Review – Microsoft Windows Mobile 5.0

by Reads (163,162)

It’s the autumn release season, and new devices running Windows Mobile 5.0 have begun to hit the market. We bring you a hands-on,  in-depth look at the next-generation OS.

 

Major changes and additions in WM5 include:

  • Upgrading the system kernel from Windows CE 4.2 to WCE 5.01
  • One-handed navigation
  • Program compatibility between Pocket PC and Smartphone devices
  • Persistent Storage and new memory configuration
  • ActiveSync 4.0
  • Addition of Direct3D Mobile, DirectX Mobile, & DirectDraw Mobile
  • Improved application suite
    •  

WindowsCE kernel upgrade

The upgrading of the OS kernel is mainly an “invisible” change, at least to the end-user. Developers will have a few more options to work with, and enterprises will have new security features to insure that sensitive data doesn’t get left on a lost or stolen device. But for the most part, users won’t notice a real difference.

 

One-handed navigation

A long overdue addition to the Windows user interface is the ability to navigate without using the touchscreen. The PocketPC version of Windows Mobile 5.0 has adopted “soft keys” similar to those found on Windows Smartphones. These soft keys reside on the bottom of the screen, and provide context-sensitive commands. The soft keys can be activated either by tapping on them, or by pressing the hardware button associated with that key. When a softkey pulls up a menu, the directional pad can be used to select the option you want.

To fully navigate around the OS without using the touchscreen, you need to use the directional pad plus four hardware buttons: one button each for the left and right soft keys, the OK/Close function, and the Start menu. You may have noticed that most existing PocketPCs only have four front hardware buttons. Yes, if you want full one-handed navigation on current models, you have to sacrifice all your main application buttons, at least in the absence of third-party software that allows you to map multiple functions to a button. This system would obviously work far better on newer units with additional buttons that are specifically tasked to the softkeys, leaving at least two free buttons for launching applications.

Of course, you don’t need to surrender your buttons if you don’t want to. You can always assign the buttons to whatever you like, and leave the one-handed navigation to itself.

At first, I didn’t think that I would find myself using the one-handed navigation that much–after all, I’d need the stylus out for most things anyway, right? After getting a chance to use it, though, I started to apprecciate how useful it really is. Quite a few operations can be done without needing the stylus. Opening and paging through my favorite book reader, navigating a website, looking up TV listings, all stylus free. Other, more subtle changes have been made to the interface to facilitate this, such as letting the directional pad activate checkboxes, buttons, and other on-screen elements. Some applications, particularly those not designed for WM5, still need stylus control, but it’s only natural that some applications can’t be controlled in such a simplistic fashion.

 

PocketPC/Smartphone application compatibility

Another selling point of WM5 is application compatibility between the Pocket PC and Smartphone versions of the OS. Previously, developers had to produce two seperate installs for their programs if they wanted to work on both PPC and SP. Now, the same version of a program will run on both devices, at least in theory. It’s about time. The need to have seperate, incompatible versions of an application negated any real benefit from running similar operating systems on Pocket PCs and Windows Smartphones.

I tried several Smartphone programs on WM5. Six ran perfectly, two ran with graphical errors, and one would not run at all.

The programs which seemed to have the most difficulty adapting graphically were both games, which tend to be coded for a specific screen resolution. Most existing Windows Smartphones have a resolution of 176 x 220 pixels. Games and other applications designed exclusively for this resolution, when run, were pixel doubled to 352 x 440, then displayed in the upper left corner of the PDA’s screen. This allowed them to use about half of the total screen area. Other programs and games, including those which support the newer WM Smartphones with 320 x 240 QVGA screens, should run in full-screen.

Valentin Iliescu’s Chess for WM Smartphone

The most compatible were applications like Resco Explorer, and other apps that used a standard Windows interface. These displayed full-screen. Were it not for the pixelization of a few icons here and there and the periodic visual gap, you would barely know that they weren’t PocketPC native apps. Virtually anything that relies on Windows’ own UI and graphical hooks should work equally well.

Binarys’ SmartExplorer for WM Smartphone

The only program which would not run at all–which was, naturally, the one that I most wanted to run–was the Opera web browser for WM Smartphones. Presumably, this was too either attached to the Smartphone networking code to run on a PPC, or else it needs to be updated for WM5.

 

Persistent storage and new memory configuration

New in WM5 is what Microsoft calls “persistent storage,” the principle that if you lose battery power, your data should still be there. This isn’t a revolutionary concept, and it’s been done plenty of times before, by Sharp, Palm, even Windows. What matters isn’t so much the sentiment as the method of achieving it. Starting with WM5, all Windows-based devices are moving from using RAM as their primary Storage medium to the use of flash memory. This makes the devices considerably more “bulletproof” in how their data is stored. Having a battery die, or any other sort of power interruption, will no longer result in a hard-reset of the device, as it would have on older models.

No more seperate area for built-in flash memory

As a secondary benefit, using flash memory will free up the battery power that was previously tasked with protecting the RAM, thus resulting in improved battery life for WM5 devices. From my experiences this far, the improvement is quite impressive.

 

ActiveSync 4.0

ActiveSync 4.0 really doesn’t look any different from AS3.8. All the options are the same. The update notes talk about an “Enhanced user interface,” but then those same update notes talk about Bluetooth syncing like it’s a new feature. The only significant difference that I can find between ActiveSync 3.8 and 4.0 is that AS4 is missing the ability to synchronize your device over a TCP/IP connection. This means that you’ll no longer be able to sync over WiFi, ethernet, dialup, cellular, VPN, or any other remote access method. The only accepted means of syncing are now Bluetooth or a cabled connection to the PC. Unfortunately, if you want to sync a WM5 device, you’ve got no choice but to “upgrade” to AS4, since older versions refuse to sync with the new models.

 

Direct3D Mobile & graphics interfaces

The addition of new Application Programming Interfaces for 2D and 3D graphics is another “under the hood” change. While most users won’t notice a difference at first, developers will be able to make their games and graphical applications more easily, as well as having a single API to take advantage of any and all models with 3D video hardware. This means improved compatibility, since currently applications written for a specific chip will work only on that chip. Programs written for Direct3D Mobile should run on any chip that is tied into the OS’ graphical systems.

 

Application suite upgrades

Long-awaited changes are also made in the standard Windows application suite. Pocket Word has always been something of a running joke in terms of actual word processing. This is due to the fact that if you “round tripped” a document, from desktop Word to Pocket Word and back, it would strip out much of the formatting. Pocket Word also preferred to save files in its own format, which would be converted back to DOC via ActiveSync.

While not ideal, WM5’s Word Mobile is much improved. It now has full native file support, without loss of formatting or need for conversion through ActiveSync. You can “round trip” documents without fear of destroying them. A spell checker and word count have been added.

What Word Mobile doesn’t do is actually support working with most of the advanced features of a document. Nor, for that matter, can you do some of the other things that you might otherwise expect out of a word processor. You can’t add, remove, or edit headers and footers. You can’t print without third-party software. You can view tables and images, but you can’t insert them into a document.

Word Mobile is a very basic word processor with Microsoft Word compatibility. A full scale desktop replacement it’s not, and I doubt that anyone who currently runs Textmaker will be tempted to switch. But for basics, it’s quite servicable, if you can get around the limitations.

Excel Mobile has gotten a similar but less drastic upgrade, with new support for creating and viewing charts.

The PIM applications have gotten a small overhaul as well, improving navigation as well as providing a few new features like photo contacts.

Improved PIM applications offer better navigation

A complete newcomer in WM5 is PowerPoint Mobile. Previously, you had to buy third-party software to get PowerPoint viewing capabilities on a PocketPC. And viewing it is: PowerPoint Mobile is strictly a PPT viewer, with no creation or editing capabilities. Not surprising given the logistical difficulties inherent in editing a graphical presentation on such a small device.

Another new application is the cryptically named Download Agent. From what I can gather, DA is designed to allow for software updates “over the air,” directly to a mobile device without the need for a host PC. But it’s anyone’s guess as to what it actually does, how it works, or how to use it, since it has no buttons that work, no options, no menus, and not even the barest shred of information about itself. If I had to speculate, I would say that it’s tied in to the device’s Exchange server synchronization.

The mysterious Download Agent

The biggest disappointment of WM5 comes in the form of the newly redesignated Internet Explorer Mobile. IE received the least attention of all the “office” applications. Besides the addition of a status bar to tell you whether the page is loading, soft key support, and some minor rendering changes, there’s no real difference from the older version of IE. The program’s biggest bug is still fully in force: on VGA devices, IE pixel-doubles all images, leading to ugly, blocky browsing on many graphics-heavy sites.

IE Mobile fails to fix rendering bug

Add to that the fact that much of the third-party software that made IE tolerable–in my case, SE_VGA and MultiIE–aren’t usable because they haven’t been updated for WM5. So while For the time being, users are simply stuck with IE, until Opera delivers a usable WM browser, Netfront 3.3 is fully available, or Minimo becomes tolerable.

Speaking of bad programs with unbelievable bugs, Windows Media Player 10 is standard equipment on WM5. Unfortunately, it hasn’t improved at all since its 2003SE incarnation. Suppose, for a second, that you want to map a button so that you can turn off the screen while you’re playing music. You would open up the options menu, then go to the Buttons tab. Oops–you didn’t actually want to map a button, did you? Sorry, you can’t do that. See, WMP10 doesn’t allow functions to be mapped to buttons, only to the directional pad. This isn’t a “feature”–it’s a bug, plain and simple, one that came with the program straight from Microsoft. While it’s pretty bad when you launch your big new media player with such an obvious flaw, such errors happen in the world of software design. But an error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it. What’s really inexcusable is to let your big new media player be rolled into your even bigger new OS without fixing the original problem.

But the bugs aren’t the only problems with WMP10. It’s just not a very good music player. It forces you to to use its “Library” to categorize your songs–and by “categorize,” of course I mean “throw into a huge random list that doesn’t show the artist, and sometimes doesn’t show the title of the song.” Since the “Library” is designed for working from one memory card at a time, it’s also painful to use if your music is divided between CF and SD cards. On top of this, WMP10 seems to be an amnesiac–every time you restart it, it “forgets” your previous playlist.

Fortunately, though, third-party browsers and MP3 players aren’t that hard to find, so the amount of suffering they can induce is limited.

There are a lot more little changes as well. For instance, the method of installing programs directly to the device from a CAB file is now much more robust. Under previous versions of Windows, activating a CAB package installed the program to the default location, then deleted the CAB. Now, the install dialog guides you through the process, letting you choose where to install the app, and leaves the CAB untouched. A new GPS applet in the system settings allows several applications to recieve GPS data from a single receiver. Previously, only one application could use a GPS reciever at a time. A keylock applet is now standard equipment. The speed of VGA devices are more in line with their QVGA counterparts, eliminating the reduced performance seen under WM2003 SE.

As with any new OS, there are a fair number of kinks to be worked out. The popular “real VGA” hacks no longer function. My favorite task switcher doesn’t implement a settings change until you restart it. Most programs aren’t equipped for one-handed navigation, including some of the standard settings dialogs. Some programs, like MultiIE, don’t work at all. Of course, I’ve been trying to use a WM5 device weeks before WM5 was available to the public and the developer community at large. Most of these problems should be fixed in the next update of each application. As always, however, being an early adopter brings with it a certain amount of hassle in dealing with OS quirks, nonfunctional programs, and software conflicts.

Altogether, my verdict on Windows Mobile 5 is mixed. Some of the new additions have worked out extremely well, particularly flash storage, and to a lesser extent one-handed navigation. The office suite didn’t turn out nearly as well, but some definite improvements have been made. The only areas where the upgrade falls completely flat are in the web browser, which hasn’t seen a significant improvement in years, and in WMP10, which is just badly designed. Microsoft’s Windows Mobile division has always had a very casual–even slipshod–attitude with regard to the default application suite. I can understand leaving room for third-party improvements, but that doesn’t stop you from producing decent, workable applications. Nor does it stop at applications–there’s a number of things about the user experience that could have been improved, such as streamlining the networking setup.

All that said, there’s still a number of things to like about WM5, despite the more glaring mistakes. Better speed, better battery life, and better usability make it a worthwhile upgrade.

Pros:

  • Flash storage
  • Improved battery life
  • PPC/Smartphone compatibility
  • One-handed navigation
  • Speed improvements

Cons:

  • Web browser still terrible
  • Windows Media Player poorly designed
  • Requires ActiveSync 4.0
  • Lingering networking issues

Bottom Line:

Some flaws and missed opportunities, but still a significant improvement in many areas.

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