"Windows Phone Seven Point Five." It's somehow mind numbing and yet not totally unexpected that chunky string of syllables is how you say the name of the new Windows Phone. Mind numbing, because it's the antithesis of what Microsoft has ultimately built, and not totally unexpected, because we're still talking about Microsoft, and it's not a reinvention of what they've done with Windows Phone.
Why It Matters
Have you seen Windows 8? Or the new Xbox Dashboard? Windows Phone was the future of Microsoft in many ways, we just didn't know yet. When it launched a year ago, it wasn't finished, by any stretch of the definition. No multitasking. No copy and paste. No threaded conversations in email. No Twitter. No lots of things. No custom ringtones, even. It was a testament to how much of the big stuff Microsoft got so right—they made something different and good—that Windows Phone still felt, well, pretty great. Windows Phone 7.5 is really Windows Phone 7, the way it should've been. It's more or less a complete thing now. A real boy. Or whatever. And frankly, it's about time for another major phone platform, one that actually feels like it's in the same class as iOS.
It's still Windows Phone. Superflat and swooshy and quick and overly designed and well, very nice. Just more well-rounded. Like, you can finally have one inbox for multiple accounts and email threads are organized like real threads, the way you'd expect from a modern email client. And you can multitask—to the extent that apps have been rewritten to take advantage of it. (But making the back button the "multitasking" button—you press and hold—was dumb, since 20 percent of the time, it wouldn't switch to the app switching screen, it'd shoot me backward.)
What's different from iOS and Android, and more so in 7.5 (ugh that name), is that Windows Phone is sort of anti-app. Yes, it seems kind of silly that a phone in 2011 wouldn't have Facebook and Twitter fully and thoroughly integrated, since social networking is about as integral to the modern phone experience as it gets, but it's a step beyond that. Why use Yelp? There's Local Scout. Or Fandango or Shazam or another visual search app? There's Bing, which more or less replaces all of those (though Bing will point you to an app, if it thinks it's helpful.) Facebook messaging? Built-in too. Microsoft has more or less succeeded in replacing apps for the core things you do with a phone, like looking at Facebook or Twitter streams or friends' pictures, bringing them all together in the ooey, gooey center of Windows Phone. The odd side effect is that when you have to use an app to do something social-like to view a Twitter conversation, or check in to Foursquare—it feels like the phone's let you down, particularly since the speed of third-party apps on Windows Phone still lags so far behind the native bits.
The big thing that strikes you while you're using it, though? It doesn't feel like anything's really missing, like before.
The Windows Phone interface still feels fresh and new and different and fast, and I'm kind of amazed I'm not tired of it after a year. It still feels like a preview something that's coming next, not that's already here. Perhaps because it's missing the feeling of simple inevitability, like iOS.
Live Tiles, which are starting to live up to their promise. I know at a glance if someone's mentioned me on Twitter with the new Me tile, but it's not in my face, demanding immediate attention like it would on iOS. Which, the true Twitter integration is pretty excellent if occasionally half-baked-seeming, particularly since you can actually filter streams and contacts by social network now in the People hub.
The People Hub with Groups, and messaging. While I wish messaging had more options for getting a hold of people—it's just got Facebook, Live Messenger and SMS—it manages to pull off integrated messaging in way that feels more complete and natural than iOS5, whose iMessaging feels like glorified text messages, particularly in the context of the People Hub. I go into the Gizmodo Group, where everybody's tile is grouped together, each person's tile flipping over to show me how many emails/messages I have from them. I can drill down and see my entire communication history with Woody, over email or SMS or Facebook. Or I can just see the stream of Facebook/Twitter/pictures from the entire group. It works the best of any phone's social stuff because it's altogether, not simply siloed.
Oh, and the voice-to-text feature is awesome and reasonably accurate, around 80 percent or so. I could tell the phone, "Text Kyle Wagner," dictate to it "Shut up, Wagner," tell it "send," and seconds later Wagner would know he should shut up.
The thing I like most about Windows Phone, really, is that it's the only phone besides the iPhone that feels like it's got its shit together, from the interface to the core apps to the overall experience.
Well! Some things aren't working yet on the app front. Like posting to Twitter using the native stream. It ate every single one of my attempted tweets. Maybe they're in the ether, and will randomly show up and I'll look really dumb. I don't know! Any app that hasn't been updated for multitasking still takes forrrreeeevvverrrr to resume. (Which is basically all of them, right now.) And I still can't listen Rdio in the background. A lot of the app goodness Microsoft is promising in general isn't there yet. The Best Buy Live Tile notification when your favorite TV arrives in stock at a nearby store? Nope. (The app basically crashed any time I used it, actually.)
Live services are a huge part of Windows Phone, but Live.com is a gross cluttered mess that feels exactly like the part of Microsoft it's trying to make you forget. And the Zune client feels worse all the time, at least for syncing apps to the phone. The new browser-based App Marketplace is now the fastest, easiest way to find and get apps on your phone. Oh! And I forgot to mention: The new Mac app connector slayed our computer.
I want more services integrated, like Foursquare and Google Talk, for starters. It needs to be easy to add a new service as it pops up on the radar, because every time I have to load up an app for a service that's an info stream of checking in-Facebook or Twitter or Foursquare-I feel like Windows Phone has a failed a little bit in its promise.
Little things. The back button is an ocean of confusion, contained in a tiny arrow. You never quite know where it's going to take you. Why isn't it easy to take a screenshot? If a contact has a million numbers, you can't see which one is which within the messaging app when you're trying to text them. Battery life seems notably worse than the previous version of Windows Phone-where I used to get a full day, I'm getting 2/3 of a day, max. And there's definitely some more stuttering and crashing, which I never really saw on the original Windows Phone.
Should I Buy This?
If you don't want an iPhone, this is basically the only real option, unless you already know you want Android. Like, for non-nerds, this is the only thing I'd tell them to buy if they don't want an iPhone. It's not better than iOS, not yet. But it's the closest. And it's legitimately different and excellent.
That said! I'd wait to see the shithot secound round of new phones (like from Nokia) first, though, since I don't really think any of the current Windows Phones are mindblowing. Windows Phone may be second best, but frankly, for the first time in a long time, that's good enough.