Windows Phone 7.5: Microsoft’s Overachieving Underdog

The new update to this inventive mobile operating system is a real alternative to the iPhone and Android.

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HTC, Nokia

HTC's Radar 4G and Nokia's Lumia 800

The first is that inventive, intuitive user interface. Microsoft calls it Metro. It hasn’t changed a bit from Windows 7.5, and unlike Android, it owes little to the iPhone. Instead, it exudes its own personality. (One idiosyncratic touch I liked: When the battery dies, your phone says goodbye before it shuts down.)

Instead of icons, Metro is built around Tiles–oversized, widget-like blocks that in some cases contain visual or textual information. The Pictures Tile, for instance, shows a photo from your collection, and the Calendar one lists your next appointment. And Tiles don’t just represent apps: You can set one up for a particular person or a group of people, for instance.

Swiping from side to side lets you move between an app’s various screens; holding the Back button now gets you thumbnails of all open apps, allowing you to bop among them. On both the Radar and the Lumia, the experience is fluid and responsive.

Above all else, the Metro interface is simple, with big, easy-to-read fonts and a lack of unneccessary visual fripperies. For single-handed use, it’s just about perfect–you can cradle the handset in your palm and use your thumb to tap and swipe your way around the interface.

(Even if you never buy a Windows Phone, incidentally, you may end up getting acquainted with Metro. Windows 8, due next year, will bring a scaled-up version to laptops and desktop PCs.)

Mango also sports some new voice-control features. They’re nowhere near as clever and futuristic as the Apple 4S’s Siri, but are plenty useful on their own terms. You can speak commands to perform tasks such as making a call or opening an app, and can dictate e-mails and text messages. (Dictation, sadly, isn’t available anywhere you’d normally type on the on-screen keyboard, as it is on Android phones and the iPhone 4S.)

Beyond the winning interface, the operating system’s second defining feature is its bevy of built-in social networking features, an emphasis which Microsoft alludes to in its new tagline, “Put People First.” It goes far beyond the social tools in rival mobile environments, such as the iPhone’s Twitter integration and Ice Cream Sandwich’s support for Google services like Google+ and Picasa. At times, in fact, Windows Phone feels less like an operating system and more like an uncommonly ambitious, wide-ranging app for managing the people in your life.

As in Windows Phone 7, version 7.5 stitches together a master list of your friends, acquaintances and family members, which it calls People. It can now meld together information from your address book, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Windows Live. You can use People to make calls, send text messages and address e-mails, but you can also browse photos, status updates and other items relating to any individual. It’s easy to group together related people, such as high school classmates or poker buddies. And you can Tweet, post Facebook updates and check in without loading up a third-party app.

For the most part, all this works well. Mango did, however, mistakenly conflate my information with that of a Facebook acquaintance of mine who happens to share my name. It assigned his birthday to me and helpfully brings his pals’ comments to my attention–both of which were startling given that he’s a sixteen-year-old boy. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to explain to the operating system that he’s a different Harry McCracken.

(PHOTOS: The First Windows 8 Tablet)

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