A Week with the HTC HD7: the Apps [Update]

Evan Selleck - Nov 17, 2010, 6:45pm CST
A Week with the HTC HD7: the Apps [Update]

I have spent almost a week with the HTC HD7 from T-Mobile USA, the first device for the Magenta network to run Microsoft’s new and “improved” Windows Phone 7 mobile Operating System. So far, we’ve taken a look at the hardware, which I was pretty impressed with, even if I had seen other devices much like it already. And then, we took a personal look at the software, and I came out pretty confident in the system, even if there were a few things in there that threw me for a loop. Tonight, we take a look at the apps. As of the time of this writing, Microsoft says they’ve got just over 2,000 applications available in the Windows Marketplace. I picked out my favorites, and I’m also going to talk about the native ones, too. So let’s get into it.

Native Applications

I think it’s an obligation that I start with the email client. For me, having email sent to my phone is a must, and so I’m always trying to find the best application to make that easier on me. I hate having to go through lengthy screens, or complicated user interfaces to get what I want. It should be simple enough, smooth enough, and efficient enough to make me want to use it, but not just because I have to. When I had originally seen demo videos of the email client for Windows Phone 7, I wasn’t all that impressed. But, just like in the software article, it’s after I got time to play with and use it, and actually experience it, that I realized how much work had gone into it.

Finding an email is easy with the search function, along with the top navigational words. Finding your way into your Inbox, or to some messages you may have flagged, to any unread digital parcels you may have is easy: just swipe left or right. The same user experience is found in the email client, just like the rest of the phone, and it just works. No more having to deal with drop down context menus. Just swipe your finger, and you find what you’re looking for. You can even add folders, to make navigating to frequently used ones all that much easier. The black-on-white format of the email application, consistent from Exchange to Gmail, isn’t distracting at all, and just makes looking at emails all that much easier. Everything is sized correctly, aligned, and you don’t need to do any scrolling to the left and right, like I’ve had to do with so many other email clients in the past. Again, Microsoft made sure that this just works, and that it looks good while doing it.

However, I have noticed something peculiar about the sync for my email accounts on the HTC HD7. At first, I wasn’t noticing it at all, because I didn’t have my other devices syncing my email, too. But, when I wanted to test how accurate the sync between the Windows Phone 7 device was, and my actual email Inbox, I found some inconsistencies. Primarily, I don’t feel like the HD7 is as fast as I would really like it to be. Not all the time. There were a few occasions that I would test the sync, and sometimes the HD7 would receive the email even before my web-based email. But, more often than not, I find that my Palm Pre plus, and Samsung Fascinate are syncing my emails (both my Gmail, and Microsoft Exchange) faster than the HD7. For me, this is almost a deal breaker, but I’m hoping that with some kind of bug fixes in the first service pack for Windows Phone 7, this gets addressed.

I’m going to bundle the Internet Explorer and Zune Music & Videos applications together, so hopefully that’s all right with you. First, Internet Explorer. I’ll go ahead and admit that I don’t use IE on my computer, nor have I used it any time in the recent past. I’m just not a fan of it. And, I’m still not a fan of it, even when I’m using it on the HD7. There’s nothing really wrong with it, I’ve found, but I’m just not a fan. First and foremost, I can’t find a way to access the URL bar, to type in a web address, when I’m in landscape mode. In fact, when I’m in landscape mode, I pretty much can only do one thing: view the page I’m on. Turn the device to portrait mode, and you get all of your options back: URL bar, settings, favorite, and open a new page. For me, this just makes me hate using Internet Explorer even more, because I prefer to browse the Web in landscape mode. It’s just more comfortable. But, overall, the speeds are good, and web pages are pulled up accurately. Not having Flash player isn’t a drawback for me, so I can’t judge whether or not I’m getting the “full experience” that some people may think I’m not receiving. It works well enough for me, even if I can’t really do anything in landscape mode.

Right out of the gate, I was a fan of Windows Phone 7 because of its ability to sync to Microsoft’s Zune Software. I may be one of the few, but I personally don’t use iTunes anymore. If I did, I would easily spend way more money than I could make, and that’s not good. So, Microsoft’s Zune Pass, for $14.99 per month, works perfectly for me, and knowing I can sync it to my HD7, and listen to music through it, is pretty much amazing. And, I wasn’t let down. I’m able to sync my music, take it off, and add more whenever I want, and I’m fully capable of accessing the Zune Market from the device while I’m out and about, letting me download the music I want when I want, thanks to the Zune Pass.

But, one quick thing I did notice, is that the music player is tied to this Music & Videos service. Doesn’t seem like a bad idea at first, but it really is. Why? Because if you don’t have enough service to, say, access the Music & Videos section of the Zune Market, then you can’t get to your music. For those who live in an area with great T-Mobile service, you’ll probably never notice this. But for me, in my usage, I don’t have the best service, and I’ve noticed a few times where I just wasn’t able to get to the music I wanted to listen to, because I didn’t have a data connection. I’m sure this seemed like a good idea to someone at Microsoft at the time, but I’m here to tell you: it isn’t.

Yes, there is a way around it, but it doesn’t really fix any problems. Let’s say you’ve listened to music at some point, earlier in the day. Back when you had a data connection. But, now that you don’t, and you’re not able to surf the Internet, you want to listen to some music instead. Oh, but look at that, no data connection means no Music & Videos, so what do you do? Well, if you haven’t turned your device off since that last time you listened to music, all you have to do is hit the volume rocker, up or down. That will bring your volume level indicator up, in the toaster notification at the top of the display. You’ll also get options for playing your music, or skipping forward or back. Once you hit play, you can listen to music again. But, be warned: you still won’t be able to access your music library from the device, as long as you don’t have a data connection.

It’s annoying because the music is saved on the device, courtesy of Zune Software, but obviously Microsoft believes you should be tied to the Internet in some capacity or another if you want to listen to your music. Not cool, Microsoft.

And the last native application I’m going to look at, is Office. This is one of the other reasons I was excited to get my hands on Windows Phone 7. While I’m a huge fan of Google Docs (did you see that it’s gone mobile, now?), I still have a soft spot for Microsoft Word (don’t ask me why, because I couldn’t tell you). So, being able to use a full, Windows Phone 7-based version of it seemed like a great idea. And, in essence, it really is. Creating new documents is easy, editing new documents is easy, and saving them, both on the device and on your PC, is simple enough. I don’t really have any negative things to say about it, especially considering the applications, which include OneNote (a huge plus, in my book), are free. If I had to pay for them, I’d probably be singing another tune.

To wrap-up the native applications, I can safely say that Microsoft may have played it safe to the vest with some of them, but for the most part I’m pleased with what they’ve done. Their email client is top-notch, Microsoft Office is excellent, and even if there are some limitations to just the music player itself, it’s backed by a huge library of music and music videos, all of which I can download whenever I want (as long as I’ve got a data connection). Out of the box, applications wise, Windows Phone 7 does pretty well for itself.

Third Party Apps

There are over 2,000 applications in the Windows Marketplace as of right now. Obviously, I’m not going to go through all of them. In fact, I’m not going to go through most of them. I took some time to go through the Marketplace, I found some applications that looked interesting to me, and I downloaded them to try them out. Some of them stayed in their free trial state, while others got bumped up to the full version. I’m going to pick out my favorites, and I’ll tell you why. There’s a few in there that may not surprise you, and some that may.

Oh, and I’ll tell you right now: not a single one is a fart app. Not one. Not because Windows Marketplace doesn’t have any (because they have a lot), but because there’s no way I’m going near a fart app.

First, is Netflix. This application works so well, and looks so good, that I can barely believe it. I’ve used Netflix on another mobile platform, and I was impressed with it then too, but the Windows Phone 7 variation just brings everything I’ve enjoyed so far about WP7, and puts it in the Netflix app. The same left-to-right and right-to-left swiping navigation is present, which makes navigating the application a breeze (and fun), and the software is quick and responsive. Even while I was moving through my Instant Queue, I wasn’t finding any lag. Starting movies is quick, but obviously it’s going to depend on your data connection, and coverage. I tried a few times to get Netflix to work on a weak EDGE connection, but it wasn’t having it. Don’t get me wrong, it still played the movie, but it wasn’t watchable. I tried again when I had full signal strength, still on EDGE, and I got a movie that I could watch, without interruption or non-synced sound.

The experience is so much better on WiFi, though. There were plenty of times when I was sitting back, messing around with something on my Xbox 360, when I put the HD7 down in front of me, set it up on the kick stand (which I still dislike, for the record), and started watching a movie. There’s something about watching a full length movie on a mobile device, though, and even if I love Netflix on the HD7, I probably won’t be using the service all that much. That will change for most people, though, especially for those who do a lot of travelling. The HD7’s 4.3-inch screen is awesome to watch stuff on, though. No arguments there.

Foursquare. There were rumors that Foursquare creators weren’t going to make a Windows Phone 7 application for launch, but money got involved, and here we are. I’m glad they took the time to do it. Just like with Netflix, and every other aspect of Windows Phone 7, the navigation and presentation of the application is unarguably one of the best ones I’ve ever seen. I’ve used Foursquare for awhile now, but I’ve got to admit that the applications are pretty boring. That’s not the case with the Windows Phone 7 version.

And then there’s DoodlePad. This is just a fun application. With DoodlePad, you can draw whatever you want, with all sorts of color options, ink sizes, and photos. If you’re bored, of if you can’t watch Netflix or listen to music thanks to your data connection, DoodlePad is a great way to keep yourself, or even anyone else with you, entertained. It’s robust in its own right, with plenty of options for drawing and coloring, but it’s a pretty light application other than that. It opens quickly, drawing is smooth, and erasing is easy. Simply put, it’s just a fun app to have, and use every once in awhile.

This next app is perhaps, arguably, a native application, but only because of the carrier, and not because of Microosft. T-Mobile’s T-Mobile TV is a pretty fantastic application, and if you’re someone who loves TV (I’m not, really, I promise), then the HD7 and T-Mobile TV is a pretty safe bet. Not only do you get options for old episodes for a particular network, including ESPN, Disney, and ABC, but you also get live TV. The quality of the video is top-notch, even if you don’t have the best service, and I didn’t find any trouble with audio synchronization.

In all, the third party applications are new. There are a few more in the Marketplace that caught my attention, that I used, but didn’t stick around for long on my device. The Ragdoll application that Microsoft showed off months ago is in the Marketplace, and it’s a lot of fun, but I personally feel like it shouldn’t have cost any money. If you’re looking for a lot of free applications, then the Marketplace probably won’t be your favorite place. However, there are free trials for everything, so you do get a good grasp of an application before you buy it. As anyone can expect, the Marketplace has room to expand, and as long as the developers keep up with the growth, there’s nothing holding it back.

The Wrap-Up and HTC Apps

If you’re someone who needs apps, the Windows Marketplace will probably have something for you. And, if not right now, then they more than likely will. Whether that’s because Microsoft nudges developers towards the platform, or they come on their own, there’s no reason why I can see that developers would want to shy away from Windows Phone 7. The user base will grow, as more devices are released, and with it the application library will grow with it.

There’s one final point I want to make. HTC, known well for their proprietary User Interface on previous Windows Mobile devices, and now primarily on Android-based handsets, called Sense UI, wasn’t allowed to do any tweaking to the overall look and feel of Windows Phone 7. (And now I know why — there’s no reason for it.) But, that didn’t stop them from creating the HTC Hub, which will let you access applications from HTC, like Weather, and Stocks. None of these are mind blowing, except the Weather application. HTC improved it, ten-fold, and the animations are great. However, the HTC Hub is no reason to get an HTC-manufactured Windows Phone 7 device. There aren’t enough applications to make me say that it will be your one-stop shop for awesome apps, either. That could change in time, I imagine, but I doubt it.

The wrap-up is simple enough: the Marketplace is a broadening experience. There are only 2,000+ apps in the market right now, and there are plenty of apps in there that some would see as a waste of time. But, there are some gems in there, too. Honestly, it reminds me of Apple’s App Store, when it first launched. Yes, it was amazing at the time, but there really weren’t a lot of applications that really stood out. Yes, there were some, but not a lot. But there were a lot of apps that no one cared about. Windows Marketplace is in that place right now, but thankfully the outlook is promising.

[Update]: With the comments below, I realized that I had to do a bit of digging to get to the bottom o this. Obviously, there are several accounts where people are perfectly capable of using Music & Videos without any kind of data connection. First, let me just point out, again, that I really had no idea why this was happening. It confused me, just as much as it was confusing the readers. And so, I decided to get in touch with Microsoft and HTC, to see if they could help me figure out what was going on.

Reason being, it wasn’t just Music & Videos that was causing me the problem. There were a couple of occasions, when I had really piss-poor service, that the Xbox LIVE Hub wouldn’t open for me, either. The device would act as if it were loading, but then it would kick me back out to the homescreen. Just like the Music & Videos section. Now, in my head, I’m thinking that there’s all sorts of reasons this could be happening, but the common denominator was the lack of signal. And, while it doesn’t really make any sense, I could see why Microsoft might want you to be connected to the Internet, in some fashion or another, to play on Xbox LIVE. Or even connect to the Zune Marketplace while you’re listening to music.

The result? Both HTC and Microsoft informed me that it’s just a case of mistaken identity. As the commenters below determined, it doesn’t have anything to do with my Internet/data connection. It was, for all intents and purposes, just a coincidence that, while I didn’t have a data connection at the time, my Music & Videos section, along with Xbox LIVE, weren’t loading. Their idea for a fix? Hard reset. So that’s what I did. And, sure enough, it looks like my device was just acting wonky, for whatever reason.

Now, after the hard reset, the device is working fine. I can access Music & Videos without a data connection, and the same goes for Xbox LIVE. I wish this hadn’t have happened, I really do, but as I said above in the article proper, this was just my personal experience with the device. I’m not giving the HTC HD7 a review. We’ve already done that. I’m just letting you know, from a day to day perspective for a common user, not a reviewer, how I believe the device stacks up.

So, let me just say that I’m sorry for the confusion. Like I said, I wish it hadn’t have happened, but it did. Now that I’ve got it fixed, and Xbox LIVE and Music & Videos work the way they should, everything is, as they say, hunky-dory.

Must Read Bits & Bytes