Microsoft has just unveiled Mango, the latest version of its Windows Phone mobile operating system. It’s not a complete re-working, and the wacky interface is still as in your face as before, but will it prove to be a better experience for the user?Arriving in Autumn this year, the new update code named Windows Phone 7 Mango will bring with it over 500 new features, including all essential multi-tasking. We managed to get a closer look at what the new update will offer, so here are our initial thoughts.
We were shown the software running on an unnamed Asus-built demo handset but obviously Microsoft’s big partner for the future is Nokia and indeed the company confirmed it will have handsets available for this launch, but you’ll also see new handsets from existing partners including Samsung, HTC and LG as well as new partners Acer, Fujitsu and ZTE. More importantly, though, the update will be available to all existing handsets for free. This is exactly where the company’s decision to lock down the software – preventing handset manufacturers from meddling with the interface – really pays off. With no custom interfaces, like you get on Android, the update is guaranteed to work. We’ll gloss over the fact it will have taken over a year for this significant update to have arrived though.
What’s most obvious about this new update, is that not much appears on the surface to have changed. The homescreen is still filled with Live Tiles, while a lot of the interface is still built around the idea of being able to access different modes of an app by swiping left and right. Open the People Hub, for instance, and you’re presented with a list of your contacts but swipe left or right and you’ll see social network updates from your friends or their latest pictures.
The trick is that this same design ethic is encouraged to be used in 3rd party apps, so you get a consistent look and feel. The result is an OS that feels very different to most of the competition yet feels consistent within itself. Not that this is all good. There are definitely still quirks to the interface, like the main menu still being one big long list of apps that will get very long and unwieldy once you’ve downloaded lots of apps, but they’re more things you’d simply have to get used to than constantly get frustrated with long term.
The service also integrates with Threads, which brings together SMS, IM and Facebook chat into one message stream, allowing you to seamlessly switch from one service to the next, if it’s more convenient. The service will monitor your contacts so it should always know which is the best way to get hold of someone. Frankly, this is the way communication is going and it can’t happen fast enough, so we’re glad to see Microsoft leading the charge with such a slick implementation.
Also new to the general category of contacts and socialising is the ability to add in Linkedin and Twitter to the People Hub, pulling information and messages from those services into your contacts’ profiles. Pictures can also now be shown – simply swipe left or right from your contact’s profile and it will show their pictures.
All told, Microsoft has created undoubtedly the most integrated, slickly presented set of tools for keeping in touch with your friends and organising your social life that we’ve yet seen on a phone. We haven’t yet had time to ferret out any foibles in the new features but thus far, consider us impressed.
To bring up the multi-tasking view, you just hold down the Back button and you’re presented with a carousel of large thumbnails, which you simply tap on to bring full screen. It’s nothing new but it’s neatly done, and certainly beats the iPhone and Android implementations.
Apps in general are set to improve too thanks to the opening up of the Windows Phone API. Now apps will be able to send updates to Live Tiles, pull information from contacts or calendars, and of course maintain that swipey navigation style.
Search has also seen a big improvement with the addition of Bing Vision and Bing Music. The former uses the phone’s camera to identify products via bar codes or simply image matching to then bring up information about the item – we were shown the example of a book. Bing Music, meanwhile provides a one stop means of finding out what music is playing, just like Shazam. Both are not new but the fact that they’re available at the touch of a button – the Search button – is a real boon to usability.
The other big hitters of Windows Phone, Office and Xbox, didn’t have much in the way of big updates except Office now has integrated SkyDrive support, allowing you to edit documents stored in the mystical magical cloud! Excel can now handle formulas as well, while PowerPoint better shows full slideshow animations.
So, Windows Phone 7 Mango is not a complete reworking and there aren’t that many headline grabbing features that are things the OS should have had long ago. The wacky interface that takes some getting used to is also just as in your face as before. What’s more, some of the shiniest gems are only available if you jump head first into the Microsoft eco-system, which many don’t want to do. However, the combined small improvements, along with Windows Phone’s already very slick, heavily integrated interface make for a phone OS that feels like it’s particularly suited to the way most people use their phones nowadays. iOS, and even Android, may have a simpler approach on the surface but get to learn it and we suspect Windows Phone may prove a better experience for many.