Ok, first things first: This article reflects my honest opinion about the platform. I’ve been using it for over seven months now, and as you may have guessed from my previous article, my reception to the platform has been less than stellar.
For fans of the platform, you may say that I’m too biased to rate it on its merits instead of comparing it to the other OS platforms. That may be true, but then again, why shouldn’t I compare? It’s supposed to offer something more than the other platforms, and in its current state, I don’t see that. WP8’s recent update even reflects that it’s just content on playing “catch up”. So with no further ado, here are my thoughts about Windows Phone 8.
It is the simplest smartphone OS to use!
Yes, there is something much more user-friendly than the vaunted iOS. WP8’s Live Tile interface embodies the Zen philosophy in such a way that iOS can only wish it could. You’d be amazed at how gorgeous the tiles are. Overall, the launcher has only two screens: the default tile interface, and when you swipe left, the application list in alphabetical order. When I used my sister’s iPhone, it took me a while to reorient myself into using it. Not so with WP8. I was navigating it like a pro from the get-go. I let my dad use it for a while, and he had no problem making a text and call. Well, except for the fact that he didn’t like onscreen keyboards and the smaller fonts (senior citizens rarely do), but that’s expected. My dad isn’t the tech-savvy kind (been on dumbphones, and that won’t likely change anytime soon), so it’s a testament to how easy WP8 is.
Live tiles are shortcuts and widgets all rolled into one. You’re able to pin apps into the live tile interface, and resize its tile as needed. The tiles also act as the app’s notification interface, so Windows Phone 8 doesn’t have its own notification center. There are only three tile sizes to choose from, however, and only the two larger tiles would be able to give you notifications.
Unfortunately as simple and gorgeous as it is, there is a downside to this interface.
Having only one screen for the tile means that if you pinned a bunch of tiles, you’ll have to scroll down to get to it. Now, this is no different from the other platforms where you have to scroll on the sides instead, but both Android and iOS have notification centers. WP8 relies on the tiles for that, so if you want to check for notifications or updates, it’s advisable that you put your most frequent apps at the top and using the medium sized tiles to save space. As for the other apps, you’ll have to scroll down. You can’t even group tiles into folders. Told you that simplicity comes at a price.
Also, notification is a hit-and-miss affair on some apps. First, Windows Phone 8 requires an internet connection for most of the apps (exceptions for phone-related apps like missed calls and unread SMS) to display notifications, even if the app doesn’t require an internet connection to work. Case in point: my battery app tile. It’s hilarious to see that it shows me having 99% when I only have over 70% left because it can’t update itself (see my screenshot above).
Ok, I know there isn’t much to Contacts, and I’m actually surprised how Microsoft managed to screw this up! They’ve been vaunting their Unified Contacts, and it works for the most part. On the plus side, your contacts can sync with Hotmail, much the same way as Android syncs to Gmail. It can also sync with FaceBook and Twitter, and to Gmail via General Distribution Release 2 (GDR2) if you’ve updated to Amber. You can link all these different contacts account (i.e. your friend’s phone contact entry, FaceBook, and Twitter accounts). Once you do, your phone will display that contact’s profile, recent activities in their social sites, photo gallery, and activity log you made with the person, such as call and texts received and made. I absolutely love this. You no longer need to go to FaceBook, and Twitter to see what your contact is up to, for example. It’s all there in the profile page. You can even write on your friend’s wall, or even send er/him an email from there. It’s amazing!
Where I get peeved is the way contacts having multiple numbers is implemented. I have some contacts with more than one number. I can choose any of those numbers to call. BUT, I can only send SMS to the “main” number. But what if I want to text the person via the other number? I can’t, or at least not without me manually inputting that number in the To field (and don’t choose the name on the lookup, if you do, the app will default it to the “main” number) of the Messaging app. I ran into this problem a number of times, especially when someone asked me to be contacted via the other number because her other phone wasn’t charged. I got it via text, and the message interface doesn’t give me any idea on what number she used to text me with, so I don’t know what number I was supposed to use for contact. What, look at the message details, you say? Ha! Dream on, pal! No message details here. Only way to prevent this problem? Make a separate phonebook entry for the other number, which defeats the purpose of the Unified Contact Profile entirely.
Your Own Ringtones? Screw you! Audio Controls? Screw You Again!
Why Microsoft thought of going the iOS route on this one is beyond me. However, steps in making your own MP3s into ringtones is much less of a hassle than it is on iOS. For one, you can do it directly from your phone instead of relying on your computer’s iTunes to do it for you (really, Apple, WTF????). However, I’m not so sure about the other WP8-based phones from other manufacturers, but my Lumia phone came with a ringtone maker pre-installed. You can’t directly make your MP3 into a ring tone. It has to go through the app. This is because ringtones reside in a different folder from your music files, and without a file explorer of any sort, there’s no way for you to add your MP3s there. If that wasn’t frustrating enough, there’s a limit to the length of the audio. The Amber update made it much more generous, however, giving you up to a full minute out of your desired song. That’s more than twice from the previous one. You just don’t know how frustrating it is to pick the best part of a song as a ring tone, only to have it abruptly cut off because MS had the “wisdom” to dictate how long a ringtone is supposed to be.
Once done, you’re able to use your custom ringtones for either the general call ringtone, or for any individual contact. Take note that I specified for calls because that’s all you’ll be able to change. You want a different ringtone for messages and emails? Of course you can! But you can only use the ones that the system provides. What, you want your own notification ringtone? “Here’s a finger for you”, Microsoft says. “Ok, then, at least let me have a different SMS ringtone for my GF and family members”, you say. “Eat another finger!”, Microsoft shoots back.
The ring + vibrate implementation is also nonsensical. When enabled, what happens is that the vibrate shoots first (only three pulses) and then the ringtone plays afterwards. What if I wanted my phone to vibrate and ring at the same time? Ha! You must be in dreamland!
Here’s another head-scratcher: The volume is universal to the ringtones, notifications, and the media. So, you can’t opt to have the media full blast while the tones and notifications only at half volume. I use that feature on Android. It’s frustrating not to be able to do it here. It’s non-sensical. I mean, why??? I doubt it’s a hardware limitation, so it’s a conscious design decision.
I really tried to avoid this, because it’s like beating a dead horse already, but the lack of apps is a real issue for me. It’s what frustrated me with the Symbian OS, and it continues to frustrate me on the WP8. Let me make this clear, though: Majority of the top apps found on both iOS and Android are either there, or have good alternatives. Facebook is there, and so is Twitter. More notable apps came to light, such as TapaTalk (thank God!), Instagram (finally!), and Vine. If you’re gaga over Angry Birds, they’re there, too. You won’t miss Google Maps because of Nokia HERE (more on that later). If you’re not tied to Google’s services, MS provides you with their own offerings, such as Hotmail, SKyDrive, etc.
But what if you ARE tied to Google’s services? Then you’re down on your luck. Getting to sync my Calendar and Contacts was an exercise in frustration (I haven’t tried after the Amber update, I might try it again soon). I use my Gmail as my main personal email (I don’t even use my Yahoo anymore, much less my Hotmail account) and I’d really rather have an official Gmail app than the other 3rd party ones. Yes, I’ve tried some, and I still say that the native Gmail app in Android works for me, and I want the same experience in WP8. We use Google’s Hangouts app here in NoypiGeeks, and I see no alternative here.
But it’s not just Google Services apps that are deadlands here in Windows Phone 8 world. Remember in my Lumia 620 review when I said that I tried making it my main phone, so that I can torture test it, and I didn’t last long? Well, here are the tings I can’t do without:
RSS Readers and their kin
I use the following, and NONE of them have an equivalent:
- RSS Demon – There are RSS readers, yes, but none even came close to the features this nifty app has. I’ve been using it since Day 1 to sync to Google Reader, and even though I’ve grudgingly transferred to feedly for the desktop, I didn’t use their Android app and stayed with RSS Demon. Oh, and yeah, there’s no feedly app for WP8 as well. Ha!
- Pulse – Subscription feeds that I couldn’t find in Google Reader (and Feedly), I was able to find in Pulse, and I subscribe to a lot of them, too. I think you can guess by now that I like reading feeds a lot, and I’m subscribed to a lot of them.
- Google Currents – lets you read your subscribed feeds like an offline magazine! My only frustration is that it doesn’t update as often as I like.
- Flipboard – really good interface when you want to read online
The best alternative that WP8 can provide for these apps is Weave, and it doesn’t even come CLOSE.
Cloud Storage and Apps
I put my files, notes, etc. in these four main cloud apps:
- Google Drive – a lot of Office apps, including backups of my articles.
- Dropbox – aside from miscellaneous files, may of my apps also use it for backup storage, syncing, etc.
- Pocket – I would often save other articles and other web pages for later consumption or for offline reference.
Of these, the only one to have an official app is Evernote (recently released). Dropbox has a plethora of 3rd party substitutes, none of which work perfectly. I kept the one with the most features, and it would often have trouble connecting to Dropbox’s server. Imagine that.
Or don’t imagine. Just have a look at the screenshot. Fully working internet connection. Fully NOT working 3rd party Dropbox application.
There are actually others more that I use, but these are the core ones that I require when I want my platform to be my daily driver. There are other more essential apps for me that I will no longer get to (such as Tapatalk, though there’s now an offical app for WP8 finally!). It’s enough to know that there are really a lot of things missing, and I’m not along in wanting compromises. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with my wanting the same experience for these apps on another platform.
I have an app whose purpose is to look for suitable replacements to the apps you use in iOS and Android. Pictures paint a thousand words:
I’m looking for a replacement for RSS Demon
Why am I not surprised?
I downloaded a replacement app for Tapatalk (suggested by my app above) back when there wasn’t an official one yet. It’s supposed to be a 3rd party Tapatalk app, i.e. it’s supposed to function exactly like it.
And don’t get me started with the keyboard. MS, in their infinite wisdom, decided to emulate iOS by not letting you use 3rd-party keyboards. so, for those who are fans of Swype or SwiftKey (like me, for instance), then you’re out of luck. The onboard KB is serviceable, though, but its predictions and suggestions are utterly lacking, especially if you’ve become accustomed to SwiftKey. SwiftKey was able to make use of both Filipino and English dictionaries simultaneously, and is still able to make pretty good suggestions on the next word you’d likely use. In WP8’s kb, you’ll have to switch between dictionaries (yup, it has both), and the Filipino KB is the same as turning off predictive text (i.e. it doesn’t work).
So, you ask, how about my experience on those apps that ARE in Windows Phone 8? Honestly, they’re a mixed bag, too. Let’s start with FaceBook. The interface looks good (it follows the design philosophy of the platform, which I find refreshing). Checking and making posts are top notch, as expected. What’s unexpected is the frustration of uploading multiple photos. Case in point: You can’t. I encountered this when I used my phone as my dedicated street photography camera way back during the Holy Week. I just can’t upload more than one picture at a time. I don’t know if it was the app that’s getting wonky or what. To top it off, uploading one pic doesn’t even work most of the time! Uploading a picture is like playing Russian Roulette with 60% of the chamber having bullets, i.e. you’d be expecting the upload to fail more often than the upload to actually work. I got so frustrated that I just resorted to transferring the photos to my Note 2 via BlueTooth (and it had its own frustrations there) and let my Note 2 upload those pictures en masse. I tried to make a screenshot of the app for this article, but for some stupid reason, my FB app just keeps force closing. I simply gave up. Sorry, guys. BTW, the official FaceBook app wasn’t made by FaceBook, but by Microsoft. Oh wow!
[two_fifth]Windows Phone’s Marketplace is no Google Play either, it won’t even hold a candle to Apple’s App Store.[/two_fifth]
The app’s beautiful interface can’t even begin to compensate for a plethora of things lacking. For one, it won’t show you the apps that already have an update right away. It somehow takes its sweet time to tell you that there are updates. That sweet time is 1-2 weeks average. In fact, I would just often rely on my WPCentral RSS feed (ironically read in my Android phone because the choices of RSS readers in WP8 is stupid) to find out that there are updates, head on to the Marketplace, search for the app (because you don’t get a list of the apps installed, a la Play Store’s My Apps section), and then update it. And, yes, it’s as frustrating as it sounds.
Fret not, however, because all is not lost for WP8. It has its own killer app. The only thing that can compel you to buy into the platform:
Nokia HERE is the arguably only reason to buy a WP8 phone!
Yes, folks, there’s no other offline navigation app that’s better than what this app offers, short of going for going for dedicated GPS devices like Garmin, CarNavi, etc. This is especially true here in the Philippines. No other apps in the competition can touch it. While it’s true that online maps, such as Google Maps, tend to be more up-to-date, you do have to be connected to use it. Try using that in an area with spotty to no coverage, and you’d most likely cry. Have you tried Google Maps’ offline “caching”? It’s a frigging joke. Speaking of jokes, have you heard about Apple’s Maps application? No, there’s no joke about it. Its existence alone is the joke.
So, given the caveats above, it would seem that I can’t recommend the platform. Well, yes and no. As a secondary phone, I highly recommend getting one, solely for Nokia Here. I absolutely need two phones (will never go back to dual sims again), and I find it impractical to have two Android devices. I would’ve gone for iOS, but aside from the fact that I absolutely HATE Apple (another story altogether), I’d rather support the lesser of two evils. Besides, the offline navigation is indispensable. Heck, I’d even recommend buying a Windows Phone 8 handset instead of an Android phone when you’re already committed to the iOS environment just for that reason.
However, as a main phone, I’d recommend against it for just about everybody, except if the user is an old dog unwilling to learn new tricks, or those who aren’t old dogs but want something a little bit more than what dumbphones offer. For those types of people, the lack of apps is a non-issue and they would most likely be contented with what comes with the phone out of the box.
[two_fifth]It also doesn’t help that Microsoft had shown to abandon old phones when a new iteration of the OS comes out. Just look at what happened to those who bought those Windows Phone 7.5 smartphones.[/two_fifth]
If I have to analogize, going to iOS is like going to a land ruled by a dictator with an iron fist. Yes, there’s less crimes and everything’s pretty much in order. But that’s because the ruler is draconian and have no qualms dictating to you what you should need and want. Android is like going to Ancient Greece, except it has a much bigger unexplored territory. Population is numerous, and all of them associate themselves as Greek, but each city-state has its own rules, there’s no actual governing body across the whole continent (only an alliance composed of only some city-states), and each city-state has its own version of what it means to be Greek. And much of the unexplored country is a no man’s land that would turn out badly for you if you’re not careful. Microsoft tried to be the “best of both” worlds, but instead of combining what’s great from both platforms, it’s only able to inherit much of what’s bad. As such, few citizens are willing to settle in, some only content on turning the land into something like a vacation home.
Will my outlook eventually change? I hope so. As much as I’m very much unsatisfied with the current state of the platform, I would really like it to succeed. I don’t want to live in the mobile tech world where only two superpowers dominate. More players mean more competition, making it better for the consumers overall. While I do appreciate the efforts MS are making for the platform, I see those efforts, for the time being, as not being enough.
The latest update, Amber, is a big disappointment because it didn’t bring much to the table (except for the camera app, which can only be truly appreciated if you have the Lumia 920 and above). Yes, it gave us a few more nifty features, such as the “Flip to silent”, but that’s been around to the other platforms for like forever (Symbian included, I had that in my C7, and was pissed when the 620 didn’t have it initially). Again, they’re just playing catch-up instead of offering something unique.
I’m sure that Microsoft don’t want their mobile OS platform to be relegated as being only for second/backup phones.
It’s aiming much higher, given the nature of the commercials and other ads they have. And, yes, I do realize that I’m being harsh on the platform. But that’s because I want it to succeed, and it’s frustrating to see that much of the things that’s bogging the Windows Phone 8 platform down are due to MS’s questionable design philosophies. Yes, they do have Nokia Here as THE killer app, but it’s like saying that they should be contented on being a one-trick pony. They have to give us something more, something that the competition are unable or unwilling to provide; something that the competition can’t shoryuken away so easily.