Windows Phone 8 grows up
Windows Phone 8 makes significant changes while remaining true to its core. It's sharp, colorful, clean, and simple, but also hip and a bit exuberant. New features include a surge of NFC actions, greater customization, and a heavy peppering of more-minor additions and adjustments; yet it's the tile-based interface that continues to be the operating system's most distinctive and defining characteristic. On the whole, Windows Phone 8 is a worthy refresh, and one that gives Microsoft's mobile platform the boost it needs to compete against Android and iOS.
Yet for all its strengths, there is no one exciting, standout feature that will get people talking, or that will make you itch to pick up a Windows Phone device if you weren't already interested before. That's because in Windows Phone 8, Microsoft mostly plays catch-up to Android and iOS by muscling up faster processing power, high-definition screen capability, and support for expandable memory. Closing the chasm is a good thing; it's exactly what Microsoft needed to do. But what we're left with is a unique-looking OS that still lacks some key features and offers only a few truly innovative contributions to lure new customers on other platforms.
Although Microsoft still has some work to do, Windows Phone 8 has the potential to power compelling devices that will for the most part meet a smartphone user's demands. A strong roster of handsets is already in the making, starting with the Nokia Lumia 920 and the HTC Windows Phone 8X.
Editors' note: Microsoft scattered a lot of little changes throughout the OS. In this review, I cover the most major additions.
Ironically, Windows Phone 8's most identifying feature isn't limited to the OS at all. The worked-over Start screen, with its wider footprint and resizable live tiles, also bedecks earlier Windows phones that received the 7.8 OS update.
Regardless, the Start screen change helps moves the OS forward. Cycling through the trio of live tile sizes (some only have two sizing options) is easy enough to keep almost any interface-Goldilocks happy, and if the screen gets overwhelmingly busy, I suppose you have only yourself to blame. I do miss some of the space between live tiles that separates organization from chaos. In addition, and a little more control over individual tile colors would help break up the monochromatic monotony of mostly red or blue tiles, for instance, but I welcome the plethora of new theme colors (at least 20, depending on your phone) and the heightened customization.
Here's a nice addition: you can now choose a dynamic lock screen background that offers useful information at a glance. Groupon deals, Facebook updates, and, on the Windows Phone 8X, the HTC weather widget, are favorites so far.
Raise your hand if you've ever handed your phone to a kid to entertain him or her. Mine's up, too. Microsoft built in a progeny-friendly profile of sorts that gives kids basic control over theme colors and what they want to open.
Adults choose the games, apps, music, and videos that pin to the Kid's Corner -- none of which includes a Web browser or dialer -- and if you have a lock screen enabled, munchkins can't get back to the guts of the device.
With a locked phone and Kid's Corner enabled, swipe left from the lock screen to unlock it as you would your own profile. Without a lock screen, you can launch Kid's Corner from an app.
Stuff you can do with NFC
Tap + Send was one new addition I was most excited to try. The built-in NFC protocol means you can tap NFC phones to share contacts, URLs, Word documents, photos, song titles, and video with other Windows Phone 8 or NFC-enabled Windows 8 devices.
Yet you can't simply tap two devices together; you have to go through the menu, then sharing options to select "Tap + Send." It works fine, but Android's method of touching backs, then pressing to accept, is easier and faster since it requires fewer steps. Share between two Windows phones and you get the gratification of chirping sounds and vibration as NFC works its magic. Incidentally, I was also able to share a URL with the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, but not photos. I haven't yet tested NFC sharing with any other non-Windows device.
Wireless charging and pairing devices are two other very promising uses I've seen in demos, and I was able to test it with the Nokia Lumia 920, which boasts built-in wireless charging through the Qi standard. It worked pretty well, though maybe wasn't quite as quick as plugging a charger directly into the phone.
So why use it? Once you set up the wireless charging pad (which itself has to be plugged in), you can drop the phone onto the pad to immediately top up the battery. No messing with the cables or reaching down to plug in a wall socket. I set it up on my desk and tucked the pad's cord behind my computer, so that the pad (and not the cable) is the surface I see.
NFC is also synonymous with mobile payments, and when it finally catches on, Windows Phone will be ready. If the carrier enables it and if there's a compatible point-of-sale terminal, you'll be able to use your phone as a virtual wallet to sign off on paying for goods.
So far, Microsoft's stab at NFC is off to a good start, but I would like to see even more content enter the sharing bubble: all OneNote notes (not just audio notes), podcast tags, and directions.
Even if you can't find any vendors that accept NFC payments, you can still use Microsoft's new wallet, starting with the engine to find local deals. Right now, Living Social is all that was enabled so far, and the offers I saw were bizarre Living Social deals that weren't actually local. That's strange to me, because I receive Living Social alerts for San Francisco on other mobile phones. I hope Microsoft works out this kink.
If you're planning to link a credit card to purchase content, the wallet is one good way to do it. I also added the information for my public transit card. It was tedious as you might imagine, and although I could snap a picture to identify the card, all I really wanted to do was store a photo of my card's serial number that I could reference later. That should also be an option. Of course, an OCR reader that accurately transcribed images to text would be the best.
The benefit of going whole hog and adding those details one by one is the potential for your bank's app and others to hook into your card and add richer information and services. At the time of this review, developers still haven't had a chance to code these extras yet, but I do hope they arrive soon.
In a similar vein, the upcoming Fast Cards in the wallet will filter out the payment cards that you can use for NFC payment, so they'll be ready in a tap. It's a great implementation in theory.
A small but useful feature is downloading Nokia maps for offline use. It's a little fussy to find and set up, and maps download by state or region. That's great for traveling abroad, but not so hot when all you'd really like to do is download directions you just looked up, or save the map you have on your screen.
Screenshots of maps will work, but it'd be great to store downloaded maps in the maps app, rather than have to root through your camera roll to find your photo. Still, gift horse...mouth. Map downloads are a unique platform addition, and one I hope that Microsoft and Nokia will continue to build.
Voice-to-text, voice commands
Voice dictation is a mobile OS necessity, one that Microsoft enhances in Windows Phone 8. However, voice-to-text is inconsistent to use, it isn't always accurate, and it doesn't understand punctuation. To me, that adds up to hit-or-miss usability, especially when the fight between Siri and Google Voice Actions is so fierce, and Google appears to be winning, even on iOS.
Here's an example. Voice notes come to OneNote in Windows Phone 8. Press and hold the Start button from any screen, say "Note," and start talking. If you tweak the settings, it will also work from the lock screen. I wish you luck; the Microsoft TellMe voice recognition engine didn't recognize or transcribe correctly, and entered the word "period" when I wanted the symbol. It's clearly better for short notes, rather than bullet-point lists and lengthy e-mails.
Making matters more confusing, OneNote has a voice input button in the app. But if you use that, you're only entering an audio file, not translating the spoken work into type.
Google does offer its search app (with voice search) in the Microsoft store, so there's your workaround if you'd like it.
Voice dictation works as advertised in the e-mail and text message composition windows, but with the same punctuation and comprehension issues. Shorter, well-enunciated speaking is more successful.
In June, Microsoft demonstrated how third-party developers could plug voice commands into their apps. They used Audible, the audiobook app, to show how it's done. I similarly tried a test version of Audible for reviewers, but the experience was buggy. Commands only worked part of the time, usually to play and pause. I was able to skip ahead a chapter as well.
Where I ran into trouble was when Audible didn't hear me, or didn't understand my command. Once I saw that yellow error message on the screen, no amount of rebarking orders would get the app back on track.
The feature is a great idea, but I hope it works better in real-life situations than it did in this reviewer's release software.
On the whole, Microsoft does a good job with the Bing app, which gains some enhancements in the form of recommendations for places and things that are either popular or endorsed by your Facebook friends.
For example, if you're looking for a restaurant or activity nearby, Bing will call out the cafe that your friends like before it shows you an unknown spot. The new For You panel in Local Scout follows this principle as well.
Another addition I do like is the deeper context in the Bing app home screen. Swipe right to see more panels like new movies, top headlines, and local deals. It'd be great to see more than just one example for each category before the OS drives you to load a new page to see them all.
Search results categories also get slightly beefier, gaining shopping and video in addition to photos, local, and Web results. You mostly won't notice the new features, but they do add to the app.
The best new feature to come to multimedia is one that's going to take developers to catch on, but it's one of Windows Phone 8's truly innovative features.
In the camera app, you can choose "lenses" that act like effects. Bing Vision, the bar code scanner and media reader, is loaded by default. CNN has the only other lens option so far, but downloading it didn't bring up the option in the lenses area. It will take some time for developers to add lenses to the camera. Ultimately, the feature's success will depend on the devs.
Microsoft has also added some long-awaited editing tools. Cropping and rotating photos joins auto-fixing, but where's panorama? How about color correction, straightening, red-eye reduction, and the rest? Yes, there are apps for that (HTC gives you one it its phones,) but Microsoft really could have taken integrated editing a step further by weaving other common editing tools into the photo app, as they are in stock Android 4.0 and above. Microsoft would actually offer the advantage there, since many Android manufacturers don't actually use those editing tools.
Pinch-to-zoom in the camera viewfinder is another better-late-than-never addition.
Microsoft's new music store
Fly the flag and play "Taps": Zune is dead. Taking its place is the extremely similar Xbox Music Store and subscription to stream and download songs at will.
The Music Pass is free for 30 days, then costs $10 per month after that, or about $100 for the year. It works on Windows 8 PC and Xbox 360. In Windows Phone 8, it means that any music connected to your Microsoft ID is stored in the cloud and accessible anywhere else. You'll also be able to download songs to save bandwidth (huzzah!) if you'd rather not stream.
Of the three major changes to hit Windows Phone gaming, multicore processing is the most hidden. Microsoft also fills the gap by offering in-app gaming purchases. We'll start seeing those crop up in games as developers weave in the code.
Like Android and iOS counterparts, Windows Phone users will also get Xbox SmartGlass, a cool app that turns your smartphone (or tablet) into a second screen where you can grab extra context about what you're watching, and in some instances, use the phone as a sort of controller. One example: quickly looking up the cast of a movie you're watching. While there's no singular advantage for Windows Phone owners, it's a good app for Xbox console owners to get.