Windows Phone 8 review: Str8 up

Posted on Tuesday, Oct 30 2012 on 10:26 AM
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Introduction

 

Windows Phone 8 is officially in the race. It probably isn't time to count the horses just yet but Team Windows seems ready to bounce - major OEMs have backed Microsoft up with flagships and mid-range options. Redmond is doing its part with what looks like one of the biggest OS overhauls this year.

 

It's not new looks that will impress users - the UI design has always been among the platform's strong points - but there are so many things under the hood that make the new OS such a decisive step forward. Windows Phone 8 supports multiple core chipsets and different screen resolutions. There's even deeper social integration, improved SkyDrive and Xbox Live support, DirectX graphics, Windows 8 and Xbox 360 cloud and services, USB mass storage.

 

The new platform core helps streamline app development and ties everything up in a consistent, cross-device ecosystem. What this means is the proverbial catching up with the Android and iOS app stores is finally within Microsoft's reach.

 

Key features:

Multi-core processor and multiple screen resolution support

Clean, uncluttered UI with distinctive design language

DirectX graphics support

Excellent MS Office mobile implementation

Top-notch social integration

Cloud services (SkyDrive, Windows Live, Xbox Live)

Wireless sync of multimedia content

Internal memory expandable via microSD card slot

USB Mass Storage mode

Multi-tasking

DivX/XviD video support

Nokia-powered Bing Maps

Children's corner

Data Sense

Class-leading JavaScript performance

 

Main disadvantages:

 

No system-wide file manager

No voice-guided navigation

No music player equalizers

No lockscreen shortcuts

New ringtones available only through the Marketplace

Maximum supported resolution still lower than Android

 

Microsoft is spreading the campaign wide this time and failure is not an option. Windows 8 and Windows RT OS have already demonstrated huge potential. The Surface lineup looks promising and blurs the traditional boundaries between tablet and laptop. The recently launched Xbox Music service is something to look forward to as well. It is now Windows Phone 8's turn to show off its newly found skill and power.

 

 

Yet, taking a look at the homescreen we see the familiar live tile Start Screen and the scrollable app list. Even most of the apps are the same as before. The first impression of Windows Phone 8 on those coming from 7.5 could be a little underwhelming. The user interface logic and looks are virtually the same. So, what's the big deal?

 

Sure, there are lots of new additions such as USB mass storage mode (so long, Zune transfers), the rich video codec support and the deeper Xbox Live integration. Even more important, there's support for new screen resolution modes, wider hardware support and DirectX graphics.

 

So, yes there's plenty of more power that users will definitely feel and appreciate. But the real benefit is long term. Windows Phone 8 shares code with the company's desktop OS and unified cross-platform development will hopefully soon start making a difference in terms of both the quantity and quality of apps .

 

Plenty of extra power under the hood, will open up many new possibilities for devs. DirectX graphics will support powerful new games and even give some classics a new lease on life on a phone.

 

But if you want to focus on the here and now, a video demo of Windows Phone 8 is a good place to start.

 

People Hub

 

The People Hub remains untouched. The first tab shows you a list of all your contacts (phone contacts, social network friends, email pen friends - everything), with a search shortcut and an add contact button.

 

Contacts are ordered alphabetically, indexed with colored letter tiles. You can tap any one of those letter boxes to display an alphabet grid highlighting the letters actually in use. You can tap on a letter to scroll to that part of the list.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Contacts • Contact search • The History tab

 

Contacts can be sorted by either first name or last, and they can be displayed as "First Last" or "Last, First" (the two settings are separate), you can also filter contacts by service (so you can hide Twitter contacts, for example).

 

Swiping to the side brings you to the What's new tab that shows new events from all contacts in social networks. Another swipe shows the recent contacts. Instead of favorites, you can pin a contact to the homescreen.

 

Windows Phone 8 
What's new tab

 

The next tab is Rooms and Groups. Groups is a handy way to organize your contacts, with "text everyone" and "email everyone" features. All the status updates from the grouped contacts are pulled in from their various social networks, and you get access to their online photo albums too. Groups can also be pinned to the homescreen for easier access.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Groups and Rooms

 

Rooms is just chat rooms similar to Skype group chats, but with contacts from your phonebook and social accounts. Unlike the Skype chats though, the rooms also offer calendar entries, notes and photos - same for all room members. Everyone can add events or docs and they'll become available to the other members. The best part is this won't mix up with your personal calendar.

 

You can also invite people from other platforms. They won't have the full Rooms functionality, but the most important one - they'll be able to chat and sync calendar events.

 

You can pin rooms to Start as well.

 

The Me card is your own profile. From here you can post status updates, set chat status, check into locations (there's more location goodness coming on later). You can also change your profile picture (only for Facebook and Live though, still not Twitter).

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
The Me tile

 

Another tab in the Me card lets you view notifications (e.g. Twitter mentions) and, finally, What's new lets you view your own status updates.

 

Much of the functionality available when viewing the entire list is there when viewing a single contact too. Below the contact's photo and their latest SNS update, there are actions - "call mobile", "text mobile", "write on wall", "view website" and so on. Below each action, in smaller type and grey or blue letters, are the target for the action (e.g. phone number, email, site URL) and where that info came from (Google, Facebook, etc.).

 

The soft keys let you pin a contact, link two (or more) contacts from the various services and edit. Swiping to the side brings out the What's new tab, which shows the latest updates and events just from that contact. Pictures is where the contact's Facebook albums are.

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 

Windows Phone 8 
A contact's profile

 

The History tab displays the complete history of exchange with a contact in one place, listed chronologically. Everything but status updates is shown here - calls, texts (actually threads from the Messaging hub) and emails.

 

Windows Phone 8 
Edit contact

 

When editing a contact, you can add multiple phone numbers and email addresses of different types (home, work, etc), a custom ringtone, a note or a variety of different fields (like birthday, website, office location and so on).

 

A push on the unlock button reveals the lock screen, which displays the current time and date and shows calendar events, emails and missed calls. A press on any of the volume keys will bring the volume switch and music controls on top of the screen.

 

What we would have liked to see here are some (preferably customizable shortcuts). As Windows Phone mandates handsets have a dedicated camera key you can always launch the camera, but what about phone, messaging or web browsing apps - you always need to unlock your homescreen for that to work.

 

Luckily Microsoft added at least one new feature for the lockscreen – the Live Apps service allows your Windows Phone 8 to be updated directly by the apps you choose (as long as they support it) – i.e. Facebook photos and updates can pop there or Skype notifications, you name it. We are yet to see how this works though since our Windows Phone 8 testing unit didn’t come with this feature.

 

Swiping the lockscreen up reveals the live-tile Modern user interface. It's a vertical grid of Live tiles, which can be reordered the way you like. Almost anything can be placed in the grid by tapping and holding down over an app and selecting the Pin to start option.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
The lock screen • the home screen and main menu

 

Windows Phone 8 introduces resizable live tiles, an option that will also be available with the latest WP 7.8 update. When you tap and hold on a tile, the resize option is available along with unpin. You can choose between quarter, normal and double size.

 

Depending on which size you select you get different info displayed in the Tile. If you go for the smallest, you get nothing but a static icon, while the two larger sizes offer more info.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Resizing a tile

 

The homescreen looks exactly the same, except that the new tile sizes let you fit a lot more There is no wallpaper, you can just opt for a dark or light background. Whatever you choose it will be the base color for every system app on the phone.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
The lock screen and the hidden settings

 

Each of the Live tiles displays relevant info such as the current date, pending calendar events, missed calls, unread emails and more (third party apps do it too). For instance, the Marketplace tile displays the number of updates available, while the Pictures tile is essentially a slideshow of your photos. It's nice to have all that info always available at-a-glance. You can look at them as homescreen widgets of sorts, but that's a bit oversimplifying.

 

WP8 offers multi-tasking as promised. It's not always true multitasking; most of the cases things are being done the iOS way. Apps not in the foreground are suspended, but the OS has ways to take over and carry out the task for them. But just like on iOS, if an app requires to run in the background (navigation clients, players, communicators, etc.) it can.

 

Windows Phone 8 
The multi-tasking interface

 

The multi-tasking interface is the same as in WP7 - to switch between apps you press and hold the Back key. You'll get thumbnail snapshots of the apps, ordered chronologically left to right.

 

You can scroll the list horizontally to select an app and a tap will bring you back to your running or suspended app. Usually, the last 8 apps are here. You can't "kill" any of those apps from here - to exit one you must bring it to front and use the Back key to close it.

 

Opening the settings menu displays two sets of options: like on the start screen, you can swipe between System and Applications. System covers all the settings you can think of like sounds, color theme, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Accounts, etc. The Application settings let you configure each app you have on the device.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Settings

 

Windows Phone 8 can also be operated with voice only through the TellMe - you can dictate, have the phone read out the reply, you can initiate searches and so on. It's what Android's got with Google Voice and Apple with Siri , but sadly the Windows virtual assistant though is still far behind either of those.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Microsoft TellMe

 

One of the new features brought by WP8 is the Children's corner. You can select the apps and types of content you want roped in and password-protected, so you can safely share your smartphone with your kids without worrying about them messing up with your settings or accessing inappropriate content. When activated, the Children's corner is accessible by a swipe to the left on the lockscreen. Without the password it's impossible to return to your standard lock or home screen.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
The Children's corner

 

Of course, that kind of protection doesn't cover against accidental meetings with the floor.

 

Phone app

 

The phone application shows you the call history, with shortcuts to voice mail, dialer and phonebook. The phone live tile will show the number of missed calls, as will the lock screen.

 

The dialer itself is as simple as it gets - a phone keypad with a Call and a Save button. The lack of smart dialing is an annoyance, but the People hub is good at finding contacts.

 

You could use voice dialing instead - the Microsoft's TellMe did well at recognizing our commands.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Dialer • The call log

 

Upon an incoming call, the contact's photo will appear full screen for you to slide up and reveal the call buttons. This will prevent any calls from being accidentally answered or rejected.

 

A side note - status indicators are hidden by default (except the clock) but you can bring them up with a quick tap at the very top of the screen.

 

Messaging

 

The Messaging department is excellent in Windows Phone. Threads are the building blocks of all non-email messaging. Although a sort of conversation view, threads mash together SMS, Facebook and Windows Live messages.

 

That's the thing about Windows Phone: the Messaging hub removes the old division between texts, IMs, social messages. The other hubs do the same for the other functionality, making the whole thing simple yet powerful.

 

Anyway, Messaging breaks down into two tabs - threads and online. Online shows you who's online, with the people you've talked to most recently on top.

 

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Messaging • Threads • Settings

 

Threads is where this hub's impressive features kick in. A new thread is created for each person you start a chat with. Messages are displayed as speech bubbles and a label on the left shows the type of message - text, Facebook or Live Messenger. Labels are placed only when the conversation moves to a different platform so it's not cluttered.

 

You can choose which platform to use to send a reply and the text box will remind you what you're currently using with a message like "chat on Facebook". Individual messages can be copied (the whole message is copied to be pasted later, you can't copy only a part of the message), they can be deleted or forwarded. Whole threads can be deleted too.

 

The visual voicemail functionality is also part of the OS (but its availability is dependent on your plan and carrier). It works as you would expect, by letting you read your voicemail messages instead of listening to them.

 

Windows Phone 8 offers a unified inbox for email, a feature introduced with 7.5. You can link multiple inboxes (and unlink them individually later), so that you have a single place to check for new messages.

 

Linking several inboxes will also automatically combine their live tiles. You can browse individual folders for each account, which lets you view messages from only one email account even if it's linked.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
The email client

 

Conversation view works fine - it lists emails between you and a contact chronologically, grouping them by subject. It's the display style that Gmail popularized and is the best way to keep track of a conversation over email.

 

Each email conversation is listed with a subject and number of messages, plus how many of those are new. A tap on a conversation expands it to show the messages plus a line from each message.

 

You can tap on an individual message to read it, as well as skip messages back and forward to navigate the conversation. You can't swipe between the messages though.

 

You can mark individual emails, make them as read/unread, set flag, clear flag and more. Finally, you can search your entire mail for individual emails - it's a very useful feature, especially for those with large inboxes.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Marking emails • Email options • Searching emails

 

Text input on Windows Phone is limited to the default QWERTY keyboard, in either portrait or landscape mode - that's it. The layout remains the same across all WP devices and the only options you have are changing the language of the keyboard and resetting the dictionary that displays word suggestions. Windows Phone 8 supports more languages than its predecessor.

 

The QWERTY keyboard is very comfortable to use and has sound enabled on key presses. There's no haptic feedback and there's no way of enabling it.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Portrait and landscape QWERTY keyboards

 

Selecting text does require some getting used to. You hold your finger over some text for a second or two and then release. The text area gets highlighted and then you can move the beginning and end cursors to adjust how much text you want to select. A little icon pops up for copy and the selected text is available to paste anywhere in the OS.

 

Photos

 

The Photos hub is also pretty much the same as we left it in Windows phone 7.5.

 

You can set a single photo as a background for the hub (it used to be the last photo viewed) or you can set it to shuffle different photos.

 

And of course, the point of hubs is that they are the go-to place to do things, instead of apps. New functionality allows apps to integrate into the Photos hub, so for example, a photo effects app can make its options available right in the hub. Devs need to enable that into apps however.

 

The main view of the Photos hub offers four options - camera roll, albums, date and people. A swipe to the left reveals what's new, which displays your Facebook friends and liked pages' new picture galleries. Another swipe shows your favorites section, where the photos you've faved are displayed.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Pictures hub

 

Albums feature the camera roll, the preloaded system pictures and all of your Facebook albums. A flick to the left shows all your pictures sorted by date. You can't sort individual camera roll photos into albums, though.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Camera roll • Album view

 

The people section is where you can select your friends or closed ones so that their galleries on Facebook get displayed right there in your Photos hub. It's a nice feature for social network users but will be only an empty section for those that aren't too fond of Facebook.

 

The camera roll unifies your entire collection of photos and videos, taken with the device, in a 4x5 grid. You cannot change the view of the camera roll. Viewing a photo can be done in either portrait or landscape mode. Zooming in on a photo is done by either double tap or pinch to zoom. We appreciate that the camera roll doesn't downsize pictures and you can enjoy them in full resolution.

 

Sharing options include messaging, email, Facebook or the cloud-based SkyDrive.

 

While uploading photos to Facebook or Windows Live, the OS will detect any untagged faces and allow you to tag them before proceeding with the upload.

 

Music + Videos hub

 

The media players reside together in the Music & Videos hub, which now bears the Xbox logo or the last played media thumbnail. When you start it, it shows the History to give you quick access to the last two things played, or you can go to the full menu and start the music or video player, listen/watch podcasts (both audio and video podcasts are supported) or go to the Marketplace.

 

The music section is made up of albums, songs, playlists, genres and artists. Videos can be sorted by All, Television, Music videos, Films and Personal - think of them like more of categories you can assign your videos to when syncing with Zune. The third section is podcasts where you can store all of your downloaded audio and video podcasts.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Music + Videos hub

 

The music hub has a simple and straightforward interface. You won't have any difficulties using it. However there are some things missing, like an equalizer. We guess it will be up to the manufacturers to supply those if they see fit.

 

Another missing feature is the ability to scrub through a song - you have to press and hold on the FF/rewind buttons to simply jump back and forth.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Browsing the music library • Now playing screen

 

On the now playing screen the favorite, repeat and shuffle buttons are placed horizontally next to the album cover instead of hidden behind it.

 

As a music player, it's pretty standard - your tracks are sorted by artist, album, playlists or you can view all songs. The interface is very similar to that of the stock music player, but under the album art it lists the next three songs to be played - really helpful if you're using shuffle. There's no way to manually reorder the upcoming songs, but you can reshuffle them.

 

Unfortunately Windows Phone 8 still doesn't offer equalizer options. Let's hope Microsoft will add those soon enough.

 

The video player has a very simple interface - you have fast forward and rewind controls, a timeline and a video size button that toggles full-screen viewing.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
The Video tab • Video player in action

 

The video player in Windows Phone 8 has greatly improved codec support compared to WP7.5. Now it does recognize pretty much every Xvid, DivX and MP4 videos up to 1080p resolution. The few things it won't play are MKV files and videos using the AC3 audio codec. While this is not perfect, it's certainly a huge step forward for the platform and will save you a lot of time in converting your videos.

 

There is no subtitle support yet.

 

Since Windows Phone 8 is Zune independent, you can easily upload videos from your computer in USB mass storage mode.

 

You can pin individual items to the homescreen - a song or a video.

 

Camera gets Lenses

 

As promised the cameraapp gets a new handy feature called Lenses. It does one very simple, yet extremely useful thing - combines all camera apps into one place.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Windows Phone 8 
Camera UI and lenses menu

 

When you hit the Lenses button you'll get a pop-up window with shortcuts to all the camera apps - Panorama, Bing Vision, Instagram, etc. Choosing any of them will open the dedicated app, but will keep the default camera open, so if you hit the Back key later you'll get to the Camera app instantly.

 

Besides the Lenses feature, there is nothing new within the Windows Phone 8 camera department.

 

 

What's new in the connectivity department

 

Although you can of course still sync with Zune, your WP8 device is now Zune independent. There is Mass Storage mode for both the memory card and the internal phone storage and you can upload files on both. There is no requirement where you put your files (specific folders, etc.). If the phone has the appropriate app to handle a file, you'll have access to it. Since there is no WP file manager, unrecognizable files are only accessible on a computer.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
The storage options

 

The OS knows music and video, as well as pictures and documents. But if you have let's say a ZIP or a RAR file, you won't be able to attach it in emails.

 

In addition to your phone + SD storage you also get at least 7GB of SkyDrive cloud space.

 

Windows Phone 8 requires all phones to come with NFC connectivity, but comes with just one app to use it out of the box - Wallet. Unfortunately we won't know if that has any potential to become actually useful for at least few more months.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
The Wallet app

 

Microsoft equipped Windows Phone 8 with a brand new service called Data Sense. It’s made for those users who use a modest data plan and are aiming to cut on the traffic usage.

 

When you launch the Data Sense app you’ll have to input your data plan specs. Then the service will automatically adjust the data usage of your phone according to your specific plan. The adjustments include web page compression, image resizing, automatic switching off of low priority services that require internet connection, etc. If you near the limits of your plan before the month is over, the data usage reduction measures should become even aggressive.

 

The Data Sense will give you notifications about your data usage and what’s left of it. You also get a live tile, so all that info can be available on your homescreen.

 

Web browser: Internet Explorer gets an overdue boost

 

The Internet Explorer web browser on Widows Phone 8 brings a major performance upgrade, but sticks to the old looks. Almost everything Microsoft has done on the IE is under the hood, but the end result is pretty good.

 

As usual, the URL bar is always visible at the bottom of the screen and next to it is the refresh button (but the status bar at the top of the screen auto-hides, so you don't actually lose any screen real estate). You can, of course, bring up the extended settings, which offer a great deal of options - tabbed browsing, recent history, favorites, share options, pin to Start, find on page and advanced settings.

 

The URL bar also serves as a search bar. Unfortunately you can use only Bing as search provider, because using the URL bar as a search filed automatically redirects you to the Bing Search app.

 

The browser interface is quite minimalist - you have only the URL bar at the bottom with a reload icon to the left. Swiping the bar upward reveals shortcuts for tabs, recent, favorites, add to favorites, share page, pin to start and settings. The settings menu offers the usual options like location, allow cookies, delete browsing history and you can set a global preference for mobile or desktop site versions.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Internet explorer mobile

 

The browser makes the controls in web pages look just like their equivalents in native apps. So, a web app can look just like a native app with practically no extra effort from the designer.

 

And finally, you can open more than six tabs simultaneously. Eight or ten worked just fine.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
In-browser options

 

Just don't expect Flash support. Silverlight doesn't work either.

 

The Windows Phone 8 browser is certainly a capable performer, and uses hardware graphics acceleration to provide smoother graphics and animations. It topped our SunSpider benchmark charts, but scored disappointingly low in BrowserMark.

 

Bing search

 

When you search on Bing, one of the things that might be offered as a relevant result is an app from the Marketplace. For example, searching for "travel" will offer a travel tool app. This feature is called App connect.

 

Bing also offers song recognition and a barcode scanner. The new feature here is Local Scout. Thanks to the dedicated app and its provided service, you can search for various points of interest near you.

 

The camera scanner can also snap a photo of text, run OCR and translate it into another language.

 

Of course, Bing does regular web searches for pages or images and can look for interesting locations nearby.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
The Bing search app

 

An expanding Store

 

The Windows Phone Marketplace, called Store now, is still trailing behind the Apple Appstore and Google Playstore. The number of apps available is higher than 125 000, but it's far less impressive than what Android and iOS have at their disposal. Apps written specifically for Windows Phone 8 won't work on the older versions but all of the older apps will be compatible with WP8.

 

The Store is divided in three main sections - applications, games and music. A fourth section called Updates shows up when one of your installed apps has received an update - there's an Update all button, which will save you the hassle of updating each app individually.

 

Anyway, each app will be listed with a short description, a rating and user reviews, and a few screenshots. If the app requires access to something that can potentially breach your privacy (e.g. location information) the Marketplace will let you know.

 

It's not as comprehensive as the Android Market (which lists just about everything the app can use) but on the upside it only warns you about the important things.

 

Big downloads (anything north of 40MB) need a Wi-Fi connection to work. Alternatively, you can download those jumbo apps using the desktop Zune software.

 

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Store

 

The Application section starts with a featured app, then it's on to the categories (including all and free), followed by the top apps, a list of new ones and a longer list of featured apps.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
The Windows Phone Store

 

The Music section is actually the Xbox (previously known as Zune) Marketplace. Its structure is similar to the Application section. First, a featured artist of the week, three more featured artists, then a list of new releases, top albums and genres.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
The Xbox music store

 

Genres themselves are separated into sections too - new releases and top artists/albums/songs/playlists. For each song, you get a 30 second preview (same as iTunes). If you have a Zune pass, you can stream the entire song (or download it DRM-protected), just like you would on a Zune player (it's 10 US dollars a month).

 

The Games section is divided into Xbox Live, New, Featured and Genres, which is the categories version. A great thing about games in the Windows Phone Store is the trial option, which is available to many games and apps. You can try before you buy.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Exploring the games section

 

The Store on Windows Phone can be accessed on your WP device, the Zune software on your PC and the windowsphone.com website.

 

Search is available for the Store but right now it pulls together search results from all sections - games and apps alike. Microsoft have fixed the issue of songs getting mixed up in the search too, which was annoying.

 

Xbox LIVE tile

 

Xbox Live is at the heart of the Games hub. It carries over many features from the Xbox - from your avatar to your scores and achievements. The Spotlight feature is available too (it shows info on new stuff) and also Requests - which shows game invites from your friends.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Xbox LIVE tile

 

Anyway, the games themselves are housed in the Collection section. Nothing much to see here, the installed games are arranged in a square grid and there's a Get more games shortcut, which launches the Marketplace.

 

Not all games support Xbox Live - the ones that do are in the corresponding section in the Store.

 

Also from here you can see your friends and their profiles, achievements and avatars. There are a few shortcuts to other Xbox Live-related apps - such as remote Xbox control or the avatar changing app. If you don't have them installed, you'll be redirected to the Store, otherwise you'll get directly to the app in question.

 

Bing maps out, Nokia maps in

 

The mapping solution in Windows Phone is called just Maps. Microsoft claimed that the service is now powered by Nokia Maps and its Navteq Map data, but the interface and the general user experience looks the same.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Maps

 

Unfortunately there is no voice-guided navigation like Nokia Drive. The only available option is directions.

 

Real-time traffic information is available, though and so is caching for offline usage. This means that you can preload map data and use it on the go without a working data connection.

 

Another cool new feature of the new version of Maps is that it allows for developers to control it through their app, which enables apps with Maps integration to be created.

 

The Local Scout, despite now being also available separate app, is still available within the Maps app. It will locate nearby points of interest and will even show you indoor maps of some buildings.

 

Local Scout has a tabbed interface to sort the various points of interest - eat+drink, see+do, shopand highlights. You can pick items from a "I care about" list to get the relevant options only.

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 


Local scout can take you to interesting places

 

A cool feature of Local scout is that you can pin places to your homescreen - venues you want to keep an eye on, read reviews about or make a reservation. They're right there on your homescreen - that's neat.

 

The Local Scout app does exactly the same as the Local Scout feature in Maps.

 

Microsoft Office Suite

 

Office is one of the key selling points of Windows Phone. Document viewing and editing is absolutely free and integrated into the OS. SkyDrive integration is available as well. The Office version in Windows Phone 8 is 15.0, compared to the 14.5 in Windows Phone 7.5. We dig into the thing to see what's new, but alas we founf everything the same as before. That's not a bad thing at all though, since the Windows Phone Office has always been one of the best office packages on the market.

 

Docs are automatically synced between the phone and your computer through SkyDrive.

 

The Places tab lets you browse Office docs stored on the phone, in SkyDrive, through email or in Office 365 (a paid service that includes Office web apps).

 

The Office hub breaks down into three sections - Documents, Places and Notes.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Office app

 

Anyway, let's look at the two most important apps - Word and Excel. They share the Documents panel, which lists all available documents of the relevant types (in order of last used). Both viewing and editing is supported.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Editing a Word document • Editing an Excel doc

 

Editing is pretty straightforward and easy to use even on a mobile device. You type in the text and you can use the Format key to change the formatting of the selected text. You can also insert comments.

 

Formatting options include the standard bold, italic and underline, as well as text size, highlighting and font color. For highlighting and font colors you have only three colors to choose from, which is limiting but better than nothing.

 

PowerPoint files are for viewing only, you can't edit them or create new ones.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Viewing a ppt file • PowerPoint templates

 

Collaboration for both Word and Excel files is enabled with SharePoint. It allows syncing, sharing and web publishing but you'd need to use the right SharePoint server. You can attach those files to emails, though you need to do that from the Office hub. You can't do it in the email editor, which caused a little confusion at first.

 

OneNote is Microsoft's collaborative note taking tool. It has great (and easy to use) support for lists of multiple levels, you can add photos and voice memos and you can send notes via email when you're done. OneNotes can be synced with your SkyDrive or Windows Live account so that they are accessible from everywhere. Pin-to-homescreen is available too and so is the To-Do feature that turns the selected line into a to-do item that can be checked off.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
OneNote

 

The apps support pinch zooming and work very well for viewing even complex documents. But Microsoft's fondness for simplicity may have over-simplified the editors.

 

Organizer and apps

 

The Calendar can view sub-calendars for each account you have and you can color-code to make things easier to tell apart. You can also disable sub-calendars if they're getting in the way.

 

The calendar offers day and agenda views too for more comprehensive hour-by-hour browsing of your appointments.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Calendar • Day view • Agenda view

 

To-dos can be created too. Those can only be synced with Live accounts, and not a Gmail account for example. Each to-do can have a priority reminder, due date and notes. Later, to-do's can be sorted by priority.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
To-Dos • Creating a new appointment

 

The WP calculator is nothing extravagant - it has the simple portrait view of basically all calculators on the planet, while turning it over to landscape reveals the more complex scientific mode.

 

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Calculator app

 

The alarm app is very simple to use. You get the alarm time with an on/off switch to the right.

 

Windows Phone 8 Windows Phone 8 
Alarm app

 

Windows Phone provides users with the basics in smartphone organizing but should you need anything more the Store is there too - it offers apps for just about everything - most of which are free.

 

Final words

 

The Microsoft mobile platform took the biggest step forward of all the major players this year. While Android focused on optimizing performance and voice assistants, and iOS basically stagnated (shooting itself in the foot with Maps), Windows Phone got some cool new features and, more importantly, can now finally make the most of advanced hardware.

 

Windows Phone 8 is faster, smoother and more powerful than its predecessor. It retains the same familiar - and attractive - design, but something as simple as resizable live tiles is a real boost to usability. The Kid's corner is another nice little thing to have and the Mass storage mode really changes the way you use your smartphone.

 

Zune no longer has a death grip on file transfers and the added microSD slot support means that you'll be able to get smartphones with plenty of storage on the cheap, which might convert a few extra users as well.

 

What's worth pointing out here though, is that Windows Phone was lagging so far behind its main rivals that the update doesn't necessarily mean it's come frighteningly close, let alone on top.

 

Au contraire - Windows Phone 8 is only now able to start matching up against iOS, and it's still got a lot of ground to cover to reach Android levels of functionality and customization options. So it seems that the Nokia Lumias, the Samsung Ativs and the HTC WPs will first try and steal market share from iOS, before looking at the Google-powered army (though some might be tempted to give up some functionality for the cool looks).

 

Thing is though, the Apple customers are among the most loyal around, so luring them away from the favorite brand is always going to be a hard task.

 

However it seems that Microsoft and its allies may as well be up to it. Early glimpses of the new crop of Windows Phone 8 flagships have been more than encouraging. A platform that's managed to shed the self-inflicted limitations and is giving developers a good reason to get their hands busy must be on the right track.

 

The other piece of good news for the WP alliance is the fact that the smartphone market is still not a zero-sum game. There are still plenty of featurephone users to be converted out there and Windows Phone 8 seems to put team Microsoft in a very decent position to get a big slice of the pie.

 

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