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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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