Windows Phone 7.5 Mango
4th Oct 2011 | 11:57
500 new features add up to a fully refreshed mobile phone OS
Update: read our Nokia Lumia 800 review.
With Android's Ice Cream Sandwich and the iPhone 5 on the way, Windows Phone 7 needs an update to fill in the missing pieces. The Windows Phone 7.5 'Mango' refresh brings with it a comprehensive list of fixes and features, but how sweet is it in action?
The big advantage of Windows' mobile operating system is the clean, clear, but far from antiseptic Metro interface, which is so good that Microsoft has taken it to both Windows 8 and Xbox 360. Microsoft hasn't messed with success here – Windows Phone 7.5 Mango has the same signature look as its predecessor, only better.
The live tiles are livelier, and you can pin not just apps but specific features within apps to the Start screen (such as the Wi-Fi control, although developers have to allow this).
You can also pin groups of people, who you can then text or track on Twitter and Facebook all at once; folders from email; artists; albums; or the new SmartDJ playlists. Without changing the way the Start screen works, Microsoft has made it more useful and more pliant for personalisation.
You no longer have to cram all your favourite apps on to it to find them either. Once you have more than 45 apps, letters of the alphabet show up to separate the list. Tap any letter to open an alphabetised grid that makes it fast to find an app without you having to spend time arranging them logically.
It's the same principle as the original interface, just made to work better – and in general that's what you get throughout Windows Phone 7.5 Mango.
Windows Phone 7.5 Mango has multitasking capabilities, but what you get from these depends on the apps you run. Some apps – music players, for instance – get to run in the background, but mostly what you get is the same fast-task switching as before, with the addition of an app picker view so you can choose what you want to go back to.
If an app hasn't been updated to suit multitasking, it resumes from its frozen state just about as quickly as before. But apps that have been rewritten to suit the functionality resume more quickly, and they can also get Windows Phone 7.5 to run background agents for them to perform updates and the like.
It's similar to the way that Live Tiles work and a good compromise between making it easier to work with multiple apps and not undermining battery life. A handful of apps, including Evernote, have already been updated to run in the background, and you can go back to working with them as fast as if you never switched away.
Once you have a lot of apps that can run in the background, the new battery saver option comes in handy. When your battery gets low, this turns off Wi-Fi, push email and background apps. We found we could set it to turn on automatically and squeeze extra life out of the phone without ever really noticing that any service was getting turned off.
The Twitter integration that was sorely missing in Windows Phone 7 arrives in 7.5 Mango along with LinkedIn, and the Facebook implementation is far better.
There's still one feature missing, though: there's no built-in way to do direct messages, even though there's an obvious place to put them.
Add a Twitter account and replies and mentions show up in the notification pane for the Me tile, which is also where you post updates to as many of your linked social networks as you want. So you tap on your own photo to say things or see what people are saying to you, which makes sense. Then you go to the People hub to see what your friends are saying and to reply.
This works very well. Updates that are on both Twitter and Facebook only show up once and you can swipe between replies on both services. You can also retrieve a day or so of updates, depending on how chatty your friends are, and quickly filter this to show just one social network or just updates from friends in your address book.
Alternatively, you can switch over to a group you've made to track just your family or specific friends, rather than every school chum you're Facebook friends with.
It's worth taking a few minutes to set up groups, because they turn social networks from a font of random information into an easy way to stay in touch with whatever service your friends use (unless, of course it's Google Plus).
You can also chat with Facebook friends just like you were sending text messages. In fact, you can reply to a text message with a Facebook message and vice versa, and the whole conversation shows up in the same place.
This also applies Facebook, Windows Live Messenger or any of the linked services such as AOL and Yahoo.
This would be the ideal place to put Twitter direct messages and we think Microsoft has missed a trick here.
Other exchanges, such as emails, phone calls and meetings, show up in the history pane for each contact you have, so you can follow conversations as they jump across different services.
And you can still filter out your address book, so that it's not swamped by your Facebook friends.
Snap and share
Tweets aren't the only thing you can share more easily with Windows Phone 7.5 Mango. Take a snap with the camera and you can share your photos via Facebook, Twitter (by dropping them onto a SkyDrive page), email or certain apps.
You can also share videos on SkyDrive and Facebook, but not YouTube, and if you record a long clip it will get transcoded to upload more quickly.
What's more, the camera now saves its settings instead of throwing them away every time you leave the interface, and it has a nifty on-screen shutter button that you touch to focus and take a shot.
There's also an Autofix option that makes some basic adjustments, which improved about half of our photographs.
This isn't the cleverest camera interface we've seen, but it's far more functional than before, and third-party apps can now plug in and make it shine.
Internet Explorer 9 browser and real Office
This means you can run web apps such as Google Docs, the full TechRadar site, your mobile banking site and almost any other page online.
You can choose whether the browser identifies itself as operating from a mobile to retrieve smaller, phone-optimised pages or a desktop browser for the full version of sites, but you rarely have to worry about a page not working unless it's specifically written for Safari or Chrome.
The browser interface has changed slightly to show you more of the page on screen, which means the tabs are now hidden on the swipe-up menu (oddly, the default is for links from apps to reuse the current tab rather than opening in their own new tab).
However, there's now an address bar in landscape mode, which grants a popular Windows Phone 7 request. These are small improvements, though – the big news here is the full HTML5 browser.
If you buy a Windows Phone 7 device, Bing may well be your browser of choice. If your operator has a deal with Yahoo instead, you can thankfully now change the default browser search back to Bing. Unsurprisingly, you can't opt for Google, though.
Email, calendar and SkyDrive
The email client adds both key business features for document security and a threaded view of email that neatly shows you the whole of a conversation without making the interface cluttered or confusing. The conversation view also includes your replies, even if you've filed some messages away in other folders.
You can also choose whether to have separate inboxes for each email service you use pinned as separate tiles on the Start screen, or have a unified inbox for some or all of your accounts.
You can pin key folders instead of whole accounts too, so you can file comments to your blog away neatly, but still know exactly when you have new messages in that folder.
And although it's not new, the way you can swipe across the screen to see unread or flagged messages is still far more convenient than just about any other smartphone email view.
The calendar now shows multiple calendars from Windows Live or Exchange, plus your Facebook calendar, complete with events you've been invited to, but haven't yet accepted.
And if you use a service such as Tripit, which puts travel plans into its own online calendar, or you need to see calendars for the rest of your family, you can also get the appointments on your phone.
There's still no week view, although Agenda works well, but it's become much faster to add an appointment in Windows Phone 7.5, because you can just tap on the right time in Day view and type in the details.
Office and Skydrive
The Office and SkyDrive tools are much easier to use now, and the fantastically handy OneNote notes are the first thing you see in the Office hub, followed by recent documents and templates.
There's a new OneNote checkbox list you can use to make a to-do list that you can tick off as you work through it – assuming you're not using the To Do pane in the calendar to work with tasks and to-do items from Exchange and Windows Live instead.
Word and PowerPoint get a few new features, including templates, and Excel now adds up multiple cells when you select them the way it does on a PC, which is a very handy shortcut.
Office 365 integration is very neat too – just typing in your email address and password sets up email, calendar, contacts and a link to SharePoint in the Office hub. But you can also explore SkyDrive and documents on your phone, all in the same consistent interface. Again, this is tidying up something that was useful in Windows Phone 7, but just wasn't done well enough to be appealing.
Incidentally, although Microsoft suggested the autocorrect you get across Windows Phone 7.5 Mango is only for US phones, it worked just fine in every app that we tried that uses the full keyboard after the UK upgrade.
It doesn't seem to learn your specific corrections as fast as the original version, but if you accidentally hit 'b' or 'n' between two words instead of the space bar, it now corrects that, and it's still fantastic at turning gibberish offset keystrokes into the word you were trying to type. This is the touch keyboard for people who can't use touch keyboards.
Speak, listen, search
Voice search in Windows Phone 7 was restricted to US phones. Now the UK and a couple of other countries also let you search Bing and Bing Maps by talking to your phone.
What's more, you can dictate text and Facebook messages as if they were texts, and have replies read to you.
The readback works very well unless you're somewhere noisy – like walking down the street – but it's great in the car, where it's a quiet environment. That's the case even if you're playing music on the phone, since it gets paused automatically when messages arrive.
Bing search and maps
Voice search isn't the only new option in Bing. The rather pointless News results have been replaced by Images.
You can use the Local Scout to look for places nearby to shop and eat.
As usual, the database is a little better in the US, but it does find local venues in London. Annoyingly, the UK doesn't get the best new feature in Bing Maps, though: reading directions aloud as you walk or drive.
We're not so keen on the way the view is permanently split between the map and directions instead of being able to zoom in on one or the other either.
There's an intriguing new option called Bing Vision, which is similar to Google Goggles. With it, you can photograph text, have it OCRed in the cloud word by word, pick the words you want by tapping on screen and either search on the text or translate it into another language.
This works well on clearly printed text or even text on screen, but not so well on a blurry printed receipt. It also recognises QR codes and Microsoft Tags, plus bar codes for US books, DVDs and CDs.
There's also a Shazam-style search for recognising music that's playing and buying it from Zune Marketplace.
The Marketplace is finally easier to search, with results divided between music, games and apps, so that you can actually find what you're looking for.
You can find apps on the new Web Marketplace and send them directly to your phone as well.
On our test handset, what we got was a Hotmail message with a link that downloaded and installed apps (very like BlackBerry AppWorld). On some other phones we've seen, hidden text messages trigger the install directly. Either way, it's convenient.
Installing apps and games is also much clearer too. Click Install and you see a list of your existing apps with the icon for the app you're downloading and a progress bar, so you're not left wondering where the app will end up.
Music with Zune HD
Windows Phone 7 missed out on some of the best features of the Zune HD. With Windows Phone 7.5 Mango, you can finally make your own playlists.
You can also get a Smart DJ mix of music on your device that should go well together, or even music from the whole of Marketplace if you have a Zune Pass.
Unlike Google Music, this actually provides tracks you want to listen to together rather than strange and jarring transitions, especially if you're streaming tracks from the huge choice on Zune.
The player controls are also a little larger and easier to see (although possibly not as elegant), and they show up on the lock screen as well.
For video, assuming the file is either local or a format that can be cached, you're provided with a progress bar to scrub through the media as well.
The other big missing feature of Windows Phone 7 was custom ringtones. The Mango update means you can now add these through the Zune software, with unprotected tracks of less than 40 seconds that have the ringtone genre assigned to them. It's a clunky mechanism, but we expect plenty of apps to appear making this painless.
Windows Phone 7.5 Mango is definitely an upgrade for the mobile operating system. The 500 new features don't make the system cluttered or confusing, despite adding improvements, fixes and new features in almost every area. Instead they fit in with the existing user experience and enhance it.
This means the operating system has the same elegant and engaging user interface as ever, with colourful tiles and plenty of white space – but it now also has key features that were previously missing to help it match the current versions of iOS and Android. Some aspects even leapfrog other platforms.
It runs on all existing Windows Phone 7 handsets too. While newer phones have updated Snapdragon 8x55 or 7x30 processors, original handsets such as the HTC HD7 didn't feel slow or sluggish at all under the updated operating system, even with many large web pages loaded.
In fact, older models felt faster and more responsive than when running the original Windows Phone 7, although fast task switching and background apps certainly help with that.
Even newer phones still have single- rather than dual-core processors to keep battery lives reasonable, but we didn't ever feel that the devices were slowed down for lack of an extra core.
In short, just having a better hardware spec doesn't make something a better phone. What Windows Phone 7.5 does is take really good advantage of the hardware you have.
Full HTML5 browsing with IE9 is an excellent new addition, as is the great Twitter integration, including sharing and groups to organise updates from friends.
Multitasking means you can switch between a few current apps quickly.
Voice recognition and handy new ways to search are finally available for UK users as well as US Windows Phone users.
Internet connection sharing is at the whim of the mobile phone operator, and only for new phones.
The otherwise excellent Twitter integration doesn't include direct messages.
Apps need to be written specifically to take full advantage of multitasking.
There's no Flash support (although YouTube videos play without a separate player, they're still full screen).
Some features – text to speech directions, indoor maps, traffic – are still US only. Others – hyperlinked addresses and email – work better for US addresses and numbers than for UK ones.
Windows Phone 7.5 is supremely usable, surprisingly powerful and delivers the experience Microsoft has been promising, with only a few rough edges left.