I attended a Windows Phone 8 panel discussion with Microsoft yesterday, followed by a hands-on with the HTC 8X.

The big focus around Windows Phone 8 is the ability to personalise the homescreen to suit your needs; letting you focus on what’s important to you.

Microsoft calls it the most personal smartphone out there and says its your “true fingerprint”; and to quote Anthony Doherty, Operator Channel Executive at Microsoft SA, “it’s not built for everyone but built for each one of you.”

Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 share the same core technology, meaning the user will experience the same common user interface; and for example, office documents can be synced with SkyDrive allowing the user to work from anywhere. 

Luca Decour, Microsoft’s Operator Channels Business Development Manager took us through the 4 “hero” features of Windows Phone 8:

SkyDrive – sync and store data to the cloud and access it from your local device or via Web. Save your phone settings here so when you switch between WP8 devices, settings will be carried over (you won’t lose messages, etc).
Live Tiles – customise live tiles on your homescreen by size, or app. Create shortcuts for Facebook, Twitter, mail, photo galleries, etc. I love the visual display of live tiles.
Live Apps – view information in real-time on your live tile app without having to launch the app. Example, the weather app displays information that you can access at a glance.
Kids Corner – essentially a phone within a phone. The safest way for kids to play on a phone, which offers a limited experience and a password is required to exit, which takes you back to your real phone.

Other features include the ability to access notifications from your locked homescreen for up to 5 of your favourite apps. Quick mention on the existing WP People Hub is the ability on WP8 to create different rooms (friends, family, colleagues) and here you can share photos, calendars and chat to each other. Some functionality from here is available on other platforms.

The phone is enterprise ready. Office Hub gives you access to Outlook; SharePoint; Office; SkyDrive; Exchange; Office 365; Calendars; etc. Once you download Skype, it will be integrated in your Contacts list. Also, WP8 can sync with iTunes.

More than 120,000 apps are now available on the Windows Phone Store. Microsoft says they’ve narrowed down the 50 most popular apps globally, and 46 of them will be available on launch; with a bunch of locally-relevant apps (News24, SuperSport, DStv, Yellow Pages). Each app is verified before appearing on the WP Store and users don’t have to worry about malware. You can ‘try before you buy’ apps. On the camera side, a selection of filters are built-in and you have the option to download different lenses.

After the panel discussion with Microsoft, I got to play very briefly with the Windows Phone 8X by HTC. It’s their new flagship device and will be the first WP8 device to launch locally and should be available mid-November.

What I like about the 8X is its unique design which is really comfortably in your hand; it doesn’t feel fragile, as lightweight as it is at 130g. It has a 4.3-inch touchscreen with 720p HD resolution; is powered by 1.5GHz dual-core processor; comes with 16GB built-in storage; has an 8-megapixel back camera & 2.1-megapixel front camera with built-in wide angle lens; and lastly, a WP first, Beats Audio (exclusive to HTC). The baby brother to the 8X is the 8S, which is expected locally in December.

HTC, Nokia and Samsung Windows Phone 8 handsets will be available from network operators as of this month.