Experiencing Windows Phone
With 17+ years of experience on Microsoft Technologies, with my current work focus on Kinect, PixelSense, Windows 8 and Phone 8, with having access to Kinect and Windows 8, but using an Android smart phone instead of Windows Phone isn't something that is appreciated. With Phone 8 now in market, I have been thinking of replacing my phone and my wife was happy enough to take my earlier android phone for herself.
However I could also just not go and buy a new Phone 8 device, so thought of first playing around with one for few days to figure out how it felt. Since we got a new Phone 8 device in our Lab, I had the earlier HTC Phone 7.5 device available for experimentation. Here are some of the things I felt about using the Phone 7.5 device over few weeks.
1. Configuring Windows Live ID. Since the phone was earlier in our Lab, we had configured our Lab's ID on it. Now to personalize this, I wanted to replace that ID with mine. Surprisingly the default ID that is created at the start of configuration of the phone, cannot be deleted. All other IDs added later can be. For changing the default ID, one has to "restore factory settings". However this isn't something unique to Windows phone. On my android phone which I passed over to my wife, we had to do the same. My view is that factory restore is a bit too harsh as it ends up deleting all the personal data on the phone. While phones are lot more personalized these days given that we configure our social networking sites and even business apps using our credentials, still I feel that factory reset should only be an optional way and not the only way.
2. Having configured my live ID and other IDs like gmail, facebook and twitter, the people live tile started bustling with activity, something we hadn't been able to experience in our lab device. If need be, I can pin a person directly on the start screen as a tile, but the tile seemed to only display the name and profile picture. While having the person as a tile does helps in calling the person quickly, it seems to do little beyond that for now.
3. The immediate advantage was seeing the count of new messages on the live tile without having to log into the application, something that I had to do on my android phone. Surprisingly however the facebook and twitter apps that I downloaded, don't seem to provide live tiles. Twitter probably is fine, as there are tons tweets and every time I login there is something new, but for facebook it would have made sense to show notification alerts on live tile. The simley icon on message tile which turns into a wink when there is a message seems weird to me. A different icon would have been better.
4. The start screen with the live tiles definitely looks good, but is restricted and wastes space today, something that I know is already fixed in phone 8 (and will get addressed once the 7.8 update is available for this current device). Incidentally the timeline for the update isn't very clear, though the latest news is sometime later this month.
5. On the HTC Phone 7 that I have, I can at max see about 8 application tiles and for anything beyond that i need to scroll. If I get past into the screen where apps are listed in a vertical list, I see about 10 apps. This improves significantly with Phone 8 because it allows 1/4 tile size also unlike just 1/2 in Phone 7. On my android phone, I could typically see 20 apps at same time due to the grid like layout. Navigating hence was much faster, something that phone 8 will also now offer. Phone 8 still retains the linear list, which in my view is not a good experience, unless is complimented with easy navigation on the side by say using alphabets to quickly jump to app names starting with that alphabet.
6. Receiving phone calls on my android meant horizontal swipe on locked screen to either left or right based on if I wanted to accept or reject the call. It also allowed me to send SMS with a single gesture in case I could not take a call and wanted to inform the person calling me. In phone surprisingly receiving call is a two-step process. It first asks me to slide to unlock the phone and only then can I either answer or reject the call. This two click/touch process in my view is more cumbersome and should be fixed.
7. For desktop management of phone, Microsoft provides Zune which allows me to manage my phone's OS version and also keep the music, pictures and videos in sync with my desktop/laptop. Unlike iTunes however Microsoft has moved away from supporting phone's market place on Zune and instead people need to either work from their phone's market place access or visit the website. There is however a hack available to get the market place working from Zune again but it will work only as long as you don't update Zune itself.
8. I used the phone's interface to look at market place and must say my initial reaction was pretty disappointing. I liked the Google Play's interface much better. Windows Phone uses the panorama layout and allows me to view the market place for either apps or games. In the specific apps or games panorama items, it hardly shows 3 items at a time a limitation due to the current design. While I can possibly live with it, as this is a dynamic list and updates every time i log into the market place. The issue is that it doesn't pulls up the review rating on this screen itself. So I need to click and get into any of the listed apps to read more about it and see the rating also. Give the low penetration of phone devices, the # people having rated is also very low. In my various search results, i saw maximum people having rated in the range of 2000 to 3000 people.
I configured Facebook and Twitter apps and while offer most of the basic features, they still aren't as updated as the ones I was using on my Android phone. After social networking, games is the next most heavily used feature on my android phone and so I searched for similar apps on phone market place but was mostly disappointed. There is a serious shortage of apps and the few i do see, many of them are paid apps. Games that feature top on my kid's list are Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Temple Run, Shoot the Bubble, Unicorn Dash and Moto racing.
Apart from games I have also earlier used applications like that of my bank to manage my bank and credit card accounts. Here again I did not get the specific applications for Windows phone. Instead I have to use the mobile banking websites of these banks.
I did find and install Kindle, but it kept crashing after i registered and restarted the app. Fortunately an update was deployed the very next day and the app is now working. I can now atleast have access to the Kindle books that I currently have purchased and have on my account.
Another app I loved on my android and am missing now is Onavo that helps me track the 3G data usage and keep it in control.
9. Next I looked at hotmail/gmail experience. Mails use the pivot control, which provides access to mails in different views. So I can see all my mails or only unread emails and with some other classification as well. This is fine, but I think "unread" emails should have been the default view rather than "all". Initially did not find the ability to multi-select emails and take action on home screen itself. I needed to enable select from the app bar that then shows the check boxes against each item and i can then multi-select and take action. Not a biggy, but in today's world where we get tons of emails not worth reading, ability to quickly multi-select and delete is required. Windows Phone does offers a way to just tap on the left of an individual message in the list assuming there is a checkbox there and a checkbox does appears with its state as selected. Needs a bit of learning to unravel some of such hidden features.
10. Phone usage is probably not complete today without having it play our preferred music. So the next item to explore was the music library. The music library including audio, video and podcasts is managed via Zune. The music app also uses panorama control for display. While I can access all my songs, videos and podcasts, which is obvious, i can also easily look at history i.e. recently played songs and quickly replay them or also easily look up the new content that i would have added. Apps like YouTube that allow me to access additional similar content can also be accessed directly via this app.
Audio listing has the standard combinations of viewing either as albums, songs, artists, playlists etc. The challenge with say the song view (and for that matter anything else on the phone) is the big font and hence less data display. There is today no way to alter the font used by these apps. The songs display in alphabetically sorted manner, which is fine, but if I want to jump to the say "m" in the list, I end up scrolling vertically a lot for it. The alphabet groups are displayed by single letters, which incidentally are clickable and bring up a grid of all alphabets, so I can now select "m" and jump to it directly. Once I realized this, I also figured out that the same worked for navigation of my contacts. This again required some hit and trial and training, but once done, made life easier.
The interesting part when playing music is that you can control basics like previous/next, play/pause etc. even when the screen gets locked. The basic controls are displayed on the locked screen and so I could do basic manipulations without having to unlock my phone.
11. This brings me to the lock screen itself. It shows the date and time along with network status, Wi-Fi status and battery status. It also shows # of messages, mails, missed calls. It also shows latest message as notification and the notification remains on unlocking which helps quickly read the message.
12. There is a "Me Tile" that allows me to view my updates in one place. It allows me to quickly post updates to multiple sites like windows live, linked in, twitter and facebook. This is interesting. The only issue is that usually many of us already have the sites linked, like I already have my twitter and facebook linked. So while the feature is good, I don't have much use of it. It shows me notifications from across sites along with details on which notification is from which site. This again is good and I find this very useful. I can easily reply also.
13. The phone has a hardware back button to navigate back. It helps go back to the previous screen/page within an application or to the previous application I was using. Mostly this works fine, but if you don't use this button for few hours or even a day and then use it, it can be a bit confusing when an earlier application starts up
Does this covers all the features of Windows Phone? No, it doesn't and that isn't the idea as well. The idea was to explore at a high level the key features that I interact with on my phone. My final verdict is that I liked some of the interactivity that Windows Phone provided, but am not fully satisfied. Lack of prominent apps is for now going to tilt me away from Windows Phone. Hope the app gap fills fast and I can get back onto this platform.