For U.S. Windows Phones, it's worth waiting (Ask Maggie)

This edition of Ask Maggie helps one reader figure out his best option for buying a new Windows Phone in the U.S., and another decide between a new BlackBerry and the iPhone 4S.

The spotlight is shining on Microsoft's Windows Phone platform with the recent launch of its Mango update and the new Nokia Lumia series of devices. But new hardware is still weeks, if not months, away in the United States. So what's an American consumer to do?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer advice to one reader who is considering buying Nokia's Lumia 800 unlocked and using it on a U.S. carrier. I also offer some guidance to a longtime BlackBerry user about deciding between a new BlackBerry and the iPhone 4S.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

Where are all the new Windows Phones?

Dear Maggie,
I've been wanting to break my brother's obsession with his old BlackBerry, I definitely don't want him to buy a new one. He thinks iOS and Android are too complicated. The major features he needs are document viewing and checking his stocks. I thought Windows Phone 7 would be perfect. And when I heard about the Lumia 800, I instantly fell in love. I know it won't be available in the U.S. right away, so should I buy it unlocked? Are there other WP7 devices I should consider? How about the HTC Titan?

Thanks,
Mug

Dear Mug,
I think the Microsoft Windows Phone platform is a great choice for someone who is looking for an alternative to Google Android or the iPhone.

While Google Android can intimidate people with its many versions and the sheer openness that allows it to be customized, the Windows Phone platform is just plain easy to use. Like Apple, Microsoft has created a closed software operating system, which means you can't customize it nearly as much. But as a trade-off for its lack of openness, the phones are easy to use and the software is quite stable. While many Android users complain of quirky bugs that cause their devices to shut off for no reason or to dial numbers that weren't meant to be dialed, Windows Phone users are given a device that doesn't act up. And it has lots of great applications baked in, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare.

The new enhancements in the Mango release of the software also means that these apps are now even more tightly tied together, so that they can do things like create a consolidated view of contacts. As Jason Harwood, a producer for the game maker HalfBrick told me, "With Mango, the home screen is filled with living, breathing, active tiles that jump right into applications." (HalfBrick is the creator of the popular Fruit Ninja game.)

Apple's iPhone is also easy to use. In fact, that's one of the main reasons the device has become so popular since its launch four years ago. But for business users like your brother, I think Windows Phone's tight integration with other Microsoft products like Office and Exchange makes it a compelling and often overlooked argument for going with Windows Phone over the iPhone or Android.

You mentioned your brother needs to be able to view documents for work on his phone. On Windows Phone, he can easily view, edit, and comment on Office documents right from his device. He can also share those documents via Sharepoint or send them via Office Mobile, without leaving the application. And using the Office Hub, he can also sync notes in Office OneNote Mobile with Office documents.

Users with Apple iOS and Android devices can also view documents on their phone, but this capability is not pre-installed or integrated into the platform and it requires third-party apps to downloaded. And some of them cost money. The beauty of Windows Phone is that all this functionality is already baked into the software for free, so your brother doesn't need to download anything to get it to work.

As for his stock quotes, I'm not aware of an integrated app on Windows Phone that does this. But he should be able to easily find and download an app in the Windows Phone Marketplace that does this. There are several that are available.

So I agree with you that Windows Phone is a good fit for your brother. The question now is which phone do you buy? You are correct that U.S. is not part of the Nokia Lumia 800 launch in November. Europe will get this phone first. That said, Nokia is expected to announce an entire portfolio of Lumia devices in the U.S. in the early part of 2012. But while I expect the U.S. version to be similar to what was announced in London, I think there will be some differences.

For example, the Lumia 800 doesn't have a front-facing camera. It also doesn't support LTE. (No Windows Phone devices support LTE yet.) But I think the front-facing camera could be included in a U.S.-bound Lumia smartphone. And Nokia's CEO Stephen Elop promised an LTE version of the Lumia for the U.S. market next year.

With that in mind, I probably wouldn't buy an unlocked Lumia from Europe for your brother to use in the U.S. Instead, I'd recommend you wait to see what Nokia announces for the U.S. market. I can't guarantee when the company will announce a phone for the U.S., but my gut tells me it could be around the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

You mention getting him the HTC Titan. That's also another smartphone that will come loaded with the Mango version of Windows Phone. But it's not available yet either.

In fact, there are a whole slew of new Windows Phone devices sporting the Mango software that haven't been released yet, according to CNET Reviews editor Jessica Dolcourt. She said the HTC Radar and HTC Titan, along with the Samsung Focus S and Samsung Focus Flash are all expected by the end of this year or early next year.

"Honestly, if I were buying a new Windows Phone, I'd wait," Jessica told me.

But if your brother must have a new smartphone now, I'd suggest the original Samsung Focus, which was released last year on AT&T's network. It also supports Mango. Jessica said this is her favorite Windows Phone that is currently shipping. And she expects the Focus S to be a very nice improvement, if you're considering waiting until it is released.

The good thing about Windows Phone devices is that the software is the same across all devices, which means all users get a consistent experience no matter which hardware they choose. This is in contrast to the Google Android world, where there are several different versions of Android, and phone manufacturers can also add their own software "skins" to differentiate their devices from ones made by other manufacturers.

Good luck!

BlackBerry vs. iPhone 4S

Dear Maggie,

Yesterday, while in New York City on business, my 3+ year old BlackBerry Curve reached the end of its hard life. The screen turned white, and then a black ink-like blotch crept across the window. Our law firm IT guy tells me its DOA. Now he said I have to decide on a replacement smartphone today or tomorrow. He is recommending the iPhone 4S, but he also appreciates us "older guys" who still want the BlackBerry. Most of the lawyers in my firm over age 45 still use BlackBerry, but those between 25 and 45 mostly use iPhone. I have no strong feeling either way, as I am sure I could reasonably quickly adjust to the touch screen.

My personal usage is allocated as follows, which I readily acknowledge is mundane compared to the capacities of the newer devices:

60 percent review and respond to e-mail

20 percent cell phone

10 percent text

10 percent document review and edits, via Microsoft Word

0 percent Internet

0 percent apps

What say you, dear Maggie?

Thanks,
Mark

Dear Mark,

I'm not a fan of the BlackBerry at all. But if e-mail is your main reason for owning a smartphone, and you check and answer e-mail a lot from your phone, as it sounds like you do, BlackBerry is a hard smartphone to beat.

Still, it pains me to recommend it to you, because I think you'd get so much more out of an iPhone 4S. The reason you probably aren't using apps and you barely access the Web on your phone is because the quality of apps and the browser functionality on the BlackBerry is so crappy. I would almost guarantee you that you'd use more apps and access the Net more on your phone if you had the iPhone 4S. I also think you'd have a lot of fun with the new Siri personal assistant app that comes with the iPhone 4S.

But the reality is that based on what you need your phone to do, you'll likely be much happier sticking with the trusty BlackBerry.

While there is no reason that you can't check and respond to e-mail from an iPhone, the fact is that it's much easier on a BlackBerry, (so long as Research In Motion isn't experiencing a network-wide outage.) By no means do I mean to suggest you're an old dog who can't learn new tricks, but longtime BlackBerry users who switch to a touch screen like the iPhone often say they miss the tactile keyboard.

So I think the lack of a real keyboard on the iPhone would drive you nuts. I have owned an iPhone 3GS for more than two years, and I still don't like writing long e-mails on it. I mostly read e-mail on my phone. And I avoid responding to messages because I hate typing on the virtual keyboard. Short messages are fine, but longer e-mail responses are generally a pain.

With that in mind, if you do get a new BlackBerry, I'd recommend getting the newest BlackBerry Bold. RIM has done a good job improving its flagship phone, despite the general shortcomings of the entire platform. Reviewers have given the company praise for revamping the software on the device. And it still has the solid keyboard and strong messaging system behind it. So that's the one I'd get if I were so inclined to buy a BlackBerry.

 

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