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Microsoft back in the game with decent Windows Phone 7 Add to ...

Microsoft has a lot riding on Windows Phone 7. Previous versions of Windows Mobile were, shall we say, less than wonderful, and the company is about out of second chances.

Guess what - Windows Phone 7 may just pull their fat out of the fire.

Perfect it's not, but after several weeks of working with the operating system, I'm impressed.

A lot of it has to do with Microsoft's belated decision to enforce hardware specs that do the OS justice. If you buy a WP7 device, you know you will get a respectable phone with at least 8 GB of memory, 5 megapixel camera, and all of the niceties like accelerometer, GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a very nice touchscreen. Each phone is required to have three buttons: Back, Start, and Search, always in the same order at the bottom of the screen.

You also get pre-certified apps, another improvement. Microsoft realized that a dud app that degrades performance makes the phone look bad, so it now checks out the software that's meant to run on the device. While it says it's not as restrictive as Apple, it is trying to strike a happy medium between allowing developers carte blanche and nailing them down too tightly.

You've likely seen pictures of the home screen with its "Metro" user interface's live tiles, and ever-updating content (counts of new e-mails or messages, indications of game alerts, notifications of new Facebook content and so forth). Manufacturers are allowed to add some of their own apps to the home screen, but are not allowed to remove any of the base set. This gives you a predictable user interface that's easy to navigate. The OS supports gestures like pinch and swipe, and the two touchscreens I've tried were both extremely responsive.

When you fire up your WP7, it wants you to sign into Windows Live. That's your ticket to the online hubs that are an integral part of the WP7 experience. If you also log into Facebook, the phone will inhale your friends and add them to your contacts. Ditto your Hotmail or Live mail contacts (it does ask first). If you choose to connect with your corporate Exchange server, those contacts will be available, and if you add any other e-mail account, if its contacts are stored on the server, they get added too. The phone supports virtually every kind of account too: Gmail, Yahoo mail, POP3, IMAP … the demo unit (an LG Optimus 7 from Telus) even came with Bell, Telus and Rogers configurations preinstalled. If you deal with the same people over several networks (say, e-mail, IM and Facebook), you can link their records to present one unified view of the individual and see their updates virtually as they happen.

Finding someone in those potentially formidable collections of contacts could be a challenge, but rather than endlessly scrolling the list, you can either use the Search button, which will let you look within the current app, or you can pin a tile containing the person's contact record to the home screen. There's a "Me" tile on the home screen already, where you enter your own updates, post comments on your Facebook wall, and generally keep the world abreast of your status.

You can actually pin virtually anything you want to the home screen - a favourite photo, a music playlist, an app, you name it. Just hold your finger on the item to get the context menu (It's the equivalent of a Windows right-click, in effect) and pin away. And once you've pinned, you can rearrange the tiles to suit yourself - just touch and hold to release the tile from its current location, drag it to where you want it, and tap to lock it down.

The e-mail client is basic, but functional. You get three views: All, Urgent and Unread messages, accessible by swiping horizontally.

It does lack some options that owners of devices like BlackBerry take for granted, however. Three of them were most important (to me): when the phone sychs with your server mailbox, it deletes messages you've deleted on the phone (and you have no choice in the matter); you are unable to only download message headers at synch and decide later whether you want the entire message on the phone; and you can't filter mail to prevent certain messages from downloading.

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