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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Apps: Limited choices, lightweight capabilities
Everyone knows that iOS's App Store likely has an app for that, and the Google Play market for Android has a good general-interest selection for news, games, utilities, and more. There's much less in the Windows Phone Store -- no productivity apps, for example. For categories where apps do exist, such as cloud storage, banking, and RDP apps for Windows, there are few choices, if any.

Most apps are lightweight or basic, including some of the apps that come with Windows Phone 8, such as Alarms, Calculator, Maps, Phone, and Photos. That's perfectly fine for many apps, such as newsreaders and weather programs, but not for the likes of Office.

Of course, not all Windows Phone 8 apps are slackers. The Camera app has a strong set of capture settings, rivaling that of a digital SLR. As previously mentioned, the People app is one of Windows Phone's most capable apps. And the Wallet app looks intriguing, with more payment capabilities than Apple's Passbook and the same ability to store tickets and loyalty cards. But given that very few services support Wallet, it's too soon to call it an advantage. Finally, Gannett's USA Today app for Windows Phone is nicely designed for readability and navigation -- an area where its iOS and Android versions have grown increasingly worse with each subsequent update.

A few apps are problematic. For example, the Music + Video app distorted videos, compressing their width, even after I toggled between the fit-to-screen and fill-the-screen modes; iOS and Android devices played the same video undistorted. HTC's own Weather app is largely unusable because the weather conditions' tiny white text is superimposed over often light-hued moving images of skies, sunshine, snow, rain, and clouds -- rendering it unreadable. And the Nokia Transit app's routing for public transit seems determined to send you on the longest itinerary possible, at least in San Francisco.

Overall, iOS has the richest apps, as well as the broadest selection. Android has typically less-sophisticated apps and a decent selection. Windows Phone has the least-sophisticated apps on average and a small selection.

iOS's multitasking dock lets you easily see which apps are running and switch among them, and Android 4.1's Recent Apps tray does the same with a more visual punch. Windows Phone 8 has an equivalent: Press and hold the Back button until a tray of thumbnails displaying open apps appears, then scroll through to select the one you want to switch to. It's a real godsend for Windows Phone users, who otherwise would have to find them among the home screen's tiles or scroll through the apps screen, both of which involve lots and lots of scrolling if you have numerous tiles and apps. You can arrange the app tiles on the home screen where desired, as you can in iOS and Android, to help limit the back and forth. But you can't set multiple home screens, as you can in iOS and Android, to group your apps, nor can you create app folders as you can in iOS. All of this means that finding and switching apps in Windows Phone 8 takes more work than it should.

Android and iOS have long offered a notifications capability that apps can use to keep you updated on status, and iOS adopted the notification tray approach pioneered by Android in iOS 5. Windows Phone doesn't provide such notifications; it expects you'll use the home screen's tiles to track what's happening. Likewise, iOS's App Store app shows you when there are app updates available, while Android's Google Play app has a list of apps with available updates and lets you set apps to auto-update. Windows Phone has none of these conveniences; you only find out an app has an update when you open it and get an alert telling you to go to the Windows Store.

Like its predecessor, Windows Phone 8 supports dictation (pioneered by Android and added to iOS 6) and voice-based queries (pioneered by iOS 5's Siri and added to Android 4.1). The dictation capability in Windows Phone 8 works as well as in its competitors, and the voice recognition is more accurate than in Windows Phone 7.5. But its voice-based query is primitive. It supports only a few basic commands, such as "open application" or "call Bob," relegating all other queries to Web searches. Android and iOS both have a much richer vocabulary and can handle free-form inquiries such as "what's on my calendar?" or "how hot will it be tomorrow?" Windows Phone 8 has a long way to go to play in the voice game's big leagues.

For businesses, Windows Phone 8 adds a welcome feature: the ability to connect a device to a corporate app store, for easy dissemination of work-issued apps. Android has no such concept, and iOS's reliance on the use of OS X Server or third-party application management tools is more complicated for both IT and users.

If you're a Mac user, Microsoft has a free Windows Phone app in the Mac App Store to sync videos, music, photos, and podcasts to your smartphone. Unfortunately, it doesn't sync music or podcasts; the late-October update for Windows Phone 8 broke that functionality, and it's unclear when Microsoft will fix the problem.

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