In October 2010, Microsoft rolled out an all-new mobile operating system called Windows Phone 7. At the time of review, we loved its refreshing, slick user interface, but were disappointed with the omission of some important features.
Almost 12 months later, the company has released the first major software update to the platform, formerly known as the codename "Mango" but now simply called Windows Phone 7.5. It goes a long way to addressing the concerns we had with the original version. It's still far from perfect, but Windows Phone 7.5 Mango is finally a valid and compelling alternative to competing smartphone platforms, namely Apple's iOS and Google's Android.
Microsoft claims it has added or improved over 500 features in Windows Phone 7.5. While hundreds of these are minor changes that many people won't even notice, there are a few big changes and most of them are positive.
The Windows Phone 7.5 user interface is virtually identical to the original version. Once again its made up of large tiles that can be organised any way you wish; tiles can be "pinned" to the home screen and the default tiles can be removed. However, the live tiles have been given much more freedom in Windows Phone 7.5: Microsoft has added the ability to add extra dynamic content. As an example, a live eBay tile can display how long there is left on an auction you are bidding for, or a Qantas tile can show what time your scheduled flight departs and will even change colour as it gets closer to that time.
A great example of the new found flexibility can be seen using the Evernote app. It allows you to pin an individual note to the home screen rather than the full application. Previously, this sort of customisation and dynamic content was restricted to default Microsoft applications, but Windows Phone 7.5 makes it available to all third party developers.
Unfortunately, the main menu of Windows Phone 7.5 remains a scrolling list of applications in alphabetical order. If you download lots of apps, the inability for you to organise these will result in a very long list to scroll though. We also wish you could pin an individual setting to the home screen, you can pin the settings menu to the home screen, but you can't pin the Wi-Fi setting as a tile for example. This would have made it quicker and easier to toggle connections like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
The "People" hub in Windows Phone 7.5 once again groups your contacts from multiple accounts: phone numbers, social networking and email. However, you can now filter contacts from various sources. For example, we only want to see contacts with phone numbers in our People hub so we chose only show our Google contacts. In the previous version of Windows Phone this wasn't possible and we were lumped with our entire Facebook and Windows Live contact list. It left the People hub filled with contacts we hardly ever speak to.
Once you've logged into all your social networking and email accounts, your contacts are populated with information from multiple sources. Tapping on a single contact allows you to read his or her updates from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Windows Live, read your email, text and chat conversations with him or her and view their pictures from any linked social networking services. The idea of this being tied into a single hub negates the need to use multiple apps and makes using Windows Phone 7.5 very efficient.
Microsoft has added Twitter and LinkedIn support through the People Hub, expanding on the already offered Facebook and Windows Live compatibility. The "What's new" view in the People hub allows you to view status updates from all linked accounts, but you can tap "all accounts" to filter updates from one or more sources.
Email on Windows Phone 7.5 has added the ability to combine inboxes and has also introduced long awaited threaded messaging. You can still choose to keep inboxes separate if you wish, but the ability to combine inboxes makes for a more streamlined experience. Unlike any competing OS, you can choose exactly which inboxes to combine. As an example we combined personal Gmail and Yahoo accounts, but kept our work account separate.
The messaging app has also been given a facelift and now combines messages and chats from multiple sources under one contact. If you are exchanging text messages with a contact and then that contact appears online on Facebook chat, you can continue to use the messaging app to chat in Facebook (or Windows Live messenger). We'd like to see more accounts available (Google Talk anyone?), but this is a great feature that no other smartphone OS can claim to provide.
One of the major new features of Windows Phone 7.5 is the ability to create groups of contacts in the People hub. Once a group is created and contacts added to it, you can text or e-mail all people in the group simultaneously, as well as view the latest social networking updates from group members. You can also pin a group to the home screen that will show the latest notifications and contact pictures of each contact.
Given the wealth of information that is displayed in the People hub, a group allows you to separate the contacts you would most like to keep in touch with. Whereas the "what's new" view in the people hub will pull status updates from all of your contacts, a group allows you to see updates that you want to see: these could be from your best mates, your co-workers or a member of your family.
Windows Phone 7.5 has finally introduced multitasking. It's very basic in its current form, but definitely a welcome addition. Users simply press and hold down the back key to bring up a webOS-like view of the five most recent apps opened. You can then scroll through these apps and tap one to switch back to it.
As for other features, it's impossible to list the 500 new or improved features of Windows Phone 7.5, but there are a number of tweaks that we've noticed during our play with the software. Among the best we've discovered are:
- The calendar can now display multiple feeds and these can be filtered as you wish.
- You can quickly share a link from Internet Explorer via any linked social network account, email address or text message.
- The camera app now has an on-screen shutter button and you can save any settings you alter within the app.
- You can now load custom ringtones onto your phone, though this can only be done through the Zune PC software client.
- The wireless hot spot feature has been added, but it will only be available on future devices, not current Windows Phones like the HTC HD7 or the Samsung Omnia 7.
- A battery saver feature can be automatically activated when the battery is low, disabling push email and multitasking.
- You can upload pictures to multiple social networking accounts through the pictures app.
Third party applications are once again downloaded from the Marketplace app. Though the number of apps continues to grow, the reality is that both iPhone and Android handsets have a much wider selection of apps. However, we were pleased to note the presence of most of some popular ones including Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Angry Birds, TripView, Evernote and YouTube.
Microsoft's first comprehensive software update for the Windows Phone platform was long overdue, but the result is a mobile operating system that’s more than competitive with the market leaders. Though there are some aspects of Windows Phone 7.5 Mango that still need improving, and a number of missing features that could be added, Microsoft has produced a credible alternative to the iOS and Android platforms. Nokia, it's now over to you.