Samsung’s Omnia 7 is their very first foray into the world of Windows Phone 7, Microsoft’s secret weapon in their war to reclaim market share in the mobile space having haemorrhaged most of it away to their competitors since the emergence of the original iPhone and the subsequent rise of the smartphone platform in general. Can consumer electronics giant Samsung take Microsoft’s latest offering to great heights?
When picking up the Omnia 7 for the very first time you can’t help but notice its size. At 122.4 x 64.2 mm it’s one of the bigger phones out there height and width wise but at only 10.9 mm thick and 138 g in weight it somehow never quite manages to feel TOO cumbersome and the sides are gently tapered in toward the rear so it still manages to sit comfortably in the hand.
The construction itself is a combination of metal and plastic that is solidly put together and is reassuringly free of any creaking or flexing of parts when gripped tightly. The large dimensions on this phone are there to house one of its stand-out features, the 4″ Super AMOLED screen, which is the brightest and the most striking display I’ve seen on a device of this class. If anything I found the default settings of the display to be a brighter than felt than comfortable to my eyes and I very quickly turned it down to a more tolerable level. Even then certain colours, red in particular, still dominated the screen and looked unnaturally vibrant. Still, on the bright side (pun intended) you won’t find the display on this phone suffering from the same excessively washed-out effect that its older AMOLED siblings are prone to when viewed outdoors on a sunny day but the highly reflective glass panel might cause some visibility issues of its own.
The top of the phone houses the 3.5 mm headphone jack and the micro-USB charge/sync port which is hidden behind a recessed sliding panel – a genuinely useful and thoughtful touch as opposed to the awful rubber flaps that many handset manufacturers try to fob us off with. The left hand side houses the volume rocker switch and the right hand side houses the power and physical camera buttons. The bottom is part of a slide off panel under which lives the 1500 mAh Li-ion battery which provided enough juice to get me through the day under average use circumstances but as with pretty much any smartphone these days you’ll be needing to hook it up to the mains at the end of the day in preparation for the next.
Of all the buttons on the phone it was only the camera one that presented me with any difficulty in everyday use. Don’t get me wrong, having a physical camera button is very useful and it’s a feature of Windows Phone 7 handsets that you don’t need to go into the operating system and launch an application before you can start taking pictures, you literally point and click, the theory being to reduce those lost photo opportunities that are there one moment and gone the next. No, the button itself is useful but its location isn’t. When engaged in a phone call, regardless of whether I held it in my right or left hands, I found it all too easy to activate the camera by accident. I didn’t even realise at first until I looked in the photos hub and found multiple shots of my surroundings taken at strange angles. As for intentional shots taken with the 5 megapixel auto-focus camera, they were more than acceptable when taken in good quality light although the LED flash often turned the subject matter into a ghostly white apparition when taking photos in low light conditions.
Audio quality during phone calls was clear and undistorted and I attribute this to a combination of the handset itself and the 3 mobile network that it was connected to. Coverage was more than adequate in the parts of the city I tested it in and even when the phone claimed signal strength was fairly low I had no trouble making or receiving calls and at no point did the audio break up or seem overly compressed. The quality of audio when playing media through the headphone jack was also good enough that you could quite happily ditch most dedicated personal media players and get by with this alone. Storage capacity is 8 GB and there is no means by which to expand this.
Having had extensive experience of Microsoft’s previous mobile operating system, Windows Mobile, I couldn’t help but set the bar low in terms of expectations. Windows Phone 7 may be the new kid on the block, and it shows in a number of ways, but it’s such a significant improvement over its predecessor that it almost feels unfair mentioning them in the same breath.
When pressing the power button the first thing that appears is the lock screen. Here you are not only presented with the date and time but general notifications such as missed phone calls, received text messages and upcoming appointments. Straight away you have the ability to glance at your device, take stock of what’s going on, and pocket it again without going any further. It’s a function reminiscent of the Today screen found in Windows Mobile which provided a similar kind of quick-look overview.
A flick upwards with a finger or thumb and the lock screen slides smoothly upwards revealing the Start screen that has two columns of what Microsoft calls ‘Live Tiles’. These tiles are large, brightly coloured panes which take up most of the screen, each of which fulfils a different function. The default tiles are quite plain with simple icons representing phone, messages, mail, etc. There is an old saying that when it comes to design sometimes less is more but the stock tiles are so devoid of detail that one might be forgiven for thinking that they are nothing more than placeholders. Indeed, when some of the very first images of Windows Phone 7 appeared online I thought I was looking at an early stage concept design rather than the finished article.
The Live Tiles themselves are an interesting notion though, their purpose intended to be neither a collection of static icons (a-la iOS) or full-blown widgets (a-la Android) but falling somewhere between the two. The trouble is that many of the tiles aren’t really all that informative, showing little more than, say, the number of text or mail messages received or the number of missed phone calls. Some are animated, cycling through pictures stored on the device, or showing an ever changing grid of people in your contacts, but on the whole this doesn’t really further their utility and, at times, can be downright distracting. It’s my hope that as the platform matures, developers will find new and interesting ways to make the Live Tiles idea really shine.
Up at the very top of the screen are the usual array of indicators (network signal strength, wi-fi, vibrate, battery life, etc.) and on the upper right hand side is an arrow enclosed in a circle. Pressing this takes you to a second screen where all the applications installed on the device are listed in alphabetical order in a single column along with their icons. If you end up having quite a few applications installed you could spend a lot of time scrolling up and down this list and it would have been nice if there was an option to view them in a more compact grid. At least you can press and hold your finger on the applications you use frequently to bring up the option of ‘pinning’ them to the Start screen (it should be noted that as well as adding to the Live Tiles on the Start screen, most of them can either be removed or rearranged to suit individual preferences).
Regardless of whether you launch something from its Live Tile or from the application list it will expand to fill the screen – and then some! Many applications open in a ‘hub’ view whereby each segment of the visible screen is only part of a larger whole. We are given visual cues to reinforce this as the large title at the top of each hub is so big as to span across multiple screens. Sliding each screen left or right produces a sort of parallax effect (similar to side scrolling console games of old) where different elements on screen move along at different speeds. It’s a nice effect but not without its limitations. For instance, within the Microsoft Office hub, you have links to the various applications that make up the Office suite and the one for Microsoft PowerPoint is so long that it doesn’t fit and the latter word looks more like ‘PowerPoir’. Unlike the hub titles, which are clearly intended to bridge screens, this particular instance comes across as being a bit scrappy. Sadly cut and paste isn’t a feature that’s currently available in Windows Phone 7 (I have it on good authority that an update is coming in March which will address this) and trying to position the cursor to highlight, insert or delete text in any of the Office applications proved to be an generally imprecise affair requiring a lot of patience and fine tuning.
The most engaging hub by far, and the one for which I can see the most potential as the platform grows, is the Xbox hub. Here you can log into your Xbox Live account and as well as seeing your avatar you also have access to your gamer score, the list of games you’ve played, your achievements and any messages you’ve received. With the aid of a free download available from the Windows Phone Marketplace you can also keep an eye on your friends and their gamer scores so if you’re quite competitive this will be right up your street. There are some game titles that you can download and play on the phone and you can score achievement points on these just as you would on an Xbox. These are essentially stand alone titles for now with no real cross platform pollination but just imagine the possibilities with more time and development under their belt, being able to start a game on your Xbox, pick up where you left off while commuting and then carry on once more on the Xbox when you get back home. I can see this having a huge draw for both hardcore and casual gamers alike.
The Windows Phone Marketplace obviously has a long way to go before it catches up with the number of applications available on its Android and iOS rivals but a lot of the day to day apps that I like to use were already available. I think perhaps the overall quality of apps suffers a bit, likely a result of Microsoft’s haste to gather more of them to populate the Marketplace and elevate their statistics, but there are good ones in there if you’re willing to go and look for them.
Overall I have found Windows Phone 7 to be quite responsive and snappy and while it’s not too difficult for a seasoned mobile user such as myself to encounter and pick apart the many shortcomings in its otherwise impressive repertoire, it’s not without its redeeming features. There are lots of nice touches throughout which show that real thought has been given to the usability experience (like on-screen buttons that visibly rotate to match the orientation of the device). Who can say for sure why some UI elements are far more polished than others but I’m sure that given time they will all be brought into parity.
If you’re someone who’s in the market for their very first smartphone and has no prior allegiance to either iOS or Android then you might want to give this phone a try, its well built and very easy to use. For existing Windows Mobile users, as long as you’re not dependent on legacy applications (which aren’t compatible with Windows Phone 7) then an upgrade to a phone like the Omnia 7 is a no-brainer. As for current iOS or Android users, if the thought of giving up your respective platforms causes you to hyperventilate in panic, that’s understandable, but don’t be too quick to dismiss this phone. It’s still early days for Windows Phone 7 handsets like Samsung’s Omnia 7 but with a phone like this at the vanguard, there’s going to be a lot more to look forward to.
I score the Samsung Omnia 7 a GeekNative rating of 7.5 out of 10.
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