Windows Phone 8 Review
Windows Phone 8 (codenamed Apollo) has finally landed! Microsoft has put a lot of effort into keeping their latest smartphone operating system under wraps all year so that they could show off some surprise features this fall. Some were revealed little by little, but today we’ve finally got the whole thing and are able to see how everything fits together. We’ve only had about 24 hours to use this latest iteration of Microsoft’s smartphone operating system and a few of the back-end things are not as fully implemented as they should be once the new Windows Phones go on sale, but we hope the following review will give you a good idea of what to expect.
Windows Phone 8 builds upon Windows Phone 7’s new concept of being a very personal operating system. Its design is far removed from the usual way of extending a computing operating system with a list of applications that can be launched, in the same way the graphical user interface has worked since the 20th century. Instead of just a grid of app icons, with Windows Phone, the operating system is extended within tasks or content in order to make for a more integrated and intuitive experience. This is more apparent than ever in Windows Phone 8 as you’ll see that many aspects of the phone can now be seamlessly added to by third party developers.
Shared Windows 8 Core
A lot of the work that went into Windows Phone 8 was spent on porting everything from Windows Phone 7.5 to the same kernel and core as Microsoft’s Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows Server 2012 operating systems. The reason for this is naturally to simplify development of newer versions, to simplify third party application development across platforms, and to simplify hardware support growth. For example, if you wanted to make a smartphone with 64 processor cores, that would be theoretically possible with Windows Phone 8’s new kernel.
In addition to multi-core processors, Windows Phone 8 now also supports three screen resolutions: 800×480, 1280×768 and 1280×720. That will give phone manufacturers the extra pixels they need to make very sharp looking screens.
Windows Phone 8 also now brings removable storage support back to Microsoft’s smartphone platform. However due to the new security and encryption features, only music, movies, photos, and application installers can be accessed on removable storage cards.
Speech UI, Lock Screen, & Start Screen
The updated and extensible speech interface is one of my favorite parts of Windows Phone 8. The big deal here is that third party developers can tap into the global speech interface in order to add any kind of speech-based commands they want. It works the same as the system speech UI; either press the voice dialing button on a Bluetooth device, or press and hold the Windows button on your phone. A sound will play that indicates the phone is listening. In order to activate commands from a third-party app, say the name of the app first followed by the command. This new method of speech interface integration has huge potential for third party developers. Hopefully we’ll see many take advantage of the APIs.
The Speech UI now supports more languages that can be easily downloaded by the user and switched to in the settings. The voice of the speech engine has been improved as well. It seems to have a little more “attitude” than before and isn’t as robotic. You can switch between male and female voices now as well. Another great addition is when dictating SMS, Facebook chat, or instant messages, after you say one sentence, the options are “You can say send, add more, or try again.” The “Add more option” will let you speak another sentence to add to the message. It’s extremely useful and easy to use.
Lock Screen Customizations
The lock screen is the first thing you see when you turn your phone on, so it makes sense to have some important information there. Previously on Windows Phone, we only had the date/time, next appointment, and a series of icons representing new emails, voicemails, or instant messages. With Windows Phone 8, the lock screen becomes much more customizable and extensible. Any developer can create an app that can add information to the lock screen now. You can even set the background image to change automatically. For example, you can choose Facebook for the background image and from there you can have the Facebook app randomly load images from your Facebook account on the lock screen. Optionally you can get Bing to load the gorgeous image of the day on your lock screen. Even the detail notification and small row of icon-based notifications are customizable.
As we’ve been seeing for a while, the Windows Phone 8 start screen has been updated. No longer does it have an asymmetric balance of negative space by default. The live tiles can take up the entire screen now, and instead of a two column grid, you’ve got a four column grid with the ability to choose 3 different sizes for your live tiles. You’ve got large squares, full-width rectangles, and small squares. This gives you much more flexibility to arrange the information and live tiles that are important to you in a way that makes sense to you. You can create your own negative space by leaving some empty spots, or you can fill the whole screen with small tiles in order to get the largest amount of info on there as possible.
Bing, Local Scout & Maps
At first the Bing app looks pretty close to the usual, however in Windows Phone 8, it now allows you to pan to the right for more panels full of information. There’s news headlines, movies, local events, local deals, and videos. All have seen upgrades too. The Movies card has app links as usual, but they also include a “Buzz” panel that aggregates movie reviews from a number of different sources. At the top you get a percentage graph as to how much all of the reviewers liked the movie, then there’s another percentage graph showing how much the audience liked the movie.
Search results have more options, too. Now there’s a “Media” tab that lists photos and videos related to your search. It’s much more useful and similar to Bing on the desktop. The video search seems to always return mobile-compatible videos that play perfectly on Windows Phone 8. The images results have been hugely improved as well. Now you can swipe through the images and pinch-zoom each one. Furthermore, you can easily save them to your phone, or set one as your lock screen image.
While there are plenty of great Bing upgrades, the excellent flight search and other travel features are still missing.
Local Scout has also been updated with some great social suggestion features driven by Bing. There’s a new “For You” section that uses friends’ information from your Facebook account to make local area suggestions based on where your friends have been in the past. It sounds kind of creepy, but obviously it only uses information that has been specifically shared with you. There’s a selection button at the bottom that you can use to check off each of Bing’s suggestions and then press the “Dislike” button if you really don’t like those suggestions.
Of course Local Scout still gives you local restaurant, events, and shopping suggestions, however now there are also extensive filtering and sorting options. You can even filter locations by which ones are open now and which ones are offering deals. Those are some very smart features!
The big upgrade in the Maps app is firstly the switch to Nokia map data and secondly the ability to download map data for offline usage. One thing that’s special about this offline map data is that it can be accessed and used by other applications. For example when Nokia Drive comes to the platform, you will not need to download secondary copies of the offline map data since it will be able to use the maps you’ve already downloaded.
Once you find a location in the maps app, there’s also a new panel in the details called “Buzz”. This panel will download Twitter posts that refer to that location so you can instantly see what’s going on there right now.
Office, OneNote, PDF Reader
The Office Hub is where you’ll find all of your Microsoft Office documents whether they’re located on the phone itself, on SkyDrive, in your email, or on SharePoint. Your documents are still searchable from here, you can still pin them to your Start screen, and PDF files still show up here. However, now the Tap & Hold menu includes options to Share for all files (including PDFs). You can share via email, Bluetooth, or NFC (Tap & Send) now. There’s also a “Save to” option so if you downloaded a file from a website or via email, you can now save it to SkyDrive (or maybe SharePoint). Unfortunately, you can’t choose which folder you might want to save it to, so if you want to put it in a shared folder so that other workgroup members can access it too, you’ll have to find another way. PowerPoint, Word, and Excel are still very limited, but you’ll be able to make some light edits and reviewing comments while on the go.
Word dose support the new Word 2013 feature where it will remember where you left off within the document if you close it on Word 2013 on the desktop and then open it again on Word for Windows Phone 8. PowerPoint has been updated to allow viewing slides in portrait or landscape mode, plus there’s a thumbnail view, and improvements to animations, shapes, and SmartArt rendering. Excel now includes better support for charts, smoother navigation, and a new “sticky” mode.
OneNote has seen a huge update in Windows Phone 8. It’s no longer part of the Office Hub and it’s a little more like the Metro style Windows 8 version of OneNote. You still can’t rearrange or reorganize your notebook sections and pages, but you’ll be happy to hear that ink viewing support has arrived. Shape drawings appear now as well, as do all of the previously supported OneNote items including audio, video, and attachments. Even hyperlinks to other OneNote pages actually work now! The only thing that does not show up in OneNote mobile on Windows Phone 8 is equations. Oh, and password protected sections still don’t sync.
OneNote now also has a Speech UI plug-in that’s activated by holding down the Windows key on the phone or pressing the voice dial button on a Bluetooth headset, waiting for the “listening” tone and then saying, “Note” followed by the note you want to create. Windows Phone 8 creates a new OneNote page in the Unfiled Notes section with your voice recording AND the transcribed text of your note. That way if it didn’t transcribe things just right, the original recording is still there for you to listen to.
In the Photos viewer in Windows Phone 8, you’ll also find OneNote as one of the “Share” options. This works really well when combined with the new multi-select option in the Photos hub. You can select a whole sequence of images, and then Share to OneNote and they’ll all appear in a single new OneNote page. Unfortunately you can’t choose a specific existing OneNote page to add them to like you can on the full version of Windows.
The PDF Reader that Adobe put together for Windows Phone 7 was pretty buggy to say the least. So Microsoft made their own for Windows Phone 8 (and Windows 8) and it is so much better. Zooming and panning is very responsive, plus you can “Find on Page”, Jump to a page, and navigate bookmarks.
Xbox Games Hub, Music & Video
The Games hub has been redesigned to be more Xbox style. The “Collection” listing of games is still the default panel (which is good), however the games listing is still not searchable (even from the start screen’s app listing search button).
The Avatar panel has some new tricks though. Your Avatar learns some new animations and the phone-shake gesture has come back from Windows Phone 7.0 and your avatar will get very disoriented and eventually fall down if you shake it hard enough.
The Avatar Editor is still part of the “Xbox Extras” app that you have to download separately. The Friends tile in the Games Hub is now accompanied by a SmartGlass tile and Games Store tile. SmartGlass is not fully integrated as that is also a separate download that you can install. Then there’s a new “Notifications” panel that combines game invite notifications with Xbox LIVE messages and friend requests. I think it’s definitely better this way. The Spotlight panel is largely unchanged and just gives you little game related news updates.
Windows Phone 8 games themselves will be able to take advantage of Direct3D which will also make it easier to port games written for Windows over to Windows Phone.
Music & Video
Microsoft recently rebranded Zune and the Zune Pass to Xbox Music and Xbox Music Pass. For the most part everything works the same, however there’s one big difference that you’ll see in Windows Phone 8. I was a little surprised when I opened the Music & Video hub and noticed a number of songs on the “New” panel that I had bought last month on my Zune desktop software (with my 10 song credits per month grandfathered Zune Pass account.) As it would turn out, Windows Phone 8 automatically lists every song I’ve ever bought through Zune in my library. That’s not to say it downloads all of those songs. You’ll see a little streaming icon next to each one which means that it will stream off of the internet if you play it. In other words, those songs are part of my “Cloud Collection”. Of course, I can easily tap & hold a song and choose to download it to my phone since I already own it. Then I won’t need internet access to listen to it again.
Unfortunately, the cloud collection access does not work the same way with videos. In fact, I was unable to download a movie I purchased through Xbox video and sync it from Windows 8 to Windows Phone 8. It gave errors about not being able to validate the playback rights.
When you’re listening to a song, the menu at the bottom has some great new features. For example, the “Share” command now supports social networks. You can easily post an Xbox Music link to the song you’re listening to on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter (all at once or individually). Of course, you’ve also got the new options for Facebook privacy while posting. Another option in the Music player’s “Share” option is “Xbox”. This will let you play that song on your Xbox 360. Tap & Send, Messaging, and email are other share options available as well.
The Windows Phone Marketplace has been renamed to simply “Store”. It’s still beautifully designed with landscape panoramic layouts, but some of the big categories are shown as square tiles now. There is one new feature in the Apps and Games sections though called “Picks for You”. This listing will use your app usage habits (if you gave permission) to suggest other apps that Microsoft’s server side algorithms think you might like. We’ve seen this feature before in Zune, but it was always for suggesting new music you might like. What’s odd and disappointing is that the “Picks for You” feature is NOT available for music suggestions on Windows Phone 8. I’m not sure why since it was already done for on Zune.
Most of the other aspects of the Store are the usual, however the “Share” button has seen an upgrade too which supports sharing on social networks as well as sharing via NFC.
Internet Explorer, Email, Company Hub, Messenger
The web browser has been updated to version 10 and brings better HTML5 support in addition to some customization options for the on-screen controls. You can choose which button appears next to the address bar for easy access to whatever you feel is most useful. The “Find on Page” command has thankfully returned to Internet Explorer as well!
The Email app listing now conforms to your theme settings by default (light or dark background), but this can be changed in the email settings. What’s strange is that when you open an email, it shows with a white background regardless of your settings. All the cool features from Windows Phone 7.5 are still here, and reply/forward status icons still don’t sync with IMAP or Exchange 2003. Nor do draft emails sync with anything including my Microsoft Account. It’s embarrassing that something so simple still hasn’t been fixed.
On the plus side, in the body of an email you can now press a button in order to transcribe your voice into the email message.
In order to let us review a few special unreleased Windows Phone apps and also see how a custom Company Hub works on Windows Phone 8, Microsoft sent reviewers instructions on installing a Company Hub for a fake company. It was a very simple matter of one click to download and install a security certificate, and another URL link to install the app. From there, this custom Hub was installed and gave me access to a whole list of unreleased apps along with a few other fake panels to demonstrate other types of data and interactive elements that a business might want to add to their own custom hub.
A new feature in Messaging that could be very useful is the ability to attach your location. It sends a little map that the recipient can click to see your location. If you receive a location from someone in Messaging, you can tap it and then use the “Drive to” button to navigate to them (provided you have a “Drive to” compatible GPS navigation app installed.) You can also attach a contact to a text message now as well (in addition to pictures, videos, and voice notes).
The keyboard now is also able to predict phrases in addition to single words, and there are a ton of new emoticons supported.
Other New Features
Skype and VoIP
Another one of the big changes for Windows Phone 8 is the return of voice over IP support. Microsoft once had a nicely integrated VoIP plug-in capability in the old Windows Mobile smartphone platform, but it didn’t really work that well and wasn’t so extensible. Now with Windows Phone 8, VoIP application developers can tap right into the People Hub and Phone dialer for seamless integration. Skype has been updated for a more server-central notifications setup so that you can receive voice/video calls and messages without having to keep the full app running and thus saving battery life. Unfortunately, Skype for Windows Phone 8 wasn’t available at the time of this writing though.
The “Rooms” feature will be great for collaborating remotely among workgroups or groups of friends. Each room has its own chat session where all members can see and respond to the messages, but it also has a shared calendar, a shared photo/video library, and a shared OneNote notebook. All of those things are accessible from SkyDrive and compatible with other phones as well so not everyone even needs to have a Windows Phone for it to work.
Instead of having groups at the top of the contacts listing in the People hub, there’s a new “Together” panel which houses the “Groups” and “Rooms”. The Groups are the same type of thing from Windows Phone 7.5, where you can create your own groups of people to keep track of and easily communicate with, however they don’t know they’re in your specific group and can’t communicate with each other like you could in the “Rooms”. One great addition to the Groups feature is that they now sync with your Microsoft account’s contact list on Outlook.com. Don’t expect to see them in Outlook 2013 or the Windows 8 People hub though. You can also rearrange people in the groups now for speed dialing purposes. Of course you can add and share contacts via NFC now as well.
This mode is going to be good if you have a child that likes to take your phone and play games on it occasionally. In those scenarios, you probably don’t want your kid to have complete access to all of the other important information on your phone (especially Christmas lists). So Kid’s Corner will let you specify specific apps and functions that you want to allow as being available when you set the phone into Kid’s Corner mode, and loan it to your child to play with.
Photos and Camera
The big thing about the camera in Windows Phone 8 is the new “Lenses” extensibility. These are essentially third party apps that tie into the camera and offer different ways to take pictures. For example, an Instagram app would make a good Windows Phone lens that would instantly allow you to apply filters even before you take the picture. Lens apps can also do plenty of other things like overlay augmented reality data, translate text in real time, or record a scene that you can make into an looping animated GIF.
The Photos hub is mostly unchanged besides a vertical “Favorites” panel, and the very welcome multiple selection option within photo albums. There are now some integrated editing tools for pictures though. In addition to the auto-fix, there’s cropping and rotating now. NFC Photo and Video sharing is now supported, but it only works with other Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 PCs.
The Camera now has multi-touch zooming instead of the two button zooming, plus there is a new button for accessing third party camera “lenses”.
This isn’t something that is included with the operating system by default, but it is very well integrated. It’s an awesome feature too if you’ve got an Xbox 360 to connect it to. SmartGlass on Windows Phone 8 is a bit more well integrated than the other SmartGlass clients since “now playing” buttons appear in your Xbox Music & Videos app as well as the Games hub. Plus you’ve got the “Share” menu option for Xbox which lets you send things like music and web pages from your phone to your Xbox 360. Furthermore, SmartGlass is a life-saver when it comes to typing text into your Xbox 360 or browsing webpages on the big screen. It makes everything so much easier. There are even special companion viewers or interactive elements for certain Xbox apps, movies, and games that will let you access additional content on SmartGlass while the primary material plays on your big screen TV.
Backup & Restore
Thankfully, Windows Phone 8 includes some excellent new cloud backup features. You can set it to remember your app list, settings, text messages, chat history, photos & videos. It will remember which accounts you’ve added to the phone too, so when you get a new phone or hard-reset your current one, it will only ask you for the passwords to the other accounts you’ve had previously installed. What’s unclear is what kind of application data is backed up. Game progress is an important one that we haven’t had time to test yet.
This is going to be a very useful new feature for Smartphone users. Data Sense is a combination of server side data compression, carrier support, and client side data usage monitoring. The server side compression, which boasts a 45% increase in the amount of web pages users can consume with the same data plan, will first be available on Verizon in the US, and will later roll out to other carriers.
On the phone side, Data Sense will automatically detect nearby WiFi hotspots (that you can also find on the map) and make those a priority for data connections. It will even adjust your network settings as you approach your data plan’s monthly limit to help prevent you from incurring overage charges.
Data Sense also helps you understand your data usage. You can pin a live tile to your start screen that will show you how far you are against your data limit, and the app itself can show you how much data each of your other apps are consuming.
Remember how difficult it was to get a certain language installed on Windows Phone 7? The CAB installers and all that? With Windows Phone 8, changing languages is extremely easy. Just go to the speech or keyboard settings and you’ll find the list of languages. The ones that are not already installed have a file size listed. All you have to do to download and install that language is tap it. It will download and install the language tight there (though it will require a reboot).
The Windows Phone Wallet app is what you’ll use to manage credit cards and payment options that you can use to pay for products both in the Windows Phone Store, via near field communications and via other apps. It also lets you search for and manage local deals and digital coupons. You can save your own coupons by taking a picture of them or entering the codes manually or you can tap “find deals” and the wallet software will list all sorts of sales near you that you might want to take advantage of. It’s extremely useful to those who are always looking to save money, and the Wallet app is sure to be even more useful as 3rd party apps are released for it.
New Desktop Apps
No longer does Windows Phone sync with the Zune desktop client. There are three new sync apps. One is made for Windows 7, one for Windows 8, and one for Mac OS X. They’re all horrible compared to what you could do with the Zune client. I mean seriously bad. With Zune you could actually manage a large library of music, videos, and photos. You could see everything, you could sort them and filter them. You could create automatic playlists that would organize your content by certain criteria no matter how your library changed. For example, I had a “100 newest” songs auto playlist that obviously had my newest music, but it also removed the songs that I had rated lowly as disliking them. With Zune, I could set this programmed playlist to auto-sync with my Windows Phone wirelessly over WiFi while the phone was charging. I never had to even think about it! Just plug into the charger when I got home, download any new music I might want and it would refresh my playlist by itself. Even if I downloaded new music from my Zune HD, the Zune PC software would see that, put it in my auto-playlist and transfer the new stuff to my phone. The same worked with my photos. I had a special folder of photos that was set to auto-sync with my phone whenever new photos were added. It was all very seamless and easy and effortless.
That’s no longer the case. Now you have to plug Windows Phone directly into your PC’s USB port in order to sync Media and then you have to launch the Windows Phone 8 sync app in order to browse through your library and select single items to sync. You can’t even see thumbnails of what you’re syncing though. You have to go by the file name. Want to listen to a song or ringtone to see if that’s the one you want to sync before you do it? Forget about it. What’s worse is that every time you launch the Windows 7 version of the Windows Phone sync app, it has to RE-SCAN your entire library. So for me, that means plugging in the phone, launching the app manually, waiting for about 15 minutes for it to rescan my terabytes of media, and then tediously trying to search for the filenames of the content I want to sync. It’s a huge step back in usability. It doesn’t even scan the Windows Libraries correctly. My movies that I purchased through the Zune desktop software do not show up in the Videos section.
Windows Phone 8 now supports the Mass Storage Device protocol when plugged in via USB though. That’s great if you want to plug a phone into a computer and copy/paste files between folders manually without having to install any software. Apparently people still do that even though the automatic wireless method from the old Zune software was so much better. I never trusted mass storage transfers because who knows what codec or encoding these files are in and whether or not they’ll be playable on the device. Allowing the Zune software to convert and down-sample (in order to save on storage space) was so much easier and more reliable.
Fortunately, syncing directly with a PC is becoming less and less necessary considering a large portion of my music library already shows up as my “cloud collection” in Windows Phone 8, all of my photos and videos stored on SkyDrive show up seamlessly, backups are automatically made to the cloud, and I can set full resolution photos and videos to sync to SkyDrive automatically as well. Simply having the SkyDrive app installed on my PC means all of that content gets automatically synced to my PC too, except that it does not go into the normal media library folders. I still have to archive stuff manually. Windows Phone 8 software updates are done over WiFi too, so I don’t need to plug into a PC for that reason either. The only problem is trying to get videos bought through Xbox Video to show up on Windows Phone 8.
As usual, whenever Microsoft releases a new mobile operating system, something useful that you might rely on gets removed.
- FM Radio support
- Native turn-by-turn touch to announce driving directions (replaced by third party apps)
- WiFi sync with the desktop (now only cloud sync or USB transfer is available)
- Auto-playlists sync (playlists need to be created manually now)
- Quick share to Facebook. Now you have to press the Share button, scroll, & tap Facebook
- Sharing posts and pictures to the Windows Live Social is gone
- The option to remove location info from pictures when uploading to social networks is gone (but you can still
disallow saving location information with photos)
- The “New Note” start screen tile shortcut is no longer available
The removal of WiFi sync with the desktop is especially annoying now that wireless charging is becoming more prevalent. It would have been so great to just set the phone down and know that in addition to recharging, it would sync my photos, videos, & music playlists with the desktop.
Besides the cool features that have been removed, there are still a few that I was kind of hoping would come to Windows Phone 8. For example Xbox Video store is nowhere to be found. You still have to sync movies and TV shows from the desktop and that’s even more annoying now that WiFi sync and auto-playlists are gone.
- + Fantastic centralized speech UI with 3rd party app support and Bluetooth functionality
- + Much more user customizable without significant complexity
- + Cloud backups
- + Heavy integration with Microsoft cloud services
- + Remote access to Xbox Music library (Cloud Collection)
- + Extremely robust support for future hardware (up to 64 processor cores)
- + Support for expanding storage with additional memory cards
- + Data Sense makes your limited data plan more useful and easier to manage
- + Lots of Business-friendly features added
- + Mobile “Rooms” collaboration features that work across platforms
- + High end game development support and extensive Xbox integration
- + Always-on seamless and battery-safe VoIP support
- – Syncing media with the desktop has become more tedious and difficult than ever with the removal of Zune sync support
- – Email still doesn’t sync drafts or reply/forward status
- – Data Sense compression technology is carrier dependent
- – Speech recognition is sometimes inaccurate
- – No Xbox Video cloud sync or store integration
While there are many new features that have been added to Windows Phone 8, some of the most interesting and potentially life-changing features are still up to 3rd party developers to integrate. Windows Phone 8 has made 3rd party app and content integration much easier than previous versions. Now, developers can integrate with the global speech user interface. That’s a huge deal and really hasn’t been done before. Being able to press one button on a Bluetooth headset and having voice command access to any number of third party application functions really opens the door to a huge number of possibilities while maintaining a high level of consistency and cohesiveness. The new “real” speech UI isn’t the only place where integrated app extensions could get interesting. The lock screen for Windows Phone 8 is now highly customizable, as is the Camera (via “Lenses”), the phone service (any VoIP service can be fully integrated now), and automatic content uploads (auto uploads to whatever you want is an app install away).
If all of that wasn’t enough, Windows Phone 8’s rebuild on top of the Windows 8 core means its hardware support is as scalable as the full desktop operating system. We just need some one to make a phone with 64 processor cores and 192Gb of RAM now. We had to take a couple of points off of the score for the lack of Xbox Video cloud collection support and removal of the awesome Zune sync capabilities of the older Windows Phones, but as the cloud connections become more immersive, those frustrations should subside.
Just as the Apollo space program of the 1960’s was the third human spaceflight program carried out by NASA, Windows Phone 8 is Microsoft’s third attempt at re-launching its smartphone operating system. Whether or not it will be successful remains to be seen, but it certainly is gaining some significant propulsion power.