Windows Phone 8 First Impressions: Snappy Redesign

Latest version of Microsoft's smartphone OS offers just as many useful features as iOS and Android.
8 Key Differences Between Windows 8 And Windows RT
8 Key Differences Between Windows 8 And Windows RT
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Windows Phone 8 represents Microsoft's latest take on its smartphone platform. Windows Phone was given life in 2010 with Windows Phone 7 and refreshed with Windows Phone 7.5 in 2011. This year's update is more significant in many ways.

The most important feature of the operating system is that it is built on the same kernel as Windows 8 and Windows RT. This eventually will mean more apps and better apps for the smartphone platform. In fact, Microsoft released the SDK for Windows Phone 8 so developers can dig in and get started.

But that's far from all. Microsoft has added hundreds of new features, many of them much needed and long overdue. In case you need a fresher, here's what's new:

-- Support for dual-core processors and three different screen sizes. This will open up the WP8 ecosystem for more varied designs.

-- Company Hub for corporations to police their own, secure app stores.

-- Kids Corner, which segregates a portion of the user interface and locks children out of email, messaging and other critical features.

-- Rooms, which are micro social networks for small groups of people.

-- Internet Explorer 10, which is built on HTML5 and W3C standards and compresses data to save mobile operator billing.

-- Improved notifications and lock screen behavior to better triage incoming calls and messages.

-- Nokia Maps is now built in, and offers excellent navigation features.

-- SkyDrive offers 7 GB of free storage for photos, documents and other files.

And on and on and on.

But how does Windows Phone 8 feel? What is it like to use? Is it really better than Windows Phone 7.5, and does it even compare to Android or iOS?

[ Read Windows Phone Users, Rejoice: More Apps On The Way. ]

Windows Phone 8 is snappy and fast. The units on hand at the Microsoft event in San Francisco on Monday all showed that the user interface is incredibly quick and smooth. The new flexibility of the home screen's Live Tiles makes a huge difference in the amount of content that's visible on the home screen and how users interact with it. The Live Tile concept finally hits is stride with WP8, especially because the Tiles can be resized and offer even more interactive content.

The new lock screen notifications are a big deal. They put WP8 in the same league as Android and iOS when it comes to managing incoming communications. I really like that certain apps, such as Facebook, Twitter and even CNN, can take control of the lock screen and display new content automatically.

The improvements in the browser are significant and pay dividends. It is a much faster browser that offers more tools and displays Web pages just as well as other browsers do.

The Kids Corner idea is brilliant and one long overlooked by handset makers. Current Analysis' Avi Greengart doesn't think Kids Corner alone will convince iPhone or Android users to make the switch, but he does think that people who choose a WP8 device will really like the feature. It is an easy tool that parents can use to set up an segregated area on the phone where only select apps, such as games, will work.

The Rooms are a great way to enable small-group communications. In theory and in practice it worked well for managing group chats, a group calendar, group photos, and so on.

Business users will probably fall in love with the Company Hub. It essentially lets business users run their own Windows Phone store with approved apps and services contained inside. The hub can deliver updates and also access to corporate files. Signing up and using it is a bit clunky, but once installed it works well.

The one thing that became immediately clear to me is that Windows Phone 8 is now on par with Android and iOS. In its own way, WP8 offers just as many useful features that smartphone owners will find appealing as the competition. Toss in the native support with Windows 8 and Windows RT, and Microsoft has a really compelling picture for its platform moving into the holiday quarter.

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