From a fairly modest start in 2010, Windows Phone came a long way in 2011. The NoDo update brought some essentials like copy/paste, while the big Mango update truly made Windows Phone useable as a daily driver. That being said, there are a number of things I’d like to see Windows Phone improve on in 2012 to truly become a force to reckon with.
The Tango update is expected in Q1 this year, and is primarily expected to bring support for LTE and at the same time help manufacturers push Windows Phone to lower price points. The Apollo update on the other hand is the big update everyone will be waiting for this year, it was originally expected in Q4 2012, but there are rumours to suggest we might see it earlier.
Here are a few things that Windows Phone needs to do better in 2012, I have classified them under seven broad heads:
1. BETTER HARDWARE: The basic Windows Phone specs have remained pretty constant from the day it shipped, and there is still no support for dual/multi core processors or hi-res 720p screens. Both of these things are rumoured to be coming with Apollo, so I will not dwell on them much.
2. BETTER MULTITASKING: As things stand now, Windows Phone uses quick save-resume to give users a feel of multitasking. While this might help save battery life and keep the phone snappy, it does leave much to be desired. For example, the Dictionary.com apps lets you download the database for offline use. But in order to download it, the app must be running, so even if the screen dims out or you lock the screen, the download gets interrupted. During navigation if you happen to lock the screen the app stops running.
Another problem I have is that third party apps cannot load data in the background. So despite having an active data/WIFI connection all through, my Twitter app will not be able to load tweets in the background, such that there are tweets waiting to be read whenever I open it. Instead, whenever I open the Twitter app, it will then start loading tweets and I’ll have to wait, depending on how fast my connection is. These things need to improve.
3. APP BEHAVIOR: Without getting into technicalities like native code access and so on, because of the way Windows Phone lets developers build apps for Windows Phone, the performance, specially the launch times leave much to be desired. Most third party apps (if not all) like the official apps for Twitter, Facebook etc all need a splash screen to bide time while they launch.
Same with games, developers have been craving for native code access to enable high quality games and I do hope Microsoft will do something about this. E.g. Launching Whats App on Symbian, Android or iOS is instant, but on Windows Phone you will see a splash screen everytime.
Next, apps are also sandboxed. So it is impossible to share data from one app to the other. For example on Nokia Maps, you cannot search for a place and then launch Nokia Drive from within Maps. You will have to search for that place in Nokia Drive again and then navigate. Same with location sharing in Whats App, clicking on a location will not open up Nokia Maps or Drive or even Bing Maps, but just a map within the app. So you cannot simply navigate to that location, unlike other platforms.
4. NOTIFICATIONS: I have talked about notifications in my Lumia 800 review as well, and this should be priority number one for Microsoft. There is no centralised place where you see the notifications. Toasts notifications come and go, and the only place where they stay are on the live tiles. This almost forces you to give the first 8 slots for tiles to apps that like Email, Messaging, Whats App, Facebook, Twitter etc so that you do not miss notifications. On the lockscreen, third party notifications cannot be shown as well.
While my favourite notification implementation is Android’s pull down notification bar that both Symbian and iOS have ‘borrowed’, I doubt Microsoft will go down the same route. Flicking to the left on Windows Phone currently does nothing and MS can perhaps use this gesture to build a notification hub that third party apps too can plug into with ease.
Next, there seems to be a bug with tile notifications with third party apps. For example with Microsoft’s own Facebook app, even after you have seen the notifications from inside the app, the icon depicting unread notifications on the live tile doesn’t disappear immediately.
Finally, push notifications also need to get better. WP checks for notifications periodically for the ‘Me’ tile and you have no control over how often does this happen. In general too, across third party apps the situation could be better.
5. OPENING UP WINDOWS PHONE: An open ecosystem is something which Nokia users have been accustomed to for ages. Be it side loading apps, sending files via Bluetooth or using the phone in the mass storage mode to drag and drop content. While Microsoft may not want to allow all these things, it should definitely look at allowing Bluetooth file transfers and ways to support the homebrew community. The Chevron unlock was a good initiative, and even if the Chevron developers don’t want to run it further, Microsoft should undertake the activity itself.
Next, it should allow a lot more customisation. From custom colour accents, to letting users pin multiple shortcuts within a single tile. There is no point in wasting a ton of screen estate for a simple shortcut, pinning four shortcuts into the space reserved for a single tile makes a lot more sense.
6. UPLOADS: Like I mentioned in my Lumia 800 review, Windows Phone resizes pictures before they are uploaded to make it easier on the network. But there are times you want access to the full resolution, yet there is no option to enable that.
7. APP LAYOUT: Windows Phone is all about lists and that’s how all the installed apps are displayed, alphabetically. You can jump between them by alphabet or use the search button to enter a name and filter through the list.
While you do get used to this method, it’d be great to have options. I’d like a grid-based layout as well, where you can flick between pages of apps. One problem that I have faced with the list method is that it is easy to forget apps, as newly installed apps also get buried in the list. I’d also like WP to highlight the newly installed apps for a little while at least.
Reading this post might give you an impression that Windows Phone is hard to use in its current state, but this sentiment would not be justified. While the points I have made above need redressal, none of them is really a deal breaker that should make you reconsider your Windows phone purchase. There are some excellent Windows Phone devices in the market, and I am sure future updates will make them better.
What would you like Windows Phone to do differently in 2012?
For a long time now, Nokia has been the company responsible for both the hardware and software on their devices but the Nokiasoft announcement in February changed all that. Nokia decided to concentrate on their strengths in hardware and design and let Microsoft take care of the software.
At the time when this decision was taken Windows Phone had just come out, was missing a ton of key features like multitasking, copy/paste and so on. However Nokia obviously was given a look at the long term plans for Windows Phone and they liked what they saw. Then Windows Phone Mango came out and for a lot of people, it marked a level of maturity where they could begin to start considering Windows Phone as a serious challenger and here we are a few months later with Nokia’s first Windows Phone.
Lets kick off the Lumia 800 review with a quick unboxing that will give you an idea of the box contents and a look at the silicon cover that Nokia ships with each Lumia 800. It offers great protection without adding to the profile of the device and if you are worried about being clumsy, Nokia has you covered. Also inside is a set of stereo headphones that come with a microphone to let you make calls, a micro USB cable, and a charging head that uses the micro USB cable as a lead, making it very portable and convenient.
HARDWARE & DESIGN
While the Lumia 800 is by no means a culmination of what that partnership can achieve, it marks a monumental step for both Nokia and Microsoft. It is the first device that will get attention purely because of its looks and draw a user in, letting Mango take it from there. Nokia’s created a top spec Windows Phone in what is my favourite design across all brands and platforms, nothing comes to the premium feel this device projects. Inside is a 1.4 Ghz Qualcomm processor, 512 MB of RAM, an 8 megapixel camera, a beautiful 3.7” AMOLED Clear Black Display.
The screen is a pentile based AMOLED and to the spec police that’s old technology. I personally haven’t felt any difference at all and text feels nice and sharp to my eyes and I have perfect vision. Infact, the whole pentile debate is a non issue for more than the vast majority of people. The colours are rich, the contrast deep and the blacks are truly black. You cannot tell if the screen is on or not if its just showing the a blank black screen.
The Lumia 800 comes in pink, blue and black, all of which look exceptional. The material used in the Lumia 800’s construction is polycarbonate, which is technically plastic, but feels far from it. The devil is in the details and Nokia has left no stone unturned to make the Lumia 800 feel special. The holes for the loudspeaker are all individually drilled into the unibody enclosure after it is made and the colour of the body isn’t paint that will flake off, its part of the material itself. If I were to really try and pick faults with the design, it’d be have to be with the shiny chrome strip that proudly says Nokia and Carl Zeiss at the back. If you are not careful it will pick up the odd scratch. Another thing which isn’t really a problem for anyone, but can scare people is the lid that covers the microUSB port. You need to open it everytime you need to charge the phone and in that position it feels a little flimsy. However, since you’ll have the charger plugged in that time, the obstruction from the cable being plugged in will act as a protector for it, preventing breakage.
The left of the device is completely plain, while the right houses the volume rocker and power button on the top and middle. The camera button is located on the bottom right hand side and is a very welcome addition. The curved display merges into the unibody casing seamlessly and there’s no edge that you can feel, adding to the great feel that the device projects. Since there are literally no moving parts, the build quality is the best you’ll have experienced yet on a Nokia, and that’s saying a lot.
In terms of thickness, the Lumia 800 is 12.1 mm but the rounded design created the illusion that it’s thinner. Even using the super slim Galaxy S2 (8.5 mm) side by side doesn’t make you say that the Lumia 800 is fat at all.
This is where it’s over to Windows Phone Mango and time for Nokia to take a back seat. For a while I have maintained that Windows Phone is not an OS you can play with for a few minutes and then take a call on whether you like it or not. Infact, for a little more perspective, here are my detailed impressions of the Lumia 800 when I first started using it.
The first thing you’ll notice with Mango is how incredibly smooth it is, we’re talking about zero stutter territory here. The dual core 1.2 Ghz processor, 1 GB RAM packing Galaxy S2 isn’t that smooth. If you are used to Symbian devices, you’ll feel as if everything is literally flying with no lag whatsoever. Come over from iOS and you’ll feel the same way.
Once you are done flicking around, you’ll notice the tiled Windows Phone UI that makes WP very distinct. The first page is a set of live tiles that can serve as shortcuts to frequently used apps and also inform you about those apps’ current status. For example, you could have a live tile showing you the current weather, the Inbox tile showing the number of unread emails, the foursquare tile showing you your current position on the leaderboard and so on.
Flick to the right you’ll see a list of alphabetically ordered apps. You can choose to scroll to get to the app you are looking for, or jump by alphabet. This approach does take a little getting used to, especially if you’ve been using a grid-based layout for ages. Overtime you get used to it, and the jump to alphabet option does make getting to the app you want much quicker.
The core strength of Windows Phone is its inbuilt social integration with Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Windows Live. All you need to do is sign into these respective services and the phone populates your phonebook, links your friends’ Twitter and Facebook accounts, pulls your Facebook photos in, and populates each contact with their latest social network activity. No other operating system even comes close. Microsoft’s philosophy is to make the OS more than just about apps.
Seeing your Facebook photos on your phone’s gallery, waiting to be accessed is great. The phone won’t download all pictures in advance, so you’ll need a fast data connection/WIFI, but it does make everything a lot easier. Want to look at photos your friend uploaded? No going into Facebook and searching for him/her and then loading the photos. Just goto the People hub, and search for your friend and all their uploads will be a flick away, waiting there. There you can also write on their wall, or mention them on Twitter making the whole experience very seamless indeed.
If you are a Google user, you’ll be glad to know that both contact and calendar sync works well. Again it’s only a matter of signing in and the phone does everything else. The only thing is that Windows phone will only pull one number associated with the field ‘Mobile’, so if you have two number with the same ‘Mobile’ field, you’re out of luck.
In addition to the People’s Hub that pulls in all your contacts’ Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin activity into one list is the ‘Me’ tile. The ‘Me’ tile lets you update your status across all these services and also set your chat status. A flick away is the notifications section that tells you of all Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter activity about you, mentions, wall posts, likes etc. This is where Windows Phone finally misses a trick or two. The ‘Me’ tile won’t tell you about Facebook messages or Twitter DM’s, otherwise its almost perfect. You can reply to the activity from the ‘Me’ tile itself and there’s no need to jump into another app. The ‘Me’ tile notifications also aren’t instant, but the phone periodically checks for updates and there’s no option to change that.
The web browser on Windows Phone is based on the IE engine and performs well. It’s smooth, scrolls fast and you’ll never seen those check boxes while zooming in or out. There’s no flash support, and that’s no longer a big deal at all. There is HTML5 support and that’s enough on most occasions. The one gripe I have is that the touch.facebook.com website hasn’t been optimised for it yet, its more to do with Facebook’s inaction than a ‘problem’ with the browser. Their website it seems is still only optimised for webkit and not the IE9 engine. The Windows Phone browser can also surprisingly handle a bunch of tabs easily without losing the loaded information.
The email client on Windows phone is also excellent. Emails arrive instantly and generally faster than Gmail arrives on Android devices. Setting up accounts is a breeze, including Google Apps accounts. The approach Mango takes to having a all-in-one inbox is the best implementation across platforms. You can choose which inboxes to join selectively, or have all merged into one. You can have as many linked inboxes as you like and even name them, great if you want to keep work and personal emails separate, yet combine the odd accounts.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER
Windows Phone has a bunch of things going for it, the core social experience, a great email client, a full-fledged office app, speed, the Metro UI and a capable web browser. That said there are a few things Windows phone needs to improve.
First is notifications. Currently we have Toast and Tile notifications. The former is a pop up on the top of the screen that stays for a couple of seconds giving you a snippet of the text message etc that you have received. The second and permanent mode is the tile count. The live tile shows the number of unread notifications and it disappears once you have seen them. The problem with this method, and the lack of a centralised approach in general, is that you need all your important apps on the homscreen as otherwise you’ll be missing notifications. It’s the same problem iOS had before the iOS 5 update, it’s not a deal breaker but something that can be improved. The lockscreen also shows unread notifications about emails, calls and texts, but third party apps don’t get plugged in, so a unread Whats App message will only show up on the live tile and nowhere else, forcing you to give that live tile a prominent position.
I’d also like Windows Phone to give third party apps a little more ability to run in the background. For example I’d like the twitter apps to keep loading tweets in the background so that they are waiting for me when I open the app. Although, this may be due to how developers have coded their apps, and not just the platform’s limitation. The whole experience is therefore better with a faster connection (3G/WIFI) as you don’t see the phone waiting for the network to load tweets and so on. Inbuilt apps like the web browser can load in the background so that’s not a worry.
The next ‘feature’ of Windows phone is that it resizes the images taken from the camera before uploading, doesn’t matter if you’re uploading to Facebook, Skydrive or Twitter. On most occasions this is great, because uploads are faster and loading times low, but sometimes you just want access to full resolution pictures and Windows Phone gives you no way to do that. I hope that a future update will fix this.
Like iOS, Windows Phone too has taken the closed approach. You cannot sideload apps, send files via Bluetooth, access the file system or use the device in the ‘Mass Storage’ mode. However, the restrictions aren’t as strict as Apple’s. You can sync your Windows phone with multiple computers, copying images and music. With the ChevronWP7 unlock, you can also side load apps after paying a small fee and bluetooth transfers aren’t there not because Microsoft is against them, but because they weren’t a priority. Given the influence Nokia has on Windows Phone development in the future, I expect that some of these restrictions might not survive.
But as things stand, you can use the Zune client on a PC and the Windows Phone connector on the Mac to manage your files. On the Mac, it uses iPhoto and your iTunes library, so if you’ve become used to these apps, you won’t mind this one bit.
All in all, I found Windows Phone to be a fresh platform that gets a lot of things right, while taking a different approach from what iOS, Android or even Symbian look and feel like. With just a few more tweaks, it’ll be truly impressive. As it stands today, I have had no problems using it as my daily driver and for a mainstream user it presents a very compelling argument.
Nokia promises a 9.5 hr talk time on 3G networks, with a 335 hr standby time. The Lumia 800 according to Nokia also capable of an impressive 55 hrs of music playback and 6.5 hrs of video. In the real world, all of this translates to about one day of power user usage. This includes 3-4 email accounts syncing, Facebook and Twitter apps checking for notifications, in addition to the phone’s own ‘Me’ Tile. Add to that a healthy amount of web browsing and general fiddling. The odd weather app checking for the latest updates every 30 minutes doesn’t really tax the battery. With moderate usage, you can expect it to last more than a day.
Now Nokia did have some trouble with an early batch of the Lumia 800 with the presence of a bug that prevented full utilisation of the battery, that issue has now been fixed and Nokia is going the extra mile to ensure that the small amount of users who are affected can get replacements. So if I were buying a Lumia 800 today, I’d be pretty certain that I would enjoy great battery life.
The Lumia 800 packs an 8 megapixel camera with a Carl Zeiss lens and a dual LED flash. The module is similar to the one found on the N9, and as such capable of some excellent shots. However, it seems that the software on the Lumia 800 isn’t able to utilize the full potential of the unit as yet. The N9 with the same module gets better shots.
Nokia has already stated than future firmware updates would improve camera performance and going by Nokia’s camera history, I have no doubt in their ability. The device can also shoot 720P HD video at 30 frames per second. It uses continuous auto focus during video capture, which means there may be some focus hunting but that guarantees that everything will be focus despite the fact that you are panning around or shooting closeups and also in the distance. Here are some camera samples from the Lumia 800 camera, both pictures and video.
DIFFERENTIATING THE LUMIA 800
Android manufactures skin their devices, Samsung has Touch Wiz, HTC has Sense and so on. On Windows Phone that isn’t a possibility and the only real way you can distinguish yourself is via apps, design and camera performance.
The Lumia 800 in addition to coming in an incredible design comes with trademark Nokia services that I have really come to enjoy in the last few years, Nokia Maps and Music.
The Maps section is actually divided into two, first there is the Nokia Maps app that will eventually become available for all Windows Phone devices, and the Nokia Drive App that’s exclusive to the Lumia series. On the maps app you cannot pre-load maps so you will need a data connection to search for information, routes etc. But Nokia’s tie-ups with Lonely Planet etc mean that they have a very strong POI database and for popular tourist places you will find a ton of information, more than what Bing or even Google Maps provides.
Nokia Drive on the other hand lets you pre load as many countries as you like for free and then navigate them in any language that you choose. The app alone is reason enough to justify buying a Nokia Windows Phone, over any other.
But there’s more, Nokia Music. Alongside the Zune app is the Nokia Music application that lets you buy music from the wide range of tracks that it offers. But what really differentiates this service is the Mix radio client. It lets you stream music based on a genre you like for free, and you can even download it for offline listening. You can save upto 4 such stations, each of which is good for about 2 hours of playback.
In India, we’ll see Nokia Music launch in a big way next year and all indications point to a DRM free all you can eat subscription model. If that becomes a reality, then along with Mapping, Music will become a killer app for Nokia.
The thing about the Lumia 800 is that it is a great fit for a lot of different sets of people. For those looking for a great work phone, the free office functionality on the Lumia 800 is huge draw, not to mention the excellent email client and the Microsoft integration that comes with it. On iOS or Android, you’d easily be paying 10$ plus for ability to edit documents and spread sheets on the go.
For youngsters it has a fantastic auto correct keyboard that is unparalleled across all platforms. Then there is also the tightly integrated social experience, right from tagging photos before you upload them, to not having to jump between apps to keep an eye on Facebook and Twitter. If you are a professional, then there is Linkedin support as well.
For those in their middle ages it has a sneaky clean UI that is easy grasp, along with all the polish and flare of a great looking OS. For somebody looking for a high end premium device that gets the job done, the Lumia 800 is a huge box of eye candy.
The Marketplace has matured over the last few months and now boasts of about 45,000 apps. This means that almost all of your essential/big brand apps are already available for Windows phone. But both Microsoft and Nokia are only stepping up their developer engagement and we are sure to see the numbers pick up quickly. Next, a lot of local apps are also coming, for example official Times of India and Book My Show apps are already underdevelopment, so you probably won’t be missing much.
The Lumia 800 is priced at 29,999 INR in India, while Nokia would like to blame the rising Dollar for this, the customer doesn’t care. At about 26-27,000 the Lumia 800 would have been far easier sell for Nokia. So the question we need to ask ourselves is whether the Lumia 800 worth the extra 3-4 thousand? After all the Galaxy S2 sells for around that price too.
Apple has effectively priced itself out of the competition, so for anyone who was looking to pick up a iPhone, the Lumia 800 is a great buy, after all he was already willing to live within Apple’s walled garden and Windows phone is a lot less restrictive and the Lumia 800 has the same premium feel to it, not to mention the extra value.
No high end Android comes close to the feel of the Lumia 800. If you look at the raw Galaxy S2 specs, it wins. But when it comes to performance, the Lumia 800 is just as fast, and at times smoother. The advantages that the S2 does have are apps, a bigger screen and an open approach which allows for side loading apps, mass storage etc. Having used both devices, it again comes down to apps. Its good to know that your phone has mass storage and side loading, but the number is times I’ve used those options is very low indeed.
In the end, the Lumia 800 is an excellent device from Nokia, one I have thoroughly enjoyed using. The out of box Windows phone experience is great and the OS definitely grows on you. The device gets a solid 8.5/10 from me, putting the Lumia 800 squarely in the recommended category. The third eco-system that Stephen Elop talked about in February, is well and truly here to stay.
The one key app that was missing from the Windows Phone repertoire was the ever popular cross platform messaging client WhatsApp. WhatsApp is already available on BlackBerry, iPhone, Symbian and Android based devices and packs in the ability to share photos, location, video and audio.
Earlier today, the official @WhatsApp twitter account sent out the above cryptic tweet that all but confirms that the application will soon be making its way onto Windows Phone Mango.
The Mango release of Windows Phone unlocks the necessary developer APIs required for WhatApp to work and judging by the tweet, the official launch cannot be very far. Nokia for one has been investing a huge amount of money promoting WhatApp and it would have been odd if its newer (Windows) phones didn’t support that application.