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Beauty and the geek: Windows Phone ‘Mango’ vs. Android

Microsoft's mobile OS reboot turns out to be a small update that lacks enterprise security and rich apps but is a cleaner alternative to Google's Android for smartphones

Windows Phone 7.5 “Mango,” Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, draws you in immediately with its simple but sexy interface. It’s very easy to get into messaging — both traditional email and IM and newfangled Twitter and Facebook — and launch widgets to track the weather or see your stocks. The colorful Windows Phone UI makes iOS look a bit dowdy, almost computerlike, and it really shows what a mess the Android Franken-interface is.

Related: Nokia set to unveil Windows Mango phones Wednesday

But in the case of Windows Phone 7.5, the beauty is only skin deep. The OS doesn’t actually offer much. The available apps are highly simplified widgets — there’s nothing of the texture, quality, sophistication, or capability of what iOS or even Android offers. Just compare Office for Windows Phone to Apple’s iWork suite or the Documents to Go suite for Android: Office’s Word has no fonts, no styles, no tables or charts — it’s a glorified note-taking app. Office’s PowerPoint lets you edit just text, not add slides or visual elements, whereas Keynote for iOS could replace PowerPoint on your PC.

And Windows Phone has no place in the enterprise. Although it works with Exchange, it supports very few Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policies — not even the basics any corporation would require, such as on-device encryption and complex passwords.

Microsoft’s “Mango” face-lift targets the aging Android “Gingerbread”

Although Microsoft has billed Windows Phone 7.5 “Mango” as a major update to the shockingly limited original Windows Phone OS released a year ago, it is not a big change. Microsoft has filled in some of the glaring gaps: Copy and paste, for example, was added in the “NoDo” update this past spring. Of the 13 big holes for professional users in Windows Phone 7.0, only three have been addressed in Windows Phone 7.5: Multitasking has been added, you can now thread messages in a conversation, and the OS partially supports HTML5, though it’s still far behind iOS and Android in the last regard.

What’s really new in Windows Phone 7.5 are a handful of widgets, not fundamental capabilities. That accounts for the superficiality of the Windows Phone 7.5 OS; it’s essentially the same weak platform with more makeup and jewelry piled on. In fact, after updating a Windows Phone 7.0 to “Mango,” I could detect no difference, so I went to the Settings app to be sure it actually had been installed.

Like a beauty at a party, Windows Phone 7.5 is well suited for small talk and other forms of social engagement, and it can surprise you with unexpected depth from time to time. A Windows Phone 7.5 phone is first and foremost a cool messaging device — what the RIM BlackBerry should have evolved into — that also has a capable Web browser and at-a-glance informational widgets. It’s a consumer device for staying in touch at a high level, not a professional device for accomplishing tasks.

If you’re looking for a smartphone you can use for both work and business, the iPhone remains by far your best choice, followed by Motorola’s line of Android 2.3-based smartphones, to which Motorola has added basic business security capabilities. (Pitting Windows Phone 7.5 againsti OS 5 would be a Bambi-meets-Godzilla comparison.)

But if you’re a professional who wants a device for strictly personal use or to do mainly messaging for a small business that relies on IMAP and POP mail, Windows Phone 7.5 is worth considering instead of an Android device. If you watch “The Big Bang Theory,” consider this a contest between Penny and Rajesh.

I tested Android 2.3 “Gingerbread” — now a year old, and showing its age — on a Google Nexus smartphone and Windows Phone 7.5 on an HTC Arrive smartphone. Nokia announced its first “Mango” devices today, and HTC, Samsung, and others are expected to launch new “Mango” devices in the coming weeks to tempt holiday buyers. The first Google Android 4.0-based smartphones are due in November, but Google declined to provide a preview unit so that we could see what might change. What Google has revealed thus far suggests a slicker UI and improved security capabilities, but no major changes to basic functions such as email and social networking.

Email, calendars, contacts, and social networking

If you look at the specs, Windows Phone 7.5 and Android 2.3 “Gingerbread” appear evenly matched. Both can connect to Exchange, IMAP, POP, and Gmail accounts, make and synchronize appointments, and manage contacts. Both allow for “push” synchronization with Exchange. Both preserve your Exchange and IMAP folder hierarchy for mail. But the lack of meaningful EAS policy support in Windows Phone and Android means you won’t likely be able to access your corporate email.

Email. Android “Gingerbread” has a poorly chosen visual scheme for email lists: It opts for white text on a black background, whereas Windows Phone “Mango” goes for the easier-to-read, black-on-white color scheme. Although “Mango” displays nice, big text for your messages’ From addresses, it suffers from the use of tiny, thin, gray fonts for your message text, so messages are very hard to read. And there are no controls over text size. Android also leans toward small text, but it is more readable than in Windows Phone. Both mail clients seem designed for the eyes of teenagers and 20-somethings.

I like Windows Phone’s way of handling message groups such as unread and flagged messages: Just swipe to the right to see lists of unread messages; repeat to see flagged messages. “Mango” also implements a color highlight on the subject of unread messages in the All message list, but the Unread list is simpler. Android uses the common approach of indicating unread messages or flagged messages in your message list via icons and font treatments.

One continued beef I have with Android is that it runs a separate app for Gmail accounts — an unnecessary division of labor. Windows Phone normally provides a separate tile on its Start screen for each email account, but you can use the linking feature to get a unified inbox both in the mail client and on the Start screen. If you look carefully at the tiny To text, you can see which account the message was sent to. Android is more elegant in presenting messages from multiple accounts: It shows distinct color bars next to each message to indicate the associated account.

Neither OS handles mail folders well. When viewing your mail list in Windows Phone, you have to press the More button (the … icon) to get the Folders menu, which you then use to see messages in a specific folder. In Android, you have to hit the Menu button to see a list of folders as well. In both cases, it’s a hassle. Android 2.3 does not support message threading, but Windows Phone 7.5 does. You have to set it up in the Settings app’s Applications section, under Messaging, not in the mail client.

Composing messages is straightforward in both Windows Phone and Android, though neither mail client supports rich text formatting as iOS 5 does. Both also look up names as you enter them from your address book and previous email history.

Android’s mail client lets you view attachments in Microsoft Office and PDF formats, as well as the common Web graphics formats. Windows Phone 7 isn’t so savvy. It can open Office documents in its mobile versions of Word, PowerPoint, and Excel, though PowerPoint is strangely restricted to version 2007 and later (.pptx) files. To open PDFs, you’ll need a separate PDF viewer, such as the free Adobe Reader.

Both mail clients show a list of attachments in the message body, but Windows Phone doesn’t automatically download them. Instead, you must tap an attachment to download it and tap it again to open it. This saves on 3G data usage. Both Windows Phone and Android open zip files (unlike iOS, which requires a third-party app to do so).

In both Windows Phone and Android, you can easily search for mail, as well as reply to, forward, delete, and select multiple messages, though you can’t select or deselect all messages. Android forces you to conduct your search from the OS’s universal search facility; you can’t search directly in the email client, as you can in Windows Phone. Selecting multiple messages in Windows Phone 7.5 is easy — once you realize you need to tap the left side of the screen to open the selection bubbles.

Calendars. Both Windows Phone 7.5 and Android 2.3 let you view and update your calendars, as well as sync to Exchange and Google calendars. Both “Mango” and “Gingerbread” let you send invites to other users. On Android, the Calendar app automatically adds Exchange and Google Calendar invitations to your calendar with Maybe status, which is not apparent until you open the appointment. You can open Exchange invitations in the Email app, as well as accept or decline the invitation. But you can’t open .ics invitations sent to POP or IMAP accounts. Windows Phone relies on its Calendar app to handle all invitations; its mail client doesn’t know what to do with them.

Windows Phone 7’s day and agenda views are pretty, but the tiny colored text for your appointments is very hard to read on the black background. And the month view is all but useless; the supertiny text for each appointment in each date is easily overlooked. Android uses clearer presentation in all of its calendar displays; its fonts aren’t as elegant, but you can actually read your calendar.

Contacts. Both Windows Phone and Android have capable contacts apps, but it’s a bit easier to navigate contacts in Android. The Contacts app displays a gray box as you begin scanning your contacts list, and if you drag it, you can scroll through the letters of the alphabet that appear in the box and move to names beginning with that letter. Windows Phone’s People app has a different quick-nav capability: Tap the # icon button near the top to get a list of letters that you then tap to jump to. It’s not slick, but it works.

In Android, you can also designate users as favorites, to put them in a shorter Favorites list. Windows Phone doesn’t do that exactly; instead, it lets you “pin” an individual to the Start screen for easy access, such as to click an email address or phone number to initiate a message or call.

Windows Phone 7.5 lets you create groups of contacts, as well as link contact cards to create virtual groups. For example, if you have separate entries for a couple, you can link their cards so that each person’s contact information appears in both of their cards. Android “Gingerbread” doesn’t support groups at all.

Social networking. Windows Phone’s People app provides a convenient location to monitor your social feeds — Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and others — and engage in any conversations. You use the Me tile to initiate a message to all your networks simultaneously. The app is not as full-featured as the social networking services’ own apps, so you still need to use them to do more sophisticated actions, including sending a direct message. A bizarre implementation issue on Windows Phone is that if you install the separate Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn apps, you have to sign in separately — the sign-in you provided for the People app to use isn’t shared with the social networking apps themselves.

Android doesn’t integrate your social streams. Instead, you use the various apps for your social services separately.

The winner: A tie. Windows Phone is handier at social communication and has a better contacts app. Both have pros and cons for email, but Android enjoys a slight edge — and it doesn’t require reading glasses to use if you’re over 40. Ditto on calendars.

Applications

If running applications is your thing, get an iPhone. Nothing else comes close in terms of rich application options that in some cases can do much of what a computer can do. But many people don’t see the need for such apps on a smartphone and its small, constrained interface. For them, lightweight widgets are sufficient, and if that describes you, Windows Phone 7.5 and Android 2.3 are respectable platforms.

Apps. Android has a larger app selection than Windows Phone 7.5, especially “middleweight” productivity apps such as Quickoffice and Documents to Go. By contrast, Windows Phone’s “big” app is Office, a collection of rudimentary touchup tools using the Word, PowerPoint, and Excel labels. Word is barely more capable than a typical note-taking app, and PowerPoint can only let you edit text, not adjust graphics — much less create slides. Excel can’t edit cells’ contents, so it’s good only for viewing and searching spreadsheets. Windows Phone 7.5 comes with a SharePoint client, but it’s hard to imagine, given its lack of security, that any significant business would let users into such corporate assets through a Windows Phone.

The truth is, you can do more with Google Docs than Office on Windows Phone 7, whereas on Android you can do a bit more than Google Docs with the third-party apps available. (Apple’sproductivity apps for iOS, by contrast, let you live without a computer for days.)

And neither Windows Phone nor Android has any way to present PowerPoint or other slide presentations to a projector or TV, as iOS easily does on an iPhone via a cable or over the air through an Apple TV.

The same dichotomy exists for other kinds of apps, from photo editing to financial management. Android offers both lightweight widgets and middleweight apps, whereas the Windows Phone Marketplace has mainly lightweight, data-feed-oriented widgets like stock tickers, weather checkers, and bill reminders. Widgets are the perfect fit for the whole Windows Phone tile metaphor, where the app “icons” are live tiles that can show status, such as current stock price or current weather. Opening a tile shows more of that data feed, but rarely lets you manipulate it in any deep way.

But even nonfeed apps tend to be more simplistic on Windows Phone; a survey of newsreader apps showed they contained less information generally than their Android (and iOS) counterparts. An exception is the USA Today app; despite Windows Phone 7’s markedly different presentation style, the USA Today app proves an information app doesn’t have to compromise on depth.

When it comes to games, both platforms have a good selection, including the modern standbys such as Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja.

The native apps included with Windows Phone and Android are comparable, providing email, contacts, calendar, maps, browsers, a music player, a video player, and SMS messaging. Windows Phone also includes the anemic mobile Office, whereas many Android devices include a trial or limited-function version of Quickofffice or Documents to Go. Android also offers a real navigation app, though some Android smartphones come with a trial or limited-function navigation app, and a YouTube app, though that’s a free download from the Windows Phone Marketplace. Android smartphones typically have Facebook and Twitter apps preloaded as well, but the basic functionality is built into Windows Phone’s People app. Additionally, the full apps are free downloads from the Windows Phone Marketplace.

Android has no native notepad app, a very odd omission for a mobile device. Windows Phone comes with OneNote, its cloud-enabled note-taker. Its version of Word is appropriate for taking notes as well.

Unlike Microsoft’s Marketplace, the Android Market is not curated, which makes it easier for developers to get their apps listed but has also let cyber thieves create phishing apps that masquerade as banking or other programs to steal user information. There are few apps as yet in the Windows Phone Marketplace.

App management. A key addition to “Mango” was multitasking: Applications can now run in the background. Android has long had that capability.

Switching among apps is similar in Windows Phone and Android: In “Mango,” you go to the Start screen, swipe to the left to see all your apps, and tap an app to open it. You can also pin apps to the Start screen so that their tiles are available for easy access. In “Gingerbread,” you go to the home screen, tap the Apps button, then tap an app from the grid of apps that appears. You can also drag an app icon into the home screen for faster access later. But you can’t just swipe among active apps as iOS 5 and the defunct WebOS allow.

Android lets you see which apps are running: Long-tap the Home button to see a list of recent apps, any of which you can then tap to open. Windows Phone 7 has no such capability.

Android uses a home screen to store frequently used apps, and it shows all titles in the alphabetically arranged apps screen. Windows Phone uses a similar technique, with its Start screen acting as a home screen. But “Mango” becomes more difficult to navigate the more apps and tiles you have, as you need to scroll further and further to access them. That’s a function of the use of tiles and lists, rather than the small icons in Android. The end result is that Windows Phone becomes harder to use the more apps you install. Neither OS supports app folders to help manage a growing collection of apps.

Both operating systems alert you to app updates and let you download them wirelessly.

Android has long offered a notifications capability. Pop-up notifications make it easy to see if you have new email or other alerts, whatever you happen to be doing, and you can pull up a notification pane to see recent alerts. Windows Phone doesn’t provide such notifications; it expects that you’ll use the Start screen’s tiles to track what’s happening.

The winner: Android, but only slightly, given its better selection of more-capable apps.

Web and Internet

Google is a strong force behind HTML5 and other modern browser technologies, so it’s no surprise that it offers capable Web browsers. By contrast, Microsoft has lagged the field in support for the new standards. Based on the HTML5 Test site’s scores, though, it’s clear that “Mango” has made major strides in HTML5 compatibility versus its competitor. But it still trails all other mobile browsers. 

From an operational perspective, the main differences between the Windows Phone and Android browsers center on the UI. Their interfaces are both spare, with a persistent URL box on both, an icon button to open a bookmarks window on Android, and an icon button to refresh the page in Windows Phone. Both use their OSes’ standard Back hardware button to go back in your browsing history. To add bookmarks, go forward, open a new browser window, or refresh the page in Android, you use the device’s hardware Menu button. In Windows Phone, to create or access bookmarks (which it calls Favorites) and to open a new tab (really a window), you use the More icon button to open a menu of options. Windows Phone 7 also lets you pin a Web page to your Start screen (as iOS does); Android can’t do that.

Both Windows Phone and Android can share pages via email, but Windows Phone also lets you share the page via your social networks.

Android uses the smartphone’s hardware Search button to do a Web search when you are in the browser; Windows Phone uses its physical Search button to open the Bing app. Neither can search your current Web page.

Windows Phone offers a .com button when entering URLs, a significant timesaver. Plus, it pops up a list of alternative domains, such as .edu and .org, when you tap and hold the .com button. Android “Gingerbread” has no equivalent.

In both Windows Phone and Android, you can select text and graphics on Web pages, but only Windows Phone lets you save selected graphics.

Both the Windows Phone and Android browsers offer settings to control cookies and history, but unlike Android, “Mango” has no option to manage other personal information such as cache, form data, passwords, image loading, autofill, fraud warnings, and debugging. Windows Phone does have the nice ability of being able to tell websites it’s a desktop computer, not a mobile device, for when you don’t want the mobile-optimized version of a site (which often strips out information and services).

Although not preinstalled with Android, Adobe’s Flash Player is available at the Android Market as a free download. I found that the most current Flash Player (10.3) did well with videos and basic Flash animations, such as those that let you rotate views and open content via hotspots. Flash games worked sometimes. Windows Phone 7 does not support Flash.

The winner: Android “Gingerbread,” thanks to greater HTML5 compatibility and better co