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We’ve been overloading on Windows 8 and Surface with Windows RT for the past few weeks, but these aren’t the only products Microsoft is launching this busy holiday season. Today, the firm finally took the wraps off Windows Phone 8, its best-ever smart phone platform. And while I’ll be covering this system in-depth in the weeks ahead with Feature Focus and Tips articles and device reviews, I figured you’d like a single, simple guide to what’s new first.

This is it.

Before pushing ahead, to be sure to read my previous Windows Phone 8 articles, including:

Windows Phone 8 Preview
Windows Phone 8 Unveiled
Windows Phone Summit
Windows Phone 8 Detailed in SDK Leak
Windows Phone 8: Notes from the SDK

Because there’s so much going on with this release, this article will serve as a mile-high fly-by. I’ll be diving into specific new features in more detail at a later time.

Note: All of the screenshot here were provided by Microsoft.

Big themes

Microsoft tells me that it thinks of Windows Phone 8 in the context of three major themes: The most personal smart phone experience in the market, peace of mind, and that it’s just Windows.

The most personal smart phone. The first theme isn’t hard to understand: With its deep integration with online services, Windows Phone has always delivered a far more personal experience than any competing device, and that’s more true than ever in Windows Phone 8.

Peace of mind. With the most comprehensive e-wallet experience available in any mobile platform, a new parental controls mode called Kid’s Corner, and new device encryption features based on those in desktop Windows versions, Windows Phone 8 is the safest and more secure smart phone platform on earth, Microsoft says.

It’s just Windows. While Apple based iOS on Mac OS X, it’s fair to say that Windows Phone 8 is Windows 8, or could be considered just another product edition of Windows 8, similar to Windows RT. No, you can’t run Windows 8/RT apps on the phone, or vice versa. But Windows Phone 8 utilizes the same hardware drivers and technologies, a stunning amount of overlap that will make the handset platform a much more obvious choice.

More markets

Windows Phone 8 now supports 50 UI languages, 60 keyboard languages, and purchases from the new Windows Phone Store in 191 countries.

Yes, there’s new stuff

When Microsoft first revealed Windows Phone 8 at the Windows Phone Summit back in June, it highlighted mostly platform-level features and promised that it would more fully disclose new end user features at a later time. That time is now, and while the remainder of this article will touch on all of that, Microsoft highlights a few big areas of expansion, including downloadable Nokia maps, improved Local Scout, Bing with socialized search, new personal recommendation service, parental controls, and much, much more.

Sync with desktop PCs, devices, and Macs

There have been a lot of questions around how Windows Phone 8 devices will sync with desktop computers and emerging new device types such as those based on Surface RT. Here’s the skinny: Microsoft has created new desktop sync applications only for Windows Phone 8—Windows Phone 7 will continue to use the old Zune PC software—and, yes, that says applications. There’s a Metro-style Windows Phone app for both Windows 8 and Windows RT, of course. But there’s also a desktop version of the Windows Phone application for both Windows 7 and Windows 8. And a new Mac application as well. Each integrates with the Windows Media Player (and thus Zune PC software) and Apple iTunes collections and playlists you already have on your PC, so you can easily make the switch.

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Desktop PC and device Explorer integration

There’s another new integration bit when you connect a Windows Phone 8 handset to your Windows 7, Windows 8, or Windows RT PC or device: The phone shows up in File Explorer and you can browse its file system just like any other external hard drive. This means that, yes, you can finally copy files back and forth between Windows Phone and Windows using normal drag and drop. (And if your Windows Phone has an SD card inside, it will appear as a separate drive as well.)

A much bigger upgrade than other smart phone OS upgrades

Where anyone reasonable would agree that Apple’s recently launched iOS 6 is a fairly minor affair, and that the 4.x updates to Android 4.0 are likewise minor, Windows Phone 8 is a mammoth technological achievement, given the Windows 8 code base, and one that comes with hundreds of new features. After similarly adding hundreds of new features to Windows Phone 7.5 “Mango” last year, Microsoft says, they’re doing it again this year. And now that the Windows plumbing is in place, the firm intends to focus on the user experience going forward. So it could be a great year for Windows Phone.

New: Shared core with Windows 8

As noted previously, Windows Phone 8 may look like an evolutionary update to Windows Phone 7.x, which was based on Windows CE. But’s it’s much more than that. Under the covers, Windows Phone 8 is Windows 8, with the same kernel and core technologies and driver model. Windows Phone 8 now supports multi-core processors—though the first-gen devices are all dual-core—plus multiple screen resolutions (the old 480 x 800 plus both 1280 x 768 and 1280 x 720, or 720p), and removable microSD storage.

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Updated: Live tiles

Windows Phone’s Start screen, with its innovative live tiles, has always set this system apart from the competition. In Windows Phone 8, live tiles are even better with a new smaller tile size that fits four tiles in the space that previously occupied just a single medium-sized tile. And with apps now supporting all three tile sizes—there’s a larger, rectangular size as well—its easier than ever to create the customized, personalized Start screen that highlights the content that matters the most to you. It seems like a small thing, but this new ability has significantly enhanced what was already the best smart phone UI around.

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Improved: Live apps

In addition to live tiles, Windows Phone 8 also supports a new generation of live apps that can integrate even more closely with your handset experience. Live apps can do things like provide deals (Groupon), flight information (Delta), or headlines (CNN), not just to their tiles, but to the lock screen as well. This takes the Windows Phone notion of “glance and go” to all new heights and continues the Windows Phone advantage over other smart phone apps, which require you to navigate in and out of apps manually to find out what’s going on.

New: Data Sense

Data Sense is a set of technologies that helps customers on metered mobile broadband connections save bandwidth so they can use their phone more. This includes IE 10 bandwidth compression, integration with Wi-Fi to help find nearby hotspots and automatically connect, adjusting network settings as you approach your data plan limit in each billing month, and a tile- and app-based UI that shows where you are within your monthly limit and how much data each app is using. Data Sense also provides pop-up notifications and Live Tile updates when you’re getting close to the limit.

Improved: People hub

With Skype integration and new features like Rooms (and improved Groups), the People hub, an integrated contacts list that also works with multiple email accounts, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, is better than ever.

New: Rooms

A new Rooms feature lets you stay connected with groups of people, offering chat, shared calendars, shared photo and video albums, and automatic syncing for all members. (Some functionality requires Windows Phone 8.)

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Improved: Groups

The groups feature from Windows Phone 7.x has been improved to support Microsoft account sync so that you can now access them from Hotmail and Outlook.com as well.

New: Kid’s Corner

A new parental controls feature called Kid’s Corner provides a special run mode, accessible by swiping left from the lock screen, that’s safe for kids. We’ve all been out in the world with our kids, waiting in line, sitting in a restaurant, or whatever, and had them ask to use our phones. Kid’s Corner not only makes this possible, but it makes this safe, since they can’t access your data, or access any content you don’t explicitly approve. This includes apps, games, music, and videos.

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New: Skype and third-party VoIP apps

Windows Phone 8 now supports integration with Skype and third-party VoIP apps, which can take over for the phone app and use the Windows Phone dialer, contacts list, and more. (Skype is still a separate app that needs to be installed from the Windows Phone Store, but it integrates deeply with the phone once installed.) Skype and these other apps can run in the background and be ready whenever a call or other request comes in.

New: NFC share

NFC-equipped Windows Phone 8 handsets can share information with each other—contacts, pictures, music, and much more—using NFC Tap + Send.

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Improved: Pictures and Camera

While Apple has copied Windows Phone’s innovative “pocket to picture” functionality as well as they can without a hardware camera button, Microsoft is pushing things forward yet again in Windows Phone 8, which supports an improved viewfinder with pinch zoom, a new generation of Lenses apps that can almost infinitely expand the capabilities of the camera, integrated photo editing tools, improved sync (with, yes, full-sized photo sync to SkyDrive over Wi-Fi), improved sharing (NFC), support for microSD-based photo storage, multi-select in photo and video albums, and video sharing.

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Improved: Music + Videos

The Music + Videos hub has been significantly upgraded with support for the Xbox Music and Xbox Video services, Xbox Music Pass, Xbox Music Store, Cloud Collection (where purchased music is automatically stored and made accessible to your device over the air), microSD support for content storage, and PC/device-to-phone content sync with new a Metro-style app and desktop application. When you view artist information, a new buzz panel displays Twitter feeds, images, and new about that artist. And yes, podcasts are still supported.

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Improved: Games

The Games hub has been enhanced with a new notifications view that now supports turn notifications, friend requests, beacons, and new message alerts. Xbox LIVE games for Windows Phone 8 offer in-game purchases, a Direct3D-based gaming experience and native development that will make porting from other platforms (including Windows) much easier, and more.

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Improved: Windows Phone Store

Previously called Windows Phone Marketplace, this online store features dramatically improved search, new views (new and rising apps, top paid apps, best-rated apps, and so on), personal recommendations, multiple payment options (credit card, PayPal, Microsoft Points, gift cards, Microsoft gift cards), app backup and restore from the cloud, in-app purchases, improved app-to-app communications, and more.

New: Wallet

Microsoft’s e-wallet experience lets you store your credit, debit, loyalty, and membership cards on your device securely, with support for Tap + Pay (France only right now, other markets in early 2013), deal discovery, Wallet apps, and fast card support so you can quickly access those cards that support NFC payments.

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Improved: Office Mobile

The Office hub has been brought up to Office 2013 standards with a new look and feel and new versions of the Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote Mobile (including a separate tile and app icon for OneNote, a first) and document sync with the desktop suite. Outlook Mobile finally provides a dark view for email and voice-to-text email send and reply. 

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Word Mobile includes a new full-screen reading mode. Excel Mobile includes support for charts, smoother navigation, and improved cell selection with new grab handles. PowerPoint Mobile now supports portrait view and includes editable speaker notes. OneNote Mobile is now a share target for photos, support voice note dictation, and features better note navigation and search.

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Improved: Messaging

Microsoft’s integrated mobile messaging solution supports multiple thread selection and deletion, enhanced sharing (photos, contacts, videos, voice notes), location sharing, and a new Word Flow keyboard that features hundreds of new emoticons.

Improved: Internet Explorer 10 Mobile

Microsoft’s mobile web browser is up to seven times faster than IE for Windows Phone 7.5, has a configurable address bar button (choose between Stop/Refresh, Favorites, and Tabs), supports NFC Tap + Share, brings back the lamented Find on Page feature, and utilizes IE 10 security features like SmartScreen and Do Not Track.

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Improved: Bing Search

Tap your Windows Phone’s hardware search button and you’ll notice a ton of new Bing Search features, including Bing Explore (a new panoramic hub experience), new search categories, and improved Local Scout with personal recommendations, and new quick cards for places, products, movies, events, news, deals, and videos.

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Improved: Maps

The excellent Bing Maps experience has been updated with Nokia’s vaunted mapping technology back-end, downloadable maps for offline use, integration with third patty driving apps (including Nokia Drive on Lumia handsets only), and improved traffic data.

Note: Maps is called Nokia Maps on Nokia Lumia handsets running Windows Phone 8.

New: Backup

Windows Phone finally gets a cloud-based backup feature which supports settings, text messages, and photos and videos (that were taken with the device).

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Improved: Over the air updates

While Microsoft promised that Windows Phone 7.x handsets could download some updates over the air, that never really worked out. This time around, all updates can be delivered over the air and don’t require PC sync.

Improved: Multitasking

The simple multitasking scheme from Windows Phone 7.x has been updated to support more background functionality (including for location and VoIP apps). From a user experience standpoint it works as before: Just hold down the Back button to access the task-switcher display.

Improved: Voice capabilities

While Windows Phone has supported voice capabilities including app launches long before anyone had heard of the abomination that is Siri, Windows Phone 8 turns things up a notch with improved features like email and note dictation, deeper app integration, and improved accuracy.

New: Screenshots

After ignoring my pleas for over two years, Microsoft has finally added screenshot support in Windows Phone. Now, you can just press the handset’s Start and power buttons and a screenshot will be taken and saved to the Screenshots album in Photos.

Improved: Themes

As with previous versions of the OS, Windows Phone supports both dark and white background, but the accent color count has been bumped up to a more reasonable 20 choices.

Improved: Lock screen

The Windows Phone 8 lock screen supports exciting new options like live apps (so the lock screen background can be customized by favorite apps, including those that are location aware) and Windows 8-like basic and detailed notification options.

But wait, there’s more

If you read this site, you know the drill. Today’s launch is the beginning of a season of new Windows Phone 8 coverage that will include tips, feature focus articles, and of course reviews of various Windows Phone 8 handsets. So there’s much more to come. And don’t forget my free book-in-the making, currently called Windows Phone Book: No one cares about Windows Phone or the Windows Phone user base more than I do. And I’ll continue making my case for this most innovative of smart phone platforms in the weeks and months ahead.

Stay tuned. There’s more coming.