Expanding the Experiment

By | 2013/09/15

Introduction

For over six months now I’ve been running an experiment – evaluating Windows Phone 8 against iOS, with my main goal being to get an understanding of how another SmartPhone OS runs and compares against the progenitor and thought-leader of the modern SmartPhone market.

Make no doubt about it – iOS is the thought-leader of the modern SmartPhone market. People don’t talk about “Blackberry Killers” any more (nor have they since the iPhone was released); people don’t talk about “Android Killers”, and people certainly don’t talk about “Windows Phone Killers”. Per-unit sold, no other OS seems to generate as much discussion (regardless of the tone of the discussion) as iOS.

Thought leader? No doubt about it.

I tried with Windows Phone. I really did. In terms of build quality, the Nokia Lumia 920 was a beautiful phone. I found the weight comfortable (something an ex-Lumia user mentioned to me as a distinctly unpleasant part of the experience), but over time I found the size to be just large enough to be burdensome.

In the end there was one key failing of Windows Phone 8 for me – tethering. An essential business function, tethering allows anyone on the road to use the internet on their laptop with the data pack on their phone. And tethering on Windows Phone 8 was a miserable, pathetic and unsatisfying experience. In an earlier review I described a typical tethering experience, where I’d been an hour early for a meeting and wanted to get some work done. I established tethering on the Lumia and:

Then noticed 90 seconds later that the WiFi connection had been dropped, so I re-established it.

Then noticed 2 minutes later that the WiFi connection had been dropped so I re-established it.

Then noticed 3 minutes later that the WiFi connection had been dropped, so I re-established it.

Then noticed 30 seconds later that the WiFi connection had been dropped, so I re-established it.

Then noticed 2 minutes later that the WiFi connection had been dropped, so I re-established it.

Then noticed 30 seconds later that the WiFi connection had been dropped, admirably restrained myself from flinging the phone across the food court, turned internet sharing off, pulled my iPhone 5 out, turned internet sharing on, and used the net without incident for another 45 minutes.

Someone asked me later – could this have been a carrier problem? Impossible IMHO – I’d previously used an iPhone 4 for my work phone, the number was the same and the SIM in the phone was the same SIM that had been in the iPhone 4. The only thing that had changed was the phone. (Though I should note, I changed laptops during the last six months, and the tethering was just as bad on the original as it was on the second.)

With all due respect to the experiment, I needed a phone that fulfilled primary work requirements, and the Windows Phone wasn’t.

Which left a choice between Blackberry and Android. Or, as you might say – no choice at all.

Given I’m still paying for the Windows Phone, I didn’t feel like spending a lot of money – so the $600+ price range for an outright “top end” Android phone was outside of my comfortable spend. Samsung’s overall business approach (not to mention tendency towards awfully blue-tinged screens) ruled them out of contention, so even their middle of the line phones were persona-non-grata for me. I looked at Huawei, but they tend to get quite mixed reviews and the Ascend Mate at 6+ inches was large enough to give me the heebie jeebies.

So I walked out of JB HiFi with an LG Optimus G E975K (Telstra branded ROM) for a grand total of $388.

It may not be the absolute top of the line Android phone, but with a 1.5GHz Quad Core processor, 32GB of storage, 2GB of RAM, NFC and all the other “nice to have” buzzwords, it’s certainly not a laggard for speed. It’s running Android 4.1.2 – not the latest OS of course, but it’s enough to give me a good grounding in Android. I have no doubt I’ll eventually go down the path of rooting the phone so I can install 4.3.x, but I’ll wait a while first.

The Good

Launcher/Home Screen

I’d mentioned in my six month review of Windows Phone 8 that Tiles, something I’d initially thought was original and crisp, was a UI failure, for the following two reasons:

  1. A home-screen that features continuous scroll rather than pages denies you absolute positions of icons, except for those icons at the top and bottom of the home-screen. For all other icons, the position will be relative to the amount you’ve scrolled up and down the page;
  2. With smaller tiles inheriting exactly the same background and foreground colours, they lose 1 of the 2 visual queues we normally associate with icons. (Colour and pictographic representation.) Indeed, the pictographic representation itself becomes difficult to differentiate given the conformity of the colours, too.

In short, Tiles suck. Like communism, they sound great in theory, but they’re terrible in practice, and they’re a failed UI design model. I’m convinced of this not only on the basis of Windows Phone 8, but my experiences with Windows 8 as well.

After 6 months of using Tiles, the Android home screen/Launcher system (even the one included with the LG) was a pleasure to use, for the following key reasons:

  1. With multiple home screens rather than continuous scroll, you get the same exact placement scenario for applications on Android as you do on iOS;
  2. Returning to Folders on my work phone, after six months without any, has been a complete boon to organisation. Rather than needing to regularly scroll around home screens, core functions are again contained within folders in the dock area, making everything I want to use regularly available near-instantly;
  3. Widgets – I can see where these can be mis-used, but they’re something that is distinctly lacking on Springboard. My front screen consists of email and twitter widgets; my second screen consists of a calendar widget as well as a few folders, etc. On iOS, information is at my fingertips – on Android, even more so.

I’m not convinced iOS will go down the path towards widgets – I can understand a design goal tending towards simplicity that would prohibit widgets, but it does put Springboard at risk of appearing stale.

Apps

After bemoaning the frozen tundra-like nature of the Windows Phone App store (something which was only just starting to thaw after six months), the Google app store has been a joy. VOIP app? Yep. Common apps that I use regularly on iOS? Yep. Even a proliferation of location based dating apps tells me this is a robust application environment.

Quick Access Screen

The quick access screen – where notifications can be viewed and dismissed – with its quick on/off settings for Bluetooth, Airplane Mode, Tethering, etc., is a real time saver.

Swype

I’ve watched friends with Android phone using Swype for a couple of years now, and I’ve never been all that curious about it. After a week of using it I’ve become quite a fan. That being said, I do wonder whether Swype will have the same long-term viability of Graffiti (though I admit the purpose of it is different).

Camera

The 13MP camera in the LG SmartPhone isn’t in any way the best camera I’ve ever used in a SmartPhone – but it doesn’t suffer from the green tinge the Lumia 920 suffered, so it’s already more usable for me.

Tethering

It works. Flawlessly and as reliably as iOS. I was tethered against my phone for 6+ hours last week without a single hiccough.

The Bad

Virus Scanning

Really? If you need to deploy virus scanning on your SmartPhone platform, there’s something wrong with the security model.

App Store / Google Wallet

When I first set up the phone, I was prompted to enter credit card details to be stored in a Google Wallet in order to make my purchases on the App Store more convenient.

Great idea, I thought, and promptly entered my AMEX details.

A few days later I attempted to make my first purchase only to be told … “Currency not accepted”.

Why let me enter sensitive credit card details that can’t be used? Dumb doesn’t even come close to describing this.

Keyboard

I remember on 5-pin DIN keyboards and old electric typewriter keyboards I’d occasionally get stuck-key situation. Mid-way through typing a woooooooooooooooooord and you’d suddenly be backspacing frantically to break the stuck key and rescue the sentence. Or worse, backspace would get stuck and you’d lose half of your text.

That was a common enough problem on 5-pin DIN keyboards, and it’s something I’ve encountered very rarely on PS-2 keyboards (though more often on a PS-2 keyboard through a USB adapter).

In my first 24 hours of using the LG I had stuck keys a half dozen times – and more often than not, a stuck backspace.

A stuck key.

On a soft keyboard.

From what I was able to see, it seems to be a common enough problem in “default” keyboards, but IMHO it’s a complete crock that a software keyboard ships on a SmartPhone that’s capable of experiencing stuck keys.

The solution was to buy and install a new Keyboard – SwiftKey. In the week I’ve been running SwiftKey I’ve not had a single stuck key, but it’s not something I should have had to do. The one positive I’ll say about this is that while Aunt Tillie might not think to replace the keyboard on her own, she could do it with a little prompting from quite a lot of even short-term Android users, and with minimum fuss. In short: sucked to have to do it, but pleasantly surprised by how easy it was.

The Ugly

Fonts

The default fonts that come with LG are to be perfectly honest, about as aesthetically pleasing as a kick in the head from a camel with syphilis:

LG Fonts

 

Of those fonts, there’s really only two fonts that are practically appropriate for a SmartPhone – LG SmartGothic and Roboto. HYSerif is at least a pleasant serif font, but hardly suitable for a SmartPhone screen. All the other fonts – HYPureWhite, HYCoffee, etc., are quite repulsive, and don’t even get me started on LG BaikzongyulPen.

The poor font selection is likely what will drive me to root the phone.

Fiddler on the Phone

There’s an inherent fiddle-factor to Android, partly driven by it’s customisability, and partly by a slightly raw aspect to the interface. The entire interface encourages tinkering. Is this a good thing? Well, yes and no.

Yes because it allows everyone to maximise the look and feel of the interface and the experience to suit what they want to get out of it.

No because it reminds me exactly of why I switched away from Linux in the first place to Mac OS X – a desire to get away from tinkering and just simply be productive. One thing I’ll be trying to pay particular attention to is how much I tinker with Android.

Dead Man Walking

In its current iteration, Windows Phone is dead man walking. It’s only barely an also-ran against Android and iOS. While the hardware and the core OS of Windows Phone screams smart phone, the experience is yet to deliver that promise.

Regardless of whether Microsoft go through with their acquisition of Nokia or not, they have an incredibly steep and challenging path ahead of them. Under the somnambulic watch of Steve Ballmer, Microsoft completely missed the boat in the Mobile market and is now frantically paddling out on a rickety kayak to try to join the rest of the race. Through choppy seas. With sharks. And ill-tempered Sea Bass.

My gut feeling: Microsoft needs to invest ten times the amount of time and effort into Windows Phone as they have to this point, or get out of the market entirely and focus on gaming. The intended acquisition of Nokia says they want to stay in the mobile phone market – now they need to put real focus into it.