Microsoft reveals "Update 3" for Windows Phone 8

Since launching Windows Phone 8 towards the end of last year, Microsoft has delivered two major updates to the OS. General Distribution Release 1 (GDR1, known widely by its development codename 'Portico') was released to devices early this year, while the rollout of GDR2 is continuing across the globe. But neither of these two updates has significantly expanded the capabilities of Microsoft's mobile operating system, leading many to criticise the company for not doing enough to improve Windows Phone, even as it lags behind its rivals.

Today, Microsoft revealed details of what's coming in the next big update to the OS, which won't be called "GDR3", as we had expected, but is now being referred to as "Update 3". The company outlined three key objectives of the update: 

  1. Enable incredible new Windows Phone devices.
  2. Enhance the platform with new capabilities for current users and partners.
  3. Improve overall quality."

The first of these new devices will be announced next week, and is expected to include the first Windows Phone phablet, the Nokia Lumia 1520. Handsets like this will take advantage of Update 3's improved support for larger, higher-resolution screens. With 1080p support, the Start screen has, as expected, gained an extra column of tiles, with the ability to display up to six tiles across its width.

Microsoft says that "built-in apps and Hubs like email, Photos, People, and Music and Videos will also be carefully scaled to take advantage of the additional real estate on 6-inch screens."

Again, as we've been expecting, Update 3 also brings platform support for quad-core processors, although Microsoft only mentions the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 by name, suggesting that this may be the only quad-core chipset currently supported. 

Update 3 isn't all about the next generation of handsets though. New features are being introduced that will also come to existing Windows Phone 8 devices. One of the most highly requested features - since Windows Phone 7 launched in 2010, in fact - is a screen rotation lock, and Microsoft has finally delivered. 

You'll also find that another much-requested feature has made it: broader custom ringtone support. At long last, you'll be able to put your own sounds to use on text messages, instant messages, emails, voicemails and reminders. 

A new Driving Mode is being introduced too. When engaged and paired with a Bluetooth device, Driving Mode reduces the number of notifications delivered to the lock screen - such as text messages, calls and alerts - to reduce distractions while you're on the road. 

Many users will welcome the new Mobile Accessibility suite, which includes a screen reader to help visually impaired users manage their calls (including Skype and Lync) and contacts, send messages and emails, browse the web, and get improved audio alerts for alarms, events and low-battery warnings. 

You'll also find improved Bluetooth support, which Microsoft says will improve connection quality to BT accessories. This will complement the improved internet sharing features, which work by pairing the phone with devices over Bluetooth. 

Better storage management settings - a common gripe among users - will make it easier for users to free up space on their devices, with a more granular 'category' view' to show which apps and files are taking up space. Many users will no doubt be delighted by the news that the multitasking view also gives the ability to close apps.

And ticking yet another box on the list of frequently requested features, Microsoft now allows users to connect to WiFi during phone set-up.

Microsoft won't satisfy everyone with Update 3, but with this list of features, it's not only expanding the capabilities of the operating system, but demonstrating its willingness to listen to its users, delivering features that many have been requesting for a long, long time. The company says that the rollout of Update 3 will begin "in the coming weeks and will continue over several months", so don't expect it to land on your device any time soon. 

But for those that don't want to wait, Microsoft today announced its new Developer Preview Program for Windows Phone, which gives early access to the latest OS builds ahead of their public release. If you're a WP developer, or even if you've only created an app using the free Windows Phone App Studio, you'll have the option to install Update 3 on your device from later today.

Source: Microsoft | lower image via Microsoft

Editor's note: This article was updated after publishing to include details on the Windows Phone Developer Preview Program.

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