Windows may be the underdog in the war of smartphone operating systems, but it offers a mobile experience you can't find anywhere else. The Windows home screen features a completely customizable Live Tile grid, which gives you at-a-glance, dynamically updated views of your email, text messages, phone calls, Tweets, Facebook updates and breaking news, all at the press of the power button. It comes with Microsoft Office pre-installed, so you can make last-minute edits to that big PowerPoint presentation. And you can take advantage of the camera lenses that only Windows phones offer, with optical image stabilization and astounding megapixel counts.
Since the OS is uniform from one device to the next, making a decision about which to buy involves picking the right hardware. Three companies make Windows phones for the U.S. market: Nokia, HTC and Samsung. Samsung's options are decent and HTC's are beautiful, but Nokia is the true powerhouse. It's designed Windows phones almost exclusively for several years, and its mobile division will soon be acquired by Microsoft. Plus, Nokia's Lumia line boasts the best smartphone cameras in the world.
If you're looking at our top 10 Windows phones, start with Nokia's models. The company's numbering system can feel obtuse, but models with bigger numbers tend to offer better components. The Lumia 928, available at Verizon, is a powerful entry that's free on contract. The Lumia 1020 has the best smartphone camera we've ever seen, packing a stunning 41 megapixels. It's available from AT&T, as is the Lumia 1520: the ultimate Windows phablet with a processor that blows away every other Windows phone. If you're having trouble making a decision, check out the articles on Windows phones we've put together; they're sure to help.
There are a few basics you should look out for when shopping for any Windows smartphone. Keep them in mind as you're browsing our reviews and reading up on our comparisons, and you'll have the perfect pick in your hand in no time:
The look, feel and construction of a phone will have a huge impact on your day-to-day life. Do you want something light and easy to carry around, or something with a big, bright, high-resolution screen? A great deal of personal preference goes into the decision, but in general, look for lighter phones with higher pixel densities. The more pixels a phone's screen packs into every inch, the sharper its image.
The majority of Windows phones offer screen resolutions of 1280 x 720 or 1280 x 768. This is impressive, but if you crave a true HD experience, turn to a screen with 1920 x 1080 resolution, also known as 1080p. It will give you all the crispness of your best home theater TV in a device you can carry anywhere.
If Windows phones are known for anything, it's their cameras. Nokia's Lumia series has become world-renowned for its superb optics, squeezing professional-quality photographic hardware and software into the phone in your pocket. When comparing cameras on phones, keep an eye on the following:
Image Resolution: The higher the megapixel count, the bigger and more detailed the image. If you buy a phone with an incredibly high photographic resolution – 20 megapixels or more – you can zoom in on your subject without sacrificing quality.
Optical Image Stabilization: Usually a rare and coveted feature in a phone, OIS is available on a variety of Windows devices. It dynamically aligns the camera's lens and sensor to help compensate for vibrations, which dramatically increases the sharpness of your photos. Many phones have digital image stabilization, but optical stabilization tends to be superior.
Manual Settings: Controlling capture settings such as exposure and white-balance can give you tremendous creative freedom when taking pictures. Even if you're not a professional photographer, spend some time learning the basics and you'll take photos that will stun your friends.
The more often you use your phone, the more important battery life will be to you. A battery's capacity, measured in milliamp-hours (mAh), often reflects its overall longevity. If you tend to prefer certain activities, however – for example, if you like to browse the web or watch video more than talk on the phone – keep an eye on specific test result numbers. Many phones will let you talk for hours at a time, but can only stream video or display webpages for a few hours before shutting down.
The biggest differentiating factor between two phones is often the speed of their respective processors. Though the vast majority of Windows phones sport dual-core processors, newer models are beginning to offer quad-core chips, which can muscle through intensive applications with ease.
You should also consider the amount of internal storage available in each phone, and whether it's compatible with microSD expansion cards. Most Windows phones offer either 16 or 32GB of internal storage for your apps, photos, music and videos. If you need more space, microSD cards can offer up to 64GB of room, so long as the phone has an expansion slot.
When it comes to doing fun things with your phone, built-in hardware extras can be as important as the apps you download. All phones have an accelerometer, for example, and most have a compass, but only the best Windows 8 phones sport a gyroscope. Gyroscopes track a phone's orientation, which can be useful in apps that do things like help you exercise or stargaze.
Two fun features to look for are near field communication chips and FM radio tuners. NFC chips can talk to other chips at extremely short distances – a handful of inches, at most. This allows you to do things like pay for meals with your phone by tapping it against a special scanner at certain stores and restaurants. FM tuners, meanwhile, let you listen to over-the-air broadcasts from local radio stations.
Unfortunately, most Windows phones are exclusive to individual carriers. AT&T has the widest selection of devices, but every carrier offers some variant of the Windows phone experience. If you're already with a carrier and don't plan to switch, be sure to check which phones are available with that carrier.
Windows phones have an uphill battle ahead of them. With the success of Android and iOS, there are few options available to those of us who love the clean lines and bright colors of the Windows Phone 8 interface. Thankfully, many of the Windows phones that are available are superb. If you love Microsoft Office or are a fan of photography, there's no better option out there.