First look at Windows Phone 7 Mango impresses

The next major software update for Microsoft Windows Phone 7(s msft), codenamed Mango, is complete. Microsoft handed over the Mango update to its carrier and hardware partners on July 26, although there’s no announced date for when existing WP7 smartphones will see the software. Nor are there any official release dates for new phones that will run on Mango: Yes, I’m looking at you Nokia(s nok).

When I tried the first release of Windows Phone 7 on an HD7 handset last November, I saw a solid platform with plenty of potential. The Mango version of WP7 helps Microsoft handsets reach that potential with a number of improvements. Yesterday, I was able to install the Mango software update on the HD7 I bought a few months ago, and even with just a few hours of hands-on time, I’m impressed. Some general thoughts:

  • The software makes the hardware seem much faster. It’s difficult to quantify, but it feels like the entire user experience is at least twice as fast with the Mango. Tap a tile or an app and it opens much more quickly. Navigation is brisk. It’s as if the old single-core 1 GHz processor in my phone were swapped out with a speedy new dual-core chip; it’s that noticeable.
  • Voice integration is excellent. I can see why Microsoft is banking heavily on the TellMe technology it purchased in 2007. Yes, it’s similar to the speech-to-text I use daily on my Android handset, but it appears far more accurate. A tap and hold of the home button starts the listen process; you can open apps, create and send text messages, or place phone calls. I can’t underscore this point enough though: The accuracy is scary-good.
  • Multitasking is smart (and welcome). One of my biggest beefs with Windows Phone 7 was app navigation. Every switch from app to app required going back to the home screen, which quickly got old for me. But Mango’s multitasking solves that problem in two ways. Holding the phone’s back button shows all running apps as small windows, similar to the cards in HP’s webOS, for example. You can swipe through the running apps. Tap one, and the app will resume where it left off prior. Or you can simply tap the back button to go back one app at a time.
  • The browser, and touch experience in it, rivals that of iOS. Microsoft included a version of IE9 in Mango and it makes the browser better. I say that and I actually liked the original browser in WP7. It renders quickly and is fast to switch orientation when turning the phone from portrait to landscape, or vice versa. Double-tap zooming is effectiv,e and although few will believe this (until they see it for themselves), pinch-and-zoom is lightning fast. Dare I say it? It’s faster than iOS(s aapl) fast. Microsoft says it improved HTML5 support as well, but I haven’t done any specific tests for that yet.
  • Other odds and ends. I’m just scratching the surface because I’m finding new bits in Mango all around. There’s a way to link or unify inboxes, for example, and threaded email conversations are supported. There’s a task manager for those that want or need it. Facebook notifications are appearing on the tile that represents me. I suspect I’ll find many more of these small value-ad features as I continue to use Mango.

Obviously, I’m not providing an extensive review of Mango just yet; I haven’t used it long enough. After just a few hours of use, I like what I see, because Microsoft has made substantial improvements to its mobile platform. I don’t think I could have used my HD7 as a full-time smartphone before, but now I think I could. That’s very different from when I first heard about Mango, because I wasn’t impressed by the planned improvements.

As impressed as I am now with the Mango update, make no mistake: Microsoft still has a long, tough road ahead of it against iOS or Android(s goog). The same goes for Nokia, which ditched its own mobile platforms in favor of using Windows Phone 7 going forward. Well-designed, capable hardware combined with the Mango edition of Windows Phone 7 is a start for sure. With it, Microsoft could become solidly entrenched as the no. 3 mobile platform, but there’s no guarantee yet.