The great experiment: Week One

By | 2013/03/02

Overview

In The Great Experiment: Day 1 I outlined my key criteria for evaluating another SmartPhone OS over the course of a typical two year contract:

  1. It must work sufficiently as a phone.
  2. It must be reliable and remain consistent in terms of interface and performance over its lifetime.
  3. It must work for me as a consumer, not a hacker or IT pro.

My choice was the Nokia Lumia 920, running Windows Phone 8. It’ll be running side by sided with my iPhone 5 – I keep a work phone and a personal phone, and the Windows phone replaced my older iPhone 4 to become my work phone.

Each report is broken into four key sections:

  • The positives
  • The negatives
  • The curiosities
  • The verdict

The end-point to this remains a full two-year phone contract, which coincidentally is around the same contract time that I keep iPhones for.

Week One

I’ve now had the phone for an entire week, and I’ve therefore had a lot more time to get used to it – and make real use of it – than I had in the first 24 hours.

The positives

Exchange and Email

In my first 24 hours, I was (to be perfectly honest) starting to shit bricks that the Lumia would be a complete dud for email due to security policies. There’s a lot of discussions out there about how how the Lumia 920, not having an accessible SD card slot was causing problems with Exchange security policies where device storage encryption was mandated.

Given the primary reason I run a separate work and personal phone is that I won’t allow work to have the option of remote-wiping a phone that may have a lot of personal data and apps on it, having email working on the Lumia was fairly essential.

Luckily, it turned out to simply be a case of needing my Exchange mobile profile being reset or otherwise adjusted – we have tight security policies, but apparently not so tight as what other people were experiencing.

Email on the Windows Phone is consistently an extremely satisfying and productive experience. In part I think this comes from the bigger screen, but also because Microsoft have gone for a much plainer email interface. For instance, iOS separates every email in an inbox by a hairline rule extending the width of the screen. Windows Phone 8 provides a slightly larger gap between each email and there’s no rule to separate. My partner of 16+ years is a designer, and he’s completely impressed upon me in that time the criticality of whitespace in layout. Windows Phone 8 achieves this in spades over iOS for email.

(Although, ahem, it’s more beigespace or off-whitespace. I’m not sure if that’s intentional or not, but it would be nice if the “use light background” was white rather than light beige.)

Scrolling Feedback

Scrolling feedback in iOS is one of those subtle but important features that helps you understand where you are in a list. I’m told by a friend who has become quite the fan of Android lately that Android’s scrolling feedback is poor at best … just colour graduations and not much else. [Edit: I’m told for more recent versions of Android, scrolling is similar to iOS in feedback. Final Edit: It’s since been pointed out to me this may be provided on a manufacturer by manufacturer basis, depending on whether they’re leery of Apple or have already been sued. Native Android definitely I’m told just does the simple gradient.]

iOS does bouncing … if you scroll to the end of the list and keep pulling or pushing, you’ll get an elastic stretching in the empty space on screen and then when you release it’ll rebound. Some would say that’s all smoke and mirrors – special effects rather than clinical interaction, but it’s precisely those responses that help a user switch from using an app in a device to using an app as the device.

Windows Phone 8 does a considerably more subtle scrolling effect than iOS, but it still works quite nicely. When you keep trying to scroll past the end of the list on one end of the screen, you get a compression effect on the other end of the screen. I think on a larger screen, this effect wouldn’t work – it relies on you being able to focus on the entire screen at once (i.e., for a 24″ monitor for instance, it would be a substantially less effective feedback mechanism). However, on the phone, it works remarkably well. Unfortunately, I can’t take a screenshot of it – when you’re maintaining the scroll position it’s not possible to trigger a screenshot at the same time.

Responsiveness

The phone remains highly responsive. There’s a reasonable number of on-screen effects (e.g., repopulating tiles when coming back to the start screen, etc.), but they don’t slow the phone down at all.

I often find myself measuring a computing device based on whether it’s keeping up with me or I’m slowing down for it. So far, I’m not slowing down for the Windows Phone, so it’s on par with iOS/iPhone 5 on that front.

The on-screen keyboard

I’d read some criticism of the on-screen keyboard on Windows Phone before I bought it. When people criticised it, the feeling was that it was too “basic”. I’m not finding that at all. It’s actually quite usable, and quite responsive. Autocorrect is a mixed bag. So far I’ve not once had an autocorrect situation where a real word is swapped out (iOS for instance is notorious at changing “so” to “do”). Equally though, autocorrect is entirely useless on the Windows Phone at intuiting two-word screw-ups where there’s been a missed space between two equally badly typed words. iOS will usually correct that without much of a hassle. Windows Phone doesn’t.

The autosuggest feature in Windows Phone (something I know equally exists in Android, and is something that used to be quite prominent in ‘good’ feature phones) is something I’m already finding quite useful in email. (Though, when the Windows Phone offers you a “.com” button, it lacks the finesse of iOS … in iOS if you had already typed the ‘.’, iOS would replace “..com” with “.com”. Windows Phone leaves you with a useless “..com”.)

The negatives

Screen sensitivity

For all its very good screen sensitivity – very good to the point of annoyance at times – the OS can be at times quite obtuse at recognising finger touches on small interface elements. The “Facebook Notifications” button for instance, small and in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, usually requires 3-4 taps before I can get the OS to recognise what I’m doing. The “Show all recipients (x)” touch area in viewing an email is similarly obtuse.

Find my phone and Notifications

In my first review, the ‹Find my phone› feature wasn’t working, except that one time when it magically did start working. After about 32 hours of the phone being powered up, suddenly ‹Find my Phone› did, indeed, start working.

As did notifications.

As did app updates.

As did lock screen notifications.

To me this is pretty poor design. It was as if my activation of the phone was only part automatically processed, but waited for some operator in some Microsoft Datacentre somewhere to finalise the activation process.

Some people rage against delays, and while sometimes they drive me to distraction, I will say my primary frustration comes from uncommunicated delays. So for me, I don’t really care if some Microsoft employee did need to manually do something to my phone account at their end (though I’d be concerned about the scaleability of such a situation) … what I cared about was not knowing, and wondering whether I’d done something wrong.

Hey, we’re just finalising your setup now, but please be aware it may take up to 48 hours for notifications and find my phone to activate.

If I’d seen a prompt or dialog along those lines in the setup, I likely wouldn’t have wasted hours (yes, hours) trying to work out why these base features weren’t working.

One Note

Whoever wrote the One Note app for Windows phone should be banned from programming for a month.

Whoever tested the One Note app for Windows phone should be banned from testing for all time.

I actually like the app – it’s small, it’s functional, and it’s straight forward to use.

But deleting a note is an exercise in stupidity.

Hold down your finger on the note … you get the options of “pin to start” and “delete”. However, “delete” is greyed out. At least 50 per cent of the time or more, if you then touch away from that menu then immediate re-activate it, “delete” will be available. However, sometimes, you need to touch away from the sub menu, touch another menu on screen (e.g., the “…” menu at the bottom of the screen), then touch out of that menu, and only then can you do a hold touch on a note and find the “delete” option available.

That’s not a suitably tested and vetted app. It’s one where someone has launched it, tapped to create a new note, typed “lsjhdfljksjdflausdfas dlfkjashdlfkysa dklfjhsdaf”, then exited the app and said “Yep! It works!”

The camera

Much has been said about the quality of the Lumia’s camera. There was also much overhype by Nokia, including their “accidental” release of photos and videos not actually taken with the Lumia but promoted as such.

Frankly, I call shenanigans on the notion that the Lumia’s camera is better than the iPhone 5’s. Particularly in low light situations.

Scenario: I held the two phones side by side in the evening and pointed them both at my laptop keyboard and took a photo at exactly the same time. Judge for yourself which camera delivered the better result.

Evening indoors photo from Lumia 920

Lumia 920 Photo, Inside Evening

 

iPhone 5 Photo Inside Evening

iPhone 5 Photo, Inside Evening

Over time I’ll do more comparisons between the iPhone camera and the Lumia camera. The reason I’ve stuck to that example at the moment is simple: it’s indicative of where and when I’d use my work phone to take pictures. Indoors at the back of a rack, trying to capture say, a serial number. Using flash is typically pointless because fine details such as serial numbers are lost in reflections from flash. Based on the above I’d pull the iPhone out every time to take a photo, not the Lumia.

Internet sharing

So, power was being cut to my house for a couple of hours on Thursday, and since I work from home when that happens I use my work phone to do internet sharing so that I can stay semi-online. Previously that sharing had come out of my iPhone 4, and it did it perfectly without skipping a beat.

I was understandably happy then when enabling internet sharing was a piece of cake in the Windows Phone – I was able to sign my Mac Book Pro into the sharing WiFi network created by the Windows Phone and get to work.

And worked I did, for 5 minutes. Then suddenly the internet dropped out.

Curious, I thought, as I picked up the phone to check. The totally unresponsive phone. I held the power button down for 4 or 5 seconds, assuming it had crashed and turned itself off. Totally unresponsive. Bricked, or so it seemed.

Searching for “hard reset nokia lumia 920” was suggesting I’d lose all my data, until I stumbled across a soft reset. Power button and volume down for 10 seconds. It felt like 30, but that was probably me just panicking that I might have to get a new phone or send this one away for repairs.

Mercifully, the phone booted back up.

I was still without power, so I turned internet sharing back on and started working again.

Twenty minutes later, I lost my internet and the phone had crapped itself again.

Verdict: internet sharing on Windows Phone is half baked, unreliable and totally unacceptable.

VPN

This is supposed to be an enterprise class phone, right? It’s meant to be aimed at business people as opposed to Microsoft’s hilarious “iPhone is just a consumer phone” attitude.

I’ve had VPN capabilities as long as I can remember on the iPhone. I certainly don’t have it on the Windows Phone.

The curiosities

Tiles/Start Screen

Conceptually the notion of tiles and the start screen is great … but I question how effective it’ll be over time as the number of apps I have increases. Currently to get from the top to the bottom of the list of “pinned” apps (you can have apps that appear just in the full app list, but not on the start screen as a tile), it’s just a single flick scroll. But that’s by keeping most of the initial apps as minimum size tiles.

I’ll break the tiles into the following sizes (always width x height):

  • 1 x 1
  • 2 x 2
  • 4 x 2

Only tiles that are 2 x 2 or 4 x 2 can be “live” tiles – i.e., updating/animated on the screen. The 1 x 1 tiles can show notification/alert badges, but it’s clear to me that scrolling through a Windows Phone with the same number of apps on it as my iPhone 5 would be extremely frustrating. (As it is, I have the 200+ apps on my iPhone collapsed into 4 screens by aggressive use of folders in Springboard – including using folders for each of the icon positions in the on-every-screen dock.)

Practically, there’s no way the start screen will accommodate that many apps without being extremely frustrating to the user. Since so far I’ve found no global “search the phone” button or option so on a phone with a lot of apps, the only way to “quickly” jump to an app will be to flick to the full app list and hit search there. (Hint to Microsoft: holding down the “search” button on the bottom of the phone should jump to phone search.)

App Store

I like the App Store … it’s easy to navigate, but that could in part be due to the rather minimum number of apps in any individual section. (I also question why every game purchased has to be accessed through an “Xbox” app rather than being an individual app. It’s a pointless decision on Microsoft’s part – or rather, it’s entirely driven by marketing rather than being an actual usability decision.)

Yet, meandering through the App Store, I’m frequently reminded of those times I’d been idly curious and walked into one of those old and tired looking computer stores you see from time to time … where you walk in and there’s software sitting on the shelf in faded boxes that has the look of something that’s been sitting there for 5 or more years. Software that’ll stay there until some poor sap buys it.

The iTunes App store suffers the problem of there being so many apps that it’s difficult for a developer to get noticed. But that’s a problem for the developer, not necessarily the end user. People talk about the “walled garden” of Apple, but I worry that even with so small an app store, Microsoft’s may become quickly full of weeds. Only time will tell.

The verdict

Overall I’m still enjoying the phone. The responsiveness of the phone and crispness of the display makes it entirely comfortable to use.

It’s also mostly functional, though if it were my only phone it would be considerably less so. (I.e., I can still do internet sharing if I have to from my personal iPhone. I won’t even attempt it again from the Windows Phone until I see an update posted saying there’s been some work on that front.)

Many pundits ran around dry-humping the leg of any journalist they could talk to when Windows Phone 8 came out insisting that this would really be the iPhone killing SmartPhone – something Android hasn’t really been able to achieve. Apple is still producing record numbers of iPhones.

Windows Phone 8, particularly in its current state, is not an iPhone killer. If this is the “big thing” Microsoft has been working on to firmly push their way into the SmartPhone market, then Microsoft needs a solid kick in the pants. They’ve done some things great, and they’re to be fully applauded for the OS interface as it stands on mobile devices, but they’ve not yet achieved greatness as a whole. That being said, for the most part the letdowns remain in software, which means it’s fixable.

…and a brickbat for Apple

I can’t end this review without mentioning the horror experience I’ve had trying to get iMessage disabled for my old phone number. Little known is the requirement that before you decommission an iPhone for a phone number, you need to go into the iPhone’s messages and Facetime settings and completely sign out of your Apple ID account.

I didn’t know this … when I realised it I went back and did it, but the problem was already created.

People were messaging my work number on their iPhones and the messages were being eaten at the Apple server end for days. It was only after considerable assistance and tips from Apple support that I could get iMessage sufficiently disabled that users attempting to iMessage me would find the messages eventually failover to SMS.

Eventually I helped Apple support fill out a form over the phone and they submitted it to engineering to have my work phone number completely pulled from the iMessage servers. So now, a week after I got the phone and switched over, I can now readily get messages from iPhone users.

That was not a quality Apple experience. And yes, while you can supposedly deregister in your support profile, for some reason my support profile didn’t list any of my mobile phones … for me. Apple support, looking at my profile, could see both, but couldn’t actually make any changes themselves. There needs to be a simple iMessage deregistration option provided in iCloud.

Oh, and this reminds me: SMS sucks. How did I ever use it before iMessage?