Ask LH: Is Windows Phone Ready To Replace My iPhone Or Android?

Dear Lifehacker, You guys write a lot about Android and iOS, but what about Windows Phone? I'm in the market for a new smartphone, and I'm open to branching out, but I'm afraid I'll miss some of my favourite apps or features. What should I look out for? I need advice! Thanks, Waffling Over Windows

Title image remixed from Gunnar Assmy (Shutterstock), psdGraphics, psdGraphics, and ShadyLaneDesigns.

Dear Waffling,

You're right, and you're not the first person to ask this question. Windows Phone doesn't have quite the following that iOS and Android have, so we don't write about it as often, but we wanted to give it a fair shake. So, I got a review unit of the Lumia 920 from Nokia and tried it out for a few weeks.

Windows Phone is very different than Android and iOS. Most sers don't like to admit it, but Android and iOS are quite similar to each other. They've both taken ideas from each other to improve their OS and have grown more together than they have apart. Windows Phone, on the other hand, is something completely new, which means it takes a bit more getting used to. Here's how Windows Phone differs from its competitors.

The Home Screen

You're probably familiar with Windows Phone's now-iconic home screen: Instead of multiple screens arranged with rows of icons, it has one home screen called the "Start" screen, with two columns of big tiles that launch apps. You can move these tiles around, resize them, and arrange them in many different ways on the grid. Each tile shows you information (such as how many unread SMS messages you have, or your next calendar appointment) so you can always stay up-to-date without having to open an app completely. It doesn't have widgets as such, but these live tiles are kind of like a halfway point between boring old badges and interactive widgets.

This layout is very different than iOS and Android, but it doesn't take as much getting used to as you'd think. The tiles are really nice, but can sometimes feel a little too big since you end up having to scroll a lot more. Resizing icons to their smaller versions fixes this somewhat, but of course, the smaller your icons, the less information you can show on each one. That means you have to be strategic: You can shrink down SMS and email since they'll just show you how many unread messages you have, but you might want to keep your weather and calendar icons bigger so they can show you more detailed information.

Also, you don't have to put all your apps on your home screen. Like Android, you'll want to put your most used apps on the main screen and hide the rest away in the app drawer that you can access by swiping to the left. In the end, your home screen is what you make it. It may take a bit more work to set up than iOS or Android, but once you've organised your tiles correctly you'll love it.

Look And Feel

Microsoft did a good job in requiring apps to adhere to specific design standards, which means you don't need to re-learn how to navigate every app (as you do on Android). The interface is actually quite beautiful, at first glance: it's very fast and smooth, with everything organised into "pages" that you can swipe between (like the views on your calendar, or categories in Evernote).

This view isn't for everyone, though. At first, I thought it was gorgeous, but the more I use the phone, the more I feel like all this giant text just wastes space. Take the image above, for example. In Android's Evernote app, I can quickly access my toolbar and go straight to Notes, Notebooks or Tags. On Windows Phone's Evernote app, the font is so big on the page titles along the top that I can't access Tags as quickly — I have to swipe over multiple times until I get to it. This becomes a bigger problem the more pages you have, and can get quite annoying. All the big fonts seem like they're wasting horizontal and vertical space. While it may be easier to read the text itself, it means you won't be able to see as many messages in your inbox and you'll have to scroll a lot more.

Notifications

Windows Phone disappoints when it comes to notifications. Both iOS and Android have fantastic notification systems, letting you view all your recent notifications from a drawer at the top of your screen. Windows Phone doesn't have this.

When you first receive a notification, you'll see a little banner at the top of your screen. Tapping on it will take you to the app in question, but if it disappears before you can tap on it — or if you check your phone later — you won't be able to access those notifications anywhere. You'll be able to see the number of unread messages in all your apps from the live tiles on your home screen, but there isn't one central place where you can get a "roundup" of all your recent notifications, which feels really frustrating after you've become used to iOS or Android.

Multitasking

Android and iOS could learn a thing or two from Windows Phone's multitasking abilities. To see your open apps, you just press and hold the back button to view a bunch of thumbnails in a row (somewhat like Android's new multitasking system). Tapping on one of those thumbnails resumes the app almost instantaneously. The whole process is extremely smooth.

Windows Phone's killer multitasking feature, though, is its control over what runs in the background. If you head to Settings > Applications > Background Tasks, you can tap on a specific third-party app and see what it uses background processes for (usually things like checking for new messages and updating live tiles). If you don't want it working in the background — say, if it's draining your battery — you can block it from running those tasks right from this settings screen. This is not only a great feature, but it's incredibly easy to use and understand, which is a breath of fresh air in the smartphone world.

Bundled Apps

Windows Phone comes with all the usual apps: Email, Calendar, Contacts, Navigation, Internet Explorer, and others. Here's what you'll find in some of the major ones:

Email: Windows Phone's email app is pretty basic. After linking your accounts in the Settings app, you can send and receive emails, put them into folders, and flag them. It doesn't have a great conversation view, and viewing other folders takes quite a few taps. It actually feels a little like an older desktop client, and even using Microsoft's awesome Outlook.com service feels like you're using IMAP on a very basic client (which sucks if you're a Gmail user — no archiving here). You can merge all your inboxes into one, if you so choose, which is nice.

Calendar: The Calendar app is nothing special. It shows you all of your upcoming appointments in a day view, an agenda view, and has a small to-do list as well. Its month view is awful, showing you your events with very tiny text, without calendar colour associated with them, so you can't see anything remotely useful at a glance. It also doesn't sync with Google Calendar, which is a big blow to Google users.

People: Your address book is exactly what you'd expect until you sync your phone with social networking accounts like Facebook and Twitter. Then, it will keep your contacts in sync, show you recent statuses, and become almost like a small all-in-one social network. It's cool, though can get in the way a bit if all you want to do is find someone's phone number.

Maps & Navigation: Microsoft's maps app, which uses Bing Maps as its backend, is strangely called Nokia HERE. HERE can not only show you locations on a map, but provide reviews from TripAdvisor, show you what else is nearby, and (of course) give you turn-by-turn directions. Navigation works well, except for the very annoying beeping it makes when you go over the speed limit (which thankfully, you can remove in the settings). HERE's best feature, though, is offline maps. Before you start it up, it will ask you to download maps for your area, which seems annoying, but allows you to get directions even when you don't have a signal, which helped me on more than one occasion.

Internet Explorer: Internet Explorer emphasises the site you're viewing rather than buttons and other browser features. This is nice until you want to do something besides refresh the page or go back (you can't go forward, by the way), because everything is in its menu "drawer". From the menu, you can add sites to your favourites list, view your recent history, and open multiple sites at once in "tabs", You can also pin pages to your start screen and find text on a page.

If you dig into IE's settings, you'll find some really nice features. It can grab desktop sites instead of mobile sites, assign different actions to your address bar button, use Google or Bing as your search engine, block cookies, and even open links in a new tab. IE has more settings than I expected to see from a default browser, which is a welcome surprise.

Third-Party Apps

So, what do you do when your built-in apps are lacklustre? You go to the app store! You've probably heard about how small a selection Windows Phone has, and it's true. It severely lacks the app selection of iOS or Android. You may find an alternative calendar app or two in the Windows Store, but there aren't any awesome standouts like there are on iOS (or even Android). Most are mediocre, or are missing a lot of features compared to their iOS and Android counterparts. Unlike the other platforms, you don't always have a "good" app for any given category.

Furthermore, many of our favourite apps — like Wunderlist or Dropbox — are completely missing. Some have third-party alternatives (like Boxfiles for Dropbox), and sometimes they're even good, but it just means that many of you may find yourselves without some of your favourite apps. Many of the big companies we've come to rely on just haven't made apps for Windows Phone yet (like Google, who has no plans to do so right now), which means if you're even remotely tied into a given ecosystem (like Google), you're going to have a bad time.

Windows Phone does get some of the little stuff right: you can download trials of paid apps in the Windows store before you buy, which is much appreciated. You can also uninstall many of the preinstalled apps on your phone (get on this, Android).

Where Windows Phone Works

When I first started using Windows Phone, I thought I'd have more positive things to say about it. It feels really nice when you first start using it, and for the most part, it's easy to use in a way that Android and even iOS can't match. But once I really tried to set myself up on Windows Phone, I realised how many of my go-to apps weren't available, and how frustratingly basic Windows' built-in offerings were. It gets a lot of the small details right — like app trials, uninstalling crapware, and speed — but it's failed to provide a lot of the important features available on other platforms.

That said, I could still see myself recommending this phone to some people. Much like my experiment with Internet Explorer, many of my gripes are more on the "advanced user" side of things. In my eyes, this Windows Phone is less of a smartphone and more of a dumbphone that can surf the web, send emails, and navigate you around town, without all the apps and other stuff you've come to expect. For some people, that's fine — in fact, it's exactly what they need. I'd recommend this to my less tech-obsessed friends that aren't locked into certain apps, or just want a phone that works. If you want something simple and distraction-free, Windows Phone has potential, but if you like Android and iOS, it's going to be difficult to switch. Not impossible by any means, but difficult.

I know we have a few Windows Phone users out there, and I'd love to hear your experiences. Everyone's different and I know there are going to be a lot of other opinions, workarounds and features you guys want to talk about, so fire away in the comments below!

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Comments

    i have the nokia lumia 920 amd i gave each my children the nokia lumia 620. we love it. they work great.

    Cant access files/photos/etc without their Zune crapware
    Can't export/import or at least just backup SMS

    That was my WP experience finished right there. Add that batery life just as bad as other platforms, the complete lack of after-market accessories (cases etc) and that the heavily pushed and enforced Metro look is a functionality-crippling turd as you described in the article, and I can't see myself giving Microsoft another chance on phone.

      Ah yes, and the joke which is their developer program.
      Locking down so you can't even develop for your own device as a hobbyist without signing up for a professional developer program.
      The whole token-based "official jailbreak" unlock malarkey.
      Pretty much forcing XNA and Silverlight as the only development options, then effectively killing both.
      As a 'prosumer' it's an even bigger failure than as an ordinary consumer.

        Yeah, these are the issues that pushed me onto Android. If I wanted to make money as an app developer, I'd probably get an iPhone, but for my "weekend" projects Android is perfect. Plus Android is the only mobile platform that get Humble Bundles

      "Cant access files/photos/etc without their Zune crapware"
      - only true in WP7.x. WP8 just turns up as a USB drive, you can drag-and-drop directly into the phone's file system.

      "Can't export/import or at least just backup SMS"
      - can you export/import with Android or iOS? Nokia had this handled years ago with S40 and S60 but AFAIK nobody else has come close to their excellent PC Suite software.

      I found the Metro look to be a good compromise between icons and widgets. In particular I laugh when my sisters swipe through pages and pages of apps looking for a particular one - I swipe left and then either search or use the alpha-index to get to it quickly, whatever it's called.

      It's certainly not perfect, but I like it.

        And zune was certainly not crapware (that title goes to iTunes). Annoys me so much having to manually transfer my photos to my PC when Zune did it automatically...

        "Can't export/import or at least just backup SMS"
        - can you export/import with Android or iOS?

        There's no first-party method for either systems (other than backing up SMS in iOS), but:

        Android: There's plenty of apps that will backup, export and import messages. My favourite was My Backup Pro (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.rerware.android.MyBackupPro&hl=en) - great when switching phones.

        iOS: Your messages are included when you backup your iPhone in iTunes, and there's websites or even some programs that can extract the messages from those backups and export them to other formats. And there is a program called Backuptrans that will export Android messages to iOS.

        I'm definitely also a fan of WP8 though, I'm still on an iPhone until my contract ends in October but I've been considering switching to WP.

      Im guessing you have not used WP8 but more WP7?

      Most of these 'issues' you refer to have since been fixed in WP8.

      I even tested the backup of SMS's and they all restored great from the 'cloud' so the built in functions work great :)

        You can back up your SMS in WP8? And it's a built-in function? Will have to check this out...

          Yeah under Settings->Backup

            OK, that's cool. BUT, one thing you could do in S40/S60 handsets was export all your SMS to a standard .CSV file, which is really a more useful kind of backup. I've done a little bit of reading on WP8 backup and it sounds more like the iOS backup method, where the whole device is backed up but you can't just archive certain data.

            Is that the case? Still better than nothing, but a proper export function would be ideal.

      Note that both of these issues only exist in WP7.x.

      WP8 no longer requires a desktop sync client (though one exists if you are turned on by this) and a reasonably robust backup solution exists.

      As for your objection to 'metro', well, each to their own, I guess. I don't care for static icons. YMMV

      THAT'S your deal breaker?

      Have you ever used the internet or Wifi on your mobile phone before?

    I got jack of my iPhone 3GS consistently crashing and the scam apps in the iOS store, so I switched to Windows Phone and agree with the review above - it is absolutely beautiful. It's a very reliable phone and I've never had it crash on me like I have had with Apple products. Also, it integrates very smoothly with my work e-mail and work IT systems.

    I'm using a HTC HD7 using Windows Mango and I couldn't be happier with it. I'm due to get a new phone in November thanks to my contract, so I'll be upgrading to a Lumia 920 as soon as I can.

    I have a Lumia 920 and had to go back to my iPhone. Windows Phone 8 is a vast improvement on previous versions and the 920 was a fantastic phone, but the lack of third party app support and some issues endemic to the Windows Phone platform (which don't look like getting fixed any time soon) stop me from using it. There are a bunch of medical apps which I absolutely need which aren't on WP8 and there are no plans to port them. Now Google are playing games to limit support for the platform. It's not that it's a bad platform, it's just that nobody wants to support it, and the phone is only as good as its utility for the user, and that often translates into 3rd party support.

    The biggest adjustment was the lack of a google reader app that comes close to feedly. I still find myself looking for my Ipad to get my feedly fix.

    Beyond that, I ditched the built in calender and went with Chronos instead. IMO one of the better calender apps I have seen in a while.

    I do like the way that it groups together music and games into hubs. Means that you can put less on your home screen.

    Apart from that the Nokia 920 is a bold phone, I have to say that I am gotten more comments on the phone that any other phone that I have used. So if you use your qantas app with your nokia lumia there is more chance that the airline hostess will gasp....'cool phone'

    ...just saying

    This is a really nice write-up. Unbiased, informed and balanced.

    Have found this site handy when looking for similar android/ios apps on my Lumia 920: http://xyo.net/lumia/android/?inclWP8=True&country=AU

    Nice music taste! Love me some Periphery
    I'm at this indecisive point of whether to keep on the iPhone trip or go back to Android or go completely new with the WIndows Phone. Do I have to relearn everything? I do like the way all the contact information is pulled from multiple resources to give a more comprehensive detail of each contact.

      The UI is halfway between iPhone and Android - IMHO it's a brilliant halfway point, but it's not perfect and YMMV. Sharing, pinning and multitasking through the UI all becomes second nature pretty quickly and it's very smooth, even on low-end hardware.

      However it's not so much about relearning everything as realigning expectations. WP8 has all the smartphone bases well covered - contacts, calendar, navigation, games, media, Internet - but if you are hopelessly addicted to a specific app you might want to check that it's on WP first. WP plays third fiddle to iOS and Android so games come out slower, there's no Instagram (although I really don't get the appeal there) and Google has been making some dick moves towards WP (e.g. the YouTube issue).

      Having said that Evernote, FourSquare, Facebook, most banks and mobile providers, Twitter, Amazon Shopping/Kindle, PayPal ... between the WP Marketplace and the browser there's enough for just about everyone. It's just if there's a specific app that you really need, you might want to check out the situation first. :D

      Last edited 28/03/13 4:56 pm

    The question to ask is, "Do you like Vista" if you are thinking of a VistaPhone. Personally I think it would be a huge Blue to make.

    I used to have an android as my personal phone, then work provided a Windows Phone. I would go along with most of the general thrust of this article. WP does some things better but there is a much smaller range of apps in the Windows Marketplace. My experience to date with the Zune software has not been that of "crapware". When it's all said and done, it's just a different interface to drag and drop between folders on an Android phone. As you said yourself, you would be more in the category of a power user. I've got my gmail set up on it and I don't really expect to be able to do the sort of stuff you can do on a PC or tablet when it comes to email, but of course others would be different with their requirements.

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