Hands-on: Windows Phone 7 Mango edition adds features, polish

The latest version of Windows Phone weaves social networking through the OS and adds other useful tweaks.

The recent iOS 5 announcement highlighted several interesting additions to Apple's app-focused operating system, such as the new Siri voice command interface, which will be available only on the iPhone 4S. In contrast, Microsoft's new Mango version of Windows Phone 7 (which is actually version 7.5) helps fulfill that platform's promise of helping people focus on the tasks they want to accomplish and the information they want to receive, rather than the apps they run -- especially when it comes to social networking and communications.

I had a chance to try Mango out using a Samsung Focus. My conclusion? Windows Phone 7 now feels like a complete, polished operating system rather than a work in progress.

Changes to social networking and contacts

Microsoft has clearly targeted social networking and contacts with Mango. For a start, it fixes the most glaring issue with earlier versions of Windows Phone -- incomplete support of social networking and difficulty with multitasking -- and now supports Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Mango targets social networking.

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Social networking is now woven through the entire Windows Phone experience. You don't need to consciously launch a Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn app in order to gain the benefits of social networking, because their capabilities are integrated directly into the way you use the phone.

For example, a new profile pane for each contact shows a combined history of your communications with that contact, whether it be via email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or text messaging. A new pictures pane shows the photos that each contact has posted to Facebook and Windows Live. In addition, the new Me tile aggregates updates and content from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Windows Live, so you can see at a glance all the recent updates from your contacts on multiple social networking services. You can also use the Me pane to send updates to multiple social networking sites with a single post.

Another welcome change: Mango finally adds threaded messaging for email and text messaging, so you can easily follow all messages in a single conversation. And Mango introduces something even better: You can hold a single conversation with someone across multiple communications services. For example, if you start a conversation with someone on Facebook chat, you can continue that same conversation via text messaging.

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Mango finally adds threaded messaging.

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Also new is the ability to filter which updates from which social networks you want displayed. If you're suffering from Twitter fatigue, for example, you can tell Windows Phone to stop displaying Twitter updates. When you're ready again for the unending Twitter stream, enable it.

And you can now place your contacts into groups -- family, colleagues, people on your softball team and so on -- using a feature appropriately named Groups. You can send out a single message to the entire group in several ways. You'll also be able to see the combined social networking updates (and the newest phones) of everyone in the group at a glance. One feature I found especially useful: You can pin a group to your Start screen, and the group's tile will tell you when anyone in the group posts to a social network or sends you a message. The tile also alerts you when you've missed a call.

Facebook integration has been strengthened, so events from Facebook are now included in your phone's calendar. However, you can't make changes to the Facebook events from the calendar -- you'll have to head to Facebook for that.

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You can organize contacts into groups.

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Microsoft also claims that Live Tiles update more frequently than in the past. As a practical matter, I didn't notice a difference, but those addicted to the need for instant updates may see one.

Each of these changes to social networking is useful, but what really counts is the cumulative effect. Use Mango for a while, and you'll find yourself more easily focusing on the content of your communications with others, and less on the mechanics of communications.

Bing takes center stage

The second most important set of Mango additions centers on Bing, Microsoft's search engine, which has gained a bunch of new features.

To begin with, the new Local Scout feature integrates into Bing Maps and shows a variety of local information, including places to eat, drink and shop, as well as local attractions and events. It grabs that information from a variety of partners such as Yelp.

Overall, Local Scout is a nifty addition, but it's only as good as the partner information, which is not always stellar. Restaurant information wasn't comprehensive; in my neighborhood, for example, it left out several of the best restaurants and most interesting stores. As for local things to see and do, it included events well over an hour's drive away, which may not fit everyone's idea of local. And I found the recommendations in its "highlights" section, which are supposed to list the most interesting places and things to do, downright strange at times -- for example, it listed a nearby burrito joint as one of the top three attractions in my vicinity. Note to Local Scout: My neighborhood is a whole lot more interesting than that.

Bing also adds a feature called Bing Vision, which is like a combination of the Google Goggles and Barcode Scanner Android apps. It scans bar codes, QR codes, Microsoft tags and the covers of CDs, DVDs and books; it then provides information about the object it scanned. I found the results to be hit-and-miss. It was able to identify the wireless Sonos 3 music system from a bar code, for example, but got the pricing wrong. It did, however, properly identify a CD of the opera Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner.

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