first release of the Windows Phone OS version 7, simply screams from a performance perspective. My experience with three different phones bears this out: With Windows Phone, the phrase "at minimum" (for now at least) is woefully inadequate. These devices rock.

Every Windows Phone must include the same hardware buttons, three of which--Back, Start, and Search--must be found in the same location and order on the front panel of the device. Other required hardware buttons include a Camera button (with press and half-press capabilities), volume buttons, and an On/Off switch (also with press and half-press capabilities).

Windows Phone 7 Review
Every Windows Phone must include these buttons, in this order, in this location.

Every Windows Phone must include a 5 megapixel camera with a flash. Each must include a capacitive multi-touch display with at least four contact points. On the initial generation of devices, using the so-called Chassis-1 hardware spec, the onscreen resolution must be 800 x 480 (WVGA), though a coming Chassis-2 spec will enable a smaller 480 x 320 (HWVGA) resolution for Blackberry-type devices.

Every Windows Phone includes an accelerometer, Assisted GPS (A-GPS), a compass, a light sensor, a proximity sensor, and an FM radio tuner (though that last bit often requires headphones for reception). All Windows Phones use micro-USB for connectivity and charging, but the location of the port is not standardized.

If you buy any Windows Phone, you are guaranteed to get a device with at least these specifications.

Hardware that is optional and will only be included on some phones

Looking over that list, some missing features immediately standout. That's because they're optional, though many will be common across the various available devices.

Optional Windows Phone hardware includes Wi-Fi (802.11g and 802.11n are supported), Bluetooth, expandable (but not removable) storage (2 GB to 32 GB on supported devices, via an internal micro-SD slot), a hardware keyboard, a camera with video recording (though many do, including HD-quality video) and geo-tagging capabilities, headphone jack, microphone, and external speaker(s). All of these features can be implemented on Windows Phone--i.e. the underlying software supports all of this--and as a result, you will actually see most of these features on most phones. But be careful to check if any are important to you. (The exception is expandable storage: This is proving quite rare so far.)

Windows Phone 7 Review
One of the possible hardware keyboard layouts.

Unlocked phones are available, starting at launch around the world. Nothing in the US yet, but it will happen, I was told.

Features you will not see on any Windows Phone include removable storage, ultra-high resolution screens (like the so-called Retina display on the iPhone 4) or custom screen resolutions, a gyroscope, a second, front-facing camera, or a Zune- (or iPhone-) style dock connector port. The reason for their exclusion, for now, is that the Windows Phone OS simply does not support these features. My guess (and it's just a guess) is that many of them will be added over time.

Future software updates

Before the iPhone, frequent software updates were uncommon in the smart phone world. Today, they're necessary. Like a PC, a smart phone is a multi-function device that gets better over time as you add more features. There are two ways to do this: Manually, through apps and automatically through software updates. These software updates can include security and bug fixes, too, of course, just as happens on Windows. But they can also add new features, either individually or through larger system updates.

Microsoft has pledged to update any and all Windows Phones over time. And they will do so, though the schedule remains unclear. There is, however, one wrinkle to this scheme that only came to light in the past few weeks. While Microsoft had previously maintained that it would completely bypass any controls put in place by wireless carriers and update Windows Phones directly, just as they do with Windows-based PCs, that is not the case. Instead, Microsoft is working with the wireless carriers to ensure that the updates they release pass whatever testing bars the carriers have put in place. Only when these updates have passed the tests will they be given to users. So its theoretically possible that a carrier, like AT&T, could hold up a big update for a month or more before handing it off to users.

Suffice to say that this news created a bit of an uncomfortable moment for everyone involved in a recent reviewer's workshop. But let the record show that I went to bat for consumers, with representatives of AT&T in the room, repeatedly, and interrupted attempts to move the conversation along. There's a cute feel-good vibe going on right now between Microsoft and AT&T, but I want to be clear about this: I do not trust the wireless carriers to do the right thing. Neither should you. And neither should Microsoft.

Here's what we were told. "We build updates for all Windows Phone users, but must certify them with the carriers," Microsoft corporate VP Joe Belfiore said. "They'll happen on a regular cadence like they do on the PC. If a carrier wants to stop an update they can. But they will get it out on the next release."

"Updates are cumulative," he added. "If one \[carrier\] doesn't get their testing done in time, the next push date comes and it goes out then. Carriers could in fact block updates to sell you a phone. That can happen. But we don't expect that to happen. We are not going to push updates onto carrier networks that they have not tested. Microsoft is being very trusting of the carriers here. This is very different from the situation with Windows Mobile where every phone was very different. With Windows Phone, there is no impact on OEM code, network code, and so on. Yes, there are upgrades that will require a full test pass. But most will not."

I told Belfiore that Microsoft could technically could push updates through their Zune software and bypass the carriers entirely, obviating the silly need to test and retest these updates and make users wait for new functionality. "Who is in control here?" I asked, "the carrier, Microsoft or the user?" His response: "In theory, the user. Carriers get that the end users want this value."

I do not trust the carriers to do the right thing. After all, they never have. But I will wait to see what happens.

Regarding future updates, Microsoft is shipping "a very compelling update very, very soon," I was told. I suspect that means before or for the late October/early November launch.

And as for how these updates will occur, Microsoft (and not the carriers) will host the updates on its own servers. (And go figure, unlocked phones will get the updates directly from Microsoft, bypassing the carrier silliness entirely.) The mechanism for updating is very much like Apple's, Microsoft.

Windows Phone 7 Review
A software update is available.

Based on my experience installing multiple updates over the past several months, I can tell you that updates smaller than 20 MB can occur, over the air, right on the device. Bigger updates will require the Zune PC software and USB-based connectivity. Which again begs the question: Why even let the carriers have a say in this?

Choosing a Windows Phone

OK, so what about the actual phones? It's early days, but there are already numerous interesting phones to choose from. I've handled virtually all of the first generation devices at least somewhat, but most of my experience has been with the AT&T devices, especially the HTC Surround and Samsung Focus that Microsoft and AT&T lent out for reviewers. So for purposes of this review, I'm going to examine the AT&T offerings (sorry, T-Mobile and international users) as a way of explaining the functionality differences that can occur between the devices, and how I went about picking the right phone for me. Your choice, of course, may be different.

As with any smart phone, the first consideration is the wireless network. I was an iPhone user for over three years, and owned four different iPhone models. They were (and are) wonderful devices, but made for horrible phones. I frequently and regularly dropped phone calls, both around home and traveling throughout the US. Because Apple is a media darling, AT&T was and largely still is blamed for this problem, and many current iPhone users are salivating at the thought of moving to Verizon. Folks, unless Apple uses the right CDMA chips, that won't solve your problem. The problem with the iPhone wasn't AT&T for the most part, it was Apple. As it turns out, Apple used the wrong wireless chips for the US market. And the iPhone is just a horrible phone--in the US--as a result.

I have evidence of this in my months of using Windows Phone, with my iPhone SIM, around the US. For the first three months of use, I didn't drop a single call. In fact, the first (and to date, only) dropped call came while winding between buildings in a cab in New York City the night before the Windows Phone 7 announcement earlier this month. Windows Phone has proven far more reliable than the iPhone on AT&T's network. I'll keep track of this of course, but for now my point is simple: AT&T isn't necessarily as bad as we were led to believe.

Because of my experience with Windows Phone on AT&T, I decided long ago to forget my plans for skipping over to Verizon and will instead stick with AT&T. And that's turning into a good choice: AT&T will offer three Windows Phones at launch, and one of them is, by far, my favorite Windows Phone of all.

Windows Phone 7 Review
The AT&T offerings: HTC Surround, LG Quantum, and Samsung Focus.

With a reminder that all Windows Phones share certain hardware features as mentioned above, here's what unique and different about each AT&T-based Windows Phone.

HTC Surround. This one is billed as a media- and gaming-centric device, thanks to its weird slide-out dual-speaker and kickstand, which lets you prop the thing up on a table or whatever. It comes with a 3.8-inch screen, 16 GB of (non-expandable) storage. It also includes a superior LED flash for the camera and auto-focus. In use, the quality of the speaker has been underwhelming, the device is large, thick, and heavy, and I'm unimpressed.

LG Quantum. This device comes with a 3.5-inch screen and16 GB of (non-expandable) storage, but it's biggest selling points are a slide-out hardware keyboard (which some still think of as a requirement) and DLNA support, which is used for media streaming to and from compatible devices (and Windows 7-based PCs). That last feature could be added to any Windows Phone through software, by the way. And I'm no fan of hardware keyboards after three years of iPhone use. So the LG wasn't of any interest to me, almost immediately. But I suspect its "real" keyboard will drive some sales.

Samsung Focus. This is my personal favorite and I fell in love the moment I saw it. The Samsung Focus has a superior 4-inch Super AMOLED screen (easily the best looking screen on all Windows Phone devices), 8 GB of storage (expandable to 40 GB with micro-SD), a camera with LED flash and 720p HD video capabilities, and is the thinnest and lightest Windows Phone by far. In fact, it's so light, you think it's an empty fake demo model at first. This phone is beautiful. Hands down, it's the best AT&T phone. It's not even close.

Well. In my opinion, anyway. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

There is one more concern around any smart phone, of course, and that's battery life. Unless you've been living under a rock or willfully ignoring the smart phone space, you know that smart phones suck battery life like a recently revived vampire. With the stunning exceptions of the illogically reviled KIN, few modern smart phones can go longer than a day without requiring a recharge, and so we've come to simply accept this behavior and learn to keep these things near a USB charging cable at all times.

Windows Phone, alas, is no different. According to the Microsoft web site, the Samsung Focus is rated for 7 hours of talk time and 15 days of standby time. The LG Quantum gets 7 hours of talk time and 19 days of standby time. And the HTC apparently manages 4 hours of talk time and 11 days of of standby.

This has not been my experience. In fact, I'm starting to chuckle just looking at these numbers. In reality, Windows Phone--like the Droid X or the iPhone 4--will barely make it through a day, especially if you have the temerity to actually use the thing. Talking and Internet use seem to hammer the battery much harder than media playback, which is true of other devices I've used. Windows Phone is no better and no worse than the competition here. And as many of you have no doubt experienced, if you're absented minded enough to leave the thing sitting around without being charged for a while, you'll find a little plastic and glass brick sitting on your desk. I've woken up to this more than a few times, especially with the Focus. (The HTC does seem to last longer if it's not being used. But 11 days? Inconceivable.)

For one final little test of this, I left the Focus and Surround unplugged last night. When I woke up, the Focus battery was one-third drained and the Surround's was less than a quarter drained. Days. Please.

The Unboxing Experience

AT&T was nice enough to provide reviewers with a boxed version of the HTC Surround, allowing us to experience what it's like to get one of these devices at retail. In this case, what you get is the standard orange and white AT&T box, containing the phone, a battery, an AC charger, a micro-USB sync/charging cable, a 3.5-mm stereo earbud-style headset (that will never be opened) and some mostly-useless quickstart guide documentation.

There's not much to say around that, so here are a few shots that can explain things better than I ever could.

Windows Phone 7 Review

Windows Phone 7 Review

Windows Phone 7 Review

Windows Phone 7 Review

Of course, the Windows Phone out of box experience (OOBE) also includes the initial phone setup. This is a surprisingly quick, three-screen experience during which you can optionally (but really should) enter your primary Windows Live ID credentials and enter a few bits of settings-related data.

Windows Phone 7 Review
Part of the Windows Phone 7 OOBE.

Of more interest, perhaps is how OEMs--that is the wireless carriers and device makers--can customize Windows Phone beyond the stock Microsoft configuration. As it turns out, not much.

The top four live tiles on the Windows Phone Start screen--which I'll examine more in the next part of this review--are Phone, People, Messaging, and Email. These must appear in the same locations at the top of the screen on every phone and cannot be moved or replaced by OEMs. (You can of course change these yourself if you'd like.) The OEMs get the next two rows, or up to four live tiles. (That's because the OEMs could be "double-wide" tiles at their discretion.) Below that are two other non-movable, non-negotiable stock Microsoft tiles, Internet Explorer and Games. Interesting, Microsoft has found that many wireless carriers really understand the appeal of these tiles, so they're only using one row for themselves so that IE and Games can be higher on the list.

Windows Phone 7 Review
The top 4 tiles on the Start screen cannot be altered or moved by Microsoft's partners.

OEMs cannot remove any of the built-in apps or tiles. They can add media services, but not replace Music + Videos, for example, or install a third party browser while not replacing IE.

Users, on the other hand, have a bit more power. You cannot uninstall any built-in Windows Phone apps. But you can remove them from the Start screen. Any you can completely uninstall anything that an OEM puts on the phone. Victory!

(Secret: If you reset the phone, the OEM stuff will be reinstalled along with the stock phone image.)

OEMs are also allowed to create a "store within a store" inside the Windows Phone Marketplace. I've seen AT&T and Samsung stores like this already. But they cannot replace Marketplace or create a separate marketplace of their own: All Windows Phone apps must come through Microsoft's store only.

Next up, Part 4: Take the Metro - A Quick Tour of the Windows Phone UI...

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