Windows Phone Mango review: Much improved, no 'killer app' yet [Video]
Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Phone operating system has been playing catch-up to Google's Android and Apple's iOS ever since it launched on smartphones about a year ago.
And with Windows Phone 7.5, also known as Mango, being the first major update to Microsoft's mobile OS since its launch, that still hasn't changed. What also hasn't changed is that Windows Phone is one of the easiest-to-use smartphone operating systems on the market and a great entry point for those looking to get their first smartphone.
Mango adds 500 new features to Windows Phone but the look and feel of the software is pretty much exactly the same. The "live tiles" and "Metro" user interface remain in place and for good reason -- the look is an attractive one that even at a year old still feels new.
Yet at this point, despite the Mango update, Windows Phone in my opinion doesn't feel like it will rival Android or iOS for market share anytime soon. Microsoft's rivals continue to add polish and pull further ahead with Apple's iOS 5 being my favorite of the pack currently and the promising Android Ice Cream Sandwich on the way.
But Windows Phone 7.5 is a big improvement over 7.0 and with RIM continuing to struggle with its own BlackBerry mobile platform, it seems Microsoft has an opportunity to snag the No. 3 spot in the smartphone wars -- especially with new Nokia, Samsung and HTC handsets planned.
Some of Mango's most outstanding new features follow in the footsteps of what's been available on other platforms for some time.
Multitasking on Mango is easy and fun.
Windows Phone handsets have three buttons sitting below their touchscreens -- a back button to the left (indicated by a back arrow), a home button (which is a Windows logo) in the center and a search button (a magnifying glass icon) to the right.
Hold down the back button and whatever window you're in shrinks to sit in a row of screenshots of other apps running in the background. You can scroll between the window panes to see what's running and tap on the pane you want to launch into that app.
Want to see what this looks like? Check out our video demonstration below.
The whole scheme is visually appealing and multitasking on Mango achieves the same goal as multitasking in Android or iOS, but the whole thing is pulled off in a unique style. It's refreshing to see Microsoft do this, and many other things, without feeling like it's a copy of its rivals.
Maps gain a feature called Local Scout which, whenever you let the Maps app know your current location, quickly serves up suggestions on what's nearby for eating and drinking, seeing and doing, shopping at and other highlights. Essentially, Local Scout adds a Yelp-like feature to Maps that works well and can aid in discovering new places and things in an unfamiliar location.
Local Scout also offers ratings and even suggests helpful apps that might be related to whatever the location is that you're checking out -- such as Foursquare, Foodspotting or transit-related apps.
The app suggestions, which Microsoft calls App Connect, also show up outside of Local Scout and in other spots such as the phone's built-in Bing search app. When you search in Bing, expected search results are returned, but a list of suggested Apps come up too. For example, if you're searching for something related to a breaking news story, a list of news apps might show up.
Bing search overall is improved as well.
Users can search by voice, text and images such as bar codes, QR codes, or the covers of CDs, DVDs and books. Local Scout is built into Bing and there's also a song-recognition feature too.
Altogether, Bing on Mango offers one of the most satisfying search apps on any smartphone I've tested.
Mango also does a great job of integrating social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn into the OS. This isn't a new idea either -- iOS integrates Twitter, and Android has long done the same for Facebook and Twitter and soon Google+. But again, the way Microsoft does this is impressive.
Inside of Mango's People app (Microsoft likes to call it the "People hub"), users can get an overview of what all of their friends across those social networks are up to in one place -- status updates, shared links, photos and other shared items.
And users can now also create groups inside of the People app, such as friends, family, co-workers, college buddies -- anything you can imagine. And you can call your groups whatever you want -- I called my friends' group "homies."
However, despite all of the fantastic improvements in Mango that will surely make existing Windows Phone users happy, I don't believe Microsoft has a "killer app" or one significant attraction that would pull droves of consumers toward a Mango phone over an Android or an iPhone.
When Windows Phone launched a year ago, Microsoft marketed the software on its ease of use and simple look that the live tiles offered with data being pushed to the tiles without even having to launch an app. And while that is a differentiating factor, Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer has admitted that the company hasn't seen the level of sales it was looking for.
What Microsoft has shown is that it now takes the mobile space seriously and Mango is a big step in becoming more competitive. But Windows Phone has a lot of ground to make up. So, here's an unsolicited thought: Go after mobile gaming with Windows Phone.
Ever since Windows Phone launched, gaming has been disappointing compared to what's available on Android and iOS. Sure, users can see their Xbox Live avatar on the Windows Phone and, yup, Angry Birds and other fun titles are there too. Still, many games aren't up to the impressive standard that the Xbox name brings along.
Here's a testament to Apple's leadership in smartphone gaming: Epic Games, which produces one of the top gaming franchises on Microsoft's Xbox 360 in the Gears of War trilogy, also produces one of iOS's top-selling game series in Infinity Blade. When Apple announced the iPhone 4S, Mike Capps, president of Epic Games, was at the event and introduced a new Infinity Blade game.
We've seen the studies that say gaming is among the most popular category of apps being sold on smartphones. Nokia, Samsung and HTC are all promising to bring better hardware to Windows Phone and game developers are looking to make more mobile games in response to this growing market. All the pieces of the puzzle are there.
If Microsoft really wants to start selling a large number of smartphones, making Xbox Live gaming the "killer app" of Windows Phone might be the answer.
-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles
Photo: The People app's Groups feature in Microsoft's Windows Phone 7.5 Mango operating system. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh/Los Angeles Times