Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 mobile operating system has finally arrived. Codenamed Apollo, the OS was unveiled in several parts, possibly because the team had to build it from grounds-up and they probably wanted to show how they plan to differentiate from the competition. Well, we now have the whole thing and can safely say, we like what we see.
Through this review, we won’t be covering the Windows Phone 8 OS in absolute detail. If you had read our WP8 Preview post, you’d have an idea about all those new features which come packed with Windows Phone 8. What we aim to cover in this post is, if (and why) you should consider a Windows Phone 8 handset as your next primary phone.
Windows Phone 8 Review
Android & iOS mobile operating systems have dominated the market for a while now. Those who were waiting for a worthy alternative had to choose between the struggling Blackberry OS or nearly dead Symbian OS or the half baked Windows Phone 7. According to IDC, the recent third quarter marketshare of smartphone mobile OS shows that Android & iOS are dominating the space with nearly 75% and 15% shares respectively. Windows Phone had a staggering 2% of global smartphone market share.
The primary reason for Windows Phone to be languishing so far behind was that, despite a likeable UI, Windows Phone 7 was half baked. The Mango (7.5) update tried to fix some of them, but Microsoft clearly struggled with outdated hardware support and imperfect software.
WP8 Brings in better hardware support
In a bid to quickly cash in on smartphone boom post-2007, Microsoft regrouped their good old Windows Mobile team to come up with a revamped and fresh mobile OS, which they called Windows Phone 7. The onus was clearly on a brand new User Interface. Sadly, they retained the outdated WinCE operating system to fasten the process. This negated most of the good efforts which went into the UI.
With Windows Phone 8, Microsoft has moved away from WinCE to Windows NT kernel (with WinRT sub system similar to Windows 8). This ensures greater app compatibility between Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, and this would ensure that they both share the same device drivers, file system, networking stack and media software.
Windows Phone 8 also brings in the much needed and better hardware support.
- Unlike WP7, where all the handsets were restricted to single core, WP8 devices don’t come with any such restrictions and support Multi-cores.
- Also, the support for screen resolutions has improved. In WP7, Microsoft had restricted the screen resolution to WGA 800 x 400 with 15:9 aspect ratio. With better display driver support from the core OS and the devices also becoming bigger, MS will now support WXGA 1280 x 768 in 15:9 aspect ratio and 720p 1280 x 700 in 16:9 aspect ratio.
- Lack of microSD support in WP7 was a deal-breaker for many users. But with WP8, microSD card support is enabled which ensures sharing of data and apps with other WP8 phone users. Though one cannot install apps directly on the microSD card, they can install the apps present on the card to install on WP8.
- NFC support is a welcome addition as well. Though the technology is yet to go mainstream, WP8 users will be in safe hands if and when the tech gets popular. For now, it’s restricted for basic stuff like sharing data with other WP8 phones or Android devices as well.
- DirectX graphics hardware support with hardware acceleration for Direct3D using programmable GPU
- WP8 is Enterprise ready. Secure boot and data encryption using the proven Bit Locker technology, WP8 will no longer be a vulnerable device with company confidential data. Enterprise apps can be deployed on WP8 without the need to come from the app store
These changes should bring WP8 on-par with iOS & Android in terms of hardware support. Those users who look into technical specifications to judge a mobile phone should feel happy now.
Usability and Performance
In spite of comparatively inferior hardware specs, Windows Phone has never been a laggard. The buttery smooth
Metro Modern UI has consistently delighted users. The boost in hardware support has only bettered the experience in WP8. Live Tiles are now customizable in terms of sizes. You can choose a tile to be small, medium or large. Depending upon the screen estate, the app tile will show extra information as designed by the developer.
Lockscreen has got a major shakeup as well, making it more usable. Microsoft has added support for lockscreen notifications, albeit they have restricted to just five apps (a bummer, that). Users have the option to choose the core apps like Mail, Messaging, Calendar or third party apps like Twitter, Facebook etc. Also, the lockscreen wallpapers can be dynamically updated by linking to third party apps like Bing, Facebook photos or even some weather apps.
Did I mention that you can now take iOS like screenshots on WP8? Oh yes, finally!
If you were one of those, who dreaded about using Zune to sync your PC and phone, rejoice! WP8 offers several ways to sync your phone and PC to get access to your music, videos and photos. You can access the WP8 device like an external hard-drive and can easily drag and drop files & folders you want on the phone. Windows Media Player can sync up songs and playlists easily.
Cloud sync with SkyDrive has improved as well. Users can choose to automatically upload their photos to their SkyDrive account and can even choose how compressed their photos are when they’re uploaded. Every new WP8 user will be given 7GB of free storage on SkyDrive. Office documents are also synced up nicely and will now show up automatically in the Office Hub.
If you are someone who cannot live without Office suite, WP8 offers the best experience for Microsoft Office. PowerPoint, Word & Excel are still not on par with their desktop counterparts, but they’re still the best you’d see on a mobile device. Word does support the new Word 2013 feature where it will remember where you left off within the document if you close it on Word 2013 on the desktop and then open it again on Word for Windows Phone 8. Pretty cool, eh?
Yes, we had covered this along with other features on our WP8 preview post, but it deserves to be talked about again. Anyone with a child around in the household will surely appreciate this feature. In scenarios where the child simply picks up the phone and has complete access to the app store, office documents and other stuff, the Kid’s corner comes as a blessing. It lets you specify specific apps and functions that you want to allow as being available when you set the phone into Kid’s Corner mode, and loan it to the child to play with. And yes, you can change the name to Friend’s corner and handover your device to those pesky friends without worrying about the photo gallery and other private stuff on your device.
IE10, XBOX Live and Others
Windows Phone 8 comes with a hugely improved browser, the Internet Explorer 10. It is extremely fast, efficient and comes with better HTML5 support. Our SunSpider test showed great results, as the HTC One X ran through it within 934.8ms, the fastest we have seen on a mobile device.
The Games hub is still powered by XBOX Live, but the inherent change in use of native code should attract major developers to release their games for Windows Phone as well. Porting of PC games should be relatively easy now, and features like in-app purchases should entice more developers to make the jump. For now, the offerings are bare minimal, and even a novice gamer would feel disheartened with the choices.
Data Sense is Microsoft’s take on tracking data usage on smartphones. Much like its counterparts on Android and iOS, Data Sense will start out by asking you about your data plan and the end date of your monthly billing cycle. Once you reach a threshold, it sends out pop-up notifications. In addition, it also helps you find nearby WiFi hotspots, compresses web-pages using IE10 and switches off data hungry background apps. Sadly, it’s not enabled by default as the carriers need to support this, and we couldn’t test it ourselves.
Should you make the jump?
Here comes the million dollar question. Is Windows Phone 8 good enough to compete for the third best mobile ecosystem? Yes, we absolutely think it does. But it is far from perfect. Some of the major limitations and annoyances we felt during our month-long test:
- Lack of apps. Windows Phone app store is growing, but at a slow pace. Microsoft, along with Nokia, has been trying to entice developers to bring their apps and games to Wp8, but the results are far from satisfactory.
- Lack of notification center. This is a BIG turn-off for power users. Microsoft still thinks Live Tiles are good enough to notify users of alerts. Sadly, they aren’t. Notifications from apps which aren’t pinned to the start screen come and vanish within seconds and there is no way to aggregate them all at one place. Though there are some talks about Microsoft working on this, they’ll still be playing a catch-up with Android and iOS.
- No FM radio support. Not a deal-breaker for most, but still a simple feature which shall be missed.
- If you depend a lot on Google services like Gmail, Gtalk, Google Calendars, Google Drive, Google Maps etc, none of the official apps are available yet on Windows Phone 8.
Read the above list carefully once again. Are these some things which bother you a lot? If not, Windows Phone 8 deserves to be considered as your next smartphone OS. Services like XBOX Music, People Hub, Kid’s corner, Office and SkyDrive are top notch. And the overall look and feel of Modern UI is exemplary. Devices like Nokia Lumia 920 & HTC 8X are already shaking up the smartphone market.
So, if you’re someone who uses smartphone primarily to take pictures, record & watch videos, listen to music, edit office documents on the go, browse the web and expect to keep track of your friends and family both online & offline, Windows Phone 8 devices fit the bill.