It's finally time for Steve Ballmer & Co. to unleash its major annual update (not counting NoDo here), codenamed Mango, to a litany of devices both old and new. Also known as Windows Phone 7.5, the latest build delivers an onslaught of features -- no less than 500, according to Microsoft -- many of them we've been missing dearly. Three months ago we were given the opportunity to preview the new revamp and ogle over its smattering of new capabilities (see the full list of features here), and it's only proper for us to offer a follow-up with the update's final build. So how does the completely polished version hold up against the mobile juggernauts, not to mention its own first-gen offering? Follow us below to get the full scoop.
Windows Phone 7.5
Mango brings many desperately needed features to Windows Phone, elevating the platform to the modern era.
The features that do make an impact on your everyday smartphone experience, however, do so in a major way. Microsoft's finally incorporating multitasking, social network integration, plenty of much-needed improvements to email and Exchange, new voice dictation features, and plenty more that we'll get into later. In short, Mango is precisely what we wish Windows Phone would've been from the beginning -- a platform that's capable of handling all of our needs, no matter how crazy they may be.
You may have noticed that almost every Windows Phone launched over the last year has been eerily similar in hardware specs, and most lack any significant customization. Microsoft exerts a lot of control over what equipment runs its star mobile OS (unlike, say, Google), and you're typically hard-pressed to find any large deviance between devices -- with the exception of handsets with physical QWERTY keyboards. None of that has changed with Mango, as Ballmer's Boys require a specific set of components.
All Windows Phone 7.5 devices will include a Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU (new devices will use 8x55 or 7x30, though existing ones that use an 8x50 CPU will be supported as well), DirectX graphics hardware support with hardware acceleration for Direct3D, a minimum of 384MB of RAM, at least 4GB of flash memory, WVGA (800 x 480) display resolution, a 3.5mm headphone jack, microUSB 2.0, WiFi 802.11 b / g support (n is optional), FM radio, Bluetooth and at least four required sensors (with more optional).
Upon reaching out to Microsoft as to why dual-core CPUs aren't supported by Mango, we were told that the performance gains weren't enough to justify the battery efficiency concerns and additional cost. It's looking into ways to incorporate the newer processors eventually, but it's still a work in progress and integrating them into Windows Phone will likely have to wait until Tango or Apollo at the earliest.
One of Mango's more impressive feats is the fact that even with its myriad new features and functionality, it's nearly indistinguishable from its predecessor if you don't know exactly what to look for. This is because Microsoft's managed to preserve the signature Windows Phone look -- also known as Metro UI -- complete with two columns of tiles on the Start screen and the full alphabetical listing of apps after a quick swipe to the left. While the size and placement of these tiles haven't changed, the content displayed within them has; many of the native tiles contain more viewable information, and even third-party apps are able to turn their small bit of real estate into a live tile capable of being updated dynamically.
Live tiles are nothing new in Mango, but they've definitely been given more freedoms. Before, apps from the Marketplace were "live," though they didn't have the ability to add much dynamic content. Now, more stuff can be pinned to the Start screen, including multiple tiles from the same single app (as an example, you could have five different eBay bid tiles featured on Start, or the weather from two separate cities); these tiles can all deep link to the app's content. Previously, only native tiles could flip over or offer dynamically updated information, whereas all third-party apps will now be able to take advantage of the same functionality. The tiles can also receive push notifications more frequently than before. All in all, the Start screen is much more alive with Mango, which only serves to enhance the Windows Phone mantra of "glance and go." As Microsoft sees it, the faster and easier it is to view vital info, the sooner you can get back to your life and get other important things done.
Once enough apps are installed on the phone, you'll notice letters popping up in the app menu, similar to the way they show up in the People Hub. The idea is that it's much easier to jump to the app you're looking for, instead of taking ages to scroll all the way down to find it.
If you haven't been a fan of Metro UI before, the chances of you adopting a newfound fondness for Windows Phone with the newest update are pretty slim. When the platform launched last year, we enjoyed how fresh and innovative the design was, but the user experience just couldn't match up to what you can find on Android or iOS; Mango, however, has done an effective job of transforming Metro, turning it more into the "glance and go" device Microsoft has wanted it to become.
Email and messaging
Finally, one of the greatest weaknesses of the platform previously -- email and messaging -- is now a strength, as Microsoft shows it can play ball with the big boys. In with Mango is a linked email inbox, which lets you combine multiple email accounts into one consolidated tile. The concept of a universal inbox is one that's been done on most mobile operating systems at this point, but Windows Phone added a twist: instead of forcing all of your email accounts into the same box, you can pick and choose exactly which ones you'd like together. Prior to Mango, the system was inefficient and inconvenient -- it used up a tile for each individual account, taking up extra space and wasting our time by making us flip through separate boxes (although if tiles are your thing, you can pin specific email folders to the Start screen so you can go directly to that folder). Needless to say, this is a mammoth improvement and one of our favorite features in Mango.
But wait, there's more where that came from: conversations are now threaded. It's hard to believe that in 2011, millions of WP7 users were wandering around not only with separate inboxes, but unthreaded emails as well. Allow us to explain -- in previous versions of Windows Phone, each email was treated as its own entity, regardless of if it's part of a full-length conversation. With Mango, you can have a long argument with Jerry Smith about TPS reports via email, and the full correspondence is grouped together so you don't have to hunt through hundreds upon hundreds of other messages to find each segment of the conversation. Groundbreaking, we know, but it's an absolute must-have feature in this day and age, and it works seamlessly in the update.
The messaging app also gets a +1 in effectiveness, going from a regular ol' SMS / MMS depository to a consolidated place where all your texts, Facebook chats and Windows Live IMs live in one threaded conversation. You're chatting with Susie Charleston on Facebook, but she needs to log off, so when you continue talking to her via text you can still see her Facebook responses in the same conversation thread. We love the idea -- Android and iOS haven't come up with anything like this yet -- but we need more options. Not everyone uses these services to chat with friends, so we'd like to see an API available to developers designed to allow more IM methods to be included in these threads.
We were incredibly happy to see the difference between NoDo and Mango when it comes to our ability to communicate; not only does it now match up with most mobile OS platforms currently available, it surpasses them in terms of its integration with social networking and IM.
Social Network integration
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If we had to pick and choose talking points for the Mango update, its ability to integrate social network content with many of the platform's other key features would be near the top of the list. In essence, your phone is now littered with plenty of ways to interact with your friends and family via Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
We weren't able to test out Twitter integration in our preview build -- unfortunate since it's also the service we use the most -- so it goes without saying that we were pretty eager to see how well it played nice with Mango in relation to Facebook. In the new update, bits and pieces of Twitter are woven into several native apps such as the Me Hub, People Hub and camera app (more on that later).
The Me Hub doesn't look a heckuva lot different than it did on the Mango unit we played with three months ago, because there's absolutely nothing new to add to the foundation. It doesn't matter that an extra social network has been added to the mix here; the notifications and what's new pivot screens still fit with the extra service perfectly. Tweets that mention your name are dropped into notifications, and you're given the option of replying to it; direct messages, to our dismay, don't show up here. Interestingly, the What's New pivot now loads your own tweets -- and even more curiously, gives you an option to reply... to yourself.
Twitter also got custom-fitted in the People Hub as well. Here's the magical place where you can view your entire stream, but, much like TweetDeck and other programs, it's blended in with your Facebook news feed as well. If you're looking for a truly pure Twitter stream without the "contamination," you'll need to either de-integrate Facebook from your Windows Phone or just download a dedicated Twitter app that'll do the job just as easily. (Update: Turns out that by pressing the top of the screen on the "What's New" panel within the People Hub allows you to filter the stream.) Again, it's all about Glance and Go here, and sometimes you're only able to take a few seconds out of your busy day to check out what's going on in your social circle.
There are other ways to tie our mobile needs into social networks, such as sharing an interesting article we read through Internet Explorer; all it takes is a click of the options menu at the bottom right, and you'll be able to tweet out whatever you're currently viewing. It's also found gratuitously mingling with our contacts and groups -- any Facebook or Twitter updates associated with them will be proudly displayed on their respective pages. This is where the integration really shines: it's easy enough for anyone to access their feeds through a dedicated app, but it's nice to easily check our friends' Facebook status for icebreakers immediately before we call.
If you haven't had the chance to read our preview of Windows Phone 7.5, Facebook integrates in much the same manner as Twitter does. In fact, it's as if Microsoft treats the two networks as one and the same, and tries to combine them in every way possible. If you want to separate the two in an organized manner, tough luck. It's like social networking teamwork -- Facebook and Twitter joining forces with Microsoft to help enhance our ever-busy social lives, just in case you're in need of a little improvement in that area. The integration, while a wonderful concept, is nothing new, but at least Windows Phone throws the capability into its phones with relatively few hiccups.
Another area that was half-baked when we first played with it was multitasking, the oh-so-sweet word that penetrated the hearts and souls of phone geeks everywhere when it was first announced for Mango. Its convenience is undeniable: it's immensely frustrating when we can't save our spot in a game when a phone call comes in and go directly back to that same place after the conversation is done. We get flustered when streaming internet radio and aren't able to keep the music going as we surf the web or perform other tasks on our phones. We also like to quickly switch apps without needing to go back home.
In Mango, all of these frustrations are getting rectified -- albeit slowly. The functionality is all built in so a simple long-press of the back button pulls up your most recently opened apps in a webOS-style card view (each card being a thumbnail of that particular app, which puzzles us as to why we can't actually take our own screenshots on the phone). So far, we've been able to easily switch back and forth between apps this way, but unfortunately our experience multitasking hasn't greatly improved otherwise yet. This is primarily because few third-party apps are compatible with the update yet, though this incompatibility will be a concern of the past soon enough, as devs work to get their apps ready. We did try out a few Mango apps, however, and they all paused as advertised; our only issue here was the extra time it took to resume them. In some instances, we waited roughly 10 seconds before we were back into the same place on the app. As a curious aside, native Microsoft apps didn't have the same problem.
We're not ready to give up on Mango's multitasking talent -- after all, it's still heaps better than having nothing at all. We loved the app switching feature, but it's hard to give an accurate judgement on how third-party apps interact with the functionality, since it'll be a matter of time before the vast majority of apps support Mango's capabilities. For now we're unimpressed by the laggy app switching, though we look forward to seeing how future apps will work.
Update: A tipster shed some light on what may be going on here. Apparently many apps that are Mango-compatible are still not implementing the "true suspend" feature in their code, which causes the app to get reloaded when re-entering it every single time.
This is one of our favorite enhancements in Mango because we tend to communicate with our co-workers, friends and family more than random contacts or old high school buddies on Facebook. And since we're constantly keeping in touch with them, it's even more important to find out what's going on in their lives and interact with them more than anyone else. Windows Phone has incorporated it seamlessly into the user experience, making the process quick and simple to set up and easy to enjoy.
However, we still have the same concerns as we did three months ago: tasks still don't show up on the calendar's live tile or the lock screen, and they're still unable to sync with third party task programs such as Google Tasks or Remember the Milk. As much as Microsoft would like us to do everything in Windows Live, it's simply not practical. The service is useful as it currently stands, but it'd be infinitely more effective if we were given more interoperability. For a platform that emphasizes integration with Facebook and Twitter, we're not sure why we haven't seen APIs to encourage similar integration with other third parties. So we're torn here -- on one hand, this use of the tasks feature stands out above the crowd already, but it's a little impractical for us to solely rely on it when we use other task-oriented services.
Speaking of Exchange, Mango finally supports the use of multiple calendars from a single account. Additionally, if you're what we'd call a heavy user of Facebook, you'll appreciate the built-in integration of Facebook events into the calendar as well. If you're so popular that a few people are sending you unsolicited invites to events through Facebook, you can change the settings to filter in only those events you personally responded to.
Marketplace -- as it appears on the phone -- has remained mostly unchanged since the preview build; podcasts can be downloaded directly from the device, the drop-down menu appears as you type in a Marketplace search, and the app can be accessed from the web. The Web Marketplace, as it's being called, behaves in a much similar way to the Android online Market: pick out an app or song that interests you and it will automatically install on your device. You can also witness your purchase history and reinstall any apps you may have accidentally lost or purposely deleted.
There is, however, another feature that we didn't see previously: hidden apps. When a company wants to dole out an app to its employees for internal use, it naturally doesn't want the average Joe to find and download it. The company can therefore "hide" an app so it doesn't show up on the public catalog, and is only accessible through a "deep link" URL that can be distributed to only those who need to download it.
Unfortunately, we weren't able to test out the Web Marketplace or the hidden apps, but we appreciate that these options are going to be available in Mango. Ultimately, these are just a couple extra layers of customization for the Marketplace, which is turning out to be a theme for the whole OS in general -- every single app and Hub within the platform is bigger, better, and more flexible for our individual interests.
Earlier versions of Windows Phone would lose your settings upon exiting the camera app. This was a source of frustration, especially for video recording, where the camera would always revert back from 720p to VGA resolution. Mango remedies this by including a "Save settings" option in the camera menu. There's also the option to restore the default settings, should you get carried away tweaking things. We're also big fans of the two-stage camera button required on all Windows Phone handsets, but sometimes it's better to avoid the potential motion blur associated with pressing a physical key. To this end, Mango introduces an on-screen shutter button -- just tap anywhere in the viewfinder to take a picture. Sadly, there's no touch-to-focus support, and the camera only focuses on what's in the middle of the screen.
Mentioned in our preview, Auto-fix is a feature similar to what we've seen on other phones before -- auto-fix enhances your existing shots by adjusting brightness, contrast, color balance, shadows and highlights with simple tap. Sometimes it makes a difference, but most of the time we'd rather have manual controls, something that's missing. In fact, Windows Phone still lacks any kind of basic image editing functionality, like cropping and rotation.
On some phones, Mango adds a wide dynamic range toggle to the camera settings. Unlike a true HDR mode that takes 3 pictures at different exposure levels, it appears to change the shadows and highlights when shooting a subject with a lot of backlight or when there's a large difference between the bright and dark areas in a scene. It's usually possible to achieve the same results using auto-fix after the fact.
Earlier, we mentioned several different methods by which you can integrate your mobile content with social networks. The same thing can be done with your images, and you have some options here: there are two ways to upload pictures to Twitter and Facebook: from within the photo gallery or via the respective dedicated applications. While it makes no difference which way you upload shots to Facebook, it's another story when sharing images on Twitter. The dedicated app lets you upload pictures full size using your choice of service (TwitPic, TweetPhoto or yFrog), while the photo gallery insists on scaling down your shots, storing them on SkyDrive and publishing a clumsy unshortened URL to Twitter -- even though it appears shortened in the Me Hub, interestingly enough. This immediately makes Windows Phone's image sharing functionality a lot less compelling. When the time comes to upload movies, Facebook is supported, but there's no way to share videos on YouTube. To further complicate matters, Mango still lacks USB mass-storage support for quick and easy content transfer to a computer; Zune will continue to be your preferred syncing method, whether it's done via USB or WiFi.
Mango lets you tag people in pictures by tapping on their face and picking a contact from a list, or by typing someone's name directly. However, unlike the Facebook app, there's no way to fine-tune the position of the tag.
Maps and Local Scout
That leaves Bing Vision. In our preview, we called it Google Goggles for Bing, and that's still the case. Just as the other Bing search features, nothing changed cosmetically in this area over the last three months. It's Windows Phone's built-in reader which recognizes barcodes, tags and QR codes; it also can scan foreign text and translate it to your preferred language, with 30 to choose from (up from 26 in the test build). We didn't experience any lags or buggy firmware when scanning code, though the text scan could stand to benefit from a little more work; Vision typically picked up roughly 75 percent of the print we threw at it, and only another 50 percent of that was transcribed properly. Obviously it's not perfect, but it can definitely help in a pinch when you're in need of translating a sign or letter.
Office and Exchange
For some mysterious reason, Office and Exchange were two areas that weren't given the time of day in the first version of WP7. Sure, Office was there, but there was very little Exchange and Skydrive support (you could access OneNote docs on SkyDrive, but nothing else), and it felt more like a basic doc creator that had a difficult time keeping up with third-party apps like Quickoffice and Docs to Go.
SkyDrive plays a much more important role in the Office now, as you can now easily sync every type of document -- Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote -- between your phone and the cloud. Same goes with any folders that have been shared with you. All of this, in addition to Office 365 and SharePoint docs, can be found in the brand new Locations panel within the Office app.
Word and Excel together offer nine new document templates to help create your docs faster. Word now supports copy / paste and the ability to add comments to specific words or phrases, while Excel offers quick formulas such as sum, max, min and average. But what about PowerPoint? There's not much in the way of improvements here, aside from smoother transitions between slides and better text rendering.
Speaking of Microsoft Office 365, you can also sync your account -- including your corporate email, calendar, contacts and tasks -- with Outlook Mobile. Once you've set up the account, you'll be able to download Lync from the Marketplace, which gives you a lot more interaction with your company (such as multi-person chat, employee searches and the opportunity to join conference calls directly from a meeting in your calendar).
Support for Information Rights Management, which is geared to help protect confidential docs, has also been added to Mango. That comes along with other Exchange features such as the ability to set up Out of Office messages, sync tasks, use alpha-numeric PIN codes and search your Exchange server for older emails and attachments that normally wouldn't still be in the phone. Oh, and lest we forget -- you can now set up multiple Exchange accounts, a blessing for anyone that works for more than one company or has more than one Gmail account set up as its own Exchange server.
The Exchange and Office support was an absolutely crucial area to improve on in order to win back disenchanted corporate customers that used Windows Mobile until the bitter end.
We admit -- sometimes it's the little things that drive us completely batty, and WP7's lack of quality ringtone options were the epitome of this. Any person who used an iPhone for the first couple years can relate to the frustration of only having a few ringtones to choose from, most of them either way too soft or just plain annoying.
Fortunately, custom tones made the list of 500 features, but there's a twist: you can only get these custom tones by loading an MP3 or WMA clip no longer than 40 seconds into Zune, placing it into one of your music folders, right-clicking the tune in order to edit it and changing the song's Genre to "ringtone." Then simply sync to the phone, select the song in your device's settings and viola! Nothing to it, right? Easy peasy, if you have software that can crop your favorite music into 40-second segments. Otherwise, get used to the awesomely bad MIDI-style beats found in your phone's ringtone catalog. Don't get us wrong -- we're glad to have the opportunity to throw in our own songs now, but there has to be an easier way.
How's this for another bittersweet feature addition? Internet sharing, another way of describing the mobile hotspot feature, is now included in all new Mango devices. Let's rewind: that's right, we said all new devices, which means all existing phones -- including our very own Samsung Focus test unit -- will remain devoid of said awesome hotspot.
Now, we'll play the realist card here. Microsoft was mum on even mentioning this feature at all when we tested the preview build -- it was only confirmed last month -- which tells us the mobile hotspot feature was inches away from not being included in Mango at all. Looking at the bright side, this could just mean that it may take extra time to get the kinks ironed out for existing devices and might come out in a future update, but the folks at Redmond weren't able to give us a firm commitment on it. So, for the time being, current Windows Phones will have a disadvantage here.
Technically, video chat isn't one of the 500 promised features -- it's an API that developers can take advantage of. But the inclusion of front-facing cameras in many new Mango devices gives us a feeling that we won't have to worry about a shortage of possible apps in this department. In fact, Tango video calling is ever-present in the HTC Titan and Radar, the first Windows Phone 7.5 devices announced by the Taiwanese company. Sure, video chat isn't guaranteed to be supported by the handset you choose, but just do a little research before you purchase the phone to be absolutely positive you'll find a client that works.
Connect to hidden WiFi networks
This feature, as small and insignificant as it may seem, could be considered one of the most important additions to Windows Phone, because of the affect it's previously had on corporations who purposely keep their WiFi networks hidden for privacy. For a corporation like Microsoft that takes so much pride in its collaboration with businesses, it seemed like such an odd thing to leave out in the initial version of the OS. However, it's ready for Primetime now, so perhaps all can be forgiven.
Battery getting low and you're waiting for that all-important phone call to come in? At this point, you may not care so much about getting your email or having apps run in the background. Enter Battery Saver, a Mango feature that, with your permission, will turn on automatically once your phone is low enough on juice. You can also set it to turn on anytime your device isn't hooked up to a charger, which is roughly 99 percent of the time we don't actually need to charge it.
Internet Explorer 9
While Windows Phone still needs a glass of water to get rid of a few hiccups -- and let's face it, every mobile OS has plenty of their own -- it ironed out a lot of the wrinkles from earlier versions and made it a much more feature-laden, user-friendly experience. With Mango, WP7 has caught up with Android and iOS in nearly every way, and in some areas it's even surpassed the other two in functionality. Despite a grim first year, the bright future of Windows Phone is forcing Ballmer to wear shades.
Myriam Joire contributed to this review.