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

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
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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
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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
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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.

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