Windows Phone 8 initial impressions

Today’s eagerly anticipated Windows Phone 8 event ended on a high note: free phones! Every attendee received an HTC Windows Phone 8X. The candy-colored after-event included tables tagged with NFC codes for an array of apps, including OpenTable, Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix. Here’s what we can tell you after having the hardware in hand for the past few hours: This exceedingly handsome handset speaks to the strengths of Windows Phone 8.

Look and feel

Microsoft's big Windows Phone 8 announcement.

HTC’s flagship smartphone, the Windows Phone 8X is thin and extremely light, and has a 4.3-inch Gorilla Glass 2 touchscreen. The rear of the handset is covered in a soft-touch material that makes the phone pleasant to hold and easy to keep a firm grip on. A few people in our offices have remarked that the 8X looks as though it has a case on it, and the handset does feel a bit cushioned by the soft-touch coating. The curved edges and back make the phone feel comfortable in your hand.

The SIM card, volume rocker buttons, and camera shutter button are located along the right side of the handset; the Micro-USB port is on the bottom; and the headphone jack and power button are along the top. The power button doesn’t depress with quite as firm a click as I would prefer, but the phone's 720p-resolution screen is crystal clear and the camera takes impressive photos. The phone operates smoothly, responding to commands quickly and fluidly. The screen is lovely, and I had fun resizing the Live Tiles and arranging the home screen with my personal pins. Tweaking the size of the tiles and choosing which apps appear in Live Tiles contribute to a strong feeling that your phone really is yours: You prioritize the items you see, and you get to pin what’s most important to you.

The software side

HTC's Windows Phone 8X.

In addition to a lineup of stellar hardware, Microsoft revealed some software details about Windows Phone 8: Apps can integrate directly with the lock screen, a whole new version of Skype comes integrated with Windows Phone 8, and Pandora will finally be available in 2013 (ad-free for one year). Microsoft also announced that Windows Phone 8 has optimized other apps for the operating system, such as Facebook and Twitter, and has expanded the available apps to include forty-six of the top fifty apps.

Other new elements include Kids Corner, which allows you to create an alternate screen that holds apps you’ve approved for your children, and Rooms, an update to what Microsoft previously called 'Groups'. Rooms lets you associate a group of contacts and share calendar appointments, notes, and location within that group—some of which you can  share with friends who have phones that run other operating systems. Both of these great features indicate how dedicated Microsoft is to personalization and customization on Windows Phone 8, a concept that takes a back seat only to the ideas of integration and functionality across devices.

I spent a good 10 minutes wandering around the event, downloading apps using the NFC chips in the tables. Each app downloaded quickly, and the NFC almost always worked on the first try. Webpages loaded quickly, as did maps and directions. Adding and organizing contacts into Rooms was no sweat, and you still have the option of adding contacts to the less-formal Groups. The more I played with it, the more excited I became about the customization features.

With Windows Phone 8 details following hard on the heels of Microsoft's Windows 8 and Surface announcements, the company has emphasized the operating system's ability to sync documents, photos, and music across laptops, desktops, tablets, and smartphones. I haven’t had an opportunity to check out that particular aspect of the OS just yet, but stay tuned, because we should have additional details to report within the next day or so.

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