As a techie and long-time disparager of Microsoft technology, the Xbox 360 was the MS product which turned my head. I won mine in a competition (having been a PlayStation and Nintendo gamer), and from the very first experience I was impressed – it was easy to get up-and-running, get online and pull in my social contacts from Facebook, and it was generally a smooth and impressive device. Since then I’ve also gotten to know some of the folks at Microsoft who are focussed on working with the Open Source community, and my opinions have distinctly softened and changed.
I’ve played with both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 on display in stores, so when the nice folks at Nokia Connects offered me the opportunity to trial their flagship Lumia 920 for a fortnight in March, I jumped at the chance to immerse myself in the experience. The last Nokia phone I’d owned was the slider 7650 model from way back in 2001 – I’d been a loyalist through the 1990s until then, but wandered into BlackBerry land for a couple of years after that. I’ve also had every iPhone model since the 3G and have in parallel tried Android devices running 2.2 through to 4.1. So, from both a hardware and software perspective, I guess I’ve got a fairly broad experience, and was intrigued to find how a Windows Phone from Nokia would suit my “power user” habits!
A couple of notes. Firstly, if I’m mixing tenses here it’s just because I’ve now returned the device per the trial arrangement. The other thing to point out is that I really did do road test of the phone for two weeks, to the extent of popping my nanoSIM into a microSIM adapter and using it for as much as I could. More on this to come.
The first thing to say is that the bright red Lumia 920 looked and felt fantastic in the hand, although it is substantially larger than the iPhone 5.
One tiny issue I felt that wasn’t considered was the central positioning of the camera lens and flash in the back of the device, which meant I’d often have my hand across it and needed to wipe it, but I suppose a case or skin might have reduced that. The screen was a visual treat, it looks stunning in day-to-day use, and was also very nice for watching the couple of videos I looked at while I had the Lumia. The iPhone took over most of my photographic life for many years (which is sad in many ways, I realise), and I’ve got thousands of photos stored on it. Coming back to the camera on the Lumia, apart from the seemingly more-frequent need to clean the lens, it produced some great results – although I did miss the HDR capability which might have levelled out some of the contrast in a few shots I attempted.
One particularly innovative feature of the camera on Windows Phone 8 is the concept of “lenses” – apps which can extend the basic function of the camera application itself. I also appreciated the way in which the Photos app enabled me to both browse my own Facebook and other social network albums, but also to see the latest content from my friends. Clever stuff. Oh, and SkyDrive let me get to the images straight away across different devices and on the web. +1 for sensible functionality. I vaguely missed Instagram for a couple of weeks, but I imagine that app will materialise for the platform before too long (and since the Instagram/Facebook “ToS-gate” I’ve largely moved back to Flickr or to dual posting anyway).
Rounding out the hardware commentary, I’ll add that the battery life was acceptable (I tended to pop the phone on charge whilst in the office and overnight, but it seemed on a par with my other device). I was also very happy with the performance of the phone – everything was extremely fluid and I didn’t encounter any hangups or freezes. Very slick.
Time, then, to talk about Windows Phone 8. I’ve admired the rebooted and reimagined Windows Phone UI from afar for a while now. After all that came before it in Windows Mobile efforts, it’s a bold and stunning revolution of a user experience – and I believe it is one that works.
It’s an interface that is alive, glanceable, and easy to use. The live tiles in particular are a game changer. The resizable tiled UI lives up to the selling point of true personalisation. More than that, the list of apps is one swipe away, and not only is is searchable, it’s super fast to jump to any lettered section of apps (sorted alphabetically – crazy, right?). I am a definite fan. I’m not yet convinced of the Modern UI / tiles in Windows 8 the desktop experience, but that’s more because of the janky need to switch between old and new paradigms to get some things done – for Xbox, tablet and phone, I think this is a useful approach.
I was pleased to be able to get back to my content and online services quickly, at least in relation to a subset of the apps I use regularly. Amazon (Kindle and Shop, plus a handy barcode scanner tile shortcut), Evernote, Last.fm, Spotify, Netflix, and Paypal were all present and correct. Twitter is covered by multiple apps (I chose Rowi), as is Facebook – although in the case of the latter most are fairly poor mobile web wrappers. There’s a giffgaff app already too, for all you giffgaffers out there!
However – and you may have seen this coming – the key missing parts of my daily workflow were all essentially app deficiencies. No 1Password, no good route planning apps for bus and train, no TomTom, no Feedly or Flipboard, no Instagram, no Google+ or Google Maps, or anything decent for YouTube.
Petty arguments between technology behemoths aside, I’d love to see more organisations taking Windows Phone seriously as a platform, as it does involve rethinking existing UI strategies, and I believe that the Modern UI is something here to stay across Microsoft devices. A few apps do exist for other things I use like BBC News, Github and Flickr, but all could do with an update or an “official” app to come along. I genuinely believe it is a mistake for organisations to ignore this platform.
Finally of course we reach “the prison I knowingly built myself” – and that is called Apple iCloud. The majority of my music is now stored there, and whilst the Windows Phone app for OS X was very effective at enabling me to sync iTunes playlists, I couldn’t just grab things from the cloud when I wanted. Messaging was particularly frustrating too, as I barely have any Windows Live or Skype contacts compared with the folks I interact with daily via iMessage. Messaging was annoying, as iPhone users tended to end up getting half of my conversations, some via text, and then missing things as they were logged in via their email address. I could see some great stuff in the Windows Contacts world, having groups of contacts whose updates I wanted to follow, but I wasn’t immersed enough for it to immediately work for me.
To round off on a high note – let’s talk about online management. Both Google and Microsoft seem to have this right, and Apple are living in the past. Using the My Windows Phone portal was great, and a better experience than even Android’s ability to send apps from Google Play to the phone – I liked the integrated view of SkyDrive, Xbox Live etc.
Thanks Nokia for a chance to play with your lovely device – definitely something I’d recommend to those looking to commit to a change and wanting a modern device. A few more apps, and a way out of my prison, and I’d be there myself…
A last, personal and slightly unrelated note – Microsoft are very lucky to have hired the man who persuaded me to leave IBM, Patrick Chanezon – Pat’s blog post about his choice in many ways mirrors my experience of dealing with Microsoft over the past few years – there’s a much more heterogeneous and open approach there now, and I wish him very well in the future, I had a great year at VMware working with him!
- Nokia’s aluminum Lumia 925 is the best Windows Phone yet, but that’s not enough (hands-on) (theverge.com)
- New Lumia 925: This, loyalists, is the BIG ONE you’ve waited for (go.theregister.com)
- iPhone 5 vs. Galaxy S3 vs. Lumia 920: By the numbers (reviews.cnet.com)