Editorial: Learning to love Windows Phone 8
[quote_left]Platforms, they have problems too[/quote_left]Windows Phone 8 is deeply flawed. Its app ecosystem continues to lag far behind Android and iOS. There’s no Instagram, Path or Grindr. There are no official apps for Pocket, Dropbox and Tumblr. Worse still, Google has publicly announced that the company will not be investing time or effort in building apps for Windows Phone 8. No official apps for Google Maps, Google Play Music, Gmail app, Google Reader, Google Drive, Google+, Google Talk, or even YouTube. How can anyone even live with a smartphone that lacks all these apps which are clearly essential?
[quote_right]What do you mean I can’t install another keyboard?[/quote_right]The flaws continue. The notifications system is not fit for purpose. The Live Tiles on the home screen still update at a rate that is slower than instant. The social networking integration, particularly with Twitter, is still poorly implemented and lacks push notifications. Region restrictions are so wide-ranging that any Windows Phone 8 device that is not linked to a US or UK Microsoft account lacks any support for podcasts whatsoever out of the box. There’s only a single volume control for everything from alarms to ringtones to music. Music continues to play even if you have an incoming call if your phone is in silent mode. There’s still no way to make the status bar remain visible at all times. Personalization options are still relatively limited – you cannot set custom notification tones or change the background on the Start screen, much less install third party keyboards and launchers. YouTube video uploading is not supported out of the box at all. How can a smartphone platform in 2013 still possess these issues, which are clearly quite major?
[quote_left]The case of the vanishing music collection[/quote_left]Worse still, there are bugs. I’ve seen my artist and album listings disappear from the Music+Videos hub on a completely random basis and without warning, despite the fact that the files are still alive and well. I’ve had my synced playlists disappear as well, in turn causing the tracks that are part of the playlists to disappear from the artist and album listings as well. Switching between 2G and 3G causes a complete loss of connectivity for as long as 15 seconds at times. Background agents for apps like WhatsApp have stopped working once or twice, causing message notifications to stop. I have seen multiple instances of music playback failing to resume despite the player suggesting otherwise, after the camera shutter sound has been fired if I am capturing photos with music playing in the background. The camera app is noticeably slow to save photos on both the Nokia Lumia 820 and HTC 8S, taking up to 3 seconds after the shutter button has been depressed fully. How could Microsoft has shipped Windows Phone 8 with these bugs, which should clearly have been fixed before launch?
It is very easy to make an objective argument about how Android and iOS in their latest iterations are steps ahead of Windows Phone 8. Factually speaking, they are more advanced than Windows Phone 8 in certain ways. In any feature comparison, Android would likely be ahead of Windows Phone 8. In any third-party app comparison, iOS would likely be ahead of Windows Phone 8. However, I strongly believe that it can only be one’s loss to dismiss Windows Phone 8 over such comparisons.
[quote_center]Feature lists aren’t everything[/quote_center]
I was not a big fan of Windows Phone 8 when I first spent time with it on the HTC 8X. I suppose that one big hurdle that Windows Phone 8 has to overcome is the fact that it looks so similar to Windows Phone 7, which gained a reputation that was not entirely positive and received a lukewarm reception both in terms of sales figures and opinions from members of the press and enthusiasts alike. I was not a big fan of Windows Phone 7 either – I felt that the platform as a whole was too restrictive and limited in what it could do and what I could do with it, and there were indeed issues that I considered major dealbreakers – for example, having to rely on Zune to get media in and out of it, being stuck with gigantic Live Tiles on the screen that hardly showed any useful information yet took up so much space, being unable to change the search engine in Internet Explorer to anything other than Bing and having to contend with poor scrolling performance where lists could not keep up with the speed at which I was scrolling. I have been a harsh critic of Windows Phone 7, and I thought upon seeing Windows Phone 8 for the first time that it would be more of the same.
[quote_right]You only realize what Windows Phone 8 does well when you actually use it[/quote_right]I think my experience with Windows Phone 8 over the past week shows that Windows Phone is a platform that is really hard to appreciate or evaluate in a short timespan, such as when looking at a demo device in a store. The Windows Phone 8 devices in stores tend to look very clean and spartan, almost like how a feature-phone user interface would look, giving the impression that this platform has nothing much to offer. Many have been skeptical about Windows Phone 8, and rightly so; however, I think that it is only possible to form a real opinion about Windows Phone 8 after you have used a Windows Phone 8 device as your main smartphone for several days with an open mind. After you have put your SIM card in it, transferred media to it, synced up all your online accounts and lived with it for a little bit. While the Windows Phone community remains relatively small, the platform has gained a userbase that tends to be really passionate, and I think that this past week has helped me understand why.
[quote_left]I like what I see. It’s beautiful.[/quote_left]You see, despite all the issues, flaws and bugs that I mentioned above, I have enjoyed using Windows Phone 8 more than I have ever enjoyed using Android and iOS. I know that is an extremely subjective statement to make, because you cannot measure enjoyment, but that is exactly how I have felt. I have enjoyed using Windows Phone 8 much more than I enjoyed using Windows Phone 7, despite the seemingly minor user interface changes between the two. I am not in any way discounting the issues that I have come across with Windows Phone 8; there are clearly things that are not ideal about the platform, things that need to work better, things that need fixing. I would love to have a more robust notifications system, multiple volume levels and less hardline region restrictions (I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to see artist images just because I live in Singapore). In fact, my biggest hope for Windows Phone 8 is that Microsoft improves and iterates upon this platform much quicker than they did in the case of Windows Phone 7, and that developers building apps for Windows Phone 8 quickly update their apps to take advantage of the new capabilities in Windows Phone 8. It needs to get even better, and it needs to get better fast.
[quote_center]Microsoft’s work is far from done – leaving Windows Phone 8 as it is will kill it[/quote_center]
In spite of everything, I feel like the notion of me living with a Windows Phone device is now within the realm of possibility. I have even been contemplating picking up a Lumia 820 for myself by taking advantage of the subsidy that I get with a contract upgrade. Windows Phone as a platform has always been highly interesting and relevant to me despite my criticism of it – I do not only criticize because I believe in being honest about this stuff so that you, the reader, may be better informed; I criticize because I want to point out where things can improve.
[quote_right]Want a low-end or mid-range smartphone? Go Windows Phone 8 without a doubt.[/quote_right]I have always loved the Metro UI on smartphones, and with Windows Phone 8 I feel that it has finally arrived on a platform that I consider competitive and usable. Again, this is a matter of subjective opinion, but the Metro UI is still as beautiful and distinctive in Windows Phone 8 as when I first saw it. I’m not ashamed to admit that there have been so many occasions where I’ve just looked at an app or a particular screen in Windows Phone 8 and marvelled at how beautiful it is. Metro is fresh, clean, consistent and futuristic. The animations and transitions in the user interface give it a sense of life and depth. Furthermore, Windows Phone 8 has been wonderfully smooth, snappy and responsive on both of the devices I have experienced it on. One of my biggest impressions of Windows Phone 8 is that it feels alive and every interaction feels tactile, positive and direct, much like what Apple has managed to do with the iPad. I am genuinely impressed. If you are considering a low-end or mid-range smartphone, I strongly believe Windows Phone 8 offers a far better user experience compared to Android.
[quote_left]Organize your homescreen exactly the way you want[/quote_left]The improvements that have been made in Windows Phone 8 should not be ignored either. The resizable Live Tiles, while seemingly a minor and obvious change, has made the Start screen a lot more flexible and useful. Tiles can now display more information or less depending on what size they are. You have a lot more freedom in customizing the layout of the Start screen to your exact liking because you are no longer limited to 2 columns of tiles. You can shrink the tiles that don’t display much information apart from a number badge (such as WhatsApp) to the smallest size in order to make space for tiles that display more information (such as Calendar). The tiles can also be sized according to their importance; I use my Twitter client a lot but rarely use the Phone app, so I’ve shrunk the Phone tile to the smallest size while leaving Twabbit’s tile in its default size so that it is easier to hit. It’s very easy to put together a Start screen that is customized the way you want it.
[quote_right]A lockscreen that’s genuinely useful (and beautiful)[/quote_right]The active lockscreen is a feature that is unique to Windows Phone 8, in that apps can take over your entire lockscreen to display information in addition to the standard time and date display and numeric badges. I’m very glad that third-party app developers have found great ways to make use of the feature; I have downloaded a free app called Lock Widgets that displays the Bing (or NASA) photo of the day as the lockscreen wallpaper and overlays weather information and battery status on top. I also have an app called Photostream that takes any feed of photos from Flickr and displays them on the lockscreen in rotation. Even the Facebook app can display a slideshow of your Facebook photos on the lockscreen if that is what you desire.
[quote_left]Nokia’s exclusive apps are an enormous selling point[/quote_left]I haven’t even mentioned the other smaller changes – Windows Phone 8 now supports microSD cards and MTP file transfer, negating the need for any companion app on the PC, scrolling finally works as it should, you can change the font size used in apps, the Email app finally has a dark theme, third party apps (that have been updated for Windows Phone 8) save their states so they resume from where they left off even if selected from the Start screen or app list, Bluetooth file transfer and NFC are now supported, you have the option to stay connected to WiFi networks even if the phone goes to sleep, and SkyDrive works like a charm if you use it. There have also been certain apps on Windows Phone 8 that are highlights of my experience because of how cool and compelling they are – PhotoBeamer, Smart Shoot, Mix Radio in Nokia Music have been amazing, as is Wordament. 4th and Mayor is one of the best Foursquare clients I’ve ever come across, and Twabbit is a really good Twitter app.
When all is said and done, I’ve formed an emotional connection with this Lumia 820 I have in my hands. My Start screen now reflects the people and things that are important to me. The iOS and Android user interface feels cold and impersonal in comparison. Every morning, all it takes is a downward scroll to see the faces of people I care about, and be reminded of them even if I don’t get to see them in person much of the time. I get up and prepare to head to school. I tell myself that I must talk with them soon. We will meet again someday.