Editor's note: This article evaluates pre-release software for the Windows Phone Mango update.
It was eight months ago that Microsoft launched its revamped mobile operating system, Windows Phone 7. Overall, the platform was well-received both by users and the tech press, as they lauded the fresh, bold, and easy-to-use interface; thoughtful integration of features; and improved performance. However, it also had its fair share of shortcomings and pitfalls.
This fall, Microsoft will release its first major update for Windows Phone, bringing more than 500 new features to the OS. Known up till now as Mango, the update will formally go by the name of Windows Phone 7.5; it focuses on improving three key areas: communications, apps, and Internet.
We got a brief look at some of the enhancements during ain late May, but recently, Microsoft gave us a chance to dive deeper into Mango with a technical preview of the OS. Since the software wasn't final, we weren't able to test out everything, but below you'll find our hands-on impressions of some of the more major features you can expect from Windows Phone 7.5. (To see our final thoughts, skip to the end.)
When developing Windows Phone 7.5, one of Microsoft's main goals was to deliver an experience that was "smarter and easier." In the area of communications, this meant offering a simpler way to connect with contacts and share information, and part of the solution was to add support for group contacts and dynamic live tiles.
Group contacts is pretty straightforward. Setup simply requires going into the People hub, tapping the + icon, and following the prompts to create a group. Once saved, you can e-mail and text all the members of the group. What's even nicer is that group contacts allows you to see the status updates and photos of just those members in the group and not everyone in your entire address book, so it acts as a great filter if you have a large number of friends in Facebook.
Like an individual contact, you can pin a group to the Start screen for easy access, and with Mango, you'll be able to see more real-time information in these tiles. So, for example if you pin a contact to the Start screen you can see the contact's real-time status updates or any notifications, such as a missed call or message from that person. The tile is much more useful in that sense and no longer serves just as a shortcut to an individual's contact card.
The enhanced features also extends to the Me tile (your profile), where you can now post a message, check in to places, see notifications, and set your chat status, instead of only seeing what's new in your profile. It's a welcome addition but more than contacts, we're excited that developers will also be able to tap into the new dynamic tiles for their apps.
A couple of final notes about contact and social networking in Mango: Facebook support has expanded to include check-ins and integration of Facebook events into the phone's calendar. Also, Windows Phone will finally fold in Twitter and LinkedIn into the People hub once Mango is released this fall. This was one of the features that wasn't enabled for our technical preview, so we weren't able to take it out for a test-drive. However, we're told by Microsoft that the integration will work much like Facebook, where you can see and respond to your contacts' tweets and LinkedIn updates in the What's new section of the People hub.
Windows Phone 7.5 addresses a couple of issues we had with the platform's handling of e-mail and messaging in the original release. The first is the addition of conversation view. E-mail threads are now grouped together, so you no longer have to scroll through every single message trying to find a response. Each thread is clearly marked and shows the number of messages in the thread and the number of unread messages. Expanding and collapsing the conversation is done with single touch--very simple, very clean.
Threaded view is carried over to text and instant messages as well. You can see all messages sent to a contact in a single thread, whether the message was a text, MMS, or an IM from Windows Live or Facebook chat. Microsoft says you can even start a thread on your PC and then switch over to your phone and continue the conversation choosing a method of your choice. The setup process should be seamless and automated when Mango is released, but again, since we weren't given final software, we had to manually sync our Facebook account. Even then, we had to wait a few hours for our contacts to sync in order to use Facebook chat.
A unified inbox also makes its debut on Mango. This certainly isn't new to other platforms, but it's appreciated nonetheless. Microsoft allows you to choose which accounts you want to link together, so if you prefer to keep your work e-mail separate from your personal e-mail, you have the freedom to do so. That said, there isn't an easy way to identify which message came from which account, unlike Android where it color codes messages by account. It's a small point of contention, but we wouldn't mind seeing that added in the future.
There is added Exchange support, including the ability to search for e-mails on the server, out-of-office reply setup, to-do list syncing, and PIN support. All that said, Microsoft has not changed its policy on direct Outlook sync, so if you're not connected via Exchange ActiveSync, you must sync through the cloud (via Windows Live/Hotmail) in order to get your calendar and contacts synced to the phone.
Microsoft's 18,000 apps can't possibly compete against much larger markets like Android's 200,000 titles and Apple's reportedly 500,000 apps. Instead, Microsoft wants to better integrate your apps into other areas of the phone.
For example, app suggestions will now pop up in Bing search results when you search for places, movies, or products, like books. This happens two ways. In the first scenario, you swipe to the new "apps" section (Microsoft calls them "pivots") to see a list of compatible apps, like those for Amazon or Best Buy if it's a product, or for Open Table or Yelp if it's a restaurant. In addition to finding information online, you can also open the related apps from the Bing results Apps menu. In the second scenario--the two can occur alongside each other--Bing suggests a relevant app that you don't have at the top of the results, with an option to download it.
We give Microsoft points for the novel concept, but because this is a limited technical preview, it was hard to put into action. For the suggestions to appear, application publishers need to take advantage of Microsoft 's API, called App Connect.
Unfortunately, while we can see an example of the app suggestions at the top of the Bing results page (to download the IMDb app), Bing's new Apps section won't be able to show us related apps we do have, certainly not until those third-party publishers make their apps Mango-friendly. So although it works in theory, we have yet to see the feature's nuances play out in practice.
Bing isn't the only place where apps will appear in Windows Phone 7.5. They'll also surface as separate sections in the Music + Video and Photo hubs as well. For instance, we were able to launch AT&T Radio from the Apps pivot in the Music Hub.
Hopefully the concept will live up to the promise, but there are still some unanswered questions, like how many suggestions you'll see in the Bing results at a given time, and if you'll be able to manage the list of apps from the dedicated Apps pivot page. Although Microsoft has released beta tools, the final developer tools are still in production, so we'll have to reserve our final critique until the real deal arrives. What we do know is that App Connect for Places and Movies will be limited to the U.S. for now, and results for Products will be available for just the U.S., U.K., and France until further notice.
Bing (Local, Vision, Music ID)
Section updated 6/21/2011 at 9:40 a.m. PT to correct details about filters in Local Scout.
Bing is home to some of Mango's most interesting new features. The Windows Phone 7.5 update gives it an additional menu, and four new icons along the bottom: Local Scout, music search, Bing Vision, and voice search (this already existed in Windows Phone 7, but is highlighted now).
Local Scout channels Yelp and other restaurant and business databases to serve up dining, events, and retail stores in your immediate area. Tap the sliver of a map above to expand it and plot your course. The map hooks into reviews, events, and details of the establishment. Scout is a fine idea that seemed to suffer some hiccups during our tests. It was slow to load at times, and although we later discovered filters for ratings and distance, the feature was hidden and unintuitive (we even mentioned it twice before Microsoft told us filters existed). We'd also like to see other management options that take you beyond the 20 listed results.
Bing Vision, conceptually one of Mango's most exciting additions, is a visual search app that mashes up traditional bar code readers with image-identification software. Press the eye-shaped button and move the phone so the entire bar code, QR code, Microsoft tag, book, magazine, poster, DVD, or CD fills the view finder. Without pressing a single other button, Bing Vision will return search results that you can drill into. It will also scan text that you can opt to translate into a number of languages. Bar code scanning will work for U.S. items only, and text translation won't work in all regions.
As with Local Scout, Bing Vision needs some work done for it to live up to its considerable promise. Search success was hit or miss. The database didn't match to a new hardback that's being aggressively promoted in book stores, though it did register the bar code and it did succeed in identifying some other books. It also didn't recognize any of the common magazines we tried scanning (including Wired, Scientific American, and Bloomberg BusinessWeek), serving up a Not Found message. Translation worked well enough, but the software rarely captured the entire text. We'd also like the option of setting a default translation language for longer-term translation requests.
Bing's new music identification feature is also neat. Like Shazam and other music ID apps, if you launch it while next to a source of recorded music (tunes playing through Google Music on our Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 in this case), the Redmond-built Bing tool will attempt to identify the song title and cover art, giving you the option to open the record in the Marketplace app.
We experienced some problems in this camp, too. An incoming meeting notification killed the listening feature, and the app didn't recognize everything we threw its way. At times, it didn't always have a Marketplace record for every identified song.
Music + Video
One of the things we love most about Windows Phone is the Zune integration, and it only gets better with Mango. There's a new feature called Smart DJ that creates a playlist similar to the artist, song, or album you're currently listening to using the content available on your phone.
If you happen to be a Zune Pass subscriber, Smart DJ will expand its search to the Marketplace and include content from there when creating a playlist. You can even save playlists and share them with friends via e-mail. We can't say we always agreed with the grouping of artists or songs, but it's still a great source of entertainment, and a fantastic way to discover new music and artists.
Podcast lovers will be happy to hear that Windows Phone 7.5 brings the ability to browse, download, and subscribe to podcasts right from your phone, instead of having to first connect to your computer and Zune software. To do so, simply go to the Marketplace under Music + Video and then select Podcast. You can search by genre, top or feature podcasts, or simply by entering a specific title. If a call comes in while listening to a podcast, it will hold its place and resume once you hang up the phone.
The video player also now offers a way to skip ahead or go back to any point in the clip.
The first thing we noticed about the enhanced voice-to-text app is that the voice software, powered by Microsoft's TellMe division, sounds slightly less robotic when it confirms our voice prompts to open apps and launch Web searches. Although Microsoft is pushing these features to reviewers, this variety of prompts already existed.
Composing a text message and instant message with just your voice is a new Mango feature, but accuracy was only so-so. Punctuation and capitalization are absent, and formatting was often bizarre, with spaces between a word and a contraction. The voice-to-text software will work in a pinch for hands-free texting, but it isn't the most satisfying implementation, mostly because humans are still much more accurate than computers at transcription. Press and hold the Home button to get started.
Being able to hear incoming messages read aloud makes the feature truly hands-free when you combine it with voice-triggered texting. In the Settings, you can choose how and when you want them read, like through Bluetooth, wired headsets, or both.
Rival software vendors create apps for voice prompts, too. Many are built into the system software like this one is, and we're always glad to see seamless integration here, especially since Microsoft wholly owns and develops the TellMe software after acquiring it in 2007.
Like the other mobile platforms, Windows Phone 7 runs multiple system programs simultaneously, but it won't be until Mango that you'll be able to seamlessly switch among open programs. To switch, just press and hold on the Back (arrow) touch-sensitive button beneath the screen. The program you're in will shrink to a thumbnail size, and you'll be able to swipe left and right to see thumbnails of other open programs. You can open any other by tapping it; Mango will keep your place so you won't have to reload every time you leave and return to the app.
While it's technically more accurate to call it app-switching than multitasking, we're glad that Microsoft is taking a cue from rival platforms and adding this useful, easily used feature.
Internet Explorer 9
The differences in Internet Explorer are more subtle than those found in other new and enhanced Mango features. Microsoft tinkered the interface a tad, moving the address bar to the bottom of the screen, for example, and hiding certain icons to increase page real estate.
More importantly, however, is that this version is based on IE9, rather than the IE7 bedrock of the previous OS release. Hardware acceleration (powered by the GPU) is touted to help Internet Explorer render content faster and more efficiently. Behind the scenes, there's support for the HTML5 Web standard (but not for Flash or Microsoft's Silverlight). Indeed, the Samsung Focus with Mango loaded graphically rich pages significantly faster than the original Samsung Focus we placed right beside it in simultaneous tests (both phones were also on the same Wi-Fi network).
Another welcome addition is the ability to share content from the browser with social networks like Twitter and Facebook; before you could share via e-mail or texting. We were able to post messages to Facebook this way; they took just a minute to appear.
Protected browsing mode and new "hang" protection were two other features Microsoft has added behind the scenes, but we were unable to test their efficacy.
Microsoft teased some of the new business features of Mango early on, and there is quite a bit of added functionality in the Office hub. This includes the ability to share and store documents through Office 365 and Windows Live SkyDrive cloud services and a new locations pane to access documents from various locations (SkyDrive, Office 365, SharePoint, and so forth). At launch, Microsoft will also make available a Lync app in the Windows Marketplace that allows for meetings and instant messaging capabilities across companies.
The Xbox Live experience is set to get richer and more connected with Windows Phone 7.5. Currently, you have to download the Xbox Live Extras pack from the Marketplace in order to customize your 3D avatar, track achievements, and connect with friends. However, this will all be available to the user from the get-go with Mango. A more visually appealing and descriptive Spotlight section in the Xbox Live hub and improved Marketplace also makes it easier to discover and search for games.
The Windows Phone app Marketplace also gets a little face-lift in Mango, in the form of search suggestions for apps and games, music, and podcasts when you first begin typing. It also adds a new soft-key search button to make it easier to search within categories. Search results will now be organized by type (music, podcasts, etc.) on separate pivot screens. If you search from one of the narrowed-down categories to begin with, you'll see results for just that category, not for all content.
Microsoft earns some better-late-than-never credit for itsits first-generation Marketplace Web site with a version that will let you buy and download games from your computer to your Windows phone. We still don't have details beyond the continued promise that the revamp is set for the fall release. We'll revisit just how seamless it is to use and navigate when the feature debuts.
Windows Phone 7.5 Mango is a work in progress, and that's not to Microsoft's detriment (yet) since this is a preview and not the final release. The features aren't necessarily new, but Microsoft's approach embraces the company's idea of the smartphone as more than just an app launcher, and instead as a device that fluidly takes a task, a game, or any other experience from start to finish. From our vantage point, both the incremental and more ambitious changes are fairly successful at doing this. However, some of Mango's features are so zealous that the gaps and inconsistencies tend to seem glaring. Never mind that similar features and services on other mobile platforms usually perform about the same, with mirrored mistakes, but with Microsoft trailing Android and iPhone, critical eyes are especially sharp.
Part of Microsoft's challenge is getting customers to see Mango's smart integration as a new way, one that gives them an edge over the status quo--this has been one of its biggest trouble spots from the get-go. Bright ideas like app integration, Bing Vision, and voice-to-text don't and should not paper over the weak points like inconsistent search results. We hope Microsoft inspects and overcomes every flaw we found. Taken as a whole, however, Mango is a satisfying upgrade from the original Windows Phone OS, and one that brings the platform closer to the competition.
As it stands, there's a lot to like in Mango, and we remain cautiously optimistic about Microsoft's mobile prospects. For its part, Microsoft will need to continue bulking up the features, wooing developers, educating consumers, and thinking outside of the box--posthaste.