Lumia 920 Challenge – One Week

Swapping to a new phone is almost always difficult. Unless it’s an iPhone to an iPhone, in which case it’s the same goddamn phone except with one or two new features. Going from an iPhone to an Android phone was a challenge, even though most of the apps I needed were well supported. Going from an iPhone to Windows Phone 8 was going to be even more traumatic, since there’s limited app support. But how limited is it? How far can you really get? Does it really matter? Also, what’s it like as a daily driver? Read on!

Apps

It’s true – Windows Phone 8 languishes without much in the way of app support. Major services don’t have official apps, though third parties are often there to pick up the slack (usually with free releases). But at the same time a lot of things are built into the OS, and on the Lumia 920 Nokia goes out of their way to keep you equipped (really that goes for any Nokia phone). It must be said that if you’re a fan of Google, Windows Phone might not be your platform of choice. Google seem to be actively doing everything they can to ruin (or outright block) their services for Windows Phone users, including an attempt to redirect Google Maps to Google’s search page if you’re using a Windows Phone device (now resolved after Google were called out on it). Google have no plans to release official versions of their apps for Windows Phone. The cynical would call it anti-competitive behaviour. Maybe it is, but they’re under no obligation to support all platforms. Deliberately redirecting traffic from WP devices though? That’s bullshit. The good news is that if you rely on Google Maps, there is a third party app that does the job. There’s no navigation, and Street View is buggy, but it does work.

If you’re tied to Microsoft’s services, you’re obviously very well served. Fortunately for me I use Outlook for my main email (I resurrected it after their Outlook.com upgrade) and Skydrive for my cloud storage, so I’m in the clear. Google accounts are supported, but you’re still at the mercy of Google for support. It’s out of Microsoft’s hands, and Google don’t want to play. After all if they kill Windows Phone the last competition is Apple, and they can isolate them to the high end market.

The included apps are very competent – out of the box you’ve at least got some connection to Facebook and Twitter, as well as a good email client and probably one of the better web browsers on a mobile device (Safari is horrible and always will be). And since a lot of major services work fine by offering mobile platform-agnostic websites, you can generally get away without all of the client apps. A lot of them are only acting as front-ends for a website anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.

But there are a lot of speciality apps which you won’t find on WP8. For example I rely on an app called Medscape. For those not in the business of healthcare, Medscape is a great resource that offers a mobile reference guide with lots of medications, procedures, and diseases. On iOS and Android you can get an app which downloads an offline copy of the reference guide. WP8? You’re out of luck. Yes, you can access the mobile website, and it does work well. But sometimes I’m in the middle of nowhere without service. Lots of other services have no plans for WP8 support – it’s the least popular of the platforms, a long way behind Android.

But don’t be fooled by simple app numbers. Yes, the iOS App Store has more apps than there are stars in the galaxy (citation needed) but the vast majority of them are utter crap. Simple numbers do not make a great app selection if 90% of them are fart buttons or variations of Catch the Clown. To be honest, I don’t miss a lot of things from iOS. The Facebook integration isn’t as good as the Facebook app itself (and yes, there is one for WP) but it does the basics out of the box. Unlike Android where a lot of the out-of-the-box apps are variable in quality, the WP8 apps are very good. The problem emerges once you look for official apps, because they’re few in number, and it’s not likely to change.

It’s not quite as bleak as you’d expect, but there’s still a very long way to go. Ignoring Google for a second, it needs better support from lots of other services before it becomes the true 3rd choice. It might be worth checking to see if there’s an app for WP8 for your favourite service, because if there isn’t and you rely on it you’re not likely to enjoy the switch. The lack of a proper Medscape app is a major issue for me, though there is a cheap ($0.99) drug guide which gives you some basic information (drug name, indications, and contraindications) if you’re looking for one. It’s just called Drugs and Medications. Medscape is far and away the superior service though, and I hope they get round to a proper app.

Have I felt the sting of limited app availability? Yes and no. Yes, there’s a lower volume of apps, but the one I really miss which I don’t have an alternative to is Medscape, but I can cope so long as I have a data connection. Otherwise apart from being aware that app support is limited, I don’t actually feel like I’m missing out on a lot. Granted my phone is fairly utilitarian – I have Angry Birds Space on there as a game but otherwise it’s all work, and it was like that under iOS. Most other things have alternatives (even if they’re 3rd party). Will it change? That remains to be seen. Investigate your options. Sadly few developers seem interested in WP7 or WP8. Unless Microsoft does something to rectify it, we might be in for a long wait, but MS can only do so much.

General Usage and Battery Life

Don't try to do this out of order.
Don’t try to do this out of order.

I really like this phone. I haven’t liked a phone this much since I got my first iPhone, a 3G back in 2008. Like most of you my phone is on equal footing with my wallet and my stethoscope as an essential thing to have around, so I can’t tolerate any screw-ups. The Lumia 920 hasn’t had any problems thus far, and I’m extremely impressed. It feels great in the hand (yes, it’s heavier, but I don’t mind) and it’s incredibly responsive. I disliked the Galaxy Note in part because of the sluggish response from the OS even in basic things like the launcher. WP8 is on par with iOS for smooth scrolling and activity – it’s fast, and it feels responsive. I love the tiles – they maintain a neat, orderly appearance with set sizes while offering dynamic information. iOS is too limiting and Android launchers sometimes look like someone vomited icons and widgets over the screen. I think it’s the perfect balance. I just wish that I had more control over tile colours – everything looks the same!

Battery life is great for me, I can usually get 2 days on a single charge with average use. I did have one instance where the phone’s battery dropped below 25% overnight from a full charge but the battery saver function kicked in, suspending background tasks. That leads me to believe that something was still active and silently sucking power in the background. Otherwise I have no complaints at all. Beware that some people do have issues with battery life, but for me it isn’t a problem.

Office, SkyDrive, and Onenote

Yes I'm pulling this old PPT out again.
Yes I’m pulling this old PPT out again.

I remember back in the day when I had a Toshiba e350 PocketPC (and later a hp5455) you got a mobile version of Office. It was pretty limited, but it was there. Not much has really changed. Office relies fairly heavily on Skydrive, and it supports Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files. You can view and edit all of them, but I don’t know why you’d want to edit documents on here. The screen is way too small to be of any use, but I guess for a very quick edit it’s okay. It does a good job of displaying PowerPoint files at least. They’re welcome additions though, particularly if you work extensively with Office apps, since most programs on iOS or Android will frequently break formatting or otherwise mess up your document.

OneNote on the other hand is a different story. I’m a big fan of OneNote – I use it an awful lot, and a competent OneNote client is a big help for me. The client for WP8 is extremely competent – it’s the best out there. It works very well as a note taking application and supports adding voice clips and photos, as well as creating bulleted lists and to-do lists. It syncs with SkyDrive too. One thing that didn’t seem to work so well was fetching pictures – it’d fetch every single one of them in the section, which probably isn’t necessary. But it does work very well and if you use OneNote it’s a big benefit.

Overall Impressions: Good device, poor support

On iOS or Android it’s a lot easier to make a solid statement about a phone, because the app support is quite good on both of them (I’d give the crown to iOS though). The Lumia 920 is a bit more difficult to review. On the one hand, we’ve got the phone. On the other: the OS. On the convenient third mutant hand: developer support.

Starting with the phone itself, the 920 is a fantastic bit of kit. It’s a solid-feeling phone which some will find too heavy, but which I think is fantastic. The design is great, battery life is great, and it’s fast. Call quality is astounding, it makes my old iPhone 4S sound like a muffled piece of shit. What I don’t like is how Nokia are slowing the release of Portico, the next update to WP8 which is supposed to fix the camera quality issues. Nokia, Microsoft, or whoever – stop with the staggered update releases. I have an unbranded phone, my carrier is not approving anything, just release the update.

Windows Phone 8 is by and large an excellent OS. Live tiles combine the best of the widget and the grid. Android looks messy and clunky by comparison, while iOS looks limited. Live Tiles are the best of both worlds. The OS is snappy and lightweight, and it supports a lot of things right out of the box. I’m not 100% convinced by some of the aesthetics, like sliding to the left and right (I think it looks a bit messy) but coming from iOS I appreciate the fluidity. Swapping from iOS to WP8 was a lot easier from a general usability perspective than iOS to Android. There are a few niggling issues though, namely the inability to use your own sounds for alert tones. I’d also love to customise individual tile appearance, so that everything isn’t one colour. By and large these are all minor issues though.

The bit that causes some concerns is when you start to look at the apps. Windows Phone as a platform has always come at a very distant 3rd place for application support, and in truth it doesn’t look like things are changing that much. It’s not so much the volume but the lack of notable apps like I discussed above. WP8 is an excellent platform and the Lumia 920 is a great phone, but they’re only going to be as great as the apps for the phone, like any system. What concerns me is not so much the low volume of apps, but the lack of developer interest. Google outright don’t want to support the platform (as they demonstrated with the Google Maps fiasco) and few other developers seem to be showing much interest. Of course there are fewer users so for some services it’s probably not worth the trouble to make apps, but of course without apps there won’t be more users. And WP isn’t a young platform anymore – yes, WP8 is new, but WP7 certainly isn’t, and it never achieved a decent number of apps.

That’s ultimately what concerns me about the 920. Not that it’s a bad phone. Not that WP8 is a bad OS. They’re fantastic and ranks up there as one of the best mobile devices ever. No, the problem is in the lack of developer support. Devs just don’t seem interested in supporting the platform. It’s a shame, because it’s an outstanding phone. It’s a significant factor and might yet sink the phone despite it being an outstanding phone. In spite of the lack of apps, I love the Lumia 920. It’s an excellent phone and I haven’t once been frustrated with the phone or the OS. Just the lack of apps, but it’s not quite so crippling as to make me go back to iOS.

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