Microsoft really found its feet in the mobile world two years ago with Windows Phone 7. The software stood out with its unique Metro interface featuring Live Tiles for apps and slick performance across all areas of smartphone life. But today, Windows Phone only has around 5% of the world's smartphone market, lagging far behind the dominant Google Android and equally popular Apple iOS, which runs on the iPhone.
With Windows Phone 8, Microsoft hopes to address the shortcomings of Windows Phone 7, and drive forward its mobile operating system backed by powerful hardware partners, including Samsung, HTC and Nokia. This is a big aim, even for a company as large as Microsoft, and whilst Windows Phone 8 is a beautiful and highly usable operating system, the same lingering issues over the depth and breadth of apps and content on the platform remain.
For anyone who has never used a Windows Phone before, the big difference to Android and iOS is that you can reshape the homescreen (or Start screen as Microsoft calls it) using Live Tiles. Apps, email, text messages, Internet Explorer, photos, even people can be 'pinned' to the start screen as colourful tiles, and they then update in real-time with new information. Windows Phone 8 allows users to resize these icons as they see fit. They can be shrunk down to thumbnails and placed four in a square; or stretched so that they fill the Start screen from edge to edge.
Another new feature is 'live apps', which can be linked to the lock screen so that the phone will display information when it is locked. Notifications at the bottom of the lock screen can be customised over the five icons from left to right, including support for third party apps, such as Facebook. This gives the system a more dynamic feel, and overall people will feel that WP8 gives them a much more personalised view compared to other operating systems. Whether that is a good thing is down to personal preference.
New hardware support
One of the biggest leaps forward with Windows Phone 8 actually comes in the hardware realm. Windows Phone 7 restricted hardware makers to single core processors, but the latest version drops such restrictions. This means phones with multiple cores can run the software, from two right up to 64. Most devices running the OS will start with the dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor, but the increase in performance is clear, as shown in our HTC Windows Phone 8X review. There is also now room to expand in the future, giving space to compete with the quad-core monsters already seen on rival Android.
Alongside the processor, WP8 now supports three screen resolution options - WGVA, 720p (1,280 x 720) and WXGA (1,280 x 768) – bringing WP phones up to par with industry standards. Expandable storage is also introduced via microSD card up to 64GB, and native Near Field Communications technology is included on the devices, such as the new 'Wallet' for storing coupons, credit cards, etc, in one place. But whilst Microsoft has now brought Windows Phone up to industry standards after the restrictive WP7, it must ensure that the software does not slip behind rival systems again.
Windows Phone 8 offers a range of ways in which to sync with other devices, meaning users are not just stuck with Zune. Videos, music, photos and files can be dragged and dropped onto a PC, and songs can be synced to Windows Media Player. But the big new feature is ability to sync to iTunes. By using Microsoft's desktop companion app, users can link up to iTunes and then decide what content they want to sync onto their phone. With this, Microsoft has addressed a big area of concern for Apple iOS users about switching to Windows Phone.
Another welcome new feature is over-the-air updates for new software patches and other content, meaning users don't have to link their phone up to the computer to get updates. Microsoft has fully integrated its Skydrive cloud storage service, and any photos taken on the phone can be instantly synced to the cloud for access on a number of devices.
Microsoft has been making a big deal about Kid's Corner, and you can see why. This basically creates a special 'smartphone-within-a-smartphone' to allow children to play apps, take photos and generally mess about without doing anything they shouldn't. Kids get their own closed interface with only apps approved by their parents, along with their own camera roll. After it has been set up, Kid's Corner is accessible by swiping left on the lock screen, and it can be fully personalised by the child, including their own resizable live Tiles. Pretty neat.
Microsoft has introduced a data usage tracker similar to the system already in place on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Data Sense asks the user their data plan and the end date of their billing cycle, and then works to maximise the value they get from their allowance. The programme monitors data usage and notifies the user when they are reaching their limits.
To save on data, it will compress web images in Internet Explorer 10, defer data tasks to free WiFi where available and automatically adjust the phone usage when users are close to their data plan limit. Microsoft claims that the average person will get 45% more web browsing on their data plan by using Data Sense, but we were unable to independently verify this in the review.
The big camera change in Windows Phone 8 is in the Lenses. Developers can now apply various customised features to the native WP viewfinder, which change the overall picture-taking experience. Bing Vision comes preloaded and allows users to scan QR codes and other digital barcodes. Photostrip works by taking a series of shots in burst mode and then presenting them in the same way as you would get in a high street photobooth. You can dictate how many images are taken and the time lapses between the snaps. Photosynth is a panoramic mode, and CamWow offers a range of filters and resizing options.
Microsoft clearly hopes that developers will get hold of the Lenses aspect and make some cool features for the service. Alongside this, Windows Phone 8 has some editing tools for cropping and rotating images. Users can also dictate how their images are uploaded onto SkyDrive. They could go for "good quality" as the default option involving some compression, or "best quality" for full resolution. This allows more options for managing space on cloud storage.
People Hub & Rooms
The People Hub remains the place where you collate all your friends, contacts and social media activity in one place. It works pretty much the same as WP7, but the addition of NFC support means you can share contacts with other people with NFC-enabled handsets. But the big new features is Rooms, a way to share and chat with a group of other users in a mini, private social network. Users can share calendars, shopping lists and photos with only those who are invited. Each Room can be pinned to the Start screen and will update in real time with new information. The service supports access for users on other smartphone platforms, such as the iPhone, although they don't get the same experience as on Windows Phone.
Windows Phone 8 drops the Zune branding entirely, and instead presents the standalone Xbox Music Store, with an Xbox Music Pass subscription. This gives access to music streaming or downloads. Any purchases made in the Xbox Music Store are automatically stored across all Microsoft-branded devices, including Windows 8 products and the Xbox 360. These can be streamed or downloaded for listening later.
Microsoft's operating system was previously lacking in the games stakes compared to iOS and Android, but Windows Phone 8 goes a long way towards addressing that issue. Again, the software can be linked to an Xbox Live account and will feature Xbox Avatar and Gamertag information. But it is the games where things have really progressed. The introduction of native code will appeal to developers and persuade them to make services for the platform, and the addition of in-game purchases is a positive step towards tapping into the freemium model. There are already signs of progress in that WP8 will offer big games such as Draw Something and Angry Birds Star Wars after launch.
Alongside Skydrive, Microsoft has also fully integrated Office, OneNote and other services into the operating system. There is still the irritating feature of Microsoft's Bing search page triggering every time you tilt the handset, but apart from that everything works well. The system also uses Nokia Maps after Microsoft wisely decided Bing Maps were rubbish - take note Apple.
This really is the issue with Windows Phone 8. The operating system is fluid and highly usable, but it lacks the depth and breadth of apps compared to Android and iOS. New services will always come to the two rival platforms first, meaning WP users may find themselves feeling left out. Users will also feel the absence of Google services, as there are no native apps for Gmail, Reader, Voice, Talk or various other services. Sure, email is well integrated to software, as it should be, but it is the lack of certain things that aid daily productivity in the wider world, such as shared calendars, that show the limitations of WP.
Windows Phone 8 is a positive step forward for Microsoft's mobile operating system, and one that brings the software up to pace with rivals, Android and iOS. WP8 offers major improvement over previous versions, including support for advanced hardware, along with a refreshed and more personalised interface and some pretty nifty new features, such as Kid's Corner and Data Sense. We have only really scratched the surface of the new features in this review, as there is so much more.
Whilst Microsoft's Windows Store now offers more than 120,000 apps, including many major names, the platform still feels like a second-class citizen. Most developers still favour Android and iOS first and foremost, meaning Windows Phone often has to wait for the big new releases and most popular apps. But what Microsoft has done is laid the foundations for attracting developers over to its platform going forward. If Microsoft keeps up the momentum with Windows Phone, then this could push up the market share, persuade developers to take the plunge and give Apple and Google something to think about.