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Earlier today, Microsoft unveiled the latest version of its mobile phone operating system, Windows Phone. Arriving in Autumn this year, the new update code named Windows Phone 7 Mango will bring with it over 500 new features, including all essential multi-tasking. We were at the press conference in London to get a closer look at what the new update will offer, so here are our initial thoughts.
We were shown the software running on an unnamed Asus-built demo handset but obviously Microsoft's big partner for the future is Nokia and indeed the company confirmed it will have handsets available for this launch, but you'll also see new handsets from existing partners including Samsung, HTC and LG as well as new partners Acer, Fujitsu and ZTE. More importantly, though, the update will be available to all existing handsets for free. This is exactly where the company's decision to lock down the software – preventing handset manufacturers from meddling with the interface – really pays off. With no custom interfaces, like you get on Android, the update is guaranteed to work. We'll gloss over the fact it will have taken over a year for this significant update to have arrived though.
What's most obvious about this new update, is that not much appears on the surface to have changed. The homescreen is still filled with Live Tiles, while a lot of the interface is still built around the idea of being able to access different modes of an app by swiping left and right. Open the People Hub, for instance, and you're presented with a list of your contacts but swipe left or right and you'll see social network updates from your friends or their latest pictures.
The trick is that this same design ethic is encouraged to be used in 3rd party apps, so you get a consistent look and feel. The result is an OS that feels very different to most of the competition yet feels consistent within itself. Not that this is all good. There are definitely still quirks to the interface, like the main menu still being one big long list of apps that will get very long and unwieldy once you've downloaded lots of apps, but they're more things you'd simply have to get used to than constantly get frustrated with long term.
Performance is also impressive. We don't know what hardware the demo handset was packing but it felt fast. Windows Phone always was a slick and snappy OS but with no multi-tasking and a number of other omissions in the original release, there was always a doubt as to whether that performance would be maintained when it had as many features as Android or iOS. From our brief time with the devices, though, we can confirm that it most certainly can.
Jumping into some of the new features, the People Hub is home to many of the most significant changes. The first is Groups. This allows you to define groups within your contacts for quickly exchanging messages with large numbers of people. The idea is that if you regularly find yourself spamming your football team buddies, work colleagues or family you no longer need to scrap around double checking you haven't missed anyone off your CC list. It works a treat with the groups being easy to setup and you can also place Live Tile links to them on the homepage, which will show messages on the tile as they come in.
The service also integrates with Threads, which brings together SMS, IM and Facebook chat into one message stream, allowing you to seamlessly switch from one service to the next, if it's more convenient. The service will monitor your contacts so it should always know which is the best way to get hold of someone. Frankly, this is the way communication is going and it can't happen fast enough, so we're glad to see Microsoft leading the charge with such a slick implementation.
Also new to the general category of contacts and socialising is the ability to add in linkedin and twitter to the People Hub, pulling information and messages from those services into your contacts' profiles. Pictures can also now be shown – simply swipe left or right from your contact's profile and it will show their pictures.