Windows Phone 8 is here, and it’s never been more needed. Google and Apple have hoovered up most of the smartphone marketplace, and Windows Phone 7 has made little dent in that in two years. Microsoft is hoping to change that with an all new release (that won’t run on older Windows Phones, you’ll need to buy a new handset to get it) that promises speedier performance, a new look homescreen and support for the latest hardware, including 4G speeds, HD screens and multi-core processors. But is that enough, when its competitors do too? Let’s take a look.
We’ve always enjoyed the design of Windows Phone, and version eight only improves on that. The new homescreen lets you customise it to your heart’c content, with three different tile sizes available. It’s a happy medium between Apple’s static icons and Android sometimes overly confusing widgets, especially since these live tiles update with information (headlines, unread messages and so forth).
Microsoft has made very few changes when it comes to navigation otherwise but that’s no bad thing. You still open apps from the live tile homescreen, and swipe from side to side for more options. The keyboard too remains visually unchanged, but that’s no bad thing: it was already excellent, and its word prediction is now even smarter.
Everything feels fluid and fast, but then, Windows Phone always did. The only difference is that now, it feels fluid and fast on HD screens, with dual-core processors.
Microsoft has improved notifications with Windows Phone 8 though, letting you assign one app to show extra detail on the lock screen (The calendar, for instance), and five to show alerts from. This combined with the ability to now receive Skype calls (a glaring omission in Windows Phone, considering Microsoft owns Skype) makes keeping an eye on all your updates in your most important apps much easier.
The problem of few apps for Windows Phone remains, but the important change is one under the hood you’ll probably never see: Windows Phone 8 is now based on the same core as Windows proper, which should mean developers should have to do very little work porting their Windows desktop apps over to mobile.
Only time will tell if this happens in practice, but given Windows 8 on PCs is off to a strong start, with four million upgrades already, there’s every chance it’ll solve the app famine on Windows Phone at last.
We like most of the new features on Windows Phone 8 (Except Rooms, the new private group chat and communication features, which is basically useless unless you and all your friends have a Windows Phone 8 device).
What we don’t like, however, is what Microsoft hasn’t fixed from Windows Phone 7 and 7.5. The People hub is a lovely idea, supposedly pulling in all the data from social networks about your friends. But it still doesn’t update in the background, so every time you open a friend’s profile, you’ll have to watch it load, load, load. It’s a bizarre move, and one that wouldn’t even be acceptable in a third party app on Android or iPhone, never mind a built in service.
Internet Explorer 10 is fast, but due to the core engine it uses has a nasty habit of showing you nasty old text-based versions of sites by default. It also only lets you have six tabs open at a time, and it’s two taps to get to them each time you want to switch, which is a lot less seamless than Chrome on Android’s swiping gesture support.
Microsoft has also not fixed its daft multi-tasking issue: you can open an app in the state you left it again, but only through the multitasking screen accessed by holding down the back button. if you open the app again from your homescreen, it just restarts and you have to wait while it loads again. It’s infuriating, especially if you find yourself using just a few core apps day to day.
And while We love Xbox SmartGlass, the app that lets you control your Xbox 360 from anywhere, and even view second screen content while palying a game or watching a film - and it comes built into Windows Phone 8. But it also highlighted for us a serious problem with how accounts work on the platform.
We have an Xbox Live account tied to a Gmail address, and not the Hotmail address we use to test Windows Phone - which effectivly meant SmartGlass wouldn’t connect to our Xbox. Microsoft’s guide for reviewers’ advice on this front was simply to make sure all your accounts are tied together before you set up your phone. Not very helpful after the fact.
It didn’t have to be this way either: you can just sign into different Xbox Live accounts on Xbox SmartGlass for Android. As such, SmartGlass is actually better on Android (and presumably will be on iOS) than it is on Windows, which is not something Microsoft would want.
You also have to wonder if the new technical support on Windows Phone 8 is enough: yes, it can now run on 720p HD screens, like the latest Android super phones. But we’ve already seen one full 1080p HD phone announced by HTC in recent weeks, and we doubt the likes of Samsung will be far behind. Could Microsoft be setting itself up for a fall down the line once more?
The bottom line
Windows Phone 8 is a solid effort that remains beautiful and effortlessly easy to use. It adds in a few extra features to keep it competitive, as well as support for the current cutting edge in hardware, but unfortunately, it still doesn’t solve the problems that have plagued Windows Phone ever since its 2010 reboot.
There’s still no sign of a flowering app eco-system, and Microsoft has still not yet fixed some ofthe issues that have been bugging us for years. We can’t say Windows Phone 8 is a reason to ditch your iPhone or Android phone, but as a new experience for a first time smartphone user who wants simplicity, not every option under the sun, it’s a serious option at last.