It's a shame that Windows Phone hasn't caught on yet.
Since its launch about two years ago, Microsoft's mobile operating system has been consistently reviewed as a gorgeous and functional alternative to Google's Android and Apple's iOS. Still, it has been largely ignored by consumers, despite hyped product launches like the one for Nokia's Lumia 900 in April.
But Microsoft isn't giving up, mostly because it can't afford to. Today, it took the wraps off the final version of Windows Phone 8, its new mobile operating system that will debut on upcoming devices like Nokia's Lumia 920 and HTC's Windows Phone 8x in a few weeks.
At first glance, Windows Phone 8 looks nearly identical to Windows Phone 7.5, which currently powers Windows Phones. But the latest version brings a lot to the table, most notably a slew of much-needed features that bring the OS up to speed with Android and iOS. And in a lot of ways, Windows Phone 8 surpasses its rivals.
Let's start with the beginning.
Like the last two versions, Windows Phone 8's interface is beautiful, functional, and unlike anything Google and Apple have been able to come up with so far. At first glance, Windows Phone 8 looks largely the same as the last two major releases. You still get the same incredible interface as before, but it's now a lot more customizable.
Windows Phone's interface abandons the familiar rows of apps in favor of something called Live Tiles, a list of icons that update in real time with items like the latest headlines, Facebook posts and photos, or weather conditions. Tapping a Live Tile launches the full app.
Windows Phone 8 takes the Live Tile concept a step further, letting you adjust each one to display even more information on your home screen. For example, you can expand the Facebook Live Tile to a rectangle that takes up the entire width of the screen, displaying the latest photos and updates from your friends. Or you can shrink it to show no information and act as a simple app launcher.
The result is a dynamic home screen experience unlike any other mobile operating system out there. And it's a refreshing take on the small-screen user interface after using Apple's unchanging iOS for the last five years. Developers will be able to program their apps to take advantage of the new tiles too, so expect to see some cool things on your home screen as Windows Phone 8 gains momentum.
This is what a phone's home screen should look like: Not too heavy with widgets that can bog things down and not too light with rows of unmoving icons that can do little more than display a badge whenever you get a new email or something.
Windows Phone 8's Live Tiles are the perfect hybrid, a complex tool that you can customize an infinite number of ways and a helpful companion that even your grandmother can use with ease.
There are only two glaring downsides to the user interface. 1.) Notifications aren't as good as they are on Android or iPhone. You can now see updates for stuff like new emails and calendar appoints on the lock screen, but you don't get a handy notifications center that stores everything. 2.) Multitasking is still a pain. Holding the back button brings up a list of recently-used apps, but when you try to open them, they don't always pick up where you left off.
Drawbacks aside, Windows Phone 8's home screen and user interface alone are reason enough to give the operating system a shot.Other New Features
There's a lot more going on with Windows Phone 8, too much to list here without boring you to death, so I'm going to stick with the big points.
One of the most important new features is one you won't even see. Windows Phone 8 now supports hardware that rivals other top-of-the-line smartphones. Before, Windows Phone ran on relatively weak hardware. That was part of the problem with Nokia's Lumia 900; the operating system was good, but the internal specs and screen resolution felt dated compared to the competition.
Windows Phone 8 fixes that, allowing the operating system to work on faster processors and take advantage of high-resolution screens. You can see that beginning to pay off with the gorgeous new hardware introduced by HTC and Nokia over the last few months. When those phones launch, they'll be on par with anything Google and Apple can offer.
The downside is that if you currently own a Windows Phone, you won't be able to upgrade to Windows Phone 8. Older hardware won't work with Windows Phone 8, but Microsoft is releasing a different version of Windows Phone to older devices that'll let you take advantage of the new customizable Live Tiles.
Windows Phone 8 also supports devices with Near Field Communication (NFC) chips that are found in many top-of-the-line Android phones today. The technology lets you make mobile payments or swap content between devices just by tapping it to another NFC chip.
It sounds cool on paper, but it's also one of the most impractical features in Windows Phone 8 right now. There simply isn't a lot of support for NFC in the real world, so it's going to be tough to find someone else with a phone or tablet that can share content via NFC with a Windows Phone.
There's also an app called Wallet, which is a lot like the Passbook app on the iPhone. Wallet can sync with certain apps to house your gift cards, coupons, boarding passes, and concert tickets, so you can keep them all in one place without using a separate program for each. But Microsoft took the concept a step further than Apple did, letting you store you credit card information so you can make mobile payments with NFC.
Unfortunately, Wallet is pretty much an empty shell right now as there are very few apps that take advantage of it. Plus, U.S. Windows Phone 8 owners won't be able to make NFC payments because carriers like T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T are planning to launch their own mobile payments system through a company called ISIS. Microsoft says it's playing nice with U.S. carriers, so mobile payments will be ready to go when they are. You'll likely have to wait until early 2013.
Last year, Microsoft introduced Windows Phone's People app, which lets you sync to LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter to get all your social networking updates in one clean interface. In Windows Phone 8, People has been expanded with two new features called Groups and Rooms, which let you select a handful of people to share private messages, calendar events, and images with.
But People isn't as good as it sounds. If it's linked to all your social networks, you get flooded with updates and photos that are often confusing to filter through. The idea is to be able to look at one friend in People and see what they're up to everywhere, but the app doesn't always merge profiles from multiple networks correctly, so some of your friends will be listed two or three times. Until Microsoft works out the kinks, you're better off using LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook separately and apps like GroupMe for managing group chats.
Finally, Microsoft has its own Siri-wannabe built into Windows Phone 8. And like Siri, it's not very good. In fact, it's worse. Aside from completely misunderstanding my queries, Windows Phone 8's voice feature could rarely bring me the answer I wanted on the first try. You can't just say something like, "Show me Microsoft's stock price" and get the answer like you can with Siri. Instead, almost everything is run through Bing search, leaving you to find the answer you're looking for. It feels like Microsoft added the feature just to stay relevant with the competition. Microsoft would've been better off leaving it out.The App Problem
Now for the gripe that will likely be a dealbreaker for most people.
As beautiful and accessible as Windows Phone 8 is, its app ecosystem pales in comparison to what you can find on the iPhone and Android. There's no Instagram. No Dropbox. No Pandora. And because of the relatively small number of Windows Phone users out there, developers almost always choose to make the latest and greatest apps for Android and iOS first. Windows Phone is an afterthought for many developers, if they're even thinking about it at all.
So while there are plenty of basics available like Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix, you're still missing out on a lot. Developers have had about two years to get on board with Windows Phone, and so far it's just not working. Yes, you'll still be able to do everything you want to do: send emails, check your calendar, listen to music, but without a decent app selection, you don't have the same robust choice of how you do all that as you do with iPhone or Android. And you can bet when the next blockbuster app debuts, it won't be on Windows Phone 8.Bottom Line
Windows Phone 8 is brimming with potential. It's gorgeous. Unique. Refreshing. Functional.
The sad part is, it won't be as good as it can be unless people start using it and developers decide to develop for it. But consumers go where the apps are and app developers go where the consumers are. It's a big chicken/egg problem for Microsoft and it still hasn't found a good reason to make you choose Windows Phone 8 over the competition.
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