Windows Phone 8
25th Jan 2012 | 16:35
Three tile sizes, lots of layout options: are you spoiled for choice or in control?
Windows Phone has always been deliberately different; in earlier versions that sometimes meant missing options, no SD card support and tight control of what apps could do to protect battery life, as well as the live tiles of the Start screen putting your friends at your fingertips or the quirky charm of your Xbox avatar waving at you.
In Windows Phone 8, Microsoft sets out to fill in those gaps without losing the positive aspects of what sets it apart from iOS and Android.
The new look for the Start screen is a great example of this.
You still get live tiles for the apps that you choose to pin to Start but now you can set the size for every app, making it twice the width of a standard tile, or a tiny quarter-size tile.
If you want to see more information, like full details of your next appointment, you can make the tile for any app larger; that's no longer restricted to built in apps from Microsoft and phone makers.
Tiles like the dialler, maps, settings and IE that don't show any live information don't have to take up a full slot on screen.
A nice side effect is that you can create a much more interesting layout with offset tiles, instead of just a two-by-four grid of tiles.
Microsoft has also done away with the gulley down the right side of the homescreen which encouraged you to slide across to the app list but seriously ate into the screen real estate, with the Live Tiles on Windows Phone 8 enjoying the full width of the display.
There are now twenty different accent colours to choose from as well; three greens, two pinks - even steel and taupe - so you can get a much more stylish and personal look.
The lock screen is more personal and more useful too.
Instead of picking one photo you get bored with, you can get the image of the day from Bing or a selection from your Facebook photos, or you can choose your favourite photos on the device, so there's something new every time you look at your phone.
Any app can offer dynamic lock pictures, and the five notification slots are no longer limited to the built-in apps; if you're running WhatsApp or you care more about Facebook messages, you can get those notifications on the lock screen instead.
The other new feature is the ability to see lock screen widgets too, be it sports scores or up coming calendar entries, making one of the most oft-used displays more useful than before.
Camera and internet browser
The theme of getting what you want, the way you want it, runs right through Windows Phone 8, down to the camera app. This is still easy to use, and tapping on the screen is still one of the most natural ways to take a picture.
You can now also pinch on screen to zoom in, rather than tapping buttons.
You have lots of options if you want to use them, including white balance, ISO and the excellent idea of 'lenses': these let you use the different photo tools you have installed when you're actually taking the photograph.
This makes everything feel so much more central - the camera remains the photography hub of the phone rather than having to jump into other apps to take a photo the way you want, which would remove the use of the excellently quick camera button.
So, if you want psychedelic colours or to capture a 360 degree panorama in Photosynth, you get the option to do that directly from the camera, meaning you're more likely to use those tools.
You can crop or rotate photos without needing extra tools and the photo album interface now lets you select multiple photos on screen to share or delete - thanks for catching up there, Microsoft.
One of the many features in Windows Phone 8, as a result of user requests, is being able to upload full-resolution photos to SkyDrive (automatically if you so wish) although that does require a Wi-Fi connection.
The web browser gets a significant update. It's very nearly the same browser as IE10 (without plugins of course), making it very capable - although design wise it's quite different from its desktop brother.
We found very few places where IE on Windows Phone 8 doesn't match IE 10 on Windows 8; the main one is that it doesn't support inline HTML 5 videos – you can play them in the media player by tapping to open but they don't play inside a web page.
Otherwise, IE on Windows Phone acts very much like IE on Windows 8; even complex pages loaded and displayed correctly – and quickly.
IE even runs standard browser benchmarks and gets a reasonable score too. For the controversial HTML5 test, the score of 320 is exactly the same as desktop IE10; behind iOS 6 but higher than the Android 4 browser.
This means there's a greater feeling of 'strength' throughout the phone as apps become more impressive as a result, rather than the 'us and them' vibe you get from Apple's own offerings and the rest of the App Store.
Like IE10, IE on Windows Phone 8 turns on Do Not Track by default; you can change that if you want, although in the web privacy stakes this is something that's likely to attract consumers who don't want their information shared with all and sundry.
It also gives you the same SmartScreen phishing protection as in IE10; unlike the iOS database that's only updated overnight if your phone is plugged in, this is real-time protection – and given how quickly phishing sites come and go, this is important to give you real security on the mobile web.
You can finally find text on web pages; the interface for navigating through matches lets you jump straight to the next match rather than hunting for the highlighted text.
And you don't have to choose between navigating tabs easily and seeing more of a web page; you can switch the refresh button to open the tab list or favourites instead.
One of the best features in IE is only available when your mobile operator supports it; Data Sense shows you how much data each app uses (on a friendly mock-up of the Start screen rather than a complex list) and it compresses all the images in web pages to save bandwidth.
We're hoping to see carriers adopt this quickly because it will also make pages load faster.
We've already seen such features (in terms of data level tracking) on Android and iOS, and while the former of these two is superior in terms of interface, the overall ethos of getting users to use less data is a very good one, so hats off there.
Microsoft is pushing the Xbox brand for entertainment, and Zune is a thing of the past.
The Zune desktop software is gone, replaced by simple management and transfer tools that run on the desktop or in the Windows 8/RT environment (plus an iTunes connector for Macs, or you can just plug in a USB cable and treat the phone as an external drive).
With over-the-air updates and cloud backups the software doesn't need to manage big platform changes or the like anymore, so the simpler interface is enough. This removes a big bugbear of Windows Phone users from before, as the software was truly terrible to use at times, especially when downloading new iterations of the OS.
The Zune branding on music and videos is gone too, in favour of Xbox Music. That's the same streaming service as on Windows 8, except you don't get free streaming of 30 million songs the way you do on Windows.
But you can get previews, buy tracks or pay for the Xbox Music Pass to get unlimited streaming, with the option to download tracks to listen to offline.
Downloading and streaming also works for tracks you've paid for on other Xbox Music devices, and this should be really handy when the option to match the music you already have on your PC starts working next year.
As it is, this is an excellent service if you're prepared to pay for it, because as well as being able to pick specific tracks you get the smart DJ mix lists of similar and related music for artists, albums and songs.
Having playlists from other devices sync automatically means your favourite songs show up so easily that it's almost like your phone is reading your mind.
SmartGlass and Games hub
The Xbox SmartGlass application is in the Music & Videos hub, as well as under Games.
You can use this app to stream music from your phone to your Xbox, but it also turns the phone into a controller for your anything on your console too. Like the Windows 8 SmartGlass app for tablets and laptops, this is excellent for controlling the Xbox browser or clicking through the Xbox Music player.
In testing, this seemed to be a bit slicker than other phone-controlled systems, like HTC Media Link or Samsung's AllShare cast. However, this really depends on the hardware using it, although it survived nicely on the HTC 8X we were using.
The Games hub gets a bit of a makeover with a new notification panel with messages, friend requests, beacons and reminders when it's your turn in a game.
And Direct3D support means there are some impressive new games on the way, like Angry Birds Star Wars.
Bing search, maps and contacts
The Bing search tool has been given a makeover, bringing more relevance to the phone and becoming more deeply integrated.
It still shows the Bing image of the day when you hit the dedicated search, but if you flick left you can see top headlines, popular videos, local events, daily deals and what's on at the cinema.
Search results are grouped into web results, local, media (videos as well as pictures) and shopping (which finds both products like books and CDs, as well as the ubiquitous discount deals).
We're not sure how well those kinds of suggestions work on a phone, but the improvements to Bing Maps are very welcome.
These bring Nokia's mapping features to other Windows Phones (on a Nokia handset the app is actually called Nokia Maps instead, and in time Nokia Drive will put turn-by-turn directions on other makes of Windows Phone).
If you're in a navigation app with directions open and you switch to another app, Windows Phone 8 will keep track of your location so you can switch back quickly.
You can download maps to use offline (when you're on holiday and don't want to pay for roaming data, for example) and pin favourite locations, like the hotel you're staying, in to get directions more quickly.
Nokia's database of places seems to have improved the coverage in both search and Local Scout, but what makes Local Scout far more useful is that it now uses information from your social network and your previous searches and check-ins to make better suggestions.
If you've been looking for sushi bars, it will add sushi joints to the list, along with businesses your friends have liked on Facebook.
Seeing that a friend liked a website might or might not be useful in a list of search results on the desktop; seeing that they liked a particular restaurant when you're looking for somewhere to have dinner is definitely useful.
This is the kind of information usually used to present you with ads, but this time it's making your life easier.
However, that's not to say that the Maps app in Windows Phone 8 is market-leading... it's still got a long way to go to usurp the brilliance and intuition of Google Maps. It's obviously got a lead over iOS Maps simply because it actually works, but if/when Apple gets its mapping act together, you could argue that it will have a simpler and richer interface, but will be lacking in terms of raw grunt.
Windows Phone 8 continues to have one of the best smartphone experiences for bringing together your contacts on all the services you use.
Now that includes Skype: your Skype contacts show up in the People hub along with Facebook, Twitter, Linked In and email contacts, and get linked into a single contact in the same way.
Other apps can add contact details to the People hub as well, or put entries into your calendar.
Similarly, other VoIP apps like Tango and Qik can get the same integration as Skype.
You can make VoIP calls from the People hub as if they were phone calls – and you can receive incoming calls without needing to leave the app running (and using up power).
They look just like any other call and they work just like any other call, so you can switch to another app to look something up without losing the connection.
If you spend most of your time talking to the same bunch of people, the new Rooms are an interesting way to organise conversations.
This combines group messaging (based on Messenger), OneNote notes, photos on SkyDrive and a shared calendar.
Unlike Groups, everyone you put in a Room sees it on their Windows Phone and all the messages other members send; you can invite people who don't have a Windows Phone and they can subscribe to the calendar on iOS or Windows Phone 7.5 (and find the notes and photos on SkyDrive, but not the messages).
It's a bit like Google+ hangouts for real people and having it work on more than just Windows Phone 8 makes it far more useful.
You can share with friends more easily when they're standing next to you as well, using NFC Tap+Send; you can share contacts, photos, music, web pages, places from Maps and Local Scout or apps from the Store.
Until NFC takes off for payments and adverts this might be the most useful thing to do with an NFC phone and it's mostly simple; whenever you have a Share option in an app, Tap+Send is on the list.
When you tap your phone against the device you're sending to – which could be a Windows Phone, an Android device or a Windows 8 tablet with NFC, the other screen should show a pop-up asking if you want to accept the information (or asking you to turn on Bluetooth or Wi-Fi if it's a large file).
This seemed fiddly the first couple of times we tried it but mostly it worked well.
Messaging and speech
Even if you don't like touchscreen keyboards, you will probably like the Windows Phone keyboard. It learns the pattern of your typing and uses that with a huge dictionary to predict what letter you're likely to type next.
As well as offering a list of predicted words above the keyboard it also invisibly changes the size of the keys so the keys you're likely to hit are actually bigger.
The new 'word flow' autocorrect is a nice touch that doesn't only offer typing corrections but predicts the next word you're likely to tap; for phrases you use a lot, this means you can type a sentence by just selecting words from the prediction list.
If you don't like the keyboard, well then it's tough. Microsoft, much like Apple is unwilling to allow app developers to offer alternatives, so you're stuck with the stock Windows Phone 8 effort - it could be a lot worse.
Being able to type well makes the built-in Office apps more useful and these have new features to catch up with the Office Web apps and the SkyDrive integration in Office 2013.
Files on SkyDrive or documents you've opened from email attachments now show up in a list rather than as tiles (which was colourful but made it hard to read longer file names). Even more useful, you can search inside documents, not just by the file name.
Open a document you last looked at in Word or Excel 2013 and the cursor will be where you were last editing the document. Word also has a full-screen reading view.
PowerPoint has better rendering and animations and shows your speaker notes; Excel shows charts and has a 'sticky' pane to let you read cells with lots of text in.
OneNote has been promoted to a separate app and it automatically opens the last note you were working with. You can even view ink notes that you've written on a tablet.
If you don't want to write your note with the keyboard, press and hold the Start button to open the voice recognition screen and dictate it.
Say 'note' as the first word and the phone puts what it understands you saying into a new OneNote, with a recording of what you said in case it gets it wrong.
In our tests, this was spot on for almost everything, even names.
You can still search, open applications and send text messages by talking to the phone and you can now dictate emails as well, or control apps that have been written to support voice.
How much you use this will depend on how comfortable you are talking to your phone and whether you're somewhere quiet, but it worked very reliably and accurately in our tests.
Other apps like Audible and Urban Spoon haven't implemented voice control quite as well, but we did test beta versions of those apps so we expect them to improve.
Kids Corner and Wallet
Using your phone as a babysitter is becoming more common.
The new Kids Corner feature will delight harassed parents who hand over their handset to keep the kids quiet in the back seat or during dinner.
You pick which apps, music and videos kids can see, then flick left from the lock screen to switch to the limited list of apps; you can set a different colour scheme for them as well to help make it obvious which mode they're in.
To leave Kids Corner you tap the power button to turn off the screen – and you can stop them just going to the Start screen for other apps by putting a password on the lock display.
If your lock your phone with a PIN and your kids accidentally get to the PIN screen and try to unlock it, it's much harder for them to accidentally wipe your phone by putting in the wrong code too many times.
When they get to the last attempt, they have to type in the phrase that's displayed on screen before they can try typing the PIN again - so if it's a toddler mashing their fingers on screen rather than a thief really trying to get into your device, they'll never get the chance to wipe the phone.
You might appreciate Kids Corner more now that games include in-app purchases – it disables them automatically.
Children can't browse the web either, but if you have a game with ads in they will still open in a browser when you tap them, just a browser with no address bar so you can't go anywhere else. Any parental controls you set on your Xbox will apply on the phone as well.
It's an excellent touch that really sets Windows Phone apart, showing Microsoft has acknowledged a usage scenario for smartphones that competitors haven't.
Microsoft has included a new app with Windows Phone 8 that will allow you to use your phone as a payment system and streamline the amount of time you spend hunting in your real life wallet.
One day Wallet will be a powerful way to see your boarding pass, use your loyalty card and pay for things both online and in the real world, by tapping your phone like a credit card.
Wallet has all the features of the iOS 6 and Android's Google Wallet options – but like them it is stuck waiting for credit card companies, mobile operators, airlines and train stations to start supporting NFC and secure SIMs.
For now, it's just another way to look up coupons or keep a secure copy of your credit card.
For security, the details in your Wallet aren't included in the new cloud backup; this stores the list of installed apps, your Internet Explorer favourites, your text messages and the settings you've chosen for photos, the camera, sound, messaging and the theme colour, plus details of accounts you've configured on the phone (but not their passwords).
If you have to reset your phone or you switch to a new handset, when you first turn it on you'll get the option to restore the backup instead of setting everything up from scratch.
It's as if Microsoft is finally assuming that you'll like Windows Phone enough to stick with it – and we think this new release will win a lot more fans.
Windows Phone 8 is more than just a new version of Microsoft's phone operating system that fixes irritations and adds missing features to catch up with iOS and Android - although it does that very effectively, and without losing the charm and individuality of the interface.
Multitasking is improved and apps now resume quickly, whether you use the Back button to switch back or open the app again from the Start screen.
It's crammed with more useful features and improvements than we can easily cover here and it comes on excellent new handsets from HTC, Nokia and Samsung at launch.
It's more than just a showcase for Microsoft services like SkyDrive and Skype and Xbox Music, although Windows Phone gives you a better experience with these than most other mobile devices.
Under the covers, this is key technology from desktop Windows running on a phone, and if you had any doubts about whether Windows could slim down to a lean, battery-friendly phone system and still deliver plenty of power you can set them aside.
This basically takes the training wheels off Windows Phone as far as developers are concerned, and means they can deliver the same powerful apps as any other smartphone.
But that doesn't make Windows Phone 8 complicated. Yes, it's powerful but it's also stylish and fun to use.
This is a delightful, elegant, enticing smartphone OS with a great browser and the best default touch keyboard bar none – and yes, maps that actually work.
Building Lenses into the camera app means you're more likely to remember to use the tools you've installed when you pull out the phone to take a picture.
Live tiles keep you up to date and in touch and the integration of social networks just keeps getting better now that Skype and other apps can put their contacts in the People hub.
And if you want to use your phone as a babysitter, you don't have to worry about the little darlings deleting things thanks to Kids Corner.
The Wallet is only going to be useful when your bank and your mobile operator catch up with the new technology, although isn't necessarily a hindrance.
Xbox Music will tempt you with music you can't listen to unless you're prepared to shell out for the streaming subscription (although it's a good deal) - we'd love to have seen the same idea with lenses used in the music hub to allow the likes of Spotify to compete on a usability level.
Until some more navigation apps show up or Nokia Drive becomes more widely available, only Nokia users get true turn-by-turn driving directions - and it's still light years behind Android's Google Maps in terms of functionality and ease of use.
Internet Explorer might be fast in some respects, but it's not the most consistent browser out there, and the UI still leaves a lot to be desired when compared to the more elegant options on the top Android options and iOS.
And existing Windows Phone users can't get this new version without a new handset, which is actually a big problem when trying to proliferate a new OS.
There's also the issue of media still being a locked down experience - we're impressed with the new media management tools on offer to get music and movies on the devices, but it's still a relatively limited file selection and lacks the speed and openness Android offers in this area.
Having a strong lineup of new features and improvements makes it hard to pick out any one killer feature you have to have, but the laundry list of all the ways Windows Phone 8 catches up with (and in some cases passes) iOS and Android misses the point of Windows Phone.
What Microsoft has managed is to bring all of this together in a seamless, elegant and engaging whole – and there's no longer anything missing to put you off.
If there is a single killer feature here, it's the Skype integration (or your other favourite VoIP app). Incoming and outgoing Skype calls work just like regular phone calls, except they don't use up your call minutes.
That said, it's still got a few more steps to make all of its offerings as rich to use as the competition, which is understandable considering it launched years later.
The application store is growing and has some decent titles (especially with the new apps launching specifically for Windows Phone 8, from Audible to Angry Birds Star Wars), but for sheer volume it can't compete with Android or iOS and you should check for specific apps that you need.
In short, Windows Phone 8 deserves its place as the third ecosystem in the smartphone arena, and provides more than enough to make it a viable alternative to the usual suspects.
For the first time user it's an excellent entry point into smartphones, with ease of use and deep contact integration fundamental to the experience.
If you're already familiar with Android and iOS you need to get used to a new way of working to get the most from Windows Phone, from using the 'Panorama view' in apps (which will either delight you as an easy way to see everything at once or confuse you if you forget to swipe and miss information) to pinning live tiles and following links to see related information like directions and traffic for a location or Facebook photos and Twitter updates for the friend who just texted you.
Some people find the interface elegant, others see it as stark. You might find the lack of a central notification area confusing, or you might prefer to see that information on the live tiles you choose to pin to the Start screen.
In short, anyone thinking of moving from iOS or Android to Windows Phone 8 will perhaps have to be prepared to make many adjustments - but there's no denying this is a real step up in quality from Microsoft and gives us hope for variety in the smartphone wars.