Windows Phone 8: The Ultimate Guide

Microsoft’s new mobile platform, Windows Phone 8, has been officially unveiled, with the already impressive operating system having been rebuilt and adapted to increase its capabilities. Senior Microsoft figures including Steve Ballmer and Joe Belfiore launched the new software at a star-studded San Francisco event which gave an overview of some features which had already been announced and others that were not anticipated at all. Here we take a look at exactly what Windows Phone 8 is, where it’s come from, how it works and what it means for mobile users.

History

Windows Phone 7 was introduced in October 2010, with Microsoft dumping its earlier Windows Mobile platform for an all-new offering which stunned many with its impressive visuals. The new OS saw the introduction of the distinctive Live Tiles interface, a UI populated by large blocks of bold colour which animate to show information and updates form a variety of sources.

Following the first iteration of Windows Phone, an update to WP7.5 was introduced in February 2011. It was at this time that Microsoft and Nokia announced a collaboration which would see the Finnish manufacturer’s Symbian platform usurped by Windows Phone and the creation of a new range of Nokia devices which for a time would become almost synonymous with the platform.

Now several years into its existence, Microsoft’s platform has been reborn in its Windows Phone 8 guise with substantial changes having been made to the way in which the software works.

Rebuilding

Windows Phone 8 doesn’t exist as a standalone platform and its launch has coincided with Microsoft’s large scale  revamping of its entire software range to create a full ecosystem which works across computers, tablets and smartphones. The familiar Windows styling has been redesigned (with the Live Tiles from Windows Phone 7 seemingly an inspiration) to create an interface which looks the same, or similar, across a range of devices. The computer code that provides the foundation on which all of this stands has also been reconfigured so that the software runs in the same way across any Windows device.

Windows Phone 8 is built around the NT kernel; the same software upon which Windows 8 (and an ARM-powered tablet version called Windows RT) is based. This has created what Microsoft has called a “shared Windows core” which sees all devices running Windows built on  the same foundation, sharing the way in which file systems work as well as other technical aspects.

Upon this foundation, apps are now written using the C++ language, something which creates two fundamental advantages for Windows Phone 8. Firstly, apps created for any Windows device, can quite easily be reconfigured to work across smartphones, tablets and desktop machines, making for a fluid and uniform user experience extended across the whole of the Microsoft ecosystem.

Secondly, the C++ language is amongst the most commonly across mobile platforms such as Android and iOS. With Windows Phone apps now being based on the same code as the two dominant smartphone operating systems it will become much easier for developers to port them over to devices running Microsoft’s mobile OS. One of the greatest criticisms levelled at Windows Phone throughout its existence focuses on the  lack of apps available for it but this move seeks to address that problem and it could be that major apps such as Instagram and Flipboard make their way to WP8 before long.

However, there is a downside to these advances in the way in which Windows Phone 8 is put together – there’s no back compatibility with existing WP handsets such as Nokia’s Lumia 900 and HTC’s Mozart. Because the fundamentals of the newer version of the software are so different it will not work on devices which were created to run the earlier version.

This isn’t good news for anyone who is tied into a long contract for an older Windows Phone device, although Microsoft has said that it is planning to launch a further upgrade to the older platform, WP7.8, that will mimic some of the WP8 features. Apps created for the older platform will also be fully compatible with the new version, although those created for Windows Phone 8 will not work on WP7.

Improved hardware support

Up to now, Windows Phone has only supported single-core processors, and Stephen Elop, CEO of Nokia, even commented that multi-core chips are unnecessary. Despite this, support for multi-core handsets has been now been introduced and all of NokiaSamsung and HTC’s WP8 devices feature multi-core processors.

Beyond this, the new software also brings in support for HD displays, improving the visual capabilities of devices running the platform. Further embellishments to the OS have introduced over-the-air updates, with smaller software upgrades accessible via a 3G connection.

Windows Phone 8 also supports microSD cards, enabling users to vastly increase the amount of storage space their phone has. While HTC’s 8X and Nokia’s Lumia 920 have unibody chassis without microSD card slots, Samsung’s ATIV S,Nokia’s Lumia 820 and HTC’s 8S all have space for a card to be inserted.

User Interface

The most noticeable difference between Windows Phone 8 and its predecessor is that Live Tiles can be resized so that they can expand across the screen to show a lot of information, or be reduced to a smaller size more like a standard app icon.

The Live Tiles themselves display an incredible amount of information, much of which can be configured from within each tile’s respective app. Updates from news sources and social networks can be pulled through to tiles and images from photo galleries displayed.

This evolution of the Live Tiles interface means that the Windows Phone Start screen is now truly personal. Updates from friends and contacts mixed with the users own selection of apps means that the experience offered by each device can be personalised.

The way in which information and updates flow through the Windows Phone UI has always been impressive but these features have been developed even further with WP8, with the device’s lockscreen being given even greater functionality so that it is now able to display notifications such as text messages and emails.

Features and Apps

Windows Phone 8’s People Hub draws together information and updates from contacts, whether their details are stored on a SIM card, pulled from social networking sites or email accounts.

People Hub previously had a feature called Groups which allows users to put certain contacts (say, family members) together to see information from them and even message them collectively. Whilst this has been continued in WP8 there is now a further section called Rooms which allows users to share calendar events and photos with selected contacts within a room, along with notes, group messages and updates

Enhancements have also been made to the WP8 camera app with the introduction of ‘Lenses’ – a series of add-ons which can be downloaded and will add to photographic capabilities. Lenses can add filters to pictures, offer a preview before a photo is taken, as well as add extra functionality such as augmented reality information. Although there aren’t too many of these ‘Lenses’ available at the time of writing, their inclusion does goe some way towards making up for the lack of photo-editing software available for the platform at present.

The impressive mapping capabilities of Nokia’s earlier Lumia devices has made the transition to all WP8 handset thanks to Microsoft’s licensing of the Finnish-firm’s NavTech data. Whilst not as comprehensive as Google Maps, the navigational software is still very good indeed.

Microsoft has also built several of its own services into WP8, with a mobile version of Office looking better than in it does on a desktop. SkyDrive, the firm’s cloud-storage service, also offers 7GB of storage which is upgradeable to 25GB at cost. Skype will also fully integrate with Windows Phone 8’s user interface, although it has to be downloaded separately.

Internet Explorer has also been revamped so that the mobile version is much closer to that of its desktop counterpart. As a result, the browser is much more secure thanks to the inclusion of SmartScreen filter and 28-bit Bitlocker encryption.

An interesting innovation is Kid’s Corner. This feature is designed for parents and allows them to lock-off many of the phone’s functions so that a child can’t interfere with them whilst using the phone. A Kid’s Corner profile can be set up that will allow the child to play certain games and listen to music but not read messages or use the browser.

Whilst similar apps on other platforms perform this function the act that it is built into the UI of Windows Phone 8 is impressive, demonstrating some real thought on the part of Microsoft.

As a part of the increased support for hardware that has seen the introduction of multi-core processors in WP8, NFC has now been brought to the platform. This opens up a range of possibilities such as contactless payments and sharing options that work in the same way as Android Beam.

Since four of the five WP8 handsets launched so far have NFC chips (the HTC 8S is the exception) the technology could become more widely used between such devices, even if contactless payments do not take off. There is also now a wallet app which enables secure transactions and can hold virtual store cards, coupons and e-tickets.

Overall, Windows Phone 8 is an excellent revamp of Microsoft’s mobile platform which ‘future-proofs’ it somewhat. The basics of the software have been changed to bring it in line with Windows 8 and other mobile operating systems and this allows for a full ecosystem to develop around Windows devices and making it easier for developers to jump on board.

Microsoft is aiming at taking a significant market share away from the big players of Apple and Google and with Windows Phone 8 the firm is in a good position to do it. Consumers may take a little convincing to swap to a platform that they are unfamiliar with but Windows Phone 8 certainly has enough to offer if they do decide to make the jump.

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