Lauded by many critics, but struggling to catch on with consumers, Microsoft's Windows Phone smartphone software has gotten an overhaul.
The new version, Windows Phone 8, gains new features that should help it better compete with Google's Android and Apple's iOS, which underlies the iPhone. But even with the update, Windows Phone still has some notable shortcomings when compared with its two main rivals.
Unlike the prior version, the new Windows Phone software is based on the same basic code as the Windows operating system for PCs. That doesn't mean you can run Windows programs on Windows Phone devices. But it does mean programmers should be able to more easily modify those programs for Windows Phone.
And it means Windows Phone is able to tap into the support in Windows for a wide range of hardware. As a result, the latest devices will run on processors comparable to those users would find in Android devices, will feature high-resolution screens like those of the iPhone 5 or the Samsung Galaxy S III, and can support new hardware features including NFC chips and external memory cards. Those changes should make Windows Phone devices compare more favorably with their rivals.
In addition to replacing the software's innards, Microsoft has added a bunch of new features. One great new feature called Kid's Corner allows parents to set up a separate area for their children. The only applications kids will see inside are those that parents have approved. And while inside the area, kids can't accidentally send a text message, make a call, purchase an app or check your email.
I wish the settings were more sophisticated, and I don't like that the Kid's Corner also blocks access to the Web browser. But overall, it's a neat idea that I wish was available on other devices.
Windows Phone also has a new app called Data Sense that helps users limit the data they consume while connected to the cellphone networks. It compresses Web pages, lets users restrict their data use when they approach their limits, and helps them find Wi-Fi hotspots.
It's a great idea, but I didn't get to test it because the feature currently is only supported by Verizon, and the Windows Phone 8 device I have is on AT&T's network.
Other new features include the ability to re-size application tiles or to set devices so they display Facebook photos and updates on their lock screen. Users can also create virtual "rooms" of friends or family members, within which they can share photos or exchange messages.
Together, the updates have improved Windows Phone 8 and make it more useful and fun to use.
But the software still has shortcomings. Perhaps the biggest one is that Windows Phone 7 devices can't run it, even if users bought those phones in recent days or weeks. Instead, to get Windows Phone 8, consumers will have to buy a new device.
Another shortcoming is the lack of apps. Microsoft says users will now find 120,000 apps for Windows Phone devices, and the company also claims that 46 of the top 50 applications available for its rivals, including Pandora, are now - or soon will be - available for Windows Phone.
But the total number of applications is still a small fraction of the number available for the iPhone or Android devices. And in my searches, the ones available included a lot of fluff.
I also found the claims about the availability of top apps dubious. I could only find seven of the top 25 paid apps available for the iPhone in the Windows Phone store. And of the top 25 free apps on the iPhone, 14 weren't available for Windows Phone devices - and that doesn't include five Apple-designed apps that aren't available for any other platform.
One big loss for Windows Phone 8 is that unlike its predecessor, it doesn't include turn-by-turn navigation. Instead, users have to find a separate app that provides the feature from the company's store. Nokia for one has committed to offering its Drive app to Windows Phone users, but right now it's only available for Nokia devices. The loss of this feature is unfortunate, because it has become a standard one for smartphones.
If you're in the market for a smartphone, Windows Phone 8 is definitely worth a look. It's different, easy to use and offers some compelling features. But its lack of apps in particular means it may not offer everything you want.
MICROSOFT WINDOWS PHONE 8:
-Likes: Kid's Corner feature helps users to make the smartphone kid safe; Data Sense feature helps users monitor, limit data usage; able to run on wider range of phones with speedier processors and higher-resolution displays
-Dislikes: Unavailable for Windows Phone 7 devices; offers fewer apps than rival platforms and few of the top apps available for the iPhone; lacks built-in turn-by turn driving directions.
-Price: Comes preinstalled on new phones.
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