Patrick Gray takes a look at the pros and cons of Microsoft's Windows Phone 8. Find out why he was generally impressed with this device.
Much as my computing career started at the hands of Microsoft in the days of green screens and MS-DOS, my early mobile device experience was largely defined by the company. After seeing the power of mobile devices in the form of a Pilot 500 (before the company was sued into becoming Palm Pilot and later, Palm), I purchased one of the first Palm PCs, Microsoft's answer to the burgeoning PDA market, which eventually became Windows Mobile, the recent ancestor of today's Windows Phone.
A word about hardware
Verizon provided me with an HTC 8X, one of the recent flagship phones running Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 (WP8) mobile OS. While this is not meant to be a detailed hardware review, I'll give a brief word on the 8X specifically before diving into the details of Windows Phone. The HTC 8X quickly allayed any fears of hardware inferiority on the platform. There is little of the breathless anticipation that surrounds a new iPhone or flagship Android phone, but the 8X was a pleasure to pick up immediately after my usual phone, which is an iPhone 5.
Despite a budget price compared to the competition, the 8X had a great screen and was easier to grab and hold due to a grippy, matte plastic finish rather than the usual slippery plastic or aluminum. The only annoyance I found on the hardware side was that the power button was difficult to find and activated solely by touch, although this problem was largely mitigated through more time with the device. Much like the OS running the 8X, the device parted ways with current design trends and successfully executed an alternative to the mobile "super powers" Android and iOS.
The smartphone gets smarter
If you haven't spent more than a few moments with a recent Windows Phone, you're doing yourself a disservice. Someone who has never used a modern smartphone could be forgiven for thinking Android and iOS were essentially the same on first blush. Both offer a familiar grid of applications and similar navigation patterns. Obviously, there are major differences, but everything from the "grid of icons" motif to momentum scrolling is fairly similar.
Windows Phone abandons these conventions right from the start with its "Modern" (formally Metro) user interface. While I've been less than thrilled with that interface on a traditional computer, I found it intuitive and helpful on my phone, and I actually missed it when I switched back to my iPhone or Android devices. Microsoft has managed to combine navigation, status, and notification in an effective and intuitive way.
When you unlock the phone, you can quickly tell how many new emails you have, the current weather, and who has recently updated their status on various social media sites. I find Windows Phone presents just the right level of detail. iOS notifications are annoyingly distracting, flashing on the screen and then further bloating a nearly useless list. Android's ever-expanding notification "bar of stuff" is a bit more subtle but less informative, while WP8 strikes just the right balance. I don't particularly care about every post to my Facebook feed, but if a family member posts something, I'm likely to be interested. With Windows Phone, a tiny picture of each person who's posted to my social media accounts appears, and I can then decide -- a system that's far more effective than a notification ping or incremented counter with no further information.
Once you're accustomed to in-application navigation based on swiping to the left or right, it's similarly more effective than delving into a sub-screen, coming "up for air," and then going into another sub-screen, although some applications implement this more effectively than others.
The all-in-one phone
Whereas the iPhone revolutionized the smartphone market by providing near-infinite expandability through additional applications, Microsoft packages most of the core functionality one would want into the OS. Social media mainstays Facebook and Twitter are integrated tightly into the OS, with your contact list and social media feed integrated as a core function, rather than an afterthought as with Android and iOS.
Mapping and search are on par with competitors, and location-aware functions provide restaurant ratings and even Wi-Fi hotspots, although voice-driven navigation is absent and only available as a paid add-on. WP8 also includes a "personal sharepoint" of sorts, called "Rooms," where a group can share a calendar, message board, photos, or chat. While some functionality is available on the iPhone, WP8 is required for all functions. Microsoft pitches this as an ad hoc way for families and friends to share information, but it would be a quick and dirty way for a business team or external partner to share project information without the cost or hassle of a dedicated service.
While my cloud storage provider of choice, Dropbox, is notably absent, Microsoft's cloud storage service, SkyDrive, is well integrated and serves a far more obvious role than something like iCloud, while remaining cross-platform.
In short, I was surprised by the out-of-the-box level of integration provided by Windows Phone. I did miss some of my standby applications like The Wall Street Journal, but web versions were generally sufficient. I could see handing this phone to someone unaccustomed to smartphones and having them immediately productive. WP8 is the ultimate "charge it and get to work" device which, as we'll see, serves as both a major benefit and potential Achilles' heel.