Windows Phone 8 Review: You're Not Perfect, But I Like You Anyway

Windows Phone 8 is better. Better than the auspicious mobile reimagining Microsoft trotted out in 2010, and better than the bag of promises it delivered last year. Those felt like betas compared to Android and iOS, a half-baked platform long on promise.

Has Windows Phone finally grown up? Well... sort of.

Windows Phone 8 Handsets Announced So FarWindows Phone 8 Review: You’re Not Perfect, But I Like You AnywayWindows Phone 8 Launch Live Blog: New Features, Killer Phones Nokia Lumia 920, 820 Australian Release Details

Why It Matters

Windows Phone has always been your best bet to break the two-party smartphone system, an almost-alternative to Android and iOS. It's been boldly imagined from the start, but has also felt incomplete. Random bits and blops haven't worked, absent features have grown more noticeable with time. Windows Phone 8 is the update that's supposed to fix all that, a fully realised vision that makes Windows Phone something you can safely recommend to your friends.

It matters, too, for Microsoft. Under its roof, PCs, tablets, phones, and Xbox Voltron together seamlessly. Outside of its house, not so much. Mass adoption of Windows Phone is a crucial part of that ecosystem's success. To this point, it's not even close.

Design

Windows Phone 8 looks like, well, Windows Phone. There are Live Tiles here instead of the standard app icons you're used to on other platforms. The tiles can show dynamic information; things like weather, sports scores, or recent tweets will update in real-time. Think of Live Tiles as halfway between app icons and widgets. Microsoft used to call this interface Metro (it's just the modern UI now), and it originated on Windows Phone.

So what looks new in Windows Phone 8? customisation. The start screen has been re-imagined, letting you make your Live Tiles smaller without losing their information-pushing abilities. It's a small change, but more control is almost always better. There are some other design flourishes, like the keys you press popping out in your accent colour, not plain grey, but the only other major one is the stripe of wasted space along the right side of the home screen is gone now — your tiles go edge-to-edge.

Using It

Microsoft and Google and Apple love to highlight all of the advanced new features they add to every operating system iteration. But when it comes down to it, what matters most are core, day-to-day uses, like how easy it is to find your notifications, read your favourite websites and find directions. On that front, Windows Phone 8 is mostly unchanged.

The biggest evolution in the Windows Phone experience is the start screen, which now has a smaller tile size, allowing you new heights of customisation. Because the small tiles retain their Live Tile abilities (e.g. displaying how many emails, messages or notifications you have without opening an app), you can shrink down boring functions (email, messages and phone) to make way for more visually interesting tiles. The basic idea is the same — a Live Tile tells you about an update, you tap it to see your messages, etc. It sounds like a small change, but it actually dramatically boosts the amount of information that you can fit on the screen.

Apps boot noticeably faster now, owing mainly to the relaxation of the hardware standards for the platform (our test device was dual-core, but WP8 supports up to 64 cores now). Aside from a few big exceptions like official Pocket, Instapaper and Instagram apps, you don't really find yourself wishing for more apps, but you do sorta wish the ones Microsoft has worked better. The third-party stuff is improved. Some have all new builds and designs for WP8, while others, like Facebook and Twitter, are more modest — though still improved — updates. But none of them runs as smoothly as WP8's first-party apps. That needs to change.

Overall, performance is fast, and touches like having all of your Facebook and Twitter notifications in one Me app, or having your entire communication history with individual friends accessible, aren't new to Windows Phone 8, but they're still nice to see.

Start Screen Live Tiles vs Widgets vs Icons

The first thing anyone notices about Windows Phone, and especially Windows Phone 8, is the home screen. It's different. It's functional and modern and it moves. But it's also a fundamentally different way to organise your information from iOS or Android.

The progression of the home screen is actually a pretty good bellwether for the state of apps in general on Windows Phone. In Windows 7 and 7.5, there were practically no good apps. Oh, there were a few decent finds in the Marketplace, and some of them would even load if you gave them enough time, but there weren't many that you'd actually want to use. That was partially the hardware's fault and partially the ecosystem's fault; the important thing is that it's largely fixed now, and as such the start screen has made room for more stuff on it. The result is awesome. But it also creates a predicament.

WP8 — like every Windows Phone before it — relies on one, continuous, alphabetised vertical scroll for app navigation. Just follow the arrow from your start screen to the right, and you'll see all your downloaded programs in a column that stretches from Angry Birds to YouTube. That's fine if your apps are limited, but as the WP ecosystem expands, it may have to evolve into something more like Windows 8's semantic zoom or — *shudder* — folders. We're not there yet though.

Live Tiles are also are intended to replace the idea of a notification centre. But having one place where you can tinker with important settings and see your notifications is a hugely powerful and convenient tool — especially when it's available from anywhere on your phone, without leaving your app. Leaning on your start screen to do all that means you've got to quit out of apps way more often than you should have to.

Like

The performance. Windows Phone 7 and 7.5 were locked in to such rigid specs — single core processor, 512MB RAM, 800x480 display resolution — that it was hard to squeeze a modern functionality out of any apps or features. For example, the HTC 8X we've been using has a 341ppi display. The Lumia 920 has a 326ppi display. Both look pristine in a way that Windows Phone handsets haven't been allowed to until now For the first time, Windows Phone isn't fighting with one hand tied behind its back.

Xbox Music is also really great. Here's a full rundown of Microsoft's new streaming service, but what's important here is that it's the real deal: Your streamed library and your local library are right there, in the same app. You can add more tracks from the Store — on your PC or your Phone — and in they go. No screwing with third-party Rdio or Spotify apps.

A lot of Windows Phone 8's other virtues are the same ones the platform has always enjoyed. But since no one uses Windows Phone, or, really, has even considered it, it's worth repeating the highlights.

The platform is rock solid. It's really, really hard to get it to crash, or even stutter (I only saw one hiccup over several days of testing). Compare that to iOS 6 and Android, which both freeze up with some regularity.

For what it's worth, WP 8 does get a lot of those little things right. The Lock Screen notifications, for instance, are very good. You'll get a Toast notification when something comes in, presenting a row of five possible icons. You can pick which service — phone, email, etc — goes where, and those updates will always be in the same place. Handy.

No Like

The flip side, predictably, reads like a trimmed-down version of everything lacking before. That's expected. What should be much more concerning is that a lot of Windows Phone's the-future-is-here features that blew the doors off of iOS and Android when they were announced now just look like sorta-OK versions of themselves.

Take Facebook chat and SMS integration. That was a wonderful addition when it was announced in Mango. Integrated communication hubs should be the goal for every mobile platform. But here, it's still imperfect. Incoming messages arrive just fine, but only messages sent from your handset show up on the phone — not ones sent from the web or a chat client. That was true in 7.5 as well, and is common to other chat clients, like OS X's Messages. But Android and iOS have extremely solid Facebook Messenger apps that perform this exact same function, without that hiccup.

It's not a huge deal. It's not. But it's indicative of a lot of WP7's innovations being surpassed by the competition. Windows Phone staked its existence, in large part, on being not quite as mature as iOS or Android, but having this-is-what's-next features that made up for it. Now it's just got sorta dumpy versions of what everyone else has. Things probably won't get better any time soon, too. NFC payment — on Isis — won't be here until next year. And Microsoft said that it won't be adding Google Talk to its chat integration in the near future, and the same probably goes for Foursquare. That leaves Windows Phone on par, more or less, with everyone else. That's not the worst thing in the world. But when you're playing from this far behind, it may not be enough.

Even the Settings menus is lacking. There is no easy way to turn off screen rotation, or adjust brightness, or do a bunch of other stuff that's relatively simple on other operating systems.

Beyond that, simple functions in first-party apps tough or impossible to execute. You can't like individual comments in threads, or load entire tweet chains. It's the same Windows Phone story; there are a bunch of little quibbles that just keep adding up.

Test Notes

  • A good bunch of the third-party apps are still a nightmare. They will just dump you out of them without warning, or refuse to let you navigate up or down. Even apps from some high-profile companies.
  • Maps are accurate — they're powered by Nokia Maps instead of Bing now — and did not send me anywhere I didn't want to go. You can also download an offline version of any area of the world to use when you don't have a connection. That's very useful. But unless you get a Lumia, you're going to have to wait a while for Nokia's transit and turn-by-turn features to make it to all Windows Phones. They're exclusive to Nokia for a while longer, which is a downer for everyone else.
  • Camera controls seem pretty good at first — resolution, white balance, exposure, contrast, saturation, sharpness, ISO. But our 8X didn't have great low light performance, and a processing-based night mode solution, like the iPhones, seems like it would go a long way.
  • The clients used to sync Windows Phone 8 with your computer are better than they had been. In the past, it was just up to the Zune client, and a half-baked Mac client that melted everyone's computers. Now, it's a much more attractive Metro app on Windows 8 that makes adding media really simple (click Add photos, and then select which you want to add), with the ability to access the file directories to side load stuff. There's also a rebuilt version of the old WIndows 7 Mac client, which is serviceable, if not mind-blowing.
  • Kid's Corner works more or less as Microsoft claims it should. You can pin stuff in a secondary start screen, so you can hand your phone to a kid without him getting at all your sexts. It's nice, and has all of its bases covered as far as what's not allowed in, and not letting the kids slip into your half of the phone. If this is a problem you face, you should use this.
  • For an added bonus, subscribing to podcasts actually works now. For a long time, that was a joke feature. You'd press the button and nothing would happen. It's now as good as any other podcast solution out there.

  • Local Scout is still dumb as a sack of hammers. Last year, it was sending us to stores and restaurants that were closed. Understandable for a new feature, but this year it's doing the same. It lists Bowery Mission, a homeless shelter, under Bars & Pubs and Breweries & Pubs. For local events near the Gizmodo office, it tried to send me to two separate New Year's Eve 2011 parties.
  • Rooms — Microsoft's group-chat and planning feature — is another thing I'd love to tell you about. But I can't, because even though I sent out invitations to several of my friends, no one would join my Room. If they had, they would have been able to share the calendar events and notes, but couldn't have used group chat, since that goes through MSN chat protocols, and is exclusive to Windows Phone. On one hand, you can argue that it's just a better version of iMessage. And that's true to a point, but message systems are only as strong as the number of users they have. In all likelihood, Rooms will mostly serve to remind you how few of your family and friends actually use these things.
  • When clicking through a link on Bing search, some full websites load, even though navigating to them manually loads the mobile site. Not ideal.
  • NFC aside, the Wallet feature is a compelling way to store your payment data for any purchases you make using your phone. It syncs up credit cards, PayPal and other payment types across your Microsoft account. However, we couldn't get the deals feature of it to load anything, despite repeated attempts. That might have been because we were using a European phone in the States, but we have nothing to report besides emptiness.
  • We've seen integrated Skype calling and messaging in action (the Skype contact is built right into the People app), but we couldn't get a build to test ourselves. But from what we saw, you can sync up you Skype account to let anyone call your phone over VoIP, and call quality was decent.
  • IE10 is actually pretty good in Windows 8. But the phone version — different than the RT and Windows 8 versions — is not nearly as full-featured as its big brothers.
  • The dynamic lock screen is another of those nice little touches. It pulls a new photo from somewhere like Bing or Facebook every day (you can set where Facebook gets its photos), so your lock screen is always fresh. It's a small addition, but one that makes your phone feel a little fresher.
  • Microsoft also announced a new feature called Data Sense that compresses web pages while on cellular networks, and shifts workloads to Wi-Fi when available. It's supposed to help people on limited data plans conserve bandwidth. We didn't get a chance to test it on our device though.
  • Should You Buy This

    Well, maybe. Measured against its previous iterations, Windows Phone 8 is an unabashed success. But running a mile faster than you did last week doesn't make you an Olympian. Android Jelly Bean and iOS 6 have both improved since last year as well. It's a crowded field at the top, one that Microsoft still hasn't quite pushed its way into.

    If your phone is chiefly a communication device that you use for information and updates, and you want as little interference as possible, then yes, check out a Windows Phone. The hardware is good, and WP8 does the basics. For most people, that's honestly probably enough.

    But if you love all the niceties of a fully mature ecosystem — the Instagrams and Reeders and all the other startups that will not be building a WP app first, or any time soon — and a platform that's hammered out most of its kinks, Windows Phone probably still isn't there. Someday, maybe. But not this round.


    Comments

      Silly question, Kyle have you used and tested WP8, if so; for how long?

      Kyle I'm just wondering about the experience you have for this review.

      Have you used and tested WP8, if so for how long?

      I don't see how it's warranted to remove my comment.

      Well, Windows Phone 8 will only mature as people jump in on the gorund floor.

      I'm happy to help there. Completely over iOS and I can't stand Android. Happy to be a guinea pig on this one for once.

        Same story here, iOS is boring and Android will never mature. Will get HTC as soon as possible.

      Even if you don't use your phone as a "primary communication device" I'm sure it will be fine. Sure it may not have foursquare, or whatever google chat is, lulz, never even heard of that before, can't be that good, but it still has decent intergration with most of the primary actually used social services and apps and looks a lot nicer doing it, without having to have multiple apps open all the time.

      Lastly, I'm sure using the windows phone software on a mac is about as good as using itunes on a pc.

      Last edited 30/10/12 12:22 pm

      Personally I really love the alphabetised list thing. It means you can get to *any* app with one swipe and three taps. On my N95 I used to take some care with how I positioned and organised my apps in folders and on the main menu, but that was only because it was necessary to do so in order to get to what I wanted fast. This way, it's either pinned to Start as a quarter-size tile or it's opened in one swipe and three taps. :D

      Otherwise I agree with most of the review (not that I've used WP8 :D) except for one bit: whether it's worth buying. IMHO Kyle, you overestimate the requirements of most people. For 99% of the things 95% of people use their phones for, WP7.5 (and I presume WP8) is better. Most people don't need to be at the vanguard of tech, they just want it to be a solid and convenient communications device. That's WP through and through! ^_^

      Looking at getting a Lumia 920 sometime later this year/early next year.
      My iphone 4 is a hulking pile of crap.

      Sounds a bit like my experience with Metro on Windows 8 (desktop) some interesting stuff that would be cool if it worked properly (messaging for example).

        @Chise - messaging doesn't always work for me either. But a good alternative that's currently free in the app marketplace is "IM+". It has the added benefit of actually being able to connect to a whole host of other instant messaging protocols and works perfectly.

          Checking out IM+ now, thanks for the tip.

      I used my HTC Mozart from launch day until just recently and my first impression was that it was a fantastic OS for a phone but after a while you start to see the bugs and issues and things that it lacks

      Almost all of the marketplace is absolute shovelware at best and this doesn't really look to be improving which is a problem.

      Prior to this I used (limited use at that) an iPhone which I just didn't enjoy using hence the quick switch to WP7.

      WP7.5 certainly improved the phone quite a bit but I thought I'd give an Android device a shot as my contract was almost over and it would be too long to wait for a WP8 device so I picked the SIII which I have enjoyed quite alot.

      With all of that being said, I still think the Windows Phone is a good operating system but it does need to improve in many areas. WP8 seems to have improved a few things but overall it is pretty lack luster.

      I still have my Mozart and use it for work (I prefer the Windows Phone in a working environment to Android/iOS still) and my SIII for personal use but right now, I prefer the Android OS overall.

      Still interested to see how Windows Phone evolves though

      Isn't progress wonderful.
      Who'd of thought 20 years ago that we'd be able to describe our bowel movements in real time to friends vast distances away.
      How did we ever get by without sms?

      Concerning the built in 'apps'. I always thought that Microsoft did the basic kind of app because of the competition issue they went through in the past. They provided a basic of what you need but if you wanted more, then you go out and get it? At least that is what I thought.

      Last edited 30/10/12 1:52 pm

      Metro didn't originate on Windows Phone, it originated on the Zune HD.

      I understand a lack of apps will concern people... and when you have a lot of apps, the vertical scrolling can be off putting...but really - do people have nothing better to do than download app after app after app, and then use them all on a regular basis?

      If this describes you, I think your problem is ADHD, NOT a lack of apps or an easy way to navigate them (even though it IS easy)

      Just saying - list how many apps you would use on a regular basis. I'm sure that you could fit ALL of them on the start screen, and if they support LIVE tiles, you would never need to keep searching for information over and over again

      i watch porn and save porn once in awhile, as a healthy teenager of course. should i be worried that a preview or website i just visited shows up on my tiles? just saying.

        Just turn the live tile function off for that app/program. Porn problem solved!

      Considering changing from iOS.

      Facebook - check.
      Twitter - check.
      YouTube - check.
      Spiceworks - no native app yet, but HTML site available.
      Shazam - on the way, and there are alternatives.

      Missing only two apps I need on the go - Dropbox and LogMeIn. Once they get WP versions I'll be right. Everything else I can either replace with something similar, go without or get an iPod Touch. The vast majority of my music is MP3 or AIFF as well, so not much iTunes lock-in (except for my DAAS album - nooo!).

        I have Shazam on my WP7, and it works really really well, even integrating with xbox music!

        Skydrive is much better than dropbox anyway, tons more room.
        There is a youtube app, but since I usually am only looking at videos from sites, I use the HTML5 browser and it's fine anyway.
        Facebook/twitter apps are fine, but the 'people' built in app is far better.

        This is all experience from wp7 btw.

        Last edited 30/10/12 7:52 pm

        I'm debating a Lumina 920 and iPod 5, best of both worlds.

      Can't wait to change over from the iPhone as soon as Telstra makes this available. And seeing how I've had apple replace my iPhone 4S twice under warranty, getting Telstra to cancel my contract without penalty and startup a new 24-month plan with the Lumia 920 will not be hard. Still need careful timing though.

      About Win8 and WinPho8 apps - it'll be interesting to see how the common back-end will enable developers to develop the same app for the single platform. The old app stalwarts might drag their feet, but this sure does open up the environment to mature desktop app devs who might actually surprise us all with their innovation and creativity.

      Looks like WP8 has one of the most disgustingly bad interfaces. The lack of capitalisation, use of colours, tonnes of wasted space in apps, object style (bland rectangles) and lack of basic displays such as battery life and signal strength screams work-in-progress amateur hour at DeviantArt.
      I can understand that Microsoft has to make their operating system look different from the rest, if only they could make it look less horrible.

        Don't worry, soon little Johny Ives is going to remove all that leather and stitching from your beloved iOS. He will do so by ripping of WP8. Which looks fucken amazing.

        Cunt.

      Just want to say that the negativ punchline in this article is not valid.

      Instagram will come to Windows Phone.

      http://www.theverge.com/2012/9/10/3307889/instagram-windows-phone-app-nokia-video

      I was at the event, and the head of Windows Phone Australia said that they are in talks with Instagram to bring the app to the WP8 market, about 60% chance before the end of the year. Most likely next year though due to time constraints and the size of the team.

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