We go hands on with Microsoft’s latest Windows Phone operating system for the first time, and it appears like Windows Phone 8 may have some fight in it.
Windows Phone’s journey began long ago, in 2010. Back then, BlackBerry was still a viable brand and Palm was alive. It appeared like Microsoft was about to reverse its fortunes in the smartphone space. Two years later, it’s still battling for single digit market share in a smartphone market absolutely dominated by Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android operating system. With Windows 8 launching, Windows Phone 8 could be Microsoft’s big chance to turn things around.
Microsoft unveiled Windows Phone 8 earlier this year, but today, it showed off several new features: Wallet, Kids Corner, Camera Lenses, an amped up People Hub, and Data Sense. What are all these fancily-named features, you ask? Let’s dig in.
The new phones
Microsoft has kept a tight lid on what parts of the OS we were allowed to see and what we weren’t up to this point, but today, the veil came off. Samsung, HTC, and Nokia each showed off their WP8 devices. Seeing the entire lineup together was quite impressive. This is undoubtedly Microsoft’s most varied and well-supported Windows Phone launch to date. For the first time, Microsoft has given manufacturers a lot more leeway to create handsets with more varied specs, features, and designs. These handsets offer a variety of screen sizes, resolutions, shapes, processing power, and unique features. While Nokia handsets boasted a suite of Nokia transportation apps, HTC is heavily pushing its ImageSense camera and Beats functionality. Samsung has plenty of unique apps and is stressing the connectivity between its Windows Phones and Windows 8 tablets. Phones also now seem to come in every color of the rainbow. The hands-on area resembled a Skittles commercial. Some phones even feature swappable shells, so you can change your color every day.
Now that the smartphone industry is maturing, it’s beginning to get more family friendly. Today, I got to try out Microsoft’s new Kids Corner feature: a sandboxed custom homescreen you can create just for your kids to play around in. For the tech-savvy parent, I have to say, this could be a killer feature.
Kids are annoying sometimes. They won’t shut up and they’re hyper as hell. But what if you could hand them your phone without worrying whether they’ll email your boss pictures of Barney? Now you can. WP8 lets you assign whatever apps, games, music, videos, or other content you want your kids to be able to access to a special homescreen. Turning the feature on requires you to dig into the Settings menu a little, but once it’s activated, you can hand your child your phone at its lock screen. All they have to do is swipe to the left to open a custom kid-friendly homescreen. They can move all the Live Tiles around however they please, and the Home button is deactivated, so you don’t have to worry about them escaping back into your content. A word of advice, though: Create a password for your lock screen. If you don’t, then your kids can still restart the screen and poof, they’re back in your email.
Microsoft has followed Google’s lead and integrated a data-monitoring feature in Windows Phone 8. Data Sense lets you set a data limit for the month (or another length of time) and will warn you as you pass thresholds like 50 percent of your data. Better, you can dig into exactly what apps are sucking up all of your data. I can’t believe that the iPhone doesn’t yet have a feature like this, but now every other major OS does. There isn’t a ton of depth to this app, but it’s value can be measured by the size of your phone bill.
Rooms for your people
Windows Phone has long pushed “hubs” as a way to aggregate large numbers of apps and features around certain topics. The People hub has been a good place to find your contacts and see recent social-networking status updates, but now it can do a little more. If you happen to have a group of friends who have climbed aboard the Windows Phone train like yourself, you can invite them into a “Room” with you. Rooms are kind of like Facebook used to be: exclusive. They have to approve you, but once you’re all connected, you can share content pretty easily.
I haven’t made my own group yet, but I did check out some pre-made groups. By swiping through pages, you can connect with your friends in a few different, useful ways. There’s an open, ongoing chat window, a shared calendar (which can connect to iPhone and some Android devices via a Web link), and photo sharing. It seems like a really great way for close friends to stay in touch. Hopefully Microsoft will continue to build on this feature.
This feature doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of notoriety, but for fans of photo filters and apps, it’s pretty cool. While Instagram still isn’t on Windows Phone, there are a lot of cool apps that let you add effects to photographs and now Microsoft lets you access them directly from the Camera app. In essence, it’s now a Camera Hub. You can access these apps by just tapping one of the icons on the screen. Its easy and brings up a grid of apps. Press one and you can apply its feature or filter. Very cool.
Better Live Tiles
Finally, I still haven’t gotten over how much nicer and more customizable the Windows Phone 8 homescreen looks. Because Microsoft is now allowing even more minute features and pages to be “pinned” to the Start screen, the variety of content is impressive. Every Windows Phone I saw today had a completely different and sometimes startlingly unique look to it — a few of them were so busy that I didn’t know where to start. Microsoft has always said that the Start screen reflects who is using the phone. For the first time, I think that’s true. Live Tiles can now be resized to take up an entire row, a standard square, or 1/4 square (practically an icon). You can do a lot with the Start screen now. Apps can communicate with their Live Tiles (and you) faster and better now too. You can even allow apps to show you information on your unlock screen, if you’re into that.
It’s looking good
Windows Phone has always been a nice-looking operating system, but with WP8, Microsoft seems to be smoothing out some of the gaps in its functionality and introducing more features that are unique to its platform. iOS and Android seem to chase and copy one another these days, but Microsoft continues to do its own thing. Now that Windows Phones like the HTC 8X will be on T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon this holiday season, there’s little reason not to at least check one out. You may like it. I’m may make the jump myself, if I’m able.