Microsoft's recently announced Windows Mobile 6.0 software for smartphones is a step forward for the company, offering some important improvements over previous versions of the software. But just how good is the new software?

On Thursday, Microsoft offered us the chance to play with Windows Mobile 6.0 ahead of the 3GSM show in Barcelona, Spain, next week. The short demonstration, which took place at Microsoft's office in Singapore, was done using a currently available handset: High Tech Computer’s S620 smartphone.

The S620, also known by its code name Excalibur, sports a small qwerty keypad, a 2.4in QVGA (320 pixels by 240 pixels) screen, and support for GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication), GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) networks. Powered by Texas Instruments' 200MHz OMAP 850 processor, the smartphone has 128Mb of ROM and 64Mb of DDR (double data rate) DRAM.

But enough about the handset used for the demonstration. What about the software?

At first glance, Microsoft's attempt to make Windows Mobile 6.0 look more like Vista has resulted in a better-looking piece of software, with a new font and a cleaner overall appearance. But the most important improvements to Windows Mobile 6 aren't cosmetic.

For starters, Microsoft has added the ability for users to search emails and other information stored on Exchange Server 2007 from a smartphone. Windows Mobile 6.0 also allows users to configure their push mail settings and out-of-office notifications directly from their smartphone, instead of having to use their PCs.

Previous versions of Windows Mobile for PDAs allowed users to view Office documents, and that capability has now been added to the smartphone version of the software. In addition, users can now edit their documents. That feature may be useful for some Word and Excel documents, but I have a hard time believing anyone will be using Windows Mobile 6.0 to edit, or even view, PowerPoint presentations. The screens on these types of devices are just too small for this to be practical.

Other improvements to Windows Mobile 6.0 include offering more information about the people on your contact list. Start typing the name of a contact, say 'John' for example, and Windows Mobile 6.0 brings up a list of contacts named John. Clicking on any one of these names brings detailed information about the contact, including different phone numbers and email addresses, as well as information about your last call - or missed call - with the contact.

Microsoft also improved the browser and instant-messaging functions in Windows Mobile. For example, you can send text or voice messages to your MSN contacts, while chatting with several contacts simultaneously. If a contact doesn't respond, you can also send a ‘nudge’, which causes the user's phone to vibrate, letting them know that they've received a message.

Apart from these features, what struck me most about Windows Mobile 6.0 was its speed. The software seems much faster than previous versions. Applications opened instantly, without making the user wait.

Overall, I was impressed by the newest version of Windows Mobile. Previous versions did not appeal to me, but the improved speed and added features mean Windows Mobile 6.0 is worth a closer look if you're in the market for a smartphone.

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