Microsoft has just flipped the switch and pushed out Windows Phone Mango update out to a few select devices and even though it’s technically the “7.5″ version, this is a major software update that will breathe new life into existing devices and gets us excited about the new hardware coming out. Microsoft is facing some stiff competition though, as competitors like Apple are already on the fifth generation of iOS and Google’s Android platform has come a long way since the days of the G1.
Is Windows Phone Mango a great smartphone operating system and is it as good or better than iOS and Android? Read on to find out friends.
- Same responsive and beautiful user interface
- Third-party multitasking brings it up to par with competition
- Smooth Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn integration
- Live tiles are more flexible thanks to third-party access
- Improved IE9 provides a smoother web browsing experience
- Lots of little tweaks and polish like custom ringtones which should help it connect with users
- Same strong cloud integration as before – pump in your Windows ID and watch the magic happen
- Google integration is still a bit finicky
- The app selection is better but still lacking compared to Android, iOS
- Live tiles are still not as useful as Microsoft likes to market it
- Still nagging issues around the edges like the lack of landscape orientation in certain core apps
- Despite the numerous improvements, there are still some overall polish issues
Windows Phone: A primer
If you’ve never used or seen Windows Phone in action, I suggest you read our review of the platform from about a year ago. Windows Phone is definitely a fresh and innovative approach to mobile computing, as its live-tile interface is about conveying information quickly and there’s a snazzy look and feel to the whole thing. It kind of looks like a high-gloss magazine and there are stylish little animations throughout the OS which dazzle the eye. Things like one-click access to the camera have been built in from day one and are being copied by the competition for a good reason.
As you would expect from a modern smartphone, Windows Phone is more than capable of making and receiving calls and texts, can easily browse the web with the built-in Internet Explorer, has Bing built in for searching and mapping, is customizable to a certain degree and you can always add new apps from the growing Windows Marketplace for mobile. Like Android, you set it up by pumping in your Windows Live ID and then the phone will light up with your contacts and other personalizations. It’s also the only major smartphone that comes preloaded with Microsoft Office that’s customized for mobile and it’s the only platform that has Xbox Live integration.
In the first go around, we had a few issues with the platform and some of those have been addressed with Mango and other updates. Copy and paste is now in, as is third-party multitasking and stronger integration with the live tiles. Not everything is perfect though and with iOS 5 and Android Ice Cream Sandwich around the corner, Microsoft’s smartphone platform has to deliver the goods in order to gain traction with consumers and developers.
Multitasking, People Hub, Threaded messaging
Windows Phone Mango delivers over 500 new features but we won’t dive through each and every one. Instead, we’ll just focus on a few key elements and improvements of this software update.
The most important new feature for me is the ability for third-party apps to fully multitask in the background and you can switch through running apps by holding down the back button. This will zoom out on the app you’re running and push you into a view where apps look like cards. You can flick through them and then tap on the app you want to run.
This is a huge upgrade to the overall experience because even though the focus of Windows Phone isn’t necessarily to live within apps, being able to quickly switch between third-party apps is a sorely-needed feature that was missing from Windows Phone 7. Before iOS 4 brought real multitasking to the iPhone, I remember Apple fans would say that you don’t need multitasking if you can quickly close apps, go to the home screen and quickly launch another app. That’s bull.
The multitasking experience on Windows Phone Mango greatly adds to the overall enjoyment of the device because you’re not constantly having to go through that home screen (as pretty as it is) to get to another app. If you need to quickly copy and paste something from an e-mail into a third-party app, this makes it quick and simple. I’ve also found that having this full multitasking hasn’t bogged down the overall performance, which can always be a concern.
My one complaint about the full multitasking on Windows Phone Mango is that there’s no quick way to dismiss or kill these running apps. Some have said that this interface looks like webOS, so I actually wish I could flick cards away to dismiss them or at the very least, have a small “x” in the corner to kill apps.
The company has also improved the People hub with Windows Phone Mango, as you can now connect contacts with Twitter and LinkedIn in addition to Facebook. This sounds pretty simple but it actually makes the People hub one of the most powerful apps on the system because you can use it as main way to keep tract of all your social networks in one place in a visually-pleasing way.
You can also create specific groups from your contact lists to create groups that can be pinned to the start page. From there, you can send out group e-mails or text messages quite easily. This is a neat little feature that could be extremely powerful for keeping track of your family or groups of friends.
Another cool feature of Windows Phone Mango is the ability to have threaded messages with your contacts. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking via SMS, instant messaging or through Facebook chat, as you can keep the conversation intact in one place. Speaking of text messaging, Microsoft has done some neat stuff with its voice-to-text engine (voice recognition will match against an SMS database) which makes sending texts by voice a breeze.
The multitasking is the crown jewel of Windows Phone Mango but don’t overlook the powerful new features of the People hub and how convenient threaded messaging can be.
IE9, Bing, SkyDrive
Microsoft has also added a ton of new features into the Bing search app, which is integrated into the entire OS. One neat thing is a free Shazam-like service which identifies music and can tie into the media Marketplace to let you buy the song or listen to a preview. While it’s not quite as robust as Shazam or SoundHound, it works well enough, is free and is a neat thing to have built-in.
There’s a location-based searching program built in to the Bing app called Local Scout and it provides a local search and discovery service. This will help you find things like restaurants, bars, shopping areas and events. It’s a neat little feature but I wasn’t blown away by the results. I’ll likely stick to Yelp for my local food needs and other specialized apps like Foursquare for location-based recommendations.
There’s also a Bing feature called Vision which is Microsoft’s version of Google Goggles in that it will provide visual searches of QR codes, CD and DVD covers and it will even translate foreign languages for something like a menu. It appears to be on par with what Google’s doing but it has a nicer interface.
The music identifying features, Local Scout and Vision really make the Bing app a powerful and useful tool. Even if some of these aren’t quite as good as third-party competitors, having all of these for free in one place is quite useful. Good job Microsoft.
Microsoft’s SkyDrive is one of the company’s best-kept secrets, as the company is giving users 25 GB of free online storage and Windows Phone Mango helps mobile users take better advantage of that. Windows Phone Mango essentially makes your SkyDrive an easily-accessible part of your phone’s memory – if you want to share a photo from your online SkyDrive via IM or text, it’s just a few simple clicks. You can share videos, browse through your cloud-based documents and search through your files from your phone.
While Google always gets praised for its cloud services and Apple’s upcoming iCloud will get a lot of attention, Microsoft is no slouch when it comes to consumer cloud services. After spending some time listening to the company talk about Windows 8, the SkyDrive integration with Windows Phone Mango is probably just the beginning of an interconnected strategy from Microsoft.
The better browser, robust Bing app and deep SkyDrive integration are all much-welcomed additions to Windows Phone Mango. Even if users may not take advantage of all of these features, it’s nice to know it’s here.
Live tiles, Mango apps
The striking thing about Windows Phone 7 is that it uses live tiles instead of static icons for apps and services. Windows Phone Mango takes that to another level and it also lets developers take better advantage of it.
The whole appeal of these live tiles is that Microsoft wants to give users ambient information so they can get in and out of their devices quickly – watch this commercial to see how this task-oriented design is brought to life. Windows Phone Mango allows you to create even more tiles like a group contact tile from your contact list.
It’s not just Microsoft that’s able to do this, as third-party developers can also create live tiles and you can deep link from within those apps. Let’s say you’re using the Flixster app, you can pin that to the start screen and then pull out and pin a specific movie to the start screen as well. A weather app could also be giving you the live weather in the area you’re in and you could also have a live tile on your homescreen from that app which shows you the weather in a city that you’re going to visit.
It’s a great idea and there are some instances where the live tiles absolutely rock – having your next calendar appointment clearly visible on your home screen via a tile is super convenient. Unfortunately, I’ve found that the benefits of this are often overstated by Microsoft due to the size of the tiles themselves, so these can only convey a limited amount of information. For example, your People hub will show you the faces of your friends who are tweeting or updating their status on Facebook but you still have to dive into the app itself to really see what going on. Some messages in your communication tiles can also be truncated due to the space.
The live tiles are also a bit odd for new smartphone buyers but that user interface should become more familiar over the next few years. Windows 8 will use these live tiles and the additional screen sizes on those devices should allow the tiles to convey more information. More than that, Windows 8 and the revamped Xbox interface will get the masses more familiar with live tiles.
What’s still missing
You can now link your inboxes so you don’t have to dive into separate tiles to get to multiple e-mail accounts but I would have liked a better way to sort through these within the unified experience. I do happen to use Google for personal and professional e-mail and I guess it’s not fair to expect any company other than Android to have an amazing mobile experience for Google services.
While many of the new features and improvements are nice, there are still a few design decisions that show Windows Phone Mango is a bit rough around the edges. For example, the music player still doesn’t rotate to landscape mode and neither does the Local Scout and other apps. Microsoft told me that this was a design/navigation decision but if you’re rocking an HTC Surround, not having the music player rotate can be quite annoying, even if it is a relatively minor quibble.
More importantly than those issues is the fact that Microsoft and Windows Phone Mango are heading into a battle or ecosystems and it is behind both Android and iOS in that respect. While the more than 30,000 apps for Windows Phone is a phenomenal growth rate, it’s still much, much smaller than the app selection for Android and iOS. While many say that the tonnage of apps aren’t that important compared to the quality, I do have to say that having more apps gives the end user a better chance of finding amazing programs.
If 90 percent of apps in an app store are crap, that means 10 percent are good. Ten percent of half a million apps or of 300,000 programs is much better than 10 percent of 30,000 apps.
It’s not just the number of apps though, as the quality of some apps can be better on the iPhone or Android. Yelp is one of my go-to apps on any phone out there and while the Windows Phone version is fine, it’s not as good as what I’m used to on other platforms.
We’re just starting to see the first wave of Windows Phone Mango apps, which can take full advantage of the hardware. For example, Windows Phone 7 apps couldn’t even access the camera, so things like a barcode scanner, Instagram or augmented reality weren’t even possible on the platform. It’s going to take time for developers to really start ramping up apps which can truly take advantage of the capabilities that Windows Phone Mango offers.
The bottom line
Microsoft’s Windows Phone Mango is a great software update and I sincerely believe that if this version was what Microsoft debuted a year ago, the market share story would be a lot different. Using the existing responsive and beautiful UI, Windows Phone Mango adds much-needed features like third-party multitasking, improved hubs, more useful live tiles, the potential for stronger apps and some really neat Bing features.
There is something really pleasing about using Windows Phone Mango that may not come across watching a video or seeing it on an in-store demo. Once it’s your information and people populating those live tiles, you really understand what Microsoft is doing and why it took this approach to mobile computing.
It’s not all perfect though, as the design and UI take some getting used to and there may be some people out there who just don’t like it. The application ecosystem isn’t as good as you would want it to be at this point but it’s grown leaps and bounds since last year. I expect developers to continue to try and innovate on this platform particularly because Windows Phone Mango gives them additional tools.
It’s impossible to talk about Windows Phone Mango without comparing it to Apple’s iOS 5 and the latest version of Android. Apple and Google are both more mature than what Microsoft is putting out there and it’s noticeable – iOS has much more polish and app support while Android has clearly defined advantages as well as a more robust app selection. Microsoft is still behind both of these platforms but Windows Phone Mango definitely shortens the gap and is a worthy platform in its own right.
For existing users, Windows Phone Mango is an amazing update that will add functionality to your phone and make you feel like you have a brand new device. Any existing Windows Phone owners should be hounding their carriers to push this update ASAP.
If you’re considering Windows Phone, I’m not sure if Windows Phone Mango is significantly better than iOS or Android to make you buy one of these products based on the software. The polish and app ecosystem just aren’t there.
Windows Phone Mango does fill most of the gaps that 7 had and Microsoft’s platform can go toe-to-toe with Android and iOS in terms of looks, capabilities and sheer joy of use. With new hardware on the horizon, I remain cautiously optimistic about Microsoft’s chances because Windows Phone Mango is a darn good product.
It remains to be seen if having a good product is enough in this highly-competitive industry, though. You’ve heard what I’ve had to say, now please tell us your thoughts on Windows Phone Mango in the comments.
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