It used to be so simple: When it came to syncing your Windows Phone 7.x handset to the PC, you used the Zune PC software, love it or hate it. With Windows Phone 8, however, Zune is out of the picture. And while your PC sync options have in many ways expanded, they’ve conversely gotten less integrated. This is, believe it or not, by design, as Windows Phone 8 is really designed to be more of a standalone system than its predecessor.
To recap, here’s how it worked in Windows Phone 7.x: You could connect your handset to the PC via USB (or, optionally, via Wi-Fi) in order to sync music (and ringtones), videos, pictures, podcasts, and, when available, software updates to the device. You could also sync content back to the PC from the phone, including photos taken with the device’s camera, pictures downloaded to the device’s storage from the web, and songs downloaded or purchased over-the-air through Zune Marketplace/Zune Music Pass on the device.
The Zune connection was the only way to get full-sized, full-resolution photos off of the phone: While Windows Phone 7.x did support auto-sync of photos to the SkyDrive cloud, these photos were downsized first and were not full fidelity. The Zune connection was also the only way to get purchased TV shows and movies, or rented movies, onto Windows Phone 7.x: You had to do this from the PC, as Windows Phone 7.x did not support over-the-air access to this content.
In Windows Phone 8, the Zune PC software is no longer an option, at least not explicitly/directly: You cannot sync your phone with this software at all, and neither recognizes the other. (If you’re a fan of Zune, you can of course continue to manage your PC-based music collection with this software. It still works with the now-renamed Xbox Music Pass, and you can sync content to your Windows Phone 8 handset using one or more of the methods described below.)
Here are your PC sync options for Windows Phone 8, the solutions you can use to get content to and from your handset using different Windows versions (Windows 7, 8, and RT, mostly, but probably XP and Vista too).
Windows Phone app
Works with: Windows 8 and RT
The Metro-style Windows Phone app, available for free from the Windows Store, lets you sync content (photos, music, videos) to and from your phone, automatically or manually. It’s pretty basic, compared to Zune, but even compared to the desktop application (noted below), it’s lacking some key features like support for music playlists. This is by design: Windows Phone 8 is designed to be used largely PC-free.
I looked at this app more closely in Windows Phone 8 Tip: PC Sync.
Windows Phone desktop application
Works with: Windows 8 and 7
The Windows Phone desktop application, currently in beta, works much like the Metro-style app, but it actually provides additional functionality when compared to the Metro app. You can sync content between Windows Media Player/Zune or iTunes collections, which is helpful for those who use iTunes, in particular. (I wrote about this latter functionality in Windows Phone 8 Tip: Enjoy Podcasts on the Go.) And it works explicitly with both ringtones and podcasts.
I also looked at this app more closely in Windows Phone 8 Tip: PC Sync.
File Explorer: Drag and drop
Works with: Windows 8, 7, RT, and probably Vista and XP
Windows Phone 8 finally support direct access via File Explorer in Windows 8 or RT (or Windows Explorer in older OSes), letting you drag and drop content to and from the device as you would with any USB-based hard drive or memory stick.
Photos: Windows Photo Gallery
Works with: Windows 8 and 7
While you are free to use the Windows Phone app or desktop application to automatically copy photos (and other pictures) from the device to the PC, this functionality is very limited: You can’t rename the files on import or create event-based folder structures. Instead, everything is dumped in a folder called From Paul's HTC 8X (or similar) and the photos, all in one folder, have terrible names like WP_20121029_001.jpg.
Fortunately, there’s a better way, which you can use in tandem with Windows Phone app or application. That is, Windows Phone 8 handsets now show up as normal cameras to photo editing apps in Windows. So you can use Windows Photo Gallery, or your application of choice, to import your phone-based photos. I wrote about this in Windows Phone 8 Tip: Import Photos to Your PC.
Broken: Xbox Video-based TV shows and movies
Not everything with Windows Phone 8 is perfect. As I discovered yesterday, and wrote about in Windows Phone 8 Does Not (Currently) Support Xbox Video, Microsoft has silently and inexplicably dropped support for Xbox Video-based TV shows and movies, a feature that still works fine with Windows Phone 7.x handsets (via Zune). Microsoft has declined to comment further, but I’m hoping this support will be (re-) added in the future.