My first iPhone was a 3GS, and for the past three years I have been thoroughly invested in the iOS ecosystem. I’ve explored the depths of the jailbreak scene, enjoyed the wealth of apps, and appreciated the profusion of talent in the iOS design arena.
During that time, I also had several opportunities to play with Android phones, but I was always put off by the indecisive and inconsistent feel of the operating system. Now, I own a Nexus 7 and firmly believe that Android 4.0 is a good indication of where Android was trying to get all along. While Blackberry stumbles toward its next release, another player in the mobile space has been confidently asserting itself in the background, fighting to gain some mindshare: Windows Phone.
I had never had a chance to play with a Windows Phone, mostly because the retail presence and marketing is awful around here. However, I was always intrigued by what I had read about them; strong, unique design language, informative interface, streamlined integration of major social services, etc.
Now, courtesy of the kind folks at Nokia, I have the opportunity to spend two weeks with a Lumia 900 — the current flagship phone — and I will be documenting the experience.
Over the Rainbow
In order to fairly judge the Windows Phone, I decided to try and see if I could have it entirely replace my iPhone for the duration of this two week period. Since they use an identical MicroSIM card, I could conceivably hot swap between the phones as I please, but doing that wouldn’t really give me a sense of what it’s like to have a Windows Phone as my daily driver.
The trial Lumia 900 is a sleek black polycarbonate slab, sporting a large screen, comfortably rounded corners, and an unashamed sense of weight. Unlike my iPhone 4S, it feels substantial and durable. I don’t feel the need to keep it in a case, and although I won’t be performing any drop tests, I’m confident that it would have little trouble surviving them.
There’s something inherently playful in the design of the Lumia, as if it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Right out of the box, I was struck by how different it looked from the usual selection of smartphones. Nokia has always been known for their phone engineering, but the Lumia 900 is a particularly fine product — in cyan it would be truly striking.
The phone has four buttons: a power button, a camera button, and a volume rocker. Though there’s nothing wrong with the buttons themselves, they are all laid out in a row along the right side of the body, and the fact that they’re identical to the touch makes it somewhat challenging to hit the right one without looking at the phone. I suspect this is something that I’ll get used to as I’ve used it more, but as a first impression it seems ergonomically questionable.
Right out of the box, I was struck by how different it looked from the usual selection of smartphones.
Without a doubt, the physical attributes of the phone are appealing to me in general. Coming from the 4S, I expected the Lumia to feel unnecessarily bulky, but the truth is that for my big hands it feels perfectly comfortable.
Upon turning the Lumia on, I was greeted by the Windows Phone logo and swiftly prompted to log in using my Windows account (formerly Windows Live ID). As more and more of our information lives in the cloud, I’m getting used to this sort of thing, and sure enough after entering my credentials and logging into my WiFi network, I was taken to a beautiful home screen full of bright tiles that reflected my calendar and contact information.That was easy.
Using a Windows Phone, there are several things that stand out immediately. The first is how integrated everything is; instead of having to go to two separate apps to post status updates on Facebook & Twitter, you can do both from your Me tile. This is not unlike iOS6’s notification centre post buttons, though the ability to post to multiple services at the same time gives Windows Phone a slight edge here. Likewise, keeping up with contacts is a breeze thanks to the robust People tile.
Unlike a standard contact book, this app also shows the most recent Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Windows Live updates from all your friends, allows you to respond to those updates, and offers you all available interaction methods right from within the same interface.
Furthermore, each contact can be “pinned” to the start screen as their own tile, and you can even create groups of contacts and pin those, in which case you’ll have the option of sending the group an email or SMS right from the tile. These people tiles are fantastic and a breath of fresh air when coming from iOS’ static contact book. The fact that I can pin all of my favourite contacts to my start screen and then see all their latest updates, post to their wall, call them, email them, text them, or even map their address right from within a single app is not only a huge timesaver, it’s also quickly become indispensable. It seems like one of those no-brainer things that should be in every smartphone.
The one glaring downside that I noticed was lack of Gtalk integration in the Messenger app.
Other tiles, like the Messaging app, are likewise more thorough than I’m used to. Instead of only allowing SMS messaging, the app also integrates Facebook chat and MSN/Live Messenger, and conversation threads are flexible enough to allow you to switch between these protocols at any point in time. It’s all about streamlining in Windows Phone, and the Messaging app is one of my favourite aspects. The one glaring downside that I noticed was lack of Gtalk integration. Perhaps I don’t represent the majority, but I use Google’s chat far more often than Facebook’s or Windows’.
The Big Leap
Once I had set up the basics — notifications, date/time, colours, etc. — it was time to make the leap: putting in my SIM card and ditching the iPhone. The Lumia swiftly picked up my Rogers signal, automatically grabbing the 4G band since it’s an LTE phone, but only phone calls and regular SMS messages were working. No MMS, nor data service. I popped open the Network Setup app that comes pre-installed on the phone and after a few seconds, it had properly configured my phone and I suddenly had all systems go.
An amusing side-effect of Apple’s recent integration of iMessage addresses with iOS6 was that messages from my friends with iPhones continued to go to my iPhone even after I removed its SIM card. I had to manually turn off iMessage on the iPhone in order to have all texts arrive on the Lumia as expected.
Now, as I populate the phone with apps and learn my way around the interface, I’m eager to see how competitive this phone is.
So It Begins
Windows Phone offers a very different philosophy for mobile smartphone usage, and I’m curious to see if I can adjust to its perspective over the next couple of weeks. In the next entry, I’ll discuss some of the issues I’ve run into with apps, some more fantastic perks of the operating system, and some unpleasant quirks too.