Two months ago Microsoft announced their new Windows Phone 8 OS with the Metro interface. The Metro features blocks or tiles that update themselves as information is pushed to them or remain active as per their per-defined setting. After a week of playing with it and taking it through the hoops, I can safely state that this switch was worthy and has definitely added a spark into my mobile life. Mind you, this is only my first Windows Mobile OS experience and I have never really taken Microsoft seriously when it comes to phones, mostly because I thought they made the phone OS complicated for users and Symbian was a far better/easier option. Here is my analysis on the basic and advanced features of the OS.
Windows Phone 8 Review
Interface & Live Tiles:
The interface is clean and new. Notifications are displayed in the relevant app’s tile and that too only if you enable them. The weather app updates the tile and gives me the weather highlight of my area, the email gives me the count from my last check. Yes, this means that if I opened the app and see 15 unread messages, it doesn’t matter if I read three or non of them, when I close the app, the unread counter is reset to zero and then next time I get more new email, it will alert me with only the newer emails received since my last check. This is priceless since I receive too many subscriptions anyway and I haven’t managed to clean out my Gmail inbox. Another hidden gem I am particularly fond of is the introduction of the alphabet.
A flick to the left shows all the applications and OS areas. This is shown in a long list of names sorted alphabetically, each alphabet has its own tile and if I press this I get a view of all the alphabets. If I want Settings, I only need to flick left, tap an alphabet (usually A) and then I tap ‘S’. I am immediately show a screen scrolled down to where ‘S’ starts. I am already hooked on this feature.
Update: After taking a look at the HTC 8S, HTC 8X and Nokia Lumia 820, it seems that the alphabet tiles in the App display are exclusive to Lumia 920. So far, I haven’t figured out how to enable it on the other devices. Lumia 820 shows the alphabet tiles in the address book though, a feature that is missing on the HTC 8S and 8X models.
Windows Phone Store
The Windows Store is in its infancy at the moment. If you miss the days of iOS where people came up with interesting things to do on the phone, or the days of the Android where you waited for a much needed app to be ported to it, then you are in luck, Metro gives you a new way of doing things and because many most mobile development has been focused on iOS and Android, you get to wait for your favorite apps to be ported on WP 8. For me, I only miss the absence of mobile banking apps and Dropbox at the moment. That said, apps are thin and if you have a long list of must have apps then check the Windows Phone Store first and then decide.
Music, Videos and Games
If you are a heavy Music and Games user then you would be please to know the Windows Phone 8 has Xbox Music and Xbox games tightly integrated within its device. Xbox Games is taking some time with ports but then again, iOS took a lot of time too. Xbox Videos is currently not supported while Xbox Music can be easily streamed and downloaded for offline listening – for a small monthly fee. Videos and Movies can be easily uploaded to the device along with your own collection of music. There is built-in podcast support as well.
Windows users can download the Windows Phone app for windows 8 or desktop, while Mac users can download the Windows Phone app for Mac. The app only syncs content (photos, music, videos, podcasts etc) to the WP 8 phone and actual music management would need to be done via iTunes, Windows Media Player or the Xbox Music app.
Windows 8 currently allows users to install apps from SD cards on models that have a built in expandable memory like Lumia 820 and HTC 8S, however such devices cannot run apps from SD cards thus all apps are installed on the phone’s internal memory. Documents, Photos, Music and Videos can be saved to SD cards.
The main apps in Windows Phone 8 are Bing that provides voice search, local search, listens to music to identify it and has an integrated barcode, QR code, etc reader. It is nicely integrated and very smooth. Other noteworthy apps include the far superior OneNote, Office, Outlook and People. New introductions include Wallet that effectively gives you deals and stores all your card information (credit, debit, reward, points etc) together and Kids Corner that effectively recognizes that kids will use the phone too so its best to limit their interaction with your device.
An interesting addition would be the Family Room feature added to People. In a nutshell it allows Windows Phone 8 users to share calendars, photos, chat, notes etc with each other. Similar to a group conversation that goes beyond text and calendars. iOS and WP7 users can be invited as well however they are limited to calendar sharing only. The People app pulls updates from Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn so even with the apps, you will get updates and be able to post messages (only to Facebook at the moment) just like Windows 8.
The camera is largely dependent on the device itself however the OS supports HD photos and video. It additionally introduces the concept of lenses through which OEMs can release apps that fully utilize the camera lens. For instance, the Panorama feature – much touted by iPhone 5, but available since forever on Nokia and other devices – is added as a lens on my Nokia Lumia 920 device. Similarly, other lenses for HDR, Instagram etc can easily be added in the camera to extend its functionality.
Microsoft uses their partnership with Nokia here to support Nokia Maps that can be downloaded for offline viewing. This is an extremely useful feature when traveling especially if you don’t intend to use the pricey data plan offered by your mobile network provider. Nokia maps take some getting used to if you come from Apple Maps however they are good on their own and after some initial teething issues, users should be OK.
Tip for travelers, make an account on Nokia.com and use their online maps to search for locations you intend to visit and then mark them as a favorite or in a collection. They will appear on your device very soon.
A recent maps update integrates with Tube, Train and Bus directly so there are public transport options in the app without having to rely on separate apps.
The OS is new and built from the ground up and seems that Microsoft has sat down to take a good look at what people need in their daily life or rather what they spend a lot of time doing. Hence this is a great followup to their WP7 and shows that Microsoft has learn’t far more in 1 year that took Apple 3 years and Android about 4 to implement. All those who think that icons are old school and are bored of their phone’s UI should definitely look to a switch from Android or iOS to WP 8. The rest who think that their life is already complicated as is, should stay where they are.