Hands on: Windows Mobile 6.5 review

Coming to a Windows Phone near you

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While many businesses are still addicted to Windows Mobile for logistical reasons, Microsoft keeps saying it'd love to get its phone OS into the hands of more consumers.

Trouble is, Windows Mobile has been rubbish for ease of use and Microsoft simply hasn't practised what it has strived to preach. The advent of the iPhone OS and Palm Pre WebOS has only compounded Microsoft's problems as it has struggled to keep up.

The interface of Windows Mobile 6.0 was sluggish and so poor that many handset manufacturers such as HTC and Toshiba have overlaid it with their own bespoke software - changing the cosmetic appearance of the OS for the better.

And so we've now got a new version – the Windows Mobile 6.5 UK release date is 6 October. What's more it comes with a new brand – Windows Phone. Microsoft hopes people will talk about Windows Phone as a platform, just like they talk about BlackBerry or iPhone.

We grabbed a few minutes with a HTC Touch Pro2 running Windows Mobile 6.5 to check it out and give our initial verdict.

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Announced in February, 6.5 has been a long while in gestation. In fact, infuriatingly long. It seems strange since all the signs point to the announcement of an all-new Windows Mobile – version 7 – at Mobile World Congress in February, only a few months hence.

When 6.5 was announced we had expected it to debut in the summer, but Microsoft decided to wait. The rebranding as Windows Phone is because Microsoft believes most people don't know what OS their handset uses, but would plump for a Windows-powered device because it's a name they know.

In Europe, operators Orange, Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone plus phone manufacturers Acer, HTC, LG, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and Toshiba will have Windows Phones at launch.

So what is Windows Mobile 6.5 like to use? Initially, the interface feels a lot slicker than before. The honeycomb home screen is nicer, while (and this depends a lot on the hardware obviously) it was more iPhone-like to flick up and down the apps you have available.

The icons themselves also look far better and Microsoft has really tried with the look and feel – and it's worked - here's Windows Media Player, for example.

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Indeed, the improved interface echoes the Zune menu system – no surprise as both Zune and Windows Phone inhabit the same business unit at Microsoft.

However, the new parts of the interface remain paper over cracks – the old-style Windows Mobile dialog boxes and interface is still present behind everything, it's just buried a bit deeper than before.

The lock screen has been improved a great deal, with notifications of missed calls, answer phone messages and new texts as well as direct access to these services with an unlock-swipe of the finger.

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A completely overhauled and now Zune-esque Today screen shows any currently active item as you scroll through. Here there's a song playing, but you can also see things like the number of emails in your inbox.

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A new app store feature - called Windows Marketplace for Mobile - gives access to a variety of applications for direct download – previous Windows Mobile apps have always needed installation by other means.

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Unfortunately we weren't able to test this or the Windows Live services. Marketplace will apparently also have an easy-return policy.

Another new service, called Microsoft My Phone, is a MobileMe-style service to back up and remotely wipe your handset should you lose it. You can also access your information on the web as well as edit it.
While a certain amount of storage will be free – 200MB – more storage is available on a subscription basis like the Apple service.

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Internet Explorer Mobile has also been completely redesigned with a new engine, more touch friendly interface and built-in Adobe Flash Lite support to appease those who miss Flash on other handsets.

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We'll reserve judgement on Windows Mobile 6.5 until it actually hits the streets, but we have to say we still found the experience a bit of a trial. Some things ran very slow, while the deference to old-style Windows Mobile when you delve deeper in the OS means the experience is never going to seem revolutionary.

While 6.5 is a good update, only a complete rewrite can really convince us that Windows has a rightful place on a mobile handset. Let's hope Windows Mobile 7 can truly deliver. If it can't, Microsoft may find itself too far behind the game to catch up.

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