The first thing you notice when you fire up Windows Phone 8 for the first time is how unique and unlike its two main competitors (Android and Apple) WP8 really is. This new operating system is a bold step forward for Microsoft and in many ways for all mobile platforms. I know you can skin Android devices however the manufacturer and to a lesser extent the user wants, but as an iPhone user for six years I’m really, really tired of the blandness of iOS. I want some pizazz, some innovation, and some oomph. For good or bad, WP8 delivers these in spades.
Microsoft’s new UI is called Metro and it is making its way to all of their other products – Windows, Xbox, etc. Why not? The big, customizable tiles are eye-catching and colorful. I can see some people complaining that all the tiles and “blinking” make the phone look too busy, but I like the combination of the red and blue. However if you don’t like the default theme, you can customize it in numerous ways. WP8 is very fluid, smooth, and surprisingly responsive.
You can set your screen however you like by holding the tile or app and just sliding it into place. You can do single or multiple smaller tiles in a “block”. However you can only choose between three tile sizes – large, medium, and small. Things get a little bit messy once you click into an application, as the beautiful tile motif goes away in favor of fairly bland text interfaces for your applications. I wish the slick tile look were maintained throughout the UI.
Getting around the phone is very simple. There are three buttons at the bottom: a back arrow to go back, a Windows icon that takes you to the home screen, and a search button that brings up your default search engine (Bing is set by default, but you can choose another one).
Live tiles automatically display updated information onto your home screen and provide an interesting way of managing notifications. This feature is similar to how iOS handles it with the badges, only WP8 is a little more intuitive and visually interesting. I’m one who doesn’t receive a lot of calls and doesn’t play with social media all that often so it works perfectly fine for me. I can see it getting annoying if you have 10 applications on your home screen and they all are providing a constant stream of updates.
The search function seems a bit messy to me, as it just appears to lump all the results in one place. When I’m looking for an app like a voice recorder for Windows Phone 8 it takes a shotgun approach to delivering results, lumping in websites and apps for non-compatible devices. As annoying as the iTunes store is, at least I know I’m only going to get apps when I search for them. I wish there was a dropdown or check box that allowed me to say I only want to search an app market, the web, or both. This even happens when you search in the Microsoft App store.
People and Contacts
The default People tile on the phone is very slick and nice. Once set up it automatically pulls in your social feed from various social networks including Twitter and Facebook. You can easily view all your contacts and friend lists. There’s a neat little tab called “Together” that allows you to set up private rooms for your friends so you can connect directly to people for chat sessions, photo sharing, calendar, etc. I like being able to jump right into this from the default home screen setup.
While it is feature-rich, you have to hunt and peck to find the group and room features. This is probably done so you don’t accidently make your photos, calendars, and other personal content viewable to people you don’t expressly invite into your little “club.”
It is Microsoft, people; of course there will be some Office goodness. The phone includes very nice integration with Office Live. All the apps you’d expect to be here are included including WP8 versions of Word, OneNote, Excel and PowerPoint. Not much to say here – the apps work and integrate well with regular desktop Office.
SmartGlass and Xbox
The integration between WP8 and the Xbox shows where Microsoft wants to take all of its devices in the future. Uniformed integration is the key phrase here. Launching the Xbox application tile brings up an exact duplicate of your Xbox. All of your apps, friend lists, and achievements are mirrored on your phone, pulled from your Xbox Live profile. This is only going to get more seamless with the fall release of the Xbox One – especially as it relates to getting games from the app store.
The holy grail of gaming has always been the ability to start a game on your console and easily continue playing on the go. Gamers have been promised this ability with every generation of portable game devices. Now with WP8 for Microsoft and Android for Sony, I think we may finally see this become a reality for the next generation of games.
My four-year-old Microsoft remote suddenly stopped working for no apparent reason. I got so upset I threw it against a wall in frustration. OK, I have anger management issues. Then I remembered, wait, I have a Windows Phone and SmartGlass. Here’s where the gushing starts. SmartGlass is just a really amazing little concept.
It is essentially a built-in remote control for your Xbox 360. I had it set up and running in about two minutes. Assuming your Xbox and Phone are on the same network and you have the SmartGlass setting turned on (on your Xbox), SmartGlass will automatically find and pair itself with your network. No messy looking up of codes, or overly complicated setups. It is a beautiful thing to use. You can literally control your entire Xbox by swiping and pressing on the phone.
The one thing that annoys me, a bit, is that the screen becomes a blank pad when navigating. However, this isn’t entirely bad because you should be looking at your TV when making selections anyway. The phone is just an input device.
Theoretically SmartGlass will be used for more than simply remote control functionality. The plan, as the demos suggest, is that you will be able to use it for full second-screen content. The question is whether third party content providers will use it or be like HBO and implement it via their own apps.
I’m three weeks into living with WP8 and so far I’m enjoying it. Windows Phone 8 isn’t without its faults, but for a second generation (not counting 7.5) mobile system, it is coming along really well and has already improved tremendously from where it was. After playing with WP8 during the day it is always a bit hard going back to my painfully bland iPhone at the end of the day.
There are some major flaws with WP8, namely App availability, but I’ll delve into that in my last installment. Is it a viable alternative to the two powerhouses, Android and iOS? We shall see. Next week I’ll go into the two areas I care most about: Camera and Music features.
This article was published first on Blogcritics.com. You can see it here.