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The Best New Features In Windows Phone 8

Windows Phone 8 officially launched today, with new options including real-time tracking so you don’t exceed your data allowance and a special mode for letting your kids use your phone without messing with your apps. Here are the key new features.

Picture by Stephen Lam/Getty Images

You can get the full story from the launch at the launch live blog I wrote for Gizmodo. There’s an Australian launch later this morning, where we’ll get a better picture of which phones will be launching locally. In the meantime, these are the key features we heard about this morning, adding to what we already learned in June about a customisable Start screen and no upgrade path for existing Windows Phone 7 owners.

Data Sense

The most intriguing of the new features is Data Sense, which aims to ensure you don’t go over your monthly data limit on your phone plan. There are three key elements to this: real-time tracking which tells you how much data from your plan you’ve used and how much data each app is using, offering a map of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots you can log into, and compression of web pages before they load on your device so you use less data. None of these ideas are entirely new (the BlackBerry has long used a similar approach to compression, as has Opera Mini), but anything that makes data usage more efficient is welcome. Microsoft claims that when browsing the 100 most commonly-visited sites, a Windows Phone device can use 45 per cent less data.

The bad news is that Data Sense only works if your carrier enables it. Microsoft’s current stance is that this will happen with worldwide carriers at some point in 2013. Australian telcos need to introduce basic user notifications next year under the TCP Code, so there’s a reasonable chance this will be introduced, but we don’t have specifics yet. (I’m hoping the local version won’t use the annoyingly US-centric term ‘Cellular’ on the notification page.)

Rooms

Rooms let you create groups of people that you want to share information with, and then give them access to your calendar, photos, notes or other resources. That allows other people in the Room to see upcoming appointments or access pictures. A family group comes pre-defined for you to add members to, and you can create groups for anything else you like (whether that’s friends, colleagues or your sports team). You can also opt to share your location with specific rooms, which seems less risky than (for example) letting Facebook blurt out your location to all and sundry.

One of the most interesting aspects of Rooms is that there will also be cross-platform apps so users of other smartphones can also access some of those features. During the launch demo, access via iPhone was shown. We don’t yet know release dates for this option, exactly which elements will be able to be shared, or if Android (or other platforms) will also be added. (A lot of the launch demonstration focused on the ease of switching to Windows Phone from iPhone, so that seems to be Microsoft’s main concern right now.)

Kid’s Corner

The Kid’s Corner lets you set up a pre-approved set of apps, games, photos and videos your kids can access, so when they want to “play” with your phone, they don’t risk posting something strange to Facebook. It’s a clever idea, though in the demo accessing it (by swiping in a specific direction from the lock screen) seemed a little awkward.

Skype

Given Microsoft’s ownership of Skype, it’s no surprise that it’s integrated heavily into Windows Phone 8. The Skype app runs constantly in the background, so people can call you using it in the same fashion as your regular phone number. Microsoft claims that this won’t impact battery life, but we’ll need a lot of real-world testing to be sure.