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Tasty Mango upgrade should bring new Windows Phone 7 users to the table

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / October 6, 2011

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I got my current Android smartphone for free, thanks to a special promotion from Google , and I like it fine.

But what if I were spending my own money?

I’d get a Windows phone. Yes, even with the newest iPhone 4S from Apple due out next week, I’d opt for something running Mango, the delicious upgrade to Microsoft Corp.’s already tasty Windows Phone 7 operating system.

It’s not that I have lost my mind; rather, Microsoft has found its way. The company has tweaked the powerful, elegant system it delivered last year in ways that I find pretty near irresistible. Already blessed with a gorgeous user interface, Windows Phone 7 has added valuable search features, more efficient ways to stay in touch with friends and colleagues, and a smart method for accessing the software apps you need, even if you don’t know you need them.

For the past week, I’ve tested Mango on Samsung Corp.’s Focus, a light and handy little unit available from AT&T Corp. for just $50 with a two-year contract. Despite the low price, the Focus packs a one-gigahertz processor that manages every task with crisp efficiency.

Take searching, for instance. Like the original Windows Phone 7, Mango offers a dedicated connection to Microsoft’s Bing search service. But the upgrade adds several fine improvements. You’ve probably seen apps that can scan supermarket bar codes, or these boxy QR codes sometimes found in magazine ads. That software’s now built into Bing.

Also built in: a feature that can listen to a song, identify it, and help you purchase a copy.

Most impressive is the new Local Scout service. Just tap it for a list of nearby restaurants, theaters, and museums. Tap a listing, and you’ll get a map to guide you there.

Now say you want a reservation at a particular sushi place. Tap the joint’s name on the Local Scout list, and it shows you all kinds of information about the restaurant, along with a listing of dining apps - the popular OpenTable, for example. If it’s not already installed, tap the icon and it will be. If it is installed, tap the icon and the app now displays information about the sushi joint, thanks to a new Mango feature that seamlessly feeds search results to the OpenTable app.

Same goes for movies; curious about the new film “Contagion?’’ Just type the name once. Bing guides you to popular movie apps such as Flixster, where you can read reviews and buy tickets.

Mango makes it easy to organize your social life. Once I’d installed my address book, it spotted everyone with the same last name and put them in a “family’’ group. At a touch, I can see all their Facebook postings, or fire off a single e-mail or text message to all of them. I can create similar groups for the folks at work, at church, or at the local saloon.

As in the original Windows Phone 7, you can assign a colorful onscreen “tile’’ to everyone you know, complete with the person’s picture. You can add these to the phone’s start screen. They’re animated, too; my wife’s photo tile somersaults to display a notice that she’s sent me a message. It’s downright cool.

So far, consumers have spurned Windows Phone 7. According to market researchers at comScore Inc. , Microsoft had just 5.8 percent of the US smartphone market in June, compared to 40 percent for Android and 26.6 percent for Apple. What does Microsoft have to do to get some love?

Get a lot more apps, for one thing. Apple’s iPhone has half a million, Android about 250,000, but Windows Phone offers just 30,000. Mind you, the Windows apps I’ve tried were all excellent. Microsoft inspects all apps before distributing them, to maintain high quality and ensure they’re not tainted with malware. So does Apple, but Google leaves Android users defenseless against infected apps. Microsoft could cash in on that with some smart marketing.

Microsoft should also benefit from its alliance with Finland’s Nokia , the world’s biggest cellphone maker, and the dominant brand in many countries where few people currently own smartphones. When Nokia launches its line of Mango phones next year, it might revive Microsoft as a significant player in smartphones.

But maybe that’s already happened. The new Mango-flavored Windows Phone 7 is just that good.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.