Windows Phone 7 Series hands-on and impressions (updated with video)

Forget everything you know about Windows Mobile. Seriously, throw the whole OS concept in a garbage bin or incinerator or something. Microsoft has done what would have been unthinkable for the company just a few years ago: started from scratch. At least, that's how things look (and feel) with Windows Phone 7 Series. This really is a completely new OS -- and not just Microsoft's new OS, it's a new smartphone OS, like webOS new, like iPhone OS new. You haven't used an interface like this before (well, okay, if you've used a Zune HD then you've kind of used an interface like this). Still, 7 Series goes wider and deeper than the Zune by a longshot, and it's got some pretty intense ideas about how you're supposed to be interacting with a mobile device. We had a chance to go hands-on with the dev phone before today's announcement, and hear from some of the people behind the devices, and here's our takeaway. (And don't worry, we've got loads of pictures and video coming, so keep checking this post for the freshest updates).

First the look and feel. The phones are really secondary here, and we want to focus on the interface. The design and layout of 7 Series' UI (internally called Metro) is really quite original, utilizing what one of the designers (Albert Shum, formerly of Nike) calls an "authentically digital" and "chromeless" experience. What does that mean? Well we can tell you what it doesn't mean -- no shaded icons, no faux 3D or drop shadows, no busy backgrounds (no backgrounds at all), and very little visual flair besides clean typography and transition animations. The whole look is strangely reminiscent of a terminal display (maybe Microsoft is recalling its DOS roots here) -- almost Tron-like in its primary color simplicity. To us, it's rather exciting. This OS looks nothing like anything else on the market, and we think that's to its advantage. Admittedly, we could stand for a little more information available within single views, and we have yet to see how the phone will handle things like notifications, but the design of the interface is definitely in a class of its own. Here's a few takeaways on what it's like to use (and some video)...

Start screen: the Start experience is completely revamped, now focusing on sets of tiles which represent links to applications or contacts. It's a completely contextual experience which can be customized both by users and carriers, and allows people to "promote" items higher up in the list. To the right of this screen is a long, vertical list of all your apps for quick jumps. It will take some time getting used to this layout; one or two tiles per line, and that long list which goes up and down rather than left and right, but honestly -- this does have some advantages. Things seems less out of reach in this configuration, and Microsoft swears that they'll be working closely with developers to build widgets that make use of the concept.

General phone navigation: If you've used the Zune HD, you know what this is like. Lots of bold text on the device, lists with text cut off on the sides of the phone, and additional screens to the left and right driven by arrows pointing you in either direction. For the most part this works, though in instances like email, it feels like there's a bit of wasted space. Everything else is super stripped down -- the calendar app looks like vector line art (and weirdly one of our favorite parts of the phone), the browser seems to be using the bare minimum to show its content (which isn't necessarily a bad thing), and the phone application is essentially monochromatic. On the other hand, you've got a beautiful and robust photo app (with pinch to zoom, as in the browser), and the Zune end of things is perfectly integrated... but what did you expect? Oh, and never mind that this is the first time Microsoft is bringing Zune to the rest of the world.

The sheer minimalism of the interface is striking, and we're really impressed by how many risks Microsoft is taking here. It's hard to believe that just a year ago this company was showing off WM 6.5, which now looks ages behind what they've turned around with today. We're not sure if someone was just let off the leash or if we're seeing a newer, smarter, more agile Microsoft, but the 7 Series concept definitely shows that this company is learning from its mistakes.

It's not a flawless experience. There are still some points that need polishing, and we saw our share of missed touches and weird behavior, but in comparison to another new OS we just saw (Bada), there's not even a competition. The browser also still needs a bit of work -- page rendering isn't as snappy as we would have liked to see, though it does seem to be true to page layout, which is a great step in the right direction. It's clear that the team we met here in Barcelona is still hard at work on refining and perfecting the work they've started. And honestly, for the first time in a long time, we're excited about Microsoft in the mobile space. If they can deliver on the promises of 7 Series, this could change the current landscape of the smartphone market... but that's a lot to deliver on. Hold tight, because things are really starting to get interesting.