Not Much New in New Windows for Handhelds

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, June 7, 2007

There must be a typo in the name of Microsoft's new software for handheld organizers and smartphones. It's called "Windows Mobile 6," but this release seems hardly different from the 2005 Windows Mobile 5.

In this release, a decent set of handheld software isn't getting much better. Microsoft seems to be settling into a rhythm of working hard, then slacking off: The unimpressive Windows Mobile 2003 SE was followed by the worthier Windows Mobile 5. But two years later, little has changed in this "new" release.

Perhaps Windows Mobile 7, whenever that arrives, will bring dramatic improvements.

For now, customers with the old software don't get many rewards for upgrading to the new. Two weeks of trying out Windows Mobile 6 on a pair of smartphones -- T-Mobile's Wing ($350 before a $50 rebate) and Dash ($250 before a $50 rebate) -- yielded few "aha" moments of discovery.

As a free update -- something device manufacturers and wireless carriers are offering to users of certain Windows Mobile 5 handhelds -- this release is still worthwhile. But it's hard to justify buying a new device just to get this software.

Up close, the only immediate signs of revision are the smoother look of its icons, and several alterations to the functions and features of its core programs.

Some of the changes are good and smart. For example, a contact's entry now shows your mutual calling history. The calendar's agenda view presents a cleaner outline of coming appointments. You can quickly find an e-mail message just by typing out part of its sender's name or a word in its subject header.

Windows Mobile devices can also check for and download important updates automatically, though the feature is disabled by default. (This software-update tool can fetch these updates using WiFi rather than a wireless carrier's slower, pricier bandwidth.)

But other aspects of Windows Mobile look or work no better than before. Its version of Windows Mobile Player, for example, sticks with an overly complicated interface that prohibits one-handed use of such everyday functions as rating a song from one to five stars.

The Notes program, intended for jotting down quick memos, continues to succumb to random sluggishness. Just closing a note took as long as 17 seconds -- but the next note opened and closed almost instantly.

On the version of Windows Mobile made for smaller, cheaper smartphones like Dash, the Notes application doesn't even exist, even though writing quick notes is a routine use for pocket-size gadgets with thumb-operated keyboards.

With Windows Mobile 6, Microsoft attempted to fix that problem by including a mobile version of Microsoft Office. Having to fire up a miniature copy of Microsoft Word -- one of the slower, more complicated Windows Mobile programs around -- every time an idea comes to mind is a woefully inefficient solution to the problem.

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