Oct. 1, 2011 -- A year or so after Microsoft gave the boot to its creaky Windows Mobile software in favor of Windows Phone 7, the revamped operating system for smartphones still seems radically fresh.
Windows Phone 7 software is punctuated by a bold interface called Metro that is built around rectangular live customizable "at a glance" tiles. Tap a tile to jump to pictures, your calendar, the Internet Explorer browser, Xbox Live, a Music + Videos hub, and more.
Windows Phone 7, despite its early promise, had glaring omissions when it initially showed up, lacking copy-and-paste, visual voice mail and custom ring tones, to mention a few of the missing features found on rival Android and iPhone devices. Copy-and-paste came with a subsequent update, and visual voice mail and custom ring tones arrive as part of this week's release of Windows Phone 7.5.
Microsoft says the software update, known by its former code name, Mango, has "hundreds of new features and improvements," some more obvious than others. You can rapidly switch back and forth among apps running at the same time. For example, you can pause an Xbox Live game to read an incoming text, then return to the game where you left off.
I've been testing Mango on an AT&T Samsung Focus loaner phone and have come away generally impressed, though not everything went smoothly. Microsoft began rolling out the over-the-air upgrade across most carriers and handsets on Tuesday, but says it could be weeks before everyone gets the new software. Windows Phone 7 will also be preinstalled on new devices coming before the holidays.
I'm often asked whether Microsoft's smartphones can still be a contender, given iPhone and Android dominance. But a recent report by NPD Group's Connected Intelligence service indicated that 44% of smartphone owners, and those who intend to buy one, are considering a Windows Phone 7 device.
To my mind, Windows Phone 7 is worth considering. Highlights:
•Social networking. Windows Phone 7 already supported feeds from Facebook and Microsoft's own Windows Live service. The Mango update adds Twitter and LinkedIn to its integrated People Hub. "People first" is Microsoft's mantra with this software. Contact cards consolidate all the ways you can get in touch with someone. You can see recent social-networking activity. You can now also group contacts. A premade group is set up for family members. You might add groups for your work colleagues, book club and so on for easily sharing photos, texts and instant messages.
•Apps. By sheer numbers, with about 30,000 apps available for Windows Phone 7 vs. 425,000 for the iPhone and 250,000 for Android, it's no contest. Microsoft loses. But Microsoft claims its app growth rate is second only to Apple and says it has 90% of the most popular apps and games folks want anyway. To its credit, Microsoft helps you discover and get the most out of apps. You can pin apps or even content within apps as Metro tiles to the phone's Start screen. Such tiles are dynamic; they reveal snippets of information and in some cases even flip over. When I pinned a listing for the movie Moneyball from within the Flixster movie app to the Start screen, the tile flipped over to reveal the movie's rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
A new Web marketplace lets you buy apps on a PC and have them automatically downloaded to your phone and installed later.
•Browsing and search. Microsoft has made search a rich experience, with its own Bing search engine at the forefront. Tapping the search button summons Bing and four icons at the bottom of the screen: Tapping the first brings up a helpful feature called Local Scout, which shows nearby shops, attractions and restaurants. Tapping the second brings up an app called Bing Music that can identify recorded music playing, similar to Shazam on the iPhone. If a song is properly identified, you can download it from the Windows Phone marketplace.
A third icon for Bing Vision leads to a bar code, QR code and Microsoft Tags scanner that you can use to identify books, CDs and DVDs. My results weren't perfect, but you can see the potential. Tapping the last icon lets you search by voice through Microsoft's Tellme service.
The version of Internet Explorer on Mango supports the latest HTML5 Web standards, but not Adobe Flash.
•Microsoft tie-in. Windows Phones are tied closely to the Zune MP3 player and Xbox Live. Your games, avatar and so on appear on the device. They're also integrated with mobile versions of Office and Office 365.
Mango represents a mostly sweet upgrade. But it needs more apps.
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The bottom line
Windows Phone 7.5
(code-name Mango) upgrade
•Pro. Slick Metro interface and Live Tiles improved. More social-networking options. Rich search. Showcases apps in search results. Adds custom ring tones, multitasking, groups and more. Tight integration with Zune, Office, Xbox Live.
•Con. Still trails in apps sweepstakes. Not available for all handsets at the outset.