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Fun and fresh – Windows Phone 7 is well worth a try!

If you are thinking of buying a new smartphone, then you could be forgiven for assuming that you have to choose between Apple’s iPhone and one of the many new phones running Google’s Android operating system. The two companies are in such a dog fight for the future of mobile, that anything else seems irrelevant.

However, there is a noteworthy alternative – and I’m not talking about a BlackBerry, that once-popular workhorse that now seems increasingly relegated to the office complexes of Washington and Wall Street.

No – I am talking about Windows Phone 7, Microsoft’s surprising and fun-to-use operating system that is starting to gain more than a toe-hold in the fast-moving and highly competitive smartphone space.

To call Windows Phone 7, which was released towards the end of last year, an improvement over the previous Windows Mobile OS is like calling a thoroughbred an improvement over a pony. It’s not; it’s a completely different animal.

The first thing you notice about Windows Phone 7 is that all the usual clutter you see on the home page of a smartphone has been stripped away and replaced by a series of “live tiles,” which are essentially gateways to the phone’s apps and features. They also tell you the important information you need to know – like the number of missed calls, e-mails and messages received – without having to search for it or go to another screen.

Although you can completely customize your home screen by setting up tiles for your favorite apps, Windows Phone 7 offers a series of basic hubs that provide easy access to the information that you are likely to use the most.

There are six hubs in total – People, Pictures, Games, Music + Video, Marketplace, and Office – and each of them has a slightly different interface, which is designed to work in the most appropriate way with the particular content of that hub.

For instance, the Music & Video hub gives you immediate access to your playlists, but it also remembers your favorite radio stations and highlights special features such as AT&T radio. (I was using a Samsung Focus from AT&T.)

The People hub allows you to sync with Facebook and all the popular e-mail systems, pulling all your contacts into one consolidated, searchable file. It also gives you your messages and your most recent contacts, so you don’t need to continually scroll through dozens of names to find who you need.

Everything is headlined with bold text, so you know exactly where you are at all times. The back button acts just like it does on your browser, taking you back to the last screen instead of throwing you out of the app or sending you back to the home screen to start again.

If you are a PC user, the real “wow” moment with Windows Phone 7 comes when you venture into the Office hub. Here you can create, edit, and share all your documents, just as if you were using a mini netbook. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents are all surprisingly manageable using the responsive on-screen keyboard.

All the other key apps and features are here, including search (using Bing), maps, calendar, etc. And then there are the 15,000 apps in the Windows Marketplace. OK - it may not be able to match the number of apps in Apple’s App Store or Google’s Market, but really, just how many apps do you need?

Microsoft’s original ad campaign for Windows Phone 7 stressed how it could “save us from our phones.” And it’s true – it doesn’t take as long to search and scroll for important information.

But that’s not to say you will spend any less time with your smartphone. The attractive and intuitive tiles and hubs somehow draw you in. Windows Phone 7 may not turn out to be much of a time-saver, but it sure is a lot of fun!

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