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Phones

The Windows Phone 8 challenge

Can Windows Phone 8 tear an Android devotee from the grips of Google?

Can Windows Phone 8 tear an Android devotee from the grips of Google?

(Credit: CBSi)

Windows Phone always seemed like that unattainable high-school crush you would trade glances with across the classroom. There would be a few awkward moments as you both determine your affections for one another, with enough intrigue to keep things fresh.

Unlike those youthful dalliances, however, the world of smartphone OSes is much more cut-throat. The challenge for me, as an Android user, was to determine how easy it is to switch to Windows Phone 8. Would the the test period be enough to sway me over to the Microsoft side?

Over the course of this challenge, I have had the luxury of testing three separate Nokia Lumia handsets: the 920, 925 and camera-centric 1020. While this is not intended to be a review of each model, there will be some references to features or hardware functionalities that apply to only one model, rather than all three.

The challenge took in all the major areas of the OS, from app integration to general customisation options, while not forgetting to test out the everyday, easily forgotten features like battery life and call quality.

Take a long, hard(ware) glance

Holding the handset normally might mean a stray finger or two makes its way onto the camera lens. (Credit: CBSi)

The hardware is undeniably gorgeous. Each of the Nokia handsets felt solid, dependable and ready for the communication challenges ahead — no mean feat, considering that this was just the impression given from taking them out of the box.

The 920 felt like a dependable workhorse, while the 925's diet paid off in terms of pocketability. The 1020, as chunky as it was, hardly left the company of the optional camera grip, which helped give it the look and feel of a traditional point-and-shoot.

As pointed out by my colleague Corinne Reichert at ZDNet, holding the 920 and 925 in a conventional way meant that I found my index finger rubbing against the lens more frequently than I would have liked, resulting in some unsightly smudges.

Once the external hardware ogling was over, the first hurdle for a new user is setting up the Microsoft account. Fortunately, it hadn't been long since I had to remember the password for an old Hotmail address in order to get an Xbox up and running, so the process went smoothly.

That is, until ghosts of friendships past started to flash up on the screen during the contacts sync process. Like many, my Hotmail account had been lying dormant since the dawn of using real names as online identifiers. Out with "cheekylover69" — not actually my username, just an example of the childish humour that was de rigeur when choosing a nom de plume in those days — in with the first-name last-name standard.

Importing contacts from a Google account was incredibly easy compared to the pain caused by manually transcribing contacts from a Nokia feature phone to an Android handset several years ago. After creating a simple device password from within Google's account settings (two-factor authentication only makes things slightly more painful than they should be), the streams of familiar faces began to trickle through. I could even filter the display options so only my current contacts were visible.

The glossy Live Tiles and bold, clean design cues are part of Windows Phone 8's siren call. Fortunately, it's not all looks and no substance, as the tiles were easy to customise and position on the home screen. My first task was to remove the default mail app that checks Hotmail and replace it with Gmail. Bye bye, Angry Birds Roost, too. Uninstalling apps straight from the menu? Tick. So far, so good.

Unlike the world of Android, which is filled with keyboard apps like Swype and Swift Key, Windows Phone 8 has to make do with just the stock keyboard. Fortunately, the keyboard on the Lumia 920 was responsive and sensitive enough to accommodate my ham-fisted typing for the most part, and is definitely one of the best manual keyboards I have used. That said, adjusting to a two-handed typing method after the one-thumb luxury of Swype took a lot of getting used to.

Everyday use

I don't know what I am supposed to do with this information. (Screenshot by CBSi)

Monday morning started like any other. An alarm bleeped into life, waking me from the remnants of the night's sleep. Rolling over to check the weather and decide on the day's attire, I loaded up the default AccuWeather on the 920. Alas, that morning's forecast was not to be, as the app presented its information entirely in degrees Fahrenheit, rather than Celsius. Not even a long press or fiddling around in the settings menu would make it change its mind. Was I destined to dress for beach weather in a cold climate?

Fortunately, the store had a range of other superior apps to help with sartorial decisions. Bing Weather had a nice, clean interface, and synced its weather data to a Live Tile for convenient single-glance feedback. Rather curious that it wasn't the default, though.

On the topic of default settings, straight out of the box, the 920 didn't keep Wi-Fi active when the screen turned off. It took a few frustrated attempts to work out why the connection kept dropping out, until a quick Bing search uncovered the solution: a dedicated checkbox in the Wi-Fi Advanced settings to keep Wi-Fi active when the screen times out. Problem solved, though it would be much nicer if this was on by default.

It was then time for a cursory glance across the day's email. By default, the Google Mail app doesn't divide mail into the Primary, Social and Promotions tabs like the Android version does. This meant a lot of wading through messages to find the personally addressed emails — just like the old days!

Surprisingly, in-call quality on the Lumia phones was superior to all of the other Android phones I have come across in the past. The tinny, hollow sound from the earpiece that I had become accustomed to gave way to a more rounded sound, complete with the benefits of background noise reduction.

As possibly the only technology journalist in the country with a minuscule data limit on my phone plan (200MB, if you're counting; I don't know how I do it, either), I am always incredibly conscious as to what is using my data. The Data Sense app gives a great overview for the exact amounts your phone is pulling down over a cellular connection or via Wi-Fi. That said, coming from Android, I found it extremely difficult to switch data on and off again without diving into the Settings menu each time. It would have been ideal if I could have pinned this particular option to a Live Tile or somewhere on the home screen.

Another search to the rescue: the store pointed me towards an app called ConnectivityShortcuts, which let me pin the cellular settings option to the home screen. It still required two presses (one to bring up the menu, another to turn off mobile data), rather than the single press on Android, but it was better than nothing.

Multitasking was another area where I found the Android implementation much easier. A long-press of the back arrow button brought up the current apps and processes that were running. But, rather counter-intuitively, there was no way to close any of these apps via gesture from the screen.

When it came to the handset screens, I had no complaints in this department at all. On default settings, the Lumia screens produced vivid, saturated colours when reviewing and composing photos. It was, however, rather restrictive switching over to a system with only three levels of selectable brightness. High was often too bright, while medium was too low; automatic often didn't get the right balance, either.

Music matters

Whoever programs Mix Radio has excellent taste. (Screenshot by CBSi)

For someone as tethered to their headphones as I am, the music experience on a smartphone is one of the make-it or break-it features.

One of the pre-pinned media apps, Nokia Music, comes with a feature called Mix Radio. This lets you stream a range of pre-selected songs based on playlists and genres. These stations can also be cached and saved for offline listening. The selection was somewhat limited for a music lover with as eclectic tastes as myself, however. Connecting the handset to a PC also allows you to transfer music and videos that you already own.

Purchasing music can be done through the Nokia Music service or through Xbox Music, the same system that appears on Windows 8 and Xbox devices. Xbox Music also gives access to song, artist and album streaming from a catalogue spanning the tens of millions of tracks. Downloading songs for offline listening is simple enough, provided you have a music pass; just hit "download" once you have found the track/s you are searching for.

Like similar radio-streaming services such as Pandora, Mix Radio only lets you skip six songs every hour. You can get around this restriction by subscribing to Nokia Music+ for AU$4.99 per month. One peculiar quirk about the Nokia Music app, though, was the way it changed its launch behaviour. That is, the app attempted to reload from scratch if I tried to open it from the home screen, which meant it took awhile to change a song or see what was playing. It jumped straight into action from the multitasking menu, however.

Camera

It's no secret that the quality of the mobile photography experience on a handset is probably the most important feature for me. Of all the three handsets, the Lumia 1020 delivers the best overall package, marrying a practical design with competent image taking.

As stated in my review of the 1020's camera:

Nokia's extensive research and development into its PureView camera system has continued to shine in its recent Lumia phones, with the 1020 producing the best results yet. While it's not quite ready to supersede your stand-alone camera, the 1020 is a great performer in most situations. The 41-megapixel sensor delivers impressive results, and gives a great deal of flexibility when it comes to cropping and reframing images.

Rather than delving further into the camera functionality of the Windows Phone 8 experience here again, specifically on the Lumia handsets, click through to the following galleries, which have specifics on each of the handsets.

Low-light photography at Vivid Sydney with the Lumia 920.
(Credit: Lexy Savvides/CNET Australia)

Under the cover of darkness with the Lumia 925.
(Credit: Lexy Savvides/CNET Australia)

The Lumia 1020 in its 41-megapixel glory.
(Credit: Lexy Savvides/CNET Australia)

As noted earlier, the main issue with the physical design of the 925 and 920 is the positioning of the lens, falling right underneath where my index finger sits. It's an issue that was fixed on the design of the 1020, but is something to keep track of on the other two, as the grease can affect photos.

The Windows Phone 8 app store might not boast the sheer number of apps that Google Play and the iTunes Store do, but there were enough viable options or alternatives to the big-name apps to make the transition smooth enough. For photography purposes, there were a few apps that I found indispensable for getting the most out of the Lumia cameras:

  • Pro Cam — comes as default on the 1020, but is available on the 920 and 925 with the Amber update

  • Instance — for feeding the Instagram addiction

  • ProShot — gives even more control for manual exposure

  • Fotor — a beautifully designed app for editing photos

  • Lomogram — more Lomo-like filters and effects that can be applied to existing images or new ones through the camera.

The verdict

The Windows Phone 8 experience is undeniably gorgeous. From Live Tiles to a sleek interface, all the elements are in place for a logical and enjoyable alternative to the world of iOS or Android. Indeed, the strengths of the cameras in the Lumia range are almost enough to sway image lovers over exclusively.

While it was thoroughly enjoyable to change ecosystems, for my needs, WP8 lacks one or two more essential tweaks for it to lure me away from Android on a permanent basis. For what it's worth, they are reasonably easy fixes: such as gesture-based mutitasking, and a little more customisation on what can be pinned to the home screen. Until then, I'm happy to use a WP8 device when I'm serious about taking better mobile photos.