Microsoft tore the wraps off its new Windows Phone 8 (again) last night, as the next-gen OS was officially launched and more new features demoed for journos on both sides of the Atlantic.
Both Microsoft head honcho Steve Ballmer and Windows Phone manager Joe Belfiore were on stage to elucidate the brilliant new features of the OS, even enlisting celebrity endorsement from Jessica Alba on just how great Windows is for working mothers.
Check out our full Windows Phone 8X by HTC review for our thoughts on the new Windows Phone 8 features, or read on for a preview of the best new bits...
Among the many sophisticated new features demoed, the one many of you will be using regularly is quite likely to be Kids Corner, where slapping the ‘on’ switch lets you dictate exactly which apps and features your little rugrat can access when you hand them your £500 smartphone to keep them quiet.
Then there’s Rooms, a next-level tweak to the already comprehensive People Hub that lets you share photos, updates, notes, and calendars with a circle you dictate. A ‘Family’ Room is preloaded, allowing you to do things like share to-do lists or view calendars to set up those family dinners. You can also share your location to members of a Room if you’re about to meet them, say.
‘Even iPhones,’ said Belfiore, can share in this – though if you use an iPhone or other non-Windows phone, you can only view calendars shared by a particular Windows Room.
Along with the defining Live Tiles of the Windows OS, Windows Phone 8 has ‘Live Apps’, where any app on your phone is constantly updating with alerts on the app icon itself, as well as notifications on the lock screen.
The new lock screen is driven by these live apps,and you can customise exactly the content these apps send to the lock screen, from sports scores and alerts to the particular layout of photos from, say, the optimised Facebook app.
As previously shown off, the Start Screen now supports resizeable tiles, from the 2x4 rectangles to 2x2 squares, to teenier 1x1 spots. It’s all about pinning the right thing in the right size to Start – anything important should be pinned, from a friend’s contact tile for the lowdown on what they’re always up to, to a favourite app, to a Room where you want to be constantly updated on goings-on.
A built-in ‘data sense’ feature reduces the data you use by compressing every web page you surf to. Though it looks the same when viewed, the phone is actually downloading less data – and reducing your monthly spend.
It also searches for nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and prompts you to hop on if possible, while you can preset a data limit to automatically adjust your phone’s background downloading behaviour so you don’t overshoot.
Pin ‘Data Sense’ as a Live Tile to Start and you can instantly see how much data you’re using. Belfiore said that they expected users to be able to use up to 45% more data on the same monthly spend – though unfortunately Data Sense is available at launch only on Verizon in the US, with UK operators to be confirmed.
SkyDrive, which Microsoft built into Windows Phone 7, is a major feature in WP8, essentially the glue that syncs Windows Phone 8 with Windows 8 computers and even the Xbox.
This cloud storage and backup service is preloaded on Windows phones and computers, and downloadable for Xbox. It can automatically backup photos in full-resolution from your phone, so you can view them on Xbox and computer, while office documents are synced too, so you can edit and share documents from any device, from where you left off on the last one.
OneNote, Microsoft’s voice-activated memo app, is part of the sync family too – so you can say ‘Start note’ to dicate and instantly access it on Xbox, PC or Windows Phone. 7GB of free SkyDrive comes with every Windows device, with more storage available from £4 a month.
The launch of Xbox Music also now squares Windows Phone to the iPhone and iTunes, with downloaded music available across Xbox, Windows Phone and Windows 8 computers. If you have an Xbox Music Pass, any playlists you create on the PC will automatically show up on the phone, with no cables or other syncing necessary.
A Pandora streaming app for Windows Phone 8 will also launch in 2013, with a one-year subscription of free music with no ads.
Together, SkyDrive and Xbox Music make Windows Phone – and indeed the Windows ecosystem – an ideal wire-free home entertainment system.
But what if you’re completely invested in the iTunes ecosystem, as many of us are whether or not we actually use the iPhone? There’s an app for that – Mac Connector, which moves your iTunes library in a couple minutes.
Though Windows Marketplace has traditionally been maligned as the second-runner-up app store, lots of publishers have signed on to create highly optimised apps for the new OS. 46 of the 50 most popular apps on iOS and Android are on Windows Phone 8, and Microsoft has an exclusively well integrated Skype app, built right into the interface so it’s always on yet won’t drain the battery like it can on other handsets.
Ballmer called them ‘killer hardware’ – referring to the flagship Nokia, HTC and Samsung Windows Phone 8 devices.
The Nokia Lumia 920 is the camera-centric Windows, with optical image stabilisation on its PureView snapper providing clear snaps even in lowlight or with a shaky-handed photographer.
The Samsung Ativ S, said Ballmer, is ‘flat out gorgeous’, with a feather light body and 4.8-inch display to rival Samsung’s Android superphone, the Galaxy S III.
Finally, the last to launch right now, the Windows Phone 8X from HTC is a Beats-Audio-packing mega media machine with great sound, a beautiful camera and super-slim silhouette.
All three are on sale in Europe this weekend.
The Windows Phone 8X from HTC is available free from £31 a month from early November
The Windows Phone 8S is available free from £20.50 a month from mid-November.
The Nokia Lumia 920 is available from £19.99 on £46 a month, exclusive on 4G via EE from early November.
The Nokia Lumia 820 is available free from £31 a month from early November.
The Samsung Ativ S is available free from £36 a month, with date TBC.