Review: It's strike 3 for Microsoft's Windows Phone

The HTC 8X and Nokia Lumia 800 series are solid smartphones running a dubious mobile OS

Three strikes and you're out! The third version of Windows Phone -- Windows Phone 8 -- finally adds basic compatibility with corporate Exchange server security settings, but not much else. Despite an initially enticing look, Windows Phone's user interface remains a frustrating blend of simplistic and difficult, with occasional touches of brilliance that render the poor usability even more frustrating.

You really have to wonder what the Windows Phone team does most of the year, given how little significant change there has been from 2010's Windows Phone 7. Certainly, it's not making a serious effort to compete with Apple's iPhone 5 or the leading crop of Android smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S III, both of which are years ahead of Windows Phone. A year ago, I compared Windows 7.5 to Android 2.3 "Gingerbread," which was significantly lagging iOS 5 at the time, and found that Windows Phone 7.5 wasn't even as good as Android 2.3. A year later, Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" is out and giving iOS 6 a run for its money, but Windows Phone 8 has barely moved.

[ See how the Nokia Lumia 800 series and HTC 8X compare to the iPhone and leading Android smartphones. | Learn how Windows Phone 8's security capabilities compare to iOS and Android. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights with the Mobilize newsletter. ]

What's new in Windows Phone 8? As noted, the biggest improvement for users is support for on-device encryption and some Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policies, both typically required for corporate usage. The browser is now Internet Explorer 10, which is a little more HTML5-savvy than the previous IE9. The home screen tiles now have two additional sizes: a quarter-size tile so that you can cram more tiles and thus scroll less to find them, and a double-wide tile for live tiles that display a lot of information that's otherwise too hard to read. (Tap and hold a tile until an arrow icon appears at its lower-right corner; tap it to toggle through the three sizes.) The lock screen now displays alerts, like iOS and Android, and the Kid's Corner mode lets you create a custom workspace for others to use, typically with a limited set of apps.

Windows Phone 8 also integrates several Microsoft services -- the Xbox Music and Xbox Video stores, as well as SkyDrive cloud storage, Skype messaging system, and Microsoft user accounts -- that Windows 8 supports. The new Wallet app lets you collect loyalty and other electronic cards, similar to the Passbook service in Apple's iOS 6. Hardware support is improved: Windows Phone 8 devices can now use SD cards and have screens with 15:9 or 16:9 ratios. Near-field communication (NFC) is supported by the OS, so hardware makers can now make phones that support NFC-enabled mobile payments or data sharing (like Android and BlackBerry OS).

Hardware: HTC 8X versus Nokia Lumia 800I've been testing Windows Phone 8 on two of the three smartphones in the United States that support it: the HTC Windows Phone 8X and the Nokia Lumia 800 series. (The Nokia Lumia 920, whch was unavailable for testing, also runs Windows Phone 8.) Before I get into the details of Windows Phone 8 itself, let me compare the two devices. The two smartphones are fairly similar, as Microsoft gives Windows Phone makers very little leeway to differentiate. But the Lumia 800 is definitely a lower-end device, whereas the HTC 8X aims higher.

The HTC 8X is thin, weighs 4.6 ounces, and has a contoured, colored, easy-grip case, whereas the Lumia 800 is thick, weighs 5.1 ounces, and has a blockier all-black case. The HTC 8X is much more comfortable to hold. Both have 4.3-inch screens, but the HTC 8X has a higher-resolution display (342 pixels per inch versus the Lumia 800's 217 ppi). Both use the 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU. Both have an 8-megapixel rear camera with LED flash. The HTC 8X has a 2.1-megapixel, 1080p front camera whereas the Lumia 800 has just a 1.2-megapixel, 720p front camera.

The HTC 8X's screen is crisp, and the color balance very nice when playing back movies. Its speakers also produced clean, loud, well-balanced audio, despite their tiny size. The Lumia 800's screen is not as bright, resulting in muddier video, and its speakers are quieter and produce flatter sound than the HTC 8X.

The HTC 8X has either 8GB or 16GB of storage, and no expansion capability, whereas the Lumia 800 has just 8GB of internal storage but can accept an SD card with up to 32GB of additional storage. Both support 5GHz and 2.4GHz Wi-Fi networks. But neither has video-out capabilities as iPhones and many Android smartphones do. Battery life for both is adequate, with a full day's use per charge. The HTC 8X's battery rundown is similar to Android: It lasts about 24 hours when idle, like most Android smartphones, whereas the Lumia 800 uses little energy when idle, providing several days of power, like an iPhone.

Lumia 800-series models are available for AT&T (as the Lumia 820), T-Mobile (as the 810), and Verizon Wireless (as the 822), and the HTC 8X models are available for AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon. Keep in mind that T-Mobile has generally poor coverage; both of my test devices were the T-Mobile models, and I frequently couldn't get data service in either San Francisco or the Central Coast region of California for the week I used them. T-Mobile also lacks LTE service, so the Lumia 810 and the T-Mobile version of the HTC 8X don't have LTE-capable radios.

Although the Lumia 800 series skimps on the hardware side, it does come with a raft of useful Nokia apps -- including Transit for mass-transit routing, Creative Studio for enhancing photos, Cinemagraph for animating photos, Panorama for taking auto-stitched panoramic photos (a feature available in several iOS 6 and Android 4.x smartphones), Transfer My Data for Bluetooth copying of contacts from other devices, and the beta Drive+ for GPS navigation. The HTC 8X has a few basic extras of its own, including a unit converter, flashlight, and photo enhancer.

At AT&T and Verizon, the HTC 8X costs $550 for the 16GB model, while the Lumia 800 series costs $400; a two-year contract drops $350 from those prices. At T-Mobile, the list prices are $50 more, but the discount for a two-year contract also increases by $50. Of the two models I tested, the HTC 8X is the more appealing smartphone. You might consider the $450 Nokia Lumia 920 instead; it has beefier hardware as well as Nokia's special apps, but it's also both larger and heavier than the 8X and Lumia 800 series.

Business connectivity: Decent email, mixed calendar, good contacts, poor office productivityWindows Phone 8 is the first version of Windows Phone that a corporation could seriously consider adopting, thanks to its support of basic EAS policies. The good news is that for basic information worker usage, Windows Phone 8 is adequate, even if less capable in total than what iOS and Android offer.

The Outlook email app supports Exchange, IMAP, and POP accounts, with quick setup options for Gmail and Hotmail. I like Windows Phone's way of handling message groups such as unread and flagged messages: Just swipe to the right to see lists of unread messages; repeat to see flagged messages. It also implements a color highlight on the subject of unread messages in the All message list, but the Unread list is simpler. To save on cellular data usage, attachments don't auto-download, though you can specify that they do when connected to Wi-Fi. Windows Phone 8 can open Zipped attachments (like Android but unlike iOS).

If you have multiple email accounts, Windows Phone 8 grows hinky. You either have to link them (select Linked Inboxes in the More menu; that's the ... menu) so that their inboxes appear merged in the Outlook app, or you have to switch to folder view (via the More menu) to see each account's inbox and folders, then tap the one you want. It's inefficient and far more complicated than how iOS and Android do it.

Outlook's capabilities for working with emails match those in iOS and Android. But the way the options are presented is confusing. Some options are available as icons, while others are available as textual menus via the More menu. Essentially, the ones Microsoft think you will use commonly are available as buttons, but the rest require access through a menu. That's similar to how Android has long worked, but the most recent version of Android has adopted iOS's easier approach: Put all pertinent controls in front of you, rather than force you down menu paths.

Further, Windows Phone 8's icons are often unclear, and their labels hard to read. When you are using the More menu, the options Microsoft thinks you're less likely to use are displayed in readable text, but the ones it thinks you're more likely to use are displayed as harder-to-comprehend icons. That's really an issue of poor iconography, but it's emblematic of Windows Phone 8's UI flaws.

The Calendar app is a mix of good and bad. When creating events, you can invite attendees; specify the date, time, and duration; set an alert; add notes; and choose the calendar. For repeating events, you can set a variety of patterns such as every week, every Monday, or every 25th day of the month -- the same as Android.  By comparison, iOS can't do patterns such as every Monday or every 25th day of the month. But you can't set a second alarm or specific the time zone for the appointment (Android and iOS can do both). However, only Windows Phone 8 lets you mark an appointment as private, so its contents aren't visible to others in shared calendars.

Where Calendar in Windows Phone 8 goes off the rails is in its views. There are two: agenda (the default) and month. Worse, when you switch to month view, there's no obvious way to shift back to agenda view -- you have to tap the physical Back key on the smartphone. iOS and Android support day and week views, and both make it easy to switch views via onscreen controls. Also, both iOS and Android show a scrollable agenda for the currently selected day, whereas Windows Phone 8 lacks this convenience.

The People app in Windows Phone 8 is its strongest suit for business users. The People app not only provides access to your contacts, it's also a hub for social updates from those people, letting you see in one combined location the tweets and posts from all your contacts, as well as the individual tweets and posts from any contact. People works largely as it did in Windows Phone 7.5, except now it has the notion of rooms, where you can create invitation-only groups for shared chats, notes, photos, and calendars -- a nice advancement. You can also create groups to monitor the social posts of certain members. My only beef with People is that the more contacts you have, the harder it is to navigate among them. There's no quick-jump capability as in iOS and Android; instead you have to use the app's search function.

Windows Phone 8, like its predecessors, includes a version of Microsoft Office, with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint document support in the Office app and synced note-taking in the OneNote app. They're all primitive.

OneNote is fine if you use OneNote on a PC, Mac, iOS device, or Android device, as it syncs across all devices attached to your Microsoft account. But iOS's Notes app is more flexible because it can sync not only across iCloud devices but across IMAP accounts, too. OneNote does let you apply character and list formatting to your notes, unlike Notes. (Android has no stock note-taking app.)

Office in Windows Phone 8 has been improved to support basic formatting for Word files you create, but that's it -- there's no support for paragraph formatting, much less tables, revisions tracking, or comments. Excel offers more capabilities for files you create in it, including sorting, chart creating, and formula editing. For PowerPoint, all you can do is add or edit notes to presentations created elsewhere. When I tried to open Word or Excel files created on a PC, Office told me consistently there were features in those files it could not handle and, thus, could not edit the files. You might have some Word or Excel documents that Office for Windows Phone 8 can open, but it's not likely.

Also, from within Office, you can access only files from Microsoft's own SkyDrive and Office 365 cloud services, as well as from SharePoint servers and email attachments. You can open Office from other apps, such as the Box cloud storage service, but you have to start in those apps to see the files. Quickoffice for Android and iOS aren't biased in this way, and even Apple's iWork apps for iOS can directly open files from outside Apple's proprietary iCloud and iTunes from third-party services that support the WebDAV protocol.

Neither iOS nor Android comes with a free office productivity app, but the iWork suite (the $10 Pages, $10 Keynote, and $10 Numbers) for iOS and $20 Quickoffice Pro for iOS and Android are very capable editing apps worth their small cost. Unfortunately, there are no equivalent apps as yet for Windows Phone 8. Because of Office's deficiencies, you can't depend on it to do basic edits or fixes in a pinch as you can on an iPhone or Android smartphone. Basically, Office for Windows Phone 8 is useless.

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