The Great Experiment: Month Two

By | 2013/04/25

The great experiment is about comparing, from a usability and reliability perspective, another SmartPhone OS against iOS, which I’ve been using since the second iPhone was released (and thereby officially released into Australia). The mission statement I established was:

To try, for a full contract period (24 months), a smartphone from another vendor, and evaluate it continuously – against iOS, and also my general requirements for a quality interface that lets me get things done.

My problem with most SmartPhone reviews is that they only focus on a relatively small period of time. 1 week, 2 weeks, maybe even a month. I’m not one to want to swap and change my phones all that often any more. iOS changed that. Now, when I buy a phone, I want it to last a while. For me, and for many other phone users, “a while” is a fairly standard contract period of 24 months.

The SmartPhone I chose was the Nokia Lumia 920, running Windows Phone 8.

If this is the first review you’ve stumbled on, you may want to read:

After this and the next months’ reviews, the posts will slip to quarterly. Previous posts have been split by “The positives”, “The negatives” and “The curiosities”. This time, it’s a little less formal.

The Camera

So, after much buggerising around, I discovered the phone was indeed saving full size images when a photo was being taken, and I was able to pull the photos off using the Windows Phone app for Mac. I almost wish I hadn’t.

For reference, here’s a photo I took on the iPhone for last month’s review to compare against the Nokia Lumia 920:

Photo taken with iPhone 5

Photo taken with iPhone 5

And here, finally, is the full size Lumia version of the photo:

Fullsize Nokia Lumia Photo

Full-size Nokia Lumia Photo

These photos were taken within seconds of each other, in exactly the same lighting conditions. I had hoped (against all logic) that the green tinge to the photos taken indoors was due to some resizing algorithm used for the smaller versions of the pictures. It was not.

In daylight situations, the camera on the Lumia is, for the most part, sufficient quality that it would certainly replace a happy-snaps camera, just as the iPhone 5 would. In regular lighting situations in-doors though, I believe the iPhone 5 substantially exceeds the photo quality of the Lumia.

Data Usage

When I go overseas, I typically buy a relatively small data pack for global roaming, which regrettably means supportingTelstra’s “pillage” pricing scheme:

Telstra Data Roaming Prices

I usually aim to do my data usage from within WiFi zones, but I buy the cheapest pack just so that in an emergency I can send or receive a quick email, without being charged $15 per megabyte.

As a result of that, the first thing I do once I’m on the plane and we’re told we can switch electronic devices back on is to go in and reset my usage data on the iPhone. That means I can keep a very accurate track on my roaming data usage when I’m overseas.

This is something I’ve become so used to doing that I found it somewhat surprising and disappointing to discover the Lumia 920 has no such option. Sure, you can turn data roaming on or off (and by default, it is off), and you can even set your speed to any of 2G, 3G or 4G. But when I took my iPhone and Lumia to New Zealand last week for a few days, it was only the iPhone that let me see how much data I’d used at any one time.

This, to me, is a recklessly stupid non-inclusion in the base operating system for the Lumia.

Overseas Cell Reception

When I was in New Zealand, I was carrying both my Lumia and the iPhone 5 with me at all times.

I missed every single call people tried to make to my Lumia for the simple fact that it spent 99% of the time I was there failing to connect to any network. International roaming was turned on, and in very rare circumstances, it did connect long enough to the network to tell me I’d missed calls and let me check my voicemail.

If I’d been travelling with just the Lumia though, I’d have been uncontactable by phone for most of the time. Thankfully, there was always an iPhone in my pocket that stayed permanently connected to the same network the Lumia struggled with.

App Store

I’ve now had the phone for two months, and the App Store remains pitifully small. Every week or so I’ve gone into the store to search for VOIP applications, for instance, and every week it’s been the same disappointingly small number of results.

The growth rate of the App Store is completely underwhelming. In the time I’ve had the phone, I’ve not yet seen a single App I could be bothered to buy. (By contrast, in the first two months of the iPhone I’d have purchased easily between $100 and $200 in apps.)

There’s one area I’ve found tellingly absent on the Windows phone, and that’s the lack of (to use a mainstream media term), “location based dating” apps. So far, from what I can tell, there’s Scruff and Blendr. Nothing else. This, to me, speaks highly of the lack of popularity in the platform in general, which in turn demonstrates the lack of developer interest.

Whether Apple want it or not, sex sells. So on the iPhone of many a gay man you’re likely to find a plethora of … location based dating … apps. Grindr, Scruff, Growlr, Manhunt, BearWWW, just to name a few. Yes, there’s a lot more than that.

That only a tiny subset of these apps are available on Windows Phone 8 after the platform has been around for this long is a telling statement of its overall failure to grab market attention, regardless of whether any individual thinks that they warrant consideration or not.

Stability

“Press and hold Volume Down and Power for 10 seconds.”

I now know the procedure for a forced, soft reset of the Windows Phone quite well. I usually do it at least once every two weeks. Often this happens when I’ve not even been using the phone. If I’d been playing some resource-intensive game, or intensively flicking between apps, maybe that might be understandable.

It seems somewhat frustrating to be something I need to do when I pull my phone out as I’m walking down the street … only to discover it’s crashed or otherwise become unresponsive. Even taking into account my tethering experiences in Week One, this phone has crashed while not in use far more than during actual operations.

Welcome to Update Hell

I had a Palm Treo 650 for 2 years. Before that, I had a succession of PalmOS devices in general, and in each case, the only way I ever got access to an operating system update on any of these devices was to buy a new device.

For the entire time I had the Treo 650, the only update I got was one which fixed a critical flaw, whereby it would crash when someone on the Telstra network sent my phone an MMS.

I’m growing somewhat concerned it will be a similar experience with the Lumia 920. There’s been at least one operating system update made since I purchased the phone, and I’ve been waiting for Telstra to “authorise” it for use on the phone.

And waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting.

By contrast, one of the absolute joys of the iPhone has been that iOS updates just become available to the phone without any fuss. I’ve owned 3 iPhones so far – the 3G, the 4, and now the 5, and on each phone I’ve gone through at least one major iOS upgrade, as well as multiple patch updates.

If I don’t get updates to the Lumia 920, it’ll seriously contribute to my being a disgruntled user.

Video

Given the overall complaints I’ve had about the camera in the Lumia, I was surprised to find that even at full high definition, it records video without a hassle. No jerking or artefacting in the recording, and rather than being in some toxically proprietary Microsoft format, the video is blessedly done as an MP4. Full credit where credit is due.

Office

Microsoft Office integration on the Lumia is fairly good. I was impressed that it even allowed me to review and document and make comments – actual comments, in Word. That’s not something I’ve observed before in any SmartPhone that promises Microsoft Office document access.

The Verdict

Email for me remains the core strength of this phone. For me at least, the email interface is consistently excellent. Yet, this seems to be about the only thing I can praise week in, week out, on the phone. There are some other things it does well, but not enough to prevent me from being overwhelmingly unimpressed by what should be a flagship product.

It crashes too regularly. There’s not enough apps, the camera really only works for me in outdoor lighting conditions, and it was practically useless for me when I went overseas.

I’m in it for the long haul, but I suspect it’s going to get fairly ugly.