Microsoft has spent a lot of time, care and money to convince the public that Windows Phone 7 devices are just as attractive an option as the iPhone or various Android-based devices. However, the company recently announced the next-gen Windows Phone 8 (WP8) operating system is coming by the end of the year, and it won't be backwards compatible with the hardware found in current generation models. This begs the question: should you buy a Windows Phone right now or wait for the next version?
The benefits of Windows Phone 8
Windows Phone 8 is bringing a bunch of hardware updates to the strictly controlled Windows Phone ecosystem, including support for multi-core processors, high-definition displays, microSD storage and NFC data-sharing radio technology. (NFC can be used to make payments directly from your smartphone.) The upgrades should help Windows Phones stay neck-and-neck with the competition, technology-wise.
Some interface changes are also on the way; the Live Tiles that make up a Windows Phone's home screen will be resizeable in Windows Phone 8, letting you expand the Tiles you use frequently and shrink lesser-utilized programs. The platform will also tap Nokia's Navteq service for native turn-by-turn map navigation.
Perhaps more importantly, Windows Phone 8 will be built around the same core software as the upcoming Windows 8 desktop operating system, which makes it easy for developers to create software that works on both platforms. It should also make sharing content between your WP8 phone and Windows 8 computers and tablets a breeze. That may just be the ace in the hole that turns Windows Phones into a winner for Microsoft.
The downside for current Windows Phones
Until Windows Phone 8 devices hit the streets this fall, only current-generation Windows Phone 7 models will be available at retail, and as I've said, hardware differences mean that these phones won't be able to upgrade to Windows Phone 8.
Picking up a new phone usually means locking yourself in to a new, two year contract with a cell phone carrier, and if you pick a Windows Phone up now, it will already be obsolete in less than six months. A planned update will bring resizeable Live Tiles to current phones, but none of the additional Windows Phone 8 features will make the backwards jump.
Also, while all of the apps currently in the Windows Phone Marketplace will work on Windows Phone 8 devices, apps that are made for Windows Phone 8 won't run on current-gen Windows Phones. What you see right now is basically what you get -- if a hot new Windows Phone 8-optimized game drops in 2013, you won't be able to play it on a Windows Phone 7. Current Windows phones are already criticized for their comparatively paltry app selection, and developers will be unlikely to continue making Windows Phone 7 apps when Windows Phone 8 is available.
Should you buy a Windows Phone now?
So, your cell phone contract is up. Should you pick up a current Windows Phone?
Depending on your usage plans, possibly.
If you're constantly downloading new apps or are intrigued by the concept of tying your smartphone in deeply with a Windows 8 PC, tablet or laptop when that operating system launches, your best bet is to sit tight with the phone you're currently using and wait for Windows Phone 8 devices to come to market. Or, you could swap in your Windows Phone for an Android or iPhone.
On the other hand, if you only use basic functions on your phone -- such as calling, texting, checking email and web browsing -- and don't care about bells and whistles like turn-by-turn navigation, HD screens or microSD card support, a Windows Phone 7 device you buy today would still work just as well two years from now -- and the Nokia Lumia 900 is a beautiful phone. Just be aware that you won't be able to cheaply reverse your decision if you change your mind after entering a new two-year contract.
No matter which option you choose, our extensive cell phone reports can help you make an informed decision. There aren't any Windows Phone 8 devices in there yet, but you'll find most everything else.