Loving the live tiles

Ever since Windows Phone 7.5 (also known as Mango) was released there seems to have been a marked increase in the number of available apps supporting the live tiles on the phone’s start screen. If you haven’t experienced the Windows Phone interface and don’t know what live tiles are, have a look here and select ‘Start Screen + Live Tiles’. If you’re familiar with iOS, you’ll know that apps like e-mail, calendar, Twitter, Facebook and Words With Friends can display a count of unread items or items requiring attention. Live tiles go one step further – they display a count of unread items but can also display informative text and images.

Out of the box there are several apps providing live tiles – e-mail, phone (showing missed calls and voice mails), messaging (now supporting Facebook and Windows Live chat as well as SMS), calendar and the Marketplace (if any of your apps have available updates). The new people hub and groups also provide live tiles – the group tile in particular, showing people in the group, recent Facebook / Twitter / LinkedIn updates and uploaded photos.

But what about the third party apps? There are now tens of thousands in the Marketplace, but here I’ve picked out just a few with the focus on live tiles.

StickyTiles – this is a really simple one to start with, and useful if you want to create a quick reminder. StickyTiles allows you to create tiles to pin to the start screen – select colours for the text and background, type in some text, size it (that’s a bit fiddly), decide if you want a second phase of the tile to flip to, and then push the pin button. I’m using it to remind me of my own mobile number which I’m several months away from learning without looking it up.

Tasks – there are loads of task / to-do apps on the Marketplace, and many of them support live tiles. But the best (in my humble opinion) is named Tasks. Not very original, but does what it says. Inside the app itself is a very rich interface for creating tasks, setting a priority, assigning to a project, setting the due date, and attaching images, voice notes, URLs, phone numbers and e-mail addresses. The live tile support is extensive – the app tile itself provides a count of the tasks, and flips to show the number of tasks overdue and the number due today. But you can also pin an entire task category or a project to the start screen, or an individual task. I have one thing I absolutely must do today, and that task is pinned to the top of my start screen.

Weather apps – we’re British and we love to talk about the weather. The major failing with weather apps and weather services in general is that they’re unreliable at best and tend to all provide different forecasts. Ignoring that, the weather is an ideal piece of info to put on a live tile – and there are quite a few apps which do so. I’ll give an honourable mention to Smart Weather which allows you to build a list of cities and then see the current day and the week ahead. Pressing and holding on a city (I say city, Camberley doesn’t have a cathedral) allows you to pin it to the home screen – the resulting live tile shows the current weather conditions. It’s also worth mentioning Weather4Me and AccuWeather, but I believe the best is Weather (another original name) provided by The Weather Channel. The live tile shows the current weather, temperature and a map of your preferred location.

News – another obvious use of live tiles, and again there are loads to choose from. The Guardian allows you to pick multiple news categories to pin to the start page, and provides live tile updates. The BBC News Mobile app (not actually provided by the Beeb, I should mention) also provides live tile support although it just seems to be one headline at a time. But my pick of the bunch is Pulse – you can select news feeds from various sources (Engadget, Gizmodo, The Onion, BBC News, Time, Wall Street Journal, CNN, USA Today, Boy Genius Report… the list is huge), see these news sources on the app’s main screen, and then pin any of them to the start screen. The live tile then shows the latest headlines and takes you straight into that news source. A great app.

Countdown Tile – I’ll end with another simple app. Countdown Tile provides a countdown to an event  – set the date, select an icon, and pin the app to the start screen. And hey presto, it’s 68 days until Christmas. And being a live tile, tomorrow it will say 67 days. Yes, 67 days, but Argos already have Christmas trees up in the Camberley branch.

It’s worth mentioning some other live tile apps – I’m going to leave the choice of Twitter clients for another time as it’s a blog post all of its own. Foursquare is an extremely polished app (better than the iOS version) and it’s live tile shows your current points and league position, along with the people directly above and below you.

Update: the day after writing this post a new version of the BBC News Mobile app was made available on the Marketplace. It features an improved layout, an improved live tile, and the ability to pin selected news categories to the start page.

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