For all Microsoft has been saying about Windows Phone 8 being the most "personal" mobile operating system and how it's designed for each and every one of us, that's not really anything new. Windows Phone 7 was the same way, putting people -- and the user -- at the center of the experience. Rather, what Windows Phone 8 comes off as is the mobile operating system that Windows Phone 7 should have been.
This is an undeniably familiar experience. In fact, with a handful of exceptions, you really have to make an effort to find glaring differences or updates. Windows Phone 8 is subtle. It's all about tweaking and refining the experience that Windows Phone 7 introduced, and mostly getting right what its predecessor got wrong the first time around.
That's right: Windows Phone 8 is obviously still very much a tile-based experience, so if you weren't a fan of them in the first place, you're unlikely to be convinced here to adopt Windows Phone. The good news is, for those of who do enjoy this particular UI, the live tiles are much better implemented this time around.
For one, the tiles are resizable, allowing for more customization on the homescreen. Granted, they cannot be sized freely; come on, that would simply be chaos. Rather, users can choose from three sizes: large, medium, or small. The first two were available on Windows Phone 7 (they were the column-width rectangle and the square, respectively), but the addition of the small size mixes things up a bit, with four small tiles equivalent to one medium tile.
Aside from adding a little more freedom to customize, it's also more convenient to compress some of your apps into a smaller space with the small tiles and get as many of them showing on the screen at once. I rather enjoy not having to scroll down for miles just to get to one of my home screen tiles, as it kind of defeats the purpose.
As for the content behind the live tiles, they seem to update more frequently and with more information. And perhaps most importantly, the live tile capability works with many more apps now -- ones that are "optimized" for the OS -- allowing them to display info on the fly without launching them. But more on that later.
On that same note of customization, the lock screen now has some added features, like displaying both "detailed" and "quick" statuses from apps of your choice, so you can power on your phone and get the info you need just by glancing at it without unlocking anything.
You can only choose one app from which to pull "detailed" statuses, so choose wisely; I picked the email app, so the sender, subject, and first line of my latest received email is displayed on the lock screen. You have a little more flexibility with "quick" statuses, as you can select five apps, but those offer information only through icons and numbers (e.g. an envelope with a 13 next to it means 13 unread emails, but that's all the info you get).
The image on the lock screen can also be modified to change periodically on its own if you're not one for looking at the same static image every time you power on your phone. But the images don't just have to be pulled from your local camera roll; you can do things like link it up to your Facebook account so pictures of you or your friends are regularly cycled through the lock screen.
It's good to see that Microsoft is trying to put more of an emphasis on the way apps integrate with the operating system this time around, especially since both app quality and app selection were somewhat lacking with Windows Phone 7. As mentioned, there are now optimized apps, and they work exceptionally well with both the live tiles (whether or not the app supports the tiles is indicated in the Store) and other aspects of Windows Phone 8.
Apps can now do push notifications, allowing you glean information without having to open the app or, in some cases, without even having to go further than the lock screen. Is there a breaking news story on CNN? I'll now get a buzz on my phone, same as I would if I had received a text message or email. Same goes for Facebook notifications and supposedly the new Data Sense app (used for tracking and making data usage more efficient) can do notifications as well, but I was unable to test that since I was using an AT&T handset and Verizon will be the first carrier to support it.
That being said, the Store -- as it's now called, no more Marketplace -- is a little light on optimized apps at the moment, but I say that more as an observation than a criticism. The Windows Phone 8 isn't even accessible to the public yet, so I can't possibly fault the OS for that when it's simply a matter of it being so young.
But there was still plenty to fool around with for now. A couple of the baked-in apps really impressed me, especially the newly-branded Xbox Music, which synced my library so painlessly when I signed into my Microsoft account on my Windows Phone 8 handset that I at first didn't even realize it had happened. I went to the Xbox Music tile with every intention of finding my previously downloaded songs in the catalog and re-downloading them one by one.
Instead, my whole library was already synced up and I was able to stream all of my songs without having to do a single thing, with the option to download any of them to my phone for local play if I wished. It was fantastic and incredibly efficient. Bravo to Xbox Music.
Also impressive, though perhaps in a slightly more subtle fashion, was the new Internet Explorer 10. It's efficient and incredibly fast -- at least compared to the Internet Explorer on Windows Phone 7 -- and all-around just very easy to use. Being able to now find text on a webpage and customize the lone button next to the address bar (instead of reloading the page, you can instead have it take you to your favorites or tabs) are simple but welcome conveniences. It even features built-in security that warns you and blocks any questionable pages that you attempt to visit. Admittedly, there aren't any major, standout changes that were made here, but Internet Explorer 10 absolutely makes for a more comfortable browsing experience now than it was before.
Unfortunately, one app that hasn't seen a whole lot of improvement is the email app. Microsoft touts features like bulk movement and deletion as well as threads, but those are features that have been available since Windows Phone 7.5. It's more or less unchanged, which is a shame because the threads/conversations feature is still an absolute mess.
In case you missed it in my Windows Phone 7.5 review, the email app attempts to sort emails into "conversations", which are essentially threads, but it's an unmitigated disaster. If you have an email thread going on between two or more parties, that isn't necessarily what Windows Phone displays as a conversation. Instead, it has a tendency to pull all recent emails from the same sender and place them into the same conversation.
So if I'm part of a thread that includes someone from whom I received an email recently (on a separate occasion), Windows Phone just takes all of the recent emails from that person and puts them into the same conversation even though their emails are from two or more different threads. It's a nightmare for organization and frustrating when all you want to do is track down a message, only to find that its been stashed in a conversation under a subject line that has nothing to do with the topic of the email. The fact that this rather significant issue has not been fixed in Windows Phone 8 is a massive oversight, in my opinion.
One of the most notable additions to Windows Phone 8 is a feature in which not all users -- myself included -- are going to find use, and that's the Kid's Corner. Nevertheless, it's certainly a good idea on paper: Kid's Corner is meant to give your kids a way to mess around with your phone without the risk of them tampering with things like your work email or your social media outlets.
Once engaged, Kid's Corner is accessed by swiping left from the lock screen, at which point your child is presented with a lock screen of their own. Like the rest of the phone, the Kid's Corner is fully customizable in terms of what apps, games, music, or other content you want to make available there, as well as the color scheme, lock screen image, and even the text displayed on the lock screen.
The only issue I have with the Kid's Corner is that it's only effective if you put a password lock on your own lock screen. Otherwise, there's nothing stopping your kid from just powering up the phone and swiping up instead of to the left where the Kid's Corner is located. And while I realize this is just a matter of personal preference, I'd rather not have a password lock on my phone. I think it's a hassle, and I would be more inclined to put some sort of protection on my lock screen if Windows Phone 8 supported gesture or pattern locks (like Android). But instead, it can only do passwords that require you to punch in a four-digit code on a number pad every time you want to unlock your phone.
Another solid idea that's somewhat flawed in execution is the Rooms feature, which basically operates as a central hub of communication for a select group of people. Here, all members of the Room can group chat with each other, make changes or additions to a central calendar (which updates the calendars of all the Room's members), view any pictures that are posted in the Room, and both view and edit any posted notes (the preloaded example on the phone includes a grocery list that all members can view and check off as they pick up each of the items). And setting it up is easy, since all you need to do is create a new Room, name it, and then select people from your contacts list that you want to join, and invites are automatically sent out to them via text message.
Honestly, it's a fantastic idea that works well, but only if all members of the Room are Windows Phone 8 users. See, in what initially seemed like an appealing feature, I found that I could invite anybody from my contacts to a Room, regardless of their mobile operating system, with the understanding that they would only be able to take advantage of the calendar editing and utilize the group chat via a desktop version of Windows Messenger.
However, getting non-Windows Phone 8 users into the Room was easier said than done. Windows Phone 8 first sends a text message to the intended recipient saying that a Room has been set up, and then in a separate text message, it sends a link. The recipient then has to open that link in their phone's browser and go through the process of joining the Room on the Windows Phone website. Sure, that may only seem slightly clunky, but the worst part is that a Microsoft account is required to join the Room.
If you're not a Windows Phone user, chances are good you don't have a Microsoft account, unless you're one of the hilarious few who had a Hotmail account once upon a time. So either you talk your hopeful Room member into going through the trouble of setting up a new Microsoft account for what amounts to basically a centralized/cloud synced calendar app, or you'll be sitting in your Room all by your lonesome until your friends and family get Windows Phone 8 devices. I applaud Microsoft's effort to reach out to non-Windows Phone (or Windows Phone 7) users, but Rooms just end up being a hassle to set up unless everyone has Windows Phone 8.
But Rooms and Kid's Corners and apps aside, the greatest and easily most important change found in Windows Phone 8 is one that may not always be immediately apparent on the surface. The fact that Windows Phone 8 now supports much more powerful, up-to-date hardware -- including multi-core processors, support for expandable memory, and NFC chips -- makes it a legitimate contender in the mobile OS race.
Now, for example, Windows Phone has a built-in Wallet app for storing credit cards, debit cards, rewards cards, and coupons for local deals, while it can also transfer entire contact entries to other phones with a single tap thanks to its NFC connectivity. Windows Phone 7 was quickly becoming a joke with restrictions that limited its phones to antiquated hardware, like single-core processors, so an update like this really brings Microsoft's smartphone offering back into the fold.
Page 2 of this review covers additional changes made to Windows Phone 8.
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