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

Summary: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...

Topics: Mobility, Microsoft, Reviews, Samsung, Smartphones, Windows


Matthew Miller started using mobile devices in 1997 and has been writing news, reviews, and opinion pieces ever since. He is a co-host, with ZDNet's Kevin Tofel, of the MobileTechRoundup podcast and an author of three Wiley Companion series books. Matthew started using mobile devices with a US Robotics Pilot 1000 and has owned more than 2... Full Bio

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