Recently, Microsoft unveiled the newest update to its mobile operating system, Windows Mobile 6.1. Of course, while new devices and official upgrades aren’t out yet, there have been some unofficial versions of WM6.1 for existing devices put out by various talented enthusiasts around the globe. While strictly unsupported by Microsoft and the carriers, these unofficial versions provide a tantalizing peek into the new operating system that will be on shelves soon.
New Today Screen
This review is based on my experiences with two such ROMs: one for the Samsung BlackJack, and one for the Cingular 3125. Both feature a more or less stock version of Windows Mobile 6.1, customized to each device.
Since manufacturers customize the operating system to their own needs, some devices may have different options or looks.
New "Carousel" Interface
I’ll start with the biggest alteration to Windows Mobile 6.1. The "Standard" version of the OS, meant for smartphones without a touchscreen, now has a new interface.
Think of it as an evolution of the old "Today" screen. It uses the same vertical listing of items, but adds a couple of tweaks. Rather than simple line items, the display is now grouped by "tiles," which are each associated with a particular function: communication, media, photos, etcetera.
Each of these tiles can be spun, so to speak, left and right using the directional pad. This is the reason it’s called the "carousel" interface.
One example of this is the photo viewer tile: by moving left and right with the directional pad, you can browse through the photos loaded on the device.
The tile for Windows media Player lets you peruse the available media files, and play or pause the current track.
Probably the busiest tile, and the one many users will be referring to the most, is the one which handles communication and messaging. This lists the number of missed calls, voicemail messages, unread text messages, and unread emails, all in a single bar across the screen.
When you highlight it, you can get a larger view of each item, including a preview of the beginning of a text message or email — at least, assuming there’s only one newly received.
In each case, both the center action button on the directional pad and the right softkey provide context-specific functions for each tile, and for each item within a tile.
The whole interface is done out in a kind of transparent glass look, with animated sliding transitions, and a clear background that doesn’t interfere with your ability to see the desktop image. The only thing that I’ve noticed it’s lacking is an option to change the color of the text for the Home screen: if you pick a background image that’s too light, the white text can be lost.
The speed of the new UI tends to drag a little bit on slower smartphones. My 3125, which is nominally clocked at 180 MHz, fared the worst, and while the 216 MHz BlackJack did better, it too tended to bog down if there was too much going on in the background. Using OmapClock to speed the devices up to 252 MHz made all the difference in the world: even with 4-5 applications open in the background, the tiles flipped and slid smoothly and easily. In actuality, I’m kind of impressed with the speed and responsiveness of such a visually appealing UI on relatively modest hardware.
I really wasn’t sure if I was going to like the new interface when I first started using it — it seemed overly elaborate and impractical. But having gotten used to it, I’ve really fallen for the efficiency and the whole tile design. It’s robust, it’s fun to look at, and it conveys a lot of information in one glance, as well as bringing the most important things directly to your attention.
Minor Internet Changes
There’s no new interface for the "Classic" and "Professional," i.e. Pocket PC, versions of Windows Mobile, so users of these are going to have to content themselves with the rest of the updates to the OS. Though to be honest, once you get past the fancy new Home screen, there isn’t a ton of change to the way the OS works, at least not from Windows Mobile 6. Basic functions like launching programs are the same, although now WM comes standard with a task manager to help you close unwanted applications.
Web Page While Zoomed Out
The most significant non-interface change is to Internet Explorer Mobile. It has received a new rendering engine based on Internet Explorer 6 for the desktop, as well as a "Zoom Out" mode for full page preview, and a commitment to support Flash, including YouTube.
First the good news. The new rendering engine is a definite improvement over the older version of IEM, and though it still performs only marginally in displaying large sites on small screens, it’s now more flexible. Text is displayed a little smaller to save space, while still being legible. Images are better resized.
In general, it performs on a level I’d call "acceptable" from a stock mobile browser. Not brilliant, but better.
Now the bad news. The "Zoom out" mode is, at least in my experience so far, just short of useless. While it might have relevance if there were a site that you absolutely had to view in desktop mode, 99 out of 100 times you’re just going to ignore it. Too much panning and zooming, and too hard to see anything when you’re zoomed out. While IE Mobile has improved, it’s not going to displace Opera Mini for my main web browsing needs on my phones, or Opera Mobile on my bigger screened devices.
The ROM versions I previewed did not have the Flash upgrade for Internet Explorer Mobile, so I was unable to test this.
Threaded Text Messaging
Threaded SMS messaging has also been added, which allows you to view a text message exchange in the same way as a conversation on an instant messaging service.
Each reply is placed in a list, with a time stamp and who sent it, you or the other person. This gives you in effect an instant history of recent messages exchanged with that person — helpful if you’re distracted, forgetful, or exchanging notes over a long period.
Windows Mobile 6.1 is definitely a worthwhile upgrade for users of Windows Mobile Standard, but a "ho hum" event for those on touchscreen-based devices.
The new WMS interface provides both visual appeal and improved usability, without excessively increasing the hardware requirements. It’s not an enormous update, but it brings in some aesthetics which are much appreciated.