Windows Phone 7 has received rave reviews since its launch last October, and now represents a real - if belated - challenge to the reign of Android and Apple's iOS.

The clean menu design, integration with your online life and array of decent hardware mean that Microsoft smartphones are a real proposition for the first time. Gone are the shoddy handsets crippled by cost-cutting measures. The new wave of phones are strictly controlled and monitored by Microsoft to make sure they deliver the right experience.

What's more, Redmond has done its homework on the software, which is now adept at pulling in your contacts and social media, and putting it at your fingertips.

If you haven't been keeping tabs on the Windows Phone 7 market, then here's a quick recap for you.

As it did with the Android mobile OS, HTC kicked things off with a range of fantastic Windows Phone 7 handsets. The Taiwanese telecom giant has released four handsets in the UK: the HTC 7 Mozart, HTC 7 Trophy, HTC 7 Pro and its flagship product, the HTC HD7, which offers a 4.3-inch screen with a high-definition 720p resolution.

LG has come to market with the Optimus 7 and Samsung has launched the Omnia 7, a touchscreen device with a 4-inch super AMOLED display and five-megapixel camera.

If you've decided to take the leap and back the latest horse in the race for smartphone perfection, you'll be surprised what it can do.

The first five minutes

If you're putting an existing SIM card into an unbranded WP7 handset, you'll run into the first of the operating system's shortcomings. While the handset will recognise the SIM for calls and text messages, you won't get a connection for data, Internet Explorer won't return any web pages and the app store won't connect.

To fix this, you need to find your APN settings and input them into the phone. You'll find these online, so just search for '[your network] APN' to get the address, username and password relevant to your operator. Then go to 'Settings | Mobile network| Edit APN' to input the details, and your data connection should start working automatically.

APN

Once your APN settings are completed, you can start enjoying the benefits of having data at your fingertips. The Windows Phone 7 ecosystem mostly revolves around Windows Live. You probably already have an account, but if not you can sign up at www.live.com.

This compatibility means you can share information with other Microsoft services like Windows Live Messenger, and import contacts automatically. You'll be prompted to enter a Windows Live ID when you first turn on your handset, or you can enter one by going to 'Settings | Email and accounts | Windows Live'.

If you don't want a Windows Live ID, you can still have your information on the front screen of your phone. In the same menu, choose 'Add account' to enter your details for Facebook, Gmail or Sky. The handset will then scour your contacts from these services and start populating the 'People' folder on your start screen.

This is a social networking pool, which makes it easy to follow your friends from a central location rather than having to check individual websites, and helping you get in touch with them easily.

Customise the look

Once you have all your essential information set up, you can start customising the look and feel of your phone. Microsoft hasn't afforded users a huge level of customisation here, but you can still make the software feel a little more personal.

Themes

Go to 'Settings | Theme', then choose a background and the colour of the buttons on your front page to ensure the blocks on the start screen stand out. Next, go back to 'Settings' and choose 'Lock and wallpaper'.

The 'Change Wallpaper' option enables you to select a picture for the unlock screen on your handset. There's a host of wallpapers to choose from, or you can select a photo you've taken with the phone for that personal touch.

lock wallpaper

Finally, you can customise the 'Pictures' hub background screen and 'Start Screen' icon. Go into the Pictures menu from the 'Start Screen' button, then press and hold on the background.

Pictures

A menu will appear, which gives you the option to change the wallpaper. Again, you can use photos you've taken, which will be resized and displayed on the Start screen.

The Start screen is your focal point for most phone-based activity, and you can change its layout to suit the way you work. Move the standard apps around on the screen by holding your finger on them, then dragging them around before releasing. Alternatively, if you want to simplify your home screen apps, the pin icon at the right of the screen is a one-touch tool for removing unwanted menus and decluttering the screen.

Moving icons

Once your home page apps look the way you want, you can start to add more. Any app you download will be found in the Setting menu, which you can access with a quick swipe to the left. Holding your finger down on an app will display an option to pin it to your Start screen. You can do this with websites as well.

When viewing a site, hit the three buttons in the right corner and choose 'Pin to Start' to attach a thumbnail on your phone's menu.

Web pinning

Microsoft hasn't bundled many apps with Windows Phone 7, but it's easy to download more. One of these is Google Search, which means you can access the search engine quickly from your front page if you don't like being forced to use the 'Bing' button on your handset. (This button can't be customised and Microsoft doesn't look like changing its mind any time soon.)

While you're in the store, consider grabbing the Facebook app, as well as YouTube and Adobe Reader to increase your phone's functionality.

Unlike other mobile platforms, it's not just apps that live on the Start screen - you can add your regular contacts there as well. Not only does this provide a fast way of calling them, it also means that you can email or send them Facebook messages in moments.

Easy access to your contacts is a focal point of Windows Phone 7 - you can even update your contacts list with your friends on Facebook. However, if, like us, your Facebook account is a dumping ground for old school friends and people you don't know very well, this is a terrible idea - but there is a way around this.

Go to 'Settings | Applications | People' and then choose 'Show all my Facebook friends' in your contacts or 'Only add Facebook information to existing contacts'. This option will take all of the useful information it can find on Facebook, adding extra details about the people you actually call and ignoring the rest.

Better browsing

The default browser in Windows Phone7 is Internet Explorer, which may seem like a basic tool. However, on closer inspection, it has some great features that give Windows Phone 7 a reputation for excellent web handling.

Desktop sites

When you're browsing the web on your phone, many (such as BBC News and Guardian Online) will default to the mobile version, which is great when you're on the move. When you're using Wi-Fi however, you can easily change to the full version of the site. Just press the three buttons on the bottom right corner and tap 'Settings'.

Browsing

The screen will change and you'll see options for 'Desktop' and 'Mobile'. Pick the display option you want and then tap the 'Back' button to see the correct version.

Desktop browsing isn't the only trick that Internet Explorer has up its sleeve. When you turn your Windows Phone 7 handset sideways, the landscape view of the browser hides the address bar and menu toolbar to give you more space to read the page.

When Windows Phone 7 was released, Internet Explorer was the only option for web browsing. However, the release of Browser+ added spice to the mobile internet experience. Browser+ adds better tabs to Windows Phone 7, plus a handy private browsing mode.

Windows Phone 7 has built-in speech recognition, which can be a useful tool for navigation. To access the voice controls, hold down the Windows icon on the front of the phone and wait for a beep.

You can use various words to control the phone, such as 'Open' to access apps and features, 'Call' for starting a voice call with a contact, and 'Find' followed by a term to start a search. Using these in public might make you look a bit odd, but they help you skip several menu screens.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 304

Liked this? Then check out 25 Windows Phone 7 tips and tricks

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