Microsoft has announced that the first smartphones running Windows Phone 8 will ship this coming weekend. Phones from Nokia, Samsung, HTC will be available from US carriers including AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon.

At first glance, Windows Phone 8 looks a lot like Windows Phone 7. Both are defined by the colorful, customizable live tiles on the home screen. But the new software adds a “Kid’s Corner,” customizable lock screen, the ability to sync with a Windows 8 computer and much more.

Nokia Lumia 820 and 920

Here are some of the highlights:

  • The new Rooms feature lets you create private groups with which you can chat, share pictures, calendars, or other items.
  • Kid’s Corner lets you hand your phone to your kids, knowing that they can access certain games and apps without accessing the full functionality of your phone so they won’t send messages, make calls, or look at any other umm… sensitive content you don’t want them seeing.
  • Data Sense compresses pictures on the web and other data to help save bandwidth, and helps you stay within your monthly limits by showing you how much data each app is using. This feature will be available from select mobile carriers.
  • Windows Phone 8 includes support for NFC technology with a new Wallet feature for mobile payments.
  • Skype can now be used as an always-on service when you install the standalone Skype app. This lets you place and receive calls over Skype as if they were normal phone calls.
  • There are also new tools to synchronize your data between devices. Photos can automatically be uploaded to your SkyDrive account, and there’s a new Windows 8 app for synchronizing data between your PC and phone.

While there still aren’t as many third party apps for Windows Phone as there are for competing platforms including iOS and Android, Microsoft says “46 of the top 50” mobile apps are already available for Windows Phone 8.

There are new Facebook and Twitter apps, and Pandora has introduced a new app that gives users 1 year of free access to ad-free music streams.

Some of the biggest changes behind Windows Phone 8 are things you can’t see. For instance, the smartphone operating system is now powered by the Windows NT kernel… the same core that powers the Windows 8 operating system for tablet, notebook, and desktop computers. That makes WP8 a much more powerful operating system than Windows Phone 7.5 and earlier, and helps ensure cross-platform compatibility between Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. In fact, both operating systems include versions of the same Internet Explorer 10 web browser.

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