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Review: Windows Phone 7.5 Mango Beta – Microsoft strikes back

Microsoft got a lot of praise for their new Windows Phone operating system, and rightfully so because WP7 represents a fresh, innovative and unique mobile OS approach that is easy to understand while still being effective. Most people didn’t expect such a major reboot after so many years of Windows Mobile stagnation. But like all new concepts Windows Phone 7 also has it’s share of setbacks, especially compared to the competing mobile OS like Android and iOS which already went through some major revisions in the recent years. Microsoft made a great first move with the initial Windows Phone 7 release, but they need to catch up on some areas. The upcoming Mango (Windows Phone 7.5) update looks like it might be exactly what most Windows Phone users have been waiting for. I installed the beta version of Mango some weeks ago on my HTC Mozart, and the amount of new features is truly impressive.

Windows Phone 7.5 Mango – Tiles

Windows Phone 7 uses tiles on the homescreen, which can represent app shortcuts, images, live information and more. With Mango (Windows Phone 7.5) you have more possibilities to utilize the live tiles as 3rd party developer like showing weather information or message previews. You can also put specific contact groups, single contacts, email inboxes and even email subfolders on the homescreen as separate tiles.

The tiles will show the number of new emails, or updates from the contacts. It’s really cool to look at the homescreen and see all kinds of informations at a glance. And Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) does a great job of providing all data in a very attractive way.

Windows Phone 7.5 Mango – App list

Even though the Windows Phone 7 marketplace is not really big yet, you can still easily end up having much more than a handful apps installed after some time. Since it wouldn’t make sense to put all the apps on the main screen as tiles, the app list got some small but very useful changes.

First of all you have a search button which will allow to easily find an app by typing a search term. And what’s even better is the fact that you can now access an index similar to the peoples hub, in order to directly jump to a specific letter without any scrolling. This option is shown only if you have more than approximately 40 installed apps though.

Windows Phone 7.5 Mango – People hub

I think the wp7 peoples hub is the best contacts app out there. Yes, even better than the offerings from iOS, webOS and Android. It has the most attractive layout, combines different informations streams beautifully and is perfectly fluid all the time. And with Mango (Windows Phone 7.5) the people hub will become even better.

You can now define contact groups i.e. for friends or family. This groups will then appear as first entries in the contacts list to make them easily accessible. Within a contact group it’s possible to send messages and emails to all members at once which is a nice feature. Furthermore groups can be pinned to the homescreen as live tiles. The tile will not only act as shortcut to the group, but also show updates of the members i.e. if somebody from your family sent an email to you. I love the way the dynamic peoples hub and those animated tiles bring your contacts to life by showing recent pictures and notifications.

Social media services like Facebook and Twitter are also more tightly integrated, as you can post messages and make comments to your friends status and images via people hub. I barely used the standalone Facebook app, because the people hub already provides the most important features in one place.

Windows Phone 7.5 Mango – Email client

Having an combined inbox is nothing new to other mobile OS, but Microsoft went one step ahead by allowing you to define which email accounts should be combined. So it’s possible to combine two private Gmail accounts and put this new inbox as a tile on the homescreen, while creating another inbox for multiple business email accounts. You can also rename each inbox freely.

This is really a perfect solution for anybody which has to take care of many email accounts at once. Especially since Microsoft didn’t forget to provide the option to put each inbox on the homescreen as separate file.

You also have an conversation view, which groups email conversations into one thread. Android user already know this feature from Gmail. Touching the name of the email sender will open the detail view of the contact and show the recent conversations with that person. Other great new features include inbox search, setting up out of office messages (exchange server) and securing your inbox with a pin code.

Windows Phone 7.5 Mango – Calendar

When opening the calendar you will now also see a tab for to-dos. Finally you can sync your exchange/outlook tasks on your phone again. The last time i can remember having this option was on those old Windows Mobile days. Neither Android nor iOS lets you sync exchange or outlook tasks out of the box. I would love to put the tasks as a live tile on the homescreen, but this is not possible with Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango). You can only access tasks via the calendar tile. Many times i have a quite long task list, and tend to forget specific tasks without deadlines/reminders every now and then. So it would be great to have a live tile which shows your tasks dynamically. This could act as a reminder for tasks which are not important enough to have a deadline or specific reminders, but still shouldn’t be completely forgotten.

Sadly there was no change regarding the calendar month view, which was one of the flaws on the first Windows Phone 7 release for me. The month view still only shows tiny text for each entry, which just doesn’t make sense as you cannot read it.

Hopefully they will switch to timebars or another kind of representations for meetings as the current solution is not satisfying at all.

Windows Phone 7.5 Mango – MS Office

MS Office for Windows Phone 7.5 provides Excel, Word and Powerpoint support. Just don’t expect to edit complex documents with this. Even though editing documents is possible, only basic actions can be done.

Besides a slight redesign of the startscreen, you can also directly sync your documents via Office 365, sharepoint server, skydrive (which is a 25 GB Microsoft cloud storage for free – a great offer considering that other cloud solutions are subscription based and don’t provide nearly as much free space) or save them locally on your phone.

Windows Phone 7.5 Mango – Internet Explorer

In my opinion the biggest setback of Windows Phone 7 besides the ‘small’ app market is the browser. When using the LG Optimus 7 i was surprised to see quite a lot of rendering issues as well as only moderate speed. Compared to the webkit based solutions of the competition it was hard not to see the problems the Internet Explorer has when used on a mobile device.

For the Mango (Windows Phone 7.5) update Microsoft promises some big changes. In fact the browser is now based on IE9, which is a good move. But at this point i still have two major complaints. First of all the majority of mobile pages is optimized for webkit browser, and the IE9 can’t render them correctly. This means that you cannot use ANY of the great Google mobile pages, or any other webkit site. And since there are no standalone WP7 apps available from Google (besides Google search) you are left with a completely missing Google mobile experience.

And second the browser doesn’t support dynamic text wrapping, which basically makes it useless for reading. Anybody who has seen the benefits of dynamic text wrapping, which means that line breaks are adjusted to the current zoom level, will not accept anything less. I can’t stress enough what a catastrophic user experience it is to zoom into a webpage (because the text on most regular pages is too small to view on a mobile device) and only see half sentences because they are cut off at the right edge of the screen. Seriously, this is a killer criteria for me. Microsoft and Apple have to implement this urgently, since Android provides this feature out of the box. Or at least there should be some good WP7 3rd party browser available which support this feature. Currently this is not the case, but i hope to see Opera Mobile for wp7 sometime in the future. And by the way, flash is still not supported.

Windows Phone 7.5 Mango – Bing Maps (Voice Turn-by-Turn Navigation)

Google released their full turn-by-turn navigation for Google Maps with a big bang. And Microsoft catches up now, by providing a similar navigation feature for Bing Maps on WP 7.5 (Mango). Bing Maps is not as fast as Google Maps and i also think that the location database isn’t as sophisticated too. But overall it gets the job done, and having a true navigation feature is always welcome.

Location details have been overhauled too, as Bing maps will provide useful informations about nearby sights too see and places to go. Ratings and reviews are also available for popular sights, while many smaller places currently don’t have any ratings.

Windows Phone 7.5 Mango – Bing Search/Bing Vision/Bing Music Search

Windows Phone devices have three main navigation buttons: back, Windows button and search. After the Mango (Windows Phone 7.5) update the search button will be used exclusively to open Bing search. While i can understand that Microsoft wants us to use Bing as much as possible, it’s really bad to see the search button constrained like this.

I don’t think that usability will benefit from the fact that all other apps need to provide their search by implementing a seperate search icon. When i’m in the people hub pressing the standard Windows Phone search button, chances are that i want to find a person. Or if i open IMDB and want to search, most probably it will be for a movie or an actor or anything else related to the current app. I caught myself multiple times using the search button and expecting an context sensitive search, only to be disappointed to see Bing search popping up on the screen. Windows Phone 7 is very intuitive in so many ways, but with the search button changes Microsoft clearly opted for strategic gains and against usability.

There is also a new toolbar at the bottom of the Bing search to be found which provides access to Bing Vision and Bing Music Search. Bing Vision is a QR reader which can extract information out of pictures and scanned text to provide related search results or translations (in case of scanned text). And Bing Music Search can recognize songs via microphone to find further data like artist and cover art. Furthermore Bing will show the option to open the marketplace and buy the song.

Windows Phone 7.5 Mango – Messaging

Messaging combines two different channels now. Besides the regular threaded view of your messages, you will now also have to option to write instant messages if your friends are online.

It makes perfectly sense that Windows Phone 7.5 will show you that your friend is actually online, whenever you want to text him. Instant messages don’t have letter limits like text messages, and for people having an internet flatrate instant messaging is basically for free while text messages are additionally billed.

Windows Phone 7.5 Mango – Camera app

Saving the current camera settings is possible now, while on older Windows Phone versions all your settings would be lost the next time you opened the camera app.

Tapping the screen will make a photo too, so there is no need to use the hardware button if you prefer touchscreen input.

Windows Phone 7.5 Mango – Multitasking

It was interesting to see that Microsoft banned multitasking support on Windows Phone 7, even though Android and Apple provided different multitasking concepts at that time. It was really frustrating for a heavy smartphone user to see all those apps reboot every single time you opened them.

Thankfully Mango (Windows Phone 7.5) will introduce multitasking to Windows Phone devices. By pressing and holding the back button you’ll access a webOS inspired card view which shows all currently running apps. Jumping to an app is done by touching the corresponding card. Right now this only works for some of Microsofts own apps, since 3rd party apps have to be recompiled for Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) before being able to utilize the multitasking feature. As for the default Windows Phone apps it worked flawlessly.

Windows Phone 7.5 Mango – Notifications

The notification drawer is one of the best Android features, and Apple recently admitted this by implementing a VERY similar solution called notification center for iOS. On Windows Phone the notifications where handled using toasts or live tiles. This is still true for Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango).

Notifications are also shown on the lockscreen, and live tiles like contact groups will display notifications if somebody from the group contacted you. Somehow i didn’t get any toast notifications yet, which normally appear at the top edge of the screen, but they are supposed to be still there after the Mango update.

The ‘Me’ hub is also acting as notification center now, as you can access a new tab which shows all of your notifications at once. I think this is a great way to merge the notifications from all channels into one view. Furthermore posting status messages to Facebook, Windows Live and Twitter will be possible here.

Windows Phone 7.5 Mango – App Market

I was very disappointed when i checked out the webOS marketplace after over one year, as there was no substantial growth to be seen. But Microsoft does a very good job of getting dev support up to now. At this point the Windows Phone 7 marketplace has about 25000 apps, and while this is still a farcry from the Android and iOS market, it’s still impressive.

You can find a lot of official apps like i.e. Twitter, Facebook, IMDB, WordPress, Evernote, eBay and many more. These are all quality apps which fit perfectly into the general WP7 Metro UI concept. It seems like there is a steady flow of new apps and games. If Microsoft manages to keep this momentum i can see Windows Phone 7 providing such a good app offering within the next year, that you won’t even realize that the competition has even more options. I don’t expect the market to reach 250.000 apps anytime soon, but i think we will see great apps for all popular use cases within the next year. The market is already quite solid now, but there are still some important things missing. As a frequent RSS user i couldn’t find any app that comes near to the possibilities that NewsRob on Android provides. And there are some developers which didn’t really get the Metro UI concept completely yet. So there are still some areas where Windows Phone 7 has to mature.

Windows Phone 7.5 Mango – General Settings

There is also a slew of new configuration options available on Mango. First of all you don’t need to hook your smartphone up with zune anymore to get updates, as WP7.5 will support OTA updates. Another nice addition is called battery saver, and it’ll change some phone settings (turn off wifi, push notifications, lower screen brightness and so on) whenever the battery level reaches a specific point in order to keep the phone running as long as possible.

Speech support is also there, which will theoretically allow you to dictate emails or text messages to your contacts. Another very cool twist is the option to let the phone read text for you, which can be used for text messages and emails at this point. Having this feature for an RSS reader would be incredible. Generally i’m not a big fan of speech recognition though, because it just doesn’t work good enough. It would only make sense if you could be 100% sure that the phone will understand what you have just said, but at this point you have to verify that your spoken words have been recognized correctly which defeats the point of this feature for me. This is a general speech recognition issue though and not only WP7 related. All speech recognition features from the competition also have the same problems. Also i can’t imagine using speech control anywhere else besides in the car, as i don’t want all of my surroundings to hear what i’m doing currently.

Being able to remote wipe your phone is a very important thing, especially nowadays since your smartphone will contain more valuable data than your purse. So it’s good to see Microsoft offering the ‘find my phone’ service, which allows to access the lost phone. You can remote lock the phone, localize or wipe it. I’d love to see an official feature like this from Google too, as Android only offers this for exchange server administrators but not for regular users currently.

Windows Phone 7.5 Mango – The Verdict

Microsofts Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) update is massive. They addressed nearly every single major problem that held Windows Phone 7 back. I’m truly impressed with the sheer number of new features Microsoft implemented here, it really deserves the Windows Phone 7.5 naming. Other companies would have probably split all this features up into three major updates. And the fact that the Mango beta i’m currently using is already very stable is even more surprising. The only thing that really bugs me is the missing webkit support, because IE9 just doesn’t cut it as mobile browser. Other than that i could already imagine using an WP7 phone as my main device. I would have thought to miss my Android device much more than i actually did, when i used the HTC Mozart as main device for some weeks.

Windows Phone 7 had some catching up to do as there were some important features missing in the past, and while the NoDo update introduced copy&paste besides some other additions, Mango represents a huge package of 500 tweaks and features. So this article is only a selection of the major new features, and there is much more to be found actually. This leaves Microsoft with a mobile OS which not only has the sleekest and most attractive and very fluid UI, but also as much functionality as the other big players on the market. As far as i can see everything is moving into the right direction for Microsoft product wise. Windows Phone 7.5 will leave webOS and Blackberry OS behind from a quality point of view, while being at least up to par with Android and iOS on most categories. Hopefully the consumers will realize that Microsoft means business and Windows Phone 7 is a true alternative to the iPhones and Androids out there. With Nokia hopping on the Windows Phone 7 train too and Microsoft pushing their mobile OS with great updates, WP7 should be able to gain a much better marketshare within the next year. The empire just struck back.

Check out the full Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) gallery for many more screenshots.