Microsoft and its handset and network operator partners aren't wading slowly into the waters with just one new Windows Phone 7 handset. Instead, they are going all out, with AT&T alone fielding three of them: from HTC, LG and Samsung.
Each of the three offers a unique and compelling hardware experience. With three hardware profiles, the user gets plenty of choice to find out what works best for him or her.
Microsoft isn't allowing its handset and carrier partners to customize the user interface too much. That means the software experience of the HTC Surround, LG Quantum and Samsung Focus is nearly identical. Since the user interface is shared among the three, let's save that for last.
Overall Feel: With its pop-up stereo speakers, the HTC Surround is less focused on the business user and more appropriate for those interested in a great media experience. It is the heaviest of the bunch and suffers a bit from too much specialization on one feature.
It is thicker and heavier than other touch phones with similar screen size thanks to the sliding form factor that delivers up two stereo speakers. In order to facilitate desktop movie viewings, the Surround has a kickstand on the back to hold it up and position the screen at a good viewing angle. (This works for PowerPoint presentations, too.) The kickstand doesn't feel as flimsy as it does on other devices, but I still worry about its longevity.
The other buttons and controls on the Surround function as they should, and Microsoft has mandated several features for the hardware. All Windows Phone 7 devices have to have a Back, Home and Search key below the main display, and they must be in that order. The Surround uses capacitive keys that provide haptic feedback (small vibrations) when pressed. The WP7 also must have a dedicated camera key.
Perhaps one of the best features is that pressing and holding the camera key unlocks the phone and launches the camera.
The Surround's hardware has a good feel to it, and quality of materials and manufacture are top-notch. The lack of a physical keyboard might be a turn-off to some, however.
Performance: Unfortunately, the Surround is not a very good phone. Signal performance was all over the map, incoming calls often went straight to voicemail and call quality was downright terrible. What's worse, the power of the earpiece speaker and speakerphone was not nearly enough to suffice for calls in noisy environments or conference calls.
The Surround did exhibit decent battery life, easily making it through an entire business day with no trouble.
The Surround has a 5-megapixel camera that records HD video. The camera does well enough for this class of device. Images were a bit inconsistent in quality, but were more often better than not. The camcorder records video at 720p HD. Videos were free of some problems common to phones, such as waviness and digital artifacts.
The screen looks fantastic, however, and is perfect for viewing movies. I sideloaded Avatar and it looked great (yes, even on the tiny screen). The WP7 music experience is great, and the stereo speakers are powered by SRS and Dolby Mobile, which enhances their performance.
Sum: The HTC Surround is clearly meant for media lovers. The lack of a physical keyboard alone is enough to keep business users away. Will it handle basic enterprise tasks? Sure. It can sync with Exchange no problem, and the Office productivity tools give mobile professionals the basics when it comes to viewing and editing work-related documents. Its poor phone and speakerphone performance, however, should give interested business users pause.
Overall Feel: The Quantum is the fattest of the three Windows Phone 7 devices for AT&T, but its major benefit is that it has a full physical QWERTY keyboard. The presence of the keyboard alone makes its girth forgivable. It has a nice, rounded feel to it that's pleasant when in your hand. It won't be a problem to put in a pocket.
It has the same three buttons on the front as the Surround, though the Back and Search leys are capacitive and the Home key is a physical button. Using a physical button for the Home key was a smart move, as it is easy to find and use, even in the dark. The Quantum also has the same dedicated camera button. The screen of the Quantum is the smallest of the bunch for AT&T, but it still measures a respectable 3.8 inches.
The slider mechanism used to reveal the keyboard doesn't have the best feel to it. It's a little stiff and doesn't have spring assistance to make it easier. Underneath, however, the keyboard felt roomy and easy to work with.
The letter keys were a bit on the flat side, making them somewhat difficult to tell apart, but they had good travel and feedback. It was a four-row keyboard and had navigation keys, but not specialized buttons for Internet characters.
For those who require a physical keyboard, the Quantum is the one to get. It is smaller and more manageable to travel with than the Surround, and offers many of the same basic features. The fit and finish doesn't match the Surround, however, and it uses all plastics and no metal parts, giving it a cheaper feel.
Performance: The test calls I made with the Quantum were much better than those with the Surround. The earpiece had good volume, and there was no noise or other nonsense in the background. The speakerphone also had good volume -- much more suitable for a conference call than the Surround is.
As with the Surround, the Quantum has a 5-megapixel camera and can record 720p HD video. The test shots that I took looked mostly good, as did the video. I saw some graininess on the indoor images but nothing too objectionable.
The Quantum's screen looks good, but the 3.8-inch diagonal leaves it feeling cramped for watching movies. It is very bright, and colors are rich and warm. It is definitely not the media-minded beast that the Surround is, but users will have no problem passing the time with video or audio content.
Sum: The Quantum is all about trade-offs. It is thicker than the other WP7 phones for AT&T but is one of the few that offers a physical QWERTY keyboard. Thankfully, the keyboard is a good one. It has a smaller screen than the Surround and the Focus, but that means it is more pocket-friendly. It also has much better phone performance than the Surround, and battery life isn't bad, either.
Overall Feel: The Focus carries forward design language from Samsung's line of Galaxy S Android phones but adds Windows Phone 7, instead. The result is the thinnest, lightest and arguably best-looking Windows Phone 7 smartphone for AT&T. It is mostly made of plastics, but they have a quality feel to them.
The Focus uses capacitive keys on the front for Back, Home and Search functions. As with the Surround, they offer haptic feedback when pressed. The camera key offers the same press-to-unlock-and-launch-camera trick that the Surround and Quantum do.
If you're into slab-style smartphones, the Focus offers the right trade-offs -- as long as you don't want a physical keyboard. The screen and overall size are an excellent combination for most tasks.
Performance: The Focus also has good calling performance. The Focus was always able to find AT&T's network, and quality of calls was very good. The earpiece volume and speakerphone volume were both excellent, making this perhaps the best pick of the three when it comes to basic telephony.
The killer feature of the Focus, however, is the 4-inch Super AMOLED display. It is flat-out amazing. Samsung has developed some fantastic screen technology with the Super AMOLEDs, and the Focus' display is far superior to every other Windows Phone 7 device out there. Web sites and movie, in particular, look dazzling on the screen. This is your best WP7 display, hands down.
It matches the Surround and Quantum with the same 5-megapixel and 720p HD recording powers. I found the Focus produced the best images and best video compared with the others. Exposure was consistently better, and both still images and video showed less grain across the board.
The one real problem, however, is battery life. It doesn't do as well as its WP7 cousins and barely makes it through an entire business day. All too often, it conked out by the time the end-of-the-day commute rolled around.
Sum: The Focus is thin and light, offers a great display and call quality, but suffers when it comes to battery life. It lacks stereo speakers and a physical keyboard, which may be a turn-off to some.
One thing that all three phones have in common is Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7 platform. The platform from Microsoft makes use of Hubs and Live Tiles to organize the home screen. Microsoft, the manufacturer and the network operator both have a say in how the home screen is laid out, but users can also make their own adjustments and customizations.
WP7 requires a lot of swiping. Whether it is to access the main menu, or sub-menus within the Hubs, users will have to get used to dragging their fingers across the screen. All three devices were immediately responsive to the touch, and the user interface is extremely fast.
The Hubs are where Microsoft concentrated a lot of is energy. Each offers a batch of content, and they are organized into collections for People, Office, Pictures, Music & Video and Marketplace. Business users will be most concerned with the People, Office and Marketplace Hubs.
Microsoft has integrated Facebook heavily into the People Hub (i.e., contacts application). This means it is nearly impossible to distinguish work from personal contacts. That's a bit of an odd choice, and business users might find it disconcerting.
The Office Hub offers access to OneNote, SharePoint and somewhat hobbled versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Each allows you to create, open, and edit documents, but it is obvious that this is an early version of Office for Windows Phone 7. Word worked perfectly, but my review units had trouble with large PowerPoint and Excel files. This is one area I expected Microsoft to… excel. SharePoint is useful for sharing documents with coworkers but requires configuration.
As for email, the experience is much better than the one offered by Windows Mobile 6.x devices. It doesn't offer as many features out of the gate, but users can add multiple email accounts (which are kept separate), and the email interface looks fantastic. Exchange support is built in natively for PIM data management and syncing.
The browser rates an acceptable third place when held up against Android's native browser and Apple's iOS browser. It is easily better than the browsing experience found on any previous Windows mobile device, but it still lags in basic usability compared with Apple and Google. Still, it looks great, and supports pinch-to-zoom and multiple tabs.
For the mobile professional, these first three Windows Phone 7 devices being offered by AT&T present a daunting choice. Each offers the same smartphone powers but with distinct hardware experiences.
The HTC Surround is large and heavy but has great materials and fantastic stereo speakers. Too bad it's so bad at making phone calls. Battery life is pretty good, however. The LG Quantum is chubby and made of cheaper materials, but it is the only to offer a physical keyboard. It has better call performance than the Surround, and battery life is acceptable, too.
The Samsung Focus is the thinnest and lightest and offers the best display. It also manages to make the best phone calls. It's a tragedy, then, that the battery life is so limited. For basic productivity, solid phone calls and good battery life are paramount. If those are your criteria, the Quantum is the best choice.