Windows Phone 7 Mango

Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 Mango update is now here and that means a bevy of new treats and features for you to play with. We've been playing with Mango since the start of June, have gone through a couple of updates and have been living with the final build since the beginning of September.

Should be excited about upgrading? Is it going to make you want to switch from the iPhone, BlackBerry or Android device you've currently got? Read on to find out. 

We tested the new Mango update first on the, rather clunky, Asus developer phone for 24 hours and after that an HTC 7 Trophy. We've lived with the phone as our only device, ditching our Samsung Galaxy SII and the Apple iPhone 4.

Design

It would be easy to say that design-wise nothing has changed. That's wrong of course, but to those unfamiliar with Windows Phone 7, if we showed you a Windows Phone 7.5 Mango device you aren't going to tell it apart from the original release.

The operating system's core Metro UI is still two panes - the home screen with the interactive tiles and an alphabetically ordered list of apps. Within the applications themselves the ethos is still about scrolling through panoramic vistas of information. It's very different to Android. It's very different to iOS 4 or 5. It is very different to any phone OS out there at the moment.

Look slightly closer and there are changes however. The homepage tiles have become more interactive with developers given greater control over what, and how often, information can be displayed and changed. BA's new app is a good example, with the live tile giving you gate information and other bits and bobs of data. An improvement over the static BA logo you'll see if you use the app on WP7. Similarly, Flux's RSS reader app will highlight the latest story on the tile or tell you the number of unread stories you have. 

Other design elements that have been added include a stronger use of the search button. Now, it is everywhere, so much so we aren't really sure how Microsoft can insist on a dedicated hardware button. A new search button on the apps list not only lets you search for the app on your phone, but also lets you search for the app in Marketplace - handy if you can't remember whether you have a weather app or not. That search button also speeds up trying to find a contact in the "people" pane. 

The design is clean and intuitive and integrates apps throughout the phone. Like the original release of Windows Phone 7 you never have to think about opening an app, it's just there, and that's a very different philosophy to the other operating systems.

The social network

Being social on Windows Phone 7 is now considerably easier and with Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn integration firmly at the centre of the phone. Both Twitter and LinkedIn are tied to your Windows Phone Live account and then can be linked to contacts. LinkedIn is by far the most useful, and if your followers have added their email or phone number you can access that too.

Like Apple's iOS 5, Twitter will be "baked-in" to the operating system giving you a chance to share and interact with your Twitter followers without having to resort to the app.

Facebook - already available and up-and-running - has had a host of new features added too. These include Facebook events being automatically added to your calendar, the ability to choose whether you show just events you've accepted or everything you've been invited to. Facebook Chat is also included, handy for people who use this as their main instant messenger. The last is the most interesting though, as Microsoft has integrated it in such a way that you can have a threaded conversation with someone over text, Microsoft IM, or Facebook Chat all in the same window. It is an approach that is very "webOS" admittedly and very people - rather than app - focused. The person you are talking to might be darting from machine to machine or app to app, but you're just there in one thread. It's pretty impressive and demonstrates Microsoft's belief that apps are too linear and this way - the Mango way - is considerably "big picture" focused.

The end result is that we've been conversing more on Facebook and certainly more on LinkedIn than we ever have with the iPhone or Android handsets, and yet haven't actually installed the dedicated Windows Phone 7 Facebook app. We aren't even sure why you would bother with Facebook as the social network is so pervasive there's no need.

Where they really work well is the People hub that allows you to group your friends, family, and colleagues off into subset, but also select which social feed you want to see, be it just Twitter or all of them. Thankfully if you are one of these people who follows thousands on Twitter you can set it so only those in your address book are shown. 

People

It's funny that we said there needs to be a way to manage the flood of information, because that's exactly what a new feature within the People Hub lets you do. Microsoft has introduced Groups, a feature we just can't get enough of. It allows you to block out the noise that little bit easier - especially at weekends. The idea of Groups is that you select a group of people - Apple calls them Favorites - and then that gives you access to them, and only them, in isolation of everything else going on in your life.

We set up one for the Pocket-lint team, one for the family, and then one for close friends. The result is that we could easily see, at any given moment, what those people were up to without having to filter through all the other Facebook status posts. You can also pin the group to the start page to make it even easier to see. Add Twitter into that, and you can see the power of it, especially if you use either for work and then want to dip in over the weekend without feeling like you're going to end up getting dragged back into the "office". 

But it's more than looking at status updates. You can email and text those in the group, making communicating so much easier - surely the point of a modern phone. It even tells you if people within the group don’t have a phone associated, so you know they aren’t going to get the message. We love it.

We also love the new history feature that lets you see when and what you last said to someone be it a text message, an email, or chat.

Me, myself, and I

If you hadn't already worked it out, if you're into Twitter,  Facebook, LinkedIn, or into any social networking platform you're a bit of an egotistical, narcissistic, kind of person that loves to gloat about what you do and why you are doing it. You might not agree with that but Microsoft has you covered with something called "Me" that has been enhanced for Mango.

That's right, you're so important that you've got your own live tile to see what is happening with you in case you forget who you are. 

New is the ability check in via Facebook as well as set your Windows Live Chat Status. It's like you have a quick access button to tell the world that you're at the funky exclusive restaurant and they’re not with you.

Twitter or Facebook mentions pop up and are displayed on the live tile so you can see what's happening and you can cross post to the relevant social networks clicking and choosing as you please. 

If that wasn't enough to tickle your "I'm more important than you" fancy you can use the same area to find out who is commenting on your status updates, and what you've said in the past just in case you're trying to piece together the last 24 hours of your life. If you love yourself, or even if you don't, you'll find this is a good way of getting social on your phone and that can only mean one thing - those that follow you are about to get a lot more messages from you in the future.

The catch here is that you can't post pictures (you have to do that from the pictures hub) and you can't see peoples' tweets or Facebook messages in context. Still as a quick - "oh I've been mentioned" it is great. 

Internet Explorer 9

Microsoft Windows Phone 7 Mango has the latest iteration of Internet Explorer 9. If you've used an iPhone or Android you'll know that the browser is really the key element and here it's no different. For Mango, the browser has been expanded and improved.

It now has hardware acceleration support meaning the better the phone's hardware capabilities the better your browsing is going to be.

We doubt it's been an influence, but the browser has a strong similarity to Firefox for Android in that it believes that the accompanying faff should be ditched. The address bar is now at the bottom - easier to access - the menu is hidden, and the only other key is the refresh button. That leaves plenty of space for the web page you're looking at and little to clutter the screen. Windows Phone 7 smartphones to date have already benefited from a bigger screen, and Apple's suggestion that you always need to know the network you are on, your battery life, and the time, seems rather redundant.

Other new features of note include the ability to now share the page via messaging, email, or social networks. We can't believe this wasn't here before but it's welcomed. Surprisingly while you can still pin a website to the start screen, it still takes the image of the page to that tile without updating it. That's confusing, especially if your favourite websites look similar, and we would much prefer Microsoft to take Apple's approach and use the website’s favicon or Windows 7 start bar icons instead, which we believe would have created a much cleaner, more dynamic, look to the homepage tiles.

All the above aside, the Internet Explorer browser works, works well, and does what you expect.

Bing

Part of your internet experience on any smartphone will be search. Whether you are an iPhone or Android user searching for stuff, be it a local bar or just the answer to something to prove your mate wrong, is key to your day-to-day mobile life. It's here then that switchers will find the biggest challenge. You've got to use Bing.

In our initial play we struggled with Bing having to install gMaps and Google search. Bing is getting better, but we would still recommend installing the Google products as a back up. 

It's a shame because beyond the basic search there are some really nifty features here. Bing Music for example gives you Shazam-like capabilities that will let you record a snippet of music in a bar, tell you what it is, and then give you the option to download it straight from the Zune Marketplace.

Bing Vision likewise is a fantastic feature that is Microsoft's equivalent to Google Goggles letting you take pictures of text, be it a menu or industrial espionage, and have it translate or merely put into text you can then edit later. Then there is Bing Voice that like Google's Voice Search lets you search for queries just by saying them. It's quick. It's simple. It works.

But best of all is Local Scout that by pressing gives you a list of places to eat and drink in your near vicinity, what to see and do, where to shop, and highlights of the area you are in. Once you've got that list you get something Microsoft calls Quick Cards. For restaurants that's key details like a phone number, an address, and reviews pulled from the web.

With so many websites opting for Flash-based content with pictures of polished cutlery and big glasses, getting to the information quickly and then offering a single press to make a call is very welcomed.

Taking it one step further is App Connect that means that third party apps can connect into that experience. Although we don't have any "Connected" apps on our device to see this in action, numerous chats and talks with Microsoft highlight that this will allow apps like Top Table to integrate into the experience allowing you to find extra information - or in the case of Top Table - actually book a table in the restaurant you've found. Sadly in the 4 months we've been using Mango we've yet to see this in action. 

The only hindrance? The information isn't always 100 per cent up to date and that only highlights how frustrating Bing can be. The feature is a fantastic idea, the results not so much.

Photos

If Nokia are going to bring their camera expertise to Windows Phone 7, then you'll want decent photo options within the operating system and Microsoft seem to have acknowledged that. New to Mango is Face Detection and People tagging that will let you tag people before you upload if you are sharing that image with Facebook or Microsoft's SkyDrive.

That's handy if you're into social networking, not so much if you don't care. None the less, no other OS lets you tag people in your photos at the point that you take the shot. Well done Microsoft.

You also get auto-fix, something that HTC users already have, but now it's available to everyone straight after you've taken the shot rather than having to load the dedicated app. Apple is set to offer this too in iOS 5, so it's good that Microsoft have made sure it is here. The results are, as you would expect, compensating for low light and generally pumping up the "fill light" levels. That means you'll be able to see what's going on in those dodgy pictures at the end of the evening.

Video can now be shared, alas not to YouTube, and you'll be able to go straight to the camera by holding down the dedicated shutter button on the phone. That dedicated shutter button can also be accessed when the phone is in locked mode, and for those that worry that might be accidentally taking pictures of your pocket don’t worry, you can turn it off.

Xbox

There’s the new look for starters, bringing the design into line with what the Xbox 360 interface will look like later this year, but also really just a move to include all the features in the Extra’s app into the main app. That means you get a 3D avatar that likes to bounce around, greater control over your achievements, profile and messaging.

It looks clean and easy to understand, and if you’re a gamer, welcomed. It’s one of those areas you are going to use to show off your phone, and Windows Phone 7 needs more of those.

Multitasking

Probably one of the most ugly elements of the phone. Mango embraces multitasking letting you zip between apps - or tasks - at speed. It's ugly because it seems so disjointed from the experience that the rest of the OS gives.

Accessed by holding down the back key you get a webOS like view of what's running as if they were cards in Texas Hold 'Em with you having the ability to slide between them. That's fine, but not only does it not really look that pretty, but there are no real options available to you other than choosing which bit of the phone to go to next. We expected the ability to kill apps or tasks, or at least do something more, instead we get something that is incredibly basic. From the multitasking apps we've seen the system works well continuing where you left off. You need to make sure the apps are updated to support this feature and not all are, however the apps that are multitasking-ready work well.  

Email, Calendar, and Office

By now you're probably wondering what hasn't been updated for Windows Phone 7 Mango. Email and Office get a look in too, with new features designed to make working from your phone even easier.

On the email front the biggest change is Linked Inboxes that allow you to join together a number of email accounts into one tile. It’s handy if you’ve got a couple of personal accounts or a personal and work account on the phone and just want to see what’s coming in in one go. Linking them is incredibly easy, as is unlinking them. Gripes? You can’t set a default email account within the Linked inboxes meaning you’ll have to choose every time from a drop down list of which account you want to send it from.

The other major improvement is threaded conversations. If you're used to Gmail that is a big plus and it goes as far as showing you the emails you've sent too within that list. Delete the conversation and the emails are deleted while yours remain. Clever.

Other email treats include the ability to read Rights Protected emails - handy if that is something your work uses. We weren't able to test this on our device however we did see in on our Microsoft contact's phone. You'll be able to read those emails, but neither send them on or copy and paste from them. We also like the ability to "Pin" email folders to the start, allowing you to highlight a group of emails be it from someone in particular or a project on your home page as a tile.

As for the Calendar there is now a To Do list that lets you set Due Dates. It’s handy if you’ve got to remember to do something later in the week/month and will no doubt be loved by the forgetful.

Sadly you can't add a shared calendar, however we have found a work around (here) for Google calendar users, but even then, while you are able to see it, you can't update it. 

On the office front there is greater support for Microsoft's SkyDrive service (now with 25GB of storage) and Office 365 support (this service isn't live at time of testing). There is also support for Lync, but again we don't have a means of testing this. Excel gets formula assist for those doing auto sum - it works - while Word gets better comments usage for marking up documents. All in all it's just easier to access your documents and then work on them.

Settings and boring stuff

Not all of the new features of Windows Phone 7 Mango are about giving you stuff that is quickly noticeable. Microsoft says there are hundreds of new features to improve the OS and some of those have to be hunted out.

Take the battery save feature. Not something that you are going to brag to your friends about but none the less useful. Like the power saver mode found on the Samsung Galaxy S II, Microsoft's new update has the ability to go into "please last until I get home" mode. You can either set it to always be that way, or just as a one-off until you next find power. Enabling it means that you won't automatically receive email and apps won't run in the background when you are low on power.

As with other phones we found ourselves struggling to get through more than a day of heavy use and so this mode means that we've still got enough juice to text Mrs Pocket-lint to let her know that we have caught the last train home and aren't passed out in a gutter in Shoreditch. The page also gives you real information beyond stuff like 23 per cent left. Like how long in hours you've got left and how long it's been since your last charge. It's not ground breaking, but it is useful when you are worried you aren't going to make it to power soon.

Other new treats worth mentioning are the ability to add custom sounds to emails, Smart DJ that works in a virtually identical way to Apple's Genius playlists within iTunes, the ability to see download progress via the apps list after you've exited Marketplace, and the chance to speak your text messages to the phone with Microsoft working out what you’ve said and then writing it up for you. 

A different mind-set

With so many new features adding to those already available, it's hard to find what's missing and where Microsoft needs to improve. That's not to say there isn't room for improvement. The biggest problem and the one that will stop you moving over to Windows Phone 7 Mango is that there is still a lack of apps that you are probably using on a daily basis on the iPhone or Android, and that for the most part you have to re-wire how you use your phone.

The first one is fixable. We are already starting to see the bigger names come to the platform - Evernote, Flickr, BA, Angry Birds and others are big app titles that will only help propel the platform forward. Aside from a few apps that we miss we've pretty much replaced everything we had running on the iPhone and Android with alternatives. Rowi is a fantastic Twitter client much better than the official one, while Flux is a great RSS reader. Other apps on our Start page include Kindle, Phone Analytics for Google stats, and WP shortcuts for Wi-Fi connection management and Weather Bug for the latest weather where we are. 

Come Christmas we would expect that more will create apps to make that not really an issue, and once services like Spotify, Dropbox, and even Sky see this as something that's worth developing for that will open the floodgates to others getting on board. Microsoft buying Skype will help too.

However the biggest challenge for any would-be user is going to be a move away from Google to Bing. That might sound strange but Google is, whether you like it or not, in your life every day, and more importantly probably at the core of your internet usage. Whether it's searching on the desktop, using Google Maps on your phone, it's the move away from the company's services and apps that has had us most at a loss.

We've taken to Facebook just being there, or using a different RSS Reader, but it's the search and mapping that's been the hardest one to re-programme ourselves on. It is happening, but there are times it still lets the side down. 

What's missing?

There isn't any real "Cloud" backup. No re-downloading of apps if you loose your phone, or saving of those Groups and tiles you're going to create. In swapping phones (three times in fact) through our test it was easy to see, even in the short space of time we've been using iOS 5 and the longer use of app backup in Android, how switching phones in Windows Phone 7 isn't as easy.

For many that shouldn't be a problem yet, but it's going to be something that Microsoft should fix for the next update. We don’t want to have to re-setup the phone when we upgrade. Apple's iCloud, and Google's app backup features, are nice and it's a shame they are missing here.

With data at a premium, especially for those that travel, we also wanted the ability to turn off certain areas of the constant updates and notifications. It's something none of the mobile operating systems do very well, and Microsoft is no exception. When abroad you might not want Facebook or Twitter, but you do want email.

Elsewhere there is Internet Sharing, something that is coming to the new handsets like the HTC Titan and HTC Radar, but isn't available for HTC's 2010 / early 2011 releases. HTC have promised it is coming, but if you are upgrading don't expect it from day one. 

Verdict

If we've sounded gushing, that’s because we are. Windows Phone 7 is a mobile operating system that offers something very different to Android and Apple's iOS, while still giving them a good run for their money. Everything bounces, swishes, swirls, and dances on the page making this a spritely, jovial, experience.

Windows Phone 7 versus Windows Phone 7 Mango: there is no contest. The operating system is light years ahead of what it was will be very much welcomed by all those that upgrade. It is a considerable jump forward in what it offers, more so than just another Android update, and on par with Apple's "hundreds" of new feature updates every year.

As for how it fares against Android and iOS 5, it proves that there are now three operating systems to look at and that BlackBerry's OS isn't really up to par. For BlackBerry users this offers virtually everything that BB OS 6 and BB OS 7 offers and better, including BBM and that security through Rights Protected emails.

So should you swap from your iPhone or your Android device? Sadly there is no simple answer. Windows Phone 7 is the most social OS out there, taking Android, taking HTC Sense and taking iOS and creating an operating system that isn't about isolated apps, but about an integrated experience.

We love the social network integration. We've Facebooked more, we've seen friends pictures more, and that's without notifications or a slide down from the top menu bar that tells us what's happening in our lives. For Microsoft the whole homepage is that notifications drop down.

Ultimately for us the Achilles’ heel is Bing and it's search results excluding the feature sets like Local Scout, Bing Vision, and Bing Music. It is the only thing that has frustrated us.

One thing's for certain though. Android doesn't look as shiny and as for Apple, since our play, we certainly notice a lot more "Windows Phone 7 features" in the latest iOS 5 Beta builds.

Windows Phone 7 has a lot to offer and smartphone switchers should dare to be different.