When you look at the smartphone market today compared to just a few years ago, you'd be surprised at just how different it is. Today's smartphones are slowly taking on more features of PCs than phones – and none more so than the recent release of Windows Phone 8.
- Windows Phone 8 - release date and latest details
iOS 6, Android 4.1 and now Windows Phone 8 are moving more quickly than ever, constantly trying to out-do the others to gain more customers, but also to stay at the forefront of an ever-changing market.
Windows Phone 8 builds upon the easy to recognise system of "Live Tiles". To those unfamiliar, these are squares placed on the home screen that represent different apps, such as a music player or for messaging, that are interactive.
Whilst remaining fundamentally the same, updates from the Windows Phone 7 interface now bring more customisable tiles, to allow you to squeeze even more onto your screen. Another major update sees the company bringing in data management via DataSmart, which perfect for those on limited contracts.
Android 4.1 takes the customisable homescreens to the next level. Widgets have been always been the heart of the Android OS, and Jelly Bean makes these easier to move, with homescreens adapting to accommodate the placement and resizing of your widgets. These are also easily removed with a quick swipe upwards in edit mode.
Apple uses a tried and trusted formula, based upon simplicity. No widgets, no tiles, just a grid of app icons that you scroll through from the home page. Each iteration has added greater functionality, with iOS 6 strengthening Siri and even locking children out of certain areas.
Android 4.1 somewhat unsurprisingly, bases its mapping system on the well known Google Maps, bringing Street View, 3D and indoor mapping. Integrating with Google Now, the mapping system continues the sat-nav experience for both pedestrians and motorists, providing details of how and when to leave to get to your appointments on time.
Windows Phone 8 surprisingly ditches Microsoft's proprietary Bing Maps. On the other hand, its new system is hardly shocking. Windows Phone 8 now brings in the Nokia mapping system, bringing 3D street navigation, and Nokia's Navteq Traffic Service.
iOS has traditionally also based their mapping on Google's offering. This all changes with iOS 6, with Apple's new proprietary system providing turn by turn navigation, integration with Yelp for business listings, and Siri for voice control. Like the others, there are also 3D maps, a traffic service and a satellite view.
Traffic data is prevalent through all three, although Apple has taken this one step further by allowing anonymised croud-sourced data at the sites of traffic congestion to help you understand what's going on.
Microsoft hasn't skimped on Windows Phone 8's Camera app, getting a new simple, clean look, with a small menu button that accesses the camera's various settings. Nokia branded handsets are also set to bring over the PureView technology that was made famous in the Nokia 808 PureView.
Android 4.1's camera system brings in more changes. It's faster than ever, and has a fast review system making editing and removing images simpler.
There are also varying scene modes, customisable levels white balance and exposure, all helping you to create your ideal shot. A panoramic mode and photo editing are also thrown in, alongside the impressive zero shutter lag.
iOS 6 builds upon the work from iOS 5, debuted on the iPhone 4S. Continuing the simplicity theme, settings are all sorted automatically, including whether the flash is used or not. Focus is also automatic, unless you specify a certain area by touching the screen. For those who require a physical shutter button, iOS also allows the use of the up volume button as well as the on screen option.
Windows Phone 8 packs in Microsoft Wallet, making use of any NFC technology packed into handsets. This is all set to tie in to varying applications installed on the phone, allowing payment via services such as Paypal. Other applications, such as instant pairing of Bluetooth accessories will also be supported.
Google also seems keen to use NFC, using services such as Android Beam and Google Wallet (currently only available in the US). The premier service allows for the instantaneous sharing of contacts, media and apps between two enabled phones, whilst the latter stores your card details to allow instant payment in stores.
Google's Android beam gets an overhaul in 4.1. It now provides instant transfer of photos, videos and apps, as well as the instantaneous pairing of NFC enabled Bluetooth devices.
iOS 6 brings in Passbook. Whilst not entirely a NFC based app, it does provide a lot of the same features, keeping varying tickets to sports, the theatre, airlines or store cards all in one easy to access, and constantly updated place.
We're expecting Apple to announce NFC capabilities in the iPhone 5 – given the fact rivals are all over the contactless technology,
Internet browsing on Android 4.1 comes with the standard Android Browser; however the premier Jelly Bean device, the Google Nexus 7 comes with Chrome.
The standard browser packs in some very cool security features, as well as the ability to save pages for offline reading and tabbed browsing. Also available is Google Chrome, which ports over many of the desktop features, as well syncing history and bookmarks as well as a slicker experience for Android 4.0+ devices.
Windows Phone 8 takes internet browsing very seriously, bringing the latest version of Internet Explorer, IE10. This will help keep WP8 at the forefront of the mobile internet browsing, but also keeps you safe whilst you do. IE10 comes with a phishing filter and SmartScreen service to make it harder for you to be tracked by malicious websites.
Safari on the original iPhone changed the level of acceptability from mobile browsing, and iOS 6 brings over more features such as offline reading and integration to iCloud allowing for tab syncing. Plus there are also Smart App Banners which help sites promote their apps, bringing a richer cohesion to the whole iOS platform.
One area that Windows has suffered from before is microSD card support. Thankfully this is rectified in Windows Phone 8, as now Windows Phone 8 allows for media to be easily stored and accessed via a microSD card, as well as supporting the installation of apps onto it. Elsewhere is the support for 1280 x 768 and 1280 x 720 resolutions on top of the current 800 x 480.
Android 4.1 is now a much smoother experience, providing 60fps across the whole device. Google Play is also at the heart of the whole OS, bringing Music, Movies and eBooks right to the forefront.
Google Music gives a decent option for storing and accessing your music, and the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S3 build on the OS to support a fantastic range of video and audio formats too.
Apps to microSD has also been a standard feature of Android 2.2+, as well as supporting stored media. Google Play media however, is all stored free in the cloud and portable to all your devices.
Believe it or not… the company that brought us the iPod also has media prevalent on its OS. It doesn't provide microSD support, but Apple has a habit of making devices with large internal storage to compensate.
Media is handled via both wired and wireless access via iCloud to the iTunes store, which has long provided music and films.
However, the screen size of the iPhone is still too small for extended movie watching, although the on-board audio support is among the best around for a music marathon on the way to work, be it on the iPad, iPod touch or iPhone.
Microsoft went out of its way to show off the new Microsoft Surface tablet, but this is running Windows 8. Whilst there is no word from Microsoft as to whether we will see a Windows Phone 8 Tablet, we would bet that it ties in strongly to Windows 8, as they are both based upon the same kernel to allow easy development on both.
As mentioned, Windows Phone 8 also now supports the 1280x768 resolution, so seeing a tablet running the mobile OS is not as farfetched as it might once have been.
Android 4.0 was billed as the operating system that united both smartphone technology with tablet PCs. It took the best of 2.3 (Gingerbread) and combined it with 3.2 (Honeycomb) to provide a seamless experience that has been shown off well on the likes of the Asus Transformer Prime and now Android 4.1 takes that up another level, being debuted on the Google Nexus 7 device.
iOS also has a tablet…you may have heard of it… the iPad. Taking the world by storm since its release, the iPad has grown in popularity and is boosted by iOS 6 bringing Siri over from the iPhone 4S to the new iPad.
iOS 6 is scalable, but also basic in some people's eyes, as well as being too similar to the iPhone experience – se Windows Phone 8's compatibility with 'big' Windows could be a big selling point for those looking for a genuine, but compatible, difference between their tablet and smartphone.
Apple continue to set the world alight, with the iPhone 4S and iPad selling in record numbers across the globe. Android 4.1 Jelly Bean takes the Cupertino giant head on, and with 400m Android devices (up from 100m last year) and 1m daily activations (up from 400k), it looks like it can.
Jellybean is not the revolution we expected, but we also expected the iPhone 5, and look how the iPhone 4S turned out. Android 4.1 is faster, smoother and much better looking, and it cracks the distinction between Phone and Tablet devices in a way it hasn't before.
With Windows Phone 8 now announced, the key to Android's success will be how it updates its devices. OTA updates are due mid July on selected devices, but the key is Google releasing the platform kits to partners. Thankfully it's now doing this sooner, so devices should be updated a lot quicker after the initial software release.