Windows Phone 8 is here, and while it will be available only on new hardware, rather than rolling out to previous models like the Nokia Lumia 800, it's worth covering in detail what is new and improved and what's not and ultimately whether or not it is worth opting for the Microsoft operating system.
New Start Screen
The key focus of Windows Phone has always been the Start screen with its bevy of home tiles that jostle and jive according to the information they pull in. Where once this viewpoint was alien and strange, with the introduction of Windows 8, and some heavy marketing from Microsoft and Nokia over the past six months, everything should be a lot more familiar.
This time around we've got even more tiles to fill the Start screen, with three different sizes that each deliver different types of information. If you like the grid of icons from the iPhone or Android, then Windows Phone can replicate that with a stack of small icons that do nothing. If you find the jostling is too much, then its actually quite liberating, but it just doesn't tell you a lot about what is going on.
For those who need more information, then there's the next size up. This is akin to the Windows Phone 7 tiles, and they give a little more information without going overboard.
Finally, there is the larger tile, which can give you even more visibility into the app. In the case of the email app for example, you get to see who the last email is from, what the subject line is, and the first line of the email.
All these tiles can be arranged and rearranged on the Start screen providing an endless array of possibilities and a Start screen than can adapt and change with you.
We like it. A lot.
We loved the People Hub in Windows Phone 7 and it is even better in 8. For contacts you'll still see single card contact pages that tie together a number of information points from the rest of your phone, depending on what you are logged in to: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.
New to the mix is the Together pane, that houses Groups and a new feature called Rooms.
Groups are virtually identical to how they were in Windows Phone 7, however, now you can create and manage Groups via your Live account with the phone automatically pulling in data from there.
Rooms is a collected space for you to share a calendar, photos, and notes with others, regardless of what phone they have, although it works better with WP8 devices, of course.
In practice and Rooms works very well allowing you to have your very own private social network with a set group of people very much in the same way apps like Path, or photo sharing elements of iOS (Photostream) work.
You invite people in and then can share notes, messages, calendar appointments and more importantly photos with them. It obviously works best if they are also on a Windows Phone device, but testing it in the office with people that weren't on WP8, but instead an Android device or an iPhone there are still ways you can benefit.
Sadly there for non WP8 users there is no group chat for anyone other than those on a Windows Phone 8 smartphone. however calendars do work and so do shared photos as long as they have SkyDrive installed on their device. Photos are automatically added and synced across all your Skydrive apps in everyone's SkyDrive folder. Something worth bearing in mind is what information is automatically uploaded to the group.
Something that is worth noting however is that if you are friends with any of the members on Facebook you'll instantly be able to see all their Facebook photos as well. It's something that Windows Phone does very well, however something that when sharing a room, you might not be aware of.
In Windows Phone 8, Microsoft has moved the OneNote Mobile app from the Office Hub to a dedicated app on the Start screen, making it easier to jot down notes without having to create a Word document. OneNote saves to SkyDrive automatically, so your notes will always be synchronised across your phone and PC.
Email in WP8 gets some new features too, all to its benefit. As with iOS and Android, you can now dictate your emails to your phone. In a series of tests we were impressed with the results, although it doesn't get it right every time, but it was easily accurate enough to make it worth using, over the built-in keyboard. We found it worked well in noisy environments too, which is crucial.
Other new tricks in Windows Phone 8 include the ability to keep the dark theme, although this doesn't extend to the actual email itself, just the inbox. It s a little detail but one that we are sure will please those who wanted it from WP7.
Attachments now also automatically show up in the Office hub. Useful, especially for business users who might get sent a lot of office documents they later need to see in one, central, location.
One problem we have experienced however is that the email app sometimes completely garbles our emails to other devices. It's annoying and we are trying to get to the bottom of why it does this, but it is worth bearing in mind.
Kids Corner is the concept that allows you to give your kids your phone without the worry that they are posting gibberish to your Twitter or Facebook accounts, or sending your boss emails calling them a “poo poo head”.
It's simple really. You access it by swiping left on the lock screen. This opens your phone, in the normal way, but only to apps you've selected - and only those you've allowed. That means no email access, no phone dialler, and only games - if that's what you, and your kids, want.
In principle it’s a great idea, and it works just as you would expect, keeping your phone safe, but allowing your kids to play games, listen to music or do stuff that is safe for them.
Skype for WP7 was hampered, at best, with the app unable to run in the background. Here the opposite is the case, and Microsoft is promising deep integration with WP8. Sadly Skype wasn't available on the Windows Phone 8 handset we used for our testing. As Microsoft launched WP8, Skype also told us that its app will be available very soon.
Those new features include an experience that is built in at the core of the WP8 operating system rather than something superficial sitting on top, as was the case in Windows Phone. Promising limited battery drain, the new app enables you to receive chats and notifications for voice and video calls even if you've navigated away to another app or have your phone on lock.
"We've set out to bring Skype to Windows Phone 8 with a clean, beautiful and modern interface. When you first open the app, your most recent conversations and chats are the first thing you'll see. From there, you can pan over to your contact list or the newly added Favourites screen or see your entire contact list," Skype has told us.
Additionally you'll now be able to see what's going on inside Skype without being in the app and Skype notifications can be added to the lock screen to appear alongside missed calls, unread emails and text messages. You can also see Skype notifications at the top of the screen when you're in other apps, so keeping up with the conversation has never been easier.
As with the other areas that are still being completed, we'll update this review when it becomes available.
Apple has Passbook and Windows Phone has Wallet. It's a new area that will allow you to access deals, store tickets, and pay for things either via the web or using the NFC chip embedded in the phone – both the HTC 8X and Nokia Lumia 920 will be NFC ready.
At the moment, this area on WP8 is incredibly empty, with no apps taking advantage of the new feature. However, like Passbook on iOS 6, the feature has plenty of potential, perhaps even more so because of the inclusion of NFC.
Rather than have a stack of different camera apps dotted on numerous Start screens for you to try to find when a good photo opportunity presents itself, the Windows Phone 8 approach is to have them in one place, and that place is within the camera app itself. This makes a lot of sense.
To use a lens, you hit a dedicated button in the camera app and it brings up possible "Lenses" for you to implement. It means you have just one destination for taking photos. Bing Vision is present by default, and it's a QR, barcode and Microsoft Tag scanner that will let you get the best price for CDs, DVDs and Books. But we've also tried others like Photo Strip, that will take several pictures in a row, as if you were in a passport photo booth.
Sadly there is no Panorama mode as standard, but Nokia has already added a Panorama lens for its customers - HTC has yet to do the same at the time of writing. You also get plenty of options for sharing pictures once you've taken them, so getting photos off your phone isn't going to be an issue.
Although WP8 isn't just available on Nokia devices, all Windows Phone 8 users will get Nokia Maps as standard, and Nokia Drive if the manufacturer wants to offer it - we can't think why they wouldn't. This gives you the ability to download country maps before you get there - very handy if you are travelling, and want to avoid data costs. It's also dead handy if you're on the Tube, and want to find a nice place to have lunch. You won't get lost, like you do with a certain “other” phone.
Windows Phone is all about glancing at information as quickly as you can, and here Microsoft has worked to improve the lock screen experience. Now, rather than just being able to pick your own image to display, you can have the Bing homepage image every day to give you something different to look at when you pull your phone out of your pocket. It's an idea Pocket-lint put to Microsoft some time ago, so we are going to take full credit for it, obviously.
It's a feature that extends to other apps as well, and the new Facebook app allows you also to have your Facebook images automatically and randomly selected for the Lock screen. Good and dangerous in equal measure.
But it is not just about making it look pretty. Like the email tile, the Lock screen can also dip into your last email and display that info on the screen, and beyond missed calls, messages, and email, you can also opt for a fifth app notifications to appear on the Lock screen too.
New colours and screenshots
A simple thing, but we like the new colour palette's introduced, giving a greater colour range for your tiles. Sad we know, but having the ability to colour your phone interface mauve is really important to some people.
Yep, you read the headline correctly, you can finally take screenshots from Windows Phone 8 and have them automatically saved to SkyDrive.
If you own an Xbox 360 one of the exciting new features is SmartGlass. It allows you to share things from your phone straight to your games console, including web pages, extra content from games, and when it comes to movies, additional information about the cast, and what that thing was called that they were in before, that you can't remember the name of. It should save a lot of relationships.
There are issues with SmartGlass, mainly that, in browser mode, you are using the screen as a trackpad but it's vertical, rather than landscape – so it doesn't match your TV. Combine that with an oversensitive control mechanism, and it's not ideal. You'll also need the Xbox 360 and your phone to be on the same network of course.
We found this new version of the mobile IE fast and easy to use. It offers a few new features, including the ability to share links via NFC, and, of course, to the Xbox 360.
As before it's hardware accelerated, so the faster the phone the better the performance. Microsoft has also added greater support for warning you when you are about to go to a dubious site.
What's still missing?
While the backup and restore options have been improved, the OS is still incapable of just reinstalling your apps on your device in the same way that Android and iOS do. And we still believe the keyboard could be better in coping with mis-typed characters - Swiftkey on Android and the iPhone has spoilt us on this one.
We'd also really like to be able to reject a call with a text message – something you can do on pretty much every other platform.
The apps problem
Windows Phone 8 brings with it a different screen resolution, and that means all third-party apps will have to be re-submitted to remove a thin black bar at the top of the screen. It's a problem that affected Apple with the launch of the iPhone 5 and it is apparent here too. We suspect it will take longer for this to get sorted on WP8, but we're happy for app developers to prove us wrong.
As a standalone mobile operating system, Windows Phone 8 offers some cracking features and some great usability, and is hampered only by the hardware available to run it on.
For Gamers, PC and Office users and those who want simple phones, there are plenty of features that outshine Android and the iPhone.
It's a diamond in the rough, but like all greats it has an Achilles' heel, an urge for app developers to design apps for it first rather than third. Sadly, that will never be a priority for developers while the platform is lagging behind in users.
But, until that happens, no matter how good the core OS is, many won't even give it a glancing look. It's a Catch 22 situation, but we really hope it manages to break the shackles of this paradox, and become the OS it's capable of being.