Windows Phone 7 heralds a new mobile dawn for Microsoft as it tries desperately to wrestle back some smartphone territory from Apple, Android and BlackBerry. Having dropped the ball with starchy Windows Mobile 6.5, the OS has been completely revamped and modernised for the mainstream, and the largest of the five-strong legion of WP7 handsets, the HD7, is charged with making Microsoft a force once again.
Having forged Android gems such as the Desire and Legend, HTC is an accomplished partner for Microsoft. The O2-exclusive HD7 is another solidly built handset with a huge 4.3in 800x480-pixel display dominating its wonderfully sleek 11.2mm-thin chassis. It also features touch-sensitive back, home and search keys – a requirement of Microsoft’s stringent handset design guidelines.
Of course, it’s not just about the hardware and Microsoft’s chances of success rest squarely with the new OS. Thankfully the fiddly labyrinth of menu systems that characterised previous Windows Mobile incarnations has been completely banished, replaced with centralised ‘hubs’ and a striking ‘live’ Start screen tile arrangement.
Six main hubs for People, Gaming, Music and Video, Pictures, Office and Marketplace collect info under one roof, with a handy and intuitive sliding screen used instead of a sub-menu system. Facebook is also seamlessly integrated into People but Twitter fans will need to download a separate app.
Although not as flexible as Android, the Start menu tile system is still highly customisable with phone features, apps, direct weblinks and individual contacts. It’s refreshing to see Microsoft eschew the trad fingerprint-sized icons for these large bold ‘live’ square widgets and it works well, with some offering notifications for new messages, missed calls and new events.
With a 1GHz Snapdragon under the hood, the HD7 purrs along. Accelerometers are quick to realign, full-fat web browsing with the streamlined, user-friendly Internet Explorer 6 is super-fast over both HSDPA and Wi-Fi, while pinch-to-zoom is fluid and intuitive. However, the biggest oversight is there’s no easy way to quickly switch between open apps, although you can play music while answering emails or web surfing.
By integrating both Xbox Live online gaming and Zune music, WP7 is gunning for the mainstream. Those with existing Xbox Live accounts can log in and have their avatar and info imported, but Live-compatible games are thin on the ground. However, the games we did sample hinted that it could challenge the iPhone as powerful portable console.
The Zune music software, taken from Microsoft’s dedicated music players, looks stylish but also offers a great music experience. Tracks are priced between 79-99p and can be bought and downloaded from the store, while you can tinker with audio using HTC’s sound enhancement app. Dolby Mobile cleans up the sound and there’s an array of equalizer options aimed at specific music genres.
Sadly, at the moment, the Microsoft MarketPlace app download store feels like a cornershop next to Apple’s iTunes superstore. Usual suspects like Twitter, Foursquare and Shazam are available but Microsoft has some serious catching to do to make its MarketPlace a compelling destination.
Unfortunately HTC’s rep for poor cameras continues on the HD7. The 5MP snapper takes OK snaps in normal light but even with a strong dual-LED flash, photos are incredibly noisy in low-light conditions. However, previously taken pics can be accessed with just a left flick across the screen and shared quickly via email or uploaded to Facebook. Luckily, the 720p-quality capture is far smoother, thanks to an alert continuous focus.
The HD7 is little more expensive than its WP7 stablemates, the HTC Mozart and LG Optimus 7, but its flagship status, expertly built chassis and gloriously large display currently make this the most coveted of WP7 handsets.