Windows Phone 8's new features
Windows Phone 8 is officially ready for phablets. Microsoft made the announcement Monday that an update to its operating system for mobile phones -- titled Windows Phone 8 Update 3 (in classically unimaginative Microsoft fashion) -- will now work on devices with screen sizes in the 5-inch-to-7-inch range.
In addition to scaling the OS for a larger screen, Windows Phone Update 3 will work for 1080p HD resolutions, the current favorite on big-screen smartphones.
Rounding out newfound hardware support is compatibility with quad-core processors, specifically Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 workhorse. And there's very little besides.
As the industry's leader and almost sole manufacturer of Windows Phone devices, Nokia (whose partial buyout to Microsoft is also pending), is the likely candidate to make use of the new interface for supersize smartphones, which includes an extra column of Start screen icons.
CNET spent some time with a demo of the new features. Here's what the third Windows Phone update will bring, and where it stands against Android and iOS.
Onboard with phablets
The most obvious change you'll see when gazing at Windows Phone 8 on an extra-large smartphone (Microsoft defines this as 6 inches or larger) is the additional column and several more rows that fit onto the Start screen. Microsoft says that the added space can at least double the number of tiles you can see on the home screen at one time, depending on the size tile you choose.
On standard-size panels, you can fit six regular-size tiles on a display at a time (two across and three down), with the seventh and eighth tiles slightly offscreen. More screen real estate gets up to 15 regular-size tiles in front of your eyeballs at once, or three across and five down. It’s worth noting that the large-size live tiles will still only take up two columns like they do now, instead of stretching across all three.
Microsoft is also taking advantage of larger screen sizes throughout the OS, by showing more content on the screen in many of its native apps. In Outlook, that means more e-mails show up at once in your inbox, and there is longer preview text below each subject line. In photos, you’ll see a greater number of image thumbnails, and in Music+Video, you can view more albums and songs on the screen.
Though Microsoft is yet to show it off on a real, live device, we've seen screenshots and a video demo of how Windows Phone 8 will look on phablet-size phones. Even with the extra tiles, the Start screen doesn’t look messy or busy, and it’s great to have more information at a glance without needing to scroll down.
The other changes in the operating design are much more subtle. You might not immediately notice that you can look at more e-mails in Outlook, or more albums in Photos, but you should find that you don’t need to scroll as much.
It’s crucial to point out that if you already have a Windows Phone 8 device, you will not get these design updates. They will only be available on new devices that have 5-inch screens or larger. Specifically, future phones with screens in the 5-to-7-inch range with 1080p resolution will only get the new, expanded Start screen. Devices that are 6 inches and larger get the new Start screen and the preinstalled apps will also show more information on the screen.
We know, it's confusing. The bottom line: to see the extra column, 6 is the magic number.
Again, at press time, no Windows Phone manufacturers have announced any device with a screen big enough to view the new interface. If Nokia's phablet does come to light, it will have the extra live tiles and other UI updates.
Other UI goodiesUpdate 3 adds a few enhancements to the OS that build on existing features. Microsoft said that it also included some of the most requested options from the Windows Phone community.
Task-switching: When you tap and hold the back button, it pulls up thumbnail images of your most recently opened apps. Now you can quickly clear any of those apps from the cache by tapping the small X in the corner of the app’s preview screen.
Screen rotation: Though this simple feature has been available on Android and iOS for some time now, it’s just now making its way to Windows Phone. Go to Settings to turn on or lock the screen rotation.
Driving mode: This brand-new option in settings quiets incoming calls and text messages to minimize distractions while you’re driving. You can choose to have the phone turn off incoming call notifications, or text messaging alerts, or both. It will also automatically send a customizable text response to your pals.
Text tones: Another incremental change is the chance to assign an unique alert tone to a specific contact, so you can tell the difference between a text message from your mom and one from your best friend just by the sound your phone makes. Believe it or not, this is one of the most-requested features from Windows Phone fans.
Storage management: If you’re running out of storage space on your phone, this new settings option gives you better guidance on how to delete unnecessary files. You'll be able to see how much space each kind of file takes up on your device. Notice that your photos are hogging a lot of gigabytes? You can tap that section to go directly to the Photos app to delete pictures. You’ll also get a warning when you try to delete system files that your phone needs in order to run.
Accessibility: Update 3 adds a new mode for people with visual impairments. Called mobile accessibility mode, it pairs a simplified home screen with large tiles with voice readouts. There are a few basic apps, including the dialer, address book, SMS app, an IMAP e-mail client, a Web browser, and settings. Additionally, video messaging apps Skype and Lync built compatible versions of their apps for this new accessibility mode.
New hardware supportHardware and software often go hand in hand, with requirements on the software side necessary to make the OS work with certain hardware functions. This list makes it clear what's what.
Large screen sizes: New OS support for 1080p HD screens that measure 5-to-7 inches means we could see a spate of supersize Windows-based smartphones as the trend catches on.
Quad-core processors are a go: Microsoft is responding, albeit belatedly, to demand for quad-core processors. The fact that the OS will now be able to run on Qualcomm's speediest yet, the Snapdragon 800, brings hope that we'll see specs for Windows phones matching up with rivals.
Better Bluetooth pairing: Microsoft jiggered two ways to improve Bluetooth connections. Pairing with a car automatically triggers the OS to launch driving mode, which is intended to be a convenience. Even more of a time-saver, people who own smartphones with Windows Phone 8 Update 3 and a Windows 8.1 device can pair the two over Bluetooth.
While Microsoft doesn't support Bluetooth 4.0 low energy (LE) at a systemwide level, it should be possible for hardware partners (read: Nokia) to build on the platform and tease out low-energy functionality.
Who will get it and when
Windows Phone 8 Update 3 will roll out in the coming weeks and months to every device currently running Windows Phone 8. The specific time frame for each device depends on the carrier, but all phones will get the update over the air, meaning it will be delivered wirelessly and automatically.
Windows Phone developers can get their hands on the Windows Phone developer preview of the update starting Monday, October 14. You need to have either a Microsoft Dev center account, an App Studio account, or a registered developer smartphone.
While mostly only professional developers have Dev center credentials, anyone can sign up for App Studio, a free online tool that lets anyone design his or her own Windows Phone app.
You'll find more details at Microsoft’s Windows Phone developer site.
Bringing it all together
As far as updates go, this one is a snoozer, which is probably why Microsoft is calling it an "update," rather than Windows Phone 8.1. At the same time, support for quad-core processors and larger screen sizes are huge, and Microsoft was wise to create a three-column interface for phablets, rather than just enlarge the text (which would also make the resolution seem sloppier.
The ability to clear apps from the multitasking pane is a welcome no-brainer, and the interface for visually impaired users will help bridge the accessibility gap between Windows Phone and other OSes. However, Microsoft is going to have to dig in its heels and go much further to bridge the features gap still separating it from iOS and Android.
Microsoft's next update will have to be huge.
Updated: At 7:32am PT to reflect that Microsoft moved up the date of its Developer Preview program.