It powers a plethora of devices from all the major manufacturers, including HTC, Motorola, Palm, Pantech, and Samsung, and it has gained considerable momentum with both business customers (because of its seamless integration with Outlook and Exchange) and consumers (because of plunging prices and sleeker designs). But while Windows Mobile added some neat features last time around, such as improved calendar views and the ability to search e-mail, for many the OS was still too difficult to navigate.
It's no coincidence that some of the more innovative Windows Mobile phones have been built on top of Microsoft's software, such as the HTC Shadow with its revamped Today screen. The good news is that Windows Mobile 6.1 fixes a lot of user-interface issues, and the enhancements to Office Mobile, Internet Explorer, Live Search, SMS messaging, and more make it our favorite version of Windows Mobile yet.
Like itspredecessor, Windows Mobile 6.1 will be available in both a Standard version and a touchscreen Professional version, and the support for Office documents remains mostly the same. The Standard edition limits you to reading and making some edits on Office documents while the Professional version lets you create new documents.
However, the Standard edition now supports Office 2007 documents and has built-in OneNote mobile software for creating quick notes on the fly. Microsoft told us pricing will be up to manufacturers, but in the past, mobile operators have released version updates for free, and that will be an option this time, too. We tested Windows Mobile 6.1 using a device powered by a 201-MHz TI OMAP 850 CPU with 64MB of RAM, 128MB of flash memory, and a 320 x 240-pixel display.
Revamped Today Screen: Instant Access to the Stuff You Want
Click to enlargeThe most noticeable change in Windows Mobile 6.1 is the new and refreshing home screen. While icons for new messages, network signals, current profile, and battery life are still in the upper right-hand corner, menu icons below them are arranged vertically, in contrast to the horizontal alignment in WM6. A bubble known as a "sliding panel" highlights and magnifies selections as you scroll up and down the screen.
At the top of the screen's list is a large clock and the date, perfect for checking the time at a glance. Next to it are a host of messaging options that you select by pressing left or right on your handset's directional pad: e-mail accounts, SMS messages, voicemail, Hotmail, Windows Live, and missed call reports. When the messaging area isn't selected, you can view the number of missed messages at a glance. Next to each missed call, text, or e-mail icon is a number that represents the number of messages waiting.
Below the messaging menu is an organizer that defaults to daily appointments; you can create new ones here as well. We tried to default to a monthly calendar view when selecting appointments but encountered a bug that always dropped us off in the daily view. Another menu item lets you view a host of Windows Live services such as Windows Live Messenger contacts. Unfortunately, Microsoft still hasn't added native support for other commonly used services such as AIM or Yahoo Messenger.
The Getting Started tab is perfect for helping new users set up e-mail, security settings, or even the clock. It can be turned off once you've mastered the controls. Our favorite additions to the home screen are the multimedia features. You get an option to play music and view cover art right from the home screen (just like on the HTC Shadow), so you no longer have to open My Documents or Media Player to do so. Photo albums are also displayed, and you can quickly navigate through images by moving left or right on the directional pad. To turn this feature on, you'll need to go into display settings and change to "sliding panel multimedia."
The settings control panel lets you quickly launch the newly improved task manager (it now shows memory and CPU usage and lets you easily end tasks). WM6.1 also features contextual soft keys while cycling through different apps, which eliminates having to dig through menus. For example, while on the home screen and hovering over the e-mail icon, the bottom right key changes from Menu to Compose. Likewise, while visiting the Music area of the start page, the soft keys switch to Go To Playing and View Library.
Messaging Enhancements: Threaded Chat is Good
Click to enlargeWe absolutely love the new streamlined SMS format. Much like on the iPhone and on BlackBerrys, you can now see message threads all in one place. The last message sent is in bold, there's a timestamp next to each, and you're always identified as "Me." You don't have to navigate back to your Inbox or Outbox just to see what message you sent or received last. This also makes deleting lots of SMS messages at once much easier; just delete the conversation and all messages inside are gone.
Location, Location, Location: Live Search Mobile
We appreciate the improved Live Search in WM6.1, but it's far from perfect. Being able to search a map, grab directions, check traffic, and look for movie times on the go is very convenient, and proved useful when we got a sudden craving for hot dogs while walking around Manhattan. However, Live Search only listed two hot-dog joints in Manhattan--and not our favorite spot, which was just a few blocks away. In fact, most of the results were for places in Brooklyn--even some in New Jersey.
Click to enlargeWe also tried using Live Search to look for a sushi spot, knowing there was one across the street. This time around the software still wasn't able to find our spot, but at least it listed 25 other sushi restaurants in Manhattan. When we searched for pizza, Live Search again returned 25 spots, without the option to find more, and only returned one Ray's Pizza. New Yorkers know there are plenty more pizza places named "Ray's."
The map feature was slow to load, but once it did, it was easy to pan around without waiting for refreshes. The traffic feature of Live Search isn't as good as Google Maps, but it shows how fast traffic is moving using the same color-coding scheme: green for moving traffic, yellow for slow, and red for backed up.
E-mail: New Shortcuts and Batch Management
Setting up new e-mail accounts in WM6.1 is much easier than in WM6. Gone are the days of figuring out the proper port settings, thanks to the ability to search for predetermined settings that may be saved online. For example, the phone will automatically download settings for Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo accounts (though Outlook requires a manual setup).
Fortunately, Microsoft kept the ability to search for e-mail the way Smart Dial lets you search for contacts: From your Inbox, simply start typing a name, e-mail subject, or content of an e-mail you're looking for, and the relevant e-mail will be displayed. Batch management is now much easier with the new Select Message feature; you can select all messages, several messages, or all messages below a certain area of your Inbox. You can also mark groups of e-mails as read or unread.
WM6.1 also adds support for copying and pasting within messages, a feature that was not in Windows Mobile 6. Just select Copy or Paste from the menu, and then select the text you want to copy by pressing Select and dragging the cursor. Once you've highlighted your text, click Copy, then create a new message and click Copy/Paste, Done.
Web Browsing: Better Zooming, But Not Blazing
Click to enlargeSurprise, surprise: Internet Explorer is still slow compared with other mobile browsers, but Microsoft has made some changes. For one, it now has an easy zoom function, and pages viewed in full-screen mode look much more complete with the full-rendering capabilities. Also, the same copy-and-paste functionality from the e-mail client is now available in IE. We never experienced an Out of Memory error, either, even though our test phone was about 2 years old.
Our WM6.1 device supported only AT&T's slow EDGE connection and managed average load times of 11 seconds for CNN.com and 21.3 seconds for ESPN.com; though on WM6, CNN took 18 seconds to load. This WM6.1 phone loaded NYTimes.com in about a minute, similar to the duration of an iPhone over the same slow AT&T network.
For now, IE Mobile doesn't support Flash, which means no YouTube videos. The good news is that Microsoft also announced that Flash Lite, H.264, and Silverlight will be supported by the latest version of Internet Explorer, which will arrive to handset manufacturers in the third quarter of 2008. It should also be on store shelves by the end of the year.
Bluetooth: Auto-Pilot Pairing
Another new feature in WM6.1 is the ability to auto-pair with Bluetooth devices. That means the software searches for the default keys for most devices, so you don't have to remember the passcodes; we paired our device with our Plantronics Voyager 855 headset in about 10 seconds. Another great new feature is a soft button which lets you beam your media via Bluetooth to your computer or another Bluetooth device. The Beam option appears whenever you're viewing photos, so you don't have to dig through menus just to send a file. If you'd prefer to upload images to the Web instead of to a computer, you can also send pictures directly to your Windows Live Spaces blog. We'd prefer more options, however, like Flickr or Facebook.
Windows Mobile 6.1 Verdict
Smart phones are not just for business users, but lowering prices alone is not enough to get mainstream consumers interested in your OS. Microsoft seems to finally get that with Windows Mobile 6.1. The software should attract those who thought Windows Mobile was too intimidating and desktop-like before. Multimedia is up front on the home page, and menus and text messages are better organized--all things that casual smart phone consumers have been begging for. Gone are the days of sluggish UI navigation--even on our phone with a 201-MHz processor and a paltry 64MB of RAM.
We highly recommend upgrading your phone to the new OS (if your carrier offers it) or shopping for a WM6.1 phone if you're in the market for a new device. All of the smaller enhancements add up to a big improvement over the previous version. It's not perfect, but this is the first time we can say that Windows Mobile is user friendly.