Windows Phone 7.5 Subtleties

Windows Phone 7.5I’m a little behind the curve here.  I could have updated my phone with a developer preview a while ago but decided that keeping my primary phone in a known stable state was more important than getting a shiny new toy no matter how tempting it was.  Besides, I already get enough heat from some half-eaten fruit loving friends about being a Microsoft/Windows Phone fanboy so I really didn’t need to give them any more fodder!

I’ve been following a few blogs and reading about the new features that Mango was bringing to the platform so I thought I was prepared.  I was wrong.

With Mango, WP7 has caught up with Android and iOS in nearly every way, and in some areas it’s even surpassed the other two in functionality.
— Engadget

Since updating my phone on Tuesday evening I’ve hardly spent a free moment away from it and I’m still finding new things.  The major features like IE 9, twitter integration, message threading, Bing Scout, Bing Vision, and expanded voice capabilities are all welcome additions and well worth the hype they’ve received.  They’ve also all been covered extensively elsewhere.  What I want to highlight here are the little tweaks that I’ve noticed but (understandably) didn’t get the same amount of fanfare.

There are so many subtle changes that don’t amount for much on their own but when taken as a whole they really enhance and in some cases even redefine the user experience.  So, without further ado, let’s dive in and look at some of those features that have breathed new life into Windows Phone.

Messaging

The messaging system was an area that got a ton of media attention but it was all focused around voice texting and threading across SMS, Facebook chat, and Messenger.  As awesome as those features are there I noticed two other things that I immediately.

The first thing that really stood out was that the conversation colors have been changed.  Prior to 7.5 both sides of the conversation were the same color and I often found myself doing a double-take when glancing at a conversation because the alignment difference wasn’t enough to quickly differentiate who said what.  In 7.5 your side of the conversation is a darker shade of your theme color making it really easy to distinguish.

The second thing I noticed is that the emoticon images have been updated.  The old ones were fine but the new ones seem to have more character and feel like they belong in the OS.

People Tile & Hub

I admit it. I’m a bit of a social media junkie.  In fact, the very first thing I did with the phone after installing Mango was connect to my Twitter account.  Having all of my social media connected and in one place really simplifies staying up to date and eliminates the app hopping I had to do before.  I’ve already uninstalled Seesmic and even found myself relying less on TweetDeck in favor of the phone.  As great as Twitter support is though, there are a few other things that amplify the overall social media experience even more.

The what’s new list has really been enhanced.  In the initial release there wasn’t a good way to refresh the list short of leaving the hub and re-opening it.  It also wasn’t intuitive how to access the settings since it was buried in a context menu accessed by long pressing on the hub title.  Now there’s an application bar that exposes both refresh and settings.

Gone are the days of having to tap a button at the end of the list to load more posts.  The list is now lazy-loaded and automatically loads new posts when we scroll near the bottom.  I’ve found this feature alone incredibly convenient.

I really like the redesigned comment/reply button in the what’s new list.  The new button is slightly smaller than before but like the emoticons, it just feels more natural.

Finally, the live tile now displays two sizes of photos.  The tile is still divided into a 3×3 grid but instead of restricting the images down to a single cell it also sometimes displays images in a 2×2 space.  It may sound crazy but I think this subtle change adds an extra bit of personality to the tile.

Me Tile & Card

The Me tile and card have been enhanced considerably.  First, the tile now informs you of any activity or mentions on your social media sites.  This tweak really plays well with the glance-and-go focus of the phone.  I’d like to see this extended a bit further with a lock screen icon in the next release but this is definitely a good start.

The live tile isn’t the only place notifications appear.  The Me card now contains a notifications pane that lists all of the updates for what appears to be the last two weeks (though I could be wrong on that time frame).  Tapping any item in the notifications list takes you to the corresponding item regardless of which account it originated from.

Speaking of social media activity, posting a message wasn’t really intuitive before since it required tapping on the last update message in the Me card.  Now there’s a post a message button conveniently located right under your profile picture.

App List

The App List in the initial release was a source of frustration during those rare instances where I actually needed to use it.  Mango resolves the shortcomings by converting the list into a jump list (like contacts) and adding a search feature.  Accessing an app that’s not pinned to the start screen is no longer painful.

Office Hub

The Office Hub got a lot of attention in this release.  It always seemed like the start of a good idea that was never fully realized.  It honestly felt like an afterthought.

Microsoft spent a lot of time talking about SkyDrive integration in the original release but in reality the only thing that utilized it in any meaningful way was photo sharing.  SkyDrive is now useful in Windows Phone 7.5.  You can see the files and folders stored on your SkyDrive and even open any Office documents and images stored out there.

OneNote also got a lot of TLC in this release.  I always found OneNote limiting since I couldn’t get to most of my notes because it didn’t support sections.  I was really happy to find that all of my section groups and sessions are now accessible!

Sections weren’t the only addition OneNote though.  It is now possible to build check lists through a new to do button.  Both Esther and I have already found this useful for things like grocery lists.

Camera and Photos

Being a semi-pro photographer I’m really picky about my photos.  The camera on my Samsung Focus is decent as far as phone cameras go but I’m never satisfied with photos from any phone.

I like to play with settings and routinely “shoot to the left” (EV -1).  I also change the metering setting regularly.  One would think with the number of settings exposed by the camera that it would remember any changes but it didn’t.  The NoDo update started remembering the Anti-Shaking setting but it was far from sufficient.  That is why saving camera settings is one of my most welcomed new features.

I’ve always liked the dedicated camera button but I have my phone in an Incipio case so actually shooting photos required holding the device just right to make sure I could actually press it.  Now we can tap the screen to focus and shoot instead.  The auto-focus might still be a tad slow but tap to shoot is a great improvement.  What’s even better though is that there’s now an auto-fix feature that tweaks some exposure settings to adjust the image.  Hopefully in the next release we’ll see some capacity for manual adjustments but I’m not going to hold my breath on that one.

Easy photo sharing has always been part of Windows Phone but it wasn’t without some annoyances.  I typically share photos to Facebook but it was still a 3-tap process and if I wasn’t paying attention the phone would upload the photo before I entered a caption.  Now we can eliminate a tap by selecting a quick share account.  Sharing has been revamped and the phone won’t do anything until the upload button is tapped.  The phone will also detect faces for tagging prior to uploading.

One last thing I noticed here is that both the Pictures Live Tile and Pictures Hub backgrounds change more frequently.  The frequency increase really makes the phone feel more dynamic.

Phone

I hate to admit it but I actually need to use my phone as a phone from time to time.  Shocking, isn’t it?  I’ve noticed a few UI tweaks both answering the phone and while a call is in progress.

Not that it was particularly difficult before (it wasn’t) but taking or ignoring calls is easier in 7.5.  The only reason I say this is that the answer and ignore buttons are bigger.  This is another case where a few pixels have a huge impact.

Doing other things during a call was dramatically improved.  Prior to 7.5 the call options buttons (hold, speaker, etc…) were buried in a collapsed panel.  In Mango the call options buttons are always shown when a call is in progress.  This change eliminates any fumbling with trying to tap the small expand button right next to the end call button.

Lock Screen

The lock screen is a necessary evil.  I have my phone connected to my company’s Exchange server and, like many companies, part of the security policy is that the phone must be passcode protected.  Prior to the upgrade the phone required entering the passcode every time the phone was unlocked, even if it had just been locked.

Windows Phone 7.5 allows delaying passcode reentry after the phone is locked.  This was a feature I really missed when I moved to Windows Phone from iOS so I’m really happy that Microsoft finally worked it in.

Audio Controls

The last two changes I want to highlight are among the most noticeable since they can be accessed from anywhere in the phone.

One of the first things I noticed after the upgrade was that the volume meter is now text based rather than graphical.  Instead of a tiny graph the volume is now shown as large numbers for the current volume setting and small numbers for the maximum.  With the new meter there’s no question about what the level actually is.

On a related note the audio playback controls have roughly doubled in size.  The increased footprint for the buttons makes it significantly harder to hit the wrong button.  I also think they look better too.

Bottom Line

I’ve been happy with my phone since I bought it last October but it certainly wasn’t without its flaws.  Windows Phone 7.5 brings 500 new features to the table and I’ve hardly scratched the surface in this post.  Of course there’s still room for improvement but this update is a massive step in the right direction.  I just hope that it’s enough to start getting the platform the respect that it deserves.

Have you installed the update or purchased a new Mango device?  If so, which new features are you finding most useful?

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