At the Windows Phone 7 launch event in London yesterday, all four (or five, depending on how you count) UK networks had a presence, as did Samsung, HTC, and LG. All three companies will have handsets available on October 21st. Relative cellphone newcomer Dell will also have a handset available at launch.

Across the world, HTC announced five handsets: HD7, 7 Mozart, 7 Surround, 7 Trophy, and 7 Pro. The HD7, 7 Mozart, and 7 Trophy are launching in the UK on the 21st, and the 7 Pro should arrive early next year. Company representatives said that the final phone, the 7 Surround, may or may not see a UK launch.

The HD7 will be exclusive to O2, the Mozart will be exclusive to Orange, and the Trophy will be exclusive to Vodafone. HTC gave no indications of which carriers would receive the Pro.

HTC’s lineup

As is going to be a recurring theme with Windows Phone 7 handsets, the phones were more similar than they were different. The HD7 had a glorious 4.3″ screen, and the Mozart had an 8 megapixel camera. Aside from that, there was little to significantly differentiate the models. All of them felt solid, though the two smaller phones felt uncannily light.

What HTC does do to differentiate is bundle applications. Each HTC handset is preloaded with a bunch of HTC-developed custom applications. There’s HTC’s now familiar weather software, a post-it note-taking program, audio and photo enhancing programs, and a stock ticker program. All can be pinned to the home screen, or accessed via HTC’s hub application.

The HTC hub
Adding a kind of cine camera appearance using the Photo Enhancer

Apart from apps, another area that the hardware companies can differentiate is the camera application. Though the basic operation of the camera is standard across all the phones, companies can add their own effects and processing; for example, they can offer different metering modes, ISO ratings, or autofocus modes, and they can include special effects. HTC, for example, has a solarize feature.

HTC’s phones all included Dolby Mobile and SRS Surround audio processing, which should in principle make them better for listening to music and watching videos than any of their competitors.

LG is launching its Optimus 7 exclusively with Vodafone. There was no word on whether the 7Q—the same phone but with a hardware keyboard—would launch, or if so, when it would launch.

LG: exciting software

LG’s software was, to my mind, the most exciting, as it really exploited the fact that it was running on a phone. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any pictures, due to the awkwardness of trying to photograph the device while using it. The Optimus 7 is a DLNA device. It can play back pictures, videos, and music to DLNA TVs directly, without any need for manual connections. I’m not entirely convinced that audio or video playback is a big deal, but the ability to show photos on a TV is very attractive; for many people, their phone is their camera, and showing pictures on TV is a popular option. This kind of integration is thoughtful and useful.

LG phones will also use an augmented reality program, ScanSearch, for finding restaurants, banks, theaters, cinemas, and so on. The ability to actually try out this feature at the launch event was limited, but as with the DLNA capability, it’s an application that’s exploiting the capabilities of a phone. We use smartphones for navigation, for finding places to eat and figuring out where to go, so using the camera, GPS, and compass to enhance those tasks is a good idea.

Also using the compass was a panoramic photo app. Thanks to the compass, the phone knows which way it’s pointing, and so can tell you where to aim to ensure that your panoramas have enough overlap to join seamlessly. It seemed to work pretty well, and just as with ScanSearch, it showed off how developers can use the sensor capabilities of the phone to do something a little out of the ordinary, and write software that wouldn’t work on a regular PC.

The final trick up LG’s sleeve, which unfortunately it couldn’t demonstrate today for some technical reason or other, was speech-to-text. All Windows Phone 7 devices offer voice-based commands; hold down the Windows key and say “call So-and-so,” and it will dial for you. LG takes this further, allowing voice input as a generalized alternative to keyboard input. This was a kind of customization that I didn’t know was possible, and it could prove to be a useful capability. Of course, it’s something that’ll be enormously dependent on the quality of the recognition, and that’s as-yet unknown.

Samsung’s Omnia 7 and the Now Hub

Samsung’s Omnia 7 will be available on Three, T-Mobile, and Orange in the UK.

Samsung’s customizations seemed limited. The company has its own hub, the “Now Hub,” that offers weather, news, and stock updates. I was disappointed to see that it wanted me to tell it which city’s weather I wanted; since the phone knows which city it’s in, it should have figured that out by itself.

The other custom feature is extended photo sharing. Windows Phone 7 can upload photos to Facebook and SkyDrive, and this feature is built-in. On Samsung phones, there are more options: Flickr, MySpace, and Picasa, among others. To my mind, this is much more useful than the Now hub; I use Flickr for photo-sharing, so the ability to directly upload there is welcome. As with LG’s applications, this feels like a far better use of the platform: when I’m out and about, I like the ability to upload photos automatically, it’s one of the virtues of a smartphone over my DSLR. Making this work better is more useful to me than showing me a stock ticker.

Like HTC, Samsung also has some kind of audio enhancement technology.

Dell: similar Venues

Dell’s apparent lack of telco tie-in is disappointing. The other Windows Phone 7 handsets being launched in the UK are far more similar than they are different. There are variations in screen size (3.7″-4.3″) and technology (TFT or Super AMOLED), storage (8 or 16 GB), and WiFi standards; the three mandatory buttons on the front of the device (search, Windows logo, and back) also had some variation (HTC used nice capacitive buttons, some of the other handsets used physical clicky buttons). Overall, though, the phones were not hugely divergent. If you can use one Windows Phone 7 device, you’ll be instantly familiar with any others.

Dell’s phone, the Venue Pro, bucks the trends somewhat, with its vertical keyboard—unusual compared both to the other phones available at launch, and to old-fashioned Windows Mobile keyboard phones— and looks interesting and worth trying. It may struggle, though; no network operator partnership was announced today, and without the physical retail presence that partnership with an operator provides, selling any phone is a struggle.

The OEMs aren’t the only ones who can add applications; network operators also get to bundle software with the phones. To be honest, the operators didn’t appear to do much. O2 had nothing more than a custom color and lock screen image. Company representatives said that more may follow later, but for launch, that’s all they’d offer. Of the customizations they did, Three’s seemed fairly representative: the company added a hub with quick links to account management and the like. None of their software seemed as adventurous as that from the OEMs.

As for Windows Phone 7 itself, it feels slick and polished. The interface is fast, the transitions are attractive, and built-in programs like e-mail are a pleasure to use. Anyone who uses a handset is going to want to explore it and learn more about it. If Microsoft can get good positioning in retail outlets, the platform should flourish. However, to get a feel for how well the operating system really works as a smartphone OS requires more time than we had today. First impressions are definitely positive, but it’s going to be a while before anyone knows what the software is like to actually live with.

[Via Ars technica]

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