Microsoft announces Windows Phone 8

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Microsoft took the wraps off Windows Phone 8 on Monday, announcing prices and release dates for the first wave of new hardware during a 70-minute press event in San Francisco.

Prior to Monday’s unveiling, we already knew about some of Windows Phone 8’s features—namely, the redesigned Start screen with small, medium and large Live Tiles. While Microsoft announced that new Start screen and a few other features in June, it saved many of the key details for Monday’s press event.

Here’s an overview of the new features in Windows Phone 8:

New lock screen

Jason Cross, TechHive
Windows Phone 8’s customizable lock screen can show photos and data from third-party apps.

The lock screen in Windows Phone 8 will be customizable, so it can show photos, counters and text from third-party apps. For example, users will be able to glance at Facebook photos from the lock screen, or stay updated on sports scores without unlocking the device.

“The new lock screen is going to make that phone feel so much more personal,” said Joe Belfiore, manager of the Windows Phone Program for Microsoft, during Monday’s press event. “It’ll automatically surface photos, and notifications from all our your favorite apps, You get to make the choice of seeing sports scores, or daily deals.”

Skype integration and other apps

Microsoft has a new version of Skype for Windows Phone 8 that’s integrated with the operating system. It’s always on, so it can receive new messages and calls, but Microsoft says it doesn’t run any battery-consuming code in the background.

Skype is now part of the Microsoft family, so it makes sense that the software giant would optimize the voice-over-IP app for its new mobile platform. But other apps including Facebook and Twitter have been updated for Windows Phone 8, according to Belfiore, and still others will be coming to the Windows mobile platform for the first time, including Paypal and Words With Friends.

“We think we’ll be at a point where we’ll have 46 of the top 50 apps,” Belfiore said.

Jason Cross, TechHive
Microsoft is promising plenty of apps for Windows Phone 8 users.

One of those top apps is Pandora, which will arrive on Windows Phone 8 next year. When it does launch, Windows Phone 8 users will get a free year of music from the streaming music service with no ads.

All told, Microsoft says its app catalog is up to 120,000 apps.

Better data usage monitoring

Data Sense is a one-stop app for keeping data use under control. It automatically compresses web pages to reduce the amount of data they consume—the feature provides 45 percent more browsing, according to Microsoft—and suggests nearby Wi-Fi hotspots to use. As users approach their monthly limits, Data Sense can automatically try to reduce data use.

The feature also has an app that lets users see how much data each of their apps consume. Microsoft is rolling out this feature in partnership with wireless carriers, and Verizon Wireless will be the first to offer it.

Kids Corner

Windows Phone 8 will let parents create a separate set of live tiles for their children, with only approved games, music, videos and apps. Of course, Kids Corner prevents children from buying things and sending e-mails as well.

Belfiore describe Kids Corner as “a phone within a phone.” “I’m not sure there’s any feature that we’ve done that has been as loved,” he added.

People Hub ‘Rooms’

Rooms seem like an offshoot of the existing “Groups” functionality of previous Windows Phone versions. Users can create a rooms with several contacts in them—a “Family” room is included by default—and can share information such as location, calendar appointments and notes.

Jason Cross, TechHive
Users can create Rooms in Windows Phone 8 where they can share notes, calendar appointments, photos, and their location among other details.

For people who don’t have Windows Phones, the calendar sharing aspect of rooms can be viewed on other platforms, such as the iPhone. “We made it so you can invite people to a room, even if they have a different phone,” Belfiore said. “And they get part of, but not the complete, Room experience.”

Sync files across Windows devices

Microsoft’s online storage service, SkyDrive, acts as a sort of glue that ties Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 together. Users can automatically back up their photos and videos in full-resolution, so they’re available through SkyDrive’s desktop apps, mobile apps and Website.

By holding the Home button on a Windows Phone, users can dictate a voice memo with OneNote, and it’ll sync with SkyDrive so it’s available everywhere.

As with previous versions of Windows Phone, Office allows users to save their documents to SkyDrive, though this doesn’t happen automatically.

Jason Cross, TechHive
Some of the features that Microsoft demoed during Monday’s press event

Xbox Music and local music

Xbox Music, the streaming service Microsoft announced earlier this month, will be available on Windows Phone 8, as one would expect. It provides millions of streaming tracks for free, and users can create playlists on Windows 8 devices that sync to the phone through the Internet.

“Your music is going to be available where ever you want it: Windows PC, Windows Phone, and Xbox,” Belfiore said.

Microsoft also wants to help people break away from iTunes or other music services, with desktop sync apps for Windows 8 and Mac that allow iTunes libraries and playlists to carry over to Windows Phone 8.

Windows Phone 8 hardware

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gave some more details on the previously-announced launch lineup of Windows Phone 8 handsets, including Nokia’s Lumia 920 and 820, HTC’s Windows Phone 8X and 8S, and Samsung’s Ativ S. All of these phones will go on sale in Europe this weekend, and will roll out worldwide in November.

Jason Cross, TechHive
From left to right, Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore, Steve Ballmer, and actress Jessica Alba show off new Windows Phone 8 hardware at a Monday press event.

As for the U.S, Verizon will offer the HTC Windows Phone 8X for $199 and the Nokia Lumia 822 for $49 starting in November. Verizon has exclusive access to the Samsung Ativ Odyssey, which looks like an Ativ S variant; it goes on sale in December, with no price announced.

According to Ballmer, Microsoft’s retail stores will have every Windows Phone 8 device available for sale in the U.S.

 ”If you weren’t convinced yet, Microsoft is all in. We brought the best of Microsoft to all these devices,” Ballmer told reporters in San Francisco.

T-Mobile will offer the HTC Windows Phone 8X for $150 and the Nokia Lumia 810 for $100, both on November 14. Meanwhile, AT&T has slated November releases for the Nokia Lumia 920 and Lumia 820, HTC Windows Phone 8X; no price given for any of the three Windows Phone 8 devices.

This story, "Microsoft announces Windows Phone 8" was originally published by TechHive.

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