Two years ago, the mobile landscape was quite different than what it is today. Android flagship phones sported 1GHz single-core CPUs and were in the process of upgrading to Froyo, the iPhone 4 was the Apple phone of choice and the word "phablet" was sure to be followed by a "Gesundheit." (It still is, arguably.) This is just a brief glimpse at the world in which Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 was born. Destined to be the replacement solution for an obsolete Windows Mobile 6.x platform, WP7 did its best to disrupt the industry by offering its unique Metro user interface and slick performance across the board.
There was one growing problem, however; the mobile industry was rapidly changing, and the Windows Phone honeymoon didn't last as long as Microsoft would've liked. Today, the company enjoys less than 5 percent of the world's smartphone market share as it prepares to launch its next major revision, Windows Phone 8. The new firmware promises to resolve concerns surrounding hardware limitations and the platform's ecosystem, add a plethora of long-awaited features and integrate the OS with Windows 8. It's a hefty task for Microsoft to undertake, to say the least, but we're hoping that two revolutions around the sun were enough for the software giant to impress us with its struggling mobile platform. Did it pull it off? Take a look at what makes Windows Phone 8 tick after the break.
Windows Phone 8
- Much-improved Start and Lock screens
- Incredibly smooth performance and solid battery life
- Supports modern hardware components
- Guest user support with Kid's Corner
- Syncs with iTunes
- Unproven ecosystem, despite Windows 8 compatibility
Windows Phone 8 is a tremendous improvement over its predecessor, but it remains to be seen if developers are ready to hop on to the platform.
With WP8, Microsoft has either had a change of heart or found a way to keep its platform running as efficiently as before even with the new additions. Either way, it's a necessary change for the outfit if it hopes to be relevant in today's competitive market. Let's take a look at the most significant changes to the hardware capabilities in WP8.
- Multiple cores. Until now, Microsoft's restriction on multi-core processors has been a move that has frustrated power users for the last two years. Critics have argued that the company wasn't keeping up with the times or matching Android and iOS. Microsoft, meanwhile, repeatedly assured us that the move to two cores and beyond would take place once the company found a way to preserve battery life. No matter which argument you agree with, the fact is that now WP8 can support anywhere from two cores to 64. Devices running the OS will start out with dual-core Snapdragon S4 processors, but we doubt it will be long before Microsoft gives the green light to quad-core chipsets. We'll save performance reviews for when we test out these individual devices. Suffice to say, we were already fans of how smooth and quick the OS was on WP7, and our first impressions of the Windows Phone 8X definitely continues (and improves) that trend with the new specs.
- Screen resolution. With WP7, only one display resolution was allowed: WVGA, or 800 x 480. Again, this was par for the course on flagship Android devices in 2010 (and way behind the iPhone's Retina display). As you can imagine, this has been another sore point for users -- especially since 720p resolution became the norm. Windows Phone 8 devices can now support one of three options: WXGA (1,280 x 768), 720p (1,280 x 720) and the old-fashioned WVGA standard (ideal for entry-level smartphones). This brings WP8's screens back into the modern age for now, but we're already starting to see Android phones with 1080p displays, and it won't be long before that becomes the new standard for flagship handsets. WP8 is off to a good start, but we're hoping that we'll see even more options available in the near future.
- Expandable storage. With the mysterious exception of the Samsung Focus, Microsoft put the kibosh on removable storage for WP7 devices. It was an odd situation, since plenty of phones using the OS actually had a slot for microSD hidden in inaccessible places. The whole thing naturally sparked a controversy when the platform launched, but the issue has finally been resolved; Windows Phone 8 fully supports external storage up to SDXC, allowing you to add as much as 64GB in additional memory. Unfortunately, our particular review unit (the HTC Windows Phone 8X) doesn't include a microSD slot, so we were unable to experience this for ourselves.
- NFC. Windows Phone 8 finally brings native support for Near-Field Communications. This opens up lots of possibilities for both users and developers. In addition to the new Wallet feature, you'll be able to use NFC to transfer plenty of content from your phone to either your PC or another person's device. We'll discuss these features in more detail as we go along through this review. (As an aside, we've seen the tech show up on a Windows Phone before -- namely in the Nokia Lumia 610 NFC -- but it was added in as a software stack on top of the OS, while WP8 will natively support the feature.)
Just as it's done in the past, Microsoft has offered up a list of hardware requirements for each phone to run Windows Phone 8. The list includes:
- Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 dual-core processor
- Minimum 512MB RAM for WVGA phones; minimum 1GB RAM for 720p / WXGA
- Minimum 4GB flash memory
- GPS and A-GNSS; GLONASS is supported if OEMs decide to include it
- Support for micro-USB 2.0
- 3.5mm stereo headphone jack with three-button detection support
- Rear-facing AF camera with LED or Xenon flash, optional front-facing camera (both need to be VGA or better) and dedicated camera button
- Accelerometer, proximity and ambient light sensors, as well as vibration motor (magnetometer and gyroscope are optional)
- 802.11b/g and Bluetooth (802.11n is optional)
- DirectX graphics hardware support with hardware acceleration for Direct3D using programmable GPU
- Multi-touch capacitive touch screen with minimum of four simultaneous points
Another requirement not listed above is that all Windows Phone 8 devices must include the same standard set of buttons: each one needs to have Start, back, search, power, camera and volume up / down keys. All of this sounds promising, given Windows Phone 7's frustrating hardware restrictions, but we're concerned at how often this set of standards will be updated in order to keep pace with the rest of the industry. It's nearly caught up with competing platforms, and we'd hate to see Microsoft fall behind again.
User interface improvements
The initial boot sequence takes you through the usual litany of welcome and setup screens. You'll be prompted to create or log in to your Microsoft Account, set your preferred language and choose if you'd like to back up your pictures, texts and phone settings. From there you'll find yourself on the Start screen, free to roam through various Live Tiles and the app list as you please. If you've used a Windows Phone before, you'll instantly notice that something is different -- very different. As you enter the Start screen you're presented with a familiar checkerboard-like set of Live Tiles as you're used to seeing on a typical
Metro Modern UI, but it now extends all the way to the right edge of the screen (in WP7, the tiles only comprised about two-thirds of it, while the rest was simply unused space). This adds a lot more real estate for each tile. Microsoft has also thrown in support for three Live Tile sizes (compared to two in WP7) and has given developers access to all of them. What used to be the smaller tile in WP7 is now considered medium, which means there is an even smaller option available for stuff you want access to but that doesn't require much space. This works well -- we want to have a settings tile pinned to Start, but there's no reason it needs to occupy a large portion of the screen. Same goes for other utilities. You also have the opportunity to change the tile size, a privilege not extended to WP7 users. Third-party developers are required to support small and medium, but it's up to them if they want to accommodate the largest size. To toggle back and forth between all three sizes, just long-press the tile and a new arrow shows up in the bottom-right corner. Press it and presto -- your tile just shrinks or expands, depending on the direction the arrow is facing. The folks in Redmond claim that this new setup makes your phone even more personal than it was before; we just like that we can add more viewable content to the Start screen, and do so in an efficient, well-organized way.
%Gallery-169498% While the Start screen got the biggest facelift in WP8, there are also some important changes to the lock screen that ultimately make it more useful. In WP7, you were allowed to receive some details about the next appointment in your calendar. Now, you can swap it out for your most recent unread email, text message or missed call. Notifications on the bottom of the screen are more customizable now, as you can choose which types of notifications you receive and what order you want them in from left to right. There's room for five icons,
but the major limitation here is that only one of them can be used for notifications from a third-party app. (Update: Microsoft tells us that all five icons will be able to support third-party apps, not just one.) It's an improvement over WP7, but unfortunately it still doesn't best Android's notification system. The lock screen background can also be dynamically updated to display third-party app information -- HTC, for example, does a terrific job of this in its weather app, letting you view the current temperature and the day's forecast (along with pretty pictures of your local weather conditions), and apps like CNN will offer breaking news updates in the same way. You can also have the lock screen show off the Bing photo of the day, if you're just looking for eye candy. Aside from these two changes, WP8 doesn't include many drastic tweaks to the user interface. As you'll see in this review, that doesn't mean Microsoft hasn't thrown in extra features -- it just means people familiar with the Modern UI won't have much of a learning curve when they begin using their new phones.
Syncing your phone
Windows Phone 8 offers several ways to sync your phone and PC, so that you don't have to go through Zune to get access to your music, videos and photos anymore. Devices on the platform now utilize MTP, which means you can access the phone as an external hard drive. Drag and drop the files you want on the phone and that's all you have to do. You can even go into Windows Media Player and sync up songs and playlists the same way we've been able to do for Android phones. You can also sync your device with iTunes, but you'll need to use Microsoft's desktop companion app to do so (available for Windows 7 and Mac; Win 8 has the feature built-in). In fact, this particular program is the only option Mac users will have if they want to connect the phone to their machine. When you dive in, the program first asks you if you want to sync iTunes or Windows libraries. If you choose the former, it brings up iTunes in a separate window and begins loading all of your music, pictures, videos, podcasts and ringtones. From there it's just a matter of picking and choosing what you want to toss into your phone. This alleviates one of the biggest concerns iOS users have had in moving over to Windows Phone, and it works seamlessly.
%Gallery-169501% Fortunately, you'll also be able to enjoy OTA upgrades, a feature that's been offered on Android and iOS devices for a long time now. You can be notified when the next update is available, download the updates automatically or manually check for a new software version.
Lastly, WP8 adds the ability to back up your text messages, app list, IE10 bookmarks, device settings and photos / videos to the cloud, with all of this data being tied to your Microsoft account. This makes it much simpler to restore your phone if it gets wiped or if you need to replace it for any reason.
Compatibility with Windows 8
As to whether or not this strategy will work, we believe it will make the platform stronger going forward, but it's going to take a fair amount of time for developers to push out enough earth-shaking apps to persuade the typical iOS or Android user that has already heavily invested in their ecosystem of choice. This type of thing won't happen overnight, but it's much more believable once flocks of PC users make the upgrade to their new desktop OS. Even though the company's putting such a heavy emphasis on the Win 8 / WP8 experience, it doesn't mean it's completely scrapping Windows Phone 7 or 7.5; all of our legacy apps have chugged along without any struggles, and we expect to see large-scale improvements in these apps when they add compatibility in the near future.
We'll be straight-up about this; many of the features we'll discuss in this review suggest that Microsoft's main focus is keeping up with some tough competition in Android and iOS. That doesn't mean that Windows Phone isn't bringing anything new or innovative to the table, however. On the contrary, we believe that many of WP8's enhancements are unique enough to attract new users. One of our absolute favorites is Kid's Corner. Parents, take heed: Kid's Corner is designed primarily for you, not the children nestled under your wings. Most of us have yearned for the days when we could own a phone capable of offering more than one user account. WP8 addresses this need. This feature enables a "guest user" mode that prevents the kiddies from deleting all of last week's email, calling up random people you don't want to talk to and wreaking complete havoc.
%Gallery-169505% Let's talk about how it works. When you go into settings (or the convenient Live Tile already on the Start screen), you can choose from a list of apps, games and photos that you want your kids (or meddling frat buddies) to have access to. You'll also need to set up a password for yourself, by the way, so they can't access it. Once you've set everything up, return to the lock screen and swipe to the left. You'll be greeted by a completely new lock screen, and all you have to do at this point is swipe up and you're in. Kid's Corner still has a Start screen that's just as customizable as your own, but your kids won't have an app list to take advantage of. This feature isn't the first of its kind on the system level: Android users can now take advantage of multiple user profiles with the recent unveiling of Jelly Bean 4.2, but that's still currently restricted to tablet use only, giving WP8 a slight edge in that sense. We've also seen a similar feature capable on jailbroken iPhones. Regardless, the opportunity to offer a second "guest" account within the OS is a welcome addition that should level the playing field with Android and even offer a competitive advantage over iOS in this area.
Wallet and NFC
Microsoft has responded to Google Wallet and Apple's Passbook by introducing its own Wallet app, which is in many respects a combination of its two main competitors. It serves as a hub where you can keep your credit card information, which can then be used to make purchases in the Windows Phone store or for NFC-enabled mobile payments. As a warning, carriers aren't guaranteed to support that last feature.
Wallet also hangs onto any loyalty or membership cards you have (including Microsoft gift cards, natch), letting you find and store merchant deals; you'll even be able to add reminders and pin individual deals to the Start screen. Since WP8 still hasn't officially launched, we weren't able to find very many vendor deals -- most of them were provided by LivingSocial, and none of the offers were appealing to us -- but as more vendors sign on, this could become an intriguing feature. Lastly, another panel gives you a list of apps that are capable of tying into the Wallet, though few were available to us at this point. Much like many other aspects of the Windows Phone ecosystem, this feature is heavily dependent upon third-party buy-in, and will only stand to get better as more apps sign on. (By the way, Wallet is secured with a four-digit PIN that you'll be required to type in every time you enter the app.)
%Gallery-169499% We like the direction Wallet is heading here, as it combines the best ideas from iOS and Android's options. To further improve the experience, we'd love to see Microsoft include some sort of Google Now-like ability where the phone is capable of learning your interests and needs based on what you've previously looked at, but this is at least a start. WP8's NFC support is useful for mobile payments, but it doesn't stop there. The platform also allows you to use this technology to share videos, music, contact information and IE10 links between phones and other devices. Maps, sadly, cannot be shared (although you can at least send a map of your current location via MMS now, as an alternative). NFC transfers work best when done from one WP8 device to another, but there are some transactions technically possible between WP8 and Android; contacts push to Android phones easily enough, but we couldn't seem to transfer URL links the same way. Photos and music aren't compatible due to differences in the platforms -- they simply appear in the form of inaccessible tags. Attempts to go the opposite way and transfer files to WP8 from an Android device failed. While we're happy to see support for NFC, it looks as though our dreams of a true cross-platform solution have yet to be realized.
Expecting big changes in how WP8 handles its email experience? Don't, unless you've been yearning for an inbox with a dark background. Granted, the enhancement is much less harsh on our eyes when checking email in dark rooms (read: lying in bed), and it may offer some improvements on battery life on AMOLED devices. Indeed, we do prefer this over the standard white background in most cases, but there's one catch -- it reverts back to the white background when you view the actual email, thus negating the point of the black background in low light. To be fair, there are a couple other enhancements to the email functionality aside from this; Office documents will now show up automatically in the Office Hub (previously, you had to view the document and choose to save it on the phone before it showed up), and you can dictate emails using voice-to-text. As the email experience hasn't made any significant leaps, our opinion of it hasn't changed much, either. While it has some strong points you won't find on iOS or Android, such as the ability to link some or all inboxes together in universal fashion, as well as pinch-to-zoom capabilities, we also have our share of frustrations. A couple examples: just as before, the conversation view still involves clicking on individual replies, rather than having it be one continuous thread just as you would see if it were a chat in your messaging hub. Additionally, the number of unread messages disappears from your Live Tile as soon as you enter the app, even if there are still emails that you haven't looked at yet.
Microsoft is also introducing its own data-usage tracker similar to what Google's thrown into Android 4.0 and above, but there are a few design considerations that keep this from being just a carbon copy. Much like on Android, Data Sense will start out by asking you about your data plan and the end date of your monthly billing cycle. The program then monitors your data usage, which can be tracked through a Live Tile, and will even warn you with a pop-up notification if you're approaching your monthly allotment. Additionally, it helps you find nearby WiFi hotspots and then, once you're connected to one, it'll automatically switch internet-loving background tasks to go off of that connection. Lastly, it also uses IE10 to compress web pages in an effort to limit how much data is coming through your pipeline. We weren't able to test this service out, but Microsoft confirmed to us that Verizon will be the first US carrier to get Data Sense, and will have it before the holidays. If you're on a different network, you can expect to see it arrive next year, though no month or date has yet been set -- we'll keep you posted as we hear more.
The only real changes to the phone app are taking place behind the scenes, as the user interface remains virtually unchanged. Instead, the crucial addition here is support for VoIP integration. This is possible thanks to a set of Rich Communication Suite APIs that have been included in the SDK, enabling third-party devs to step up and grasp the opportunity. This means we can look forward to companies like Qik, Tango and Skype putting out apps with this capability in the near future. Here's how it will work: whether or not the app is running, you'll be able to receive VoIP calls just like you would with any normal call. The notification window will be the same, and WP8 can handle cellular and VoIP calls at the same time. Naturally, Microsoft is placing a pretty high emphasis on the stuff you can do with Skype; if you use the service, you can be reachable even when the app is closed. On the same note, multitasking is fully supported here, so your calls don't hang up when you try to exit the app. You'll even be able to answer Skype calls the same way you normally would with an inbound cellular call.
This isn't the first time this year that we've seen a phone maker completely change its mapping technology in a major platform revision, but we're hoping that the one Microsoft is making on WP8 goes a little more smoothly than its competition. As many of our avid readers know, we're quite impressed with Nokia's mapping prowess, so we were pleased to see that Windows Phone 8's maps have been blessed with the Finnish company's technology. (Yes, this means that other OEMs will be using Nokia Maps, rather than Bing.) The partnership with Nokia has also helped Microsoft improve its traffic data coverage, expanding to 26 more countries and showing more secondary streets.
With this technology come a few solid advancements, including the ability to download maps for offline use. This is one of the most exciting features to us, largely due to its pleasant performance in real-world tests conducted by our very own Darren Murph on the Nokia Lumia 900.
Unfortunately, this transition into Nokia Maps has a negative side effect: voice turn-by-turn navigation has been disabled, making it only accessible through apps that support the feature, such as Nokia Drive. It wasn't available on our review unit, however, so we weren't able to test it out.
Lastly, Local Scout has a new panel called "For You." Sounds like Microsoft's handing you a special gift, right? Not so much, but it's taking a little piece of Google Now to bring you local businesses, restaurants and places of interest based on what your friends and family like, on top of a few other factors (such as places that a lot of people have checked into, as well as deals that are currently "popular").
The biggest addition to the People Hub is Rooms. Think of it as a proprietary version of Groupme (which may or may not be a coincidence, since the company was acquired by Skype last year). Here friends and family have their own little "hub" with a dedicated messaging thread and calendar, a place for everyone to post pictures and a panel where you can attach notes. Each Room can be pinned to Start and all of the messages in your thread will be treated as such, complete with the usual messaging notifications. Other than that, the changes here are relatively few and insignificant. As we mentioned earlier, the addition of NFC support gives you the chance to share contacts back and forth with others, and you can use this opportunity to add those newfound contacts to your People Hub. Groups share a panel with Rooms, but it's ultimately the same as well; the largest difference is that each group now syncs with your Microsoft account, so they'll now show up in your Outlook.com or Hotmail.
Not a lot has been changed around in the messaging department. WP8's feature enhancements in this area include more MMS options: you now can send contacts and / or your location in a message (showing your location on a map), and you can delete multiple messaging threads at once. Lastly, you'll also notice that your threads from any Rooms you have set up are featured here, keeping you from having to back out of the hub to make the switch over to your group chat.
Photos and Camera
Even though the camera is one of few areas in the OS in which the manufacturers are able to let their creative juices flow and differentiate themselves, the overall UI and mechanics remain the same. The viewfinder UI has received just a few changes in the upgrade to WP8: zoom is no longer in the sidebar, because you can now pinch-to-zoom directly on the viewfinder instead. Taking its place on the sidebar are the flash toggle switch and the ability to select a Lens. The camcorder and front-facing camera toggles haven't gone anywhere. What's a Lens? Developers can now make apps that apply various customized settings and filters to the native viewfinder to enhance your overall photo-taking experience. We had the chance to play with a few examples. Photostrip lets you take shots in burst mode, and it allows you to dictate how many shots are taken in a burst, as well as the amount of time lapses in between pictures. CamWow gives you a whole bunch of filters to use, much like you would find in Ice Cream Sandwich. Finally, Photosynth offers you the opportunity to take panoramic shots. As these are just a few examples that should be launching at or soon after WP8's launch, we doubt it will be much time before we see others hitting the Windows Phone Store. Fortunately, there's a "find more lenses" option that will take you straight into that category in the Store itself.
%Gallery-169497% When it comes to what you can do after the shot is taken, Windows Phone 8 has a few new editing tools to add to its collection: crop and rotate. On top of that, SkyDrive users are given more flexibility in how compressed their photos are when they're uploaded -- pics are uploaded in "good quality" by default, but you can change the settings so your shots will be pushed to the cloud in full res ("best quality") as long as you're connected to a hotspot. You can also use NFC once again to your advantage by sharing your pictures and videos with others. As for the Photos Hub, the panels are all the same; the galleries, however, now come with a much-needed multi-select button so you can delete, share, save or star more than one at a time.
Music and Video
We already know the Zune brand is yesterday's news, but it seems as though Windows Phone is doing everything it possibly can to place itself as far away from the old brand as possible. We no longer have the music section of the Zune marketplace, it's the standalone Xbox Music Store; likewise, the Zune pass is now the Xbox Music Pass. Perhaps the best new feature is the phone's deep integration with the cloud. Purchases you make within the Music Store will automatically be stored there so that you can listen to these songs on all of your Microsoft-branded devices (i.e., Win 8, WP8 and Xbox 360). Every song or video associated with your Microsoft account will show up in your collection, and you can choose to stream them or download them so that you can listen later. Playlists receive the same treatment. There's also a Buzz Panel in the Xbox Music Store, provided you're in Artist View. This feature is supposed to let you stay up to date on the latest news connected to that artist by showing Twitter feeds, news feeds and images related to them. As of this writing, Microsoft has not enabled the feature; we've been told to expect it sometime soon after launch.
If there's one thing that Microsoft can't deny, it's the fact that the gaming experience was lacking on Windows Phone 7, despite the company's efforts to market its Games Hub in connection with Xbox Live. Fortunately, the folks in Redmond seem to have realized that this needed to change in order for WP8 to gain more momentum -- when most of the top games are going straight to iOS and Android, Windows Phone has struggled to attract popular titles like Words with Friends until now. That's definitely a cause for concern. Of course, games don't a good OS make, but it's one of the factors that many people take into consideration when looking for a new smartphone. With that in mind, let's look at how Microsoft is addressing this issue. First, it hopes that its integration with Windows 8 and use of native code will attract more big-name console developers that weren't previously willing to drain unnecessary resources into something like this. Adding the extra support will theoretically entice devs because it should be easy to port Windows titles over to the mobile OS (and vice versa). Also, WP8 will finally give devs the power to offer in-game purchases (freemium, anyone?), increasing the opportunities for struggling third parties to make a few extra bucks.
There's one aspect of the Games Hub that has us completely puzzled. The spotlight panel features a large list of gaming options that Microsoft wants to promote, but tapping on the links take us into a link on IE10. From there you can click on another link that will take you into the Windows Phone Store, but we have a hard time understanding why we need to be routed into the browser. We'd rather be taken either directly into the Store or at least a page within the Hub that loads faster and shows your options in an efficient manner. Take the middleman out of it.
Windows Phone Store
We've been talking about the Windows Phone Store quite a bit throughout this review, and until now, we haven't actually discussed that it is, in fact, the rebranded Windows Phone Marketplace. On the outside, nothing sticks out like a sore thumb; the renovations here are mostly of the behind-the-scenes sort. For starters, the revamped market is now powered by Bing Search, something that Microsoft says will bring you more relevant results and recommendations -- it now takes ratings into consideration when pulling up search results, as well as the rate of uninstalls and crashes. Additionally, the Store now offers in-app purchases and multiple methods for you to pay up. As we mentioned when discussing the Wallet app, you can choose from carrier billing, a credit / debit card, Microsoft gift card or PayPal. As a side note, any WP7.5 apps you purchased will still be available on WP8 -- without having to pay for it a second time.
Internet Explorer 10
Every major update to Windows Phone so far has included a bump up to the next version of Internet Explorer. So it is this time, as WP8 now houses Internet Explorer 10 (Mango had IE9). Again, you're not going to see many new UI elements here, as most of the improvements are taking place underneath -- this new iteration promises higher efficiency, faster rendering time, hardware-accelerated graphics and twice as much HTML5 support as IE9.
Does it work as promised? Running side by side against Mango-powered phones, it was clearly much faster. In particular, our Windows Phone 8X cruised through SunSpider in 904ms. That's the fastest time we've recorded on a mobile device, though not by much -- it barely beat out the iPhone 5's score of 914ms. (If you're into benchmarks, the 8X also got 326 in HTML5test and 56,047 in Browsermark.)
%Gallery-169503% The address bar also can be customized a bit more than before, as you can now choose between three different functions for the main button found within: your options are stop / refresh, favorites and tabs. To add to the list of new features, IE10 now has "find on page," Do Not Track and NFC link sharing. IE10 also includes a SmartScreen filter, which is a lifesaver if you accidentally wander into a malicious site.
We'll admit that Enterprise isn't a huge area of coverage for us, and we typically refrain from going into excruciating detail in that area. One feature designed for the Enterprise, however, is actually too clever for us to simply shun. WP8 includes support for special private hubs that can only be accessed by employees or IT professionals. Known aptly as Company Hub, this is a place set aside for companies to offer news, calendars, notes and employee-specific apps that can't (and shouldn't) be accessible via the public Windows Phone Store. These types of apps have been available for iOS and Android for quite some time, but we enjoy the idea of each employee having a one-stop shop on their phone for all of their pertinent information, rather than having to sideload everything they need.
Any of our readers who have given Windows Phone a chance over the last two years likely have seen that Google and Microsoft haven't played well -- at least, not when it comes to the latter's mobile OS. A quick search of the Windows Phone Store, in fact, shows only one app developed by Google Inc. This means that you don't have any native apps for Gmail, Reader, Voice, Talk or the vast multitude of other services. Third-party apps are available to help cover this gaping hole, but most of them aren't up to par with the experience Android users have on their devices. Good luck getting privately shared calendars to show up -- our various methods didn't turn up a way to do it. (Our regular Google Calendar and publicly shared calendars worked just fine.) Heck, even the web view for its services (most of which look great on iOS) appear the same way you'd expect it to show up on your kid's prepaid featurephone: slow, unintuitive and frustrating. Lastly, we haven't even seen any efforts from either company to integrate Google+ or Talk into the OS like what was done for Twitter and Facebook. Indeed, Windows Phone -- despite its various improvements -- still lacks a punch in this area, which makes it a tough sell for Android fans to move over.
Here are a few other notable observations concerning Windows Phone 8.
- This one is huge: developers can now have their apps communicate with other third-party apps. This means that if one app has to hand you off to another to offer relevant content, it can do so. For instance, a Yelp app could launch your favorite GPS navigation app in order to provide you with step-by-step directions on how to get to that Mexican restaurant with all the rave reviews.
- If you liked the keyboard before, you'll like it just as much now. Barely anything has changed on it, though Word Flow (the renamed version of Quick Correct from Mango) has been slightly improved. While Word Flow's word predictions and corrections are typically quite accurate, we'd still prefer a dedicated number row and more easily accessible punctuation marks. We also noticed that the keyboard often refused to correct -- or even understand, in many cases -- contractions. Unfortunately, opponents of the keyboard continue to be stuck with it, since third-party keyboards can't directly tie into the OS and have to resort to making you cut and paste everything you write.
- Developers can make better use of Microsoft's TellMe service, which is accessible by long-pressing the Start button. While the service was already capable of opening apps with the power of your voice, it now supports the ability to dive in even further and do specific commands within those apps as well. For instance, we were able to start listening to music on Hey DJ by saying "Hey DJ, play Call Me Maybe." (If that's what you're into, of course.) Again, this is an API feature that will ultimately depend on whether or not devs integrate it into their app.
- While it's not a mainstream feature that everyone craves, the ability to take screenshots is incredibly important for tech-savvy individuals (not to mention yours truly, when it comes to writing this review). We've been confused as to why it's been left out for so long, especially when considering the multitasking feature added into Mango last year consists of several cards made up of screenshots. To take advantage of this opportunity yourself, you just need to press down the power button and the Start key simultaneously for one second.
- Windows Phone 8 has added twice as many accent colors to its selection of themes, bringing the total to 20.
- The calendar remains the same in Windows Phone 8.
- WP8 offers support for 60 keyboard languages and 50 UI languages.
- A minor irritation we've had with Windows Phone in general is the lack of a proper battery meter in an easy-to-glance place. This is still the case with WP8, unfortunately, though it can be seen without too much effort as subtext in the settings menu (look under "battery saver").
- Office Hub has seen a few changes, including mobile versions of the Office 2013 suite (Word, Excel and PowerPoint); OneNote Mobile also disappears from the hub as it graduates to its very own standalone app. The new Office document list can stay in sync across Microsoft's different platforms, which makes it easier for you to move from phone to desktop or tablet and vice versa. PowerPoint lets you view slides in portrait mode as well as landscape, and it also lets you see the full slide deck instead of just an outline of slide titles. Word's added a full-screen reading mode, and Excel now supports charts, grab-handles and other UI enhancements.
- Speaking of OneNote, as we mentioned, it now sits alone as its very own Live Tile and native app. While most of the functionality remains exactly the same, WP8 has thrown in the ability to send photos to the app, and you can also use TellMe to dictate notes for you.
- Microsoft continues to make improvements in how Windows Phone integrates with its cloud service, known as SkyDrive. This is hardly surprising: you'd expect a company to encourage use of its own cloud service, but far too many WP users will find themselves frustrated at the lack of available storage space; anyone who signs up for a new account will receive 7GB total cloud space for free. It's technically better than what Apple and Google provide for its own cloud storage, but the 2GB difference won't be enough to persuade potential customers into making the switch, nor will the fact that few (if any) cloud services offer native apps with system integration. Also, competition in the cloud market continues to heat up, since several phones have set precedents by offering a complimentary 25 or 50GB of Dropbox space. Given its current position in market share, Microsoft can afford to open up more SkyDrive storage as an attempt to incentivize new customers.
- We love the idea of glancing at our notifications when we're viewing the Start screen, but a concern we've had since the beginning is the fact that we have no way of seeing our important notifications when we're in other apps (aside from the occasional banner). With plenty of space available in the hidden status bar on the top of the screen, it would be great to see Microsoft throw in additional customization options for notifications here.
With the exception of a few new features, Windows Phone hadn't changed much in the last two years. The new version of its OS, however, definitely makes the platform feel more refined and even brings back some of the freshness we originally felt when we first laid eyes on the firmware. We demanded support for hardware that's relevant to today's market, and Microsoft brought it; we wanted more app integration and customization, and it's now much improved over WP7. Indeed, Windows Phone 8 is precisely what we wanted to see come out of Redmond in the first place. There's only one major question mark still looming over its head now; how will developers respond to it? In 2012, an OS is only as strong as its ecosystem, and regardless of Microsoft's best efforts to sell the platform to big-name developers (and even amassing over 100,000 apps to date), it's been an ongoing struggle for Windows Phone to appear relevant enough to attract popular titles. What the new firmware has, however, is much more potential than WP7 ever had; Microsoft has finally laid the proper framework to make the platform desirable to developers. We'll also likely see a large number of Windows 8 customers eventually drawn to Microsoft's phone OS as they begin investing time and money in the desktop or tablet versions. Let there be no doubt -- Windows Phone 8 is a definite improvement over its predecessor, and it's long overdue. In general, we like what we see, and users and developers have been eagerly awaiting this update ever since the Windows Phone platform first launched. It's still far from perfect, but Microsoft has finally caught up in many ways to its competitors (and come up with some clever new features in the process), and by doing so, the momentum is now in its court. If Microsoft loses that momentum in the near future, however, we have a hard time seeing its OS recovering from it.