Free apps provide significant improvements to Windows Phone OSs
Ever since Windows Phone 7 was released, the number of available applications has been a serious concern. In addition to having some obvious functionality shortcomings in its initial release, first-generation Windows Phone 7 had very inferior application support compared with its main competitors, Google's Android and Apple's iOS.
The number of applications on the Windows Phone Marketplace still doesn't match those available from the competition; however, you can now find some very good software for use with Windows Phone. In addition, Microsoft has released the first major upgrade for Windows Phone 7: Windows Phone 7.5 (formerly code-named Mango), which, according to Microsoft, provides more than 500 new or improved functionalities.
According to the early feedback from end users, the new Windows Phone OS was worth the wait.
Previous Windows Phone 7 updates didn't bode well for a seamless and efficient upgrade path in the new release. Upgrade timing was very inconsistent for pre-Mango updates, which caused inconsistent customer experiences worldwide. Although some customers were able to install the NoDo and post-NoDo updates in March 2011, others had to wait until July or August. Feedback on the NoDo update process was quite negative.
But Microsoft seems to have learned its lesson. According to Windows Phone 7.5 deployment results in mid-October, things went much better—with the exception of Samsung Omnia 7 devices, which still can't use Windows Phone 7.5, and some limited issues with LG devices. Also, carriers seemed to be much better prepared this time. Most carriers started deploying Windows Phone 7.5 at the same time and didn't cause undue delays.
It's also good to see that even though Windows Phone 7 upgrades didn't go smoothly, developers didn't sit around idly, waiting for Windows Phone 7.5. The Windows Phone Marketplace now has more than 20,000 applications for Windows Phone 7, some of which significantly enhance the user experience.
Sync This, Sync That
Although Microsoft has never admitted to not including them, many of Windows Mobile 6.5's advanced features are missing from Windows Phone 7 (especially the release to manufacturing—RTM—version). For some of these mysteriously absent features, such as a unified Inbox or conversation view, the Windows Phone 7.5 upgrade provides a solution—but some of them can be compensated for with other applications. In addition, some features, such as support for digitally signed and encrypted messages, are still a no-go for Windows Phone 7, even with the latest upgrade to Windows Phone 7.5.
Personally, I very much miss the ability to sync all data from Microsoft Exchange Server, desktops, and online storage services. I'm an intensive Exchange tasks user, but Windows Phone 7 RTM doesn't support synchronization of tasks and notes from Exchange Server.
In Windows Phone 7.5, synchronization of tasks is enabled and integrated with the calendar. If you don't like the approach of integrating tasks with the calendar, you can find a few applications on the Windows Phone Marketplace that can provide this functionality.
No free applications are available, but most apps provide you with a trial, so you can test Exchange connectivity and synchronization of tasks. Some applications have connectivity issues with various Exchange Server versions.
Based on user comments and my personal experience, APPA Mundi Tasks does a very good job. It lets you not only sync tasks from Exchange but also create new tasks and edit existing tasks on Windows Phone 7 devices, with various options. In addition, this app has its own live tile that can show the number of uncompleted tasks, which Windows Phone 7.5's synchronization of tasks doesn't offer.
APPA Mundi Tasks has already had several upgrades, so most of the bugs are now fixed. You can get a 7-day trial, which is plenty of time to decide whether or not you like it. The full price is also quite reasonable, at $3.99.
Unfortunately, there's still no good application for syncing notes from Exchange Server. Although Windows Phone 7.5 does provide Out Of Office message management as a new advanced messaging feature, it still doesn't sync notes.
Syncing Microsoft OneNote notes stored on Windows Live SkyDrive with built-in OneNote mobile is possible. However, synchronization capabilities vary depending on which version of Windows Phone you're using.
If you're still not using Windows Phone 7.5, synchronization is possible only in one direction—from device to server, by default. This means that you must create a note on your mobile device, then sync that note to your SkyDrive storage. However, OneNote mobile can't "see" notes that are already synced to your SkyDrive storage by using the OneNote 2010 desktop application.
If you're using Windows Phone 7.5, you'll be able to see, edit, and sync all OneNote Notebooks that are located on SkyDrive. However, even though the OneNote application on Windows Phone 7.5 is enhanced, it still doesn't look as good as on iPhone (which uses the official Microsoft OneNote app).
When it comes to cloud-based storage, Windows Phone 7.5 provides full SkyDrive support from the Microsoft Office hub—but if you want some other web-based storage on your Windows Phone device, the only alternative is Dropbox. The application Simple Dropbox Viewer does a pretty good job of accessing content from your Dropbox account, and it's completely free. Unfortunately, you can't use this app to send anything from your phone to Dropbox storage.
If you can buy applications from the Windows Phone Marketplace, you should consider Neologics' BoxFiles for Dropbox, which provides some additional functionality for a very reasonable price. This app lets you manage files already on your Dropbox account, create new folders, and upload pictures (which is currently the only file format supported for upload). You can download a free trial for testing, or you can buy the full application for only $1.29.
So far, BoxFiles for Dropbox has excellent ratings on the Windows Phone Marketplace. It's available as a trial, and you can even use it without a time limit with somewhat reduced functionality. In a new version, this app also provides access to SkyDrive, so you can have a single point of management for multiple storage solutions.
If you're using Google Docs, the Windows Phone Marketplace offers a pretty good client for free, called GDocs. A big limitation of this application is that it only lets you view existing files.
Another application that supports syncing is Password Manager, by Davide di Bernardo. This free application lets you securely store your passwords (for various services) on a Windows Phone 7 device; it also lets you store a backup encrypted password database on your SkyDrive account.
A similar solution that supports multiple platforms is also available. AgileBits' 1Password application can work across several desktop and mobile platforms.
One of the great things about Windows Phone is its integration with social networks. In addition to merging contacts from various services into one contact list, Windows Phone 7.5 also integrates with Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn by default. I think this is the best natively implemented integration that you can find in a device.
(You can also install the official Windows Phone Facebook application for some additional functionality, although the Facebook app still looks and works better on Google's Android and Apple's iOS.)
Windows Phone 7.5 also provides Windows Live Messenger integration inside the Messaging hub, which also gives you the ability to chat over Facebook. If you don't like this approach of integrating text messages with Live Messenger and Facebook chat, you can try the free Messenger by Miyowa application. This application works very well, especially after being updated.
Those who want a separate Facebook chat app will find the Facebook Instant Messenger (Fim) application useful, although it can't integrate with the real Facebook application or with Windows Phone 7's People tile.
If you like geo-tagging and using Foursquare, there's a free application called 4th & Mayor. Interestingly, this app is far more popular on Windows Phone 7 than the official Foursquare application. It also provides much more functionality.
For sharing pictures, Yahoo's official Flickr client is free and available from the Windows Phone Marketplace.
There's an official Twitter application for Windows Phone 7 that does a pretty good job, although the Windows Phone Marketplace offers several other Twitter clients. For example, Rowi [lite] is a free and highly rated Twitter client. Windows Phone 7.5 does provide full Twitter integration, but some people still like to use their favorite application.
LinkedIn users can also find clients for Windows Phone 7 devices. Starznet's Link Me In isn't as good as Android's or iOS's LinkedIn client, but it's free and can be used for basic functionality. An official LinkedIn application is still missing, but because Windows Phone 7.5 has native LinkedIn support, I wonder if we will see one at all.
In addition to applications that support specific social networking services, you can also find several applications for accessing specific forums, websites, and so on. For example, XDA Developers, which is a popular portal for smartphone users, has its own application for forum access. If you're using WordPress for blogging, I have some good news for you—the Windows Phone Marketplace offers a free WordPress client for Windows Phone 7.
The Zune client that's implemented in Windows Phone 7 is good. But if you want additional functionality, such as Smart DJ support, additional tools are also available.
Windows Phone 7 has a built-in YouTube "application"—but it actually just provides a link to the web-based YouTube Mobile application. Until Microsoft enhances this feature, you can use the free LazyTube app. This full-featured YouTube client has a good interface and performance.
A paid version of LazyTube can provide HQ playback, but the free client is more than enough. A disadvantage is that you can't make LazyTube your default YouTube client—if you click a YouTube link, it opens in the default Windows Phone 7 app.
As an alternative, you should consider SuperTube. In addition to playing YouTube videos in standard and high definition, this application also lets you download videos from YouTube, as well as continue broken downloads.
If you like radio, you should definitely check out TuneIn Radio. This Internet-based radio service client provides several thousand radio stations worldwide. It's also free and very easy to use and navigate.
Shazam, which is a popular app on other platforms, is also available for Windows Phone 7. The basic version is free; Shazam Encore provides some additional features and unlimited tagging. In Windows Phone 7.5, you can also use Bing search for similar functionality as with Shazam.
Books and e-Zines
Although long-term reading on a mobile device might not be very pleasant, some people consume a lot of content from their phones—especially if they have screens like that of T-Mobile's HTC HD7 or HTC Titan. Windows Phone 7 provides good application support for these resources.
Adobe Reader was one of the first applications available on the Windows Phone Marketplace; it lets you open PDF files with almost the same functionality as on other platforms.
If you're into books, Amazon provides a free Kindle application for Windows Phone 7 devices. There's also a good Wikipedia app.
For those who love movies, search the Windows Phone Marketplace for the IMDB application. This free app makes great use of the Metro interface concept. Movie fans will have a lot of fun with the app.
If, like me, you frequently visit portals for technology freaks, you'll have plenty of choices on Windows Phone 7. Many popular portals such as AOL's Engadget and Gawker Media's Gizmodo have applications on the Windows Phone Marketplace.
There are also several applications that concentrate information from various news sources. One of the best ones is TechRack; it covers a lot of news sources and has a good interface. Weave is also worth considering. (Both TechRack and Weave are free.)
Paul Thurrott and his Supersite for Windows also have a Windows Phone 7 application: PocketTech.
If you're a frequent visitor of Microsoft events or websites, the Windows Phone Marketplace has a lot to offer you—and most of it for free. You can find a Windows Phone 7 application for almost every important Microsoft event (e.g., TechEd, TechDays). In addition, there are applications for the Exchange Team Blog, Born to Learn (part of the Microsoft Learning Community and Evangelism Team), and several others.
At present, there isn't much to say about Windows Phone's navigation capabilities. A built-in Maps application can provide basic navigation functionalities, but with limited coverage. This app relies on Bing Maps and requires an Internet connection during use. It doesn't provide voice navigation.
In mid-October, Navigon released the first real GPS application for Windows Phone 7. It currently provides offline maps for the United States and a good part of Europe and is available for the very reasonable price of $29.99 (USD, for US maps).
However, because the Windows Phone Marketplace still isn't available in many countries worldwide, many users will still be without a real GPS application. A limited version of Navigon's software is available to German T-Mobile users who purchase Windows Phone 7 devices.
As an alternative, you can also try Mobile GMaps. This free application uses Google Maps and does a pretty good job—although it's still in the testing phase.
Application support for Windows Phone has been significantly improved in the past year. Except for navigation, an average user can find all the necessary apps on the Windows Phone Marketplace—and most of them are free. Several good paid applications are also available, although availability depends on the region where you reside, which can be a problem. But even using only free applications, you can greatly enhance the capabilities of Windows Phone.