Windows Phone Review - Smartphone Round Robin

Week 2 of the 2009 Smartphone Round Robin had me using two HTC-manufactured phones running on the Windows Mobile platform, specifically the AT&T Tilt 2 and the HTC HD2 (the HD2 is the unit in the photo above sporting the massive display). With the holidays happening, my time for the Round Robin this week was a bit on short supply, but since we're following up on my novel of a Droid Review I figure you all won't mind if I keep this one a little shorter. For in-depth technical reviews, be sure to follow the device links above and you'll jump over to where you can learn about both the Tilt 2 and HD2 in detail. That said, it's time to reflect upon my time spent on both of these phones and assess how Microsoft is doing in the smartphone ecosystem with their mobile operating system.

A Look Back at My FIRST Windows Mobile Experiences

In the 2007 Smartphone Round Robin, my first encounter with Windows Mobile came via the original AT&T Tilt that operated on Windows Mobile 6.0. In the 2008 Smartphone Round Robin, I experienced two Windows phones. Our main Windows entrant for the Round Robin was the AT&T Fuze which ran on Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional. And since Palm's native OS was so beat to death in 2007 and nothing had changed by 2008, I also spent time on the Palm Treo Pro that also ran on Windows Mobile 6.1 professional Edition. Glancing back at all six of the reviews I have written associated with these devices, like with my first look at Android, there are still a lot of opinions and insight expressed in these articles that are just as a relevant today as when I wrote them. So if you want the full insight as to my thoughts on Windows, be sure to check out these links below:

On the software side of things, I was ok with using Windows Mobile on all of these devices. Most of us, including Mac converts (and even Mac loyalists), have a decent amount of Windows experience from using PCs throughout our lives, which brings a certain familiarity to using a Windows phone that makes them relatively easy to figure out (not necessarily a friendly nor intuitive experience, but you can work your way through it!). The out of the box experience in some cases leaves a lot to be desired, but it's hard not to know what things like Windows Media Player or Internet Explorer are to be used for when you see them. If you spend enough time clicking and tapping around a Windows Mobile phone you'll eventually figure it out. My biggest issue with these previous devices wasn't so much the software as it was the hardware. The AT&T Tilt was a brick of a device (especially compared to the Curve 8310 we reviewed that year) with battery life that wouldn't last past noon if you turned on 3G. And the Fuze's resistive display simply hated my fingers and even after a week of use I still couldn't comfortably navigate around the phone without cursing. Aligning these phones up on my Smartphone Hierarchy of Needs, though Windows Mobile does a decent job of filling in the pyramid both of these devices we're epic failures for me personally at the everyday usability level. No matter how much they could do, they simply were devices I wouldn't be able to use as my primary smartphone.

Smartphone Hierarchy of Needs
click image for full explanation of the Smartphone Hierarchy of Needs

The Treo Pro on the other hand was actually a pretty decent phone for me. Featuring a form factor more akin to a traditional BlackBerry, on the Treo Pro you could essentially ignore the touchscreen and just use the navigation pad to get around and the physical front-facing keyboard for entering text. It was a much more usable device, though like the Tilt and Fuze from time to time required you to pull out the stylus, a process I find highly hilarious and annoying (and dangerous... OUCH, MY EYE!). With a multitude of Windows phones available, these three units may not be an accurate representation of what's out there, but at least for me looking at Windows Mobile in past years, coming into this year's Round Robin I had hopes for better hardware.

Though this year's Windows Phones are running on the new and improved Windows Mobile version 6.5, for the most part it seems like most of the strengths and weaknesses of Windows Phones in the past two years remain intact today despite the version number increases. My key historical Windows Mobile observations:


  • Power for the power user. Of all the smartphone platforms out there, Windows Mobile might actually be one of the most "powerful" of the bunch in terms of what it lets you accomplish. Microsoft built a lot of core functionality into the platform that even some of the newer smartphone platforms are still playing catch-up on.
  • Hackability and customization for the tweaker. When you talk to hardcore Windows Phone users, they'll tell you this is one of their favorite things about the platform - you can hack the sh!t out of it. If you have the wanting-ness and know-how you can drastically change the look and functionality of your device to tweak it up exactly how you want it. There are risks to this (ie. tweak something up and now battery life suffers) but for those who like to play with their phones as much as they just use them, there's a never-ending supply of stuff to try out on this front.
  • There's a device for that. Like Android, since the Windows Mobile platform is licensed out to anybody who wants to build a smartphone running on it, there are a number of manufacturers that build Windows Phones that therefore come in a variety of form factors. Name your form factor of choice, and you can pretty much find a Windows Phone that'll meet your needs (exception: SureType! Lol).
  • Lots of good apps... assuming you can find them. Though we hear a ton about the number of apps in the Apple App Store today or the momentum Google has going in the Android Marketplace, there's no shortage of apps for the Windows Mobile platform. Many of them are free, and a lot of them are quite powerful. Assuming of course that you can hunt them down and install them. Oh yeah, and you can install apps onto the SD card.


  • Separation of hardware manufacturer from platform developer leads to lack of attention to detail in the full user experience. In the case of companies like Apple, Palm and Research in Motion, you have the same company responsibile for the development of the software platform and the device hardware. These companies thus have more control and ability to focus on the entire end-to-end user experience than companies that license an operating system and slap it on their hardware. Just as hackability and customization were listed as a strength, it's also really a weakness in the sense that it's almost been a necessity for those who really want to use their Windows Phones to have to hack them. Companies like HTC have done a good job at improving the out of the box experience with on-top experiences like TouchFlo and Sense, but it still seems the overall integration of hardware to software leaves something to be desired. Another drawback to the fact there are many companies making Windows Phones is that it often seems that carriers have their way with them. The carriers have been known to cripple some features on BlackBerry Smartphones in the past, but I think with Windows Mobile this happens more frequently and to an even greater extent. I don't follow this stuff to closely, but have heard a fair amount of stories of Windows Mobile devices that were GREAT in their European or Asian versions, only to be complete crap when released in North America (reduced performance and full of bloat ware). Chances are good that if it was one company with one brand making both the hardware and software, that one company would better be able to convince the carriers not to wreck a perfectly good phone.

OK, with history out of the way it's time to look at where Windows Phones are at today.

Two Similarities Between BlackBerry and Windows Phones

During my week with Windows Phones, I realized that this year in particular there are a couple of key similarities between BlackBerry and Windows Phone enthusiasts - we're both enjoying what we have now, deal with a few issues here and there, and are anxiously waiting to see what gets delivered next!

Similarity #1 - Both BlackBerry and Windows Mobile complain about the native web browser and use third party ones as they impatiently wait for an improved native browser (Windows Mobile users tend to favor Opera or SkyFire over Internet Explorer).

Similarity #2 - Better OS experience is just around the corner? The BlackBerry OS has been making incremental improvements over the past couple of years, now getting its latest jump to version 5.0. While 5.0 doesn't look all that different to the user, a lot of work has been done under the hood that should pave the way for the current and next generation of devices to deliver solid user experiences (some enthusiasts hope for a whole new OS at some point, while others just hope RIM consumer-fies the existing experience and want to see the potential of 5.0 unleashed). Windows Mobile users are tired of getting updates (6.0 to 6.1. to 6.2 to 6.5...) and just want Windows Mobile 7 to hit already, which will hopefully update the entire experience and better unify Microsoft's offerings into one device.


HTC HD2 and AT&T Tilt 2 First Hands-On Impressions Video

In case you missed this the first time...


Sizing Up The HTC HD2 and AT&T Tilt

Windows Phones Review
AT&T Tilt 2 (top) and HTC HD2 (far right) with Bold 9700 and Storm2

Ever hear that saying kill them with kindness? In the case of HTC's Windows Phones in the Round Robin this year, it's more like kill them with hardware. I'm happy to report the Tilt 2, which is sort of like the newest model year of the Tilt and Fuze before it, is actually a really usable phone that I don't swear constantly while using. And as for the HTC HD2... well..come on... JUST LOOK AT THE SCREEN. It's eff'n huge! Seriously, if you're going to give up having a full physical keyboard on a phone, you might as well go for the biggest honk'n piece of glass you can get.

Windows Phones Review
The view from behind...

And now for a closer look.....


BlackBerry Storm2 vs. HTC HD2

The HTC HD2 has a ginormous screen. Period. It's ridiculous. Ladies please forgive me in advance for the crass analogy (it's all I could think of - don't shoot me), but if all smartphones in the 2009 Round Robin were women, then there's no doubt the HD2 was the tall blonde with big fake implants that all the boys kept turning their heads to get a better look at. It's not necessarily an attractive or beautiful phone that actually deserves the attention, but there's just no way you can't help but do a double take and stare at it. 

Key Features: The HD2 isn't all just about the display, but it sort of is. That's why you'd buy this phone. It's a huge breakthrough for Windows Mobile users though, as it's apparently the first WM device to feature a capacitive touchscreen instead of a resistive one. This means the stylus is finally gone and you can just use your finger comfortably and effortlessly on the phone. The display measures in at 4.3" and offers a 480 by 800 resolution. The HD2 has 512MB of ROM, 448MB of RAM and is powered by a 1GHz Snapdragon processor. I haven't had a chance to fully investigate what this 1GHz Snapdragon processor is all about, but it sounds impressive and did a good job of powering the HD2 through tasks at a snappy rate. The camera clocks in at 5 megapixels. Great hardware stats all around - the only thing that seemed weird was the battery, which is only 1230mAh. I wasn't able to do any hard testing on it, but would suspect under moderate use it can make the better part of the day, but with 3G and heavy device usage the battery life is an area that could be improved (true of any smartphone).

Observations: I have to say, of any Windows Mobile smartphone I have ever used, this is the first one I actually have sort of enjoyed using. The combination of capactive and HUGE touchscreen makes the experience enjoyable. HTC's Sense UI that sits on top of Windows Mobile 6.5 is pretty and it works. You can probably spend 85% of your time never leaving HTC's take on a smartphone OS and have to go into the actual Windows Mobile operating system.

SenseUISense UISense UI
HTC's Sense UI sits on top of Windows Mobile 6.5

There's really only two major problems I can think of immediately in regards to the HD2. One is obviously availability. Currently the HD2 is not offered by any carrier in the US or Canada, though hopefully it will be early in 2010. For all the Windows Mobile enthusiasts out there, i hope it happens soon. I'm going to smile and probably laugh the first time I see somebody walking through an airport with one of these to their ear or in their hands.... which brings me to the next major problem...

BlackBerry Storm2 vs. HD2

The size of the HD2. The HD2 is REALLY a big phone. It's footprint is really big. If I owned one, I honestly don't know how I'd carry it around with me all the time. It would look weird to holster, is too big for your pockets and I don't carry a purse or murse or manbag or satchel or whatever they're called these days. Coming back to CrackBerry Kevin's Hierarchy of Smartphone Needs, I'm just not sure I could integrate this one into my daily on the go life all that easily, simply due to the size. If you were wondering though, the good news is that the display itself is apparently incredibly strong and resistive to scratches.

AT&T Tilt 2 Impressions

Tilt 2
BlackBerry Bold 9700 vs. Tilt 2

While the HD2 isn't available in North America just yet, the AT&T Tilt 2 (known elsewhere as the HTC Touch Pro 2) most definitely is. And it's a good phone. The resistive touchscreen takes some getting used to, especially if you're already used to capactive touchscreens, and the whole stylus thing is just kind of weird. But whereas a device like the HD2 points to the future of Windows Mobile, the Tilt 2 is a good representation of the best of the traditional Windows Mobile experience.

Key Features: While the display isn't physically as big as the HD2's, the Tilt 2's resolution equals it at 480 by 800 pixels. The form factor is that of a slider, and as the name suggests, the screen tilts up. It's kind of weird, but kind of ok too once you get used to it. I'm not a fan of the keyboards on horizontal sliders, but the Tilt 2's keyboard is actually pretty usable. The keys are nicely raised and have a good feel about them. Definitely better than the keyboard on the Verizon Motorola Droid. The Tilt 2's battery is a solid 1500mAh and the processor clocks in at 528MHz.

Observations: It takes some getting used to the form factor, but if somebody gave you a Tilt 2 to use you could get used to it and make it work for you. On the Tilt 2, the HTC experience is that of Touchflo 3D which is their older customized experience prior to Sense. You can also get out of HTC altogether and go straight to Windows Mobile 6.5, which in actuality doesn't look all that bad (screen caps below). You can get a sense of the direction Microsoft is heading toward with it.

Windows 6.5WindowsWindows
Windows 6.5 Native (without TouchFlo 3D or Sense sitting on top)

The AT&T Tilt 2 is built solid. It seems most of HTC's hardware really is. The phone is a bit chunky, though hides it well enough. If you really want a Windows Mobile phone, I'm guessing this one is appealing though it definitely lacks the attention-getting display of the HD2.

Tilt 2
BlackBerry Bold 9700 vs. Tilt 2

BlackBerry Users on Windows Mobile Phones

It seems a little weird for me to even think of a BlackBerry user switching over to a Windows Mobile Phones at this point in time. In writing the Droid review last week, it was very easy and real to put yourself in the mindset of a BlackBerry owner and deciding to give Droid a go. But moving from BlackBerry to Windows Mobile doesn't seem like a thought many people out there would be having. I'd assume most people who are now BlackBerry owners already chose BlackBerry over Windows Mobile for a reason and vice versa. There's just not that much to lust over right now, other than the HD2's massive display.

That said, a BlackBerry user who loves to tinker with stuff might enjoy the hackability offered by the Windows Mobile platform and they might find desirable form factors offered that they just can't get on BlackBerry. But I think you'd lose a lot too (other than just BlackBerry Messenger) in going from BlackBerry to WinMo. I sort of think that BlackBerry just works for you, whereas with with Windows Mobile, you need to make it work for you. There's a difference. BlackBerry definitely reigns supreme in the stability and battery life departments and I'd argue is doing a better job of bringing all of the pieces together. Though BlackBerry Smartphones are not known for their outstanding media capabilities, they are very media capable, as well as entertainment capable and productive. And to me it seems RIM is doing a better job of bringing all of those things you can do on a smartphone together into a unified experience out of the box. Windows Mobile seems more pieced together. Maybe it all goes back to having one to many cooks in the kitchen (hardware and software) vs. just having one master chef who gets everything right. Not to mention while a company like RIM only focuses on smartphones, Microsoft seems to treat their mobile division as an afterthought. It's something they have to do, but don't seem to put much passion into it. At least that we've seen so far. Though there are a lot of Windows Mobile apps out there, the Windows Mobile Marketplace is still an embarrasment. At least it can only gget better! 

Some Closing Thoughts

Last year during the Round Robin we knew Palm was in a position of sink or swim. Microsoft is more like a continent than a boat, so it's doubtful it'll sink anytime soon, though it's pretty clear that they need to do something if they want to be a real contender in the Smartphone market for the long haul. A company like RIM has its core competencies in enterprise (an area you'd think Microsoft would have been able to give RIM a real run for their money but just never was able to) and in being the ultimate communication tool, that give it a strong foundation - they can maintain brand recognitition and drive big sales while they work on improving some of the features that consumers are wanting at the top of the hierarchy of needs. And whereas a licensed platform like Android is gaining momentum - from developers, manufacturers and consumers, Windows Mobile is dying.

So what's the solution? Reading through the awesome feedback and help I got over at (thanks all!) it's pretty apparent that what Microsoft needs to do to get back in the game is bring all of their core areas together into one kick a$$ phone. They have Xbox. They have Zune. They have Windows 7. The latest Zune offers a pretty slick interface - it proves Microsoft is current on the times. Assuming they want to get a piece of the consumer market (and don't mind alienating some of their legacy power users), then putting all this Microsoft juice together into a consumer smarpthone seems like the thing to do. 

Will we see this soon? I'm not sure. But I do know that when the 2010 Smartphone Round Robin flies into town I hope it's a Microsoft Phone it drops off on my door step.