Windows Phone 8 (Photo by: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO - Get ready for jumbo-sized Windows Phones.
Microsoft has announced an upcoming Windows Phone 8 update that will bring support for higher resolution screens that will pave the way for "phablets" from its hardware partners.
The company didn't reveal specifics, but in an official blog post Monday morning Microsoft said 5- and 6-inch oversized phones could sport 1080p HD displays. The bigger screen will allow more room for Windows Phone 8's signature "Live Tiles" interface - six tiles instead of four.
Last month, Microsoft agreed to buy Nokia's handset business in a $7 billion deal, so it wouldn't be a stretch to expect to see a large-format version in Nokia's popular Lumia line, or even a lower end Nokia phablet.
Mega-sized phone handsets from Samsung and others are riding a wave of popularity, especially in emerging markets. In a report last month, researcher IDC said it expects phablets to start taking market share from smaller-size tablets.
The Windows Phone 8 operating system update - which will begin rolling out to existing handsets over the next several months - also brings a new "driving mode"' and improved accessibility features, among other things.
And in addition to larger screens, the update will permit new hardware with added horsepower, in the form of Qualcomm's 8974 quad-core processor.
You'll see some "killer high-end devices" as early as this fall, Microsoft's Joe Belfiore told USA TODAY.
The update is Microsoft's third this year and addresses some top user complaints and requests, Belfiore said.
One of the biggest knocks on Windows Phone has been about the app ecosystem. Belfiore said there are now about 175,000 available apps and that the company is making "great progress" in expanding the app universe. Android and Apple devices each boast hundreds of thousands of apps.
In a period of "not too many months" consumers will be able to find "virtually any app" they are interested in, Belfiore said. Pandora, Hulu Plus and Tumblr have all arrived this year, with Vine and Flipboard among those expected soon.
Here's a quick rundown of some key features coming in the Windows Phone 8 update:
• Driving mode lets you make use of a connected Bluetooth device to limit notifications for texts, calls and the like while you are behind the wheel. You can also set up automatic replies to let people know you are driving.
• New accessibility apps, including a screen reader, are aimed at making it easier for the visually impaired to use the devices for texting, e-mail, Web browsing and more.
• Manual control over closing apps (a top user request, according to Belfiore).
• Rotation lock to keep screen orientation fixed as either horizontal or vertical (useful for when you are, say, reading in bed). This one has long been a feature on Apple and most Android devices.
• New storage management settings let you free up space on your phone.
While still vastly trailing Google's Android operating system and Apple's iOS, Windows Phone has gained market share in recent months and has begun to solidify its position as the No. 3 mobile operating system, surpassing beleaguered BlackBerry.
In its second quarter report, IDC noted that it posted the biggest gains year-over-year among top OS's.
By Nancy Blair