Windows Phone 8 overview

News Editorial Team 17:58, 21 Nov 2012

After nearly a month with Windows Phone 8, here's our definitive overview to the ins and outs of Microsoft's latest OS


Windows Phone  8 has been one of the most hotly anticipated mobile OS refreshes of late. While iOS and Android have had multiple updates since they first graced our phones, Microsoft has kept a tight lid on Windows Phone 8 – the company’s attempt to finally bridge the void between itself and Google and Apple. 

We did have Windows Phone 7, but it was limited in its remit. With Mango being an incremental update in the eyes of many and the operating system as a whole offering so much unfulfilled promise, the release of Windows Phone 8 is something of a make or break moment. 

In this two part Windows Phone 8 series, we’ll explain what the platform is all about, discuss what’s good, examine what’s bad, and point out things that need to be added in future iterations. Kicking things off with:


Pt. 1 - What is Windows Phone 8?


Windows Phone 8 - Interface and customisation

It all begins with a simple start menu - the first port of call every time you switch on your Windows Phone 8 handset. Populated with all your shortcuts or ‘live tiles’, this is the part of Windows Phone 8 operating system that you can customise to suit your needs. 

Each tile acts as either a shortcut or a live update of what’s going on in its respective application. For example, the text message live tile will display the number of unread messages in your inbox. Shortcuts are live tiles that don’t update, instead linking through to an application from the start screen.

The start screen tiles can be customised with a long press and moved about at will. They can also be resized to give greater screen real estate to the applications you use more frequently. The colour of your live tiles will depend on your theme, though. 

Thanks to Windows Phone 8’s clean UI and slick tiled system, theme changes are a simple way to personalise your phone, but still maintain the overall look and feel of Windows Phone 8.

If you swipe to the right of your start menu, you’re taken to a vertical scrolling list of all your apps. These can be added to your start menu or uninstalled through a long press. If you have a lot of apps installed, then this could make for a lot a fair bit of scrolling, though the simplicity of it can’t be faulted. In either the start menu or the apps menu, a simple tap of the top of the screen will muster a clock, battery and signal indicator to appear. 

This marriage of horizontal and vertical scrolling sets the stage for the applications designed with the Windows Phone 8 SDK (software developer’s kit). These all look and feel extremely cohesive and simple, with the lists and panning being an instantly familiar means of interaction.


Windows Phone 8 - Performance, multitasking and browsing


Applications have habitually performed smoothly on Windows Phone handsets with the likes of the Nokia Lumia 800 and HTC Titan showing no sign of slowdown across the general UI, inspite of being significantly less powerful than their Android counterparts with single-core processors. Applications however were in the past notoriously slow to start, though once they did, they were lag free. 

Now in Windows 8, thanks to dual-core processors, the lag is less and the smoothness is palpable, especially on handsets like the Nokia Lumia 920 with its 60 frame per second display refresh rate.

Multitasking can be achieved by long pressing the back button. This pulls up a horizontal list of cards, each with an image displaying the application in its last state. Multitasking applications won’t deliver a true multi-tasking experience unless listening to music. Instead, the applications are saved in a suspended state. 

Internet Explorer 10 is the browser of choice on Windows Phone 8 handsets. It’s clean, frames text to fit the page and is very, very quick – internet connection pending. Benchmarks beat off competition from the likes of the iPhone and while there are no bells or whistles like a read it later function found on Samsung and HTC Android browsers, it’s easy to get your head around.

Zooming and panning is all done with pinching, tapping and swiping. To manually zoom in on a section of a web page, pinch in. To have the text framed for your Windows Phone 8’s screen size, double tap and finally, to move around the page, just pan with your finger. 

There’s no tabbed browsing per se, instead, you can open multiple browser windows. These are all accessible through the multitasking menu and can be reached by long pressing the back button.


Windows Phone 8 - Built-in apps and integrated services


One of Windows Phone’s most standout features, the People Hub, is still alive and well on Windows Phone 8. It’s an aggregated centre for all your communication needs, bringing in your email accounts alongside social networking via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and linking everything together with text messages and calls in a cohesive contacts list. Think of it as an Address Book 2.0.

It also provides feeds for messages, profile updates and photos. At its core, you can simultaneously contact multiple people through multiple channels, which is a tremendously useful and fuss-free way to interact with your phone and puts communication back in the centre. 

You’ve also got the facility to create ‘Groups’ and ‘Rooms’ of selected contacts to produce a focused feed and communications platform.

Email, Facebook, Twitter and other messaging services, including SMS, are still accessible separately via their individual Live Tiles.

Microsoft has also included its SkyDrive cloud service, which is deeply embedded into the system. It’s accessible directly through the Office application, which pulls together documents from your phone, email and Office 365, while also allowing you to create new Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents which are automatically uploaded. 

Photos can be set to be directly uploaded from the camera app where you can also access SkyDrive albums. OneNote integrates with both SkyDrive and your content shared via the People Hub’s ‘Rooms’, including calendar info, notes and checklists.

Crossing over with the company’s Xbox console, Windows Phone 8 includes the Xbox Live gaming service which synchronises with your console profile and your games bought from the Windows Phone Store. There’s also Xbox Music + Video for your stored multimedia and Xbox SmartGlass which allows you to stream and control multimedia and browsing across phone, tablet and Xbox.

Maps, search and location services are catered for by a collaboration between Microsoft’s Bing and Nokia’s Maps service. It’s pinpoint accurate on figuring out where you are and providing useful information about local shops and services. Annoyingly there’s no voice direction for the turn-by-turn navigation, however.

Kid’s Corner allows you to effectively setup a guest profile for your children, ensuring they can only access parts of the phone you allow.

Skype has been integrated into the operating system more tightly than ever before, in spite of not being available on launch. Now designed to slot right into the contacts on your People Hub as another option alongside regular calls, texts and other communication methods, it’s also been touted to offer an always on service that won’t wipe your battery. 


Windows Phone 8 - App ecosystem


The app ecosystem is a major flaw in the Windows Phone 8 platform at present.

At time of writing there are around 120,000 apps available for download, which doesn’t compare well to the 700,000 on both Android and iOS.

While it’s true that most bases are covered in terms of typical smartphone functionality, the diversity and choice isn’t there, and in many cases neither is the quality. That said, some examples, such as Netflix look fantastic and are a pleasure to thumb through.

Microsoft has certainly put the tools in place to encourage a diverse range of apps and games by using the same NT kernel it created Windows 8 with, so cross-platform development is a very real and likely possibility. It also offers support for some next-generation gaming capabilities - for now these aren’t being exploited, but it is still very early days.


Windows Phone 8 - Security, IT and Businesses


It wouldn’t be a Microsoft Windows product without at least a whiff of enterprise about it. While plenty of the features are aimed directly at businesses, as with Windows PCs the security functions are still beneficial for consumers too.

Windows Phone 8 features on-device, hardware-accelerated always-on encryption based on BitLocker and integrated with the device’s internal storage as well as removable MicroSD. This goes some way to preventing your data getting compromised by hacking.

Similarly, the platform also features UEFI Secure Boot to protect the phone when it starts up. This means if any root-kit malware has crept on board it’ll be nipped in the bud before it has a chance to slip fully into the system.

Remote device management is also supported along with the ability to side-load apps outside of the Windows Phone store.

All in all, we can clearly see that Microsoft have done a great deal to get their mobile operating system off the ground. As to whether it’s enough to win us over, you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for our full Windows Phone 8 review coming soon.


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