This review covers both the Windows Phone operating system as well as the HTC Arrive hardware. Both Kelly and Nick worked on it, so Kelly’s thoughts will appear in RED and Nick’s will appear in standard BLACK.
It’s been a long time, but we finally got some extended time with Windows Phone hardware. The HTC Arrive is the first phone with Microsoft’s new Windows Phone OS for CDMA carriers, this one for Sprint. This phone was actually unveiled with its GSM siblings on AT&T, T-Mobile, and in Europe at the beginning of October, but we didn’t get to hear much about it until recently. We’ve had a few weeks with the device (none of us owning a Windows Phone yet) and are ready to render a verdict. I’ll be giving the phone a review from the perspective of a current Android (and former webOS) user.
Windows Phone OS
At First Glance
Windows Phone is different than any other smart phone. The phone chirps and chimes, Metro unifies the visual experience, everything feels slick. Microsoft threw away the entire Win9x-stylized, stylus-ready shell of Windows Mobile in favor of a far more modern, thumb-able interface with bright colors and 3D panels swiveling and fading around. Hold a menu item on a corner and you see tile twist downward under your finger press. Pushing down a list while you’re at the top or bottom compresses it. It’s a jolly effect. It’s fast, runs great, has quite a few heavy-hitting apps (like Netflix and Microsoft Office), but is it ready for mass adoption?
The first thing you’ll encounter is the Metro UI. It’s simple to the extent of almost being bare-boned, both helping and hampering it. The interface stays elegant, clean, and fast throughout, but because of the size the Start Menu tiles, it can be difficult to access the content you want quickly. On iPhone, tons of apps can be easily accessed at first glance through folders. On Android, a widget like Multicon can allow for access to dozens of apps from the get-go. On Windows Phone, you have access to eight tops before needing to scroll, making placement important. An alphabetical list is available with a flick to the left, but that still requires scrolling. Add to that the fact that a lot of critical info and buttons are just too small on the screen and it’s apparent that Microsoft’s iron grasp on the user experience hampers it at times.
The Metro UI menu system took me a little getting used to and the lack of distinctive chimes meant I never knew which one of my accounts just got mail. Not being able to customize ringtones beyond the selection they give you out of the box was a bummer. One other thing that kind of annoyed me was the fact that there is way too much white space (or black, depending on how you use it). I like minimalistic design but c’mon it was a little overkill to me. Overall I know WP7 is only like 6 months old and they’ll probably figure it out, I really hope they do.
Windows Phone doesn’t currently support multi-tasking like its smartphone brethren. One app runs at a time and switching between them requires some mental management. The newly-installed tombstoning feature helps (using the Back button at the Home screen to bring up the last app), but for the most part, this means that you’re going to be opening apps from scratch every single time. This hinders productivity a bit (on top of Silverlight’s sluggishness, more on that in a bit), seems counter intuitive, but also allows for some great battery life, too. A full day of Zune playing with moderate usage brought our phone down to half battery. I had the thing on standby for days and the battery never drained. It’s why Apple didn’t jump on the multi-tasking train initially and it’s easy to see why.
The whole appeal of a tile-based Start menu was to bring a bunch of glanceable information to the forefront of the phone. As soon as you slide up the lock screen, you’d have easy access to a ton of info so you weren’t required to dig into each app or menu individually (this has been the theme of their ad campaign). In my experience though, the phone presents less information than either my Epic 4G or even my Palm Pre. Sure, you have lock screen notifications for messages and phone calls, but while developers have been creating custom notifications for their apps on Android and WebOS for years now, because of Windows Phone’s restrictive environment, there’s little third-party notification beyond that. For example, TweetDeck on Android consolidates several Twitter and Facebook feeds on my Epic 4G and gives me handy lock screen notifications, but no such thing exists on Windows Phone. Is it Facebook’s fault that their app doesn’t update the lock screen with notifications or is it Windows Phone’s restrictions on background-running apps? For the time being, it appears to be the latter until we see the huge Mango update this fall. In either case, with all the best apps at the moment, Windows Phone simply can’t deliver enough pertinent information to make me feel comfortable about using it as a primary phone. The lack of a notification ‘drawer’ (a la WebOS/Android) is also disappointing.
One of the other gripes I had was the notification system. The tile would tell me how many new mails I had, cool, but WP7 clears the notification even if I go into that account and don’t read a single e-mail. The result was a lot of forgotten, overlooked e-mail. I use my e-mail as a to-do list a lot, so having a persistent ‘unread e-mail’ notification count helps.
Windows Phones feature three hardware buttons: Back, Home, and Search. For Android users, the lack of a dedicated ‘List’ button and the OS’s emphasis on long holds means befuddlement as you struggle to find advanced features in Windows Phone and in the apps. On top of that is the complete lack of landscape-oriented content, which is built into the core of Android, leaving Windows hardware with landscape keyboards (like the one on our Arrive) high and dry in far too many cases.
Developers have hopped on the Windows Phone app bandwagon faster than any other mobile OS in history, but in reality they needed it. Launching nearly two years after Android and over three after iPhone, they needed the clout fast. Because of Metro, Windows Phone apps look a lot different than their cousins on iPhone and Android. The Zune-originated “pivot” interface removes a lot of drilling in and out of menus. These programs run on Silverlight (Microsoft’s version of Adobe Flash) and for the time being, many chug as they grab information. The Facebook app in particular is sluggish from the get-go because of the amount of data it’s pulling down from your social graph, while the Windows Phone-native People hub zips right along. This is all expected to be fixed with the Mango release laster this year, but for the time being, bringing up apps isn’t a great experience. Games are a different entity however, with Microsoft’s selection (including Achievements!), Windows Phone easily trumps Android and is making a hard charge at iOS as well.
One huge feature that the Windows Phone Marketplace has over other app stores is the trial modes for most apps, carried over from the Xbox 360. Want to try an app before you buy it? Chances are, you can! This is a great way to build a great selection from the start, only requiring you to spend money when you need to, but it’s also an immense help for games, too. There’s none of this janky ‘App Pro’ and ‘App Lite’ garbage like in other stores, the functionality is built right-in. That’s awesome.
For the most part though, apps on Windows Phone seem to lack the functionality that their cousins on other, larger platforms do. The aforementioned Facebook app is far too slow, the Kindle app lacks a screen lock feature, lack of custom notifications, etc. Obviously this is mostly a developer-side issue, but it’s a sign that they’re testing the waters before bringing in the full monty.
I do a lot of email, more than I talk on my phone. Spending a week with WP7 I got to test out email hardcore — Exchange accounts, Gmail accounts, IMAP accounts and a Hotmail account! One of the biggest complaints I heard about WP7 was that there was no unified inbox. This really didn’t bother me, my biggest complaint: lack of instant syncing. Maybe it’s because I’m so used to how the iPhone does it, but having to hit an extra Sync button to do something as simple as refresh the account when you delete e-mails is a huge disappointment to me.
Having a camera is pretty important to me, so having a quick and easy app with a ton of features is vital. Windows Phone gets half of it right. By default, you can hold down the shutter button on the phone and it’ll come up immediately, even from the lock screen. Once a photo is taken, it slides to the left for an easy-to-view gallery. The transition from camera to gallery and back again is seamless and a great experience. Unfortunately, the camera app is a bit lacking: not only is it missing detailed options like exposure settings, ISO, anti-shake, novelty stuff like panoramics and the like, but the settings are reset every single time you switch away from the camera app. To some extent this is acceptable — I like having the exposure reset on my Epic 4G — but having to turn off the flash every single time (by the way, I never use camera flash) is simply unacceptable. Microsoft says it’s a feature, I say they’re stupid. What an absolutely dumb idea. Another frustration is the lack of touch-focusing. Like WebOS and other primitive cameras, Windows Phone allows for autofocus, but not area sensitive, tap-to focus. This makes it a pain to focus on specific subject matter, requiring a few more shots than I’d care to take. (Check out my Arrive/Epic comparisons in the hardware review below.)
One of the biggest reasons I’ve wanted a Windows Phone was for the baked-in Zune MP3 player and accessible-anywhere Zune Pass so I can download songs at any time. Most Windows Phones sport non-upgradeable 8GB internal storage, which is a supreme downer for anyone adding anything larger than a small-ish playlist (the Arrive comes bundled with a 16GB card). For my purposes, I downloaded my 700 track “Prime” playlist that I’ve maintained since I acquired my original Zune four years ago, adding tracks as I go. It’s easy to start playing playlists from the Music+Videos hub and the Zune app is the only one designed to run in the background (no Pandora here, sorry), in fact, you’re even given lock screen controls for the Zune player, although their buttons could’ve been bigger.
Metro works great here, which is fine because it originated on Zune so many years ago, anyway. Setting a playlist to random displays the next few tracks (as you see above) which is a great feature. Simply sliding the album art back and forth skips tracks. My biggest gripe by far is the lack of a quick scroll for playlists. Remember that “Prime” playlist I mentioned? If I want to immediately bring up the newest tracks – at the bottom, of course – I have to scroll like a madman. There’s simply no ‘go to bottom’ functionality and I absolutely hate it. The sooner they fix this, the better. I’ll get into it in the hardware portion of the review, but this phone was also the best-sounding MP3 player I’ve ever used, too.
Marketplace functionality works fine for downloading tracks, but since you can’t arrange playlists on your phone, and I maintain dictatorial control over my music from the Zune software, it seems more like a worst-case option to get a song rather than a viable alternative to using the Zune software.
Would I chuck my Epic 4G for a Windows Phone right now? Probably. Should you? No. Should I? No. Microsoft is adding critical functionality to the OS with Mango this fall (this fall, for crying out loud) that will bring it closer to the competition, but even the pretty decent selection of apps and games isn’t going to be enough to bring anyone over. For those looking for a first smartphone without the hassle of managing of Android’s utilitarian interface or slogging through iTunes, this is still a great option. The Zune Pass works with up to five devices so you and yours can get Windows Phones and share the unlimited downloads for a single monthly subscription. Across all carriers though, the lack of hardware options since the initial unveiling last year has been little more than sad. Where are the 32GB phones? Nowhere to be seen. Where’s the Pandora? Exactly. Windows Phone has a long fight ahead of them to even catch up, but this is a pretty good start (although I enjoyed the first months of WebOS on my Pre better) and I look forward to seeing what new phones appear in the future, ready for Mango.
The HTC Arrive
HTC is known for high-quality phones and this one doesn’t skimp on the build. The first thing you’ll notice about it is just how heavy the thing is – heftier than my Epic while sporting a smaller screen, similar keyboard, and no case. The Arrive is a slider with a unique hinge – derived from the WinMo-based Touch Pro 2 – that slides straight out and pops up at an angle, ideal for setting on a desk. The whole thing feels sturdy, but in my experience, it wasn’t as ideal for typing on as my Epic, which slides straight up, giving a straight-on view of the screen while typing. The screen half is framed by hefty metal and contributes a lot of the weight. The keyboard half has a metal back panel (to access the battery) with plastic caps for the antennae.
As with all keyboards, it took a little time getting used to the Arrive’s, but I eventually came to like it even more than my Epic’s. If it weren’t for the dearth of content in the Windows Phone OS and its apps that could actually take advantage of it, I would’ve used it far more often. The keys are backlit per standard, but the quick fade-out time (and the inability to adjust it in the OS) meant it kept cutting out as I was using it.
The hinge mechanism
The biggest problem I had with the phone was the hardware buttons. The volume rocker is flat and wide, meaning I was constantly adjusting the volume just by pulling the phone out of my pocket. I think the volume rocker needed to be smaller or put somewhere else because I would constantly hit it. The shutter button is a slight bump at the very edge of the phone that doesn’t feel right at all, also annoying in part because it was hard to use the two stages (focus, then shoot) because of such little throw in the switch. The Power button was also uninspiring, placed on top near the hinge and flush with its frame, meaning my hand was clawed over the screen trying to turn it on. Again, none of these felt natural.
My next biggest complaint with the Arrive is its screen. Compared to the great IPS LCD display on the iPhone or the Super AMOLED screen on my Epic, the screen on the Arrive feels old school. The colors could be more vivid, but the worst part here is the backlight whitewash when you tilt the phone to an angle (far more noticeable in low light, which is primarily when I used it). This screen is better equipped for outdoor use than the Epic’s AMOLED screen, but not by much. Another bad aspect of the screen (which is under a nice, thick slab of heavy glass, like the iPhone) is just how easily finger oils cake on it, there’s no oleophobic coating here to speak of. The screen size is okay, but once you’ve gone to a larger screen, something like the 3.6″ size here just isn’t as impressive.
I thought the camera on the HTC Arrive was fine, although if you shake the phone up and down, the sensor preview ‘wobbles’ in a weird way. Lack of software options aside, we got some pretty good pictures out of it, the biggest distraction being HTC’s trademark edge enhancement. The tree picture below, with a lot of contrasting areas, came out looking particularly unnatural.
On its face, the audio on the Arrive wouldn’t have been a big deal, but as I mentioned in a recent podcast, the deal breaker is the SRS Surround mode in this and its AT&T cousin, the Surround. The speaker is loud and, with the phone in SRS Enhanced mode, has decent bass, but the trip comes when you plug in some great headphones. I brought in my Westone ES3X’s in and using Radiohead’s In Rainbows as an initial reference, have not had a better audio experience from any other MP3 player I’ve used over the years. It is amazing and might be well worth getting this model alone. (The SRS Surround feature is supposed to be in the Samsung Focus, but I haven’t found much documentation about it.) The app also allows for various equalizer settings, but I found that the default SRS Enhanced mode worked great on its own.
I liked the hardware. It’s been a while since I used a physical keyboard and I liked how the screen tilted up, personally (Nick, you’re holding it wrong). I told Kelly after a day of use that I was originally going to give this phone a Fail. It didn’t bring anything new against modern phones, it didn’t bring much new against old phones. The platform it’s built on – the Touch Pro 2 – is almost two years old. It’s small, I don’t like any of the hardware buttons (aside from the keyboard), the screen’s not great, etc. but, there’s something to be said about its solid feel, great hinge, awesome keyboard, and its SRS Surround mode, the latter makes this the best Zune ever built (storage capacity aside…). That said, I’d definitely wait, especially if you’re a Sprint user, for new hardware if you’re trying to scratch that Windows Phone itch. Hardware with larger, AMOLED screens and better storage. That’s where my dollar goes. Not a must buy, but a decent one.