on December 6, 2011
IN SHORT -
Hardware - 4.5 stars
Software (WP7.5 "Mango" as experienced on the Arrive) - 4.5 stars
* Great battery life, by current smartphone standards
* Clean, attractive, unique design, and overall pleasant and user-friendly interface.
* Great text handling for SMS, notes and Office (Word), with basic functionality for Excel too. Together with the keyboard, the main reason I wouldn't give this phone up for any other.
* Great voice quality
* Good cloud interfacing through Skydrive, Office 365, and OneNote, allowing storage and sharing.
* Keyboard (and hardware in general) is solid, attractive and a pleasure to use. Well laid out, rounded keys and clicky response, cursor arrows. On-screen keyboard is also quick. This review was 90% written on my Arrive.
* Social integration in Mango is the best out there.
* Limited Google integration (though Gmail works great)
* Bing: search should take fewer clicks and flow better into contacts/web/maps
* Few customization options, plus a few areas where form trumps function
* Not 4G
In the middle:
* WP7 is unique but more like iOS than Android. MS has chosen design consistency and stability (with some associated limitations) over an open, customizable (but buggy/malware prone) environment.
* Marketplace is smaller than Android or iOS, but clean and apps I have used have been good quality.
* Free/cheap apps mostly provide adequate integration with Google services.
* SkyDrive online storage is free and powerful, but some features are unintuitive and confusing. Recent updates to Skydrive have improved the service. MS is clearly throwing resources at improving its cloud services.
* Bing: search and maps are powerful and visually appealing. This is not to say they surpass Google in every way - they don't - but the quality of Maps in particular came as a pleasant surprise. Bing search is not "universal search" the way WebOS search was - it won't search your contacts, for example. Thus it takes a press or two more to make a simple phone call than I would prefer.
Who must have this phone? Anyone wanting a physical keyboard, planning to do any level of document creation/review/manipulation/sharing from their phone. Anyone wanting simplicity and seamless design for all of the basic smartphone functions.
IN DEPTH -
I have owned this phone for 9 months. Like the 6/9/11 reviewer and probably quite a few WP7 converts, I had a Palm Pre for 2 years and didn't want to wait another year just to see whether WebOS would survive (it didn't) and/or come to Sprint. While I am a mobile tech junkie, at heart I am an end user looking for a well-designed experience rather than a tinkerer seeking open source/customization, and "purity" (which MS is not). The Arrive is that phone that was never quite the tech blog darling in terms of its specs, but has the power, design and build quality to be the phone I will actually will love owning for a couple of years. Mobile tech inevitably gets bigger, faster and more advanced (and already the iPhone 4S and Galaxy Nexus are setting the new standard, with no Windows Phone response in the U.S. market, yet). Though now a step back from the latest and greatest, this is a phone that, as a full-time companion, will treat you well through your contract term.
Speed. This is worth a note because every generation of phones brings more processing power, with dual-core processors now moving into the norm. In this race, Android phones have the fastest processors, but the Android OS is also the least efficient in most applications and at managing resource use in general, so it is often a wash. Hence Android is known as the "laggiest" OS. Meanwhile, these big chips require more battery power. The 1 GHz Snapdragon chip in the Arrive, running under Mango, is extremely snappy, with animations running smoothly and applications showing little or no lag. The result is a smooth, fast experience combined with excellent battery life.
Voice quality is excellent, clear and loud on both earpiece and speaker.
Keyboard: Good layout, rounded keys and clicky response, cursor arrows. This is the best physical keyboard I've used, and is worth the extra physical weight. I pull it out for anything over a few words, and wonder how physical keyboards have gone by the wayside so quickly in the race for the thinnest slab phone. I expect to see some reversal of this trend as phones continue keep becoming more omnifunctional. The on-screen keyboard is also quick.
WP7 Office is a simple-enough, versatile-enough, nothing -in-your way affair that asserts MS's historical dominance in this realm. Together with the superb keyboard, Word makes the Arrive the writer's phone - with "writing" including (a) notes and lists, (b) any work requiring a longer process - drafting, editing, saving; and (c) regular correspondence. For the electronic notepad, good for a sparse transcription of thoughts when out of the home/office or in the middle of the night, I would rather have this than an iPad. For these uses, the marriage of good software with the keyboard, ergonomics, weight and balance of the phone, make text handling a pleasure.
Cloud. If you care about cloud/document-sharing, that alone makes the Arrive (and Windows Phone) worth a serious look. MS is clearly building a framework for serious cloud computing, not surprisingly since this is a pillar of the game plan for Office. The Skydrive and OneNote integration result in fast, clean, sharable files and notes and have been a very nice surprise that I use constantly for "sticky notes" of all kinds as well as "real" documents that thankfully remain in their regular Office format as they get bounced around the web. Note: MS owns an awful lot of properties which aren't very distinct from one another: Skydrive, OneNote, Office 365, SharePoint, etc. Google has had the good sense to give everything a name describing its function, like Docs, Reader and Voice. MS is catching on, kind of. Bottom line: Microsoft cloud properties are more powerful and less user-friendly than Google's, so it's a matter of need and taste.
Visual design. The aesthetic of WP7 is part of the identity and value of this OS. Among other things, it says "look how integrated I am!". There is a tradeoff in customizability, but I think that where most users are concerned, MS has hit much closer to the sweet spot than Android, and in a way that I prefer to iOS. However, there are just a few places where the aesthetic is distracting, like the email inbox, where the sender's name is in WP7's trademark giant sans serif font, but the subject is displayed in a diminutive grey font 1/3 the size. Overall, the use of screen space allows a lot of features to be on screen or one (intuitive) swipe away, while never feeling crowded. That's a feat.
Speaking of which, customization of the UI is not high. MS has chosen the theme, you get swap out tiles on the home screen, pick a color and ringtone, and not much else. But in return, you get polished design and an extremely stable, worry-free OS on the market, even at version 1.5. Note that in its most recent iteration even Android shelved its "anything goes" design mentality and put unity of design to the forefront.
Speaking of which...Google integration. Not surprisingly, this is not a high point of WP7. Accessed through IE, Gmail is bare-bones (but nice and fully functional when accessed through the phone's email client), and Docs, Voice and Reader are oddly formatted and not quite a joy to use. However, I do all of my voicemail through Voice via Gmail, and this has worked perfectly, so most of what counts, works. Most Google-related deficiencies in the browser are addressed by decent third-party apps, but for the heavily Google-reliant, these don't quite match the unified front of Android. As mentioned above, MS has some nice web-based services, but switching to them is a commitment and not for everyone. In some cases, it was for me and my buying the Arrive ultimately made me a Live/Skydrive user. If you love Google products, buy the Samsung Galaxy Nexus (though I recommend waiting for the price to come down first!)
Browser (Internet Explorer) - speed is good, and IE plays well with most sites, including sites in desktop (non-mobile) mode. I had some major complaints about limited and labor-intensive browser navigation in WP7.0 (especially in landscape mode), but they have virtually all been remedied in Mango to good effect.
Maps - different from Google Maps, but awesome. Tracking yourself by GPS on the map (e.g., along a marked route with directions to a destination) is smooth and fast. Aerial (photo) view is stunning and detailed. Basic functions such as getting/resetting directions from current location, or toggling between route details and full map, are efficient and intuitive. I'm not a turn-by-turn fan to begin with, but it came with the Mango update, and works.
Also on the Google comparison: I have long felt that Google services represented a major evolution in seamlessness and usability, and for free. However, after using Office online, Google Docs and Calendar seem functionally limited and not as miraculous in their shareability. With Office, the docx and xls most of us use can be edited on web, (WP7) desktop or mobile. These files can then be shared between these formats on Live or synced to the web).
Camera. The camera (including video) is of mid-range for an early 2011 smartphone. Its usability gets good marks for the dedicated camera button, and the Pictures function is superb for its ability to neatly pull in pics from all of your social network connections, sync photos to Live or easily share them via email, SMS, or social.
Battery life. Low on this list but of high importance, the Arrive easily gets through the day with juice to spare (often 50% after a normal work day). I need to be able to go on the road or leave the house without a completely full charge, without having to worry about where the next electrical outlet will be. Closing the deal on its other strengths, the Arrive does very well here, and makes this the phone you want to bring home to mom.
Apps in general - Windows Phone has a much smaller software ecosystem than iOS and Android, but I have rarely run into apps that I wanted that were on Android/iOS but not yet on WP7. However, know that every app out there is not going to be on WP7 at this point. The apps I do use are high quality, and searching for apps is painless. Games - XBox Live is a good source for quality games. There are probably good casual games in all of the major mobile ecosystems, and MS holds its own here. Most of my favorite apps are getting regular updates so there is a sense that developer support is robust, and that bugs get fixed promptly.
Miscellaneous features (which are not my personal priorities). Voice search and text dictation works for simple things - more than a novelty but not earth-shaking. Music/Zune - I am told this is maybe the best music player out there all things considered. I like it; I don't like having to use the Zune software to move music and videos on and off the phone but understand why. It beats using iTunes.