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

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Business connectivity: Decent email, mixed calendar, good contacts, poor office productivity
Windows 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 obvious quick-jump capability as in iOS and Android, but there is a secret way to get it: Tap and hold any of the letter labels in your contacts list to open up a quick-jump selection list. Otherwise, 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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