With more than 500 new and enhanced features coming to Windows Phone this fall in Microsoft's version 7.5, or "Mango," update, you'd think we'd be hard-pressed to discern the cream of the crop. Not so!
After spending almost a week with, we found that five major features stood out above the rest. These features are time-saving tools, clever ideas, or enhancements borrowed from elsewhere, but they all share the properties of making the Windows Phone OS a much better functioning place to be.
Of course, it's not all lovey-dovey. CNET's Bonnie Cha has a list of.
But for now, some praise:
1. App integration
Microsoft has taken the initiative here with a small addition to its platform that makes a profound difference. Instead of leaving apps in the Marketpalce and on the launch screens, the Windows Phone team has also made it possible to see relevant photo and music apps in the Photos and Music + Videos hubs.
That's not all. If third-party publishers tap into the App Connect API (as it's called), you'll be able to see apps related to movies, consumer goods, and local businesses when you search in Bing. A discovery aspect will also suggest apps you don't have, after you search.
Why do we love it? It's a novel idea that delivers apps to more places where you want them.
Sure, almost every rival already had a way to easily switch among apps. Microsoft earns no originality points here, but the feature is a sorely needed solution to a pesky problem.
3. Bing Vision
The folks at Microsoft put on their thinking caps for this one, integrating the concept of popular barcode-scanning software into their search app by default and then taking it a couple steps further. First, Bing Vision attempts to identify products and media based on barcode, Microsoft Tag, QR code, and cover (if it's media like a book, magazine, CD, or DVD). Second, once you press Bing's "eye" icon, you don't have to press anything else to get the app to focus and snap. Third, it will try to scan and translate text as well.
The software doesn't completely succeed at all it sets out to do, fairly often returning incorrect or partial information, but Mango isn't finished yet and so the app could improve in accuracy before launch. Kudos to Microsoft for expanding Bing's features with a useful search tool.
4. Smart DJ
We've always been fans of the way Microsoft folded Zune into Windows Phone. The new Smart DJ feature builds from there, creating a playlist from your current artist, song, or album picks from the songs you have on your phone. Even better, if you have a Zune Pass, Smart DJ cleverly searches the Zune Marketplace as well, suggesting songs you may want to add to your repertoire.
We've seen something very similar with Apple's iTunes Genius playlist, and the approach is an equally helpful addition in Mango.
5. Threaded conversations
Old school e-mail organization is no more! Individual messages are now grouped together in a thread, and annotated with the number of messages within a single topic. Expanding and even deleting threads is simple and clean. A similar concept for text and IM messaging also has promise, though it hasn't yet been activated, so we weren't able to test it. We hope that come fall, we'll be bouncing seamlessly between IMing and texting for the same contact in the same conversation.
Honorable mention: Enhanced live tiles
Widgets are the closest analog to Live Tiles in other mobile platforms, but in Windows Phone OS, they comprise the home screen in bright, uniform blocks that update with new information when you get a new message or a missed call. In Mango, tiles you assign to people (even yourself) also update with relevant information, like status updates or a missed call.