Thoughts On Windows Phone Mango On The HTC HD7

HTC_HD7_from_T-MobileWhen Nokia announced that it was going to partner with Microsoft and start using Windows Phone as the smartphone platform of choice (at least in the U.S.), I was floored, but I also knew that if Nokia was so confident in this platform, then I needed to get a Windows Phone device and start checking it out.

I promptly picked up an HTC HD7 on T-Mobile, and tried to use it as my primary phone. Coming from Android (and even Symbian), Windows Phone initially seems almost like a dumbphone OS. In ‘NoDo’, the release that was available at the time, there was no multitasking to speak of, approximately 4 apps worth downloading, and a completely new way to look at the phone’s homescreen.

Not long after, Microsoft announced that the next version of Windows Phone (and likely the first version that Nokia would be using) would be called ‘Mango’, and it has over 500 new features and a host of bug fixes. That’s not a small update, and I was immediately intrigued. Fortunately, HTC is well-known in the ‘hacker’ space (it’s not *really* hacking, but that’s what they call it. It’s more like…..tinkering), and they tend to release phones that are easily tinkered with. The HD7 is no exception.

There have, at this time, been three ‘Mango’ releases – two betas, for developers who are building applications, and one ‘RTM’, which is the version that’s been released to the manufacturers (hence the acronym). RTM is essentially final shipping status, for all intents and purposes. I’ve now been running Mango (in one form or another) for a few months, and I find myself coming back to the HD7 quite frequently, for a few reasons:

1. Windows Phone is freakin gorgeous. It’s easily one of the most aesthetically pleasing mobile operating systems out there, rivaling HP’s webOS in beauty. This is interesting because it’s really not very graphical, instead relying on beautiful typefaces and interesting fonts to really make itself stand out. It’s incredible, and it kind of sneaks up on you.

2. It syncs with nearly everything out of the box, and it does so really well. I really only need four accounts on my mobile device – Google, Exchange (for work), Facebook, and Twitter. Everything else is icing. Windows Phone handles all of these like a champ – especially the Exchange and Google support – it’s top notch, and more importantly, can sync both of them at the same time (Symbian cannot do this – not even in the upcoming Anna release). Repeat after me: I SHOULD NOT NEED TO CONNECT MY SMARTPHONE TO MY COMPUTER IN ORDER TO USE IT.

3. The Live Tiles are pretty sweet – so the main idea with the live tiles of Windows Phone is that you unlock your screen and can quickly glance at your phone to see all the important details. It even puts your next calendar appointment on the lockscreen, so you may not even need to unlock it. It’s brilliant and really works well – assuming the apps have a ‘live’ tile. Most don’t, and that’s a big problem. My only complaint here would be the ability to disable the calendar on the lockscreen, or have different settings for weekend/work week. It’s depressing on a Saturday to turn the display on and be reminded I have a big meeting on Monday morning.

4. The System-wide speech features are awesome. Speech-to-text, being able to talk to your phone and have it do things, works brilliantly. Text-to-speech, having your phone read stuff to you, is also great. If you get a Mango handset, connect a Bluetooth headset and have someone give you a call or send you an SMS. It’s just plain awesome, and most importantly – easy to use.

So, what still sucks in Mango?

1. Notifications – my HD7 has a small (super tiny) LED that flashes when I have a notification, but that’s it. Sure, I can have the phone vibrate and make noise, but to my knowledge, notifications are not allowed to wake the screen – that’s REALLY annoying. Notifications can wake the screen, and appear at the top of the screen (they’re called ‘toast’ notifications), but there’s no persistent indication (other than the live tiles) that there was a notification. If my phone was in my pocket, I’d totally miss them.

2. Customisations – you can change the ‘wallpaper’, but that’s only the photo that shows on the lockscreen. Your actual phone’s background can only be two colors – white or black. That’s it. You can, thankfully, change the colors of the live tiles and most app icons (depending on how the developer set it up). Unfortunately, you’re stuck with about 8 preset colors, and they’re the most drab versions of those colors that you could possibly have imagined. I was hoping that Mango would bring forth a way to choose *any* color (either via a color wheel or even better, letting me use the phone’s camera to ‘scan’ a color). Unfortunately, that’s not the case. I can ‘hack’ my phone and tweak some registry settings, but it’s surprisingly difficult to unlock your phone to allow this, and the registry *definitely* isn’t the kind of place you should be poking around. Not having custom accent colors is most certainly a missed opportunity in Mango.

3. Twitter notifications – The official Mango release includes Twitter support baked right into the ‘People’ hub (basically the contacts app). Like HTC’s Sense UI Twitter integration, it’s great if you follow less than ~100 people. I follow 500+, and it’s a nightmare to deal with. Plus, it doesn’t notify you of new mentions or direct messages, which means it’s basically useless. There is a ‘Me’ live tile that I had previously removed (seems superficial to have a ‘Me’ tile) that DOES indeed notify you of new @mentions, DMs, and even Facebook notifications (if you have that service activated, too) The official Twitter app also doesn’t support notifications, nor does it have a live tile (though I’m told by the dev team that they’re working on that). Seesmic has a Windows Phone app, and it also doesn’t support notifications or live tiles. I was able to purchase an app, Rowi, that supports both. but for a phone that has Twitter baked right in to not offer notifications and force the user to pay for an app that does just seems messed up.

4. Windows Phone Marketplace – it sucked before, and while the search is improved (it now separates out music from apps), it still sucks. Mainly because it doesn’t tell you if you already have an app installed when you’re browsing. So, if you’re perusing the top free apps, they just all say ‘Free’ – none say ‘Installed’ or ‘You’ve Already Got This One’ or anything. With Mango RTM, they’ve fixed this once you click on the app title to see the app’s main page, but that’s still 2 clicks (one to see it, one to back out). It’s also just not fun to browse.

5. Xbox Live – it’s a start, but none of the games that I bought for my Xbox came with a ‘mobile’ sub-game, and I still can’t really do anything with my avatar on it. Essentially, it’s a gaming-centric messaging service. Yes, you can purchase games for the phone through it, and yes, they have achievements, but as I’ve mentioned before, it would be so epic if I could work on my golf swing on the way to a buddy’s house, where my player on the Xbox would reflect the improvements.

6. Internet Explorer still kinda sucks. Then again, it’s Internet Explorer, so you kind of expect it to. For clarification on this, it sucks mainly because most sites that are ‘optimised’ for mobile have two versions: one optimised for large touchscreens like those on Android and iOS, and one that’s optimised for dumbphones. The WP Internet Explorer build on Mango RTM seems to be recognized as the latter – in fact, I cannot get the iOS-friendly version of Google Reader to show up no matter what URL I point it to. Obviously this isn’t an Internet Explorer issue, but it directly affects the user experience, and negatively.

That being said, the browser is incredibly smooth, relatively quick, and has most of the features you would expect to see (including tabs).

At this point, honestly, it’s a hard choice between the HD7 with Mango and my trusty T-Mobile G2, which has HTC’s Sense 3.0 user interface. The G2 is infinitely more powerful – especially with a hardware keyboard, but the HD7 is just a pleasure to use. The HD7 is also faster, smoother, and gets better battery life.

The thing is, if I could put Mango on my Nokia N8, I’d probably forget about the G2 and the HD7 within a week. In any case, if you think Windows Phone is a DOA platform with no hope, you’ve obviously not used Mango, and let’s face it, you probably won’t. But you’re missing out. Just remember how lame iOS was on the first iPhone…..

UPDATE: updated a few items above on 8/16 thanks to my helpful commenters, and to add clarification.

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