Windows Mobile users were excited by the upcoming Windows Mobile 6.5, and while we have published an article that outlines the details of Microsoft’s new mobile OS and services just as they were announced, we had yet to test it for ourselves. We had the opportunity to spend about an hour with a Windows 6.5 HTC Touch Diamond 2, which will be the poster child for WM 6.5 when it comes out. So how did Windows Mobile 6.5 fare? Here’s what we got away with. We spent most of our time checking out the new homepage, app launcher, settings and email screens as user interface is arguably the biggest issue in today’s Windows Mobile phones. Note that the graphics drivers were not finalized, so graphics hardware acceleration was not operational. Microsoft assured us that the final products will have much smoother scrolling
As we suspected, the Windows Mobile 6.5 interface is a huge improvement over the 6.1 version: the phone can now be operated comfortably with the fingers and without the stylus. Everything from the icons to the keyboard has been updated. The last hard to click thing that stays is the apps “close” button – but if your phone has a totally flat surface, it’s “ok”. One-handed operation is also quite easy, especially when zooming. Pinch and zoom is one of these things that are just really hard to do with one hand, if that’s possible at all.
The HTC Touch Diamond 2 has a “zoom” tactile surface just beneath the display (The Nokia 6170 Navigator has something like that too) and we think that this is going to become a popular alternative to pinch and zoom – which is now heavily defended by Apple in the court (ask Palm). We went deeper into the menus to see if there was any trace of Windows Mobile 6.1, but so far, we have come up empty.
Throughout Windows Mobile 6.5 there’s information that is accessible without requiring launching an app (lock screen, home screen). The Home Screen, which has been designed in a similar fashion to Windows Media Center is interesting as you can swipe up/down to choose different “topics” (email, calendar…) and swipe left/right to see the next item in this category. Usually the next meeting or the last email are just one swipe away. Not bad at all.
The Lock screen also has a similar capability and lets you check on alerts without actually unlocking the device. That’s cool, as I found out that I do a lot of that on my phone (a Blackberry 8320).
The “Start” menu got the most dramatic change. Say goodbye to the cramped menu-style UI that is as unfriendly to fingers as it could be. Say hello to the new honeycomb-shaped tiles. This is obviously much better and leaves ample room for the finger to swipe without actually clicking on something. It’s elegant, although we wondered if there wasn’t too much empty space. It might be nice to have the Honeycomb radius be tweakable. You can move icons around and put your most accessed shortcuts at the top of the screen. All in all, we liked it.
Email and Calendar have also been made to be more finger friendly, not only because items are bigger in general, but also because you can use the left/right swipe to go to the previous/next item or account. The Contacts got the same treatment and coming from Windows 6.1, this is a dramatic change. Even the default keyboard is much better and that was long overdue, we think that virtually every Microsoft partner have used a custom keyboard for at least the past 18 months. We’re not sure why this had not happened Windows 6.1 Pro, but the change is most welcome.
That’s what we could extract from one hour with Windows Mobile 6.5 (we did chat with Microsoft at the same time, so this not a full hour of hardcore testing). Our first impression is that Microsoft has come a long way. It does not mean that 6.5 will fulfill every desire, it won’t and there’s more room for improvements, but we think that it is a hell of the lot better than the BlackBerry Storm (from a user interface perspective). Now, Microsoft has to execute: we don’t know how “reactive” the final products will be. There’s nothing more frustrating than a phone that does not immediately react to a user input – and that has certainly be a problem for Windows Mobile in the past. Secondly, we will need to test a device in “the real world” for a few weeks to see if all the theoretical improvements really translate into value on a daily basis or if it was just eye-candy. For now, it’s very promising so, don’t count Microsoft out just yet. Microsoft thinks that Windows Mobile is going from a being “Features-driven” OS to an “Experience” driven OS… we hope it’s true because it’s a do or die mission.