Software and Apps
Windows Phone 8 is more of a slight evolution of the Windows Phone platform, with Microsoft refining subtle things on the inside. On the outside, the big noticeable difference between this and previous iterations of the platform is that the homescreen can support more Live Tiles at a glance due to the fact that users can now shrink some Live Tiles to fit more in. The tiles have also gained some badges for notifications, with the number of alerts prominently displayed on the tile where you have notifications awaiting, such as the E-Mail and Facebook tiles.
Live Tiles & Live Lock Screen. Speaking of Live Tiles, Windows Phone 8 now also supports a Live Lock Screen, giving users the ability to cycle through their lockscreen wallpaper with Facebook images and display Facebook calendars and notifications directly on the home screen. It’s a nice touch, but notifications still feel incomplete without a complete overview of all notifications in a single screen, similar to iOS’ Notification Center or the notification pull-down on Android.
Curiously, though, for being called Live Tiles, few of them actually update and animate in the background. You’ll still see upcoming appointments in the Calendar tile, as you would a widget on Android, and you’ll still see the number of outstanding notifications requiring your attention, but it won’t for example, cycle you through the subject lines of unread emails or scroll through unread text messages. As to the animated tiles, they move and change for a little glitz, but don’t add value, such as the animated Games hub or the peek-a-boo Me hub.
Tiles & Hubs. Apps are organized accordingly on the home screen in their own Tiles, which are similar to shortcut icons. You can pin apps to the homescreen and resize them now. Certain content go into their own Hub, which is like a collection. For instance, in the Photos hub, you’ll not only have access to your camera roll, but you’ll also have access to other photo editing apps that you’ve downloaded from Windows Phone Marketplace–the Hubs know to group apps together to make it easy based on categories. You’ll also be able to view photos from Twitter and Facebook as well inside this hub. Likewise, for the Office hub, you’ll have access to mobile versions of Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, as well as the cloud like SkyDrive.
Controls. Microsoft had announced two sets of controls for Windows Phone 8–Data Sense, for control of how much data you use, and Kid’s Corner, for parental control. The first will debut first on Verizon Wireless and will likely need to interact with carrier billing systems for compatibility so it’s unclear which carriers will fully support the feature, but it’s a nice idea as it allows users to see which apps are using how much data.
The second set of controls is for parents and is known as Kid’s Corner. Essentially, when enabled, you can give your phone to your kids and give them a more restricted access of the phone to approved games and apps. This way, you know they won’t be accidentally texting or calling people, or racking up on data charges. Microsoft’s own Joe Belfiore showed off Kid’s Corner on stage at the Windows Phone 8 launch event with his own three kids.
Kid’s Corner. When enabled, Kid’s Corner has its own lock screen. Swipe up from your home lockscreen and enter your PIN to unlock the full capabilities of your phone, or swipe left and enter the Kid’s Corner lockscreen.
With Kid’s Corner enabled, you can swipe up to unlock the phone. You give access to select videos, games, apps, and content that kids will have access to. It’s essentially like accessing certain features of your phone without requiring a PIN code.
Third-Party Apps. As far as third-party apps go, Microsoft is promising that you’ll find the top 46 of 50 apps available for other platforms coming to Windows Phone 8. While Windows Phone 8′s app library isn’t as robust as Android or iOS, the platform still delivers on popular favorites such as Kayak, Yelp, Kindle, Netflix, Hulu Plus, Groupon, Living Social, and Open Table. More apps are coming, including a new version of Pandora. Games such as Fruit Ninja, Angry Birds, and more are available as well and these are grouped into the Xbox Games hub.
Skype. Microsoft is promising a new version of Skype that brings the push experience to a new frontier. According to the company, Skype won’t be running in the background and will not use up battery, but if you have a new video chat request or Skype call, it will get pushed still to your mobile. The Skype integration will help Windows Phone compete against FaceTime on iOS and Google Hangout with Google Plus on Android.
Social. The social experience, though improved, remains confusing on Windows Phone 8. By default, Windows Phone 8 aggregates feeds from Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn into the ‘Me’ hub, so you won’t need third-party apps. You can view messages and post new messages, but if you want to look up additional information, view more photos from a particular user’s photo album, or get more out of your experience, you’ll still need to download the corresponding apps. So now when you post to your Facebook wall, for example, you’ll have to decide if you want to go through the Facebook app or through the Me hub. Notifications for these social apps have improved and are a welcomed addition as you see how many outstanding notifications you have directly on the Live Tile.
Web Compression. Internet Explorer on Windows Phone 8 promises to be leaner and more efficient and Microsoft is promising that you’ll get up to 45 percent more web browsing on the same data plan thanks to smart compression technology. It’s not unlike what Nokia has been doing with Symbian’s web browser or what RIM has implemented with its BlackBerry platform.
Room. A nice way to share with a few close people–whether it’s family, friends or co-workers–is through Rooms. Here, Microsoft allows users to share calendars, notes, pictures, and files so that you can have a personal space to interact with contacts. It’s like Dropbox meets Twitter meets shared Photostream meets Facebook in a simple interface that’s consistent with the Metro UI. Share your notes, shopping lists, and to-do items easily so if your husband is out grocery shopping, he’ll know what to pick up and if you’re doing laundry, you’ll also remember to pick up stuff from the dry cleaners.
By default, Microsoft sets up a Family Room for users and you can add additional rooms and manage users so you can share with your groups. It’s like group SMS, but expanded with more capabilities.
As I am the only one in my circle to have a Windows Phone 8 device, I was not able to test out the capabilities of Rooms at this time.
Compatibility Issues. Microsoft is trying to expand its app catalogue, both for Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 by using the same code kernel between both platforms. This means that developers who create apps for Windows 8 can easily port the same app to Windows Phone 8 without having to do much work in re-writing apps. That will definitely help both platforms catch up to Apple and Google, with the former boasting over 775,000 apps in its App Store while the latter is now touting 700,000 apps.
There is also a downside to this. Apps that were written for Windows Phone 7 may need to be re-compiled or fixed before they are compatible with Windows Phone 8. For example, my favorite paid turn-by-turn GPS app, Navigon, which was available for Windows Phone 7, is not yet compatible with Windows Phone 8 at the time of this writing, meaning I don’t have turn by turn directions on the HTC 8X as the platform still doesn’t support voice-guided navigation instructions, lagging behind iOS’ Maps app and Google Maps with Navigation on Android. Users of Nokia’s device will have access to that company’s free Nokia Drive app.
In the several days that I’ve been using the HTC 8X as my main phone, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how fluid and easy it is to get accustomed to. Microsoft is promoting the OS as more intelligent and a quicker way to access your information, primarily through UI elements as Live Tiles, People Hub, and other Hubs. However, in use, for my own needs, it’s not necessarily more intelligent as it is a different method of accessing and grouping information. Sure, having two home screens (one for Tiles and Hubs and the other for the app drawer) is definitely easier to know where you’re at in the UI than Android’s multi-homescreen approach, but there’s still a lot that Microsoft could improve on to catch up with rival platforms.
Search. Bing search is excellent, but with Google expanding its voice search to include intelligent cards and information based on location, search history and user patterns through its flagship Google Now app on Android 4.1 or later, Microsoft needs to make its voice search app more intelligent to keep up in the search space.
Voice-Guided Turn-by-Turn Navigation. Even Apple, which did not have a mapping history, is venturing into this space. With Microsoft and Nokia’s prominent partnership, it’s really a shame that Microsoft, with its history behind Bing Maps, isn’t taking the mapping experience further. For now, drivers will have to read the instructions for navigation as there is no voice guidance at this time. Partner Nokia has an app called Nokia Drive, but that’s limited only to Nokia Lumia Windows Phone devices at this time. You’re left with third-party options in the paid Marketplace when they become available for Windows Phone 8. Navigon is already promising an update that will make its app compatible with the new OS.
Camera. Given HTC’s imaging prowess on the One X, the company’s camera implementation on the 8X is just abysmal and harkens back to cameras on early smartphones running on Windows Mobile. Come on, HTC, it’s 2012! Light flares, soft focus, and mediocre low light performance shouldn’t be issues on a flagship model on a rising platform.
For a flagship Windows Phone 8 smartphone and a hero device for that platform, the HTC 8X delivers an elegant and robust user experience. It’s solidly constructed and ergonomic to hold. From a hardware perspective, HTC has done a great job creating a minimalist and modern design. It’s the software still that may be the big barrier for Windows Phone adoption as the platform still trails behind popular rivals iOS and Android in some key areas, including search, voice commands, and voice-guided navigation. With the 8X, you’ll have basic voice commands, but the engine isn’t quite as smart as Google Now is nor will voice search be as elegant as Siri in integrating specific cards like sports scores. At this time, unlike Apple’s iOS Maps and Google Maps, there is still no native voice-guided turn-by-turn directions. And while the software is more refined, it just seems that Microsoft is just catching up to rivals, but with Windows Phone 8, it’s still clear that the platform still hasn’t fully caught up quite just yet.