The first smartphones running Windows Mobile 6.5 are being launched this week, and upgrades for some current models are expected soon. This is an incremental update from the previous one — version 6.1 — with only a few really noticeable changes.
I’ve been testing a couple of devices running this new OS version, one running a generic edition, and one that branded for AT&T.
Finger Friendly… Sort Of
Previous versions of Windows Mobile were built with the assumption users would control them with a stylus, and therefore items are often small and close together. With 6.5, that’s starting to change.
Some screens have been re-designed with large icons, and there’s a new on-screen keyboard that lets you type with your fingers.
But there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Some of the oldest apps, like the calendar, have changed their look in the slightest, and there are plenty pf times you have to pull out a stylus to use them.
New Today Screen
Microsoft offers a new version of the Today Screen in Mobile 6.5 Pro. This is somewhat similar to the one that has been on WinMo Standard for a while.
It takes the form of a list of items, each one giving details about a major function of the smartphone. Many of the items from the previous version are still there — the clock, the number of unread messages, and upcoming appointments — new consumer-oriented items have been added. This includes ties to the music player, picture viewer, and web browser.
Small numbers next to items give a status update. For example, if there’s a “3” next to e-mail, you have three unread messages. If you select the e-mail icon and slide it to the left or right, you cycle through your e-mail accounts. The others work in a similar way; you can flip through your upcoming appointments, too.
This is an all-or-nothing arrangement; you can’t pick and choose which of these items you want listed. However, if you don’t like this new version, you can even revert to the classic one.
One thing to keep in mind is that, depending on what device you buy, you may never see the default Today Screen. Companies like HTC and Samsung often overlay it with their own custom user interfaces, like TouchFLO.
New Start Screen
One of the most significant changes in this new version is the merging of the Start Menu and the Programs Screen. Previously, the Start Menu was a drop-down list of your favorite applications, while the Programs Screen listed all the software installed on the device. In 6.5, these have been combined into one screen listing all the apps.
You open the Start Screen with, you guessed it, a Start button. This is a physical button that replaces the old Home button, which once opened the Today Screen. The Today Screen is now accessed through the Start Menu.
This is one of the changes designed to make Windows Mobile more finger friendly. The icons on this screen are large and comfortably far apart.
If you’re someone like me, who regularly uses lots of different apps, you’re going go love this change. On the other hand, if you like to frequently refer to the Today Screen, you’re probably going to be less happy.
But the next version needs to make it much easier for you to re-arrange the icons. At this point, all you can do is jump an icon to the top. You can’t move one just slightly, or bump one down. This makes changing their order into a major hassle.
New Internet Explorer
Windows Mobile 6.5 comes with a new version of Internet Explorer. While this has been improved in many ways — it does a better job of rendering pages with advanced formatting — it’s still very slow.
This is even more true for what could have been a huge enhancement: YouTube support. This browser can now display in-line YouTube videos, but queuing these up is a sl-o-o-o-o-w process.
Admittedly, I’ve only used this software on devices with 528 MHz processors, and its possible the newer models with 1 GHz ones will make the performance acceptable. But if you’re using anything close to 528 MHz, and do more than occasional web browsing on your phone, I suggest you look into the alternatives.
The performance problems are too bad. Microsoft did an update of IE’s look, and gave it a set of on-screen buttons to control major functions. This makes it easier to use. But it’s still slow to render pages — much slower than its competitors.
New Windows Marketplace
One of the new features in v6.5 is Windows Marketplace for Mobile, Microsoft’s on-device software store. This lets you easily find and install new games, utilities, etc. onto your smartphone.
This includes free apps, and for-pay ones. Pricing is up to the software developers, but Microsoft is taking a cut of the revenue from paid apps.
This service is just getting off the ground, and the selection isn’t great right now, but I know Microsoft is working hard to bring apps in.
I’ve grown used to on-device stores on other mobile operating systems — iPhone, webOS, Android — and it’s great to see Microsoft getting on board.
I really like the changes in Windows Mobile 6.5, especially the new Start Screen. And any improvement is good.
But when I consider that it took Microsoft a year to add these tweaks, I have to shake my head. I’m really hoping future versions of this operating system can pick up the pace a bit. Windows Mobile is facing some intense competition these days, and it needs to pick up its heels if it’s going to keep up.