Review: Windows Phone 8
Finally, A Great Mobile Product From Microsoft - But Will It Take?
BY JOE PROCOPIO
Filed Under: NEWS: Technology
It's tough to be a Windows fanboy these days, but at least now there's hope.
Imagine that a middle-aged man wakes up one morning and realizes he's hopelessly out of style, out of touch, and completely out of date. He goes out that day and winds up at Hollister, where he spends a bunch of money buying a super-trendy wardrobe, then hits up a college dance club.
That is the perfect definition of Windows mobile strategy to date.
Do NOT get me wrong here. Windows Phone 8 is quite a phenomenal piece of software, finally bringing wise-but-painfully-stodgy Microsoft into the 21st century with their mobile strategy. This is coming from a guy who rocked the original Samsung i760 before the iPhone was even a thing.
But Windows mobile is in danger of falling into the abyss of the triple-mistake:
1) They stayed with Windows CE too long and were late getting into a true dedicated mobile OS.
2) When they did go in with guns blazing, they delivered a noisy dumpster fire with the Kin.
3) Windows Phone 7, while promising, wasn't revolutionary or particularly competitive against iOS and Android, certainly nowhere near enough to make people forget the Kin.
Windows Phone 8 borders on revolutionary. It delivers on the promise Microsoft made with Windows Phone 7 -- a phone that was "designed to get you in and out and back to life."
It does this very, very well. If you switch over to Windows Phone 8, you will be happy with your decision and embark on a path that is neither iOS nor Android, but a whole new thing.
The only problem is -- will it last? Most people are already embedded into either iOS or Android. And unless you are die-hard Microsoft, a label that is slowly falling to the wayside, there's no single compelling reason to switch over.
Let me solidify this with an example. Last Friday, I reviewed the HTC Windows Phone 8X which, according to me, is an awesome slice of hardware running a very solid OS and is a device you just want to pick up and use.
Exactly what Windows promised. Right?
That review garnered about 25% of the views I've been getting on mobile phone reviews, including the "gorgeous but no big step forward" HTC Droid DNA and the "flawed but oh-so-inexpensive" Republic Motorola Defy XT.
What's worse is that the ad clickthrough rate on that review, which I'm sure was comprised of several 8X and Windows Phone 8 ads, was around 20% of norm.
20% of 25% = 5%.
Yeah, it's not scientific by any means, but on the surface it seems like this is a really great product that hasn't found a customer base.
I hope I'm wrong, because it is indeed great. And note that if I had another couple weeks with this phone, I could probably go on (good and bad):
What Windows Phone 8 Got Right
Let me set the context. Windows Phone 8 catches up to iOS and Android, definitely making it a three-way game in a way that RIM has yet to accomplish.
Right from the start, the changes are obvious. The lock screen is customizable with a number of features that are also useful. My favorite was probably the least useful, a rotating selection of photos I've recently uploaded to Facebook. This is where Windows finally starts bringing some personality, basically your personality into the domain.
The lock screen also keeps you updated on notifications and the notifications bar at the top is a great mix of helpful and unobtrusive.
These are basically one-way widgets or smart icons that give you information. And they're improved in Phone 8, including being able to size them based on how much information you want. With Live Tiles, Windows brings the concept of "Start" to mobile, allowing you to get all the high-level information you need without having to drill down into the apps themselves, even if you have to scroll.
And I can't believe it took Windows to discover that scrolling vertically, rather than horizontally, makes it easier to hold and manipulate a phone with a larger screen. One of my biggest hangups with the explosion of screen size has been the elimination of comfortable one-hand use. This simple remedy alleviates that quite a bit, and larger screens on Windows Phone 8 aren't as awkward to use as, say, the Droid DNA or Galaxy SIII.
Anyway, Live Tiles are the single most obvious example where Windows Phone 8 lives up to the "get on with your life" bit, and it's the one place where Phone 8 really crushes Android and iOS.
This is kind of a gamble, in which Windows Phone 8 is taking a snapshot of how we use our mobile devices today, and categorizing information along the axis of usage, instead of by the apps themselves.
Contacts, Facebook and Twitter updates, friends' photos -- these all fall under the People hub. The Me hub may come from the same apps, but they're the notifications that relate directly to, well, me.
As long as the current state of how we use a mobile device remains current, then Hubs seem like a genius move. But the moment the next big thing comes along (Instagram?), if that information is missing then the hubs will appear lacking.
In other words, Microsoft, you have to keep on top of this.
Input and Keyboard
The keyboard on Windows Phone 8 is top-notch, nothing bad I can say about it, and the keyboard is a huge deal for me - I live by it. Input is also relatively simple and intuitive in most situations.
However, I have one small gripe here, and that's the fact that in most swipe or select situations, you have to start swiping from or touch the exact area of the icon or text. This may not seem like a huge deal, but the standard is swipe the line or, in layman's terms, get close. Coming from Android, there were instances where I had to swipe or touch a few times and then remember to hit the actual word or icon before it would react to the swipe or touch. Again. not a huge deal, but I can't figure out why this would be.
Look, you either hate IE or you don't. But site for site, IE10 held up against any other mobile browser I would use. It did everything HTML5 and CSS3 told it to do, at least for what I threw at it, and sites rendered fine and quickly.
Data Sense is a big plus here. It's a compression mode that reduces data consumption where possible, mostly around images. It also tracks your data usage. Since I have unlimited data - yeah, I'm one of the lucky ones, for now - this isn't that big a deal to me, but I know I will need this down the road.
Personally, I think data limits will eventually do more harm than good to the mobile industry, resulting in a choke on innovation as customers become hesitant to use mobile bandwidth up to a certain point. So gains on this front are particularly important.
Yes, most camera plusses and minuses will be determined by the hardware. The camera I used in the HTC Windows Phone 8X is a standard camera, certainly not as good as the iPhone cameras, but definitely on par with the rest of the best, including the Droid DNA and Motorola Razr M.
Touching the screen not only focuses the camera on an object, but automatically takes a picture. Lenses are also a look at where mobile camera tech is heading, allowing you to scan for text, barcodes, QR codes, etc. I've been depositing checks with my mobile phone camera for months now, and there are all kinds of applications for this technology that are right around the corner.
Devs, get on it.
If there's one vertical where Microsoft dominates, it's gaming, and where the XBox is Microsoft's entry into the living room, Windows Phone 8 is its Vita/DS.
Windows Phone 8 is tied tightly into the XBox architecture. You can play your XBox Live games, control your XBox via Smartglass, play your music, stream all Xbox music, and so on.
However, there currently aren't any downloadable video options for Windows Phone 8 via XBox Live, but I expect those are coming.
Sync with Windows 8
So I have an Android now and, after years and years with a Windows laptop, my main laptop is a Mac. Is it difficult to sync up my Android to my Mac? No, thanks to Gmail and the cloud. However, the integration between Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 is a different and deeper kind of integration. I start a doc in Windows 8, I pick it right up in Windows 8 mobile. It's seamless, where the up-to-the-cloud then down-to-the-device Android integration is a little bit more muddled.
It's definitely more like iOS to Mac, which is one of the better things about having an iPhone. Is this a huge win for Microsoft over Android? Ehh... probably not, but since so many people are still on Windows, this could help tip the balance in Microsoft's favor.
Office provides the same kind of seamless integration, but again Google Docs has advanced quite a bit over the last couple years and it comes down to syncing device to device vs. working in the cloud on Drive. All in all, I'd call integration a wash -- an area where Windows Phone 8 has caught up, but not broken through.
Things That Aren't There Yet
I'll only touch briefly on these because they're common knowledge.
The Windows store has gotten much better, but as I found in the HTC 8X review, it's still hit and miss on the popular apps. Facebook, Twitter, all of that, absolutely. But I couldn't get HootSuite, Instagram, Runkeeper, Google+, Spotify, or a free Angry Birds. Further, some apps, like YouTube, are just pointers to the mobile sites.
But we all know this is chicken and egg. Before developers start rushing in to create great Windows Phone apps, they have to see Windows phone usage picking up.
Nitpicking. Windows Phone 8 doesn't come with turn-by-turn navigation. You can solve this with third party but it seems like this should have happened.
More nitpicking. This one isn't Windows' fault. Wallet is functionality that's almost there, but not quite. The smartphone became the smartphone when I could ditch my PDA, which was exactly why I loved the Windows Mobile powered i-760 in the first place. Camera and GPS had been around for a while but only became real when you could ditch those devices as well. I will love wallet when I can leave my wallet at home. However, this time it's the process that needs to catch up to technology, and not the other way around.
Windows Phone 8 is a competitive entry into the mobile universe, the first we've seen since Android. And as a Windows mobile early adopter through Android, and a Windows user through 2011, I'm excited that there's an alternative - the world needs more than two mobile OSes.
My fear is that it may be too late, culturally speaking. Also, devs need a reason to adopt a third OS. They must develop for either iOS or Android, and likely both, just based on market share. But if anyone can get them to take on a third code base, it's Microsoft, much more so than even Blackberry at this point.
It remains to be seen. I'd use Windows Phone 8, especially with killer devices like the 8X and the Nokia Lumia 920. The only thing that can stop them is if it is truly now just a two-player game.
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