Microsoft is making its Windows Phone 8 Update 3 official today. Known previously as General Distribution Release 3, the update has a more friendly name for Windows Phone 8 users as Microsoft looks to expand its feature set and hardware support. As expected, Windows Phone 8 Update 3 (8.0.10512) is primarily designed for upcoming hardware. It will ship with new devices from Nokia that are expected to be unveiled later this month, and it provides support for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon MSM8974 quad-core processor alongside 5- and 6-inch displays at 1080p resolution.

Microsoft is adding a third column of Live Tiles to the Windows Phone 8 Start Screen on 1080p displays to take advantage of the larger displays and resolution, allowing up to six small tiles across the width of the screen. Aside from the Live Tiles, Microsoft is also making use of the screen real estate on devices with 6-inch displays. The built-in apps and Hubs, including Mail, Photos, People, and Music / Videos, will be "carefully scaled" to make use of 6-inch displays, allowing more content to show on those particular devices. "We want to use that increased screen real estate wisely," explains Microsoft's Greg Sullivan, senior product manager for the Windows Phone division, in an interview with The Verge. These built-in apps won't just be "bigger versions, but you get more content" explains Sullivan.

Windows Phone finally gets custom tones and rotation lock

Aside from the core improvements for new hardware, Microsoft is also bringing some new features to Windows Phone 8 with Update 3. Sullivan admits that Microsoft keeps a close eye on the Windows Phone feature suggestions site and it's addressing the top piece of feedback: the desire for custom notification sounds. Windows Phone 8 Update 3 includes the ability to use custom tones for instant messages, emails, voicemails, and reminders. You'll also be able to assign custom tones to contacts for text messages. Windows Phone 8 users have also complained about a lack of rotation lock in the OS. Windows Phone 8 Update 3 introduces a simple switch in the settings menu to keep the screen fixed in portrait or horizontal mode.

A new Driving Mode feature in Update 3 works with Bluetooth to create a mode that's designed to limit notifications on the lock screen while you're driving. You can configure the feature to send automatic replies to people who call and text. It's a gimmicky feature like Kid's Corner, but it will be useful to some. Microsoft is also adding in "Mobile Accessibility for Windows Phone 8," with Update 3. It's not a single option or feature, but a number of apps designed to make it easier to see, hear, and use Windows Phone 8. There's a screen reader to make it easier for blind and visually impaired users to hear notifications or manage phone calls and text messages.


You can now close apps from the multitasking view

Most of the other changes to Windows Phone 8 Update 3 are improvements on existing features. Microsoft is improving multitasking with its latest update. The app switcher now includes the ability to quickly close applications. This was one of the most requested features according to the feedback at the Windows Phone user voices site. Other improvements include improved storage management, better Bluetooth support, and Wi-Fi access during the phone set-up stages to allow users to restore from a backup over Wi-Fi. The Internet Sharing feature has also been improved for use with Windows 8.1 PCs. You can now pair phones with Windows 8.1 over Bluetooth without having to enter the typical Wi-Fi password.

While Microsoft is addressing some key missing parts to Windows Phone, Update 3 doesn't include highly requested features like a Notification Center, battery percentage in the status bar, or the ability to control ringtone and media volume separately. While iOS 7 recently introduced a Control Center feature to allow quick access to toggle airplane mode and other settings, Windows Phone 8 users will still have to rely on third-party apps with Live Tiles to quickly access these shortcuts that have been standard in Android for a long time. It's clear Microsoft is prioritizing feedback from its Windows Phone user voices site, but the company still has a large number of features to address. We're expecting Windows Phone 8.1 to fill most of the gaps, especially with the rumored addition of a Notification Center.

Developers can get Update 3 today

The age-old question of Windows Phone updates is "when will my carrier release it?" While Microsoft has finalized Update 3, the company can't say exactly when all handsets will receive the update. However, Microsoft is also announcing a special Windows Phone Preview Program for developers that will allow users to bypass carriers to get Update 3 today. For everyone else, Windows Phone 8 Update 3 will start rolling out in the coming weeks and will continue over the next several months.