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?

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.

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

About

Matthew Miller started using a mobile devices in 1997 and has been writing news, reviews, and opinion pieces ever since. He is a co-host with GigaOM's Kevin Tofel on 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 over 200 d... Full Bio

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