A few months with Windows phone and a bonus review of the Nokia Lumia 520

I spent several months using the Lumia 520 running Windows Phone 8 and 8.1,  Microsoft had both advantages and disadvantages when they decided to push into the smartphone market.  By coming to the modern smartphone market late, Microsoft was able to totally rethink the user interface. Despite what some may think Microsoft is full of very intelligent people. These people looked at the way use smartphones and tried to come up with something better.  They didn't just want to copy Apple the way android did...allegedly.

The User Interface 


Microsoft built their user interface around four ways we interact with our smartphone. The first is the lock screen.  All three major platforms do basically  the same things with what we see when first turning on our screens.  They show you missed calls, txts, newest emails etc. Windows phone allows you to set what app you want to display on the lock screen.  For example, you can show the weather or have Instagram display a grid of your friends latest pictures.

The second way we use our devices is through the all app lists. Instead of a grid of icons for all installed apps, by swiping left from the main screen you access an alphabetical and searchable list of all installed apps. This method works well.  The list is easily searchable and having only a small icon allows for a longer names.

The main way we use our phones is by pushing on an app icon on the screen to launch that app. Android adds the very useful concept of widgets.  I've talked about those elsewhere. Microsoft decided to mix the widget concept with a more structured format.  Thus was born the Live Tile interface. The live tile interface only takes up one screen.  It will only ever be the width your phone display but it scrolls down forever.  Any app can be pinned to the screen in one of three sizes.  The smallest size shows just the icon of the app.  The next size up is a 2x2 square of the smallest size.  The largest size is two of the medium ones side by side making a large rectangle.  All this can be seen in the screen shot to the left. If the the developer implements it, the larger tiles become "live tiles" and display information from the app. For example if you have a large version of the calendar open it lists your upcoming appointments.

It can be an ingenious way to use the phones screen.  It is designed to take advantage of the variable screen sizes available on our phones.  Windows Phone allows you to customize the type and amount of information you have access to at a glance. The live tiles aren't quite as useful as Android widgets.  Android allows an even greater amount of customization. The only real drawback is having to scroll down once you've filled up the top part of the interface. You can't add new side swipable desktops of tiled home screens like you can in iOS and Android.

The final way we have begun to use our phones is through voice commands. Apple has Siri, Android has OK Google and Windows Phone has Cortana.  BTW Cortana is going to be included in all version of windows going forward. Even on the Lumia 520 which is under powered Cortana does a great job of correctly parsing human language. I did an experiment where I asked the exact same question to Siri, Cortana, and OK Google: "I need a level app". Both Cortana and Google picked up the question on the first try and returned good results. Siri never even understood the question. I gave up after the fifth attempt.

Things Microsoft Got Right

Besides Cortana there is a couple of other things Windows Phone does well. Windows Phone has an
excellent driving mode. You can set the phone to go into driving mode when connected to a specific bluetooth device. When in driving mode the phone will tell you who is calling and read out texts for you if you want.It also allow you through voice commands to respond etc.  And since the voice recognition is so accurate the system works well. I would like the option to read out emails and other communications but perhaps that would be to distracting.

Microsoft has also done a great job integrating micro sd cards. This wasn't always the case.  Early Windows Phone entrants had little to no sd card support.  The new version of Windows Phone nail this.  When you insert an sd card into the phone it, for most practical purposes, integrates itself into the entire phone. There are almost no limitation on what can be on the sd card.  Music, pictures and even apps can be placed on the sd card. Apps on the sd card appear like any other app and seem to work fine.  Only the core os has to remain on the phones internal memory. They did even recently add the ability to put downloaded os upgades to the sd card. This means you no longer have to have enough room on the internal memory to run the update. It will swap things into and out of the sd card as it updates. This does mean that if your sd card abruptly dies you can lose a lot of apps until you install a new one.  Backup so you don't lose pictures, etc.

Windows Phone also comes with a suite of excellent Microsoft apps.  For some reason they are mostly branded as MSN apps. It is a core set of useful apps that cover such things as weather, fitness, money, etc. They all seem to be well done and useful.  Microsoft has done a really good job on them.

Where Windows Phone Misses the Mark

Sadly, Microsoft having to put so much effort into making these excellent apps highlights one of Windows Phones greatest weaknesses. The app ecosystem just isn't up to snuff. Limited offerings are made in certain areas and often the most popular app on either Android or iOS won't be there. The classic example is no runkeeper app. The longer Microsoft sticks with Windows Phone the less of a problem this will become.  Microsoft is also trying to counter this problem by encouraging universal apps that run on both Windows and Windows Phone.

Once android is rooted and unlocked it is an open system. Though no where near as locked down as Apple, Windows Phone still isn't open enough for me.  An odd example, if you write an alarm app you are allowed to only use the built in alarms.  The iheart radio app does not have the alarm option it has on android.

Final Verdict 

My overall impression of Windows Phone 8/8.1 has been very positive. Microsoft has produced a very viable and somewhat unique alternative to iOS and Android. I hope it sticks around and gains some traction.  If I were to rank iOS, Android, and Windows Phone it would be Android, than Windows Phone, and a kinda distant thirds would by iOS.

The Nokia 520

One of the big hurtles I had to overcome to give Windows Phone a fair shake was the Nokia 520.  I had to look past the limitations of the 520 to try and perceive what the experience might be like on a better phone.

The 520 was the cheap pay as you go Windows Phone option in the US.  I picked it up from amazon for sixty dollars. The specifications are as low as you can go. An under powered processor and only 512 megs of memory lead to an often poor experience. Simple apps could take over twenty seconds to start and would often crash. I will give you a common example of what happens with low memory and a bad processor. I'd be in the twitter app and want to take a picture and post it. Pushing the camera icon in the twitter app would attempt to load the camera app.  This would take 15 to 20 seconds. Some times the app would just crash. Sometimes the entire phone would crash and I would have to pull the battery. If the camera app did ever load and you took a picture, you had to hope the phone would be able to switch back to the twitter app without yet another crash. 

 On top of that the camera was one of the worst cameras on a smart phone I've ever experienced.  I think the camera on my iPhone 3g took better pictures.  Even in good light the shots had a bit of grain.  If you dared try to take a picture in anything but perfect light the images ended up horrible and grainy with loads of artifacts.

It did make excellent phone calls. I can say that.  Even in a noisy environment the noise cancellation worked well and both parties could hear fine.  

I cannot recommend the Nokia 520 to any but the most desperate. I didn't expect much from a sixty dollar no contract smartphone and I didn't get much.

Microsoft's Lumia 520 Problem

The badness of the Lumia 520, presents Microsoft with a particular problem for Windows Phone adoption. The Lumia 520 has been hands down the most popular Windows Phone. At its height the Lumia 520 was over a third of all handsets running Windows Phone.  Even now, it holds an almost quarter share of the market. With this horrible experience tainting peoples opinion of Windows Phone I am not sure what traction Microsoft can hope to get.