While the lock screen trails some contenders in some ways, it does offer entrance to one brilliant and unique Windows Phone 8 feature called Kid's Corner.
Kid's Corner is a protected interface for letting your children play with your phone. It let's you set up a homescreen especially for children with only the apps, music, videos and pictures you choose to let them see. Like the main homescreen it's completely customisable in terms of layout and you can add as little or large an amount of access as you like.
You get to the Kid's Corner by swiping left from the lock screen. This then presents a second lock screen which, like the main one, can be customised with a picture of your choice. The idea being that you keep the phone protected with a lock code but your children can still access their favourite games or music through Kid’s Corner.
The only problem we did find was that when selecting specific albums for the Kid's Corner, we found each was shown individually as an icon on the Kid's Corner homescreen, which could get rather messy if you add 100 albums. To get round this you need to create a playlist of all your safe music and select just that.
One of the big downsides of the Windows Phone 8 interface is its lack of a notifications hub. While you can get notifications on the lock screen, these don't represent all apps, and once unlocked there's no one place which will quickly show you that you have three missed calls, four new texts and fifteen new emails. Instead you have to check each individual app. Obviously this is made easy by the Live Tiles indicating new messages or such like on the tile itself but if the Facebook tile is right at the bottom of your homescreen it can be a bit of a bind to have to scroll all the way down. In contrast, both iOS and Android keep notifications in a single, always accessible drop down menu that appears when you swipe down from the top edge of the screen.
Search has become an integral part of all smartphones, and so it is here. But, Microsoft has done things a bit differently, and not in a good way.
You get to the search feature by tapping the dedicated button underneath the screen and to start searching you simply tap the search box – so far, so easy. However, immediately there's a problem; the search doesn't search anything on your phone.
Yes, that's right, the search is for searching the web only. So whereas Android and iOS both bring up contacts, apps, messages and more that match your search term, and then offer to search the web as well, here you're left to go into each individual app to search.
Otherwise, the internet search facility is good. Results are returned quickly and are neatly presented. We'd prefer a few more results to appear per page too – yup, it's that same stylised but inefficient interface issue again – but it's enough to get by. Swipe left and you get a local search, which offers nearby business and other notable locations search, and left again gets you to the media section which offers matching images and videos for your search.
Search effectiveness is as good as Bing ever is, which, put simply, isn't as good as Google, but you can certainly get by.
Potentially making up for the lack of on-phone search are two unique features. At the bottom of the search screen are two buttons - one for a music matching service, which uses the phone's microphone to listen to the world around you and identify any songs that are playing, and a very clever image search. This uses the phone's camera to capture text; read barcodes and QR codes; and lookup books, CDs and DVDs just by 'looking' at the cover. Both music and image search work quickly and very effectively, and it's a huge boon that they're their integrated into the interface, not buried in an app.
A more minor, but still quite welcome, feature is the background image of the search app which changes daily and has little bits of information about the image – it's a bit like the Google doodle but powered by Bing.
So far we've talked a lot about features but not necessarily how the interface actually feels to use. The answer? Pretty good.
It was a key design point of Windows Phone 7 that it should offer a good user experience no matter what price of device you're buying – which explains the strict hardware guidelines – and this has been carried forward into Windows Phone 8. It feels consistently fast and slick. In fact, we never once noticed the phone really slow up, though it did crash a couple of times.
The feel of the OS is in a way similar to iOS, rather than Android, in that every move is greeted by a slick animation. This gives the feeling of speed and fluidity, though it's actually a bit of a ruse as those animations are used to mask the little pauses that are inevitable while some apps load.
Sometimes these animations can be a little tedious. Particularly the one that accompanies every time you close an app – the homescreen flips back into view tile by tile. It's nice but it's just a little too slow that sometimes it can feel like it's getting in the way if you just want to quickly do something.