In my quest to get the next iPhone (I’ve been a user of Android since the 2.1 days), I have sold my beloved Nexus 4 ahead of the rumored September 10 Keynote. I am not going without a phone, though — I was able to pick up a Nokia Lumia 521 for T-Mobile for only $120.
Having no experience with Windows Phone after years of using both iOS and Android regularly, I figured I would write about my experiences of Microsoft’s smartphone platform.
First, I do realize that two days with any platform is not enough time to become fully accustomed to the differences. Fear not, readers: I’ll be writing a follow-up piece to this in two weeks with more of my thoughts on Windows Phone.
Guess what? Nokia knows how to make hardware. The Lumia 521 is one of the cheapest devices available to the American consumer, but that doesn’t mean that it is a bad product. In the hand, the Lumia is one of the most solid smartphones I’ve ever held: yes, this is plastic, but it’s solid. Nokia knows what it is doing, even on the low-end.
Beyond that, the camera is surprisingly good for what it is. The sensor is more than capable of creating accurate pictures when the light is available. In ideal conditions, it outclasses my previous main device, the Nexus 4. There is no flash (cost cutting measure, I’d assume), so don’t look at this if you take a lot of low-light photos.
Frankly, Nokia has shocked me with how fantastic this device is. If this is what $120 gets, I can only imagine what a true flagship product like the Lumia 1020 is like.
Windows Phone itself is far more polarizing. I fully admit that I am probably still used to the way Android works, so many of my opinions may change as I spend more time with the device.
The initial setup of the device was simple and fast. I simply signed in using my Outlook.com address, and I was ready.
To my surprise, Windows Phone 8 integrates rather nicely with Google accounts. My contacts and email were up and running on the device with just a few taps and a login.
Navigating Windows Phone is smooth. While I did see some stutters now and then (likely due to the low-end hardware in the Lumia 521), the overall experience reminds me of iOS, or a of a flagship Android device.
The Windows Phone homescreen is fantastic. I have never been a fan of widgets on Android, though I also don’t care for iOS’ approach. Windows Phone is a happy medium: live tiles are available where useful.
Internet Explorer is surprisingly usable, though Nokia devices have access to another browser that I actually prefer: Nokia Xpress. Regardless, both are competent browsers.
The keyboard on Windows Phone is also a vast improvement over what is available on Android — that’s a pretty big deal, especially when you send as many text messages and emails on your phone as I do.
The Bad, and The Ugly
Microsoft. Microsoft. Microsoft.
Almost all of the issues I currently have with the device come down to those three words. I do not use Bing. I don’t want to use Bing. I understand that Bing and Google are very comparable, but I’m happy with Google. The search key is hardcoded to immediately launch the Bing search hub when pressed. I rarely want that.
Beyond that, I’ve already pressed that key when I want to search for information in a specific app. I don’t want to be forcefully taken out of that app to search the internet with Bing. That strikes me as a strange oversight on Microsoft’s part, particularly since Windows Phone is so polished in most other areas.
Multitasking on Windows Phone is… different. There is no way to close open apps. The cards metaphor that is going to be in iOS 7 is present here as well, though I have to admit that I prefer Apple’s implementation. Microsoft’s multitasking interface feels tacked on, and oddly stiff: it isn’t really useful. I find that just pressing the back button over and over usually is the better option.
Both of the above issues are annoying, but there is one more problem that is probably the bane of Windows Phone at the moment: the loading screen. Are you used to an operating system that responds — or at least seems like it responds — instantaneously? Both Android and iOS are fantastic in this regard. However, Windows Phone wants to teach you patience.
The loading screen pops up almost every time you switch apps, open a new one, and even sometimes when tapping the back button. Microsoft’s fun loading animation doesn’t mask the fact that this is a problem with Windows Phone (note: I’ve seen this issue on high-end devices as well as my Lumia 521).
Enough virtual ink has been written about Windows Phone’s app situation to fill every ocean and sea on this Earth, but I have to address the problem here as well.
Shockingly, it isn’t as bad as most would have you believe. In some cases (Twitter, I’m looking squarely at you), the Windows Phone client is superior to the same app on other platforms. Most of the largest services have official apps, though there are some notable absences. Those absences are usually covered by multiple third-party options.
The larger problem is no longer that apps aren’t available, but that there are no standout programs. The only developer that seems to be trying to really create unique and compelling apps for Windows Phone is Nokia. It’s working, in some cases — their Pro Cam app is easily the most powerful camera application on any platform, though it is limited to a select few smartphones.
First-party manufacturers will never be able to fill the void that the lack of quality third-party developers creates. Microsoft is hopefully aware of this issue, though their efforts to fix it have so far proven fruitless.