Windows Vista isn't the only operating system making its debut this year, as Microsoft also revamped its OS for mobile devices and formally introduced Windows Mobile 6 at 3GSM World Congress. Taking the reins from Windows Mobile 5, Windows Mobile 6 isn't a complete overhaul of the OS; instead, it offers a number of useful enhancements that makes performing tasks easier and puts more powerful tools into the hands of mobile professionals. We were particularly impressed with the new e-mail search function, Mobile Office additions, and Windows Live integration, but we think Microsoft could have done a lot more. For example, multimedia improvements are practically nonexistent and the user interface is still kludgey, requiring numerous steps to complete a simple task. Also, some of the enhanced functionality to Outlook and calendaring require that you use Exchange Server 2007. Despite these flaws, the new improvements make Windows Mobile 6 worth the upgrade.
The best news, of course, is that new OS means there will be a number of new devices coming out. There will be three editions again, but they've been renamed as Classic (formerly known as Pocket PC Edition), Standard (Smartphone Edition), and Professional (Pocket PC Phone Edition), so you can look forward to a variety of form factors. For Windows Mobile 5 users, Microsoft said it will be up to carriers and device manufacturers whether they will offer upgrades.
For our review, we checked out Windows Mobile 6 Standard Edition using the HP iPaq 510 Voice Messenger, though we will continue to evaluate the OS and its variations as more devices start to arrive on the scene.
Windows Mobile 5 users won't be in for any major surprises when they see Windows Mobile 6, as the interface largely remains the same as before. Windows Mobile 6 does have more of a Vista look with its similar colour scheme and bubbly, eye-pleasing icons. Along the top of the Today screen, you still get shortcuts to your most recently used apps, but the icons are slightly larger. Below that, you'll find such important information as time, date, upcoming appointments, messages, and so forth. Of course, you can customise the background image, colour scheme and backlight time.
One of the biggest complaints about Windows Mobile devices, especially when compared to Palm, is the number of steps it takes to perform a simple task, such as closing out of a program. This is still pretty much true of Windows Mobile 6, but Microsoft has taken some steps to ease the pain. For example, the company has added nine new e-mail shortcuts so you can easily reply, delete, move messages, and more. While this is a step in the right direction, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
Window Mobile 6 really doesn't offer any mind-blowing new features, but rather, it includes some nice refinements that make the devices easier to use as well as act more like your PC. However, we should warn you that a number of the enhanced PIM capabilities require Exchange Server 2007, so unfortunately, if you or your company have no plans to upgrade, you're left in the cold. We'll note such exceptions as we go through the features.
Contacts and Calendar
Starting with some of the basics, call history is now sorted to the appropriate contact page. Though you may think this isn't a big deal, it's actually quite convenient as you can easily see when you received and made calls to that specific person, the time of the call, the duration, and so forth. Also, the new OS provides a quick Send Text Message shortcut, so you can be on your way to text message heaven with just one click, rather than having to go through several steps.
The Calendar app is also more user friendly, as the upgrade provides a better view of your schedule at a glance. First, there's a new Calendar Ribbon that lines the top of the screen and shows you which times you are free and which are booked. In addition, you get a week view, and while it gives you a good overview of your schedule -- complete with coloured blocks for appointments -- you can also get details of the event, such as meeting location, right along the bottom of your screen so you don't have to open each one. The calendaring capabilities are also more robust if you are using Exchange Server 2007. With that integration, you have the ability to not only see who is attending a meeting, but you can forward and reply to meeting requests as well. While we couldn't test this feature, we got a working demo, and we can see how it would really come in handy for the mobile professional, bringing more of that PC experience to your smart phone.
E-mail is a lot smarter on Windows Mobile 6. First, all devices will ship with Microsoft's Direct Push technology so you get real-time e-mail delivery and automatic synchronisation with your Outlook calendar, tasks, and contacts via Exchange Server. Microsoft has also added nine new one-click shortcuts, as we noted above; plus, you get more of the true Outlook experience as your In-box view shows messages that are flagged, marked as high importance, and so forth. Once again, with Exchange Server 2007, you can do even more with Outlook Mobile, such as set up an Out of Office reply.
Searching for e-mails is no longer an unpleasant task, thanks to a new search function. Similar to the Smart Dial feature on Windows Mobile 5 devices, where you input a couple of letters to pull up associated contact, you can simply start typing in a word while in your Inbox, and it will automatically pull up messages with that term in the subject or contact field. It worked great for us, and it's truly a timesaver.
There is, of course, continued support for POP3 and IMAP accounts, but now you can also view e-mails in their original HTML format, regardless of account type. If there happens to be a hyperlink within a message, you can select to go to that page or if a phone number is listed, you can dial out directly from that message as well.
Windows Live for Mobile and Web browsing
If you have a Hotmail/Windows Live e-mail account, you can easily access those messages with Windows Live for Mobile. It's a simple matter of inputting your user ID and password, then you can choose to synchronise your e-mail and contacts, which integrates nicely into your phone's address book. As far as instant messenger, you get Live Messenger (formerly MSN Messenger), which boasts some improvements in its own right. Now, you can have multiperson chats and send images and voice clips via IM. While we appreciate these new capabilities, we're disappointed that there's not a more universal app included that supports other popular IM clients such as Yahoo.
Another aspect of Windows Live for Mobile is the Live Search, giving you a quick and easy way to search the Web. When you first access Windows Live, you are given the option of adding a Live Search bar, as well as Windows Live services, to the Today screen, and we recommend doing so. It's truly handy just to turn on your phone, enter a search term in the field, press OK, and instantly get results. The Live Search bar is also now part of the Internet Explorer Mobile home page, as well as new expandable Favorites and History menus.
Finally, there is also a new Internet Sharing utility, courtesy of Windows Mobile 6, that allows you to easily set up your phone as a wireless modem for your laptop via Bluetooth, or you can use a USB connection as well.
Work and play
The big news here is that Windows Mobile 6 Standard Edition (formerly Smartphone Edition) now has the full Microsoft Office Mobile Suite. Whereas Windows Mobile 5 smart phones typically came installed with the Picsel Viewer Suite for opening and viewing Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, Windows Mobile 6 brings the real deal so you can not only see said files but also edit them. We should note, however, that the editing capabilities are pretty light. In Word, you're pretty much restricted to adding and deleting text and formatting type (such as bold, italic, underline, and highlight); while in Excel, you can insert rows and columns, sort, perform basic functions, and so forth. PowerPoint remains pretty much view-only, although you can change playback options. For now, you can't create new documents on Standard Edition devices. It is possible with OneNote 2007, but this isn't part of the standard Windows Mobile 6 package, so you'll have to shell out US$79.95 for the app. That said, we were able to transfer all three document types using a beta version of ActiveSync 4.5 and had no problems viewing or editing them. Admittedly, trying to edit manuscripts and spreadsheets without a touch screen and a QWERTY keyboard was a bit challenging on the HP iPaq 510.
Sadly, there were no notable improvements to Windows Media Player Mobile.
Service and support
Microsoft has maintained an informative and helpful support site for Windows Mobile 5 users; we hope and suspect that this will continue with Windows Mobile 6 as more devices become available. As it stands now, you can search through a number of help and how-to articles to get you through the basics, such as setting up your device, then delve into more advanced capabilities. As we noted in the beginning, it'll be up to carriers and device manufacturers to determine if they will offer Windows Mobile 6 upgrades.