As promised, Windows Phone 7.5 will start rolling out to existing handsets starting today, capping off a journey that began back in February when Microsoft first teased milestone features like multitasking and IE9 integration at its Mobile World Congress press conference. The company remains tight-lipped about exact details of how the updates will be distributed — we don’t know which devices will receive the update in what order, for instance — but we do know that it’ll be conducted on a rolling basis, meaning not everyone will receive it at once. That’s a low-risk strategy that has worked pretty well for the Android camp so far, and after a few speed bumps during the NoDo rollout earlier this year, we don’t blame Microsoft for taking the safe route. For what it’s worth, you can track update status by carrier at a very high level on Microsoft’s site, but it won’t give you specific detail on the hour (or day) when it’s going to hit your phone.
As before, the updates are strictly cabled — you won’t be able to update to Mango over the air, though you’ll be notified with a pop-up message on your phone so that you know that you can rush back to your PC to get the goods. Both the Windows-based Zune client and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 Connector for Mac can be used to perform the upgrade.
My lengthy preview of Mango from June covers all the bases of what Windows Phone 7.5 brings to the table; there’s very little about the software I wrote then that’s no longer accurate. At that time, the platform was essentially feature-complete and I didn’t find any glaring bugs, so there are just a few important changes and additions that we’ll cover here — and apps designed with Mango in mind have started to trickle into the Marketplace, too. Read on.
Newly-unveiled features: visual voicemail and internet sharing
Over the summer, Microsoft had mentioned that there’d be a few surprises for Mango unveiled along the way, and we got the last two big ones this week: visual voicemail and internet sharing, both features that close key gaps between Windows Phone and its entrenched competitors. There are catches for both features, though. Visual voicemail must be enabled by your carrier, and initially, T-Mobile will be the only American carrier supporting it. AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint will hopefully get it turned on eventually — between the iPhone and Google Voice, it’s quickly become a must-have feature — but there’s no word on when that’ll happen yet.
As you can probably guess, Windows Phone 7.5′s internet sharing can be provisioned (that is, turned on and off) by your carrier, and I’d expect it to be charged in exactly the same way that carriers charge for tethering on other devices. It supports WPA2 encryption and can handle up to five devices at once, which is fairly standard. What’s the catch? It won’t be available to existing devices initially — it’s only rolling out phones that are new for Mango like HTC’s Titan and Radar along with Samsung’s Focus S. There’s a possibility some older devices will eventually get it, but Microsoft hasn’t given any guidance on that.
As with the Mango preview earlier in the year, we were given a Samsung Focus on AT&T - one of Windows Phone 7′s original launch devices - to test the final build over the last couple days. That means that neither visual voicemail nor internet sharing were available to us, since AT&T isn’t supporting Windows Phone’s visual voicemail service at launch and internet sharing is being limited to new models right now. What was available, though, was the platform’s new Twitter integration, which you may recall was missing from the preview build. It couldn’t be easier to set up: like other account types (Windows Live, Facebook, and so on), you add your Twitter account from the phone’s Settings menu. You’re taken out to Twitter’s site to grant permission to the phone to access your account; once that’s done, it starts syncing and you’re good to go. It turns out that you can only have one Twitter account active on a phone at a time, but I imagine that won’t be an issue for most users.
I almost immediately concluded that the Twitter feature isn’t designed to replace a dedicated Twitter app - rather, it’s an acknowledgement on Microsoft’s part that Windows Phone should be “aware” of Twitter just as it’s aware of Facebook. It did a commendable job of automatically adding my contacts’ Twitter handles to their People pages, and a “mention on Twitter” action within each profile lets you quickly shoot individual contacts a Tweet. Herein lies one of the biggest weaknesses of the integration: as far as I can tell, there’s no support in Mango whatsoever for Twitter direct messages. You can only Tweet to your contacts publicly, and direct messages that you receive aren’t displayed anywhere in the system. That alone is a concrete reason why you’ll still need a dedicated Twitter app (let’s hope the official first-party app gets updated soon - it’s still on version 1.0, released in October of 2010).
You can see the timeline of Tweets from folks you follow by navigating to the What’s New pivot of the People hub. By default, you see them in an integrated list of status updates along with the other account types you have associated with your phone, but by tapping on the What’s New header, you can choose Twitter only if you prefer. You can see your mentions in this timeline, but only from people you follow, and there’s no highlight to grab your eye. To see all of your mentions, you need to head over to the Me hub and check out the Notifications pivot... but you can’t see a list of actual Tweets here. Instead, you just get “so-and-so mentioned you in a tweet,” and you need to tap the entry to view it. In this respect, the functionality divide between the People and Me hubs seems a little arbitrary to me. The Notifications hub seems like the perfect place to show direct messages, but again, they don’t seem to be supported.
If you just want to post a public Tweet, it’s straightforward: as with Facebook status updates, you hit the “post a message” action in the Me hub. You can update all your services at once or a subset. You can’t attach images from here, though - to do that, you’ll need to head over to your photo gallery and select the Share menu item where you can “caption” the image before posting it to Twitter. As you might expect, Windows Phone uses SkyDrive as its image upload service, which I think actually looks a lot nicer to end users viewing your upload than TwitPic or yFrog (here’s a sample I posted). Long-term I imagine that switching to Twitter’s native image support will be the prudent thing for Microsoft to do, but it’s not that big of a deal.
Microsoft’s web-based Marketplace is another newly-enabled feature for Mango that we weren’t able to play with in the preview. There’s not much to say about it apart from the fact that it looks good and works well for browsing through Windows Phone’s app catalog. If you’re logged in and your Windows Live account is associated to a Mango phone, you’ll have the option of pushing app installations straight to your device (pre-Mango handsets can still have a deep link to the app emailed to them, but hopefully it won’t be long before the entire user base is on Mango anyhow). When you select an app to be pushed, it says that it’ll “use messaging” to make it happen; indeed, it prompts you to enter your phone number the first time you do it, though you never actually receive a visible SMS on the device. In my testing, it works very quickly and silently - check out your full app list, and the new app you selected is magically there.
Though the IE9-based browser is essentially the same since our preview, I wanted to circle back and talk about it a bit. In a word, it’s very good - among the best I’ve used, and that’s particularly impressive considering that I’m using it on a Focus with a 1GHz first-generation Snapdragon processor. You can load up to six tabs at a time, seemingly with no hit on performance on each tab - scroll and zoom performance remained pitch-perfect throughout. To make sure it was really loaded down, I changed the browser’s settings so that it’d load desktop versions of sites rather than mobile versions - I’m assuming it just tweaks the user agent - which worked pretty consistently, though YouTube couldn’t be fooled. One complaint I had was that embedded HTML5 video can’t be played from the page; tapping one to fire it up causes you to get booted out to a full-screen player. And of course embedded Flash and Silverlight aren’t supported, but that’s less relevant now than ever.
As I mentioned in the preview, all Windows Phone apps will see some benefits of Mango’s new capabilities - you’ll be able to “multitask” between any of them, though older apps may restart when you jump back into them. That said, I played with a handful of apps that have been updated to take advantage of new Mango features, including Foursquare, MSN Movies, Allrecipes, and an Xbox Live game called Parachute Panic.
Put simply, I love Live Tiles, and Mango finally takes them to where they need to be. Since launch, Windows Phone has the most visually interesting (and, in my opinion, appealing) home screen of any mobile platform - and with this update, it’s now arguably the most useful. All of the apps I tested implemented Live Tiles, meaning you get something more than a static icon when you pin the app to the home screen; frankly, half the fun of it was seeing in what creative way each app used its Live Tile space. Foursquare, for instance, shows your position in your leaderboard, while Allrecipes teases a featured recipe that changes daily.
Ultimately, I think a high level of configurability within each app is going to be important - everyone has a different idea of what they want to see on their home screen - but I was fascinated to see what these developers have done on their first pass. Mango also supports the creation of Live Tiles to specific parts of an app’s functionality, and Allrecipes takes advantage of it: you can tap and hold on any recipe in the app and choose “pin to start” to get a direct link to that specific recipe as a tile. It’s even animated, cycling between the name of the recipe and a picture of it. It’s an extremely cool capability.
Multitasking works well, particularly in Mango apps. Parachute Panic seriously resumed instantly when I returned to my game, which comes as no surprise considering how Microsoft has been touting the capability the past few months - as they’ve said, it’ll be perfect for those times when you’re interrupted with a call or text message mid-game. You access the multitasking screen - the row of thumbnails representing all the apps that are currently “open” on your phone - by pressing and holding the Back button, which will always display the most recently-used app first. I don’t know whether Microsoft intends it to be used this way, but I frequently found myself treating it as a “recently-used apps list” to quickly jump between four or five apps that I was using a lot.
Accessing the multitasking screen can be inconsistent. Occasionally, the phone will trigger an actual “back” action as soon as your finger touches the Back button rather than allowing you to hold it and get to the screen, but I was never able to figure out any rhyme or reason to it; it seems to happen more often when you try to multitask while the active app is loading, which leads me to believe it could be a bug. It reminds me a little bit of Android, where the Back button can be a grab bag - you’re never quite sure whether pressing it will go to the previous screen in the current app or if it’ll take you out of the app altogether. I’d like to see Microsoft nail this down with an update.
Along the way, I discovered a nuance of the way that Windows Phone implements multitasking that may trip up some users (it’ll certainly trip up anyone migrating from an Android device): selecting an app from the multitasking screen is not the same thing as selecting it from its Live Tile or the app list. When you select it from the multitasking screen, a properly-implemented Mango app will immediately resume right where you left it. If you open the app from anywhere else, though, it’ll start the app anew. This often means waiting for a few seconds while a splash screen shows and the app loads, and it’s particularly annoying for apps that you’re likely to open frequently for just a few seconds at a time like Twitter or Foursquare.
Windows Phone remains a breath of fresh air in an otherwise-entrenched mobile landscape. It’s fun to use in a way that iOS and Android are — to put it bluntly — not. Should “fun” be a deciding factor in a device that’s designed to keep you productive on the road? Yes, I’d argue it should; an entertaining, refreshing, visually-engaging user experience always keeps the phone in your hand, getting stuff done. Sure, this is just a mild evolution of a platform that launched a year ago, but Microsoft has evolved it in all of the most important ways. By all appearances, they’re listening and they’re acutely aware of where the pain points lie. For the average user, I don’t think there are any showstoppers here anymore — the framework has now been fleshed out in full, and it’s up to third-party developers to recognize the opportunity and take advantage. There are still problems, of course — Mango is far from perfect — but this is the first version of Windows Phone that I can recommend without an asterisk. With iOS 5 and Ice Cream Sandwich both around the corner, this platform still has an enormous uphill battle to climb to carve out its stake of the market — and with Microsoft’s lack of support for dual-core processors and LTE, they’re not going to win any all-out spec wars. But still, at no point while using this year-old hardware did I feel encumbered or out-of-date — in fact, I usually felt like the software was taking better advantage of the available processing power than the much more muscular Android handsets I’ve been testing over the last few months. Put simply, regardless of your preconceptions, Windows Phone finally deserves an honest look the next time you’re ready to buy a phone — particularly as we start to see new devices come to market over the next few weeks.