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Windows Phone deserves a serious look

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

So far, Windows Phone 7 and its updated version, Windows Phone 7.5, have been the distant also-rans in the battle between Google's iPhone / iPad operating system, iOS, and the open-source Android operating system backed by Google. Many tech commentators have praised Windows Phone even while expressing skepticism that it can compete with the two much larger and well-established platforms.

But when I was shopping for a new mobile phone, I was interested in getting the most smartphone I could for a reasonable price -- basically for free, with a contract extension. I couldn't afford to be too picky about operating systems.

My last good cell phone, bought for similar reasons, was a Windows Mobile device, the HTC Pure. Windows Mobile was Microsoft's earlier entry into the cell phone operating system market. It's not compatible with Windows Phone 7; the company basically went back and started over again.

Over the summer, I broke the HTC Pure and had to get by for a few months with a cheap, pre-3G unlocked phone, the Samsung Tocco Lite. This was an early smartphone from before standardized operating systems became the norm. Its smartphone functions were built in, and the only apps it could use were downloadable Java games or programs (and not many of those).

By December, however, I was eligible to renew with AT&T. I thought about changing carriers, but I'm grandfathered in to a good calling plan which I would have lost if I'd moved to another company.

I almost bought a refurbished Galaxy S II, an Android phone, over the holidays; AT&T had a spectacular deal on them, worth taking the risk on a refurb phone. But I was busy with Christmas stuff, and by the time I made up my mind they were out of refurbs and the deal was gone. I hoped for a while that the company would have some sort of after-Christmas blowout (and they may, now that I've bought something).

What I ended up getting last week was the Samsung Focus Flash, a 4G Windows Phone 7.5-based device which once sold for $49.95 but is now 99 cents with contract renewal. You may have seen the TV commercials for it, in which two buddies use the phone to take embarassing photos and video of each other (crying at a chick flick, etc.) and post it to the Internet.

I have to say I am extremely impressed with Windows Phone 7.5, a beautiful and powerful operating system. I knew that its home screen used the so-called Metro interface, filling the home screen with square or rectangular "tiles" which can be used to call up a program or feature but which also serve as indicators for that feature -- for example, the tile for your e-mail program also shows the number of e-mails in your inbox. The rectangular tile for the photos on your cellphone features one of the photos, and so on. The tile interface gives you quick at-a-glance information that will sometimes save you the trouble of actually launching an app or function. You can decide which programs to use as tiles, and can move them around to suit yourself.

Beside the column of tiles, there's a little arrow -- touch that and you're taken to a complete list of apps and functions, making it almost as easy to get to the ones that you aren't using as tiles.

The tile interface works great on a cell phone. Some commentators have complained about the fact that Microsoft will also use it on the next version of Microsoft Windows for desktop and laptop computers. The critics say the tiles don't make as much sense for a keyboard-and-mouse interface as they do for a touchscreen interface. A family member is running the Windows 8 developer preview, however, and showed it to me over Thanksgiving. He's come to like the tiles on his PC, although his older Windows apps don't take full advantage of them yet. (The tiles are only one click away from a more-traditional Windows desktop, and you can turn the tile interface off altogether if you don't like it.)

In any case, I have quickly decided that I really like the tile interface on my phone.

There are lots of apps available for Windows Phone, although not nearly as many as are available for iOS or Android. If there's a specific app you just can't live without, check and see whether it (or an alternative) is available yet on Windows Phone before making the switch.

I'm also quite pleased with the Zune software which is used to manage music, video and image files on your computer and sync them with the phone. Microsoft's Zune music players may have been a flop, but the Zune desktop software is terrific. Windows Phone 7 also tightly integrates with Microsoft's XBox Live gaming system, although since I don't own a gaming system that didn't really affect me.

In some other ways, of course, I got what I paid for. When I was shopping, I liked the fact that the Focus Flash had a 5-megapixel camera with, as its name indicates, an LED flash. But the camera has been underwhelming so far. Perhaps it will get better as I learn some of its tricks.

The other downside is that, while the camera has internal storage, it does not have a micro-SD card slot with which to expand its memory, something that has become almost a standard for anything except Apple products. You can, however, use Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud storage, although obviously doing so racks up megabytes on your data plan.

I do like the Focus Flash's gorgeous AMOLED screen, with its deep blacks leading to high-contrast display of photos and video.

The downsides I mentioned are, for the most part, specific to the Focus Flash. They won't necessarily apply to other Windows Phone models. Microsoft's new partnership with Nokia is expected to produce a lot of new Nokia-manufactured Windows Phone handsets, and other manufacturers like Samsung are also continuing to produce Windows Phone models. At this week's Consumer Electronics Show, the CEO of Nokia spoke about the company's plans to establish a beachhead for Windows Phone in the cell phone operating system wars, and the head of HTC said that a new Windows Phone model from that company is his preferred personal cell phone, even though HTC produces both Android and Windows Phone models. So perhaps Microsoft will be able to make some traction with users and app developers in 2012.

In all, I'm happy with my choice, and look forward to treating it a little more gingerly than I treated the HTC Pure.

--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.

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Google's iPhone?

-- Posted by Ridzuan on Thu, Jan 12, 2012, at 10:18 AM

Off topic to your phone choice - but I don't believe it has been confirmed that you can turn off metro in Windows 8. In fact, I don't believe the ARM version of Win 8 will even have the desktop.

-- Posted by benjithegreat98 on Thu, Jan 12, 2012, at 4:00 PM

I believe he meant "Apple's iphone" ...?

-- Posted by darrick_04 on Fri, Jan 13, 2012, at 12:48 PM

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John I. Carney
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John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette.