Not too long ago, the major Windows Phone 7 update known as "Mango" was finally released as a free download from Microsoft. Designed to patch up many of the holes and pitfalls from which the initial iteration of the mobile OS suffered, Windows Phone 7.5 boasts "over 500 new features," according to Microsoft.
But many of those features are minor updates that the average user may not even notice, so for the sake of streamlining things, we’re here to offer our thoughts on some of the best or most notable additions and improvements.
Probably one of the most important new features in the Mango update is the addition of "conversation view." Previously, emails were just thrown into your box individually -- much like in Outlook -- regardless of whether or not they were part of an ongoing thread. Now, Microsoft has taken a leaf out of Google's book and organized emails into collapsible conversations. It's a welcome change, one that greatly reduces the clutter of one's inbox when emailing back and forth with people.
The only issue is that there are definitely some quirks with the way emails are sorted into conversations. It seems that instead of organizing the threads according to the subject (and people replying directly to the same series of specific emails), the emails are organized by the people involved. I say this because many of my conversations include emails that aren't always part of the same chain. For instance, I had a thread that was going back and forth between me, my father, and my brother, but randomly placed within the collapsible conversation was a completely different email that I had sent to a friend of mine on an entirely different subject that clearly was not part of the same chain. Obviously, this tends to make some of my emails hard to find when they're not located in the right conversation. Hopefully this will get worked out soon, because it's an otherwise excellent addition that helps clean up my inbox.
Another major update to the email app on Windows Phone is that users can now link inboxes to get all of their email in one place. This could be a good idea for the occasional individual who has multiple personal accounts, but I only have one personal account and my work email. As such, I didn't have much use for this update because I intentionally keep the two apart (which is thankfully still an option). Nobody wants to mix business with pleasure.
The Bing Search on WP7.5 sports a few new features that, to me, seem like great ideas not in terms of originality, but because they consolidate certain conveniences of external apps and bring them all to one location. For example, many people (myself included) have downloaded some kind of barcode scanning app, which allows you to scan tags on products and run a subsequent web search for shopping results on the item. Now, the Bing Search includes a feature called "Vision," which automatically activates the camera and allows you scan barcodes, text, and CD, DVD, and book covers before triggering a relevant web search. It cuts out the middleman and eliminates the need for using a third party app.
And you know Shazam, the app that allows you to hold up your phone when a song is playing and it will tell you the song and artist? Not necessary anymore either, as the Bing Search features a "Music" function which, when tapped, automatically starts listening to the music playing before identifying it for you (complete with a link to buy it in the Zune store, should you so please). Again, these aren't original ideas, but it was a smart move that upped the convenience level for users by putting them all in one place as part of the Bing Search.
Speaking of consolidation, web searches done through the Bing Search function will also include any relevant results from the apps in the Zune Marketplace. Thanks to the Mango updates, Microsoft has done a good job of making the Bing Search on WP7.5 kind of a one-stop, catch-all function for all of your searching needs.
I personally found this to be one of the better parts of the upgrade in that it isn't just a tweak to an existing feature, it's a whole new idea and a really solid way to organize your contacts. You can now group your contacts into…well, groups, which you can then pin to your start menu. This meshes extremely well with the whole live tile aspect of the Metro UI, giving you very quick access to specific people with whom you know you will be in frequent contact.
Once you tap on the tile for the group that you created (or you can just access it through the existing "People" menu button), you'll find that WP7.5 has basically created a whole little menu full of information for all of the people included. Besides being able to message all of the members at once (via text or email), they are each given live tiles that you can select individually if you want to call them, write on their Facebook wall, etc.
Even better is that, like the "People" and "Me" tiles, there is a "What's New" section within the group that displays all of the social media updates for just the group's members. There's also a "Pictures" section that displays a live slideshow of randomized pictures of members of the group, which can also be tapped to see an entire album of all pictures that include any of the group members (it's populated through Facebook). You can also select individual albums from the group's members if you want to narrow things down a little bit. In all, it's a very streamlined, pragmatic addition that offers you an easy way to stay in touch with your most important contacts.
The Maps app from Windows Phone 7 has received some much-needed improvements in Mango, though there's still a little room for improvement in certain areas. But credit where credit is due, first.
Rather than just basic directions and search options, users can also use Bing Scout, which does just that: it scouts the area around your location to provide you with options for food and drink, events and attractions, shopping, and highlights, which are just highest-rated attractions regardless of category. What's especially nice is that all of the results from Bing Scout -- or any searches done within Maps, for that matter -- are marked with little flags on the map, which can in turn be tapped to bring up more detailed information on the location, including address, phone, reviews, hours, directions from your location, etc. A "suggest changes" option is also available on each location's page to help improve the user experience.
There is also a useful option to just locate yourself on a map via GPS with no need to type in any directions. Now, you can just open Maps and tap the "Me" button and a pulsing dot is brought up on the map to display your location.
Other new options include the ability to show or hide traffic (an excellent addition), flag favorite places, switch to aerial view, or revert to a directions list that you pulled up previously. I especially appreciated the last feature, as it drove me crazy in the past when I would open Maps, look up directions, close it, and then have to type in the location again five minutes later when I wanted to check my progress. Speaking of which, you can now also set the maps to either stay oriented north at all times, or rotate with your current direction when following a directions list, which helps a ton, especially when driving (but make sure your passenger is holding it!).
Now, there are a couple of things I still wish had been implemented with this update to help really bring Bing Maps up to snuff. First of all, I would have liked to see an added ability to switch between different types of directions -- driving, walking, public transportation -- a la Google maps. As far as I can tell, there's no way to do this, which really worked against me when I was in New York recently and was trying to find my way back to Penn Station on foot. It took me a while to realize that the directions that were given to me were by car and they ultimately led me to a roadway that was not accessible to pedestrians (not to mention the fact that it was a wildly inefficient route by foot as it had to follow the numerous one-way streets). So I had to improvise, all the while wishing for a way to specify to Bing Maps that I was walking.
Also somewhat problematic is the app's ability to find the place you're looking for when you run a search for directions from your current location. When here in Boston, on more than one occasion I have punched in the name of a restaurant or venue in the "End" field of the directions box without the city or state and, instead of just being intuitive enough to find the location of said name that is nearest to me, I have been given directions to places of same name that can be found in New Hampshire, Minnesota, or one time -- when the app was feeling especially adventurous -- London. If you just do a regular search with your current location marked, it seems to fare better. But if you try to enter a location in the directions fields without a city and state, you often get some pretty wonky results.
This is Part 1 of a multi-page article. Part 2 discusses the greatly updated web browser in Windows Phone 7.5, as well as other new features.
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