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Windows Phone 7.5 Review, Part 3: App-by-App Rundown of Other Changes

Beyond the big ticket items mentioned in the previous part of this review, Windows Phone 7.5 includes several hundred other smaller new features and updates. I can't list them all here, of course, but as you move from app-to-app in Windows Phone 7.5, you'll notice many changes and niceties. Here are some of the updates I think are most interesting.

Deeper Facebook integration

In the initial version of Windows Phone, Microsoft provided some basic Facebook integration bits, including the ability to list Facebook friends in the People hub, share items via Facebook, and view and interact with photo and what's new feeds in the Pictures and People hubs, respectively. In WP 7.5, Facebook integration goes much deeper. You get location check-in capabilities from the Me tile, Facebook Events integration in Calendar, Facebook Chat integration in Messaging (discussed a bit more below), video sharing, and face detection with Facebook tagging integration for photo uploads.

Sounds pretty complete, eh? And to be fair it really is. But as with the Twitter integration bit mentioned previously in this review, the Facebook integration capabilities are nice, and work well, but are not complete. For example, I use the location check-in feature all the time. In WP 7.5, when you check-in, you can choose the location from a list or add your own entry (which seems to fail more often than not), and then you can add a comment. But what you can't do is tag other people who are there with you or add a photo. And those are things you can do from other mobile phones. Just ask my wife; she does both from her Android phone all the time. To accomplish the same thing on Windows Phone, you'd need to use the dedicated Facebook app, which sort of defeats the purpose, now doesn't it?

Still, the Facebook integration in WP 7.5 is much improved and will likely please many people. I just hope I don't have to wait for Windows Phone 8 for the missing bits. Facebook, like other online services, updates very quickly. The integration bits in Windows Phone will need to follow suit.

Contacts filtering and Groups

One of the obvious complaints about the People hub in the first version of Windows Phone is that it was essentially a flat list of all of your contacts, from multiple sources, aggregated together. There was no way to filter it at all.

In WP 7.5, you can now easily filter contacts on the fly. Can I get a halleluiah?

It gets better. Microsoft has also provided a handy new Groups feature that lets you mirror your real-life relationships on the phone, which is of course entirely in keeping with the whole Windows Phone feng shui. And a contact group is exactly what it sounds like: A container for related contacts, like family members, close friends, a soccer team, whatever. These groups aren't just for show, either. You can send emails, IMs, and text messages to groups, share things with groups, pin a group to the Start page, view a "what's new" or pictures feed from groups, and so on. In other words, Groups work exactly as you'd expect, and exactly as you'd want.

More sharing options     

Thanks to the addition of new online services integration via Twitter and LinkedIn, you now have far more avenues for sharing than before. And thanks to a richer Me tile, which now sports ways to post a message, check-in, or set the chat status via your connected services, you have an obvious way to communicate with the world, all from a central location. You can also respond to comments and tweets via the Me tile's new Notifications page. It's pretty spectacular.

But this is Windows Phone we're talking about. So you can share from all over the device. It's not limited to a single app or user experience.

Above and beyond all the sharing features we already had, WP 7.5 also lets you share new types of content, including video and location check-ins, and add RSVPs and view guest lists from Facebook Events via the Calendar app. The Messaging app has also been significantly upgraded to support Windows Live IM, Facebook Chat and group texting in addition to standard text and MMS. When you share photos, you can tag faces (Facebook and Windows Live only). And you can now share Office documents from SkyDrive and Office 365, not just SharePoint. Likewise, you can access any documents others have shared with you on SkyDrive. Even the Marketplace has new sharing features: You can share information about an app from its details page using any email account or text messaging. On and on it goes. You wanna be social? Windows Phone is the place to be.

Calendar improvements

The original Windows Phone Calendar app was pretty full-featured, but it had one major failing: It only worked with the main calendar from any given account, and couldn't access what I call "sub-calendars" or secondary calendars. This limitation is gone in WP 7.5, though the account type must be Outlook (i.e. Exchange ActiveSync). So any Hotmail or Exchange/Office 365 account with multiple calendars will work just fine now. But if you have a Gmail account, you'll need to trick Google into providing access to multiple Google Calendar-based calendars, because Google isn't using EAS correctly. Here's the workaround.

Calendar gets a couple of other useful additions in WP 7.5. It supports Exchange-style Tasks (or what Hotmail and, confusingly, Windows Phone calls "To-Do's"), again via EAS account types (Outlook). There's Facebook Events integration, which will be handy for you trendy hipsters. And it has a neat new Quick Events feature that basically lets you tap the screen in Day view and start entering the title of a new appointment immediately.

Messages: Now with IM and Facebook Chat

I almost put this one in part two because it's arguably a big, big change, and depending on how you use your phone, this could be a killer feature for Windows Phone 7.5. As you might expect and possibly know, the original version of Windows Phone shipped with a decent Messaging app that provided all the usual texting (SMS) and multimedia texting (MMS) functionality. In Windows Phone 7.5, this app has been significantly overhauled, and it now offers Windows Live Messenger and Facebook Chat functionality too, so it's now a complete unified messaging solution. You can even message others in a hands-free mode using voice control.

The cool bit here, however, isn't just that these things are all available from a central location, it's that they can be interchanged as needed. Each of your contacts will have different accounts on different services, and Windows Phone will know this and provide you messaging capabilities that match which services these others are using. You can even have a single conversation thread that includes messages sent over different services. This feature, called Threads, is fairly unique, and because it works with services people really use, it is actually useful.

Messaging also integrates with the Groups feature in the People hub, so you can message groups of contacts with a single tap. This works with MMS/SMS, IM (Windows Live) or Facebook Chat.

Photos + Camera improvements

Remember how Windows Phone didn't even have an option for saving customized camera settings, most notably for the flash? It's fixed! But Windows Phone 7.5 also improves the camera experience in various other ways. There's a new Auto Photo Fix feature, available from the tap-and-hold menu, which corrects common photo issues--sadly common with the pictures taken with today's lackluster Windows Phone cameras--and provides an equally handy Undo option. When you upload photos from the phone to online services like Facebook or Windows Live, it will detect faces and give you the option to tag them as part of the posting process. And you can also share videos to both Facebook and Windows Live now.

Like other WP 7.5 hubs, the Pictures hub has been somewhat redesigned and now provides dynamic wallpaper and live tile images, though you can of course change that to a favorite picture if you'd like. And while navigating through friends' photos in the Pictures hub makes plenty of sense, you can also do this via the People hub too, since in many cases what you're thinking about is a photo of, or from, a particular person. Remember, Windows Phone works the way you do.

Music + Videos improvements

The Music + Videos hub has also gotten a nice spit-shine, with a slight redesign, smarter History and New panes, and lock screen integration with the Now Playing artist imagery and playback controls. In the playback screens, the onscreen controls are bigger and more consistent, and will no longer get lost when displayed over white album art or video. You can pin all kinds of new things to the Start screen now, including artists, genres, and Smart DJ mixes.

That's right, Smart DJ has been added to WP 7.5 as well. Smart DJ is Microsoft's version of iTunes' Genius feature, but of course it can be even better than Genius if you have a Zune Pass because it can include music that's not even in your collection. I know, Zune Pass isn't free, but if you're a music lover, it's a no-brainer.

The other big Music + Videos feature is that the Podcast Marketplace is now available on the device, over the air. But sadly, this feature is US only, so if you're outside the States, you're out of luck.

Marketplace improvements

The Marketplace hub is your one-stop front-end to Windows Phone Marketplace on the device, and while it doesn't offer everything you can get from the PC-based store in the Zune PC software, you do get access to apps, games, and music, and, if you're in the US, podcasts. As with the initial release of WP, you can access the different parts of the store separately, too, so if you're browsing around in the Games hub and tap the Store link, you'll get the Games Marketplace, which is that subset of the full store that shows just games.

Anyway, in WP 7.5, the Marketplace has been updated in various ways. Like other hubs, it's been redesigned with a new layout, and now sports a minimal, bottom-mounted app bar for Search and a few other functions. The app purchase process has been improved so you'll know where the bill is going--you can choose between direct credit card payments or associate the charges with your wireless bill--and finding apps to buy is easier thanks to better, context-sensitive search.

App and game descriptions are no longer overloaded on a single screen. Instead, you get a nice, multi-pane view with Details, Reviews, Screenshots, and Related panes. And yes, when you tilt the device to view landscape-oriented game shots, the display no longer auto-rotates, screwing up the view. Progress.

One of the biggest changes to Marketplace doesn't even explicitly involve the phone: You can now access Windows Phone Marketplace on the web, and while this web-based version of the store only provides access to apps and games, it does come with a major, and often-asked-for feature: Via your new Account page, you can view your entire app purchase history, and if you purchase a new phone or reset your existing device, you can use this page to reinstall apps to the device, over the air. This is very, very cool, and very, very useful.

Office Mobile improvements

The Office hub has always been one of Windows Phone's big differentiators, and I'm probably not surprising anyone when I note that it's been made even better in WP 7.5. It's been cleaned up and redesigned, with a hub-wide app bar and a new layout. The OneNote pane is now called Notes and it uses a better-contrast purple color scheme than the old orange one. Plus it lets you pin a cool "New Note" tile to the Start screen so you can start a new note easily, any time.

The Documents pane uses nice, pretty tiles now instead of a text list, and the old SharePoint pane has been replaced by a new Locations pane that offers one-click access to documents on the phone, in Office 365, SharePoint, and SkyDrive. This works as expected, and is excellent. My only small gripe, and I admit I'm an edge case here, is that the SkyDrive integration is only with the primary Windows Live account; I use that account for Xbox LIVE and Zune, but not for SkyDrive. So I have to manually visit SkyDrive in IE in order to get those documents into the Office hub. At least it works, sort of. You have to download each one, and they're no longer synced with the cloud. I guess I need to consolidate my Windows Live accounts.

App List changes

As you may recall, Windows Phone features a Start screen of pinned favorites apps, but also a longer, less attractive list of all the apps on the phone. (Games are listed in the Games hub separately.) WP 7.5 continues this tradition, but for users with many, many apps--OK, the number is 45 or more--you'll get an alphabetical jump list view, where the App list will show letters that separate the names of the apps. To jump further down the list, say to the apps that start with "T", just tap a letter to display a grid of letters. Or, use the handy new Search button to find what you're looking for.

There's also a new app in the Apps List called Help + How-to that serves as Windows Phone's onboard help and support center.

Games hub and Xbox LIVE improvements

The Games hub, often mistakenly called the Xbox or Xbox LIVE hub, has been thoroughly redesigned and now looks a lot more like its console cousin, with a gray background and an annoying, animated avatar.  The Collection pane offers a more efficient App List-like list of games, rather than the old tiles-based view, and a Recent view for games you've been playing lately.

Much of the functionality that used to be available from a separate (and terrible) app is now available directly from within the hub, including Xbox LIVE messaging, achievement comparison views, profile editing, and so on. And Windows Phone finally offers parental controls for games, a big user request. This is convenient, since the first M-rated games are slated to appear in the Marketplace later this year.

But wait, there's more

With hundreds of small changes, it's hard to keep everything that's going on in this release in my mind. Too, I've been using pre-release versions of Mango since the spring, so for me, this is simply what Windows Phone is. Point being, I'm sure I'm forgetting some things you'll find important and noteworthy. But let's see if I can scan through the phone and find some more tidbits.

There's custom ringtone support in the Phone app, though a third party will need to step in to make that easier; currently, you can manually copy MP3 and WMA files (less than 40 seconds each) to the phone via the Zune PC software only. EAS (Exchange ActiveSync) type email accounts can now search the server for email, something that was sorely missed in v1. (Especially since it would seem to be searching but then never find any results.) The voice capabilities have been significantly enhanced in this release, and I've only touched the surface of that: You can do a lot more in hands-free mode than before. I've noted but not tested LinkedIn integration (I just don't use that service).

When you check-in or make a post, you can choose which social networks will receive it, so be careful about that: I've posted a few Facebook-bound check-ins to Twitter as well by mistake this summer. Spend time digging around in the camera settings, as there are some useful options like Metering that can make low-light pictures--always an issue with phone-based cameras--surprisingly OK.

App Connect will need more third parties apps before the overwhelming usefulness of this feature becomes obvious. Too, new app support for the enhanced live tiles capabilities will take some time to emerge. There's a downloadable Lync client coming, but it's not really "part" of 7.5, so I don't cover it in this review. Office Mobile includes new, easily accessible templates for Word and Excel Mobile.

I find myself using the web browser less and less on the phone, but IE 9 is truly a desktop-class browser, and I'm sure some young blogger with too much time on his hands will do a Safari/IE 9 comparison and find them comparable: Go ahead, try a few complicated desktop sites on it. Remember that the hardware search button is only for Bing now. So if you're looking for search inside an app, hub, or other experience, look for a new software search button; they're everywhere and the button will resemble a magnifying glass.

Tap and hold is your friend: This is how you right-click in Windows Phone. That said, many options that were previously available only via the tap and hold menu can now be found in app bars, which didn't exist in the hubs found in the original version of Windows Phone.

Next: In the next and final part of this review, I'll look at some late-breaking developments, discuss upcoming Windows Phone 7.5 handsets and when we can expect to see them, and provide an overall summary of this new mobile OS and how it fares against iPhone and Android.

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