An in-depth look at Windows 8’s People app

As someone who uses a Windows Phone as my daily driver, I instantly made the connection between Windows Phone’s People Hub and the People app included with the Windows 8 Release Preview. The two apps are quite similar, serving as a single destination for all of your contacts across all of your services. Unfortunately, the People app seems to be missing a few of the People Hub’s nicer features.

The People app is broken up into three main categories: People, What’s new, and Me. People is the default view, and it presents you with a collection of stationary tiles representing your favorite contacts, followed by an alphabetical list of everyone you know on Hotmail, Exchange, Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and more. The current version of the app doesn’t have any way to hide Facebook pages or certain types of contacts, so this list can become very long. To make navigation easier, Microsoft has added a semantic zoom option just like on the Start screen. Invoked by pinching or selecting the ‘-‘ icon next to the scroll bar, semantic zoom lets you quickly jump to any letter in the alphabet. This feature is also available on Windows Phone, but it’s accessed by tapping on one of the letter separators in the contact list. While Windows Phone’s solution is more intuitive, the Windows 8 implementation is easier to access if you’re in the middle of a long list of contacts with the same first letter. The People app also doesn’t have any support for groups – a nice feature on Windows Phone – and contact linking. Microsoft has promised to add the latter feature in a future update, allowing you to essentially merge duplicate contacts from various services.

Select a contact to open their contact card.  Email aliases, messaging services, addresses, and social network profiles are aggregated into four categories: send email, send message, map address (strangely, this brings the map up in the browser, rather than the Maps app), and view profile. If they have more than one option in each category, an arrow can be used to show the rest of the details. This gives the contact card a simple, organized layout, but it’s almost too simple. Showing only the first line of a contact’s address makes it easy to overlook, and things like “write on wall,” company, job title, birthday, and notes are completely absent. Worse, your contact’s phone number isn’t displayed anywhere! Granted, it would be difficult to actually place a call from a PC or tablet (unless you’re using a VOIP app, of course), but it should still be displayed. Thankfully, all of these details and more are present when actually editing a contact, and the information can be viewed by selecting View Profile > More Details.

To the left of the contact details is a list of recent updates on Facebook and Twitter, as well as any photos they might have shared. As you’d expect, you can like and comment on Facebook updates, as well as favorite, retweet (but not RT and edit), and reply to tweets. The most recent two or three updates are shown off the bat, with the rest accessible by selecting “All updates.” Navigating through photos is done by swiping left and right or scrolling. Selecting an actual photo brings up full screen mode, allowing you to see comments and likes specific to that image. The “What’s new” section of the People app is presented in the same way as “All updates” for a specific contact, but it displays everything from all of your friends, family members, Facebook pages, etc.

The final section, Me, displays the your contact card, recent updates, notifications, and photos. The notifications section aggregates data from Facebook and Twitter, but it doesn’t sync with Windows Phone. So if someone comments on one of your Facebook posts, you’ll have to clear the notifications in both the People app and the People Hub. I’ve also noticed a glitch where attempting to select an unsupported notification type (sometimes a Facebook Page, for example), will cause the entire app to stop responding and simply show a blank screen. Strangely, while you can interact with existing content on social networks, it’s impossible to create a new post. I often use Windows Phone’s People Hub to simultaneously post to Facebook, Twitter, and Windows Live, so this omission is very disappointing.

As with all Windows 8 apps, invoking the app bar surfaces additional options. A link to the “main menu” of the People app is always displayed on the left-hand side, but the options on the right are context-sensitive. The People section has options for leaving feedback (this will be removed before launch), adding a new contact, and toggling contact sort between “all” and “online only.” Online contacts, of course, always have a green bar displayed to the left of their profile picture. Looking at a contact card, you’ll see options to pin the contact to your Start screen, favorite them for easy access, and edit details. The save and close options are also hidden down here, although the app bar is displayed by default when editing a contact. The What’s new section swaps out the latter two options for refresh and filter, which lets you narrow down updates to just those from Facebook, Twitter, or everything. Posts, meanwhile, will let you “view on Facebook,” refresh, and hide the comments/likes sidebar. Finally, Me lets you edit your own profile.

The People app also has great support for Windows 8’s charms. Search, devices, and settings act as you’d expect, letting you find content, add new accounts, modify account settings like how often to check for updates, etc. But the share contract is where it really shines. You can’t actually share anything from within the People app, but it will allow you to share just about anything in any other app on Facebook and Twitter. It’s simple, intuitive, and convenient. The People app also has a picker, allowing you to select a contact from the Mail or Messaging apps, for example.

Finally, the live tile displays a mosaic of five randomly chosen contacts, along with any notifications you might have received. I happen to prefer the mosaic layout on Windows Phone, but Windows 8’s design isn’t bad either. More importantly, putting notifications on the People app live tile (rather than requiring you to pin the Me tile as on Windows Phone) makes it even easier to see when something new is going on.

The People app included with the Windows 8 Release Preview is a great start, but it still has a little ways to go until it’s on par with the fantastic People Hub on Windows Phone. Luckily, Microsoft still has a few more months to add features before Windows 8 hits stores.

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William Devereux

William Devereux is the former Microsoft editor at Pocketables, as well as a Microsoft MVP and SkyDrive/Outlook.com Insider. As his title implies, he wrote about all things from Redmond, including Windows 8 and Windows Phone. He is currently carrying a Windows Phone 8X by HTC and a Microsoft Surface with Windows RT tablet.