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?

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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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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