Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Living with Windows Phone

Nokia Lumia 800I've been living with a Nokia Lumia 800 running Windows Phone for over six months now. I say 'living' because mobile phones are so personal and as a smartphone it does so much. The alarm to get me up in the morning, checking the weather before going out, reading the news while waiting for the train, these and more are common place uses for what we loosly call a "phone". When we make a choice for a mobile phone these days we are stuck with it for one or two years depending on the subscription. As it is so personal, we need to make the right choice. Here I will explain about my choice, maybe it won't be yours but I hope you'll find it interesting.

From August 2009 to April 2012 I was using an HTC Hero running Android. It was a wonderful little smartphone. I was very happy with it, I embraced the world of Google, I switched to Gmail and having all my contacts in the cloud was perfect. No longer did I need to think of backing up my phone or managing contacts in multiple places.

In 2012 I wanted to upgrade to a new smartphone. Being used to and happy with my HTC running Android, my search started with the then new HTC One X and S models with Android Ice Cream Sandwich. I very nearly got the HTC One S because it was a good size for me and it was an amazing design. But something made me stop. There was a lot of advertising for the then still new Nokia Lumia 800. I wondered if I should make a change, try something new? The first thing I liked about the Nokia Lumia 800 was the hardware design. It is sleek and doesn't have bits sticking out of it (the HTC One S camera lens sticks out a little from the body). Crucially for me the Lumia 800 was small enough to go in my pocket - remember that I was used to the ultra compact HTC Hero.

But I paused and thought again about getting a Lumia 800. The hardware and design being great but it wasn't running Android. Did I really want to jump to Windows Phone? What about my Google contacts and Gmail? Would it work as seamlessly with my Google cloud? Would the Microsoft Windows Phone operating system tie me to Hotmail and other Microsoft solutions? I wondered. Also the stories in the press about few apps for Windows Phone - would this be a limiting factor?

I'd seen Windows Phone before on a colleagues mobile, I knew it was interesting but I wasn't convinced it was for me. I used a Lumia in a shop, I did some more research, watched reviews on Youtube and read articles. I finally took the plunge and bought a Nokia Lumia 800 in April 2012.

The first thing I did was configure my Lumia for Gmail. It was very easy, Windows Phone has Gmail as a standard option. It was just as easy as it was on my Android phone. I could synchronise e-mails - easy. The Windows Phone built-in e-mail app is nice too. Then my contacts... yes, no problem, all my Gmail contacts synchronised. Just like on my Android I was also able to synchronise my Facebook contacts too and match them to my Gmail contacts. Excellent! In fact that part was easier and faster than I'd experienced on my old phone. The calendar also works. You add something in Gmail and it appears on your phone and the other way round too. It works.

What about IE (Internet Explorer)? On my desktop I use Google Chrome and so going back to IE felt strange at first but the thing is, it's just perception. In fact IE on Windows Phone is slick and works very well. The only odd thing is that it sometimes doesn't show the mobile version of a website when you'd expect it to. Apart from that, it does the job. Adobe Flash doesn't run though. At first I was upset with this but as there is an industry trend away from Flash this is less of an issue now. Apple was one of the first to drop it and even Adobe itself isn't producing new versions of the player for Android anymore. By the way, don't be worried about Youtube - it works fine on Windows Phone IE.

Windows Phone start screenThe iPhone has rows of static icons. Android has static icons and widgets providing live information. Windows Phone has live tiles. Tiles give it a clean look and pracitically tiles are easy to press as they are a good size and not fiddly. Best of all, tiles are alive! This means you get live information shown on the tile - you don't have to enter the app. You can have as many tiles as you like, the screen scrolls vertically.

If you swipe to the right you see the full app list. You can pin any app tile to the start screen. On the start screen you can easily move tiles around by pressing and dragging. It is easy and slick. The speed and responsiveness is excellent. There's no lag or slowdown when using Windows Phone, at least not in my experience with the Lumia 800 (which surprisingly only has a single core CPU).

All Windows Phones have three physical buttons. The Back, the Windows (start) and Search. When you have apps open, press the back button to go leave them or cancel something you are doing. But if you want to leave the app open, press the Windows button, it takes you back to the start screen. The app is left running, this is multi-tasking. If you want to see what is running, press the Back button, hold it down and you'll see a list of open apps.

BBC News MobileThe Windows Phone market place has much fewer apps than the Google or Apple store. But don't let this put you off. There are still many thousands of apps for Windows Phone. There's a huge number of free apps, I've not purchased even one so far, yet I have a lot installed. Every day I read the BBC news, I read Endgaget, I use WhatsApp, SoundHound, etc! Of course it is true that not all software companies support Windows Phone or they make apps for it last after the more popular operating systems. However, it isn't the spartan app world that is sometimes portrayed. There are a lot of great Windows Phone apps.

Nokia have really been trying to boost their Lumia range by making apps. Their phones come with Nokia Maps, Drive, Local Scout and more. These are truly useful, quality apps. I've used Nokia Maps and it's almost as good as Google Maps, maybe I am saying "nearly" only because I am used to Google Maps? There's something called Nokia City Lens - point the phone in a direction and it'll show you points of interest nearby by overlaying labels onto the camera view. It's really clever but so far I've not used it for real, to find a restaurant for example. It shows Nokia is dedicated to innovation.

Nokia Music is an app that comes with Lumia phones and it's excellent. Frankly I don't listen to music a lot but I can see that this is great. You can download free music! Completely free, no catch. The following video explains:

There are a lot of free photo/camera related apps to download. Recently there was an app called Photo Extras that added new functionality directly into the camera software. This was welcome but my favourite photo app is PhotoSynth. It lets you take panorama photos - but special ones! They are 3D. It's easiest if you experience it yourself, click here.

I used to have a Blackberry Bold 9000 from work. It always had problems when it came to reading attachments. With my Lumia there are no such issues because it comes with MS Office mobile pre-installed. Word, Excel and Powerpoint! Plus you get OneNote which I've used a lot for jotting down notes when I've been out at the shops or where ever. Your files can be even be saved to Skydrive, the cloud!

In order to save Notes files and the configuration of your phone to the cloud, you have to have a Microsoft Windows Live account. This is free and they don't ask you for a credit card (unlike Apple). With a Windows Live account you get Skydrive, which is a free cloud storage drive (like DropBox or Google Drive). Skydrive integrates seamlessly into Windows Phone, you can even see photos stored on Skydrive in your phone's gallery. In May 2012 I installed Windows 8 Preview on an old desktop computer. It asked me to login with my Windows Live account - it was great, my Gmail, my Google Calender, my Google Contacts, it all came to my desktop.

Back in 2009 my Android phone linked to my contacts to my Facebook account. Windows Phone does the same and more. The best part is that it does it in a seamless way and it is reliable. You have control, you choose if you link to Facebook or not. I like this a lot as I use Facebook and the integration is so good that I hardly ever open the Facebook app. Instead click a contact and you'll see their status update, photos, etc. Posting photos is very easy, there's a little button, click it and you can share to Facebook, Twitter, etc. The Facebook integration goes even further. The messaging app where you send SMS texts, press an on screen button and you can send Facebook instant messages from the same place. I've used it and I like it, unfortunately few people use the Facebook instant messanger. In addition to all of this integration, there is also a very good official Facebook app you can download and install.

Search and More
Windows Phones have a dedicated search button that brings up the Bing search. Not only does this allow you to search the web but also, with the press of a button, you can scan barcodes. If you are in a shop and want to get more details on a product you can point your phone at the barcode and it'll search and give you the details. It's practical and you don't need to install an app to get this functionality. You can translate text too. OK, it doesn't sound all that amazing but what's nice here is that if, for example, you have a letter written in another language, your Windows Phone can scan the text and translate it for you. It's automatic and there's no app to download. The iPhone 4 and above have a feature called "Siri" where you can speak to your phone. Windows Phone has a similar feature called Tell Me. You can create text messages by just speaking, it will read text messages too. I've tried it and it works well but for me I am not that keen on voice activation, I can type pretty fast ;-)  Here's a video that shows this feature:

Windows Phone is reliable. I've not had to switch off/on my Lumia. I've never seen any kind of crash so far. It works as fast now as ever. It is impressive, at least in the six months I've been using it.

Nokia Lumia 800
The Nokia Lumia 800's smooth screen, curved edge and unibody design really make it feel like a quality product in the hand. It's hard to explain but it just feels right. Here's a short video by TechnoBuffalo that compares the design to the iPhone 4:

I like the feel of this phone, it's easy to carry, I slip it into my trouser pocket every morning. The screen is tough and scratch proof. I can say from experience that after more than six months of use it is as new. The screen resolution of the Lumia 800 is not as good as many phones on the market now but somehow you don't notice that much because it is still a very bright screen with a lot of contrast. It's clear and usually I don't find it a problem to see the screen unless the sun is very bright or directly on the screen.
For in-depth information on the Lumia 800 here's the link to Wikipedia's page:
After more than six months living with Windows Phone I can say that I am happy. It's slick and easy to use. It is fast, responsive and reliable. The screen is uncluttered, it feels fresh and clean. If you are looking for a new phone then take a look at Windows Phone, you maybe pleasantly surprised.

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