It's widely acknowledged by users, media, and even Steve Ballmer himself that Windows Mobile is in dire need of a ground-up revamp, and it's happening -- but not quite yet. That's Windows Mobile 7 you're looking for, and realistically, it's not going to be in your pocket for at least another year. That leaves Microsoft in a bit of a pickle: how do you facelift version 6.1 -- which is already a facelift of 6, which in turn was a facelift of 5 -- just enough to eke another year or two of life out of it? Is it even possible?
Let's have a look.
First, a word of disclosure: the Windows Mobile experience inevitably varies from phone to phone. With countless models available from a variety of partners like HTC, Samsung, and LG, the variance is completely by design -- but for better or worse, our thoughts on WinMo 6.5 solely as a platform are going to be influenced by that variance. For the purposes of this review, we were provided (by Microsoft, not AT&T) with an HTC Pure, which runs TouchFLO along with a number of HTC-designed tweaks including a custom soft keyboard and communication manager, not to mention a slew of AT&T-specific applications. With smartphones all but standardizing on a small handful of form factors that make models all but indistinguishable from a distance, manufacturers are relying more than ever on WinMo customizations as a competitive advantage -- and the look and feel that you get from, say, an LG GM750 is going to be moderately different in day-to-day use than what you see here with the Pure. As they say, your mileage may vary.
Rather than a thorough reworking of the platform, 6.5 is very much a nip-tuck job -- just as every Windows Mobile version in recent memory has been. Here are the biggies:
- New Today screen: Though the "classic" Today screen is still available, 6.5 introduces an all-new version that somewhat closely approximates the Zune's home screen experience (whether that's a harbinger of things to come remains to be seen). Perhaps more than any other single feature, the new Today screen gives 6.5 a freshened look -- but ironically, many users will never see it because it's often replaced by a manufacturer customization (in HTC's case, TouchFLO).
- "Honeycomb" Start screen: The main menu of old -- a white screen with a grid of boring, old icons -- looked like a relic of Windows 3.1. Happily, it's gone here, replaced with a themed alternating list of thoroughly modern images for default apps. The Start menu is gone, too -- pressing the Windows icon in the upper left of the screen now leads straight to the new Start screen.
- Finger-friendly UI elements: Windows Mobile's notorious for being unable to shake the stylus, but 6.5 makes some additional baby steps to help fingertips do all of the work -- inertial scrolling in many screens and a redesigned context menu style both help here.
- New lock screen: Though not revolutionary, Microsoft put a commendable amount of thought into this one -- instead of merely settling to give the user one way to get back into their device, 6.5's lock screen gives you multiple points of entry depending on the current status; if you've got a new text message, for example, you get a separate unlock slider that can take you straight to it.
- Windows Marketplace: The biggest news in 6.5 might not be a 6.5 specific feature at all, ironically. Windows Marketplace finally takes WinMo into the all-important world of consolidated, managed mobile app stores, but it's only exclusive to 6.5 for a few weeks before being made available to 6 and 6.1 later this year.
- Exclusive content: It's hardly a platform "feature," really, but Microsoft is making a pretty big deal of the fact that it's signed on a number of internationally-recognized designers like Isaac Mizrahi and Vera Wang to craft themes for 6.5 that ship with the platform free of charge (we're not sure if you'll find them on every 6.5 phone to be produced, but they came loaded -- albeit turned off by default -- on our Pure).
What's not new?
So, what hasn't changed in 6.5? The short answer is "pretty much everything else," which really drives home why Microsoft only added a meager 0.4 to 6.1 in deciding on a version number this time around. Realistically, we'd say it even feels like a 6.2 -- an almost surgical modification to the Windows Mobile of old, just enough of a change in highly visible, highly strategized areas of the platform to justify the release.
That's not to say existing, essentially unmodified applications aren't benefiting from platform-wide changes. Microsoft wants 6.5 to be all about touch, a point driven home by the fact that the non-touch-enabled Standard Edition soldiers on in 6.5 essentially unmodified from its predecessor while Professional gets all of the freshening. The most in-your-face example of this is the new finger-friendly menu paradigm -- 6.5 replaces the old stylus-oriented menus everywhere, killing off one of the major "I can't believe I have to pull out my stylus" pain points. Inertial on-list scrolling also makes appearances throughout the platform so you can deftly avoid touching that thin scrollbar -- you know, the one that practically screams "just try to work me with your bare finger, I double dare you" -- along the right side. This is a pretty big deal for apps like Messaging where you'll presumably be spending a lot of time between text messages and email.
As manufacturers are keen on making sure their phones deliver a uniquely HTC-ish, Samsung-ish, or LG-ish experience out of the box, one of 6.5's key differentiators -- the revamped Today screen -- will likely never be seen by an overwhelming majority of buyers, especially considering that everyone's replacement experiences (S-Class, TouchWiz, and so on) are generally enabled by default. That's a crying shame for two reasons: one, as we mentioned before, the default Today screen gives 6.5 a totally fresh look (whereas TouchFLO is pretty much the same as it's been for a year or more), and two, we actually found it to be quite usable. In a word, this is one of the few places where Microsoft's halfhearted attempt to make Windows Mobile a true touch platform actually paid dividends.
Scrolling through the list of entries is an effortless, inertial process, and the text for each entry in the list actually makes use of the screen real estate that's available -- a far cry from the cold, emotionless Today screen of old. Microsoft has tried here to give one-flick access to the most important functions on your device -- email, text messaging, voicemail, calendar, current time, and the like -- and sweetens the pot by offering glanceable bits of information on each one: the email row will tell you how many new emails you have in each account, for example, and the music row lets you know what's currently playing, all with enough visual pizzaz to keep things interesting. Additionally, some rows can move laterally to indicate more information or options within a category -- multiple email accounts, text versus picture messaging, selecting music tracks, and so on.
That's not to say the rejuvenated, rethought, re-imagined Today is without its flaws. You lose the bulk of a category's spread of glanceable information the second you move the highlight bar away from it (there are some minor exceptions like a superscript number to indicate new email count), and it's possible to move the current time -- that sacred, must-have clock -- completely out of view because it's treated with the same level of respect as any other row in the list. Also, although the lateral motion found on some of the rows adds the depth of the screen's capability, the information you find here -- new picture messages, for instance -- is entirely concealed unless you take the time to highlight the "text" row and swipe to the right. Odds are we'd end up using TouchFLO given the choice, but for those looking for a slightly simpler option that still doesn't look like it's straight out of 1998, Microsoft's come to bat here.
Another major piece of the 6.5 puzzle lies just beyond the Today screen -- and unlike Today, users of all creeds will likely be exposed to this one regardless of the skin they're using. The new Start screen disposes of the drop-down menu users will remember (that's just as well, since it was virtually useless to the average finger), but the new style doesn't necessarily makes as much sense as Microsoft would have us believe. The concept as it's described to us is that arranging the icons in a staggered pattern makes them more accessible by touch -- but in reality, we can't imagine that this is any easier to use or that you're any less likely to press the wrong icon here than you are with a standard grid, and the result looks like a jumbled mess. You've essentially traded readability for dubiously more error-resistant icon selection, but what good does that do if you can't find what you're looking for? On the plus side, the new Start screen is fully themed which gives it a slick, modern look (assuming you pick a reasonable theme, of course) and inertial scrolling works reasonably well here -- it's a tad laggy, but we bet that evaporates on a faster device like an Acer neoTouch F1 or a Toshiba TG01.
Windows Mobile's perceived competitive disadvantage hasn't just stemmed from its wonky, archaic interface -- it's also suffered from a lack of proper app management. The platform came into this pickle in a particularly unique way: it'd already amassed a fairly huge, vibrant library of apps from thousands of developers over the years, but as Apple's App Store started to demonstrate the power of a centralized, well-supported, well-marketed mobile software clearinghouse in getting an unprecedented amount of third-party code onto phones, Microsoft, Nokia, and others had little option but to follow suit to keep their platforms competitive for users and developers alike.
That's where Windows Marketplace comes into play. Though it's launching initially on 6.5, it'll ultimately be made available on earlier versions of Windows Mobile, which exposes what may be both the platform's greatest strength and greatest weakness alike: at its core, it simply hasn't changed. By and large, code that runs on 6.0 is going to run like a champ on 6.5, giving 6.5 buyers access to a wealth of apps out of the gate -- but the seedy underside of that same coin is that those apps look even more ancient by 2009 standards than they did by, say, 2006 standards.
At our latest count, the Marketplace gave us access to 196 applications spread across 14 top-level categories; each of these in turn leads to a number of subcatgories (though some, like Tools, annoyingly lead to just a single subcategory, necessitating a second tap for no particular reason before you start to see apps). That's not nearly as many as we would've hoped, and we're willing to bet (or cross our fingers, at least) that we see a groundswell of additional content over the coming weeks and months as legacy publishers bring their goods into the store. The good news is that what's there already will be considered meaty, important stuff to many users: Facebook, MySpace, WeatherBug, and the like.
The interface is what we'd describe as "basic but functional" -- it gets the job done, but isn't going to look pretty in the process. Fortunately, Marketplace is one of the most finger-friendly apps across the entire device, likely owing to the fact that it was designed and built concurrently with 6.5, but it's still hamstrung by a couple ridiculous UI niggles: first, you've still got that infernal soft key bar along the bottom that requires a skilled touch or a fingernail to actuate accurately, and secondly, the left soft key is marked "Back" throughout most of the app. That's not a problem in itself -- it makes perfect sense, actually -- but the problem is that the Back soft key has nothing to do with the physical Back button that lies below it. They're easy to confuse, and pressing the physical button will whisk a user straight out of the Marketplace into the last app they visited. It makes no sense, and for novices, it'd be downright bewildering.
Learning about, purchasing, and installing applications is really what an app like Marketplace is all about, and fortunately, we can't take much issue here -- in fact, the individual app product pages are probably Marketplace's strongest suit with room for full descriptions, average ratings, a screen shot gallery, and a dead-obvious "Install" button that impatient users won't have trouble finding. Purchases are tied to a user's Windows Live account, which is reasonable enough to set up and manage (and most folks probably already have an account lying around anyhow); we were kind of bummed that you need to be logged in even to download free apps, but to be fair, it makes sense -- everything you pull from the Marketplace can and should be tied to you. Once you kick off a download, it quietly pulls over the aether with a drama-free progress bar at the bottom of the screen; you can continue using the Marketplace to find other apps in the meantime, and when the download is complete, the new app installs in the background. One complaint we had here was that apps seemed to have free reign to auto-launch after installation if they so chose; we'd prefer to have control over this, because otherwise, you can be jolted out of the Marketplace without warning.
The post-install experience is pretty painless, too: there's a "My applications" item in the main menu where you can see what you've purchased and what you can remove. You can also come here to rate apps after you've had a chance to use them (you get a five-star scale along with a text field for a review) and check for updates that might be available for stuff you've got installed. As far as we can tell, you've got to come here to check this -- there's no notification service like you've got on Android to give you a heads-up when updates are available. Removing installed apps was quick and didn't present us with a single warning box through the process -- it was dead silent, actually -- though we imagine this could get a little more complicated as you install larger, more complex apps that are maintaining significant swaths of data on your device.
It might be a different landscape on the desktop, but on Windows Mobile, Opera's been eating Internet Explorer's lunch for a long time -- and for good reason. Until recently, IE Mobile (or Pocket IE as it was known in a former life) was, for lack of a better description, a joke -- a bad excuse for a browser that was incapable of properly rendering any but the most basic sites, despite the fact that the devices on which it ran often had ample screen real estate, data speed, and processor power to do more. 6.5 gets a thoroughly overhauled version of IE Mobile that features a finger-friendly UI, an on-screen zoom slider (6.5 doesn't have multitouch gestures, after all), and a new rendering engine that should theoretically let it handle desktop-class tasks.
In reality, we found that the latest generation of IE Mobile only gets it within shouting distance of Opera Mobile -- ultimately, the Norwegian browser still takes the cake. We found Opera to load pages consistently faster (and we're talking noticeable to the naked eye, not a few tenths of a second on a stopwatch), and once the page was loaded, it was far quicker to flick around the page with the same pleasant inertial scroll that Internet Explorer now features. On large pages, IE tended to choke, freeze, and struggle with weird rendering issues in places where Opera kept humming -- Engadget, for example -- and when you consider that a significant percentage of WinMo 6.5 devices will feature WVGA displays, an enjoyable, reliable browsing experience is not negotiable. We were surprised at first to see that the Pure included Opera Mobile in ROM -- after the introduction of IE Mobile 6.5, we'd assumed HTC would be able to stop bundling third-party browsers to make up for Microsoft's shortcomings -- but after using both at length, we stand corrected. We totally get it, HTC; carry on.
Microsoft's not promising the world with Windows Mobile 6.5, nor are they delivering it -- it's very much a stopgap, complete with duct tape, bubble gum, and Bondo. The platform is hopefully one of the last in a long, dreary line of revisions that may have looked fresh years ago -- but at this point, no amount of pancake makeup can hide the fact that you end up looking at screens like this from time to time:
When you're being asked to "use dialing rules" in 2009, that's a problem -- especially on a grayscale screen that looks flatter than the Toshiba TG01 on which it'll run -- and good luck pressing that "OK" in the upper right with a finger.
Put simply, 6.5 won't win a single user to the platform, even though the snazzy hardware that's running it just might. What it does do is make the full touchscreen use case just bearable enough to keep users already in the WinMo ecosystem hanging around -- and a stop-loss plan is exactly what Microsoft needs while it gets version 7 locked and loaded over the next few months. Let's make it happen, guys.