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.

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Bing Vision also says it will translate foreign words and signs into English. Based on my experience with it, though, it needs to re-take Languages 101. For example, when presented with the simple French phrase, Decrivez un acteur, it defined it as "Define an actor" rather than "Describe an actor." Worse yet, when confronted by the simple sentence, Votre francais est excellent, it translated it as "Your English is excellent."

A new music identification feature works like the Shazam music recognition app: It listens to and then identifies the song being played. I found it surprisingly accurate. As with similar apps, it had no trouble identifying popular music -- and while I've found that Shazam often chokes on classical music, the Bing feature was no slouch, correctly identifying Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1 after only a few seconds of listening.

The music ID feature also shows how Bing may eventually become less a standalone search engine than a kind of virtual glue connecting disparate parts of Windows Phone. For example, you can identify a song, have Bing search for the guitar tablature and lyrics, and then send the links to a music group you've set up.

Multitasking and apps

With Mango, Windows Phone joins the other major phone platforms in allowing a form of multitasking. You can now easily switch between running apps by pressing and holding the Back button. If all the open apps don't fit on one screen, you can swipe to see others.

Mango

You can easily switch between running apps.

Click to view larger image

Apps have been better integrated into the operating system. Do a Bing search, for example, and you'll see any related Windows Phone apps you might want to download. Tap the Music + Videos tile and swipe to the right, and you'll see any related apps you've installed on your device, such as a built-in radio player app.

Speaking of apps: Microsoft Marketplace now has a substantial number -- about 30,000. That's certainly nowhere near the estimated 500,000 for iOS or 250,000 for Android. But you'll find most of the popular apps you might expect, and you now have a solid choice of many others as well.

Interface tweaks

Mango introduces a number of welcome tweaks to the interface, notably on the Start screen. It's much easier to customize it -- you now have the ability to pin an item to the Start screen and move and delete tiles. You can also pin Groups and individual contacts, making it easier to follow friends. The Lock screen has received a modest makeover so that, if you're listening to audio, you don't need to unlock the phone in order to control your music player.

The on-screen keyboard is now context-sensitive, so it changes according to your task. When you're text messaging, for example, you can choose from ASCII emoticons, and when you're inputting an email address, you'll find .com and @ keys.

Wi-Fi tethering

Mango gives Windows Phone the ability to share its 3G or 4G Internet connection with up to five other devices by setting up a Wi-Fi hot spot, something that Android devices and the iPhone already offer. But if you've got a Windows Phone device, don't start celebrating yet because this feature won't work on existing devices; only new ones will have this capability. (My review unit didn't support tethering, so I was unable to test this feature.)

As with Android and the iPhone, you'll have to pay extra for the tethering capability. Prices may vary depending on your carrier, although $20 per month is often the going rate. And tethering will not be available on every new Windows Phone device with Mango; availability will depend upon the specific device and carrier, so check before buying if this is important to you.

Other additions

Beyond all this, Mango has plenty of other features. The browser is now based on Internet Explorer 9 rather than 8, and its interface has been tweaked somewhat, so that the address bar is at the bottom of the screen. It includes support for a variety of Web standards, including HTML5, has a faster JavaScript engine and uses hardware acceleration for displaying graphics.

Windows Phone has always included voice commands, but you can now compose text messages and instant messages using your voice; Mango also will read text to you. But there's nothing in Windows Phone that comes close to the new Siri feature in iOS 5, which performs complex, multistep tasks by voice alone.

A new SmartDJ feature automatically creates playlists from your music collection, and there's better Xbox Live integration so that you can do things such as track how you've done in various games. There are now parental controls as well.

The bottom line

All in all, Mango is a significant upgrade to Windows Phone, and it brings out even more of the platform's strengths, notably the way in which information is brought to you, rather than you having to go out and search for it. With Bing's new features, and other improved functionality such as multitasking, Windows Phone is now a polished operating system.

Those with existing Windows Phone devices will welcome the upgrade. As for those buying a new phone, if you're looking for a smartphone with a task-based approach rather than an app-based one, you'll find Windows Phone 7.5 Mango to be a solid OS.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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