Some people are wary of buying a first generation product – and with good reason, there’re always kinks to sort out. That’s what Windows Phone 7.5 is here to do. The long expected Mango update finally puts iron to fabric in a bid to get rid of the said kinks.
There are game changers like multitasking and Wi-Fi hotspot functionality. There are smaller things like custom ringtones. There are improvements to the core apps along with a host of new features.
There isn’t a hub left untouched. Each has at least a few minor improvements, adding up to a much more complete and functional OS than Windows Phone was at the beginning.
You have to keep in mind though that the OS is still only a year old. There’s been plenty of time and software versions for the competition to finally get things nailed down. And we tend to forget how bad it looked for them too in the beginning.
Before you dig into the review, you might want to re-read our original Windows Phone 7 review, as we’ll be focusing on the changes since then for this one.
Anyway, will version 7.5 put Windows Phone squarely on the map and make it the third horse in the smartphone race? Let’s look at all the changes in detail and find out.
When Windows Phone 7 was announced, multitasking was the glaring omission. Well, v7.5 comes to fix that.
It still isn’t true multitasking; things are being done the iOS way. Apps not in the foreground are suspended, but the OS has ways to take over and carry out the task for them.
The exact details of that are for developers to worry about, what the user needs to know is that once apps are updated to support multitasking, they won’t be able to tell the difference.
We only worry that this logic can be too restrictive for some apps, but we’ll see how things pan out. Of course, there will be a transitional period when some apps will support multitasking and others won’t. We’ve been there with the iOS, when it first left the realm of single-tasking – it’s not that bad.
Anyway, to switch between apps you press and hold the Back key (that’s right, the Back key, not the Windows key). The app switcher itself looks similar to that of Symbian or WebOS: thumbnail snapshots of the apps, ordered chronologically left to right.
Press and hold the back key to launch the app switcher
You can scroll the list horizontally to select an app and a tap will bring you back to exactly how you left it. Usually, the last 5-6 apps are here. You can’t “kill” any of those apps, this is more of a history of the recently used apps.
Eventually, as you open more apps, the old ones start to drop out of the list. Once an app is gone, you have to launch it again the old fashioned way, which has the drawback of starting it over from the beginning.
These contrasts with iOS, where apps retain their state until you explicitly kill them. It’s not a perfect solution, but it works much better than what we had before (the countless back clicks were a slow and clumsy solution). Plus, apps with active background tasks (e.g. streaming online radio) will keep on working.
Multitasking can be disabled from the settings to save battery. There you’ll also find a list of all installed apps that support multitasking.
Multitasking can be turned off to preserve the battery • You can check which apps support mutitasking
Check out the app switcher on video:
The Live tiles, the basic building blocks of the Start screen of Windows Phone have been revamped. Now they are quicker and offer more info.
For example, the Pictures tile shows an animated slideshow of your images. The Group tile (Groups is a new feature to boot) lists friend updates.
The application list has grown a virtual Search button, which makes finding apps easier for those with many apps installed.
The Group live tile shows the latest update from the group • Easy searching in the app list
Windows Phone 7.5 can be controlled through voice only – you can dictate a text, have the phone read out the reply, you can initiate searches and so on. Other OSes are doing it too (*cough*Android*cough*) but voice commands are a big part of iOS (and a loudly touted one at that), so WP7.5 can brag about it too.
Voice commands are go
Another change to the core functionality is that you can now manage the phone remotely via a browser over the Internet. That includes features like install, reinstall or delete apps and keeping track of your Xbox Live stats. WP7 had a free phone location service from the start and it’s still here.
The People hub from Windows Phone 7 was impressive, but the 7.5 update makes it absolutely brilliant. Part of that is due to the better social network support, complete with Twitter and LinkedIn.
One of the new features of the hub is Groups, a handy way to organize your contacts, with “text everyone” and “email everyone” features. All the status updates from the grouped contacts are pulled in from their various social networks, and you get access to their online photo albums too.
Groups can also be pinned to the homescreen for easier access.
Groups handle everything from mass messaging to SNS updates
The rest is pretty much the same. You still get the clever way of jumping to contacts starting with a specific letter, the What’s new tab that aggregates status updates from all contacts and the Recent tab, which lists only recently viewed contacts.
And deeper social networking support makes things even better. When viewing a contact’s profile, you get everything from call, text, send email, write on wall, mention on Twitter and so on. The contact photo, along with the latest status update, are visible on top.
The What’s new tab works like its namesake in the People hub, but only shows updates from the specific contact. Pictures is where the contact’s Facebook albums are.
The most interesting addition is the new History tab. The complete history of exchange with a contact is in one place listed by day. Everything but status updates is listed here – calls, texts (actually threads from the Messaging hub) and emails.
Looking at the profile of a single contact
The Me card is your own profile. From here you can post status updates, set chat status, check into locations (there’s more location goodness coming on later). You can also change your profile picture (only for Facebook and Live though, not Twitter).
Another tab in the Me card lets you view notifications (e.g. Twitter mentions) and, finally, What’s new lets you view your own status updates.
The Me card manages your social networks
Messaging was heavily retooled for version 7.5.
Threads are the building blocks of all non-email messaging. Although a sort of conversation view, threads mash together SMS, Facebook and Windows Live messages.
That’s the thing about Windows Phone: the Messaging hub removes the old division between texts, IMs, social messages. The other hubs do the same for the other functionality, making the whole thing simple yet powerful.
Anyway, Messaging is separated into two tabs – threads and online. Online shows you who’s online with the people you’ve talked to most recently on top. This makes finding someone to talk to very easy.
Viewing all threads and who’s online • A single threads combines messages from SMS, Facebook, Messenger
Threads is where this hub’s impressive features kick in. A new thread is created for each person you start a chat with. Messages are displayed as speech balloons and a label on the left shows the type of message – text, Facebook or Live Messenger. Labels are placed only when the conversation moves to a different platform so it’s not cluttered.
You can choose which platform to use to send a reply and the text box will remind you what you’re currently using with a message like “chat on Facebook”. Individual messages can be copied (the whole message is copied to be pasted later, you can’t copy only a part of the message), they can be deleted or forwarded. Whole threads can be deleted too.
You can’t attach anything to Facebook messages, you’ll need to use MMS for that.
The visual voicemail functionality is also part of the new OS (that is dependant on the carrier and your plan). It works as you would expect, by letting you read your voicemail messages instead of listening to them.
There are extensive methods to chat on social networks but we’ll get to that in another chapter.
Here’s a quick demo of the messaging and SNS prowess of the People and Messaging hubs:
Conversation view was expected – it lists emails between you and a contact chronologically, grouping them by subject. It’s the display style that Gmail popularized and is the best way to keep track of a conversation over email.
Each email conversation is listed with a subject and number of messages, plus how many of those are new. A tap on a conversation expands it to show the messages plus a line from each message.
Email has Conversation view
You can tap on an individual message to read it, as well as skip messages back and forward to navigate the conversation. We expected to be able to swipe between the messages, but that wasn’t the case.
Another highly requested feature was a unified inbox for email – and Windows Phone 7.5 delivers. You can now link multiple inboxes (and unlink them individually later), so that you have a single place to check for new messages.
Linking several inboxes will also automatically combine their live tiles. You can browse individual folders for each account, which lets you view messages from only one email account even if it’s linked.
Calendar and Office updates
The business side of Windows Phone has its own list of cool updates in version 7.5.
The Calendar can view sub-calendars for each account you have and you can give each a different color to make it easier to tell apart. You can also disable sub-calendars if they’re getting in the way.
Calendar supports multiple online calendars and sub-calendars
To-dos can be created too. Those can only be synced with Live accounts, and not a Gmail account for example. Each to-do can have a priority reminder, due date and notes. Later, to-do’s can be sorted by priority.
To-dos are part of the calendar too
As for the Office hub, SkyDrive integration is one thing that was improved. Now, docs are automatically synced between the phone and your computer through SkyDrive. In case you missed it, Microsoft are offering free 25GB of storage with each SkyDrive account (but individual files are limited to 100MB).
Office Hub supports multiple online locations
There’s more – the Locations tab replaces the old SharePoint tab. This lets you browse Office docs stored on the phone, in SkyDrive, through SharePoint or in Office 365 (a paid service that includes Office web apps).
The Excel section of the Office hub got better too – it grew the all-time favorite Auto-sum function and you can now tap and drag to select multiple cells.
Excel has been touched up
OneNote now has a To-Do feature that turns the selected line into a to-do item that can be checked off.
OneNote can make one very flexible check list
Changes to multimedia handling
The Pictures hub has been polished up a bit in Windows Phone Mango. There’s a new People tab, which lets you browse photo albums by individual contacts or groups.
Photos can be shared via MMS, email or on a social network. You can pick one network to be available for quick sharing, which requires one tap less.
Sharing a photo
You can set a single photo as a background for the hub (it used to be the last photo viewed) or you can set it to shuffle different photos.
Picking a background for the Pictures hub
And of course, the point of hubs is that they are the go-to place to do things, instead of apps. New functionality allows apps to integrate into the Pictures hub, so for example, a photo effects app can make its options available right in the hub. Devs need to enable that into apps however.
Windows Phone 7 used to be quite restricted when it came to sharing – it’s still not perfect (it still downsizes photos before emailing them, for one) but you can now share videos too, either via email or on Facebook.
While uploading photos to Facebook or Windows Live, the OS will detect any untagged faces and allow you to tag them before proceeding with the upload.
One bit of nuisance in the original version of the OS was its insistence to forget any custom camera settings – e.g. the video call camera would always launch in VGA resolution selected. Now you have a dedicated save settings button. You can go back to the defaults at any time if you’re not happy with the changes.
Saving the camera settings
With Windows Phone 7.5, the Music+Videos hub also saw its functionality extended. Creating playlists on the phone is one of the new features (add songs to Now playing and save the list as a new playlist).
Smart DJ (part of the desktop Zune software) can create playlists automatically, again right on the phone. And another thing – you can subscribe to podcasts (both audio and video). You could do that with the desktop Zune, but this way you avoid the extra step of syncing with your computer.
Bing is better at finding things
When you search on Bing, one of the things that might be offered as a relevant result is an app from the Marketplace. For example, searching for “travel” will offer a travel tool app. This feature is called App connect.
App Connect in action
Bing also grew two new search modes – song recognition and barcode scanner. Those are features popular with apps, but with WP7.5 you get those natively as part of the OS.
The camera scanner can also snap a photo of text, perform OCR and translate it into another language.
Track recognition • Barcode scanner
Brand new web browser
The Internet Explorer on Widows Phone was updated to the latest version for the 7.5 update and it improves the user interface.
The URL bar is always visible (but the status bar at the top of the screen is auto-hides, so you don’t actually lose any screen real estate) and next to it is the refresh button. You can, of course, bring up the extended settings, which offer a great deal of options.
The new Internet Explorer interface
The URL bar also serves as a search bar, which is a handy shortcut for looking things up if you’re not sure which site exactly will do the job.
The browser makes the controls in web pages look just like their equivalents in native apps. So, a web app can look just like a native app with practically no extra effort from the designer.
The six tab ceiling hasn’t been lifted – it’s not too bad, but competing OSes don’t have such limitations. We were also hoping to see text reflow, but no luck on that either.
More options • 6 tabs max • Settings
Internet Explorer does a Test Drive
Don’t be afraid to pit the phone against even a desktop browser – the tests are pretty demanding and if you’re not running a recent version of the major desktop browsers, your computer will surely break a sweat.
And here’s a quick video tour of the new Internet Explorer Mobile:
Maps with driving directions and local search
Maps is a core part of the Windows Phone experience and there’s a new feature that makes version 7.5 a must-have – driving (and pedestrian) navigation for free.
Now, it’s not quite voice-guided navigation. Here’s how it works: first you set up a route and listen to the first instruction, then when it’s time for the next instruction, the phone will beep and highlight it. If you tap it, the phone will read it out to you, but only then.
Maps now gives driving and walking directions
The Maps app uses a big font with white letters on black background that make reading easy. It still requires you to take your eyes off the road though, it won’t put SatNav apps out of business.
But it can come handy (especially if you’ve got a co-pilot) and until Nokia joins the Windows Phone team, it’s the best that the newest OS from Redmond can offer (oddly, WP6.5 had voice-guided navigation in the States).
Real-time traffic information is also available.
That’s not all the new Maps can do for you though. The app will locate nearby points of interest with the new feature called Local Scout and it will even show you indoor maps of malls.
Local Scout helps you find something to do, something to eat or buy nearby
Local Scout has a tabbed interface to sort the various points of interest – eat+drink, see+do, shop and highlights. You can pick items from a “I care about” list to get the relevant options only.
Looking over info and reviews for some interesting destinations
It’s an odd thing to brag about, but Windows Phone 7.5 lets the user choose a custom ringtone. Don’t laugh, iPhone users had to go through the same in the beginning.
Another thing that WP7.5 enables is Wi-Fi hotspot functionality. To enable sharing, you have to pick a name for the network and then the security level, open or WPA2. Keep in mind that it’s up to the carrier to enable this feature, so you might not get it even if you install 7.5.
One thing that must have annoyed security-conscious people is WP7’s inability to connect to Wi-Fi networks that don’t broadcast a name (hidden networks). That’s no longer a problem with version 7.5.
The Games hub got an update too, now you can edit your avatar, track your Xbox Live achievements and get messages from Xbox Live contacts.
Windows Phone 7 failed to wow consumers, but it’s part of Microsoft’s long-term plan and they are not rushing anything. It will soon be joined by Windows 8, which shares the Metro UI, the live tiles, the ARM CPU support and will be sprawling across PCs and tablets in no time.
When that’s done, Microsoft will be offering a complete ecosystem – from your phone, through your tablet, to your computer at home or at work. That’s exactly what Apple have had going on for quite a while and this way of doing things has had a lot of vocal proponents.
Still, WP7 lacked key functionality, which deterred potential consumers. Version 7.5 however brings things that will appeal to businesspeople, social networking buffs and people who like a novel software experience.
If you’re using Microsoft software (chances are you’re using at least Office at work), WP7.5 offers the smoothest, most well-rounded experience. The rich bundle of several social networks and IM clients and emails and texts is beautifully organized too.
And let’s face it, the Windows Phone interface is the only UI around that’s truly different – iOS, Android, even Symbian are becoming harder and harder to tell apart. The only thing that held it back was the lack of multitasking and now that’s been sorted out.
Speaking of apps, two tech giants (Microsoft and Nokia) are hard at work to attract new developers to build even more apps and introduce even more services to the platform.
Second generation Windows Phone handsets are already on the way and they stand a good chance of stopping the market-share downward spiral. It will take years to catch up to Android and iOS, but Windows Phone 7.5 is a big step forward.
For more reviews visit http://www.gsmarena.com/