A Week with Windows Phone

 

I think from now on, my blog posts will start with the tweets that inspired them. To be honest, Twitter has become such an integral part of my life that I don’t think I’d have a blog if not for it. All my blog posts evolve from tweets. Seriously, if you want me to blog about something, engage me in debate about it on Twitter. It’ll probably happen.

Needless to say, this time the subject is my experiment with Windows Phone. I liked it a lot more than I thought I would, and a lot of my criticism of the platform was unfair (note that not all of my criticism was unfair). I’ll start out by addressing some myths I previously believed about the platform, then try to formulate a list of good and bad things about it. Finally, I’ll talk about what I’d like to see from the platform in the future.

Myth:

Windows Phone can’t access Youtube, except via their website.

Truth:

There exist unofficial Youtube apps, namely MetroTube (which is possibly the best Youtube app I’ve ever used, especially from an aesthetic perspective).

Myth:

Windows Phone has no apps.

Truth:

Windows Phone has no games. Well, almost none. It obviously has your staples of Angry Birds (which sadly isn’t free as it is on Android), Fruit Ninja, etc…, but its game selection is still quite lacking. I’ll come back to this later. As far as other apps go, it covers the basics well enough. The built in media player seems to play the file types I had on my Nexus 4 (although if I wanted to play an MKV, I’d probably have a problem on my Lumia 521), there exist official Twitter and Facebook apps, Skype (obviously), IRC clients (which I’ve only used briefly… I don’t actually IRC from my phone much), Foursquare, and even, impressively, the Speedtest.net app.

So now I come to my list of things I liked and didn’t like about Windows Phone. I’ll start with the good, and finish with the bad, so I can lead into a discussion the direction I hope MS takes it.

Good

The design.

Awhile back, I wasn’t a fan of the Windows Phone design. I made mockups that were basically text slapped onto some colored boxes. But then I realized that it’s neither “so simple a 3-year-old could do it,” nor bad by any means. It’s actually beautiful. Extensively so.

 

A screenshot I took of a tweet of mine in the WP8 Twitter app. I referenced it later in another tweet where I mentioned how much I liked this font.

Windows Phone would be nothing if not for gorgeous typography. I even got responses from people on Twitter saying they intended to install that font on their Android devices. But as far as I can tell, Metro (yes, I know it’s not called that anymore, but I could care less about what some small-time German retailer thinks) basically exists to show off this font, and for good reason. Oh, and in case you’re curious about the context of that tweet: I was browsing through the Chili’s menu, and the lunch-sized half portion of a flatbread was only fifty cents cheaper than the full-sized portion, which was nine dollars. If you buy the half-sized flatbread, you’re an idiot (I usually get the California Grilled Chicken, and the Skillet Chocolate Chip Cookie for dessert; they’re pretty awesome). Hopefully you’re not reading this hungry; I’m bringing up Chili’s again in the cons part of the list.

Unobtrusive carrier integration

 

I don’t know what T-Mobile TV is, but I don’t want it. Luckily, I can get rid of it.

Phones often come with carrier bloatware. As I normally use a Nexus, I’ve been immune to this experience on Android. But considering I have friends with more mainstream phones, I’ve seen the terror of carrier bloatware. It exists on Windows Phone too. But fortunately, carrier apps can simply be uninstalled. But some of them are actually useful. It’s nice to have T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi calling for instance, something I don’t get on my N4.

Nokia hardware

For a budget device (no, really, it just cost me $115, completely off-contract), you’d never be able to tell the Lumia 521 was one. Aside from taking awhile to start apps, which seems to be a common complaint on Windows Phone, it makes effective use of the hardware, which is capable of doing pretty much everything I might need to ask of it. Furthermore, it has things that I don’t even have in my Nexus 4, like an SD card slot and an FM radio. Also, I’m not really a fan of plastic, but it feels nice in my hand. It might be a little thicker than it needs to be though, probably due to the removable battery, a feature whose usefulness I question (although considering Nokia’s been in this business longer than everyone else, back when this was standard, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised).

Software updates

Something that bothered me to no end was that at the announcement of Windows Phone 8, Microsoft announced that they were dropping all WP7 devices. Just like that. Bought one? Well, now it’s a paperweight. Apparently MS has committed to doing better. It sounds like my 521′s good for updates for the next three years. That’s about what one could expect from an iPhone or Nexus device.

Bad

Incomplete/confusing software

 

I have no clue if I’ve unlocked these specials or not.

There’s no question. The design of the WP8 Foursquare app is attractively minimalistic. But is it functional?

I had two complaints about this app. The first is that I had to select “post to Twitter” every time I checked in somewhere. This would just default to on in the Android version of the app. The second is that I couldn’t tell whether I’d unlocked the specials at the location.They showed up, but the Android app gave clear visual cues that yes, I’ve unlocked the special. It displays a coupon code, but it does that even if I haven’t checked in. I think it gives me the same code every time anyway, so it probably validates against a Foursquare server or something when used. If I later find out that I paid $6 for a dessert I could’ve gotten for free, I will not be happy.

Filesystem

Yes, this is a problem on iOS too. It’s one of the reasons I stopped using that platform on a regular basis. I know I can access some parts of it by connecting to my desktop at home, but I’d really like a file manager with direct access, at least to my user directory. And to extend this concept, I’d like apps to be able to access files created/managed by each other to a greater extent. One of those things that just completely alienates me about iOS is that the apps all feel disconnected from each other. You can’t establish any sort of workflow. It pretty much applies to Windows Phone as well. On Android, I can download any file of my choice in Chrome, then open it in any of my apps I might need it in. Furthermore, I can sort it into a location of my choice in my user directory. The inability for me to do this is probably my biggest complaint about Windows Phone. Actually, if they fixed this one thing, I’d likely consider switching to it full-time.

Sideloading

Another thing I really like about Android: It truly has no limits. I can install whatever I want on it. I’m free! Sadly, Windows Phone has the same walled garden mentality as iOS. I won’t hold my breath on this one, but Microsoft might want to consider the popularity of its competition: iOS market share is declining, in favor of Android, which eschews the walled garden model. Ultimately, it’s something I can live without on a mobile platform, but if not for anything but ideological reasons, it’s something I’d really prefer to have.

Notifications

In Android, all my notifications are in one place. In Windows Phone, I’m briefly alerted that something happened, but if it’s not on a tile on my home screen and I missed that alert, I’m out of luck. I’m aware that MS plans to implement a notification center in WP8.1. I look forward to it.

Games

This is a tradeoff I learned to live with to a small extent on Android. While Android eventually gets most games (World of Goo, and more recently Dots, being notable examples I care about), it takes awhile. Supposedly it’s getting Tilt to Live 2 (it never got the first one) at some point after the iOS version comes out. Who knows when that’ll be. These three games are among my favorites of all mobile games I’ve played. I’d really like to see them on Windows Phone. I doubt I ever will. That said, there are a lot of knockoffs of the Dots game on the Windows Phone Store. MS, could you please remove them? They look tacky and awful, and remind me of something I really want (in its pure form) but can’t have. Oh, and an appeal to the developers of the actual Dots game: Please port it to Windows Phone. Your game would fit right in with the aesthetic of the OS.

Where from here?

As mentioned before, I’d really like to see the ability to access some shared portion of the filesystem in all apps. MS doesn’t have to make a file browser. Someone else could do that. It would go far to make everything feel more connected, as opposed to feeling like a set of sparse, distant islands.

More games would also be nice. I realize the onus is on third-party developers to do that, but this is probably the biggest thing on everyone’s mind but mine, and the second-biggest on mine.

 

Who knows? Maybe this is the key to both problems. With only one platform to develop for, developers may be more likely to target Windows Phone. And depending on what set(s) of API’s MS will put into this unified platform, perhaps it’ll include the filesystem access I was hoping to see (I’ve never actually used Windows RT, but there are ARM-compatible file browsing apps on the Windows Store that allow me to access, at the bare minimum, anything within my user folder, on desktop Windows 8).

In summary, Windows Phone has the potential for a great future. And it’s almost there (as in, enough to where I’ll be rotating my 521 and my N4 a fair bit). The only question that remains is will it go in the right direction?

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