Windows Phone 8's most exciting new features

Microsoft has unleashed the new version of its mobile operating system -- here's what to look out for.

Windows Phone 8 officially goes live today, with the first smart phones powered by Microsoft's new operating system -- such as the classy HTC 8X -- available to buy over the next few days. Here we round up the most interesting new features headed to this tile-centric operating system.

Rooms

Windows Phone 7 let customers collect their contacts into 'groups', making it dead simple to send messages to whole sets of people at a time. Windows Phone 8 brings 'Rooms', which takes 'groups' a step further. Using this feature you can set up a chatroom with a group of contacts, for easy instant messaging, as well as doing things like sharing a calendar or documents.

It remains to be seen how well this feature will work across platforms, but if you've got some pals who all use Windows Phone 8, this could be a promising app for staying in touch.

Kid's Corner

If you're a parent, chances are your young kids are always trying to get their mitts on your smart phone. Kid's Corner is a type of user account that you can customise, so your offspring can play games and otherwise muck about with your mobile without doing anything disastrous.

Accessed by swiping to the left from your lock screen, you select the apps and features you want your child to be able to see in Kid's Corner. The app store and in-app purchases are blocked in this mode, so your kids won't be able to drain your bank account, or at least, no more than usual. Web browsing is also prohibited.

To leave this app you just press the power button, which does mean your kids could easily hop out of the mode themselves. So watch out for that, parents.

Lenses

Windows Phone 8 gets built-in camera filters called 'Lenses'. These could be simple processing apps that turn your photos into sepia-hued efforts or apply Instagram-esque filters, or there's a Panorama mode for creating extra-long landscape snaps. Augmented reality apps will also fall under the 'Lenses' umbrella, as will camera-specific phone tricks like scanning barcodes or translating text from one language to another.

If your smart phone isn't touting enough camera filters, you can download new Lenses from the Windows Phone Store by tapping 'Find More Lenses' in the camera app.

Lock screen

The boring old lock screen has been given a revamp, and now displays pictures or information from apps. Facebook and Groupon are two examples, or you could have breaking news from a service like CNN on show when you go to unlock your phone. You'll be able to see a list of which apps can influence your lock screen in the settings menu.

Having widgets on your lock screen might not sound helpful, but could shave a second or two off your app-checking routine. You can also choose the order in which types of notifications appear at the bottom of the lock screen.

Offline maps

With Windows Phone 8, Microsoft has partnered with Nokia for its mapping features. One snazzy new tool is the ability to download maps for offline viewing. With the maps app open, press the 'more' button, then 'settings', 'download maps' and finally 'add' to make specific countries or regions available when you don't have an Internet connection.

Offline maps are already available on Android , but the addition is an invaluable one if you use your phone to find your way around town, as you won't find your urban orienteering hampered by a rubbish 3G signal.

Xbox Music

Microsoft has launched a Spotify-style streaming music service that will be available on a host of platforms, but will arguably feel most natural on its Windows Phone 8 smart phones.

To use the service on a smart phone you'll need to pay £8.99 per month, but this gets you unlimited streaming access to Microsoft's 30 million-plus music catalogue, as well as the ability to download tunes for offline listening.

New home screen

Microsoft's introducing a new homescreen for Windows Phone 8, that brings more live tiles on the screen at one time, as well as the ability to re-size individual tiles and arrange them into geometrically pleasing patterns.

This won't get you close to the kind of customisation available on Android, but it's a step forward, and makes for a buzzing, energetic screen that leaves Apple's iOS looking awfully static by comparison.

If you're using an older Windows Phone device then you'll also get access to this new homescreen, though an upgrade to the full version of Windows Phone 8 will remain out of your grasp, sadly.

Over the air updates

Windows Phone 8 lets you get new software over the air, without having to plug your smart phone into your computer. This is a minor change, but one that brings Windows Phone up to date with Android and iOS, and will spare countless headaches next time a software update is released.

Support for fancy hardware

This isn't a new software feature exactly, but Windows Phone 8 will play nice with a host of new, high-tech hardware. That means up to 1,280x768 pixel screen resolutions, support for dual, quad and octa-core processors and removable storage using microSD cards.

Not every Windows Phone 8 device will feature hardware this handsome, but hopefully we'll see some envelope-pushing smart phones arriving on the scene before too long.

What are your favourite features of Windows Phone 8? Do you think it has what it takes to beat Android and iOS? Tell me in the comments or on our Facebook wall.

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Software
About the author

Luke Westaway is a senior editor at CNET and writer/ presenter of Adventures in Tech, a thrilling gadget show produced in our London office. Luke's focus is on keeping you in the loop with a mix of video, features, expert opinion and analysis.

 

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