As if there isn’t enough going on at Microsoft right now with its new version of Windows and the first Microsoft-made computer, this week the company announced Windows Phone 8—an overhauled version of its mobile operating system.
Windows Phone, which launched two years ago, was an early glimpse at how the Windows 8 touch environment would look on the PC. Instead of static icons that represent apps or programs, both Windows Phone and Windows 8 use what Microsoft calls “live tiles.” These are icons that morph to display different images or information gleaned from your apps.
One big complaint about earlier iterations of Windows Phone was that its live tiles weren’t really live. Some icons changed to show different data, but not all, and not all of the time. Some of the data wasn’t very informative or helpful. On top of that, the tiles were stacked atop one another on the home screen, forcing people to scroll down a giant list of pinned tiles to find what they wanted.
I’ve been testing Windows Phone 8 for the past week, and I can say that this revamped version’s tiles are more “live” than in the past. The Start Screen, where these tiles appear, is redesigned to show more, left to right. And tiles can be resized to small squares, allowing people to see more with less scrolling.
The only trouble with this: Small live tiles can’t display as much data as their medium or large versions, and some small versions of tiles aren’t live at all. For example, the medium and large iterations of the “People Hub” display ever-changing photos of friends, like a patchwork quilt of images. The small version of this tile turns into a lifeless white icon of two people.
A feature called Rooms can be set up for private sharing of notes, calendars, chats and photos with specific groups of friends.
Overall, Windows Phone 8 is a delight to use. I tested it on the Windows Phone 8X by HTC, a sleek and stylish smartphone that will be available in the next three weeks from Verizon for $200 and from T-Mobile for $200 or $150, depending on your plan. AT&T plans to offer the 8X in November but the company hasn’t revealed its pricing plans.Sprint intends to offer Windows Phone 8 devices next year. By the end of this year, at least six new Windows Phone 8 models will be available. Current Windows Phone owners will soon be able to update their software to 7.8, a build that gives them the new Start Screen but not the full features of Windows Phone 8.
I especially enjoyed using apps on Windows Phone 8. A lot of these apps are designed to mimic the overall look of the Windows Phone software, displaying extra menus and features as I panned horizontally.
I used Amazon’s Kindle app, Zite, AllRecipes, WSJ Live, Facebook, Twitter, ESPN ScoreCenter, Evernote, the Weather Channel, TripAdvisor and various news apps including the Daily Beast, the Guardian, BBC News and USA Today. Though there are only 120,000 apps in the Windows Phone Store versus over 700,000 in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store, these apps looked stylish and refreshingly different.
A new Windows Phone 8 feature called Kid’s Corner lets parents hand their phone over to their kids without fear of the child accidentally emailing 200 people. Kid’s Corner starts up with a right-to-left swipe from the phone’s lock screen, displaying any games, videos, music or apps that the parent has marked as accessible to the kid. If the child taps the phone’s Power button, the phone returns to its lock screen, which can be protected with a passcode.
This version of the Windows Phone also features Rooms, which can be set up for private sharing with specific groups of friends. Things like calendars, notes, chats and photos can be swapped here.
Kid’s Corner on Windows Phone 8 displays only games, videos, music or apps that a parent selects. A
Some features and apps have odd qualities. When I opened the People Hub and read my sister’s latest Facebook status, I couldn’t see names of people who “liked” her status. In Twitter, I opted to be notified when anyone retweeted my tweets, but these only appeared in notifications at the top of my phone screen rather than in the Twitter app.
Battery life on my Windows Phone 8X by HTC was remarkably good. I didn’t use the phone for calls or texts as I was testing a version of the 8X that didn’t have a SIM card, so that affected my results. But even after tapping on my 4.3-inch screen and using Wi-Fi all day—checking email, browsing the Web, taking photos and playing with apps—I still had ¼ of my battery remaining by midnight.
Unlike some phones that don’t display tips or shortcuts, Windows Phone 8 encourages you to use its personalization tools. For example, a screen showed up that said, “Use Facebook photos on your lock screen” and I tapped configure. (Not Now was another option.) From then on, different Facebook photos showed up on my lock screen—a fun surprise.
The animations in Windows Phone 8 are smooth and playful. When you send an email, the email message appears as if it is backing away from you, then shoots up.
Tiles on the Start Screen fluttered with info. When I pinned a Roquefort Pear Salad recipe from the AllRecipes app to my Start Screen, the small tile version of this recipe only appeared as a photo of the salad, but its medium tile occasionally flipped to show the title of the salad on one side and the image of the salad on the other.
Someone who glanced over my shoulder and looked at the user interface of Windows Phone 8 said, “That’s a really pretty phone.” He was right. Its combined good looks, functional features and sexy new hardware make it a winning smartphone.
Write to Katherine Boehret at email@example.com