Microsoft lent me a Samsung Focus loaded with a developer build of Windows Phone 7 Mango, which isn't yet complete. Still, the developer build let me get a feel for which features will really pop, and which still need work.
For a rundown of the basic features of the OS, check out our Windows Phone 7 review. You might also want to read our review of the Samsung Focus, the best Windows Phone so far.
Mango will appear this fall, both as an upgrade for current Windows Phones and on new devices, Microsoft says.
The Best Tastes of Mango.
Windows Phone 7 has always been activity-centered rather than app-centered. Its hubs let you focus on ideas like "people," "pictures" or "music" rather than about which particular app or service you need at the moment.
My favorite new Mango feature is the new Groups option in the People hub. With Facebook and Twitter added to your phone book, you're probably going to have a lot of contacts. Groups help you make sense of them.
I don't use Facebook because I find it overwhelming. With my account stuffed full of acquaintances, everyone I went to school with, and people from work, my news feed is a massive flow of data from people I hardly know.
Windows Phone Mango makes me want to use Facebook again. I set up a Family group and saw only the updates and photo albums from my family; a Work group showed only updates and photo albums from colleagues.
We move in multiple circles, and Mango lets your phone reflect that.
Facebook pops up everywhere. You can take a picture by pressing the camera button straight from the lock screen, auto-tag it with names, and share it on Facebook. The Calendar absorbs Facebook events, complete with their walls and commentary. The photo gallery lets you immediately dip into your friends' Facebook galleries. It's safe to say Mango is the most Facebook-oriented OS available in the U.S.
Email and office tasks have all received a bit of a bump. There's a useful conversation view in email, and you can more easily start new calendar entries by typing directly into a calendar line. The Microsoft Office apps now automatically connect to Skydrive, which gives you a decent way to get files onto your phone—you still can't drag and drop files from a local PC, though, which is frustrating.
Multitasking is just fast app switching, for now. Hold down the Back button, and you can flip between your most recent apps, each paused where you left them. That's a start, but it will take new apps written with new APIs to actually start doing things in the background, including using background data to update home-screen tiles.
Bing Vision is a Google Goggles clone, letting you search for objects by scanning barcodes to return Web and shopping results, or translating text between languages. It feels a bit like a gimmick, and I had trouble testing it because of a bug that kept throwing the camera out of focus in macro mode, making it unable to scan anything. Ah, beta software.
The new voice-to-text features are flashy, though I'd prefer if they went further. You can dictate text messages and search for items on the Web using voice commands, and it takes that voice input from a Bluetooth headset - great! I'd like it even more if you didn't have to periodically press on-screen buttons as part of the process.
More screens also now work in landscape mode, which is critical on sliding-keyboard phones like the LG Quantum and HTC Arrive. Parts of the People hub rotate, for instance. The Maps app and many main menus stayed stubbornly in portrait, though.
There are many more features, far too many to list here. It's easier to shuffle all of your music, to download podcasts, and to watch videos in full screen. It's easier to jump to specific apps in a long list. There's more Xbox Live integration. Pretty much everything has been improved, at least a little.
Some of Mango's core features weren't on my developer phone, Twitter and LinkedIn integration, most notably. When the software is fully baked, Mango should integrate your friends' Twitter profiles into the People Hub and What's New.
The new Local Scout local search feature is a great idea, but it has some accuracy problems. In my neighborhood in Queens, it gave me a great list of restaurants and shops near me. But the local "events and attractions" included odd things miles away, and not similar events that were closer. And the "highlights" are just baffling. No matter what New York neighborhood I tried the phone in, it insisted an Upper East Side "casino theme night party rental" was one of the top things to do in that neighborhood.
Microsoft has promised terrific browser performance, but IE9 is dependent on Windows Phone's lackluster hardware spec. As Android phones move to dual-core, IE9's performance advantages are more than compensated for by the better hardware on phones like the HTC Sensation 4G and Motorola Droid X2. On the Sunspider and GUIMark browser tests, the Focus fell far short of the latest dual-core Android phones. I expect that the next iPhone will have a fast processor as well, so if Microsoft doesn't bump up that spec, Windows Phones will feel slow no matter how good the browser code is.
Some key Mango features are also dependent on third-party apps. I'm looking forward to apps which put rich, up-to-the-minute data on their home screen tiles, apps which let you use a tile to jump right into a specific screen deep within the program, and apps which weave themselves into the Hubs and search results.
But Will It Matter?
Mango is coming out this fall, along with iOS 5, BlackBerry OS 7, and the usual flood of Android 2.3 phones. It's a fine competitor; it's better at group messaging and social networks than iOS or (stock) Android, better at gaming than Android or BlackBerry, and customizable in visually delightful ways.
Windows Phone 7 takes a genuinely different approach to communication than its main rivals. The iPhone is a box of siloed apps, although Game Center and iOS 5's Twitter integration blur things a bit. Android tries to be everything to everyone and ends up without a coherent story. BlackBerry still starts from email and SMS and works outward from there. Windows Phone's "hubs" require some re-learning from iPhone users especially, but they're worth the effort.
But Windows Phone 7 has been a strong OS since it was released last year, and our Readers' Choice awards show that the people who buy it, love it. Windows Phone's problems include no steady flow of hardware, a mediocre hardware spec that is neither budget-friendly nor cutting-edge, carrier salespeople who seem to hate it, and a marketing team who seem perhaps too relaxed about the slow sales.
Mango keeps Windows Phone competitive. It's a necessary upgrade, and it's great to hear that it's coming to all the existing Windows Phones. Now Microsoft needs to focus on the other aspects of the phone experience—hardware, marketing and sales—to make sure that this Mango doesn't rot on the shelf.