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.