At the end of 2010 Microsoft launched its fresh new Windows Phone 7 smartphone operating system, and the initial reviews were quite positive. The first devices were all vetted by Microsoft to ensure that they comply with their rules on things like hardware design, buttons, shape, etc. However, with all this control, the resulting devices were pretty similiar to each other. Sure, you could find some specification differences between them, but there was not any that stood out from the rest. But Samsung waited a while and released a Windows Phone device which not only looks better, but performs better than the other WP7 devices.
Just some context of my review of the device – while I have played around with Windows Phone 7 on a few occasions (like at Tech Ed Africa), this was my first time to try and “live” with Windows Phone 7. While my device of choice right now is made by Apple, I regularly use Android devices as well. So my opinion of WP7 is of someone who is completely new to the software, and all its intricacies (or lack thereof). Windows Phone 7’s main aim is to simplify our current smartphones, and Microsoft has indeed made it simpler to use. In fact Microsoft used this idea as its main marketing message when Windows Phone 7 launched:
When I unboxed the Omnia 7 I was immediately taken aback by how well put together it is. Its front is dominated by a large piece of glass, just like most smartphones these days. The rest of the device is mostly steel, and is finished in nice brown – purplish colour, which looks very nice in sunlight. There are some plastic bits on the top and bottom, with a charger and headphone adaptor on the bottom.
In terms of hardware controls, the Omnia 7 is also very simple. It has a dedicated power on button on the right hand side, as well as a dedicated camera button to start up and use the camera. But here lies my first complaint – the power button is firstly in the wrong place, with your fingers pressing it by mistake way too easily. You remember those old Nokia‘s which had power buttons that were quite difficult to press? There is reason for that. This power button has next to no resistance, so you lock and wake up your phone quite a few times by mistake… Some volume controls on the other side do their job, which are also for soft to press.
On the front of any Windows Phone 7 device you will find three buttons, as defined by Microsoft. The middle one is a simple Windows logo button, which takes the device to the home screen, just like iPhone. There is also a back button (as used on Android phones) and a dedicated Search button, which takes you to the Search engine (obviously WP7 uses Bing instead of Google). With this button layout Microsoft went ahead and took the best hardware button ideas from its main rivals (There is clearly no moral high ground with modern smartphones any more, they all copy bits from each other it seems, but the consumer wins).
If you have ever held a Samsung Galaxy S in your hand, you can expect the same shape and size from the Omnia. But the Omnia feels higher quality with its steel back, and lacks those shiny plastic bits of the Galaxy S.
Stunning. While not the highest resolution screen on the market (that honour still goes to Apple, even a year later), the screen brightness and contrast is incredible. The Omnia 7 uses a SuperOLED screen which perfectly suits the Windows Phone 7 operating system. WP7 in its
default state is actually quite simple – it is not reliant on a overly colourful display. It has a lot of black areas on the screen, with sharply contrasted icon blocks. The great thing about OLED (Organic LED) screens are that when they show black, it is truly black, with no light shining through that specific pixel. This means that screen elements really pop.
But once you get to the more colourful parts of the interface, the display shines as well. Photos are crisp, and web pages display well with good readability. Maybe its the graphics hardware, or maybe its the operating system, but the graphics do seem to have some real horsepower.
OK, so the Omnia 7 is shaped a lot like the Galaxy S. But that is not where the similarities end. Both have a 1GHz processor, the same screen, exact same camera, and the same battery size. While not quite up to the same specs as the latest phone like the Galaxy S2, I have not once wished for more speed with this phone. The beautifully animated screens on WP7 just seem to zip along – no dropped frames, with no delays. There is not much more to say – this phone feels fast. But that might have something to do with the OS, which we will get to later.
As a phone, it does the job. Phone calls have great sound quality, and using the phone interface is easy enough to understand. The speakerphone worked well, and that same speakerphone worked well for playing music as well… The headphone jack has good sound quality when you connect it to the supplied headphones, and yes, it sounds great on decent headphones as well.
The battery of the Omnia 7 is pretty much on par with most new smartphones. I easily got a full day out of the battery, but struggled to get more than a day and a half. Most other WP7 phones on the market use an LCD display – and the Omnia 7’s OLED screen might just be the
magic ingredient for the good battery life. The OLED screen combines well with the WP7 interface, which is quite reliant on black backgrounds, which helps the battery quite a bit. OLED pixels actually use no power on parts of the interface which black. How neat is that? (In fact if you set the display theme to the white background the phone gives you a reminder that a black background will help battery life…)
Switching off things like Wifi and Bluetooth, and preventing apps from accessing location services bumped the battery life up quite a bit, but these are things that help just about any phone.
In my test the camera worked well enough, with good sharpness and colour balance. A LED flash is also found, which helps out in low light conditions. Unfortunately low light performance is not great, and you will want to rely on that flash to get images without too much noise. The camera interface is great though – it is super simple to understand with clear icons and large text explanations. You also have a bit more control over the photos – you can set the metering mode, the type of scene you are picturing and you also have a few effects to add to photos. All in all a good camera to have on you.
OK, now for the nitty gritty. Windows Phone 7 is for most people still quite a niche operating system, especially in South Africa. Face it – you do not see a lot of them around here. Sales figures are not good worldwide, but it must be even worse in SA. (MyBroadband did a recent
write up to try and figure out why WP7 sales were so poor in SA).
But some people like having niche devices that you do not see everywhere – and now Windows Phone 7 fits the bill. Despite low sales, the operating system is really one of the most polished ones out there. The interface is crisp and clean, with large text and a few great intuitive touches. In fact when just looking at it you wonder what MS was thinking with such a simple interface, when Android and iOS make these multicoloured busy interfaces. Then you realize it – this interface is stunning. Graphics and text whirr past you on the screen, and small animations make other OS’s look old. When fired up the user is faced with tiles on screen, which work like widgets to tell you what is going on – touch the tile, go into the app. Want to go back? Press the back button. Launch another app, and it starts up that app again.
The main screen is made for your favourite apps – you “pin” whatever you like to this, and remove whatever you want. If you want to see all your apps, just swipe to the left, and a list of all your apps show. But if you are in an app and want to dig around a bit – you have to start panning left and right, which gives you the impression that you are only viewing a small portion of a large display area. In use, it is actually surprisingly intuitive. On the front of the device you will also find the magnifying glass button, which opens up the search engine. Yes, it is Bing, and you cannot change that.
Setting the device up with your different online accounts is a breeze. You simply enter your email address, facebook details, work Exchange account details, and you are off. The email interface is especially great, and opening and editing attachments are a breeze with the built in versions of Word, Powerpoint and Excel. No need to go buy “productivity software” like on other platforms. As a bonus – if you work in a Microsoft reliant environment, tools like OneNote and Sharepoint Workspace is great to have on your phone.
Just like most smartphones, WP7 uses a “Marketplace” to download apps. The catalog is still a little limited compared to Apple iOS and Android, but all the big names are there. Angry Birds, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Adobe Reader etc. But here is my other major problem with the Omnia 7. You need a Windows Live account to download apps, and that is fine. But currently South Africans cannot download apps. Yes, you read right. This “feature” is only available once WP7’s next big update comes once the “Mango” update is available. I managed to get it to work – I had to go create a fake UK Live account.
This might not be a big issue to some – but in my opinion a Smartphone without apps is like a car without a radio. Sure, you can use it, it is just not going to be that much fun.
My other big criticism is that Windows Phone 7 currently does not support multitasking. At all. This is a major omission. We now live in a era where we expect our phones to understand that we might want to do two things at once. The current “go into that app, go out of the app, then go into another app” method of use might be great for some, but for power users this quickly gets old. The good news is that Microsoft is working on this, and the “Mango” update will add multitasking. Remember I said how fast the Omnia 7 feels? This might have something to do with that. If there is not a lot of apps to keep in memory, of course it is going to feel fast…
(It is for these reasons that Nokia has not yet implemented Windows Phone 7 on their phones, despite switching allegiance to Microsoft’s smartphone OS to much fanfare a while back. They are waiting for the Mango update. Once Nokia launches its first WP7, you can expect to see the platform grow a lot.)
So who is this for?
So in terms of hardware the the Samsung Omnia 7 is almost perfect. It looks good, it is built well, and the display is a treat. Windows Phone 7 is great to use, and is very simple to understand. The bigger question is instead if you can live with the lack of multitasking (for now) and the current smaller marketplace catalog.
At the end of the day I would easily recommend the Samsung Omnia 7 phone. Of course that recommendation depends on who wants to use the device. If it is someone who wants a simple to use a smartphone to just get things done, then sure. But if you are someone who wants the latest features and coolest apps, the Omnia 7 might not be it right now. But it sure will get there soon…