Eight days with Windows Phone 8

After just over a week with Microsoft's new OS, I found several things to like about it

It's been eight days since Microsoft launched Windows Phone 8 and eight days since I started using an HTC 8X, which has the new software installed, as my main cellphone. So far, I'm impressed with Microsoft's new platform.

When I switched to the HTC 8X, which Microsoft distributed to journalists at the Windows Phone 8 launch in San Francisco, it replaced my Samsung Nexus running the Jelly Bean version of Android.

The HTC handset is fast, has a bright, crisp screen and feels comfortable in the hand. But the real star is the new OS. Here are some impressions, thoughts and findings after eight days using Windows Phone 8.

Home Screen

If you haven't seen the Windows Phone 8 home screen, it's well worth checking out. Starting with Windows Phone 7, Microsoft began taking its phone screens in a different direction to those of Apple and Android. Instead of static application icons, Windows Phone uses "tiles" that can be resized and, depending on the app, display information from the underlying service.

For example, the tile for the Associated Press app displays news photos, the tile for ESPN shows the latest scores for your favorite teams, the photo app cycles through pictures from your gallery, and the Facebook app shows an updating mosaic of photos of your friends.

In comparison to Android and Apple home screens, Windows Phone 8 is alive with action. But the tiles bring more than a different aesthetic.

You can create your own tiles that represent people, and therein lies one of the big differences in Windows Phone 8.

Behind these tiles, the operating system collects the information it has about a person. Clicking on a tile brings up contact details pulled from your address book, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Swipe to the right and their social media posts are collated into a single list. Another swipe brings up photos they've posted to social platforms, and a final swipe shows the interactions you've had with them, including Twitter and email exchanges, and phone calls.

Putting people rather than apps at the heart of the phone is a key differentiator for Windows Phone 8, and Microsoft should be commended for trying something different in a market where there is so much sameness.

Something else I liked was the ability to change the entire feel of the phone by changing the theme color. A lot of the buttons on the home screen and highlighted text throughout the phone are tied to the same color, which can be changed by the user.

Apps

Compared to iOS and Android, the selection of apps is still a weak point of the operating system, but things aren't as bad as you might fear. A lot of the most popular apps are in the Windows Phone Store, including Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, eBay, Evernote and Foursquare. But some notable ones are missing, such as Instragram.

Microsoft promises more apps soon, including a version of Pandora with a year's worth of ad-free music. It says it will soon have 46 of the top 50 smartphone apps available for Windows Phone.

There's also a fairly broad selection of apps from smaller, independent developers, so while you can't find a news app from the BBC, you can download an independent app that pulls in BBC news and presents it in a similar way to an official app.

You can check out the selection in the Web version of the Windows Store.

Getting Around

My Android phone, fitted with Google Navigation, is an important tool in my car. I use it often and was a little disappointed at first that the Bing Maps app doesn't give updated turn-by-turn directions while I'm driving. It would plot a trip for me, but when I started driving it didn't automatically keep up with my journey.

AT&T offers an app for that, but it costs US$10 per month (what are they thinking?). I wasn't about to pay $10 for a service that was free on Android, and I thought I'd found a significant weakness in Windows Phone 8. But then I discovered the GPS Tuner navigation app. It costs $5 for the basic version, which offers voice-guided navigation and pulls in free maps from your cellular connection. For about $40 you can download offline maps -- a nice option if you want to avoid data costs.

Cloud Services

With Windows Phone 8, Microsoft is tying everything to its SkyDrive service. At first I tried to resist -- my data is spread across too many locations already -- but in the end I gave in because it was easier that way. It didn't turn out to be a big problem. SkyDrive backs up phone settings, which should make switching to a future handset easy, and also photos. When you tweet out a photo, it puts it in a public folder on SkyDrive and embeds a link to that in your tweet.

Playing Nice

If there was one problem I was sure I would encounter, it was syncing the Windows Phone with my Mac computer. I downloaded Microsoft's Windows Phone software for Mac and sure enough, it didn't recognize the phone. I wasn't surprised, but Microsoft sent me to a newer version on Apple's App Store and it worked. The ease with which it worked was an even greater surprise, especially after my attempts to get Google's Music Manager to work with an Android phone.

The Microsoft software not only keeps the Windows Phone synced to iPhoto, it also presents my iTunes library and playlists and easily allows iTunes music to be transferred and synced to the phone. The only things that won't work, and this is an issue with all non-Apple products, are songs that use Apple's DRM (digital rights management) copy protection.

If you're switching from Google, you'll find all the basics, such as your Gmail, contacts and calendar, sync over just fine. There's OS-level support for those, but some of the other Google services don't have apps. There are some third-party apps that will help, but it's worth making sure all the Google services you use will continue to be available if you make the jump.

Conclusions

So far, I'm happy with the phone and the operating system. It's sure to get better over the next few months as Microsoft pours more money into development and promotion. Developers at the Microsoft Build conference in Redmond last week were given Nokia Lumia 920 handsets in the hope they will start building apps for them, so Microsoft's pushing development.

It's great to see some fresh ideas in the smartphone world and I recommend anyone buying a new phone to give Windows Phone 8 handsets a look, especially if you're also moving to Windows 8 on a PC.

With Windows Phone 8, it looks like there's a new contender in the smartphone race.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

Tags windows phone 8MicrosoftMobile OSesmobileWindows Phone

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2 Comments

Eric

1

Most unbiased and honest review ive read so far! Great! And props to you as a journalist!

Mike E. Delta

2

Dude...What? You didn't know how to activate the free turn-by-turn directions in Windows Phone? Go to the Maps settings and enable them, there are other customization options for this app, like the map orientation options. I use them exclusively on my Windows Phone...let me know if you need any more help. =D

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