Windows 8 phone: Promising but still raw and app store in its early days

I had wanted to try out the Nokia Lumia 800 as many who owned it spoke in praise on who smooth and slick the interface was, and this was truly credible considering similar single core equipped Snapdragon S1/S2  Android phones were stuttering in comparison.  However Microsoft dropped the bombshell by stating that none of the WP7 devices going to be upgraded to WP8, since they had said a higher bar for the minimum spec.

While the users of WP7 would have been very frustrated, the launch of the WP8 devices saw some great designs specially from Nokia, with HTC being a bit conservative compared to their Android offerings. The operating system brought many good opinions, but how does it stack up on every day use.

My experiences of WP8 are based on using the Nokia 620 and the 920, that provided me an idea of how it runs in base hardware, and somewhat higher spec hardware.

Touch and general OS navigation

The operating system has lived up to its smooth origins seen in WP7, and definitely had many Android users says how smooth the interface was.  Even Apple users commented positively on this, indicating Microsoft has got something right and not messed it up with the newer WP8.

Physical buttons

The phones currently have 3 physical buttons which seem to have the following capabilities.

  1. Windows button. Which takes you to the new desktop which features the tiles
  2. Back button.  Pressing this while in app takes you back within the app, and if you click the Windows button and then press this it recycles through existing apps and you can keep on pressing this to finally hasten the process of closing the app. If you keep holding this button it will show you the current running apps and you can manually select an app to get to it rather than having to recycle through.
  3. Search button, to bring the Bing search, to me this is of very little value.

Closing or selecting a running app

One feature that takes a while to get used to , and i feel is still lacking is the fact that you can’t actually close an directly.  The famous minimize, maximize and close buttons we are familiar with Windows are not there which is good as it goes with the other mobile platforms, but unlike with Apple or Android you have no way to kill an app.  Microsoft says WP8 being a true multi-tasking operating system compared to iOS and Android, is capable handling applications in similar lines to the JVM concept of Java, but if you really need to close an application this could have been easy achieved.

For instance if you hold the back button for a while it shows the current running applications similar to the what Android and iOS do, but you can swipe or press on a cross to close the app, but this to me is something that can be done easily and i wonder if its any patent that is holding back Microsoft from implementing this basic feature.

The desktop or as MS calls it Live Tiles

The desktops and widgets in Android, was not something that Google invented since these was possible with the Great Symbian operating system.  Apple looked simple without it but seems the market is now shouting for something similar even from Apple, and they are supposed to deliver something different for the first time in iOS wit version 7 to support this.

Microsoft answer with Windows Phone has been live tiles, and while it has been unique and effective, to me the multiple desktops concept of Android and Symbian is more efficient when you have loads of stuff that you want to access, where a single scrolling desktop becomes limiting.

Fonts and scaling

The fonts in WP8 like WP7 are clear and sharp but sadly they are a bit too large for me. The smallest size is rather to clunky, and due to this in places like Live Tiles, the Calendar you see only a little information.  However the ability to scale further seems limited, and hopefully Microsoft can provide a fix for this in the upcoming patch.

Resolution Support

With WP8 Microsoft also brought the ability to support higher resolutions since WP7 was limited to 800×480.  The budget WP8 phones such as Lumia still have this resolution, but the higher end phones support 720P with 1280×800 screens.  This resolution competed with the 2012 line of Androids and Apple, but with 2013 bring Full HD resolution to Android phones the market has moved on.  Microsoft is due to provide the patch that will support enhanced resolutions as newer phones are due to release with Full HD screens during the later part of 2013.

Hopefully this means support for better use of the resolution will also come, since at present there is no split view even for emails, which i find in Android which improves navigation and gives near Windows desktop usability.

Phone and contact features, good but still not good as Android

WP8 has very good usability and coverage on basic call features of a phone with easy dialing with its simple uncluttered interface.

  • Phonebook loads fast, and the search is fast and easy.
  • You can pin to start any contact, making your favorites easy to call
  • Adding a call to an existing call (for conference features) is easy but has a major limitation, it only allows you to add from the history, you cannot access the phonebook, OUCH
  • Speakerphone is easy to switch, but the touch can be too sensitive, one has to be a bit delicate in pressing the button
  • The default keyboard is quite effective in word correction and nice to type on, far better than many native keyboards on Android devices, but still not as effective as SwiftKey that i normally use with my android devices.  Third party keyboards are not available in the store, and i am not sure if such is possible with the nature of the OS.

I find the favorites and group feature useful and familiar which i used with Symbian and found in Android as well.  This allowed me to group people and access them without having to go to the search feature.  While the pin to start can achieve some sort of favorite concept, having this in the contacts search is a must have when the screen sizes are still comparatively limited.

Messaging, good but seems no one spoke to real users

  • The basic messaging features are covered well, but seems to be more favoring MMS, with the conversation thread feature a MMS only capability.
  • One big limitation that i had was with adding of contacts to a message.  White you can type part of the name, it seems to limit the names.  For example i had my contacts synchronized from Google, and any contact who had numbers as “other” type were not listed, and you had to and select the “+” and search and add the number, which was very annoying
  • The backup of texts to the cloud is there, but the backed up messages are not readable. Meaning unlike some third party SMS backup tools for Android which creates a new flag (=folder) in your Google account to keep your messages (hence you can search or read them through Google mail), the  contents of the message backup is not visible on your skydrive storage, and seems to be a hidden store that only WP8 can retrieve, so while its useful its lacking the full usability i would want from this backup feature.

Calendar features, severely lacking

The calendar features sadly to me are rather lacking which is very astonishing for me.  Microsoft with such a strong background on the desktop with Outlook has failed here in great style, though the interface in general is nice. Even feature phones (aka non-smartphones) have much better calendar implementations.

  • Month calendar view is MISSING.  Not only is it missing, but the Microsoft developers have CHEATED. If you go to the month view, it does show a view, but its not readable. If you take a screen snapshot and then check it out on a computer you will see that it has some “test data”, which may explain why they have purposefully made the font not readable.  This to me is inexcusable.
  • The current views implemented “agenda”, “to-do” are rather skimpy and minimalist.
  • Live tiles for calendars are supported but only one event can be shown. Supposedly the next release will allow you to see 3, but stills that very limiting, and currently its downright useless

File Explorer, nope never heard of that

After being a Symbian user for many years and then an Android user, a file manager to me is like a must have.  This applies to my Windows desktop usage as well.  With Apple i found this “securing the content” and lacking a file manager a major hurdle, as i could not open a file with the application i wanted.  Well i expected that WP8 will be more like Windows, though WP7 was more like Apple.

Well i was in for a big disappointment, there is no file manager in WP8, and you are unlikely to get one is the general talk.  Hence if you want to manage your files you have to do it via a PC.  However the only good side with WP8 is that you can connect it and manage your files from your File Explorer without needing the Zune app which was what you had to do with WP7, so some positive changes and shifts from the Apple like way, but still not good enough for me.

Synchronization and storage support

The big change with WP8 compared to the WP7 is the MTP mode support.  With WP7 it was just like iTunes in some ways that you had to convert content to copy, and that was it.  Further  with WP7 you had on support for MicroSD cards.

With WP8 you just connect the device (as you would do with an Android device) and it loads as a MTP compatible storage. You can copy and restructure the unrestricted contents through Windows explorer.  If the device had a Micro SD this is also visible and accessible making content transfer easy and simple.  This is a definitely a big positive for WP8 compared to Apple and allows it to compete into the Android space, since the Zune feature very much like iTunes has been seen as a limitation for many where content is normally not purchased from online stores, but rather from local sources.

However with the fact that for many apps seems incapable of accessing files copied into the device, and only able to list apps downloaded this advantage seems to be only valid for video and music, which i think is a big limitation which i hope Microsoft will remove by providing app developers better APIs that expose such contents.

Browsing

WP8 ships with an IE10 based mobile browser that is major overhaul compared to the older IE versions on the WP7 phones.  IE10 on WP8 is quite smooth and fast, but definitely plays second fiddle to the Android flagships and the Apple on the browser speeds.

However third party browsers are still lacking with the UC Browser the only major alternative.  I tried this out and while it was fast, it seems to have memory issues in its present state.

Major alternatives such as Firefox and Opera are still not available, and the chance of Chrome coming to WP8 will only occur if WP8 turns out to be major player in the mobile market, currently with under 3% of the market i don’t see Google paying too much interest.

Music and Video Playback

This is handled mainly by the players provided by the phone manufacturer based on the standard player.  The player from Nokia does a commendable job, but i am sure you will find a video format or two not supported.

However no strong alternatives are available on the store on this area as yet. VLC is supposedly working on an RT based version, but with the challenges adobe has faced putting out a PDF reader due to limited RT libraries available for the WP8 compared to the RT on the tab may also impact VLC in putting out a player quickly.

Camera

The generic camera app has evolved so says Microsoft, but to me the interface is still very primitive.  While the ability to see pictures taken is now on the interface, and some key options such as flash can be selected, the rest are still text options and there is no provision to select them and add to the interface.  However the ability to add new lens, which allows third party developers to integrate their features directly into the stock camera app is cool and something very innovative.

Why mobile camera manufactures and platform builders can’t learn from digital camera interfaces continues to baffle me, but Samsung and HTC seem to be getting there slowly.

Microsoft Office support

The major selling point of WP8 is that it ships with a free version of Office that has Word, Excel, PowerPoint and One Note. Windows RT tablet devices do not come with a free version of Office, and you have to purchase it.

While the other three are full fledged applications with some limitations, OneNote for WP8 and for RT is a very limited version compared to what you have with Windows 8 desktop!

With OneNote for WP8 you can only do the following,

  1. Enter a text type note
  2. Enter a checklist type note

Even basic features such as indenting a list item are only possible with the options menu with no easy tool bar, and features such as emoticon support for list items, drawing, etc are completely missing.

PDF and E-book support

While one now takes PDF and E-book support for granted, think again when it comes to WP8.

  • PDF is supported only via the Microsoft PDF Reader, which can only support reading PDF files downloaded.  Files copied to the internal storage, or files in the SD card are not listed, and hence you cannot open them.  Useless.
  • Native support for EPUB or MOB file formats are missing.  While there are third party apps for this, they all require you to download, and they cannot access the internal storage or SD card. Which means files you copy or have with you cannot be opened.  Massive failure for WP8 once again.

Games

I am not commenting here, since i have not tried them out.  However going through the store, most apps have the TRY option which is nice, but on the whole the number of popular titles are very minimal, and its very very early days for WP8 at present.

Many thought that with the common platform Microsoft so heavily spoke of, including me a person with .NET development background it was sad to hear that when it comes to developing hard core applications the RT libraries for mobile and tablets (do note that tablet version is also feature in the normal full Windows 8 machines), the common part is rather limiting is the general opinion, i intend to do a bit more research here to update the situation.  But if this is true, just because a game is available for RT for tab and desktops means, its going to be easily available for the WP8 version is not a fair assumption.

FM radio support

WP8 does NOT support radio features at present.  However support for this is due with the 8.1 patch that Microsoft is supposed to deliver soon.  Phone manufacturers such as Nokia seem to be aware of this, and current devices such as the 620 and 920 are supposedly having the radio hardware, and this will be accessible once the radio features are made available with the 8.1 update from Microsoft.

Microsoft App Store

I have already spoken on the app store in line with general phone features, but from the common stack here is a quick review.  My general opinions is while there is around 20-30% who will by many different apps including games, many smart phone users by it mainly for limited use, and need only a core stack of use for general usages.

App WP8 Android iOS
Skype Native Native Native
Twitter Native Limited features Native Native
WhatsApp Native Limited Native Native
FaceBook OS built in, Limited Native Native
Google Maps Native via Nokia Maps Native Native
Stock Browser IE10 Chrome Safari
Chrome Not available Stock, Native Native Limited
YouTube Not available Stock, Native Stock, Native
Office Stock, Native, Free Third Party, Limited Third Party, Limited
PDF Support Native App, Limited Adobe, and many other Native Native + Third Party
Viber Native, Limited Native Native

Conclusion

I really like the smooth interface of WP8, and the fact that it offers more freedom that what i found with iOS/ITunes.  Its like something in between Android and iOS and Microsoft has a sound platform here.  But sadly Microsoft seems to be not understanding their user base, or are talking to the wrong user base as evident by the simple mistakes they have in the phone, calendar and other areas that i spoke of.

Its just not the app store that matters, and Microsoft needs to understand that, before the app store you also need to get the basic phone capabilities sorted, and that is something i feel Microsoft has not understood.

I will continue to use a WP8 phone as a backup device hoping that MS will improve it fast and get it where it should be, but right now progress is very slow, and MS is not getting the basics sorted as seen with the Portico release. Reluctantly i will have to shift back to an Android as my main phone.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Windows 8 phone: Promising but still raw and app store in its early days”

  1. I enjoyed your review and learned some features of Windows 8 and the Nokia 920 I did not know. I do disagree with your comment of the font size being to large. Being of the older generation the large tiles are the reason I purchased both the Windows 7 and now Windows 8 phones.

    1. You are right on that aspect, as all current interfaces do not support this directly. However with Android you can increase the Font size, and also use a custom launcher that will make the icons more in line with Window 8 phone. So that advantage is also easily negated. My real worry is that why Microsoft has failed to fix the basic issues which are in today’s term mandatory as i am sure 90% of users would be happy if these were stable and well featured.

      Nokia as usual has taken it to themselves to fix the issues of lack of apps by providing apps for most required aspects such as the Ringtone Maker, Creative Studio for editing pictures, the Super Nokia maps, a work in progress Nokia Drive, Transfer Data app, and Smart Shoot. But however big Nokia is Microsoft has to increase the developer base to make the platform interesting for the audience who crave for gaming and social networking.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s