Normally, I hang on to a demo phone for about a week. I’m pretty familiar with my gadgets, and I’m used to the different approach that manufacturers take to add value to their particular devices. I feel confident that I can make a fair, honest appraisal of a new mobile device in a pretty short frame of time, but when I received Verizon’s HTC Trophy Windows Phone 7 to test, I held onto the demo for an additional two weeks. Even after three weeks with the device, I still wasn’t fully prepared to write a review, but I decided that I had to. The reason for my hesitation was simple. I couldn’t find any real reason to recommend the phone, but I couldn’t find a strong opinion against the device either.
Since my opinion on the device was relatively flat, I reached out to a network of Microsoft contacts to see if they could nudge me in the right direction. You see, the entire design philosophy of the WP7 platform is radically different than any of the others I’m familiar with. I heard a lot of opinions on why some people think WP7 is superior to Android or iOS. There was also a lot of talk about the “hub” design and how it helps apps integrate with users’ needs.
The hub approach is a very ambitious attempt to put the data in front of the app. The idea is that a smartphone can consolidate and deliver information from a variety of sources through a single hub. However, I think the integrated messaging and Universal Inbox system on the Droid 2 is a more modest attempt to achieve a similar goal. The truth is that most apps are using the hub as a desktop, as a holding place you can pin an app to. Microsoft’s vision is either being ignored or isn’t completely understood. It could also be that it’s too different from the dominant app-centric approach of smartphones and mobile devices. In either case, I didn’t find the hub approach particularly compelling, but it also wasn’t annoying or difficult to work with.
Sadly, the HTC Trophy is polished, reliable, and balanced in a way that is far more similar to iOS devices than to any Android device I’ve ever owned. The graphic eye-candy throughout WP7 really highlights how smoothly the platform operates. It’s visually comparable to Windows Aero or the Compiz cube. There are lots of pretty fades, blends, and scrolling going on, and none of it seems to have a negative impact on the overall performance of the device.
The fact that the earliest batch of WP7 phones come out of the gate with performance and polish that Android devices still struggle to deliver speaks volumes about the value of closed-source, proprietary development. The HTC Trophy paired with WP7 feels at all times like a quality consumer-ready device. There are no hiccups, glitches, weirdness, lagging, or other behavior that indicates that WP7 isn’t ready for prime time. On the other hand, it’s clear that like Apple, Microsoft desires a walled garden. I was told specifically that WP7 devices are not offering SD cards or tethering and that these are seen as security-enhancing features, not device-limiting omissions.
This brings up another place where the HTC Trophy shines. Integration into Microsoft-based services is tight and clean. Unfortunately, in the long interval between WinMo 6.5 and WP7, I broke my dependence on many Microsoft productivity platforms. I was forced to find alternatives to Office and Word. My contacts, calendaring, tasks, and correspondences are now all handled by Google instead of Outlook and Exchange.
If there had not been such a long lull between 6.5 and 7, I would have transitioned seamlessly — but now, I’m searching for reasons to buy back into Microsoft’s closed ecosystem and finding it tough to justify the move. For avid gamers, the Xbox 360 Live integration is very impressive. Unfortunately, I simply don’t game as much as I did in my 20s and 30s. By itself, this isn’t enough.
As for apps, most of your favorites are going to be there, and I’ve long argued that this is what really matters in an app store. Recent studies indicate I’ve been right all along. Sure, there are some tried-and-true favorites that are missing — but overall, it appears that Microsoft can pull in very big publishers in a way that Google and Android still seem to struggle to match, especially in the important area of entertainment titles.
All of the apps have a consistent presentation. Think of it as being able to see a phone-sized sliver at a time of a full desktop application. You can flick left or right to explore more depth of the currently active app. In Facebook, you’ll find the first screen looks a lot like your “Favorites” area of your desktop Facebook screen. Flick to the left, and you’ll find a “most recent” feed. Flick one more time, and you’ll be looking at photos. Keep flicking for events and notifications. This is a radically different approach to mobile apps, and takes some getting used to.
However, this approach really shines with e-mail. When you open e-mail, the default view is “All,” which is roughly equivalent to the default view of your mailbox in Android or iOS. Flick once to the right, and it will sort by “unread.” Flick again to view flagged, and once more for e-mail marked urgent.
Today, I compared the HTC Trophy accessing my Google account to Gmail and Exchange on my Droid 2 and a co-worker’s Exchange access on his iPhone 4. There’s no doubt that the WP7 e-mail client is the most flexible, versatile, and powerful of the three. While you can’t reorganize by subject, sender, or other common desktop methods, it’s still far better than what Android and iOS offer.
In fact, this may be the secret weapon of Windows Phone. The possibility of better productivity apps along with seamless enterprise integration into Windows-based corporate networks and AD security models already has me considering a mobile device policy at the office that says Android devices are not welcome, but iOS and WinPhone devices are.
How about the phone itself? Unremarkable and unoffensive. Like WP7, there’s nothing to hate about it but no real reason to fall in love with it either. It is light-weight. The integrated 5MP camera takes nice pictures. The speakers have decent volume. The phone itself is clear and gets good signal for data and voice. It seems to have very respectable battery life. The screen is nice. It isn’t as luxurious as an iPhone or even my Droid 2 in build, but it doesn’t feel cheap either. It’s about the same size and shape as the Droid 2, only slightly thinner by virtue of not having a keyboard slider. You could do a lot worse.
Ultimately, HTC has delivered a very capable hardware platform to Verizon Wireless with the Trophy WP7 smartphone. It is possible that with the improvements that WP7.5 promises, Microsoft may be able to come from behind to offer a compelling alternative to the two-player mobile device game that currently exists? For me, they’re not there yet. I can’t see myself giving up the personal flexibility of Android devices. Many of the reasons I do not chose iOS apply strongly to WP7 as well. It remains to be seen if Windows Phone can bring enough to the table to justify the limitations of buying into any vendor’s walled garden.