Last time I used a Windows Phone smartphone it ran the newly launched Windows Phone 7 OS, a completely new platform with no links to the older Windows Mobile OS. Its Metro UI was refreshing, something Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore couldn’t stop gushing over as he unveiled it at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in 2010. The UI got raving reviews but the OS itself was years behind the competition. There was no multi-tasking, the email interface, too, was dated and phones running the OS gave the mileage worse than a Hummer when it came to battery performance. Yes, Microsoft had something going with Windows Phone and the platform could get somewhere if they polished off the rough edges and added a few bells and whistles. Even as Microsoft launched Windows Phone 7, engineers and designers were already busy working on the next major update (called Mango update for some reason). While they did that, Microsoft signed a deal with Nokia, the world’s largest phone and third-largest smartphone vendor to make smartphones running Windows Phone, which we will see later this month. But is Windows Phone 7.5 good enough to take on Android and iOS? Let’s find out…
I tried Windows Phone 7.5 on the newly launched HTC Radar, which should be available in select cities in India later this week. The Radar sports a 3.8-inch, WVGA (480×800 pixels) touchscreen, a 1GHz processor, 512MB RAM, 8GB of internal storage, a 5.0 MP camera and the usual connectivity options. The HTC Radar, along with the Samsung Omnia W belong to the lower spectrum of Windows Phone devices, so it made sense to review the OS on it. For those unaware, Microsoft has laid down a minimum hardware requirement for Windows Phone to ensure users get a uniform basic experience. The Radar probably skims that minimum requirement, barring the display size.
Powering on the phone for the first time, there is very little that can differentiate this Mango update from the original Windows Phone 7 OS. The same live ’tiles’ and ‘hubs’ greeted me as the previous version. The arrow key pointing to the right still took me to the list of apps (no grid of icons). At a glance, even I could not make out the difference between the two versions. Which is not a bad thing, considering the UI was Windows Phone 7’s strongest feature and it has been preserved in Windows Phone 7.5. Microsoft mentions there are over 500 new features in this update and of course, I won’t go through all of them, but here are some of them that really stood out during my usage period.
Microsoft is marketing Windows Phone 7.5 with the punchline ‘Putting people first’ and there’s a reason behind that – it has one of the best phone book and social networks integration out there. The ‘people’ hub is much more than a phone book. I could easily integrate my Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts and see a stream of recent updates from all my contacts in one screen. The OS gives an option to either see updates from all social networks or just one. One screen was reserved to my updates and another for updates from my friends that had mentioned me.
The other big feature is the ability to create groups from contacts from the hub and pin them to the start screen. While creating groups is not a new feature, Microsoft takes it a few steps further. Not only could I send a text message or a mail to everyone in the group, but I could also see all updates on social networks from only the people in a particular group. Talk about filtering noise!
The people hub is also integrated to photos hub, where I could not only see photos stored on the phone but photos posted by my friends on Facebook. There are options to see photos of all the people in contacts or photos of people in a particular group. The best thing here is everything happens seamlessly and the update process takes no time at all. If this does not define ‘putting people first’, I do not know what will.
There is very little one can add to messaging after Apple’s iMessage or that’s what I used to think before I used Windows Phone 7.5. The new messaging app maintains a conversation over text, MSN Live and Facebook. So irrespective of where someone is contacting me, I could see the conversation in the messaging hub and respond directly from there. This adds a whole new dimension as it does not break the conversation just because someone moved from SMS to Facebook chat. However, having more services integrated into this, especially Google Talk, will make it even more effective.
Microsoft came late into the threaded email party but nevertheless it is finally here. I am already a big fan of the implementation as unlike iOS, clicking a threaded mail did not take me to a new screen. Instead, it just opened the tread in the same window and only clicking on a particular thread did it take me to a new window. This saved at least one back key stroke when I was done with the mail.
Windows Phone 7.5 might not have a Siri equivalent but it did have a pretty functional voice command software. Pressing the Windows button for a slightly longer duration initiated the voice command from where I could search using Bing, send text messages and open apps. I usually could get the software to open apps and search keywords, sending text messages turned out to be problematic as it could not figure most Indian names. The system is good for short keywords with Indian accents and fails as soon as it comes to dictating complete sentences. For instance, I uttered the keyword movies and it showed me the local search result of nearby theaters. Clicking on one, it gave me the phone number of the theater and driving directions from my current location. On clicking on the theater’s location on the map, it provided me a list of eating joints and places to shop in the vicinity. The only thing missing, and the most crucial part, was the listing and timing of movies playing at the theater.
This was the missing piece in the puzzle when vendors launched Windows Phone 7 devices here in India without Microsoft’s blessings last year. There was no app store support for India and one had to create a MSN Live id with US credentials. That had its perks (more on that later) but one could not buy paid apps with an Indian credit card. Thankfully, that’s not the case any more. Windows Phone 7.5 Marketplace works in India and there is a decent selection of apps available. Yes, the pickings are slim but I expect them to pick up once Nokia joins the fray. One new feature I noticed was that apps pinned to the start screen also got live tiles with more ‘lively’ transitions, which wasn’t the case earlier. However, one benefit that isn’t available to Indian users is a feature in Zune app that would pull out artist, song and album information for any song in the playlist.
Like I said, it is next to impossible to talk about every new feature in Windows Phone 7.5. There is a complete MS Office Suite that also syncs all files to SkyDrive directly from the device for anytime, anywhere access. Windows Phone 7.5 also brings a new version of Internet Explorer, which is much better and faster than the older version. I could even share links from the browser to social networks (LinkedIn, Facebook, MSN Live and Twitter) or via text message and mail. IE9 for Windows Phone can open up to 6 tabs at any time. And not to forget, multitasking.
Windows Phone 7.5 certainly comes as a welcome change at a time when everyone is busy getting inspired by each other to an extent that they have started to look alike. Its integration of contacts and social networks is by far the most user-friendly innovation I have seen in any smartphone OS. However, there are many edges that need to be polished. For instance, no support for Direct Messages in Twitter in the people hub. There are no visible/audible notification if anyone mentioned me on Twitter or tagged me on Facebook. Also, it is unknown at this point of time whether third party developers can integrate their services to People hub or not. Sharing photos on Twitter directly from the camera app sends out a long SkyDrive link that looks tacky.
Having said that, this is just the first major update to Windows Phone 7.5, which would be considered a rookie when compared to iOS (five updates) and Android (four updates and one later this week). I would recommend Windows Phone 7.5 for its fool-proof user interface and social network integration with contacts. Yes, power users might like to wait a little while longer for the app story to develop, Windows Phone 7.5 has most features a normal user would want from a smartphone.