Maybe it was inevitable that Windows Phone 8 devices would land in the back of the chorus line.
Windows 8 and the hoopla around it have hogged the spotlight in recent weeks. Now the departure of Windows president Steven Sinofsky from Microsoft is front and center.
But I do hope Windows Phones get something closer to star treatment. There's a lot to cheer in these latest devices. And despite its understudy status compared with Apple's iPhone and the many Google Android smartphones, the Windows Phone mobile operating system comes across as fresh.
To belabor the obvious, Microsoft faces steep challenges.
The biggest reason to stick with iPhone or Android has to do with the wealth of apps available for those devices. Microsoft and its partners now offer about 120,000 apps in the Windows Store. But that's still a fraction of the 700,000-plus apps that Apple through iOS and Google through Android have.
The venerable music app Pandora, for example, will only be coming to Windows next year. (It will be ad-free for the first year.)
Still, Microsoft is making steady strides with its app ecosystem. And many of the ones I tried -- including apps for ESPN, Pacman, The Weather Channel and USA TODAY -- look and behave splendidly in the Windows Phone environment.
I've been testing the latest software on two of the Windows 8 phones that will reach U.S. customers soon. There's the Windows Phone 8X by HTC, which will cost $100 to $200 with a two-year contract from AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon Wireless, depending on color, capacities and carrier. And there's the Nokia Lumia 920, which AT&T will carry for $100, again with a two-year contract.
Windows Phones from Sprint are expected next year.
For this review, I'm focusing more on software than any of the hardware. But I can't help but mention that the Nokia is one big bruiser of a phone, a heavy 6.5-ounce device that feels almost bulletproof. The payoff comes in a beautiful 4.5-inch display screen and a strong camera. After a while, I got accustomed to the extra heft in my pocket.
Folks concerned with weight will prefer the slim and light HTC phone and its 4.3-inch display.
Microsoft has improved some features and added new ones in Windows Phone 8. Like Windows 8 for computers, the interface is based on dynamic live tiles, representing apps, people, even favorite websites that you "pin" to the Start screen. The tiles can display information or images. There are ever-changing mug shots of some of my Facebook friends in the tile representing the People hub where my contacts hang out.
With the new software, Microsoft lets you size the tiles to either small or medium squares, or a larger rectangle. Going the smallest route eliminates some of the information you'd otherwise see. To further personalize the phone, you can customize the lock screen. On the Nokia, I chose to display my ever-changing Facebook photos on the lock screen. On the HTC, I went with the Bing photo of the day. Or you can choose to display a picture of the artist playing through the new cloud-connected Xbox Music service on the lock screen.
Bing, Xbox, Internet Explorer 10 and (if you download it) Skype are among the Microsoft properties easily in reach of a Windows Phone. Any documents you have stored in the cloud through Microsoft's SkyDrive or Office 365 are also readily accessible.
Microsoft has added a new Rooms feature, an invitation-only area where you can conduct private chats restricted to the members of a group, or share calendars, notes and photo albums.
Speaking of restrictions, moms and dads will appreciate the new Kids Corner feature. The company says two-thirds of parents let their youngsters use their smartphones for games, pictures, music and more.
The Kids Corner feature lets parents be reasonably confident the data on the device will remain secure, behind the lock screen and an optional PIN. Parents get to choose the games, movies and other content the child can access. Children can't make in-app purchases, phone calls or browse the Web. There is a loophole: If a game you let your child play within Kids Corner contains an ad, the child may be able to access that ad online and tap on any Web links.
Windows Phones also can take advantage of NFC (near-field communications) for sharing data by tapping -- and paying for stuff at an NFC-capable point-of-sale terminal. A Wallet app, which I did not test, lets you store coupons, credit cards and debit cards.
If you're contemplating a new smartphone, Windows Phones are worth considering.
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