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    Windows Phone 8 review

    Brad Molen
    October 29, 2012
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    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

    Gallery: Windows Phone 8 Music+Video | 11 Photos

    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.

    Games Hub

    Gallery: HTC Magic Black | 49 Photos

    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

    Gallery: Windows Phone Store | 8 Photos

    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: IE 10 for Windows Phone 8 | 10 Photos

    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.

    Company Hub

    Windows Phone 8 review

    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.

    Google frustrations

    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.

    Miscellaneous

    Gallery: Windows Phone 8 miscellaneous | 28 Photos

    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.

    Gallery: Dell Latitude E6400 XFR | 5 Photos

    • 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.

    Wrap-up

    Windows Phone 8 review

    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.

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Much-improved Start and Lock screensIncredibly smooth performance and solid battery lifeSupports modern hardware componentsGuest user support with Kid's CornerSyncs with iTunes
    Cons
    • Unproven ecosystem, despite Windows 8 compatibility

    Summary

    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.

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