Hands-on with Windows Phone 7.5 Mango technical preview

Microsoft is rolling out some devices with Windows Phone 7.5 Mango's technical preview to show off what is coming later in 2011.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

Just about a year ago I posted my Windows Phone 7 guide on the technical preview and since then I have posted many articles on this operating system, the hardware, and the tens of thousands of available applications. I have been using Windows Phone 7.5 (aka Mango) on a Samsung Focus for several days and as you can read in this guide to Windows Phone 7.5, Microsoft took some major steps forward in a year and is showing why they are serious about joining Apple and Google as one of the premier mobile phone operating systems. Some even believe Windows Phone will be in 2nd place by 2013 or 2015, but if you read my blog on a regular basis you know I don't put much credence in these outlandish long term forecasts in a market that moves way too fast to accurately predict. All I know for sure is that Mango is very good and combined with Nokia hardware Microsoft has a compelling argument for smartphone leadership.

One of the great things about the Mango update is that it will be coming for FREE to all existing Windows Phone 7 devices so people should feel confident about buying devices now. In many cases you can pick up hardware for free with a new contract. Granted, there will be updated hardware released when Mango hits the street, but from what I have seen so far with Mango on existing hardware it runs as well as Windows Phone 7. I personally have an HTC HD7 and Dell Venue Pro, but will be upgrading to a Nokia Windows Phone when I can because I want a WP device with a decent camera.

Check out my image gallery for some screenshots of WP 7.5 on a Samsung Focus. You can also see some Microsoft videos and my own sprinkled throughout this article as I touch on the new features. Make sure to also check out Bonnie Cha's image gallery for more WP 7.5 goodness.

Image Gallery: Check out a few screenshots of Windows Phone Mango on a Samsung Focus.
Image Gallery: Lock screen media controls
Image Gallery: Multi-tasking is here

What's been missing in Windows Phone 7?

After using Windows Phone 7 for nearly a year, I am still a fan and enjoy using the platform. The Marketplace has taken off and as I just wrote about last week the final of my 5 key apps is now available. Applications are no longer really an issue for me, but there is some other functionality I do miss when compared to Android and iOS devices. Some of these issues, such as copy and paste, were fixed with the NoDo update.

Lack of full 3rd party application multi-tasking, native multi-tasking was already included, was something missing in Windows Phone along with Smart DJ, voice guided navigation, Twitter integration, Wi-Fi hotspot tethering, photo tagging, and more. Not all of these are currently present in this preview version as there are backend services that need to be enabled and some features are not quite ready for such a public trial.

Microsoft improves upon and adds these and hundreds more features in Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango). As you will see they go beyond just these things we thought were missing and improve the OS in many other ways to truly have our phones doing the work for us to help make our lives better.

Improvements in Communications

Microsoft is taking an approach with Windows Phone Mango with three main focal points and as they state in some press materials, "Mango will take advantage of the unique way Windows Phone brings together people, information, and experiences to deliver smarter and easier communications, apps, and Internet."

Let's start off by checking out the improvements in communications. From the beginning Windows Phone has always focused on helping you get the things done you need through experiences rather than providing applications you can use to do these things. For example, in communications it is much more natural to think of the people you wish to communicate with in various ways rather than how you can use separate Twitter, Facebook, SMS, and email applications to then find people in those applications.

In Windows Phone 7 you could assign a Live tile to family and friends, but if you have a family of five like me or a ton of friends that you want to stay in touch with and follow on a regular basis you would end up with way too many Live tiles to have much benefit for you. Thankfully, Microsoft realized this and now lets you create Groups of people that result in a single Live tile on your Start screen with Live tiles embedded inside the Group. Mango comes with a family group to get started and the first time you tap on it you will be able to select from all others with your last name in your contact list to add to this group. There are three displays to swipe through in the panorama UI, including a page of group members' Live tiles, a What's New listing of status updates, and pictures from your group members. The Live tiles profile page shows dynamic tiles with status updates, profile pictures, and names with options at the bottom of the page to send a group email or text message. The What's New page shows social networking updates (Twitter will be included when enabled) for group members. The Pictures page shows shared albums and photos that group members are tagged in. The Group tile that you pin to the Start screen dynamically changes to show you status updates, new text messages, email, voicemail, and more for people in your Group and this feature alone may be compelling enough to get people to purchase a Windows Phone Mango device.

Another slick communications feature I have been enjoying is Threads. Microsoft now combines text messaging, Windows Live Messenger, and Facebook chat all in the Messaging application so you can stay in touch with people seamlessly through different communications services without ever having to leave the Messaging application. It is cool how you can start chatting with someone via text messaging via your text messaging plan and then move to Facebook chat through a data connection, and then even into Live Messenger in such a seamless manner. You can see if a contact is online or offline (on Facebook chat and Live Messenger) and then switch to text messaging for communications if they are offline.

I always enjoy the Live tile of my wife above the fold on the Start screen and now Microsoft improves these contact tiles with more information, such as check-ins, status updates, photo updates, and more. Check-ins are supported with Facebook Places. Facebook Events are also added into the calendar, with some control provided for you to manage these events. Twitter and LinkedIn feeds will be integrated with Facebook and Windows Live, but these are not yet enabled in this technical preview version so I could not test them out. You can also tag photos in Facebook and Skydrive right from your Windows Phone device. Twitter integration will include tweet, re-tweet, comment, reply with @ mention, share web pages, and share photos. Viewing posts related to hashtags is also supported in Mango.

The email experience is excellent on Windows Phone. I mentioned before that I prefer to perform email triage with my WP device rather than with Outlook on my desktop. Microsoft is improving the email experience with linked inbox, conversation view, and expanded Exchange support. With the linked inbox feature you can decide to have separate inboxes for your email or choose to combine some or all of them, as you desire. You can even choose to link and unlink them as you desire so you have complete control over your email experience, unlike anything we have seen on the market yet. One reason I enjoy HTC Sense on Android is the excellent conversation view it provides with Exchange email and thankfully we see Microsoft providing this on Windows Phone, through all email clients and not just Exchange. Shoot, the conversation view in Gmail on Windows Phone Mango is better than Gmail on Android smartphones now.

Exchange improvements include the ability to read IRM emails, alpha-numeric PIN support, Out-of-office message setting, search the email server for messages, support for Tasks syncing, and view and sync multiple Exchange calendars on an account.

Microsoft also understands that hands-free communications is important to people so you can now listen and reply to text messages without taking out your phone or looking at the display.

What application improvements are present in Mango? »

Improvements in Applications

I write about Windows Phone applications quite a bit in my regular Windows Phone Wednesday feature and most sites keeping track of the number of applications have Microsoft up to just over 20,000 apps in the Marketplace. While I love that there are tens of thousands of apps and the number continues to grow, it also makes it that much more difficult to find new apps. One step Microsoft is taking to help with this is through App Connect where applications appear in Bing search results. Microsoft is also letting developers tie into Bing, through Quick Cards, so that search results can then be fed into applications for an even richer end user experience.

We have seen some applications taking advantage of Live tiles and updates, but Microsoft is expanding this functionality in Mango too. Live Agents and new APIs will let developers have background audio support, improved notifications, full camera access, GPS access, compass access, gyro access, and much more. Multi-tasking is supported in this preview version and is pretty slick, but I am waiting on some answers in regards to the number of apps that can be left running, how these apps are managed and closed, and if there is a way for an end user to close running applications manually developers need to recompile their apps for fast app resume with support for the new multi-tasking functionality. At this time you can press and hold the back button to see the task switcher with up to 5 running sessions of apps, but when you go to the app it performs just like in Windows Phone 7 where it has to resume from its saved state. There is no way to manually close down an app and the OS appears to manage them dynamically. As apps with true multi-tasking support are released we will be able to check this out in more detail.

There are several improvements in Office Mobile in Mango that include the following:

  • Notes pane – access to all your notebooks shared in SkyDrive or SharePoint
  • Documents pane – quick access to documents from phone, SkyDrive, SharePoint or Office 365; sort by most recently used
  • Locations pane – access to all locations; sort by most recently used
  • Search, read web view, download, edit, and upload
  • IRM support for documents
  • Templates to help users create new documents
  • Excel data stats and formula assist
  • Access documents in your own SkyDrive personal or shared folders

As an engineer, I find the formula assist functionality in Excel to be a great improvement. The Office apps are good, but there are still much better 3rd party Office applications on other mobile platforms. Shoot, I can't even find a way to create a bullet or numbered list in Word Mobile and the formatting of the documents is very basic.

The Games hub gets improved in Mango too with some avatar updates, Spotlight pane, more achievement sharing support, and communications improvements.

Music and videos gets improved in Mango in several ways, but my favorite is the integrated support for podcasts. We can now discover, download, and listen to podcasts through the Zune Marketplace with no need for 3rd party clients. While BringCast was a nice interim fix for me, the ability to play podcasts in the background and download all of my latest podcasts at once was key to making Windows Phone more valuable to me. Other improvements in the Zune area include Smart DJ support and the slick Bing music search functionality (think Shazam, but native to the OS).

An improvement that many will like is the upcoming support for the Marketplace on the web. This is not yet turned on, but soon you will be able to find new apps for Windows Phone through your desktop web browser and have those apps sent right to your phone. As the number of applications increases it is important to improve the ability to search and find apps and a desktop display is much easier than scrolling through pages and pages on your phone.

Internet access and misc. improvements »

Improvements in Internet access

The first thing you probably think of when you think of Internet access is the web browser and Microsoft provides Internet Explorer 9 in Windows Phone Mango. IE 9 is an advanced browser that is FAST! It includes support for W3C standards such as HTML5, CSS3, SVG, DOM, XHTML, and more. No, there is no Flash support so if Flash is a need then I guess you will have to look at Android since neither Windows Phone nor iOS support Flash. I personally don't care about Flash on a mobile device and even in the latest Android devices it hasn't performed that well. The only device I have found that does an acceptable job with Flash is the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook.

I like that they moved the URL entry box down to the bottom of the display so now there is a single toolbar for controlling the browser rather than one at the top and one at the bottom. I like how the existing browser goes into full screen mode in landscape though while the one with Mango at this time still shows the bottom toolbar. You can now also share via Twitter, Facebook, and Windows Live.

Bing has undergone a major remodeling that I find to be fabulous and MUCH more useful than it is on Windows Phone right now. The biggest change is that whenever you press the search button you will be taken to Bing Search. Bing Voice search works as it did before with the power of TellMe technology. In the current version of Windows Phone, the behavior is dependent on which application you are in and unfortunately causes a bit of confusion for the end user. Searches within applications are now provided through search buttons within the application so you now get a very consistent physical search button experience.

As I mentioned earlier, Bing Music is a new search function that is like Shazam on other devices. You tap the music icon in Bing and your Windows Phone device starts listening for music. After it recognizes it then two buttons appear, Marketplace and Close, on the display. Tap the Marketplace option to go to the Zune Marketplace and choose to download the music you found. Keep in mind Smart DJ and Bing Music are in limited countries due to Zune Pass limitations and licensing agreements.

Bing Vision is really slick and tapping the Vision icon in Bing Search launches the camera with a utility that scans barcodes, QR codes, Microsoft Tags, books, CDs, and DVDs. Currently you have to install several 3rd party applications to be able to scan these different codes so it is great to see it all in one native application. In my testing over the last few days, Bing Vision has worked extremely well and provided me with online and local search results, including pricing information. If the application cannot pick up the scanned code, then you can have it scan and search text for the selected item. You can even scan in foreign text and have Bing translate the text for you.

The new location-based Internet connected feature in Bing is called Local Scout. You have to choose to turn on the location functionality in Bing in order to enable Local Scout and once it is enabled you will see a Local Scout icon in the far left of the bottom toolbar. Local Scout is a one tap utility that takes your location and provides you with local choices for eating and drinking, events, attractions, shopping destinations, and highlights. You can view reviews, see pricing information, and see a small map at the top to see a preview where the destination is around you. The events function is very cool if you are looking for something new to do in the area and want to see what is going on locally. You can easily tap and have Bing navigate you to your selected destination with the new Bing Maps with voice-guided navigation.

Other improvements in Mango

There are hundreds of improvements coming in Mango and after a few days of using the device some other improvements I found include:

  • Ability to save settings in the camera. You no longer lose the settings you select in the camera when you restart it after taking some photos.
  • There are media player controls on the lock screen that you can touch and use to control media playback without having to swipe to unlock your device.

Closing thoughts on the Mango technical preview »

What isn't turned on yet in the Technical Preview?

The version on the Samsung Focus I am testing is still a preview version and RTM has not been made yet so there are some missing features and functions. Just like the Technical Preview from Windows Phone 7 last year, the OS has been rock solid so far. There are some backend servers to be turned on and some applications and utilities still missing from this current version. These missing features and functions include:

  • Direct Twitter integration
  • WiFi tethering
  • Audio multi-tasking (I understand the Mango SDK is just getting into hands of developers so apps will have to be updated to provide this capability.)

Developers also need to recompile their apps to take advantage of the new multi-tasking capability as we can now use a task switcher, but the apps still resume as they do now when we revisit them on Windows Phone 7. As these are turned on, I will update you with the functions and capabilities.

Is there anything else missing in Windows Phone 7.5 Mango?

There are a lot of improvements and a lot to like in Windows Phone Mango. There is always room for improvement though and some that I would like to eventually see in Windows Phone include:

  • Better optimization for landscape orientation. It still appears that the Start screen and Music & Videos hub work only in portrait orientation.
  • Support for USB drive mode or other method to transfer Office docs via USB.

Closing thoughts on Windows Phone 7.5 Mango Technical Preview

Mango is what most people wanted to see from Windows Phone 7 when it was launched late last year and the 7.5 label is accurate. As a fan of Windows Phone I am excited about the update as it addresses nearly all of the issues I have with Windows Phone 7 and it is a pleasure to use. I plan to spend a lot more time with Mango over the coming months and will provided updated thoughts and experiences as more features are rolled out.

More experiences with the Mango Technical Preview

Thank you for getting to the end of my long post. I hope I gave you a good look at the updated in Windows Phone and if you have further questions, please do post them and I will get to them over the next couple of weeks and post a follow-up post. I also recommend reading other previews of this current release and am including links to the ones I found below.

Back to the beginning »

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