8 hidden Windows Phone 8 settings you’ll actually use

OK, so none of these are technically hidden. But I know many people treat the Settings section of their smartphone or PC like terra pericolosa—scary territory worth venturing into only when absolutely necessary. If your travels there have been primarily limited to changing your ringtone or theme color, here are eight more good reasons to boldly go.

Besides being some of my favorite levers and knobs for making Windows Phone more personal and useful, these settings are also ones I often hear people asking about. Many are new, others have been around—all are worth knowing.

I know, I know: I’m just scratching the surface here. Watch the blog for more tips. Meanwhile, wow us with your favorite “hidden” Windows Phone setting.

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1. Tell callers you’re tied up with a pre-written text

One recently-added Windows Phone 8 feature that I already can’t live without is the option to politely rebuff incoming calls with a text message. When the phone rings, just tap Text reply (when available) and either pick from one of the stock responses—“I’ll call you back” and “Please text me”—or quickly improvise your own custom excuse.

If two pre-written replies sounds kind of skimpy, I’d agree. It’s a good thing the phone lets you add up to four—a big help when you’re in a meeting or have your hands on the wheel. In Settings, go to Applications>Phone and tap Edit replies and fill in the blanks with alternatives like, “Got a mouth full of pizza. Talk later.” Here’s a video that shows how it works.

2. Create more memorable mailbox names

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I glanced at a friend’s Start screen the other day and noticed the tiles for his various email accounts—he had a bunch—were named “Hotmail1″,”Hotmail2″,”Gmail2,” and such. In other words, he’d just stuck with the same sequentially-numbered generic names that Windows Phone automatically assigns.

I make life easier by customizing these labels, using the incredibly imaginative “home” and “work” to quickly tell the difference between my two primary in-boxes. In Settings, go to System>Email+Accounts. Tap the account you’d like to rename, then type in something memorable under Account name.

3. Can you read me now?

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My eyes started going bad in fourth grade. Thirty years later, making out tiny letters has only gotten tougher. When I get tired of squinting at my phone, I flick on one of the new accessibility features in Windows Phone 8. Sure, they were designed primarily for visually-impaired users, but they can help out just about anybody.

In Settings, go to System>Ease of Access. Use the text size slider to bump up the font in emails or text messages. Another useful toggle is the screen magnifier. When this is switched on, you can tap the screen with two fingers to zoom in.

4. Switch up your lock screen icons

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Windows Phone 8 gives you much more control over the lock screen that its predecessor. One of my favorite new tweaks is the ability to change the order and line up of quick status notification icons at the bottom of lock.

In Settings, go to System>Lock Screen, then tap on one of the five slots under Choose apps to show quick status. In the list, you’ll see all the usual suspects—missed calls, new emails, and new text messages. But don’t be surprised to see some of your apps there as well, since developers have also taken notice of the new feature. For example, my notification line up includes Skype and Nextgen Reader, a Google News app. Here are even more cool ways to customize lock.

5. Add sizzle to your email signature 

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If you’re bored with the stock “Sent from my” tagline at the end of your emails, you can easily replace it with a pithy Monty Python quote or your new Twitter handle. Just tap on a mailbox, tap open the More menu at the bottom (the one with the three dots), then tap Settings. Notice that Windows Phone allows you to create a different signature for each account, so you can have something a little more HR-friendly for the office and show your true NSFW colors in personal correspondence.

Not into showy signatures? Go minimal and turn it off.

6. Button up the Internet Explorer address bar

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Another nice touch in Windows Phone 8 is the ability to decide what button you want to show up in the web browser address bar—a prime piece of Internet Explorer real estate.

In Settings, go to Applications>Internet Explorer, then tap Use address bar button for and choose an option. Personally, I prefer my tabs toggle front and center. But if your favorites list or the ability to refresh a web page is more important to you, by all means go that route.

7. Cut down on your contacts

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Who’s that guy? While it’s not a new feature, many first-time Windows Phone owners are happy to learn you can selectively hide contacts on your phone. This is especially handy if you work for a big company—ahem—and don’t want random co-workers cluttering up your list of close and personal pals.

To remove them from the mix, go to Settings, then tap Applications>People>Filter my contact list and pick an account from the list. And fear not: these folks will still show up in search results should you ever need them.

8. Keep photos and videos safer

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If your phone is your primary camera, then you can make life easier by automatically uploading the shots and movies you take to an Internet-based storage locker like Microsoft SkyDrive. SkyDrive and similar services make sharing easier and provide fast access to your pics from PCs or tablets. I use the auto-upload feature as a safety net in case I ever lose my phone.

In Settings, go to Applications>Photos+camera. Under Auto upload, tap SkyDrive and you’ll see options for uploading scaled-down images and full-resolution photos and videos over a Wi-Fi connection. If you use Dropbox or some other cloud service, tap Apps to look for an app that supports it. (Note that the quality option isn’t available in all markets.)