If ever there were a hot-button topic for Windows Phone users, it’s that certain features only make their way to certain phones, thanks to the blocking by wireless carriers which, let us not forget, are actually responsible for supporting the handsets. Key among the Windows Phone 7.5 features that are beholden to the carriers, aside from software updates of course, are support for hidden Wi-Fi networks, Internet sharing (tethering), and Visual Voicemail.

Though it wasn’t invented by Apple, Visual Voicemail first appeared on the original iPhone in 2007 and users of other mobile platforms have been pining for it ever since. With Windows Phone 7.5, it’s finally available on that platform, albeit with a few key restrictions: It is carrier dependent, it could require an additional monthly fee, and it requires a data plan.

The former restriction is, perhaps, the more onerous. It means that carriers will almost certainly use the lure of this feature as part of a campaign to get existing users to upgrade to a new phone, rather than offer it to existing customers with other Windows Phone. And so it is with the Nokia Lumia 900, which debuted recently with a number of unique features, including Visual Voicemail. There’s no reason AT&T couldn’t add Visual Voicemail to, say, the Samsung Focus S. But you have to expect they won’t.

If Visual Voicemail is available to you, you’ll see an option to enable it in Phone settings. I was surprised it wasn’t simply enabled by default, but I suppose—and this will be a bit rankling to the many still waiting to get this feature—there are some who prefer the older, call-based voicemail instead.

(You can still call your voicemail if Visual Voicemail is enabled; there’s a Call button in Phone settings. In fact, sometimes you may not have a choice: If your phone’s data connection can’t reach AT&T’s servers, it will give up and supply a Call Voicemail link. That ironically happened while I was writing this article.)

Windows Phone users know that missed calls and unheard voicemails are marked by a number on the Phone app’s tile, and this doesn’t change with Visual Voicemail. 

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However, when you actually run the Phone app, you’ll see a different interface. Instead of a single screen app, as with non-Visual Voicemail-based systems, you’ll see that there are now two pivots, History—for your history of calls—and Voicemail, which is new to Windows Phone 7.5, and only present when you have the Visual Voicemail feature. And there’s no Voicemail button in the app bar.

When you tap the Voicemail pivot, you’ll see a list of unheard voicemails.

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When you are viewing this page, the app bar and menu change as well. The Keypad button carriers over, as do the Delete All and Call Settings menu items, but there are new Select and Speaker buttons.

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The point of Visual Voicemail, of course, is to let you easily choose which voicemail to play, and you can “visually” select that most important message from the list of possible voicemails.

When you do select a voicemail to play, the view expands inline—something that I believe is fairly unique in Windows Phone—allowing you to access addition commands via a set of four buttons, Play/Pause, Delete, Call, and Contact Card. These buttons work as expected, providing a way to play and pause the message, delete it from the server, call the person back, or access their contact card in your address book if there is one, respectively.

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You can of course additionally use the app bar buttons to accomplish other tasks. The Select button helps you multi-select voicemails in the list so that you can delete two or more at once.

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And the Speaker button will of course enable speaker phone functionality.

Visual Voicemail works pretty much as expected in Windows Phone 7.5 and is a very welcome addition to the world’s best smart phone platform. I only wish it was available to all Windows Phone handsets regardless of carrier.