Microsoft's first attempt at revamping its mobile phone software with Windows Phone 7 was an impressive reinvention with a unique, stylish interface but thanks to fundamental hardware limitations and a few missing features, it fell short of really shaking up the market. Now Microsoft is back with Windows Phone 8, which keeps the same stylish feel but adds in a host of new features and, crucially, greatly improves the hardware with which it's compatible. So has Microsoft finally found an Android and iOS killer or will the likes of the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S3 continue to reign supreme? We've been testing Windows Phone 8 on an HTC 8X to find out.
Perhaps the first thing you notice about Windows Phone 8 is its hardware. Unlike Android phones – and, we suppose, like iPhones – the hardware used in Windows Phone 8 devices is strictly consistent. This means you get a consistent level of performance from phone to phone and you always know where you are with the button layout.
So, below the screen you will always find three buttons – Back, Start and Search. These are fairly self explanatory with the Start button taking you back to the homescreen, the Back button taking you back to whatever you were on before and the Search button bringing up the phone's search facility. However, one thing to note is the Back button doesn't just take you back within an app, and nor does it stop when you're back to the homescreen. Instead it will go back to exactly where you were before.
This can be great, saving you having to jump into the multi-tasking screen to go back to the app you were on before, but equally it does take a bit of getting used to if you're used to the Android way of doing things.
Back to the buttons and up top will be a power button while on the right edge is a camera button and the volume control.
All this is as it was with Windows Phone 7 and in fact this consistency was that version's downfall. While Android phones were getting massive high resolution screens and quad-core processors, Windows Phone 7 and 7.5 were strictly limited to single-core processors and screens with resolutions of 480 x 800 pixels.
This time around, however, the standards are rather higher. Windows Phone 8 now supports processors with up to 64 cores, screens with resolutions up to 768 x 1280 pixels and it now supports removable storage too so you can upgrade your phone's storage by adding a microSD card. Not all phones will support all these features – the minimum is still 480 x 800 screens, single-core processors and no microSD – but at least the option's now there for the phone manufacturers.
Turn a Windows Phone 8 device on and the first thing you'll notice is the software’s unique style. While Android and iOS 6 both centre around paginated homescreens filled with app shortcuts (and widgets in the case of Android), Windows Phone 8 is all about Live Tiles. These can be static app shortcuts too but they can also show live information from the app, whether it be a new email, a calendar entry or what the weather's like; Microsoft calls these Live Apps. The theory being that a mere glance at your homescreen will show you much more information than competing platforms.
These Live Tiles can be rearranged to be in whatever order you like and, new to Windows Phone 8, they can be resized too, from small simple shortcuts to screen-width widgets that show much more information. Unlike Windows Phone 7, where only Microsoft's apps could use the largest format, any app can have any size of Live Tile.
The theory behind Live Tiles is sound but we found that the longer we used the handset the less we used them, instead making most apps as small as possible, to pack as many as possible onto the main homescreen. The HTC clock/date/weather tile and the photos tile we kept large but otherwise it was small all the way.
The interface also differs from its competitors as these Live Tiles are arranged in a single vertical scrolling column rather than pages. This can get a little confusing if you create a very long list of tiles, as there's no indicator of where you are in the list, but being as it's customisable you should be able to create an efficient layout that works for you.
Swipe left and you get the full list of installed apps which again are arranged in one long list. Here, while it's easier to track where you are thanks to the apps being in alphabetical order, it does still feel like a very inefficient use of space, with only 11 apps ever visible on screen at any one time.
This inefficient feel actually applies to a lot of the interface where style and consistency of style has taken precedence over practicality. One such example is the Facebook app. This follows the Windows Phone 8 convention of having a top section, which houses the name of the app and labelling for the section of the app you're on, and a bottom section with links to the settings and core features like search.
It's great that you get this consistent layout in many apps, so that you're nearly always sure of how to do what you need to do but, it does mean that, in the case of the Facebook app, only about two thirds of the screen is actually used to show the app's content. This is the worst example we've seen so far but it's still worthy of note.
Another key aspect to the Windows Phone 8 style is that you're very limited in how you can customise certain aspects of it. You can't for instance add a background image to the homescreen, instead there's either black or white. Likewise the 'accent' colour as used by the Live Tiles and interface text is limited to 20 colours.
We can't say we're all that bothered by these particular limitations as we've seldom seen much point to a background image which is only going to be hidden by apps – or in this case Live Tiles – but if you're a fan, you'd better look elsewhere.
That said, you may be happy enough with the ability to add your choice of picture to the lock screen, which you can do. You can also choose for Facebook, Bing or, in the case of our HTC 8X, a rather fetching HTC background.
Other features included on the lock screen are status updates for up to five apps, along with the choice of one app for which to show detailed status details. Plus when you're playing music it will show track information and a mini player for controlling playback without having to unlock the phone.
This isn't a bad selection of lock screen features but it isn't exactly stellar either. You can't for instance jump straight to the app for which a notification has popped up nor add shortcuts to favourite apps. There isn't a shortcut to the camera either but this is because all Windows Phone 8 devices have a camera button that can take you straight to the camera anyway.