In my review of Windows Phone 7.5, I called out Local Scout as one of several major new features in this version of Microsoft's smart phone OS. But the more I use Windows Phone 7.5, the more I've come to appreciate this feature, and I believe that Local Scout may, in fact, be the single best new feature in this release. It's an excellent example of why Windows Phone's integrated experiences are so useful and successful, and a major differentiator between this platform and the stuck-in-the-past competition.

Note: Like many things in life, Local Scout isn't perfect. Its primary offense is that it's only available to Windows Phone customers in a few markets: The United States, of course, and Australia, France, and the United Kingdom. For a complete list of which Windows Phone 7.5 features are available in which locales, please visit Andrew Birch's excellent Windows Phone 7.5 Feature Availability Matrix.

What it is

Local Scout is a location-aware "neighborhood guide," in Microsoft's words. It's exposed in the Windows Phone 7.5 user interface as a command bar button in the Bing search experience (reached by tapping your handset's Search button) or, via certain wireless carriers, as a discrete app of its own. It can also be accessed through the (Bing) Maps app.

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Local Scout works in one of two ways. First, you can simply access the app from wherever you are, and Local Scout will show you restaurants, sights and attractions, shopping, and area highlights that are nearby your current location. Second, you can use Local Scout to look for useful restaurants, sights and attractions, shopping, and area highlights in another area, via the Maps app.

I've used Local Scout in numerous places over the past several months, including Anaheim, California (twice); San Francisco; Seattle/Redmond, Washington; Fort Collins, Colorado; Paris, France; London, UK; and Washington D.C., and I've really come to trust it, especially for local restaurants.

How it works

Local Scout is a multi-panel app, much like the standard built-in hubs in Windows Phone. Available panels include:

Eat + Drink. A textual list of 20 local restaurants, sorted by distance. Each restaurant listing provides the address, pricing category (1 to 3 $'s), type, distance, and score (1 to 5 stars), and if you tap through, you'll be presented with panels for About (address, directions--which taps through to Maps, phone number, neighborhood, hours, category, and web site), Reviews (which appear to be culled from Yelp and other online services), Upcoming (for events, when applicable), and Apps (which link to potentially related apps on your phone and in the Windows Phone Marketplace).

See + Do. This is a thumbnail list of 20 events and attractions that are nearby. As with Eat + Drink, each location provides an About panel (address, directions, phone, neighborhood, hours, category, and web site), Reviews, and Apps.

Shop. Looking for nearby shopping? This textual list provides the closest 20 retail locations, with address, type, and distance on the main list. If you tap in, you can view panels for About (address, directions, phone, category, and web site), Reviews, and Apps. It's sorted by distance by default.

Highlights. The most curious of the main topic areas, Highlights is a list of highly rated locations regardless of type, and if you mark any locations as a Favorite, they'll appear in this list as well. The list is textual and provides the name and type of each location, along with a map pin for finding it nearby.

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Note that each of these items corresponds to a pin number on a map that can be accessed at the top of the screen. This allows you to see the locations in relation to each other and plot a path to the one you want. Just tap the map view at the top of the screen to navigate.

Also, from each of the Local Scout sub-screens, you can also pin individual locations to you phone's Start screen--perfect for finding it later, Share the location via messaging or an email account, or add it to Favorites. (Remember that your own Favorites auto-populate in the Highlights area when you're nearby.) You can also suggest changes, if you see a mistake. (During the beta period, I found a few places that were listed in Local Scout but out of business; this has improved dramatically for the final release.)

You can also sort the first three lists--Eat + Drink, See + Do, and Shop--differently than the default. Just tap the "Distance" text below the panel title to choose a different filter. Eat + Drink provides highest rated, relevance, or cuisine instead of distance, for example. Thanks to Robert H. for the tip.

To use Local Scout for a different location than your current location, launch (Bing) Maps and search for a location. (This can be an exact address or just a city name, like Paris, France.) After Maps has found the location, tap the (Local) Scout command bar button. Local Scout will load for that location.

Final thoughts

Rival smart phone platforms like Android and iPhone certainly have a variety of apps that let you find out information about local places. But only Windows Phone integrates this information into the core phone experiences and makes it available from a central, obvious location. This kind of integrated experience is what makes Windows Phone special, and better, in my opinion, than the competition. And the best part is that Local Scout is only one such example of nicely-designed Windows Phone experiences. As Microsoft says, Windows Phone works the way you do. Local Scout is a great example, and a great reason to choose Windows Phone.