What's new in Windows Phone 8?

Microsoft has officially announced details about Windows Phone 8, dubbed Apollo, at its "sneak peek" Windows Phone Summit in San Francisco, and now we've had even more at the launch of the Nokia Lumia 920 and 820 at Nokia World, and finally the full package with the official arrival of Windows Phone 8.

Joe Belfiore, manager of the Windows Phone programme at Microsoft, had given us an idea of what the next-generation mobile phone operating system is about. Microsoft hopes it can get it right the third time around, and now we can see for ourselves. Here are the new features of Windows Phone 8 and don't forget to take a look at our full Windows Phone 8 review as well.

Shared Core

Windows Phone 8 is more like Windows 8 than Windows Phone 7. It uses the Windows kernel along with various parts of the Windows architecture.

That means users will get a version of Internet Explorer 10 that's close to the desktop version, Windows security features like encryption and SmartScreen, and the media platform in Windows. It also means the new mobile OS is likely to play a lot nicer with other parts of the Windows eco-system.

The upshot, then, of the Windows Phone 8 OS / Windows 8 desktop shared core is supposed make for a better choice of hardware, access to more apps more quickly and more consistent experiences between your laptop and your mobile.

READ: Windows Phone 8: the phones to buy

New hardware

Aside from changing the opening gambit, Microsoft is also, as we expected, expanding the hardware specifications, allowing manufacturers such as Nokia lots more wriggle room in creating hardware that can potentially challenge the latest iPhone and devices like the Samsung Galaxy S III.

Multi-core processors

One of the biggest changes is support for multi-core processors. Developers will still need to use the same multitasking model as Windows Phone 7, but new background processes and faster processors will make it easier to switch between applications and for location-based software to keep up to date with where you are.

While it's entirely possible we could be seeing quad-core Windows Phone devices, Microsoft has said they are primarily looking at dual-core handsets this Autumn. 

Accessories

You'll also be able to use a wider selection of peripherals and devices with your phone, as Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 share the same driver model. That includes support for micro SD cards, first class citizens for data-transfer and file-copying, and even as a way of side-loading applications onto a phone.

New screen resolutions

There's also support for new graphics features, using more powerful GPUs. Microsoft is upping the display resolution with Windows Phone 8, adding 15:9 and 16:9 displays at 1280 x 768 and 1280 x 720 alongside the existing 800 x 480 display. That'll mean more screen real estate for video and games.

Start Screen

The biggest visual change to the experience is the new Windows Phone 8 Start Screen. It's still the Modern UI array of live tiles, but now there's support for two new tile sizes - and for more customisation, with new theme colours and a larger start screen layout. That side rail and arrow has gone making the live tiles fill up the entirety of the Start Screen.

The new small tiles take up a quarter of the space of a Windows Phone 7 tile, but can still display information. Stacking four small tiles in the space of one makes a lot of sense, because it puts more information on screen while still giving you the overview you want at a glance.

There's just more of it on the screen at once. The second new tile is a large tile that takes up the full width of the screen. This size of tile used to be reserved for OEMs and operators (and for Microsoft’s own apps), but now any application developer will be able to add a large tile to their code. Small tiles are best designed as part of an application, but will also be generated automatically for any app by Windows Phone 8.

Kid's Corner

A rather nice and unique feature here from Microsoft. There's a tile on the Start Screen called Kid's Corner. Tap this and it will take you to virtual Start Screen that you child can build themselves and customise with apps and games and whatever else they'd like to do with your phone. At the same time, you choose what's available to them and protect those options with a PIN. So, if you'd rather they didn't access your email - probably a good idea - then you just remove it from their options in set up.

Lock screen notifications

A nice touch that we’re seeing in quite a few mobile OSs these days; Microsoft has added the ability to set any app that uses push notifications to notify you straight to the lock screen from where you can unlock direct to that app. Obviously, you’re welcome to set apps to do that that don’t offer push notifications but you won’t hear much from them.

More colour themes

With the look and feel of Windows Phone one of the nicest things about Microsoft’s mobile OS, it’s great to see that WP8 brings a whole host of new colour themes to your phone. Instead of a standard six (seven if you have a Nokia), you now get a colour selector screen palette that runs the length of your display with 20 themes to choose from.

READ: HTC 8X review

Wallet Hub and NFC

The new hardware spec sheet also includes NFC support which will let you use your phone as a digital wallet with tap to pay. Windows Phone 8’s NFC tools offer a combination of features from those of iOS and Android, with a secure wallet to store payment details (and any other data you want to keep locked up). You’re not limited to Microsoft’s own apps, and APIs mean anyone, like PayPal, can write code that works with the wallet or the NFC hardware.

The NFC technology inside Windows Phone 8 has been designed so you can use all sorts of different payment methods and cards. Using something called the Wallet Hub, which every Windows Phone 8 device will have, it is possible to use credit cards, debit cards, loyalty cards and even NFC tap to pay. 

The NFC payment method will require a "secure SIM" from carriers in order to function. Operators will be working with Microsoft to put the secure element of NFC directly onto their SIMs.

The Wallet Hub store deals for you - much like Apple's iOS Passbook - and will also even recommend other apps to you that can tie into your Wallet. The hub itself has a Fast Cards section where you can get quick access to the cards and deals you use most often.

People Hub

There's a new Together tile within the People Hub to give users direct access to any contacts Groups and Rooms they have or are a part of. Groups also now sync with your Microsoft Account, so you'll be able to see these same Groups under the People section in Hotmail or Outlook.com

The other useful addition to the People Hub is that you can share your contacts more easily. You can share with others by email or message and, if your phone is NFC-supporting, you can also add a contact or share one with Tap and Send.

Skype and VOIP

Microsoft has added new background agents to Windows Phone, including one that will handle VOIP calls. It will handle incoming calls and messages, making VOIP tools behave just like traditional phone lines. Windows Phone 8's VOIP agent isn’t just for Skype, and developers will be able to use it for their own applications as well. All of these VOIP apps will have full access to your contacts list, as you allow, too.

If you are a Skype user, the integration with Windows Phone is set to be better than any current mobile Skype experience. You won't have to sign in and out and IM updates should be far faster.

Nokia maps

Windows Phone 8 uses Nokia's mapping technology in every handset. This pretty much instantly kills the software advantage Nokia had over competitors but does ensure a good mapping experience on every WP8 handset. 

The new Windows Phone OS supports offline maps, turn by turn directions, giving developers access to map control and use the high quality global NAVTEQ mapping data. A big boost for Windows Phone's mapping, which wasn't particularly strong in earlier versions. 

Nokia Drive will even have live tiles, which show directions on the home screen meaning you don't even need to open up the app. There's also traffic updates, aerial views and map data for over 180 countries.

Office Hub

It's easy to sniff at the Office Hub - go on, sniff - but it's something that MS does particularly well surprise, surprise, and Windows Phone 8 keeps it at the cutting edge. It's been redesigned with some new views that include useful ideas like viewing documents according to when they were last modified.

The Office apps themselves have got a bit slicker too. Word brings a full screen reading mode and syncs with your PC such that documents open up at the last place you left them, even when viewed previously on another device. PowerPoint has thumbnail view for your slides as well as the ability to view them in both portrait and landscape orientations.

Finally, Excel has also become considerably more mobile-friendly. Support has been added for charts and it should no longer be so frustrating when trying to select cells and read what's inside them. Lots of work been done here.

Email

There's not a huge amount of change for email but it's worth noting what's been done all the same. Attachments will now show up automatically in your Office Hub which saves you a lot of transferring or trawling at a later date. You can also send and reply to mail with Voice-to-Text after you've selected to compose one. Finally, you can see your inbox as a dark inbox match your phone's theme rather than a white one; a deal-breaker, we know.

OneNote Mobile

You might notice that OneNote Mobile is not under the Office Hub section. That's because its now been moved out and has become an app in its own right on the Start Screen. The idea is that it gives you instant access to note taking which now sync automatically with SkyDrive. It's also quick to share photos with OneNote now. Tap and hold on an image and select the OneNote option.

Voice Notes

The feature with which we're most intrigued is the Voice Notes function. Tick all the right check boxes and you can not only record voice notes for OneNote wherever you are your phone's OS - even when it's locked - but OneNote will automatically transcribe them for you too. Quite how well this works is another thing.

Messaging

Sharing media via SMS and MMS has become a little better. You can strap in photos, contacts, videos, voice notes and contacts cards. You can also share your location via messaging too. The only other change to the app itself is that you can delete more than one message thread at a time by using the check boxes next to your conversations.

Word Flow Keyboard

There's been plenty of attention paid to the Word Flow, in-built soft keyboard on Windows Phone 8. Not only is it full of trinkets like bags of new emoticons to amuse you with but, more importantly, its predictive and corrective powers have been vastly improved. It's also better at auto-adding the appropriate .com for email and websites where necessary.

Windows Phone 8 for business

Microsoft has made a few changes to the OS in order to make it a more tasty morsel to swallow for business users. This means added security features like secure boot and encryption options. There are also device management settings and Office options. The idea of shared Windows 8 tech also means it is very easy for IT staff to manage handsets and keep them secure using normal Windows powered desktop PCs.

Internet Explorer 10

Shared code between PC and mobile makes for a much better web browsing experience using Windows Phone 8. Microsoft has provided a speedier and more secure browser app, which is apparently ahead of the likes of the iPhone and Galaxy S III in terms of performance. We'll see.

The address bar has three available functions - refresh, favourites and, yes, tabs. You'll also be able to navigate by NFC if you manage to find an NFC-toting poster or advert or such.

Finally, there's some more desktop style browser features such as Find on a Page, for easier web page word search; SmartScreen Filter, which warns you before you go to a malicious site; and a Do Not Track mode where websites are prevented from finding out where you are.

Advanced backup

Much like Android, Microsoft has added a lot more detail to the amount you can back up your handset, and all that’s on it, to the cloud. There’s three basic areas - your apps and settings, your text messages and your videos and photos. Apps and settings does pretty much what it says on the tin. So, when you change or reset your handset, you won’t have to go through downloading each piece of software or adding in your Internet Explorer bookmarks all over again.

Backing up your text messages is fairly self-explainatory with Windows Phone 8 making distinctions of action between MMS and SMS and whether or not your location is important. Finally, you can now get more detailed about what you’d like SkyDrive to go with your videos and photos - should they be uploaded at top quality or even uploaded at all.

Data Sense

Microsoft has added a handy new app for those on sensitive data plans. Data Sense keeps a track of your data usage. You can set how much data you have in your contract and on which day of the month the counter can be reset. If you do get close to your ceiling, then Data Sense will send you a warning. There’s a live tile with it which you can pin to the Start screen.

Although support for microSD was announced in June, it looks as if users will be able to hot swap them back and forth out of the phone while it's still on without needing to restart each time.

Camera

Gone is the zoom bar and instead comes pinch to zoom functionality within the camera app. There are also more options for control of your camera flash effect.

Lenses

Happy snappers rejoice. Your camera has just got a little bit more fun. Rather than the paltry pickings of the current effects section, you’ll now be able to access a whole host of different filters, or Lenses as they’re known. Hit the Lenses button on the camera app and you’ll be taken to lenses section of lens apps which you’ll have downloaded from the Marketplace. Instagram, eat your heart out. Well, nearly.

Hard wired into Windows Phone 8 is the ability to code and download applications that can alter the way the camera works. In the most basic sense these can be simple things like negative or black and white filters, but they can be a lot more complex.

Microsoft demoed one which used facial recognition to capture smiles or work out the best possible shot from a series. It has been done before, both by the Galaxy S III and BB10, but the ability for developers to add easily to the camera app is a new thing.

Screenshots

The next big tweak, well not big, but much needed, is the ability to take screenshots and save them straight into the photos application. Done by simply clicking the power and home button at the same time, the screenshot should save to the photos app instantly.

Photo multi-select

Small change, but it’s the little differences that make an OS slick. Windows Phone 8 has added a multi-selector tool to the image gallery. So, instead of going through a mountain of select-delete routines, you can now do it all in one hit, whatever your post-imaging the task.

Photo editing

The trusty, old auto-fix function is still present and correct in Windows Phone 8 but it’s been joined an entirely new photo editing section by a cropping tool and a rotation tool too. You might not be able to shoot in a different aspect but the cropping tool does come with a number of standard dimension presets to use including square.

Photo share, sync and send

Photos can be stored on your SD card if you have one otherwise it's straight to the phone memory. You options beyond have now increased with Windows Phone 8, though. You can share via NFC with any tablets, phones or PCs on Windows 8 and then complete the transfer by Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

Video sharing

As above, you can now also send your videos through the Tap and Send NFC functionality. You can also attach them as MMS to other mobiles.

Bing

Windows Phone is Bing at its best, so Microsoft has done what it can to keep the engines running at full steam here. Results now include four categories - local, web, media and shopping. There's also a few new features.

Theatre & News in Bing Explore

Take a side swipe at the Bing search app in Windows Phone 8 and it reveals a little more than normal in Bing Explore. Your phone will now bring you the latest news headlines, top videos and theatre information for reviews and listings of what’s on where you are.

Local Scout

If you're happy for your phone to scan your social network use, then Local Scout will combine that with your location to make suggestions of what you can do as well. If the suggestions it makes are rotten, it'll even show you how it drew those conclusions and, perhaps, offers some clues of who to de-friend as a result.

Quick Cards

Web pages can be so large, detailed and heavy for a smartphone. As such Bing on Windows Phone 8 offers up some Quick Cards instead every now and then. The idea is that these are quick summaries of the details, related apps, review scores or whatever the destination is all about. Great idea. Let's hope it's not too annoying. 

New look Music+Videos hub

The Music and Video Hubs been reskinned to look almost exactly like the Xbox area and will even offers direct access to the Xbox Music store. Essentially one and the same on the Xbox 360 dash, this is of little surprise going forwards for Microsoft.

Buzz Panel

The Buzz Panel is your social sidebar that comes up and relates to artists that you're browsing in Xbox Music or your own collection. It brings up all the relevant Twitter feeds, news feeds and images.

Xbox Music Store

If you've got an Xbox Music Pass, Windows Phone 8 gives you unlimited streaming and download access to millions of tracks. Songs appear in your Cloud Collection automatically if you've chosen then on your PC or other Xbox Music compatible device. You can also store as much of it as you can fit on your microSD card.

Games Hub

The Request panel of the Games Hubs has been replaced with a Notifications panel instead. You'll be notified when it's your turn in a particular game, when you get new messages and when you get friend requests and beacons. There's also support for the dreaded in-game purchase. Be strong.

Naturally, Windows Phone 8 comes with Xbox SmartGlass fully integrated to add a little more depth to your Xbox gaming life.

Windows Phone Store

No mobile OS is complete without its app store and Microsoft has done its best with WP8 to improve on an area which is probably the Achilles's heel of the entire operation. The Windows Phone Store now has better ways of browsing for apps in the shape of the familiar top apps lists and some curated recommendations by editor and staff and such. App payments can be taken by credit card, PayPal, Microsoft Gift Cards and can also be added to the monthly bill from your service provider.

Your apps purchases are stored in the cloud, so when you need to restore your phone or change handsets, all the of apps get downloaded again just as happens on Android.

Windows Phone 7.8 update for current users

The new Start Screen is one of the few Windows 8 features that will also bleed over to existing handsets. Microsoft will be bringing this in an upgrade that will be called Windows Phone 7.8.

In future, upgrades will be a little easier as well. Details aren't finalised, but there will be a way to get the update directly from Microsoft for your phone if your network operator hasn't made it available officially - as long as you take full responsibility if anything goes wrong.

Current and future apps

All of those Windows Phone 7 and 7.5 apps will run on Windows Phone 7.8 and 8.

With Windows Phone 8, developers will have the choice of making new applications that only run on Windows Phone 8, applications that run on all versions but don't use the new Windows Phone 8 features, or two versions of the app, one for older phones and one for new models.

How can I get Windows Phone 8?

Unfortunately, there is no option to update to Windows Phone 8. Current WP users will have to deal with Windows Phone 7.8. How painful is the no-update decision with Windows Phone 8? That depends on whether you have a Windows Phone already, in which case you're part of a disappointed minority, or whether you're one of the people who haven't yet bought a Windows Phone but might be tempted by the new Windows Phone 8 features.

Like the sound of Windows Phone 8? Let us know in the comments below ... 



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