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Windows Phone 8 review: Windows Phone comes of age at last

Microsoft's latest OS update closes the gap between iOS and Android, but Windows Phone still isn't fully formed.

Jessica Dolcourt Senior Director, Commerce & Content Operations
Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Commerce & Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Commerce, How-To and Performance Optimization. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica began leading CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
Expertise Content strategy, team leadership, audience engagement, iPhone, Samsung, Android, iOS, tips and FAQs.
Jessica Dolcourt
17 min read

Windows Phone 8 makes significant changes while remaining true to its core. It's sharp, colorful, clean, and simple, but also hip and a bit exuberant. New features include a surge of NFC actions, greater customization, and a heavy peppering of more-minor additions and adjustments; yet it's the tile-based interface that continues to be the operating system's most distinctive and defining characteristic. On the whole, Windows Phone 8 is a worthy refresh, and one that gives Microsoft's mobile platform the boost it needs to compete against Android and iOS.


Windows Phone 8

The Good

<b>Windows Phone 8</b> closes major gaps by bringing support for HD screens, multicore processors, and NFC. Other software additions, like Kid's Corner and camera app tie-ins, are also welcome.

The Bad

Microsoft's mobile OS still trails the competition when it comes to default voice navigation, basic camera features, and the quantity and quality of its apps. Voice actions are hit or miss.

The Bottom Line

Windows Phone 8 is absolutely worth using, especially if you enjoy a simpler, bolder interface. However, if you need a robust app selection now, stick with the more fully formed Android and iOS.

Yet for all its strengths, there is no one exciting, standout feature that will get people talking, or that will make you itch to pick up a Windows Phone device if you weren't already interested before. That's because in Windows Phone 8, Microsoft mostly plays catch-up to Android and iOS by muscling up faster processing power, high-definition screen capability, and support for expandable memory. Closing the chasm is a good thing; it's exactly what Microsoft needed to do. But what we're left with is a unique-looking OS that still lacks some key features and offers only a few truly innovative contributions to lure new customers on other platforms.

Although Microsoft still has some work to do, Windows Phone 8 has the potential to power compelling devices that will for the most part meet a smartphone user's demands. A strong roster of handsets is already in the making, starting with the Nokia Lumia 920 and the HTC Windows Phone 8X.

Editors' note: Microsoft scattered a lot of little changes throughout the OS. In this review, I cover the most major additions.

HTC Windows Phone 8X camera hands-on (pictures)

See all photos

Start screen
Ironically, Windows Phone 8's most identifying feature isn't limited to the OS at all. The worked-over Start screen, with its wider footprint and resizable live tiles, also bedecks earlier Windows phones that received the 7.8 OS update.

Windows Phone 8 Start screen, resizable live tiles
Choose small, medium, or large sizes for the new Windows Phone Start screen. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Regardless, the Start screen change helps moves the OS forward. Cycling through the trio of live tile sizes (some only have two sizing options) is easy enough to keep almost any interface-Goldilocks happy, and if the screen gets overwhelmingly busy, I suppose you have only yourself to blame. I do miss some of the space between live tiles that separates organization from chaos. In addition, and a little more control over individual tile colors would help break up the monochromatic monotony of mostly red or blue tiles, for instance, but I welcome the plethora of new theme colors (at least 20, depending on your phone) and the heightened customization.

Windows Phone 8, WP8, WinPho8
Now you can jazz up the lock screen with Groupon offers, the weather forecast, or social networking updates. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Here's a nice addition: you can now choose a dynamic lock screen background that offers useful information at a glance. Groupon deals, Facebook updates, and, on the Windows Phone 8X, the HTC weather widget, are favorites so far.

Kid's Corner
Raise your hand if you've ever handed your phone to a kid to entertain him or her. Mine's up, too. Microsoft built in a progeny-friendly profile of sorts that gives kids basic control over theme colors and what they want to open.

Kids Corner lock screen and content
Kid's Corner has its own lock screen (left) and adult-approved apps, songs, and games. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Adults choose the games, apps, music, and videos that pin to the Kid's Corner -- none of which includes a Web browser or dialer -- and if you have a lock screen enabled, munchkins can't get back to the guts of the device.

With a locked phone and Kid's Corner enabled, swipe left from the lock screen to unlock it as you would your own profile. Without a lock screen, you can launch Kid's Corner from an app.

Stuff you can do with NFC
Tap + Send was one new addition I was most excited to try. The built-in NFC protocol means you can tap NFC phones to share contacts, URLs, Word documents, photos, song titles, and video with other Windows Phone 8 or NFC-enabled Windows 8 devices.

Yet you can't simply tap two devices together; you have to go through the menu, then sharing options to select "Tap + Send." It works fine, but Android's method of touching backs, then pressing to accept, is easier and faster since it requires fewer steps. Share between two Windows phones and you get the gratification of chirping sounds and vibration as NFC works its magic. Incidentally, I was also able to share a URL with the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, but not photos. I haven't yet tested NFC sharing with any other non-Windows device.

Tap + Send
Tap + Send starts with the Share button, and ends with bumping together two NFC-ready devices. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Wireless charging and pairing devices are two other very promising uses I've seen in demos, and I was able to test it with the Nokia Lumia 920, which boasts built-in wireless charging through the Qi standard. It worked pretty well, though maybe wasn't quite as quick as plugging a charger directly into the phone.

So why use it? Once you set up the wireless charging pad (which itself has to be plugged in), you can drop the phone onto the pad to immediately top up the battery. No messing with the cables or reaching down to plug in a wall socket. I set it up on my desk and tucked the pad's cord behind my computer, so that the pad (and not the cable) is the surface I see.

Wireless charging on the Nokia Lumia 920
The wireless charging dongle charges phones fairly quickly and eliminates where's-my-charger anxiety. Josh Miller/CNET

NFC is also synonymous with mobile payments, and when it finally catches on, Windows Phone will be ready. If the carrier enables it and if there's a compatible point-of-sale terminal, you'll be able to use your phone as a virtual wallet to sign off on paying for goods.

So far, Microsoft's stab at NFC is off to a good start, but I would like to see even more content enter the sharing bubble: all OneNote notes (not just audio notes), podcast tags, and directions.

Even if you can't find any vendors that accept NFC payments, you can still use Microsoft's new wallet, starting with the engine to find local deals. Right now, Living Social is all that was enabled so far, and the offers I saw were bizarre Living Social deals that weren't actually local. That's strange to me, because I receive Living Social alerts for San Francisco on other mobile phones. I hope Microsoft works out this kink.

If you're planning to link a credit card to purchase content, the wallet is one good way to do it. I also added the information for my public transit card. It was tedious as you might imagine, and although I could snap a picture to identify the card, all I really wanted to do was store a photo of my card's serial number that I could reference later. That should also be an option. Of course, an OCR reader that accurately transcribed images to text would be the best.

New wallet app in Windows Phone 8
Windows Phone 8's new wallet app. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The benefit of going whole hog and adding those details one by one is the potential for your bank's app and others to hook into your card and add richer information and services. At the time of this review, developers still haven't had a chance to code these extras yet, but I do hope they arrive soon.

In a similar vein, the upcoming Fast Cards in the wallet will filter out the payment cards that you can use for NFC payment, so they'll be ready in a tap. It's a great implementation in theory.

A small but useful feature is downloading Nokia maps for offline use. It's a little fussy to find and set up, and maps download by state or region. That's great for traveling abroad, but not so hot when all you'd really like to do is download directions you just looked up, or save the map you have on your screen.

Screenshots of maps will work, but it'd be great to store downloaded maps in the maps app, rather than have to root through your camera roll to find your photo. Still, gift horse...mouth. Map downloads are a unique platform addition, and one I hope that Microsoft and Nokia will continue to build.

Voice-to-text, voice commands
Voice dictation is a mobile OS necessity, one that Microsoft enhances in Windows Phone 8. However, voice-to-text is inconsistent to use, it isn't always accurate, and it doesn't understand punctuation. To me, that adds up to hit-or-miss usability, especially when the fight between Siri and Google Voice Actions is so fierce, and Google appears to be winning, even on iOS.

Here's an example. Voice notes come to OneNote in Windows Phone 8. Press and hold the Start button from any screen, say "Note," and start talking. If you tweak the settings, it will also work from the lock screen. I wish you luck; the Microsoft TellMe voice recognition engine didn't recognize or transcribe correctly, and entered the word "period" when I wanted the symbol. It's clearly better for short notes, rather than bullet-point lists and lengthy e-mails.

Third-party voice commands at work in Audible
Third-party voice commands at work in Audible. Sometimes it worked better than others. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Making matters more confusing, OneNote has a voice input button in the app. But if you use that, you're only entering an audio file, not translating the spoken work into type.

Google does offer its search app (with voice search) in the Microsoft store, so there's your workaround if you'd like it.

Voice dictation works as advertised in the e-mail and text message composition windows, but with the same punctuation and comprehension issues. Shorter, well-enunciated speaking is more successful.

In June, Microsoft demonstrated how third-party developers could plug voice commands into their apps. They used Audible, the audiobook app, to show how it's done. I similarly tried a test version of Audible for reviewers, but the experience was buggy. Commands only worked part of the time, usually to play and pause. I was able to skip ahead a chapter as well.

Where I ran into trouble was when Audible didn't hear me, or didn't understand my command. Once I saw that yellow error message on the screen, no amount of rebarking orders would get the app back on track.

The feature is a great idea, but I hope it works better in real-life situations than it did in this reviewer's release software.

On the whole, Microsoft does a good job with the Bing app, which gains some enhancements in the form of recommendations for places and things that are either popular or endorsed by your Facebook friends.

For example, if you're looking for a restaurant or activity nearby, Bing will call out the cafe that your friends like before it shows you an unknown spot. The new For You panel in Local Scout follows this principle as well.

Bing suggest
Bing now guides you like never before. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Another addition I do like is the deeper context in the Bing app home screen. Swipe right to see more panels like new movies, top headlines, and local deals. It'd be great to see more than just one example for each category before the OS drives you to load a new page to see them all.

Search results categories also get slightly beefier, gaining shopping and video in addition to photos, local, and Web results. You mostly won't notice the new features, but they do add to the app.

Camera app
The best new feature to come to multimedia is one that's going to take developers to catch on, but it's one of Windows Phone 8's truly innovative features.

Windows Phone 8 adds cropping, rotation
Windows Phone 8's photo-editing tools add cropping and rotation. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

In the camera app, you can choose "lenses" that act like effects. Bing Vision, the bar code scanner and media reader, is loaded by default. CNN has the only other lens option so far, but downloading it didn't bring up the option in the lenses area. It will take some time for developers to add lenses to the camera. Ultimately, the feature's success will depend on the devs.

Microsoft has also added some long-awaited editing tools. Cropping and rotating photos joins auto-fixing, but where's panorama? How about color correction, straightening, red-eye reduction, and the rest? Yes, there are apps for that (HTC gives you one it its phones,) but Microsoft really could have taken integrated editing a step further by weaving other common editing tools into the photo app, as they are in stock Android 4.0 and above. Microsoft would actually offer the advantage there, since many Android manufacturers don't actually use those editing tools.

Pinch-to-zoom in the camera viewfinder is another better-late-than-never addition.

Microsoft's new music store
Fly the flag and play "Taps": Zune is dead. Taking its place is the extremely similar Xbox Music Store and subscription to stream and download songs at will.

The Music Pass is free for 30 days, then costs $10 per month after that, or about $100 for the year. It works on Windows 8 PC and Xbox 360. In Windows Phone 8, it means that any music connected to your Microsoft ID is stored in the cloud and accessible anywhere else. You'll also be able to download songs to save bandwidth (huzzah!) if you'd rather not stream.

Of the three major changes to hit Windows Phone gaming, multicore processing is the most hidden. Microsoft also fills the gap by offering in-app gaming purchases. We'll start seeing those crop up in games as developers weave in the code.

Windows Phone 8 Games Hub
Gaming in Windows Phone 8. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Like Android and iOS counterparts, Windows Phone users will also get Xbox SmartGlass, a cool app that turns your smartphone (or tablet) into a second screen where you can grab extra context about what you're watching, and in some instances, use the phone as a sort of controller. One example: quickly looking up the cast of a movie you're watching. While there's no singular advantage for Windows Phone owners, it's a good app for Xbox console owners to get.

Since I'm Xbox-less, I wasn't able to test SmartGlass features yet, but rest assured that CNET will get its hands all over it in due time. In the meantime, this First Look video shows you some of what you'll find.

Nokia phone owners will get exclusive access to Angry Birds Roost and first crack at Words with Friends.

Rooms versus groups
There are a few differences between the People Hub's Groups and Rooms. Notably, Rooms offers instant messaging for all participants, plus access to a common calendar, shared photos and video, and notes. Hooray? I'm still not sure why Microsoft needed to create an entirely new silo, rather than fold these features into Groups.

Rooms in the People Hub
Rooms, in the People Hub, is similar to Groups. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

VoIP folded in
Over the summer, Microsoft detailed how WP8 can place and accept VoIP calls from third-party apps into the dialer and contacts, so long as developers work this into their apps.

Microsoft's Skype is the perfect testing example, and in fact, you'll see my first impressions here. The gist is that Skype for Windows Phone 8 is a separate app you'll have to download through the Windows Phone Store, not one that's already integrated into the dialer.

It takes incoming calls through the dialer and plops contacts in the address book, but you won't be able to directly place a call from the same address book; you'll have to first open the Skype app.

Internet Explorer 10
Parity in the browser is one way that Microsoft keeps Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 looking and feeling like part of the same ecosystem. IE10 for the phone means you can say hello to multitouch for pinching and zooming, and Redmond reintroduced find-in-page search. Both are eminently useful and overdue.

Like its desktop counterpart, the phone weaves the SmartScreen filter into the browser to warn you of malicious Web sites. IE10 also gets greater HTML5 support, and Microsoft claims that JavaScript is up to seven times faster in WP8 than in Windows Phone 7.5. In addition, one crashy browser tab shouldn't take down the entire browser.

IE 10 in Windows Phone 8
Internet Explorer 10 adds greater HTML5 support, but getting to tabs is a little bit of work. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Web surfing was fast and accurate, but this time around I felt like something was missing. Although Windows Phone 8 supports tabs, I wish I could navigate among them without leaving the screen. Today, you have to go to the menu, then press the tabs button to see your tabby thumbnails. In the future, I'd prefer for the app to carry on the Windows 8 metaphor of swiping down to see tab thumbnails, or swiping left and right to cycle through them, in addition to pulling them from the menu or some other onscreen control.

There is a buried workaround where you can swap out the stop/fresh button in exchange for tab control, but Microsoft needs to join the party in offering an easy button- or gesture-based way to manage tabs without losing any other essential feature.

Although Microsoft and I aren't on the exact same page when it comes to tab management, I do give it credit for its plan to give users a break on their data bill. Launching this holiday season, Data Sense is a compression engine that will squeeze down your data load on the back end. It's optional, but the idea is that it'll deliver pages faster and shave down the MB size. In addition, it'll track your data consumption, so you can keep tabs on approaching limits.

According to Microsoft's figures, turning on Data Sense gets you 45 percent more Web sites per data allotment. Verizon will get it first, followed by other carriers in 2013. Compressing data isn't new; the Opera browser has been offering the same functionality for years. If you do use it, image quality usually takes a hit, but that's the trade-off for trimming down your use and cranking up delivery speeds.

Other cool new features
There's more to find within Windows Phone 8. We talked about voice-to-text in OneNote, but another new perk is that it's now its own app. I love being able to easily add bullet points and check boxes, and format notes. I would like to link notes to reminders, and maybe to its own alarm, but for creating a shopping list, it's tops.

As someone whose job description includes taking screenshots, finally getting this on Windows Phone 8 has been terrific. It's easy and reliable -- just press the start and power buttons -- and screenshots wind up where they should. I hated the shutter sound, so I disabled it in the sound settings under "camera shutter."

OneNote takes great notes
I love taking notes in OneNote. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Windows Phone 8 doesn't come with turn-by-turn directions, but Microsoft says you'll be able to open companion apps that tell you where to go from within the Maps app.

One of Microsoft's most important additions is backing up your phone to the cloud and restoring it if things go wrong. You'll choose the backup option as you set up your phone, and you can reach backup controls from the settings. WP8 can back up your apps list, text messages, configuration, and photos.

WP8 also taps the cloud for over-the-air-updates.

Windows core: Sharing is caring
In addition to some shared Internet Explorer details, Windows Phone 8 can benefit from a shared Windows core with Windows 8. Right away, you'll notice that photos, music, and Office 2013 apps sync effortlessly through the cloud.

I was able to compose a Word document on the Microsoft RT tablet and pick up where I left off on the phone, and vice versa.

Full device encryption is another benefit for the security-minded. Microsoft also promised that developers would be able to port Windows 8 apps easily to Windows Phone 8, since the two use many of the same developer tools.

The code you can't see
Some of the best Windows Phone features are the ones you can't see. Lines of code make it possible to use faster dual-core processors in this next batch of phones, and to top them with HD screens.

Software also accounts for removable storage support, a feature that's been blocked on Windows phones from the very beginning. Thanks to Windows Phone 8 engineers, we'll also see over-the-air-updates. The first three especially help keep the platform in the competition.

And of course...
So far I've highlighted what's new and notable in Windows Phone 8, but let's not forget what the OS has brought to the table all along: a bold, clean design that doesn't look like anything else, and a penchant for simplicity.

Virtual keyboard
It may not seem spacious, but it's sensitive. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Windows Phone retains one of the most sensitive and accurate virtual keyboards I've ever used. It's so good that for the most part, the phone's screen size isn't an issue. Integrated voice actions, podcasts, and a shopping scanner app put often-used tools at your fingertips. Task switching and visual voice mail (operator-specific) are onboard as well.

I especially appreciate Microsoft's efforts with built-in music ID and with SmartDJ, which works like Pandora to mix up songs in your collection. The Xbox Music subscription is where it will really shine, because the service can also stream tracks from the entire Xbox catalog, whether you own it or not.

What about the apps?
Windows Phone 0S has a lot more than you might think, about 120,000 as of the last official tally. Microsoft proudly proclaims that they offer 46 of the 50 most popular apps, with updates and new additions in the near future. Pandora, for instance, will finally arrive in 2013, and will be free for all Windows Phone 8 users for a year.

Although the quantity of apps is high enough to satisfy, there's still a question about the programs' quality. Some look terrific, and are optimized for Windows Phone. Others only offer a shell of an app and shunt you to the service's mobile Web site. The Audible e-book store is one such example. Not only is this a clunky experience, it also smacks of laziness, sloppiness, and a lack of investment in the Windows Phone ecosystem.

I'll give individual developers a pass on this, but for big-time companies with resources to spare, the mobile Web treatment is embarrassing, and that's Microsoft's problem.

If you're curious, yes, you'll be able to draw from all Windows Phone 7 apps on a Windows 8 phone.

Devil in the details
Removing roadblocks to must-have hardware puts Windows Phone in the best market position it's ever enjoyed, helped by sexy, powerful debut devices like the HTC Windows Phone 8X and Nokia Lumia 920.

Windows Phone 8 app installation
Hope you like hopscotch. You'll be jumping back and forth from the app screen to the store if you install multiple apps at once. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Microsoft gets a lot right by reversing major omissions, but there are still plenty of spots where the more mature iOS and Android clearly win. The app store is still missing several major apps, there's no default for voice navigation (though there are hooks into third-party apps,) and it's clear that Microsoft can't quit efforts to win developer confidence. Moreover, Microsoft doesn't control video and TV rentals and sales yet (that's coming up), still a strong contrast to Android and iOS.

I'm also frustrated by admittedly tiny rough edges that I feel Microsoft should have finally addressed this time around, things like downloading multiple apps in one session without getting kicked to the Start screen after every installation.

Or how about the "no-duh" integration of actually providing a link to the music or podcast section of the app store when first loading music and podcasts onto a blank phone. That would be heaps more useful than telling new customers they have to plug in the phone to side-load music, or expecting them to go back one to find the link.

Little usability errors like this are easy enough to block and don't overshadow all the good that Microsoft has wrought. But they do add up systemwide, and annoying the user is the last thing any OS maker wants.

How Windows Phone 8 stands against Android, iOS
Before this release, Windows Phone was best for first-time smartphones users, people who were sick of iOS and Android, and those who loved the design-centered aesthetic so long as they didn't require extensive customization or access to hundreds of thousands of apps. The answer is still true today, but now the audience includes a more tech-savvy set who won't have to worry about compromising processing power, NFC actions, and syncing with a future Windows 8 tablet or PC.

As it stands now, Microsoft commands less than 10 percent of the mobile market, but this refreshed Windows Phone has more brawn than ever before to do battle with iOS and Android. We'll need some powerful phones to support it, but the Nokia Lumia 920 and HTC Windows Phone 8X offer hope of good things to come.

Not everything is flawless, and I've pointed out some of Windows Phone 8's more scraggly edges. Yet, if you've been waiting for Windows Phone to come of age, there's very little to hold you back.

In some ways, Windows Phone 8 can do better improving features left underdeveloped the first two times around. Competition in the space is fiercer and the stakes are higher. There are no more excuses for an inchoate platform off to a promising start; Microsoft in its third pass must get aggressive, meeting every major rival feature and surpassing more-mature platforms with new capabilities.

Android's openness still has the most to satisfy tinkerers, and phone-makers like Samsung, HTC, and LG offer the most expansive custom features, like dozens of motion controls, distinctive media-sharing apps, and handwriting with a stylus. For its part, iOS is still king of intuitive simplicity and a huge and very robust content store.

As before, Windows Phone sits comfortably in between, offering more customization than iOS, but more consistent uniformity than Android. The OS hasn't quite shed its awkward youthfulness, but it is growing into a powerful, clever ecosystem with a personality of its own.


Windows Phone 8

Score Breakdown

Features 8Interface 8Performance 8