With just over four days of use in the bag, it’s probably the right time to give everyone an update on the stability and general performance of Windows Phone 7.
If you’re a person who is content with using the standard built-in features of the system, including Facebook via the People & Pictures hubs, Office, Bing Search, Xbox Live and Internet Explorer, the stability of the system is actually fairly reasonable. For the most part, there are few crashes with the first-party apps.
Most surprising is the complete lack of slow down or lag in much of the experience, the 1Ghz processor and 512MB RAM of the HTC Mozart make Windows Phone scream along at a cracking pace. Email is a standout as the settings allow you to download via Microsoft Exchange not just the last 200 messages (as is the maximum on the iPhone), but from anytime, which depending on your volume, could be thousands of emails. Outlook doesn’t even break a sweat with all of that email, the scrolling (up, down and panorama) is always silky smooth. Likewise for common tasks like deletion, forwarding and composing. Simply put, it’s excellent. Despite the equally beefy processor in the iPhone 4, the Mail application can occasionally experience lag.
Internet Explorer is also another surprise. Among the tech heads of the world, Microsoft’s venerable browser has been a laughing stock. In many ways, the reasons for that attitude are apparent on the desktop versions – Internet Explorer 6, 7 and 8 are the slowest browsers on the market with standards compliance, in 6 and 7 particularly, well behind competitors. While it is not as fast as Mobile Safari on the iPhone 4, Internet Explorer on Windows Phone is actually not that far behind. New tabs open without much fuss and no lag; in fact, any noticeable delay is due predominantly to the animation effects when deleting and opening tabs. Safari can be prone to slowdowns when you have several tabs open, mainly because it stores many pages in RAM. Internet Explorer is less liberal with RAM usage thereby preserving performance, but it means you will need to reload pages in some tabs if you have many of them open.
The lag-free experience also continues when streaming MPEG4 (and WMV) video content from YouTube and other sites from within the browser – it superfast on NextG and Wi-Fi. This can be very hit and miss on the iPhone 4 – even with Wi-Fi running at N speeds, YouTube videos can take minutes to load; this is also true for many other sites with which the iPhone is compatible. I’ve not run into those hurdles on Windows Phone 7 at all – providing you have a reasonably quick connection, you don’t even have to wait for it to buffer.
If the browser was updated with HTML5 and the DirectX acceleration present in the desktop version of Internet Explorer 9, currently in beta, it would be easily on par or better than Mobile Safari. Nevertheless, the experience as it stands is good enough for most browsing tasks because most of the web works just fine with Internet Explorer, despite the standards compliance criticism. Either way, it’s certainly a massive step-up from browsing experiences in Windows Mobile 6.5, Symbian and Blackberry – which, having used all of them, are slow, buggy and prone to crashes. As for the Android browser and Mobile Safari, it’s fair to say that Internet Explorer is at least competitive in terms of performance.
The Marketplace, on the other hand, is somewhat disappointing, not in terms of interface performance (which is characteristically smooth), but in terms of the amount errors, failed downloads and inexplicable crashes. I haven’t been able to pinpoint whether these issues are linked to the carrier billing option, or just an underlying stability problem with the Marketplace software itself, but either way it can be jarring because when it crashes, the device automatically reboots itself. On the odd occasion that it doesn’t reboot, pressing the home button does not end the process, so to speak, because it is one of the few apps allowed to stay open in the background downloading new apps or checking for updates. The result can be system-wide graphical glitches, which forces a reboot.
The issue, more so, is the indecipherable error messages that can appear saying ‘There was an error installing this app. Please try again later. Error code 0x012345” – I have no idea what the error codes denote, let alone why the error occurred in the first place. It’s gibberish, plain and simple. Often, the purchasing process can be so annoying that rebooting the device is easier and it usually solves the issues. The reboots themselves aren’t actually problematic because the device has an incredibly quick boot time of 15-20 seconds. However, rebooting the device should not be a regular occurrence.
The problem is compounded by the necessity of using a custom APN, telstra.iph, in order to preserve battery life. Telstra warned us that there were issues with the default APN, which they’ll soon be rectifying. However, changing the APN completely breaks carrier billing in the Marketplace and various other account related services. So, you choose battery life or utility but not both because APN changes require a device reboot. Clearly that is unsatisfactory.
That leads nicely to the subject of battery performance which is, frankly, terrible. Without changing the APN, it’s fairly typical for the battery to die within 4-6 hours, even with minimal use. Once you apply the APN changes, you’re lucky to get a couple of extra hours out of it. A smartphone is useless without push email, so turning it off is not an option in my book. If you make a few calls, prepare for a hit on battery life. Forget about it lasting more than a couple of hours if you decide to have a longish gaming session on Xbox Live. All up, I thought the iPhone used to chew through the battery – until I was acquainted with the HTC Mozart 7.
For what it’s worth, I think a lot of the battery issues are software related and not really the fault of HTC per se. That said, it’s hard to use the device as my main phone when it requires frequent charging – it’s not really that mobile if it needs to be plugged in constantly. I’ve already purchased a micro-USB car charger to keep it topped up when I’m driving. Nevertheless, I hope Microsoft’s much anticipated January 2011 update has some battery life fixes.
Third party applications
When it comes to the third party experience, as I’ve mentioned a few times, the Twitter clients are the most problematic and I’ve tried most of them, including the official app, Seesmic, Twozaic and Beezz. Australian developer, Paul Jenkins, looks to have a promising client called MahTweets (also available for Windows 7 on the desktop) but Microsoft has rejected it from the Marketplace twice unfortunately. I use Twitter very frequently so I can’t honestly say that the performance and stability issues which arise from the various clients are unique. However, it appears that way from the bundle of utilities, games and other random apps that I’ve downloaded. Twitter clients are very slow and more than a few times, they’ve crashed back to the homescreen. When you try to reopen them, they refuse which necessitates a reboot. Even worse, the apps will often force the device to reboot themselves, often midway through a tweet I might add! What’s annoying about all this is that they all have beautiful Metro panorama designs, with lovely text and so forth. If they actually managed to be stable every now and then, they would be perfect. I think I’ve had to reboot 15-20 times due to Twitter alone – thankfully the reboot speed is quick.
Other applications, like film info apps Flixster and IMDb work well, even incorporating trailers. The eBay application is reasonably fast and gives you all of the functionality of the iPhone app, except it’s a much nicer experience. The translator app, PolyGlot, is slick too – providing quick text translations as well as text-to-speech functionality. I hope to be providing some reviews of a few third party apps in the coming days, but suffice to say from a performance perspective, many (though not all, clearly) of the third party applications are great considering how new the platform is.
The only exception would be the ‘tombstoning’ (fast-app switching) performance for some third party apps (as I mentioned yesterday). This can be seen when you’ve exited an app, but then press the back button. The app will in many circumstances restart from the same position you were in. This also occurs when the phone is in sleep mode, the app will resume as soon as you unlock. The resumption process is where many apps fall apart – I’ve had a couple crash on me as a result and a couple of reboots too. Again, Twitter is the main culprit. Most of the games do not seem to have tombstoning support, although many have a ‘resume game’ option once the initial loading sequence has completed which can long, as earlier described.
Xbox Live Games
Xbox Live games have not exhibited any problematic performance issues other than depleting the battery life rapidly, which is to be expected to some extent. Some of the games, such as Bejewelled Live, The Harvest and Need For Speed: Undercover, can take up to a minute to load however once loaded the games run smoothly without any hiccups. The Harvest, in particular, has pretty amazing 3D -rendered environments for a phone game. Considering they all interact with the Xbox Live service in the background, the performance can’t be faulted.
Windows Phone 7 definitely has a few teething issues to resolve. The core experience is rather good but some third party apps need a lot of work to improve performance and increase stability. I suppose many of the issues are a function of having to rely on emulators during development, however despite some apps being on the Marketplace as far back as mid-October and the devices hitting general availability worldwide not long after, few apps have been updated to fix issues. So work needs to be done.
More broadly, battery life is going to be a big sticking point without some significant updates to the software. Perhaps my experience is unique, but unless I can comfortably get a full day of use out of the phone, it’s going to be hard to let go of the iPhone 4. Which is a shame, as I really do like the UI of Windows Phone 7, among other things.
A few people on Twitter have commented that due to these issues Telstra should have waited a little longer before doing a social review. I can’t speak for Telstra, but I’d say that there’s some sense to those comments (at least from a PR/marketing perspective) – but ultimately, Telstra is a first-tier Microsoft partner that is releasing phones now. Joe Public deserves to know what to expect, regardless of whatever updates are planned for the future. To that extent, the review is still valuable because Windows Phone 7’s state of imperfection means that there isn’t universal praise and everyone has their own opinion as to where the platform is headed.