What started out as a reasonable decision at the beginning of 2014 now reached its climax with the Surface Pro 3: switching away from Apple, in every regard, and move to the Microsoft platform. First the PC, then the phone and lastly the tablet. Since having a Windows based PC is nothing unusual (although I might be one of the few that actually came to like Windows 8 – just as I was one of the few that liked Vista over XP; what does that say about me?) and the Surface is still too new to write about it in any meaningful way, that only leaves us with the phone.
As an introduction, I have already written four different blog posts at the beginning of my journey.
At first I mentioned the good look and feel of the Lumia 925 and the well-executed assembly. Well, the look and feel is still the same and although it is a year old now, the recent iPhone 6 announcement with the similarly well-rounded body on the edges made me appreciate the design once again.
What is a little unfortunate is the placing of the capacitive hardware buttons for “back”, “home” and “search”. Sure, where else to put them than at the bottom of the device? Having a “back” button at the bottom at least circumvents hacks like pulling down the whole screen just to reach the upper left corner where the “back” button in iOS’ applications is placed. In some situations though, when you try to give the phone to someone else to show them a photo for example, there’s basically only the slippery edges to hold the phone – at least if you try to move naturally. Holding it in my right hand, I would be inclined to use the bottom right of the phone to rest my thumb on in order to have firm grip. But, there is the search button. Touching it means getting thrown out of what I actually wanted to show. Software buttons, like on the new HTC One (M8) for Windows – what a stupid name – would solve the problem. Maybe it’s time to ditch the hardware buttons for good. Android has been working like this for quite a while now.
Speaking of buttons: a good idea, and so far unique to the Nokia lineup (until the unveiling of the Lumia 630/635), is the hardware camera button. This lets you use your phone more like a point and shoot camera. The button has two states, a half-push for focus and a full push to take the picture, just like you’d expect. And: it also wakes the device and launches directly into the camera app, something I found very handy visiting a festival this summer. There’s still a caveat though. Pushing the button all the way to take the picture takes some strength. I found the force needed to be a little too much. Combined with the slippery edges of the phone I’m not very confident to keep it steady (or might even drop it) using the button and choose to tap on the screen for focus and to finally take the picture.
Which brings us to the camera, a very important part of the phone to me. I have already linked to my camera shootout post, so if you haven’t read it already, do it now. What I was most curious about is how the camera would perform in the dark. Since this wasn’t my first time at the festival I knew there would be plenty of opportunities to find that out. But first, let me show you some daylight pictures.
Now let’s move on to the ones taken in dark environments and at night.
These are of course the good pictures (because I deleted the bad ones) but they show what can be done. In the past years I rarely was able to take images of this quality. Something that really came in handy was the manual control of focus and brightness. I didn’t have to rely on the camera to find the right object to focus on because at night, with all the light and sometimes smoke on the stage, they can get confused. That’s about all that I changed myself. ISO and exposure time had been determined by the camera, but simply because I totally forgot to play around with it (which is probably for the best or I would have spent more time staring at the phone than at the bands). Regarding the results I’m happy with the camera, but there is one thing that was pretty annoying when using it frequently. Startup time. It takes several seconds for the app to be ready, no matter if you wake the phone with the dedicated button or you have quit the app and re-launch it. Luckily Nokia/Microsoft have noticed this as well and the next firmware update is supposed to solve this problem.
Speaking of software (wow, my segues are spot on this time), how does the OS and the apps perform? To give everyone a good laugh, once I had to reboot the phone because notification sounds stopped playing. I had tested a few different sound settings and somehow must have tapped controls in a certain pattern that broke it. Listening to media still worked though, just not ringtones or any other notifications.
Something that seems broken by design is syncing browser favorites. I got them to the phone through sync but since then they never update. No matter if I add or remove a favorite on the phone or PC, they don’t show up or disappear on the other platform. Since I don’t do that all too often I can live with it. While I still had the iOS devices with only Windows there was no reliable sync either.
Another oddity is a platform restriction that only lets you download files larger than 100MB if the phone is charging and on Wi-Fi. This sometimes creeps its way up to me noticing it when there’s a particularly long podcast episode to be downloaded. I’m not sure how iOS handled this, but I never had to deal with such situations manually. Why do I have to connect to the power supply if I want to download 100MB? I can stream a 40 minute episode of a TV show without problems, why do I need external power for a download then?
Sounds like all is bad then, huh? No, it’s not. The only really annoying thing is syncing the favorites. The other just happened once and the download issue is a platform design decision. It’s not that iOS or Android don’t have any bugs (or malware; hey, didn’t we make fun of Windows for that?) or weird behavior.
To the extent that I use a smartphone Windows Phone serves me very well. It plays an even bigger part in my life than the iPhone did. Up until the point where I bought the Lumia I was a big proponent of a smaller screen because this allows for easy one-handed use. But this also made me use the device much less as the computer that it was. I use very few apps and mostly troll the same websites for news (tech and world) on a regular basis. That’s no fun with that teeny tiny 3.5 inch screen.
Until I bought the Surface I really used the Lumia to browse the web or check on Twitter. Sometimes I even ignored the iPad that I still had at the time. The bundled Bing apps (soon to be branded MSN), especially for news, are among those that I use the most. This is a quick and easy way to catch up on what’s happening in the world, aggregated from different well reputed news (-paper/-magazine) online offerings.
Even Skype evolved to finally be a full replacement of iMessage to me. Having a spotty reliability at first – which was quickly fixed – it now even receives features, like photo sharing, before all other platforms. And not only can I chat with Skype, I can also do calls and need not switch to a different app for that.
Other apps that I have installed are PayPal, eBay and Podcast Lounge (can’t recommend) and Lumia Panorama. Taking Panorama pictures was an easy and delightful experience on the iPhone. Not so much on Windows Phone. I never got through a shot without retrying at least one or two stops multiple times. But once you get used to how Lumia Panorama works, the result can be equally impressive.
What I didn’t know and just saw in the YouTube video is that you can take a panorama shot in landscape as well. The picture above was taken while holding the phone in portrait mode. I should’ve known that sooner. On one occasion on my bike trip I really could have used a wider angle.
To continue with my awesome transitions, let me tell you how I got to that beautiful location in the picture. I used Here Drive on the phone to be my moral support and confirm my directions on the route to the Altmühlsee. I didn’t really need GPS support because I basically knew how to get there, but since I don’t drive much this was a rare opportunity to test the navigation software.
The phone quickly detected my location and searching for the destination was fast as well. It took about a minute to set it all up and get going. A neat feature is that you can download maps for offline use, something I had already done before driving to the festival this summer – which meant: no problems loading the map in areas with bad cell reception. Because I knew where I was going I thought: “why not screw with the navigation software and see how quickly it calculates a new route?”. And quickly calculate it did. When you first pass the designated turnoff it either immediately uses the next possible one or tries to make you do a 180. Once this isn’t possible any more, which it quickly detects and thus doesn’t bother you too often to turn around, it comes up with a new route.
The application also checks for speed limits and plays a rather annoying sound (which is the point) to remind you of going too fast. In this area the app is very picky and more often than not I had to suffer through this notification. There is very little tolerance in this regard and sometimes there are false positives. What was to be expected is that the application continues while the screen is turned off. It still plays sounds and gives clear instructions where to go. To make a final judgment on whether these instructions are always precise, especially on a German Autobahn, I’d need an incentive to actually drive on an Autobahn. Since I can’t think of any right now the final verdict cannot be spoken until a thing as such happens.
Verdict on Windows Phone
I don’t miss the iPhone a single bit. I can only hope that Microsoft is as committed to the platform as they claim. For now it certainly looks that way. We’ll see if that commitment holds true if the market share doesn’t improve constantly. I certainly hope so. At this point I can’t really imagine going back to Apple (the latest iPhone almost costs as much as the entry level Surface Pro 3) or switch to Android. Although the platform is interesting from a technical perspective, I have my issues on how Google thinks that applications should interact with the user (my poster child of a bad example is the YouTube app on the iPad).