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Site review: BestWindowsMobileApps

This is a sponsored review by the owner of the website but all opinions are that of my own.

Windows Mobile 6.5.3 and below is widely regarded by many tech fads as a to-be-deprecated technology in favour of other smartphone OSes and possibly the upcoming Windows Mobile 7 OS, revealed just over a week ago. However much of the hidden credit behind the WM 6.x series lies in its ability to tweak and adjust the OS to such an amazing extent not really associated with Microsoft – all of these are found in 3rd party applications scattered around the internet that it takes such a long time to monitor the upcoming applications and find reliable ones. This gives the false impression that the system is underpowered. It wasn’t until almost a year ago that Microsoft released the Windows Marketplace, the equivalent of Apple’s App Store in order to solve this problem, but it’s a developer-initiative process to distribute using this system, and so many of the gems still remain hidden.

Those who have gone app-hunting would be familiar with sites such as freewarepocketpc, wm6software, pocketgear and the ever-so-reliable XDA-Developers forums. However we have a new kid on the block, BestWindowsMobileApps.com.

The site at first glance runs on WordPress with an aesthetic design that leaves little to be desired. This WordPress setup has all of the necessary plugins and additions which make the site appropriate to its purpose, including a featured application section, random apps, latest apps, social network sharing, related links (quite inaccurately labeled as a blog roll in our opinion), and the compulsory commenting system. It communicates its purpose extremely clearly and despite a seemingly random blank space on each sub-page near the header (probably for advertisements in the future), it looks extremely credible and up to date, which is a vital impression for such a site.

The site gives an unbiased review of applications submitted by developers and rates them on what I believe to be rather well-chosen sub categories: user interface, features, ease of use, and re-use value (if the app is a one-time use-and-forget or not), and for games graphics and sound ratings are also provided. Each of these are given a half-star rating out of 5 of which each rating is given a clear definition in their about page – 1 star for a application that wasn’t even worth the review and 5 stars for the perfect application that deserves recommendation to all WM users.

The site is two-tiered, splitting applications into two main categories, "Applications" and "Games", then further narrowing down the choice to your regular list of sub-categories such as communication, entertainment, lifestyle, media, etc. Although most of these portal sites have these categories this site is different in that it is completely centered around them instead of offering a more random browsing experience like others. Unfortunately there seems to be some navigation duplication in the main menu, such as Apps takes you to the same place as Categories -> App Store does, or we seem to have an unneeded single subcategory under Tools being Utilities, or that the supposedly macro-category of "games" is seen again inside Categories -> App Store, etc. Similarly we were shown this link to what seems like a "Games category" description page, but I haven’t been able to find a way to navigate to that page on the site. Perhaps because that page seems unfinished (some categories are not annotated) but this suggests a few fundamental navigation problems. This may serve to confuse newcomers but is a relatively easy problem to fix and on the whole provides a very instinctive navigational sitemap.

The list of applications is just as aesthetically pleasing as the rest of the site. It provides a quick snapshot of the name of the application, a dedicated icon (instead of other sites which rather badly autogenerate thumbnails) and a blurb. Although a little too much emphasis is placed on the date and reviewer than we’d like, we suppose it matches the feel of the site. Given that a one-liner summary of the app’s function is appended to its title it makes it really easy to find what you’re looking for.

An application’s review page does suffer from some visual glitches here and there that detract from the previous professional impression of the site. Some layout ideas could be rethought, such as placing the tags, post author and date and a rather large box with minimal information at the top instead of launching right into the review. However the review itself is presented in well-formatted narrative blog format not unlike this post and has plenty of app screenshots showing the app in action. It walks through the beginning impression, tours the features, and provides a consice summary to wrap up. The writing style is easy to understand and well-structured. Consistent throughout all reviews are a bullet pointed pros, cons and a possible improvements section at the end, your version number and price, the beforementioned star ranking system and an overall rating. A complementary link to the developer’s site is provided as well as a link to their sister site to download the product. The rest is taken up by social networking and comments which unlike most other review sites contribute quite intelligibly to the review.

Developers can submit their apps for review on quite ethical terms including unbiased reviews and understandable property rights. It’s a simple enough process and very appropriate.

Overall the site is quite polished with a few visual presentation quirks to work out. Some reviews are a little short (especially those with low rankings) but seem to communicate the message effectively enough. The duplicated navigation may be confusing, as well as some category structures needing to be rethought (for example, what is the "XDA dev" category?). The site is still quite immature in terms of content quantity (we’re predicting about 100 reviews, and we did notice some overlap in categories, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) but from what exists, it’s some good quality reading for those on the hunt for the perfect application set. I must say I didn’t set my sights high given the existing cobbled and maze-worthy app portal sites but this one has potential.

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Top 10 Windows Mobile Applications

If you followed my previous post about making the most of the Windows Mobile experience, your Windows Mobile phone should already have a slicker interface, seem faster, have new features, be touch friendly as well as feel much more intuitive all around. Needless to say that was the vital first step to getting your money’s worth out of your phone. You might have a setup like this now:

Nifty, no? Well, it’s a good start, but the next stage is getting the applications that allow you to use it To The Max ™. Let’s see what we can recommend.

A good browser. No, a Great browser.

We’re talkin’ powerful, fast, slick web browsin’ here. That nonsense that calls itself Internet Explorer doesn’t deserve a place on your device. Whether or not you’re often surfing the interwebs, ensuring that your web experience is a smooth one will make the difference whether you decide to whip out your phone and wiki something up, or simply say it’s a lost cause. You want a proper browser, one with kinetic scrolling, tabs, and a good rendering engine.

Enter Opera Mobile and Skyfire. Both, as you might’ve guessed by now, are Windows Mobile web browsers. They are also the two best of them all. Opera Mobile is in general more well known and boasts an impressive list of features – tabs, kinetic scrolling, download manager, accelerated page caching (turbo), data synchronisation and cloud computing setups, and even widgets. This does put it on the heavier side of the browser market, with it’s installation file itself a hefty 10MB. On older phones it might take some time to start up and can run out of memory pretty quick. However if your hardware meets the specs, you’ve got yourself a very powerful tool.

The other is a lesser known product – Skyfire. This is definitely slimmer feature-wise but loads pages quick and doesn’t eat up your phone. It’s got the zoom, the drag-scrolling … but most importantly this one displays pages identical to a desktop view whereas Opera tends to wrap text (handy in some cases, not so in others). It also deals with embeddable content very well, allowing you to enjoy flash video without lag pretty easily. It also comes with a nifty start-page which is basically a feed reader – giving you snapshots of the latest news which you can tweak to your interests.

Apps for music and videos

Windows Mobile comes bundled with Windows Media Player, which can play some common files but chokes on anything else you might want.

Here we have a few nominees, including the must-have Core Media Player. The Core Media Player began as freeware but now is available as a paid application. There’s no problem with getting the older free version, it’s still extremely good and will handle almost any codec you throw at it.

Those enjoying the iPhone feel might look towards S2P, a music player that copies the iPhone music player almost completely, not to mention integrates rather nicely with S2U, an application which locks your phone like the iPhone does. It’s also well supported on several home screen media player control applications.

If you’re a multi tasker, it’s normally a huge convenience if you have a way to pause/play, next and previous songs right from the homescreen. In Windows 6.5.1 this is possible with the Titanium layout which integrates with the default Windows Media Player, allowing you to scroll between songs. If not using WMP or not on 6.5.1 this functionality is also available with several shells, including SPB Mobile Shell 3.

The ultimate penknife of utilities

If you’re going to actually use your phone, you need a way to keep it ship shape and mess around when you feel like it. Without delaying further I’m going to introduce you to Total Commander, a file manager (and registry editor, if you’re into that sort of thing) that should exist on every device.

Another would undoubtedly be cleanRAM by htcAddicts.com. It does exactly what it name says – it cleans up lost RAM and can make your device speed up a tad bit after a few days of use – say goodbye to having to soft reset or restart your device whenever it gets too laggy!

Advanced Config (pictured above) makes it easy to tweak your OS to your liking. From which softkeys do what, the layout of your dialer and comm manager, what effects are enabled… it’s all there and you’ll find perhaps one of those little things that don’t look like much but mean much.

A way to read those RSS feeds

People on the go should really take advantage of RSS feeds. Most computer users still remain ignorant of this wonder and it’s time for that to stop. For the uninitiated RSS feeds take the news away from the website and thus allow you to keep track of many news sources at your leisure – be it following the BBC, your favourite blogs, or even the latest Garfield comic. It’s your own personal newspaper that’s updated realtime and only contains articles you’re interested in.

It’s both D-Pad and touch friendly, supports importing opml files and scheduled updates. Yep, it’s pRSS Reader. I’ve tried a good deal and this is the only one that works both reliably and well.

Your own personal library

If you’re still unacquainted with ebook readers that’s OK – perhaps reading from a screen just isn’t for you. If it is, however, you’ll need an ebook reader on your phone. I’d like to recommend Haali Reader. It’s an excellent and small application – it remembers your position in all and any file even after closing (a lifesaver), has customisable fonts, sizes and colours, supports autoscrolling, assigned buttons, fullscreen, UTF, and of course supports a good deal of popular ebook formats. It shows a lovely timeline at the bottom with divisions for chapters (if recognised) and bookmarking support.

That’s enough for part 1, in part 2 we’ll cover another 5 awesome (but less awesome than the first 5) applications that you should dump on your device.

Sponsored link: BestWindowsMobileApps – an unbiased and verbose review site for windows mobile applications.

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Making the most out of the Windows Mobile Experience

If you so happen to own a Windows Mobile phone or played with one before, there are likely to be many things that you find rather terrible about it. What with the iPhone, Android and Palm, it’s no surprise that Windows Mobile deserves to be shunned to a shameful corner in the market. However what most people don’t know is that the Windows Mobile team seems to be getting their gear together and is doing some major upgrades for the next iteration of their platform – Windows Mobile 7. Though it still lacks in many ways, it’s definitely a move forward.

Many people on the Windows Mobile platform are not making the most of it – they aren’t using a smartphone as a smartphone. Through this article I hope to touch up on some of the ways your phone could be used.

Improve the overall experience

Before you start trying to use your phone for tasks, you might want to make your phone more usable first. Windows Mobile was designed for a stylus and envisioned as a minature desktop – something that really makes it a terrible OS to use. Windows seems to have made touch-friendliness its main target for improvement and these upgrades are available for all users, without having to buy a whole new phone. However you’d have to search quite a bit, (I recommend the XDA community) to find something that really clicks – meanwhile this introductory article should help.

Flash a newer ROM

This is the equivalent of upgrading your operating system. I wrote a review of it here but development has already progressed much further than those screenshots display. Windows Mobile seems to aim to challenge the likes of the iPhone with its WM7 version coming apparently in Q4 of 2010. With this aim and the rapid ongoing development it’s hard not to expect greater things in the future. Even though it’s not out yet learning how to flash a ROM will grant you access to the ongoing development – and of course making your experience a lot, lot better. I would go so far to say that even 6.5 on my aging Dopod’s hardware (popular name HTC Hermes) is fast, and really makes the device a joy to use (yes, quite shockingly the newer ones are less resource hungry!).

Get started and learn about flashing ROMs in the XDA-Forums. Highly recommended.

Theme it properly

Whether you have flashed a recent ROM or preferred to keep your old one (I recommend flashing), a theme will do wonders. There are already themes for WM6.5 and can really sharpen up the phone in no time. A good wallpaper, colourscheme and not to forget icons too can spice things up. If you are using shells or widgets then finding matching skins for those will help give your system an integrated feel.

Themes can be found on the XDA-Forums as linked above, as well as on FreewarePocketPC.

Use a Shell/Widget/Plugin for the Today screen

For those already with WM6.5, it comes with Titanium and that is a huge improvement from the today screen, giving you quick access to pretty much all of the phones functions outside individual applications right on the front screen. However many other interfaces are available (most are crap) and some are really quite something, such as SPB Mobile Shell (pictured), TouchFlo/Manilla (2D or 3D), Home2, and various today plugins (available on FreewarePocketPC).

Ensure the basics exist

Make sure that you’ve got the basic set of applications – Windows (Live) Messenger, Windows Media Player, Office Mobile (including OneNote?), and … wait for it … Windows Marketplace and Microsoft MyPhone. This basic set of application should come with every phone and if you didn’t get it, you should hunt it down. Windows Marketplace is Microsoft’s attempt at the iPhone’s App store and Google’s Android Market. It was quite recently released (and even more recently cracked and available for free on XDA) and though I’ve only seen very few applications available on it (and even fewer free ones) it’s been a joy to browse and no doubt has a lot of potential once more developers add their stuff. Microsoft MyPhone is a new service to bridge mobile and web synchronisation. It’s quite nifty allowing two-way synchronising for SMSes, contacts, calendars and todos – all accessible through a web interface. It also allows synchronisation with social networks (though Microsoft’s Facebook application is very good) as well as synchronisation between several devices. Some of it’s “pro account” features involve phone tracking and remote phone lockdowns,

In my next post on this topic I will start going through specific uses and my recommended applications for that use. But taking those first easy steps can really make a difference.

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Windows Mobile 6.5 Review

You know that nervous feeling you get just before you install Linux for the first time? Especially if you’re installing something like Gentoo – all that weird scrolling of funny commands scream “no more warranty for you“? It’s quite the same when you flash your first ROM – the equivalent of installing an OS on your phone.

I own a Windows Mobile phone. I would be lying to say that my general dislike of Windows extends to the Mobile version – it is a very capable operating system, and more importantly, very flexible. I would probably go so far to say that it’s better than all of the alternatives in that market (which is definitely more than 2). I would also like to spend an article discussing what I believe are the best/vital application for it, but I’ll save that for later.

If you buy any Windows Mobile powered phone nowadays, it’ll probably come preloaded with Windows Mobile 6. However two newer version do exist (for beta-testing): 6.1 and 6.5 – the latter being the latest, and apparently a huge improvement over 6.1. When 6.1 came out, I instantly looked for a way to upgrade, new features are always attractive. I found a lovely community by the name of XDA-Developers – basically a bunch of smartphone geeks. However most of them said that especially for my phone model, it would lag and probably be as stable as Vista.

6.5 has been out for a while, and that has allowed plenty of ROMs to mature and undergo vigorous testing by others. ROMs are basically the equivalent of Linux Distributions – they come with their own style, preloaded applications, system modifications, and so on. I picked a ROM that I thought looked good (mainly because it sticks to the defaults – I don’t like all the unwanted bulk) and flashed it (on a Windows computer – there is a way to flash it on Linux but I didn’t want to risk “bricking” the phone.)

Right, that was a long introduction, let’s get to the review!

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The today, or home screen, has a brand-spanking new interface named Titanium. The home screen is one of the vital areas of the phone – allowing you quick access to pretty much anything you need. It now looks downright dashing and is themeable. It provides access to S(M)MSes, phone records, favourite contacts, weather, email, and has plugins to extend its functionality. It’s a definitely improvement and all this time when WM has been playing catch-up on Apple’s “home” screen, this is where its overtaken Apple.

It makes full use of both vertical scrolling (to choose between plugins) and horizontal scrolling (for more information within plugins). Shown in the example above are two plugins, the “clock”, which is where it is left at for most of the time, and the media plugin, which allows you to control your music playing (even choose other songs, pause, play) right from the home screen. Other examples (not pictured) are the calendar, which allows you to flick through your upcoming appointments within the next two days, and the pictures which allows you to browse your pictures. Etc. Wonderful stuff.

Even on my HTC Hermes, probably not known now for its processing power, it runs quite smoothly and only lags when I am running several programs on the side. This is acceptable I guess.

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The lock screen has also been improved. It follows the same “sliding” action as the iPhone but the slider begins at the middle – nifty if you prefer to hold it with your left hand or your right. A definite plus is that it shows useful information on the lock screen. Shown here it is displaying an upcoming appointment, but it also shows SMSes, missed calls, etc.

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The start menu has been replaced to a rather beehive-ish layout. Microsoft claims it improves usability – other than being bigger and more touch-friendly than the previous menu, I don’t personally see any difference to the classical grid layout – if anything, its more confusing. At least its aesthetic and overlays upon your background image (note I am using one of the defaults). It’s not very configurable at the moment and you’ll have to scroll a bit if you have a lot of applications, but this could be liable to change in the future.

Please also note that in the screenshot above the ROM I used modified it so that it shows 4 columns instead of the default 3. This is an improvement but keep in mind that other releases might not feature the same 4 column layout.

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The next up is what I believe is the biggest improvement: every single menu or scrollable frame has been given thicker padding and a kinetic scroller. The scrollbars themselves have been made slightly bigger, but more importantly you can see that it’s well spaced, finger-friendly, and of course, you can flick through it easily. Shown in the picture is the “browse files” and a menu of the browse files. It does look a tad bit fat in the picture, but all-in-all I don’t see how I did without it in the past.

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Finally I am going to highlight some of the in-house application upgrades. First is the messages application, which deals with SMSes, Emails, etc. Messages are now shown in a conversation view – true, this is an old feature with other smartphones, but a godsend for Windows Mobile users. Internet Explorer has also been revamped – and new design almost completely ripped off Opera Mobile. Buttons hide themselves automatically to give maximum screen estate when surfing, and a mini-page map shows when you scroll around the webpage – with of course kinetic scrolling. Tabs are also a huge plus. However my personal experience hasn’t been that great as it does seem to lag quite a bit – so I will be sticking to Opera Mobile for the moment.

I should also mention that around here and there several small usability tweaks have been made and though screenshots cannot capture these effectively they really add to the “polish” Windows seems to be doing on their beta in preparation for the upcoming Windows Mobile 7.

Finally, this is also version 6.5 – Windows seems to be hard at work and making lots of improvements – and already other reviews on later versions show an interesting new improvement on the softkeys at the bottom. I’m looking forward to where this is going, and definitely think Windows Mobile 7 will turn out to be a success – at least if their competitors don’t make them play catch up again.