Microsoft's mobile platform gets hardware muscle and another lease on life
“This is Windows Phone. No, for real this time.” That’s what I thought when I started hearing about Windows Phone 8 a few months ago. Just like Windows Phone 7, it represents yet another clean break for Microsoft’s mobile ambitions — but unlike 7, now it’s got the hardware to match.
The truth is a little more complicated: this clean break isn’t as nearly as obvious as Windows Phone 7’s split from Windows Mobile was back in 2010. A quick glance at Windows Phone 8’s home screen, its apps, and its overall aesthetic lead you to believe that it’s only a mild evolution of Windows Phone 7.5 — and in many ways, that’s true. Much of Redmond’s grunt work instead went into overhauling what’s under the hood: these latest-generation phones now use what Microsoft calls the “NT kernel,” the same kernel that underpins Windows 8 and several generations of Windows for the desktop that came before it.
As much of an engineering challenge as that conversion may have been, the switch to the NT kernel is something Microsoft insists it needed to do. Amazingly, the framework lying beneath Windows Phone 7.x traces its roots back to Windows CE, Microsoft’s first attempt to port Windows to lightweight devices in the 1990s. It was never designed to accommodate today’s turbocharged smartphones — a market segment where features like multi-core processors are now the norm, not the exception.
But under-the-hood changes are tough sells for consumers drawn in by visuals and feature lists. So many of the questions raised by Windows Phone 8 are the same questions raised by Windows Phone 7.5 and 7 before it: is this finally the mobile platform that Microsoft (and Nokia) need to find widespread success?
Windows Phone 8 represents a modest tweak to the design language
In the course of swiping from screen to screen through Windows Phone 8’s attractive UI, there’s never a hint of lag. Then again, that was always one of Windows Phone 7’s talking points: Microsoft’s control over the hardware specs and the behavior of the software allowed it to run smooth as silk on older, single-core processors. The difference, though, is that version 8 is now doing it in glorious HD resolution. To be fair, I’ve always thought that Windows Phone looked particularly good (as mobile platforms go) at lower pixel densities, but 720p is a welcome inclusion nonetheless. Nothing looks scaled poorly, though there are a few third-party apps I tried that were bookended by wide black bars, clearly hardcoded with WVGA in mind.
But high-level performance aside, Windows Phone 8 represents a modest, mostly delicate tweak to the Metro design language (or "Modern UI Style," as it’s being called now) that first debuted on Windows Phone 7. The fact that Metro continues to look fresh some two and a half years after its introduction is both a blessing and a curse: it’s great for Microsoft that you can still look at a Windows Phone today and feel as though you’re looking at something genuinely different (and new) compared to Android and iOS. It’s bad, though, that the feeling of freshness largely stems from Windows Phone’s inability to capture a wide retail audience thus far.
The most obvious UI tweak in 8 — the one that users will immediately notice the first time they turn on their phone — is that the home screen is now more functional and flexible. Windows Phone 7 is noted for sacrificing precious real estate with a wide black bar on the right side of the home screen, but no more: version 8 spreads out, allowing the Live Tiles to occupy the entire width of the display. You can still get to your full list of apps the same way as before by swiping left (if you prefer to tap, the right arrow icon is still there — it’s been moved to the bottom of the Live Tile stack).
And speaking of Live Tiles, I think this is my single favorite change in Windows Phone 8: users can now choose from up to three sizes for each tile they pin to the home screen (some apps are limited to two). If you think of Windows Phone’s home screen as a grid four units wide and infinitely long, the available sizes are 1 x 1, 2 x 2, and 4 x 2; the latter two will be familiar to existing users, but the new 1 x 1 size is a great choice for app shortcuts that don’t need a ton of space to show live information flowing from the app (I use one for my third-party Starbucks card app, for instance). Injecting 1 x 1 tiles throughout your home screen layout really gives it some flair and individuality; I think it’s exactly what Microsoft needed to complete the look. It’s not a stretch to say that Windows Phone 8 has the best home screen — the perfect combination of flexibility, design, and simplicity — of any major platform right now.
Microsoft has always suggested that meaningful personalization is a critical element of the Windows Phone proposition. Touchpoints like highlight color (which is deeply ingrained throughout the platform) and home screen configurability have always been important to the platform — things that let users show hints of individuality while still making sure you can always tell beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’re definitely looking at a Windows Phone. To that end, the lock screen also gets some welcome improvements without losing its "Windows Phone-ness" — it still has the big time and date text across the bottom, for instance. Now, though, you can let third-party apps and services plug into it to cycle the background image, which is cooler than it sounds; take Bing, for instance, which is known for its killer imagery. Apps can also make status icons available to the lock screen, and you can choose up to five icon types to show at a time: Facebook messages, Xbox notifications, unread email, text messages, missed calls, and the like.
Like the home and lock screens, Windows Phone’s soft keyboard is another element that users inevitably interact with on an almost constant basis, and that makes its design critical — particularly considering that it still (frustratingly) can’t be swapped out for a third party keyboard in version 8. You’d think that Microsoft would look to the wild success of keyboard like SwiftKey and Swype on Android and admit that the benefits to users of opening up the input method to developers outweigh the risks, but no dice. Fortunately, Windows Phone has always had a fantastic keyboard, and this version is no exception; I felt as though it was lagging me on a couple occasions, but that may have been my imagination because I never had major input problems or uncorrected errors.
In Windows Phone 8, the keyboard incorporates something from its Research division that it calls "Word Flow," which operates much like the phrase prediction technology in SwiftKey and the keyboard found in Android 4.1 — it can type entire sentences for you, word by word, by looking at what you’ve typed so far. One interesting feature of Word Flow that I’ve not seen on other keyboards, though, is contextual correction: Microsoft says it’ll actually analyze the sentence you write and make corrections based on context. The example they give is that if you type "come over fir dinner" it’ll correct "fir" to "for," but I’m not convinced — I then tried typing "that’s a nice fir tree" and it still made the same correction.
The lock screen gets some welcome improvements
In our testing, most of Rooms' functions worked seamlessly
Windows Phone has always excelled at being a "people-centric" operating system, integrating photos, status updates, and other bits of information from various services into the People Hub. Windows Phone 8 doesn't significantly re-imagine any of that, but it does add several useful features in the corners of the OS.
Within the People Hub, Microsoft's main intervention with Windows Phone 8 is to add another panel, called "Together." It serves two functions: the first is to list the various contacts groups you've created and the second is to list "Rooms."
Contact grouping is relatively self-explanatory, but interestingly they get displayed as Live Tiles within this specific app and can individually be pinned to the Start screen. Each group acts like a subset of the People Hub overall, with a listing of contacts, their most recent status updates and photos, and finally the ability to send a group email or message. It also integrates with Microsoft's groups on Hotmail or Outlook. What it doesn't seem to do, unfortunately, is integrate with contact groups on other services.
The bigger and more interesting addition to the People Hub is Rooms. They essentially act like a private group for sharing various bits of information like photos, calendaring, notes, and messages. It's not entirely unlike the groups in BlackBerry Messenger or Google+ Circles, but it is obviously more tightly integrated into Microsoft's services. In our testing most of the functions worked seamlessly — especially group chat, which was nearly instantaneous. OneNote integration was hit and miss, but we're assuming that will work itself out by launch.
Only the person who sets up a Room can invite new members, although anybody can set a custom background for the Room, which also appears as the image on its Live Tile. If you invite somebody who doesn't have a Windows Phone device, they can still use the shared calendars and interact via Messenger on the desktop, but they'll need a Microsoft ID to set it all up. In general Rooms seem clever, but for them to fully work as intended, everybody using them needs to have a Windows Phone device — and Microsoft should know that's not likely to be the case for the vast majority of users. What the feature really needs is compatible apps on Android and iOS, and with any luck Microsoft will recognize that.
It took much longer than anybody expected, but Skype should finally be available and fully functional on Windows Phone 8 very soon. Unfortunately, Skype wasn't available for our testing ahead of launch, but Microsoft is promising deep integration with the VOIP app, allowing you to persistently stay signed in all the time. In fact, other VOIP apps are able to take advantage of the same kind of integration by using Microsoft's "Rich Communication Suite" APIs, which lets apps like Tango and Qik act like regular voice calls in the dialer and on the lock screen. Skype messaging will also be integrated with the messaging app and People Hub.
Microsoft has made a few tweaks to email, including the option to have a black background on your inbox view, automatically adding Office document attachements to the Office hub, and voice-to-text transcription when composing emails. These small tweaks don't change the email experience too much, though, and some of the same complaints we had with Windows Phone 7.5 still persist — including mis-threaded messages and poor Gmail integration. Voice transcription is unfortunately not very good either, which is really disappointing because speech recognition is one of the few areas where Microsoft once had a lead over iOS and Android.
Microsoft is promising deep integration with Skype
In general, using a Windows Phone 8 device as a hardcore communication tool is a mix of pleasant surprises and forehead-smacking frustrations. Messages from various services — Winodws Messenger, Facebook, SMS, and the like — are still intelligently integrated into a single thread (which you can now more easily delete from the list view), but the Twitter integration on your contact card still doesn't show you the 140 character message without an extra tap. You can send your location via MMS but the landscape keyboard mysteriously doesn't take up the full width of the screen.
Finally and most importantly, Microsoft needs to give a little more thought to its notification system. Notifications are the lifeblood of any communication-centric smartphone user's workflow, and Microsoft very cleverly integrated this functionality right into the Start screen with Live Tiles. However, as the proliferation of apps that serve notifications has increased, this solution hasn't scaled. Unless you've placed a Live Tile on your Start Screen for the apps you care about, you can't go to a central place where you can see all of your missed notifications.
Office is kind of a big deal, and in the past year Microsoft has done its level-best to close the cloud gap with Google Docs — and it’s been largely successful. On Windows Phone 8, the changes to the Office Hub also are an amalgam of small tweaks that add up to a nicer overall experience. Word now has a "full screen" mode for reading, Power Point adds in a few more viewing options, and Excel supports charts and has an improved UI for navigation. As mentioned earlier, Office also automatically pulls in documents that have been emailed to you without your intervention.
OneNote has been broken out of the Office Hub and it’s a decision that I can get behind: this is the best software you’re probably not using. Like Evernote, OneNote is designed for quick dumps of notes, photos, and voice notes. You can search across all of your notes as well. I care about three things in a note-taking app: plain text, speed, and seamless syncing. OneNote nails the latter two and though I’d prefer straight .txt files, getting data out of it isn’t a pain — and if you’re already deep into the Microsoft ecosystem, that shouldn’t be a problem for you.
What’s really nice about all of this (and you can add in the Photos Hub) is that it’s all seamlessly shared to SkyDrive. I’m a Dropbox user myself, but if you’re a Windows user you absolutely should be giving SkyDrive a shot. SkyDrive also has a beautiful and fast web interface from the desktop. There’s next to zero management required to keep track of your files with Windows Phone 8 and the apps that connect to SkyDrive and, even better, what management you do need to do actually makes sense. That’s in comparison to iCloud, whose structures for app data can often seem byzantine in their efforts to bury the file system.
There's next to zero management required to keep track of your files
Why not just make it a "guest mode"?
I’m not sure anyone saw this coming, but now that it’s here, it makes good sense: parents have smartphones. Some of their children may be too young to own smartphones of their own, but can still benefit from having access to a few games and songs for road trips or waits in the doctor’s office. That’s where Kid’s Corner comes into play, a locked-down alternative home screen that only allows access to functions of the phone that you choose.
Setting up Kid’s Corner is straightforward enough — in its default state, my 8X came with a Kid’s Corner Live Tile on the home screen, which you can tap to set up the service (it’s turned off by default). If you’ve deleted the tile, you can find it in settings. Either way, you’ll be taken to a screen where you choose which games, apps, and locally-stored music files that your child will have access to.
Once that’s set up, you (or your child, more likely) can get to Kid’s Corner by swiping right of the standard lock screen. Inside, all the games, apps, and music that you enabled appear on the Kid’s Corner home screen, which can be customized both by moving and resizing Live Tiles and by hitting the "Customize" tile, which lets your kid choose his or her own highlight color, name, and background picture for the Kid’s Corner lock screen. There’s no full app list, though — they’re locked out of everything else, which is precisely the point. If a message comes in, it’s hidden (though calls will still come through).
It works well, but it left me wondering: why not makes this more generalized and just call it "guest mode"? I can’t count the times that someone has asked to see my phone — either to check something on the internet, make a call, or just because they want to check it out — but considering that my phone usually has access to all of my most personal information, I’d rather be able to put it into a locked-down state of some sort before handing it over. Kid’s Corner would be nearly perfect, except for the fact that it’s called Kid’s Corner.
Microsoft is jumping into the mobile payment space with a new Wallet app that acts much like Google Wallet insofar as it combines three different functions: payments within Microsoft's app and content Store, direct payments via NFC, and local deals. Unlike other solutions, Microsoft decided to tie its security system to the SIM card instead of the NFC element, which the company claims will make it friendlier to carrier options and other third parties in the future.
When I set up Wallet, it automatically pulled in the payment information I'd already set up with my Microsoft account, including carrier billing via AT&T, my PayPal account, and my saved Visa card. There's an option to set up a PIN for making payments within apps (and at point of sale stations), and Microsoft has made the app open to allowing third party apps to tie into Wallet (though none were yet available in our testing).
I'm not much of a deal-hound, but I have to say that the "deals" section of Wallet just might convert me. It automatically searches for local deals and pulls automatically from several sources, including at least LivingSocial, Yelp, Restaurant.com, and Groupon. You can scroll through the deals and save the ones you like to your Wallet's main screen or pin them to the start screen.
As far as NFC goes, Windows Phone 8 has a fairly straightfoward implementation for sharing web pages, contact information, and the like. It's not automatic when you tap, unfortunately, instead requiring you to dig through menus to find "Tap+Send" before you touch phones. For sending simple, short pieces of information it works well across platforms — I could send and receive URLs and contacts with an Android phone easily. Unfortunately, sending pictures wasn't as straight-forward, which isn't surprising given the lack of standards for transfers that require both NFC and Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
I could send and receive URLs and contacts with an Android phone easily
The mapping experience fails in a few key areas
I had high hopes for the inclusion of Nokia’s mapping technology in Windows Phone 8 across all OEMs — Bing Maps had historically lagged its competitors in data quality in my experience, and it seemed that Nokia (by way of Navteq) had a huge opportunity to improve on that.
Unfortunately, I’m not seeing it yet. The "stock" Windows Phone 8 mapping experience actually fails in a few key areas. Though you can get basic walking and driving directions by hitting the "directions" button in the Maps toolbar, choosing the directions menu item on a point of interest gives you a "you need an app for that" pop-up that’s not unlike the one iOS 6 now gives users when they try to get transit information. The list of available apps to handle direction-giving will presumably be populated with options like Nokia Drive soon, but in our early testing, none were in the Store. I don't understand why you can get a list of directions from the toolbar, but not from a POI.
Just as alarmingly, I had a terrible time with several searches I conducted. In one instance, I entered a specific street address in the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove and was pointed to a spot about two miles away; it wasn’t until I arrived in a dark alley behind an industrial park that I realized I was led astray. In another case, I searched for "starbucks" in lower Manhattan — the app zoomed out to show me all of Manhattan Island and eight or so Starbucks locations, none of which were anywhere near me. I suspect there are more than eight Starbucks in Manhattan. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I’ve been to more than eight Starbucks in Manhattan. In a single trip.
On the plus side, downloadable worldwide maps for offline mode are a welcome improvement that help Windows Phone go toe-to-toe with mapping behemoth Google on Android — anyone who’s traveled overseas without access to cheap data knows just how important this one can be. Downloaded map sections don’t appear to automatically update, but you can manually check for updates using a button in the app’s settings.
The last vestiges of Zune have been extricated from Windows Phone 8; you now use Xbox services to reach music and podcasts from the device. Like before, you can purchase tracks directly from the device, but you still can’t rent movies. It’s a strange omission, particularly now that Windows Phone has gorgeous 720p displays at its disposal.
I tried Xbox Music Pass — the replacement for Zune Pass, Microsoft’s unlimited music subscription service — and was quite happy with it. Tracks quickly downloaded over my HSPA connection as I selected them, though I was disappointed to find that I had no way to control whether to allow downloads over cellular or to restrict them to Wi-Fi; the phone decides that on a per-track basis, which meant that when I downloaded an album on 3G while in the airport there were two tracks left behind waiting for a Wi-Fi connection. That said, the selection of music on Xbox Music Pass seems excellent — there’s a lot of eclectic content here that I’m not able to find on competitors like MOG, Rdio, or Spotify — but it’s hard to recommend unless you’re living in an all-Microsoft world and you don’t require web access. For me, personally, platform independence is a big deal for my music.
The coolest part of the Xbox experience here isn’t actually exclusive to Windows Phone 8: SmartGlass is already available for Windows 8 devices (like Surface) and will be coming to other platforms soon. Using the remote feature — which turns the entire phone into a touchpad for controlling your Xbox console’s interface — immediately felt so natural that I might consider using it as my primary remote control for watching movies and controlling music. It was just a bit slow; gestures took about a half second on average to register on the console — long enough to be noticeable — and connecting to the Xbox took up to 20 seconds. Unfortunately, leaving the SmartGlass app (even briefly) requires that you reconnect the next time you go into it. The app also insisted that my phone was on a different network than my Xbox (I wasn’t), which prevented me from using the browser and keyboard functions. Admittedly, it’s pretty cool that you can still use the remote control when you’re halfway around the world, though it isn’t very practical except to play tricks on people at home as they’re trying to use the console.
SmartGlass is pretty cool
Fast and responsive
Microsoft has spent the past few years touting Internet Explorer and IE10 on Windows Phone 8 is definitely worthy of some bragging. It shares much of the technology from IE10 on the desktop — and on top of the new Windows Phone core and more powerful hardware, it's fast and responsive. It rendered most of the full desktop sites I visited quite well — including the custom fonts on theverge.com. There were a couple times where it was a little overly agressive in zooming, but overall it's really much better than I expected.
Microsoft also baked in some nice additional pieces, including the ability to customize the button on the toolbar and find text on a page. Finding text in a page, especially, is really great on IE10 — it jumps and zooms to each instance quickly and painlessly. There are also back-end benefits like "SmartScreen Filter" for alerting you about malicious websites and the (slightly contentious) Do Not Track option.
From a UI perspective, my second-biggest complaint is simply that Microsoft only allows for six open tabs at any given time. That may be a function of the fact that each tab is its own process and so a crashed webpage should be less likely to bring down the entire browser, but it's still a pretty anemic number.
My biggest complaint about IE10 is something that Microsoft is going to have a more difficult time solving: the mobile web simply isn't friendly to browsers that aren't based on the Webkit rendering engine. Facebook and Google, in particular, treat IE10 as though it were a browser straight out of the 90s, serving up ancient-looking mobile pages that simply have no place on a modern smartphone. It's a very thorny issue, with both Microsoft and Mozilla doing their best to get developers to target mobile web browsers more generally instead of just iOS and Android. Add in that many sites that would normally serve HTML5 video instead of Flash (which isn't supported here), and it's even more frustrating. Regardless of the politics behind it, the actual experience of using IE10 is a jarring melange of beautiful web pages and mobile sites that treat it like a second-class citizen of the web.
Luckily, you can set IE10 to identify itself as a desktop browser instead of a mobile browser, though that presents challenges of its own as some desktop pages are simply too much for even this browser to handle. Between the rock of crappy mobile pages and the hard place of sometimes heavy desktop pages, I'll take the latter.
Microsoft made the camera a central focus since the beginning for Windows Phone and with WP8 it's making some small tweaks that should theoretically make the experience much better for users. It has tweaked the viewfinder software a bit, but not all the changes are for the better. I'm happy to see that you can now directly toggle the flash without digging through settings (and also happy to see that settings includes plenty of custom camera settings).
Strangely, Microsoft decided that having zoom buttons on the screen was a bad idea, and instead you zoom with a two-finger pinch. That's a strange decision for a process that's most often one-handed — pinching to zoom when you're trying to compose a shot is awkward at best. Perhaps, like me, Microsoft thinks that digitally zooming on a smartphone is kind of silly — but even so it's a change for the worse for the average user.
A bigger change to both the camera and the Photos Hub is that Microsoft has made them extensible in interesting ways. There's a new button in the camera called "Lens," which opens up a custom list of camera apps you can use to shoot with. You can't set one of them as the default for the camera button, but having them here is convenient. When you take a photo with a Lens-enabled app, it goes into your Photos hub just as any other photo, marked with a special tag letting you know which app it was shot with. It's as though it was custom-designed for Instagram, which of course isn't available on Windows Phone.
The Photos Hub now offers multi-select and photo editing tools: Rotate, Crop, and an auto-fix option that primarily tries to normalize white balance and exposure. Just as with the Lens option in the Camera, you can quickly jump to third-party photo editing tools from within the photo view. The last bit of extensibility involves the instant-upload button. Whereas before you could choose between SkyDrive and Facebook for your automatic uploads, now Windows Phone 8 will let you choose any third party app that supports the feature — unfortunately, in our testing no apps (including Facebook) were yet updated to support auto upload.
Lenses are a unique addition
Buy into Windows Phone because you want to try something different
With each new generation of Windows Phone, Microsoft not only closes the gap with iOS and Android in important ways, but it also differentiates in important ways — and that might be more true in version 8 than ever before. But at the risk of sounding like a broken record, there are still countless annoyances that trace back to 7.5 or even 7: the status bar that only occasionally appears (who doesn’t want to see time, battery, and signal strength at all times?). The attractive animations and screen transitions that can turn into annoyances and time-wasters after you’ve seen them 50 times. The lack of a unified notifications tray. The fact that the hardware search button isn’t contextual (and often appears alongside an on-screen search button that is contextual). The “Resuming...” animation when loading an app back up. And speaking of apps, just today, I pined for Uber, United, and a real first-party Starbucks app. There’s still a big app gap between Windows Phone and its competitors — don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t give Windows Phone 8 a serious look going into the holiday shopping season. Nokia’s troubles aside, Microsoft is showing as much commitment to making Windows Phone work as ever. Between Office and Xbox alone, Redmond is presenting one of the most compelling ecosystem stories in the business right now, and the 8X and Lumia 920 are both lining up to be formidable flagship phones over the next several months. For the moment, though, buy into Windows Phone because you want to try something different, not because you want the flat-out best and most complete mobile experience you can possibly have.
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