Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Windows Phone 8.1, Three Weeks Later

I've given Windows 8.1 a solid chance to impress me over the last three weeks. This is exactly the amount of time I've had my iPad Mini as well to act as a basis of comparison. I think I’ll write this without making too many comparisons between 8.0 and 8.1 unless it is something profoundly irksome.
Change is inevitable and relentless.

For reference, I’m running Windows 8.1 on a Nokia Lumia 920, Red.

I Like

There is a lot to like about Windows Phone when talking about pre-loaded and 1st-party applications. The Alarm, Battery Saver, Calculator, Camera, Cortana, Data Sense, Games, Maps, Nokia, Office, One Note, PDF Reader, People, Photos and Storage Sense applications are decent to excellent and seem to improve over time. More than a handful I used to think were worthless beta-feeling crap have become exceptional over time.

The People and Cortana applications are particularly good. The Nokia Applications are (for now) what makes selecting handset hardware easy. The new options for organizing my start menu are welcome and appreciated. When I unlock my phone, the menu is gorgeous and informative thanks to being able to set a background and live tile functionality.

Seriously, my Start Screen looks awesome.
People App: Being able to organize my family, friends, and collaborators into their own groups, pin them to the Start Menu and customize how all that looks is incredible and light years ahead of the competition. If you rely heavily on social media, email, and text messaging to keep in touch with people, Windows Phone handles this better in some ways than other mobile platforms.

Cortana: I love the notion of having an Intelligent Agent on my handset to help me find things by merely asking for them. I've tried other digital assistants and none handle tasks like Cortana.
Games: Windows Phone is a great gaming platform, but make sure you choose the right hardware. Even now Microsoft is (unwisely) selling Nokia handsets that can’t handle every game. If gaming is important, make sure the phone has at least 1GB of RAM.

On The Fence

Internet Explorer: Microsoft has made some subtle changes with regard to accessing tabs and how favorites are displayed and handled. It’s better than it was. It is unfortunate that IE on my Windows 8 Laptop is still unfriendly to open source and thus pointless as a browser. In fairness, there is evidence this may be changing. So much of what I use on the web requires Chrome or Firefox and this diminishes EI’s usefulness to me on the Phone as well.

Me: This application allows you to check your own posts to social media and make posts to those accounts. It used to (8.0) let you post to all of them simultaneously. For people who self-promote and manage their presence on multiple social networks, this was incredibly useful. The application is still useful, but not the time saver it once was.

Messaging: I can no longer route Facebook Chat through my messenger application. I had hoped that they would add functionality to this application but Microsoft decided to make it less useful as of late. It’s still a powerful application with a good lay out that includes a search feature, but I feel like much of the potential for it to become awesome was lost since the last update.

Bad News

Calendar: Still terrible. One of the reasons I bought an iPad and have considered going back to Apple products is so I can have a decent calendar that syncs to the cloud reliably. Between randomly deleting events added to the calendar and the painfully few options with regard to events reoccurring the app is as useless now as it was at release.

Mail: Permanently stuck in the past before people knew what an integrated inbox was or had seen ability to move and store email in folders across accounts. You will still have a mail app per email address you manage. Not terrible, if you like using software that feels obsolete.

Music: Surprise, the music app is terrible. It’s slow, buggy, and randomly denies you the ability to play music your lawfully own if the streaming feature is turned on. This isn’t a knock against Microsoft though. In the 20+ years I've been using computers, I've never seen a decent music application.

Skype: Microsoft finds new and exciting ways to make this application annoying, featureless, and invasive. I've had to remove it from my phone to keep it from hijacking my messaging app and it performs rather poorly on my handset otherwise. I get the feeling that video conferencing on the Windows Phone is an afterthought.

Aside from the Music App (it’s impossible to make a good one I think) there is no excuse for the Calendar, Mail, and Skype apps to continue being horrible update after update. These are key applications with regard to a user’s overall experience using the device.


Podcast: One of my wife’s chief gripes about iOS is that Apple seems hell-bent to ruin the ability to listen to podcasts on that platform. Each new change makes the process of downloading and listening to podcasts worse. I haven’t tried the new Podcast App out on Windows Phone yet. Maybe Microsoft was listening to customers?

Wallet: Not even sure what this is for, how I use it, or why I would use it. It bears some research though.

3rd Party

LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter: As usual, across every platform, and depending somewhat on the day, these are decent substitutes to a browser on a desktop. On a bad day, they are crashamatic pieces of crap that will frustrate and anger the most rational and serene individual. On Windows Phone (and elsewhere), Twitter is the best of the bunch. Facebook crashes so often as to be worthless, and LinkedIn lacks so many features as to fall in the same category.

Games: So. Many. Games. Seriously, this is a big plus for Windows Phone if gaming is a focus for you when choosing a smartphone.

Nokia: The apps are good enough (for now) that it is almost not worth looking at other hardware for Windows Phone.

Hardware Somewhere

The future is bleak. The first latest two Nokia devices, touted as the first Microsoft handsets, are pretty underwhelming. I’ll forgive virtually everything about the Nokia Lumia 630 because it is marketed as a lower end phone and designed to be cheap. That said, no dedicated camera button or front facing camera? These are the two features that would appeal the most to the individuals most likely to buy the 630. If I was a teenager looking for a good phone that wasn't what old people use (iPhones) it’d need to take a picture, and in particular, a selfie.

The 930 is ugly. Like Samsung Android handset ugly, a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10, a dud, an eyesore, and not in any way a Nokia product with regard to design or attention to detail. It even has all the conformity markings on the outside, big as possible, from all the pictures I've seen. If I was working for a company and they handed me a 930 I’d get the most obfuscating case I could. Hopefully, it gets marketed with those little raincoat flip covers of shame like Android Phones do.

It’s probably being deliriously optimistic to expect HTC, Huawei, or Samsung (chortle) to step up with a decent handset at this point, but one can hope.

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