With Windows Phone 7.5 Mango, Microsoft Has Levelled the Smartphone Playing Field

Microsoft has begun its rollout of Windows Phone 7.5, affectionately known as Mango, this week, and it should be finding its way on to all WP7 devices by the end of October. The first major update of its new smartphone operating system, Windows Phone 7.5, addresses many of the feature shortfalls found in the first version, as well as adding several interesting new ones.

It’s also the version we’ll be seeing on the new wave of Nokia phones later this year, so it’s as important to them as it is to Microsoft. The question is, can Mango make Windows Phone handsets desirable enough to mount a serious challenge against the current smartphone champion, Google’s Android?

The Update

If you already own a Windows Phone device, then Mango will be delivered through your computer rather than over-the-air, and a notification will appear on your phone when it’s ready to download. Applying the update to an HTC Trophy using the Mac Connector software was a painless experience, rivalling iTunes’s iOS updates. The process took around 30 minutes and included a backup of all stored data too.

Each and every WP7 phone will be getting Mango – although the Omnia 7 looks like it’ll have to wait a while – keeping hardware purchased earlier in the year current, and in-line with the brand-new devices making their way on to shelves soon.

Microsoft’s decision to ban manufacturer UI overlays was a sensible one, avoiding the Android problem of manufacturers being unwilling or unable to adapt their systems for the latest version of the OS. Witness the recent problems of getting Android Gingerbread onto the HTC Desire; a device similar in spec to several WP7 phones that could easily run Gingerbread, but was prevented from doing so by HTC Sense.

Apple keeps the vast majority of its customers happy by regularly providing them with a software update, even supporting hardware superseded by two generations. By taking this same approach, Microsoft has shown a degree of customer attention one wouldn’t have expected from them a couple of years ago.

The Features

There are hundreds of new and updated features inside Windows Phone 7.5, and it would take an age to go through all of them, so here we’re going to look at several of the most interesting and useful new additions, and how they work in the real world. Let’s start with voice commands.

Speech Commands

Speech recognition is nothing new, and notoriously flaky, so how does it perform in Mango? The feature is activated by pressing and holding the Windows button, then speaking your command normally. Mango understands ‘call’, ‘text’, ‘find’ and ‘open’, allowing you to call or text people, open applications or search the web.

The downfall with many speech recognition programs is the ability to recognise accents. Speaking with a clear English accent didn’t cause any problems for opening apps or starting a text message.  Mango even recognised some complicated European surnames stored in the address book; although its subsequent phonetic reading of them was amusing!

Opening a text message box is only the start, as you can dictate and send your message this way too. Mango reads the message it has converted back to you, allowing you to send or to cancel and try again. Speaking a few simple messages resulted in around a 90% success rate, with only the odd word – ‘October’ proved problematic for some reason – being misheard.

It fared less well when the voice had a non-English accent, resulting in names previously recognised not being found. As with many speech recognition programs, practicing with the system will see you get better – and as Mango’s system wasn’t useless from the start, continuing to use it won’t be as soul-crushing as it had the potential to be.

Social Integration

While Windows Phone 7 had Facebook integration, 7.5 brings Twitter and LinkedIn integration to the party. Found under the Settings and Email + Accounts page, you can also add a Google, Yahoo or other POP or IMAP email account, but by providing your Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn account details, it opens up a whole world of social integration inside Mango.

By using the Me Live Tile, you can post a message to these three services, plus Windows Live, with a single action. If you only want to post it to one, two or three of them, it’s easily customised too. Scroll to the right and you’ll get a list of all your mentions or replies, and again to see your most recent postings. When you get a reply to a post, the Me Live Tile will let you know.

This feature shows the way forward for using social networking on the move. It’s so wonderfully easy, so perfectly integrated; you’ll rarely bother to open the standard Twitter app under normal circumstances, as the People tile shows your Twitter and Facebook stream equally as well.

As unusual as it may sound these days, you’ll actually be using the operating system to perform a task, rather than a series of third-party apps.

Multi-tasking

Microsoft has taken a leaf out of Apple’s book here, providing a helicopter view of open or running applications. A long press of the Back button brings up a line of large tiles, each showing the open app, which can be scrolled through and individually selected. It’s quick, easy and effective – exactly as it should be.

Email and Messaging

The new threaded conversation feature keeps tabs on not just SMS or email, but social networking conversations too, and holds them in one stream. Messages can also be sent via Windows Messenger and by Facebook Chat, and you can select your preferred type through the Message tile – again, no need for a separate app.

Other new features include Facebook Places check-ins via the Me tile, visual voicemail, custom ringtones created through Zune or iTunes and finally, and perhaps the best of all little changes, a ‘save’ option for the camera; so the video mode no longer defaults to the lowest quality setting every time you close it. Hurrah! No more rubbish footage when you really wanted 720p!

Ready for the Bigtime?

Windows Phone 7.5 is superb. It feels like a fully mature, well-rounded, rock solid smartphone OS that’s fun to use and genuinely well thought out. What’s also interesting is that it can be used with the minimum of applications thanks to plenty of built-in tools. In addition to the Facebook and Twitter integration, Zune now provides podcasts and playlist creation, while the Trophy has the HTC Photo Enhancer app, with a wide variety of fun filters to apply to your pictures. Sharing pictures and video can be done without a third party app too.

The fact it doesn’t feel like an app delivery system is a bonus, as it’s Windows Marketplace that lets WP7 down. Thirty thousand available apps is a great soundbite, but when your favourites aren’t there or don’t work, that number is irrelevant.  For example, coming from iOS and Android the photo sharing app PicPlz could be a firm favourite, but it’s not available for WP7; and while the popular fitness app Runkeeper is available, it refused to recognize the GPS, rendering it useless. On the flip side, the WP7 Foursquare app is better than any other mobile version!

The app store will improve over time though, and more developers should head Microsoft’s way if Mango is the success it deserves to be. The recent introduction of the online Marketplace is a step in the right direction too, and makes browsing and purchasing new apps considerably easier. It works like the Android Market, where you need an ID (in this case your Windows Live sign-in) and the telephone number of your device, and new apps are sent to your phone in the form of a download link.

Windows Phone 7.5 is, leaving aside the app store’s shortcomings, the most user-friendly smartphone operating system available right now. But this success could be short lived, as iOS 5 and Android Ice Cream Sandwich are right around the corner, and will probably level the playing field. It doesn’t matter though, as Microsoft will still have a product that’s on par with the two big names, and that’s a massive achievement these days.

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