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Windows Phone: Round Robin Review 9

by Dieter Bohn Wed, 03 Feb 2010 10:32 am EST

After representing Windows Mobile for two years running the Smartphone Round Robin, this year I'm taking at a look at it from a webOS user's perspective. Windows Mobile (which can be found on Windows Phone) has had a rough year wherein the big launch was 6.5, which was a minor update to 6.1, which itself was a minor update to 6.0, which some have argued was more like Windows Mobile 5.5 than anything... you get the picture, Windows Mobile hasn't seen much in the way of huge OS updates for a long time now.

So where's the action at? It's at HTC, who has churned out what is probably the coolest single piece of smartphone hardware of the past year and who has also developed this thing called 'Sense' that's less a theme or skin and more a symbiotic app suite that replaces as much of the look and feel of Windows Mobile as humanly possible.

We'll delve into all that and more, after the break!

HD2

The hardware star of the Smartphone Round Robin was unquestionably the HTC HD2. A huge screen, massively powerful specs, thin form factor, and just plan all around a sexy beast: everybody loved it.

What I love about the HD2 is it's completely unapologetic: you want a big, powerful smartphone? We got your big, powerful smartphone right here. We got 4.3 inches of big, capacitive glass. What's that? Windows Mobile isn't supposed to properly support capacitive touch? Screw that - this is how it should be so this is how we're doing it, no compromises. Speed? How about a 1GHz Snapdragon? How about a 5 megapixel camera and a flash? How about industrial design that's the refined yet manly Marcus Aurelius to the Droid's crude, trying-way-too-hard-to-be-manly Tom-Cruise-of-the-Mission-Impossible-Era?

You know what else we got? Windows Mobile. That's right, we know it's not pretty, that's why we have the Sense UI here, but underneath it all is still WinMo and you can still administer your IIS servers and get your Exchange on just fine. Not since the Nokia N95 has a company gone ahead and said "Yeah, we tossed that in there too" about darn near every feature you could want, but HTC has done a much better job making the whole thing hang together than Nokia did.

As far as actually using the HD2, it's a lesson in cognitive dissonance. I'm not referring only to the fact that you occasionally find yourself dropping out of HTC's excellent Sense UI, but also to the fact that Sense UI isn't quite as powerful as I'd like. It's somewhat configurable, but honestly it is still more eye candy than functionality. But oh, what eye candy. The dissonance comes in that you find yourself using a relatively simple and non-powerful interface on what is arguably the most powerful hardware on top of the most powerful mobile platform available today.

Getting from a phone that seems to exist simply because it can to a phone that can do everything you want a smartphone to do takes more effort than I'd like. Although Opera Mobile is pleasant enough, I do often find myself frustrated that there isn't a more modern, webkit-based browser for the HD2. Again, I come back to the cognitive dissonance of the experience: the incredible hardware deserves more elegant software.

As I see it the HD2 is designed for two different kinds of users: the heavy, power user who knows WinMo inside and out and is able to configure the heck out of the thing and a more basic user whose needs stop after your standard email, calendaring, light browsing, and light twitter usage.

Touch Pro 2

Where I feel some dissonance within the software and between the hardware on the HD2, the Touch Pro 2 is a straight-up, straight-forward Windows Mobile beast in the traditional sense. The Touch Pro 2 is the Platonic idea of the horizontal sliding Windows Mobile phone. Huge touchscreen: it's resistive but tweaked to such a fine degree that it's usable with your fingers (but the stylus is there for a pinch). Huge, really-great horizontal keyboard underneath. Huge availability: it's on every US carrier in some form. Huge form factor all around - the TP2 is a thick, heavy monster of a phone, but feels solid and tight and well-designed all around.

Both the HD2 and the TP2 are unapologetic, then, but as a Windows Mobile device the TP2 is more consistent: there's something like Sense/TouchFlo, yes, but it doesn't go as deep. This is Windows Mobile: deal with it. Honestly, I can deal with it, Windows Mobile is still powerful, configurable, and ready to get a certain kind of worker's work done better than any other platform.

Windows Mobile Pro

What kind of worker is wants Windows Mobile? Pandya's comment that Exchange makes the platform rings completely true to me: there is not a better phone for getting right with all the technical stuff in Microsoft's ecosystem. From Exchange to Sharepoint to Live to SkyDrive to Office to MSN Messenger to Remote Desktop. It sounds trite to say that a Microsoft Mobile phone does Microsoft better than anybody else, sure, but Microsoft doesn't get enough credit for how much they've managed to squeeze out of the platform. Big D5 notes that Sense is great when he's not at work and that's pretty much my experience as well: it's very cool when you're in casual mode, but when it comes time to be uber-productive (in a way you can be on Windows Mobile and basically nothing else), it gets in the way.

The platform still lacks critical Microsoft services, primarily in the consumer space (hello Xbox and Zune!), though. Speaking of the consumer space, the app story on Windows Mobile also is ...lacking. Even itty-bitty webOS, which nobody would mistake for a platform with significant marketshare or a huge developer base, has managed to land apps that have yet to land on Windows Mobile properly or well (Foursquare and Slacker Radio, just to name two).

The strange thing about watching everybody handle Windows Mobile at the Round Robin event: virtually nobody looked at Windows Mobile! I was able to skip over examining WinMo because I'm so familiar with it, but even folks who hadn't really interacted with it in a significant way since last year's even had any real compulsion to dig past the SenseUI or TouchFlo 3D. I can imagine a few reasons for that: implicit knowledge that WinMo hadn't much changed in the past year, the massive improvement in HTC's add-on UI, the focus on the stunning hardware.

More than anything, though, it shows that Windows Mobile really is at a kind of end-of-line. Microsoft is showing something at Mobile World Congress later this month - whatever it is, if it isn't a significant departure from what we've had in the Round Robin for the past three years, you can bet that next year we'll be doing the same thing: not paying much attention to WinMo itself but focusing instead on the innovation in hardware and add-on UI.

Windows Mobile Standard, We Hardly Knew Ye

Where was Windows Mobile Standard this year? I don't just mean at the Smartphone Round Robin, I mean generally. HTC made a valiant, last-ditch effort to get some attention and use for the oft-ignored non-touchscreen version of Windows Mobile with the Snap. It was a great device (although partially ruined by the changes made for different carriers in the US), one which I saw as perhaps the best Windows Mobile device for people who care mainly about communication. It was fast, had a UI that was decent enough for that form factor (I would even argue that it held up fairly well against the BlackBerry UI), and had stellar battery life.

Instead of making a big splash, it skipped across the water like a stone before sinking out of view as everybody - including Microsoft and their manufacturing partners - turned their eyes towards touchscreen devices. That's the way the market went, I suppose, but I find it a shame. When I think back over the many Windows Mobile devices I've used over the years, the truth is that my favorite device was the Motorola Q9h. Like the Snap, it was fast, capable, had a great form factor and an even better keyboard.

That leaves BlackBerry (and possibly Nokia, but I'd argue that) as the only company giving any serious attention to non-touchscreen devices and that's a pity. As tms78 mentions, WM Standard phones are good for messaging. The OS also handled multitasking better than WM Pro -- in general I found it to be more stable and faster.

Wrapping up

So this review is, oh, two weeks late. Apologies. Why so late (beyond the standard delays that happen to a busy blogger)? Honestly: it's hard to write anything new about Windows Mobile right now. It's still a powerful platform that turns away casual users but also turns power users into the most productive multitasking monsters around. It still has an incredible community of hackers and cookers and registry tweakers who are able to squeeze more power out of the platform on a daily basis. Despite all that, it still needs a major overhaul. The UI is clunky in the extreme compared to other platforms, the multitasking is problematic (especially on WM Pro), and frankly it just has lost any chance it may have had at capturing the popular imagination.

That last is important, almost as important as the capabilities of the device itself. WinMo has no Mojo, less attention in the mass media and geek media than other platform that have less marketshare. Could Windows Mobile as it currently exists be 'saved' from its technical and UI problems? I would argue that not only could it be saved, but there's possibly less that needs saving than most people think. That's not really the issue, though; the issue is mindshare and Microsoft needs to do something big in order to grab it back. Luckily, our pals over at WMExperts will be there at MWC to see if Microsoft has something big up their sleeves.