Monday, 17 December 2012

Windows Phone 7.8 Review

It’s fair to say that existing Lumia owners, like myself, were a little more than disappointed when we learned that our Windows Phone 7.5 based devices will not be upgraded to the new and exciting Windows Phone 8 OS from Microsoft. I initially thought that this was all part of a marketing ploy to get us to buy newer devices. That was not the case though. Microsoft went on to explain that the hardware in our current devices was simply not powerful enough to run WP8, and that the new OS required at least a dual-core processor to run lag-free. However, Microsoft and Nokia did not just abandon us, they promised us an update, and update that would bring down some prominent WP8 features to existing devices. They called this update Windows Phone 7.8. In this review, we’ll only be covering the new updates and features that Microsoft and Nokia packed into WP7.8 for the Nokia Lumia 900.

The New Start Screen                                                                                          
I thought that it would be fitting to start with what is possibly the biggest new feature of Windows Phone 7.8, the new Start screen. This new screen features a few notable changes over its predecessor; the first thing you’ll notice if you were a WP7.5 user is that the live tiles now take up the entire width of the display, eliminating the gap on the right side. This change makes the tiles larger and therefore easier to tap and pleasing to look at. In a way, this new layout almost makes it seem like your phones display has gotten larger, which is a nice effect.

The second welcome feature comes in the form of two new customizable tile sizes; small and full width. The small tile is a quarter the size of the regular square tile, all apps in the marketplace can be shrunk to this new size. This allows you to fit more apps on the Start screen that you want to quickly access without them taking up too much space. I did noticed that some apps stopped being ‘live’, i.e. they stopped rotating and displaying useful information when shrunk to the small tile size. It seems like developers will have to intervene and update their 7.5 apps to make them work with the new size.

The same can be said for the new full width tile size, but in this case, the app has to support the new size first before you can apply it. The only apps that I managed to use the full width tile size were the default ones like Xbox, the Me hub, the People Hub etc. But even then, not all default apps support it, like Internet Explorer and Office. When an app does support it though, it’s creates truly a new experience, that’s both visually pleasing and convenient. The Mail and Messages apps for example when expanded to the full width tile size would display a few lines of a new email or a new SMS, making it quicker for you to see more of what’s new without you having to go into the app. The new size is at its best though when third-party developers take advantage of it. Nokia Drive for example would display imagery of your route without the need to jump into the app. The CNN app would display an image from the latest breaking news story. Sports apps would display a table of the latest scores from your favorite teams and the list goes on. Developers can get creative since they’re given more real estate to work with all for your convenience.

It’s important to note though that the above mentioned apps have yet to be updated for Windows Phone 7.8 to support the new tile sizes. But looking at their Windows Phone 8 counterparts, it’s safe to assume we’ll see them updated for 7.8.

New Accent Colors
To even further customize the Start screen, Windows Phone 7.8 provides a 20 color pallet to use as the phones accent, in addition to one from the phone manufacturer. ‘Nokia Blue’ in this case.

I didn’t think so before, but now what I’ve used this new Start screen, I feel that even if it were the only new feature of Windows Phone 7.8 I would be satisfied. This refreshed face of Windows Phone breathes new life into the platform that will make your phone feel fresher and even more personal than it ever was before.

Bing Lock Screen
The Windows Phone lockscreen has also gotten some attention in this update. If you like Bing and its beautiful/intriguing daily images then you will absolutely love this feature. Under the lockscreen settings, you can now select Bing as a wallpaper provider. The phone will then pull down the latest image on and set it and set it as your lockscreen wallpaper. Better yet, it will update the wallpaper every day. So every time you wake up in the morning, you’ll be welcomed by a new image when you unlock your phone.

It’s a simple, but wonderful little feature that you’ll certainly come to appreciate. It keeps your phone fresh and might even inspire you. Especially if you’re not a morning person.

Bluetooth Share
This is a biggie. Nokia have built in an app called Bluetooth Share, and as its name suggests, allows you to transfer content via Bluetooth to other Bluetooth enabled devices. We’ve been waiting for this feature ever since the dawn of Windows Phone, and Nokia have finally made it a reality.

When you start the Bluetooth Share app, its gives you two categories of media to share from; Pictures and Files. Pictures will send you to the Windows Phone picture albums interface where you can select the image you wish to send. The Files category will provide you with a list of all the music that has been synced to the phone for you to select and send.

That’s pretty much it. The app only allows you to send pictures and music. Nowhere could I find the option to send videos, or Office documents via Bluetooth. Even if you go into the Pictures Hub to try to share from there, the Bluetooth Share app doesn’t appear in the list of apps to share from. Neither does it appear in the Office Hub.

Pictures and music are a good start though and this is Nokia we’re talking about, so it’s very likely they’ll be releasing updates for the app that will support more file types.

Ringtone Maker
Last but not least, Nokia have included a ringtone maker app for all Lumia phones that will receive the 7.8 update. On Windows Phone 7.5, you’d have to go through the process of editing a music file on a computer, change its settings in Zune and then sync it to your phone to get a custom ringtone on it. A process that was usually tiring and not worth the trouble, so many opted for some of the various ringtone apps in the Windows Phone Store. Which were good, but just not as personal as making your own tune. Nokia have finally offered a solution to this.

The Ringtone Maker app gives you the option to select a song from the phones Zune library, which it then analyzes. The app then displays a simple interface with a timeline of the song and a highlighted slider to select the part of the song that you want to convert into a ringtone. It also allows you to preview the ringtone before saving it. Its only limitation is that the ringtone cannot be longer than 30 seconds. Otherwise, it’s a fantastic, easy to use app that makes it much easier to create custom ringtones for your phone.

What’s Yet to Come
Cinemagraph is a Nokia exclusive that allows you to animate still images, it’s a nifty little app that those of you with creative minds will come to enjoy. It’s currently only available for Windows Phone 8, but it will be coming to Windows Phone 7.8 as the OS nears public availability.

Although Windows Phone 7.8 is a nice update over 7.5, which should keep you happy with your Lumia for another year or so, this probably isn’t the end of the road for you. Microsoft and Nokia will remain committed to Windows Phone 7.8. The recent release of the Nokia Lumia 510 and Lumia 505 are an indication of that as both of them are powered by WP7.8. It seems like Microsoft and Nokia will use 7.8 for their low-end, low-budget devices while reserving WP8 for their mid-range and high-end offerings. It’s a good strategy that will keep both customers and developers happy.

If rumors are to be believed, there will be other feature updates to come from Microsoft to further close the gap between WP7.8 and 8. Windows Phone 7.9 anyone?

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