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Microsoft's Windows Phone 7: Wrong name, some of the right ideas

Consumer technology columnist Rob Pegoraro gives a preview of some of the new Windows 7 phones, and the all new Windows 7 Mobile OS.

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Saturday, November 6, 2010; 1:04 AM

Windows Phone 7 may be Microsoft's most-misnamed product ever. That moniker suggests a sequel to its Windows Mobile line of operating-system releases; fortunately, Windows Phone 7 is nothing of the kind.

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Not only does Windows Phone 7 look nothing like its doomed predecessor Windows Mobile 6.5, it doesn't feature any windows in its interface. It doesn't require you to run Windows; you don't even need a computer to set up a WP7 phone.

With this smartphone software, debuting Monday on AT&T's $199.99 Samsung Focus, Microsoft did a very un-Microsoft thing: It banished backward compatibility.

By shipping a mobile platform with almost no ties to old software and hardware, the company could finally root out some deep-seated flaws. But its most faithful mobile users might suffer the most pain if they upgrade.

Windows Phone 7's differences surface the moment you awake a WP7 phone. Instead of the Start menu of Windows Mobile or the grid of application icons on an iPhone or Android device, WP7 displays a set of tiles representing the most-used parts of the phone.

Many, including the tiles for the phone itself, text messaging and your e-mail accounts, track how many items await your attention. A flick of the thumb whooshes you up and down these shortcuts, to which you can add such items as an address-book listing, an application or a Web bookmark.

Prioritizing new, relevant information over inventorying the phone's applications (you can see them if you swipe a finger left to right across the home screen) is a smart, thoughtful move.

Including a non-embarrassing Web browser, however, is a matter of simple survival. WP7's version of Internet Explorer doesn't match the current iPhone and Android browsers (both of which benefit from the same open-source code base), but it displays non-Adobe Flash pages generally intact and doesn't stall out with multiple pages open at once.

A Focus lent by Microsoft's PR department exhibited weak battery life in steady use, lasting only about four hours with a constant stream of Web radio playing and the screen mostly lit. (The iPhone 4 and recent Android devices have run six or seven hours in the same test.)

But this sleek device's standby battery life was better than any Android phone I've seen lately; it kept a healthy charge even after being left alone over two nights.

Most WP7 phones, including AT&T's Focus and T-Mobile's HTC HD7, use an onscreen keyboard for text input. (AT&T's upcoming LG Quantum will include a slide-out physical keyboard; its odd HTC Surround looks as if it has one but instead slides open to reveal a set of speakers.) Microsoft's auto-correction software doesn't match the iPhone's but is on par with Android's.

You can also speak to some applications, such as its Bing-powered Web and map searches, but the responsiveness and accuracy lag Android's voice recognition.

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