Microsoft Windows Phone 8 guide: Are these improvements to a great OS enough?

Two years after launching Windows Phone 7, Microsoft is starting up again with a new core powering Windows Phone 8. Are there enough improvements and will there be enough marketing to bring the masses to the platform this time around?

Back in July 2010 I posted my extensive review of Windows Phone 7 Technical Preview and have been using Windows Phone devices every day since that time. Regular readers know I have grown into quite a fan of the platform, largely because it offers a unique experience and for the most part works well for ME. Windows Phone is also the most stabile mobile OS that I have used and that reliability counts for something.

Over two years have passed and we now see Microsoft starting over yet again with Windows Phone 8, but even though the core is different you will see that the look, feel, and performance is just about the same as it has been. That's not a bad thing if you have used Windows Phone and enjoy the "people-centric" experience, but so far the Windows Phone philosophy and UI hasn't seemed to attract the masses (they sit at about 3% market share) and I am not convinced this latest update is going to do much to change that. It is going to take wireless carriers, hardware manufacturers, and Microsoft's concerted efforts to get Windows Phone 8 devices into people's hands.

Check out my extensive screenshot gallery of Microsoft's Windows Phone 8.

Although you will see that much of the look and feel of Windows Phone 8 is the same as Windows Phone 7 in my HTC Windows Phone 8X image gallery we see that hardware vendors are coming out with some new designs that are attractive and bold. You can check out my first impressions of the HTC Windows Phone 8X with a review of a Nokia Lumia device coming later this week. Samsung is also bringing the Ativ S to Windows Phone 8 by taking their popular Galaxy S III form factor and powering it with WP8. The hardware is now competitive with Android and iOS devices and we'll take a look at more of it this week, but for now let's take an in-depth look at the OS behind these new devices and see if you think it offers enough of a compelling experience for you to give it a try.

Quick history and current state of Windows Phone

Windows Phone launched at the end of 2010 and if you revisit reviews you will see that nearly every one of them gave Microsoft's new smartphone operating system high praise. I personally have four of five family members (I had five for a couple months) using and enjoying Windows Phone, primarily for the reason Microsoft gives for its compelling nature; it lets you focus more on the people in your life and those interactions rather than the spending all of your time interacting with apps and diving down into the OS. You may recall Microsoft had a commercial with the message that Windows Phone helps you spend less time with your phone. While I do think people should spend more time actually interacting with others in person, I don't think this message resonated with too many people. I understand the intent was to show that Windows Phone was a powerful personal assistant who was doing the work for you so you didn't have to, but it's going to take more to get people to try Windows Phone.

We never saw device sales reported after the release and over the last couple of years we saw studies and sales data from research firms and analysts show Windows Phone only grew to capture about 3% of the smartphone market share. The hardware was decent, but nothing amazing as most manufacturers took existing Android devices and slapped Windows Phone 7 inside. We saw Microsoft update devices to Windows Phone 7.5 that added things such as custom ringtones, threaded messaging, linked inboxes, groups, Twitter and LinkedIn integration, multitasking, Local Scout, and much more. Microsoft then stated that Windows Phone 8 was coming with a new shared core between Windows 8 and Windows RT. However, this meant that no existing devices were going to get updated and it appears that sales flatlined (looking at recent sales data from carriers) while loyal Windows Phone fans were a bit ticked, especially those that just purchased devices like the Nokia Lumia 900. Microsoft restarted with Windows Phone 7 and to then kill it off and restart again two years later with Windows Phone 8 may be a tough sell.

Nokia went all in with Windows Phone and NEEDS it to succeed to continue in the market. HTC's latest financial data is dismal, at best, and it now looks like they too need Windows Phone 8 to be a success to stay in business. Samsung is the only manufacturer to really excel in the Android market so they don't look to be making much of a play in the Windows Phone area. Thankfully, we see both HTC and Nokia actually launching with some pretty compelling products and I hope that consumers give them a try since Windows Phone MUST be experienced first hand to judge. I am not saying everyone will love it and switch, but you can't really judge it without trying it out.

Wide US carrier support has been tepid with AT&T being the primary Windows Phone advocate and T-Mobile providing some devices. Sprint and Verizon only ever offered a single device each and never seemed to care at all about Windows Phone. If Microsoft wants Windows Phone 8 to succeed they need to get at least the top four US carriers on board and supporting the platform. We have also seen a rather weak marketing strategy from Microsoft and they too need to promote the platform along with carriers and manufacturers. I do think the excitement around Windows 8 and Windows RT is going to help Windows Phone 8 since the UI across all three platforms is very similar and people may like the consistent UI.

What are the major new features in Windows Phone 8?

OK, so now let's get into Windows Phone 8 and see what Microsoft did to improve on Windows Phone 7/7.5. Keep in mind that some of these new features may also be manufacturer specific and I'll try to point that out.

  • Shared Windows core: Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows Phone 8 share core components that should give you a consistent experience, help developers write code once and use it on multiple platforms, and help hardware manufacturers get products to market faster.
  • Advanced hardware support: Windows Phone 8 now supports multicore processors, three screen resolutions (800x480, 1280x768, and 1280x720), and removable storage.
  • Revamped Start screen: You now have the ability to resize Live Tiles, see more interactive Live Tiles and Live Apps, display more information on your lock screen, and let you children use your phone safely in the Kid's Corner.
  • People Hub improvements: You will now find Rooms along with Groups and the ability to use NFC to quickly add and share contacts.
  • Photos Hub and Camera improvements: The camera software has been updated with a viewfinder, lenses, and integrated editing tools. You will also find the ability to store, sync, and share improved in Windows Phone 8.
  • Music & Videos Hub improvements: Xbox Music is now fully supported and microSD support is provided for this hub. You can actually even connect to a Windows computer and browse internal and microSD card storage directly with the File Explorer now, which will please many people.
  • Games Hub improvements: There is a new notifications panel, in-game purchase support, and Xbox SmartGlass support.
  • Windows Phone Store: The Marketplace has been replaced with the Store with new ways to browse for apps, new payment options, cloud backup and reinstall support, and lots of developer improvements.
  • Wallet: This new application lets you carry your phone as your wallet with support for storing debit, credit, loyalty, and membership card info, NFC payments (vendor system not yet in place while WP8 internals support it now), deals, and apps that integrate with Wallet.
  • Office Hub and OneNote Mobile: You should find it easier to find documents in Office Hub while each of the apps has improvements as well. OneNote Mobile is now separate from Office Mobile on your Start screen with an option to share photos to OneNote, enter voice notes, and search your notes.
  • Email and Messaging improvements: White or dark inbox view is now supported, you can send and reply to email via voice, more support for attachments in SMS/MMS are inside, and new emoticons appear in the Word Flow keyboard.
  • Internet Explorer 10: IE 10 is onboard and adds features such as smart address bar, find on page, better touch optimization, and better speeds.
  • Search: There is a cool new ability to swipe left and right from within Bing to see local events, local deals, movies that are in local theaters, and top headlines. Local Scout has also been updated and new search categories are present.
  • Maps: Maps have been improved thanks in large part to the partnership with Nokia that include offline maps. Turn-by-turn voice guided directions are only present on smartphones that have partnerships in place and this is a good reason to pick up a Nokia Lumia if voice guided navigation is important to you.
  • Cloud and over-the-air support: There is now the ability to backup and restore your phone to the cloud. We will also finally see OTA updates so a computer will no longer be required to get an updated device.
  • Skype integration and improved Phone app: After downloading the free Skype app you will find Skype can be setup to keep you signed in and reachable even when the app is closed. Skype contacts are integrated into the People Hub and Skype Chat is fully functional.

Continue reading...

Start screen update

The Start screen on Windows Phone is the first thing you see after unlocking your phone and is also where you will visit on a regular basis. One thing I really like about Windows Phone is that the Start screen is the ultimate in personalization and it seems highly unlikely that you will ever find any other Windows Phone that looks exactly like yours. This is in contrast to the iPhone where I have seen many people with the same home screen and some Android users with the same home screen, commonly the default. Even if every Windows Phone 8 buyer kept the default screen that launched on their phone, you would still see a completely unique Start screen because the dynamic nature of the Live Tiles mean that different people, different photos, and different status updates will appear because we all have different connections to people.

Resize Live Tiles

With Windows Phone 7/7.5 we were given Live Tiles in single wide and double wide format with the ability to simply drag and drop them around the display. In Windows Phone 8 we now have the ability to resize Live Tile in a 1x1 (small), 2x2 (old single wide and new medium), or 2x4 (old double wide and new large) form factor. Developers must provides support for small and medium Live Tile size while large is optional. If you go down to 1x1 then you can fit four of them in a 2x2 block. While this is a subtle change, it is HUGE for the way I use my Windows Phone as I can now have a 2x2 tile that has 1x1 small tiles of my four immediate family members rather than having a single family Group. There is also a cool new Rooms feature I will cover later in this article.

Lock screen improvements

The lock screen has always been a place where you could quickly see the date, time, upcoming events, and any notifications. Microsoft improved it with features such as more background options, detailed app status, and custom notification settings. I love that you can now select the Bing image of the day to appear each day on your lock screen since I really enjoy the images and like a lock screen that changes. By default, and with Windows Phone 7/7.5, we saw the next calendar appointment on the lock screen. You can now choose to have a detailed status update for calendar, Facebook, selected email inbox, messaging, or phone with the ability to always toggle this off. You can view quick status at the bottom for up to five apps, including Facebook, Games, selected email inbox, messaging, and phone.

Kid's Corner

I am wondering if Microsoft's marketing folks talked with parents because as a parent of three daughters I don't think kids associate the word "corner" with a good place to go. Maybe something like Kid's Zone (popular play places) or the Playground would have been a better choice for this functionality. I like the idea behind Kid's Corner and have seen lots of people handing over their smartphones to let kids play games or watch videos, but I am not sure how it will resonate with the market. According to Microsoft, 66 percent of parents allow their kids to use their phones for games, music, videos, and more. I think it is again one of those things you need to try out and live with to appreciate.

Within the Settings you can turn on Kid's Corner and are then walked through a wizard where you can choose from your installed games, music, videos, and apps. You select the things you wish to share with your child and then enable the functionality. By default, Microsoft locks out communications apps such as email, phone, xxx so that your child doesn't make calls to Japan or send spam texts while they are using their phone. The software prompts you to enter a password for your phone so that your child doesn't get into your stuff and for security purposes that's always a good idea anyway.

After setup the next time your display times out you will see you have to enter your security code to get into your phone (you may already have seen this previously if you setup security). To get to the Kid's Corner your child simply swipes from right to left to see their customized lock screen and then swipes up to get into the Kid's Corner. Here they will see album art for the selected music along with shortcut icons for the games and apps they have been given access to. In the upper left they will also find the Customize tile where they can customize the lock screen image and accent color of the Kid's Corner. You child can also tap and hold on the tiles and then resize them to 1x1 or 2x2 size and then drag and drop them around the Start screen. They cannot uninstall apps and games or remove content from within the Kid's Corner. If you have multiple children that want to customize the Kid's Corner you will have to work that out with them since there is only support for one "profile" in Kid's Corner.

People Hub

The People Hub has always been a great place to view the latest updates from your friends and quickly contact them via various forms of communication. In Windows Phone 8 Microsoft added a new panel called Together that gives you access to your Groups and Rooms. Groups was updated to support syncing to your Microsoft account so you will now see these Groups in your People list on Hotmail or Outlook.com.

How is Rooms different than Groups?

Rooms is a new feature of Windows Phone 8 that extends the idea of Groups beyond simple group communication. With Rooms you still have the ability to communicate, but within a private room chat space so that only Room members see communications and every one in the Room see messages and replies. The Room has a shared calendar that is synced to everyone's phones. A room photo album allows you to share photos within the room rather than out on your social network site where everyone can see them. You can also share notes via OneNote so a family grocery list can be manage by all. Only the person who creates the Room can invite or remove people from the Room.

Room invites are sent via SMS and if you have a Windows Phone 8 device then the Room will be setup after you tap on the link and accept the invite. Microsoft also designed Rooms to work outside of the Windows Phone 8 platform so iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 7/7.5 users can follow the invite to a webpage that explains how to setup the shared calendar while messages within the group will be supplied via Live Messenger. Accepting an invite to the group helps you connect with the creator via Live Messenger.

Photos Hub and Camera

I always loved the ability to jump right in and take a photo with my Windows Phone by simply pressing and holding the camera button. Other operating systems have since tried to make it easier to take photos as well, but the simply press and hold of the button is still one of the easiest. Microsoft improved the viewfinder experience in Windows Phone 8 with the ability to zoom via pinch and stretch, easy flash toggle, and ability to switch to a different Lens. One Lens included by default is Bing Vision so from within the camera application you can jump to scanning QR or barcodes in Bing Vision. 3rd party developers can provide other lenses as well, and as of the time of writing this article the only other available is one from CNN.

The auto-fix editing feature was nice in Windows Phone 7.5 and now Microsoft has added crop and rotate options. There are plenty of sharing options available too, including via NFC and Bluetooth.

Continue reading...

Music & Videos

I already wrote about my excitement in finally finding the ultimate music service in Xbox Music and am glad I will soon have a phone that supports all the features. One feature of Windows Phone 8 that I did not know about is the "buzz" panel. When viewing an artist in Xbox Music Store or in your collection you can see Twitter feeds, images, and news feeds for that artist. Playlists are also now cloud-enabled so you can sync them across multiple devices, including Windows 8 and your Xbox 360.

Games

Microsoft continues to integrate the Xbox experience into Windows Phone 8 with features such as SmartGlass that turns your WP8 device into a remote for your Xbox 360. It is a fun companion too so when you are watching content you can view info on your phone about the cast and crew. In-game purchases are supported on WP8 so we may see more freemium games come to the platform. Unfortunately, I still cannot see my Han Solo outfit on my avatar on my Windows Phone :(

Windows Phone Store

The Windows Phone Marketplace has been renamed to the WP Store and along with that comes a few tweaks to help make discovery a bit better. This is important with over 100,000 apps in the Store now too. There is a new discover panel with tiles for the following:

  • Top free
  • New + Rising
  • Top paid
  • Best-rated
  • Collections
  • Picks

Wallet

The new Wallet hub lets you store your debit, credit, PayPal, reward, and loyalty cards and information in one location and eventually will let you tap and pay for transactions with your phone. You can use cards stored in your Wallet for app purchases. You can manually enter data if it doesn't fit into one of the categories, an MVP flyer card, or other secure data. You can setup a PIN just for Wallet, on top of the PIN you have for your device itself. I really want to see support for things such as movie theater reward cards, Starbucks, and other venues where I can save space in my physical wallet. Apple is competing well with Passbook and I think there is the potential for Microsoft to do even better with Wallet.

The deals panel looks helpful and so far I have seen deals from LivingSocial, Yelp, and MSN. I want to see Groupon and Amazon Local added since those are services I actually do use quite a bit.

Office and OneNote Mobile

Having a native Office app on Windows Phone has always been something that set Windows Phone apart from others and Microsoft took some time in WP8 to clean up the experience and accessibility. OneNote was pulled out of the Office Hub, which makes sense since I tend to see people using OneNote that don't really care to use Office on their phone and to use OneNote as a daily app I think it helps to get out from the Office Hub. Now that I have a Windows RT tablet too I imagine the easy sync of the recent document list will become very handy and I will be using it more.

In addition to the updated user interface of Office Mobile you will find updates to Word Mobile, Excel Mobile, and PowerPoint Mobile. Office Mobile will actually now pick up right where you left things when you work with Word 2013 on a PC. This is fantastic and exactly the way cloud services like this should work. There is also a new full-screen reading mode. I use Excel Mobile more than the other two modules and we see the same syncing between last saved locations here with support for charts, smoother navigation, and improved cell selection.PowerPoint Mobile now lets you view slide decks in portrait or landscape mode. Editable speaker notes are also now available below the slide on one display.

In addition to OneNote Mobile moving out from the Office Hub we also see improvements like voice recording capture, ability to send photos capture right into OneNote, and the ability to quickly search through your notes.

Email and Messaging

Email has always been one of the best features of Windows Phone and with Windows Phone 8 Microsoft tweaked things to make email and messaging even better. One new change that should both help make battery life better and give you a look that matches your selected theme is dark mode for inbox. With Windows Phone 7/7.5 you only had a white background with black text and now you can switch that to a black background with white and themed color text. Another nice update is that you can pin individual email folders directly to the Start screen which can be very handy for folders of projects and other specific folders you have set up.

Email has always supported attachments, but you always had to go back to the email that contained the attachment to reopen the attachment. In Windows Phone 8 Microsoft places the downloaded attachments directly into the Office Hub after you download and open them. You can also access documents stored on SharePoint Server by tapping a link in an email. I have used voice-to-text in the past to listen to and respond to text messaging via a Bluetooth headset and now you can do the same thing within email.

You could always delete multiple email conversations and in WP8 you can also do the same for messaging threads. Messaging also gains support for sharing contacts, videos, voice notes, contact cards, and your location. Emoticons are also now provided within the Word Flow Keyboard found in Messaging.

Internet Explorer 10

Given the good applications on Windows Phone I don't spend a ton of time browsing the web and was always satisfied with IE Mobile, which was based on IE9. Microsoft continues to improve their products and WP10 adds hardware accelerated graphics, a faster javascript engine, improved support for HTML5 and W3C web standards, protected mode, and tab isolation. You can also now share web pages through more ways, such as tap+send, Xbox, and social networks. Xbox selection opens up SmartGlass as the conduit. You can also receive links from other WP8 and Android users via NFC. I tested the ability to send and receive web pages with my Samsung Galaxy Note II and it worked fine.

Search

One of the main reasons I use Bing on my Windows Phone devices is to check out the cool daily photos, which is why I like that I can now use these as my default lock screen image. With the updated version of Bing you will see Voice has been removed from the bottom row of icons with the mic icon right up there within the search box, which makes a LOT more sense.

You can now swipe right and left from the main Bing panel and swipe through to see local movies, local videos, headlines, local deals, and local events. I like the use of panorama mode here within Bing. A new search category was added, shopping, while images was changed to media to support both images and videos. The Quick Cards relevant information from your search results has been updated to include places, products, movies, events, news, deal, and videos. These Quick Cards can also show likes from friends that appear in a "buzz" panel, similar to the buzz panel found in Music.

Maps

Maps is now powered by Nokia map technology and along with this new backed comes support for offline maps that is included with all Windows Phone 8 devices. You will NOT get turn-by-turn voice navigation by default as that is tied to manufacturer deals. Nokia Lumia devices will include this. Traffic has been improved so that more secondary streets and coverage of 26 new countries is supported.

Skype

Microsoft now owns Skype so support for this VoIP service is prominent in Windows Phone 8. Unfortunately, I was unable to download and test it out on my pre-release device so can only tell you a bit about what is planned for this service. VoIP services like Skype, Tango, and Qik can now be integrated into your phone dialer, contact list, and more. Skype supports video and voice calls with instant messaging and now runs in the background if you are using other apps so it truly can be used as your preferred phone service if you desire. Pieces of Skype can be shown in Live Tiles and on your lock screen too.

Other Windows Phone 8 improvements

While there are many major improvements in Windows Phone 8, like other mobile operating system updates, there are also a ton of things that get updated behind the scenes and aren't necessarily headliners. In Windows Phone 8 we see the following additional improvements:

  • Screenshots!: I put this addition down here since I doubt many readers care much about this capability, but everyone who writes about Windows Phone can finally test apps and create reviews with real screenshots that look great rather than crappy photos of the screen we have had to post over the last two years. To capture a screenshot you press the start button and power button at the same time.
  • Multitasking improved: Apps are paused when you switch to another app with some, such as navigation and VoIP apps, executing in the background. Windows Phone 8 improves on the multitasking experience while minimizing impact on your phone's performance and battery life. Apps do need to be updated to at least WP 7.5 compliance or even WP8 for full support of multitasking.
  • Word Flow keyboard: The software keyboard has been improved with things such as emoticons for texting and chatting, improved word prediction, and custom dictionary support. You will also find the amazing ability we saw in later Windows Mobile devices where words are actually predicted BEFORE you even type a letter. For example, if you are writing a quick note to someone and enter "happy" you may see the next word appear as "birthday" before you even enter it. I used to be able to type full sentences in Windows Mobile by entering just a few letters.
  • Deeper Voice capability: The voice support in Windows Phone 7.5 is great and I have had text conversations back and forth while mowing the lawn without ever touching my phone or Bluetooth headset. In Windows Phone 8 Microsoft takes that deeper, if developers take advantage of the capability. For example, if Amazon updates the Kindle app there is the potential to say, "Open Kindle Game of Thrones", to then have the app open up and then that book within the app open up.
  • Updated and new Settings: You will find a few new Settings in Windows Phone 8, including cloud backup, tap+send, Kid's Corner, and company apps. Within the Settings you will also find things such as microSD card storage support, more lock screen settings, and Wallet settings.

As you can see, Windows Phone 8 may appear visually as a minor update, but there are lots of fairly significant improvements that make a great OS even better.

Summary thoughts

I have a Nokia Lumia 900 with Windows Phone 7.5 that I use every day and it is still a functional device that does nearly everything I need. Windows Phone 8 improves on that experience in many ways so there is no reason I will not buy a new WP8 device. Microsoft is providing a different user experience than what people see on iOS (app shortcut driven) and Android (widgets and customization) and I think it appeals to the new smartphone buyer. I think most people using iOS or Android are well integrated with those ecosystems and are unlikely to switch for Windows Phone 8. However, with the core of Windows 8 being the same and the UI familiar we may see more people finally giving Windows Phone 8 a chance. I find myself moving more and more into the Windows ecosystem with Xbox Music and Skydrive while also really enjoying my new Microsoft Surface experience.

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