About a month ago, Microsoft gave me a brand new review unit of the HTC 8X running Windows Phone 8, Microsoft's newest mobile software platform. The contract on my iPhone was up anyway, so I decided to take the plunge.
For the last month, I've been using the 8X as my exclusive smartphone. On the bus. On the train. At work. On the couch, watching TV. It's even my alarm clock.
First, the spoiler: I like it enough that I'm not switching back any time soon. It's not perfect, but some things about it are much better for my personal use patterns, and I haven't run into any show stoppers.
The biggest surprise is how it's changed the way I think of a smartphone. I've owned an iPhone since the 3G came out in 2008. It always felt like a highly personal and very portable computer with some work features, like the ability to connect to email and read news stories via Twitter. The phone part was almost incidental.
The Windows Phone feels more like an advanced work communication tool, mainly because of its much better contact management system and better auto-correct for on-screen typing. (I imagine that's how BlackBerry users look at their phones; I've never owned one.)
If you want a better smartphone for your working life, or you're coming from a feature phone or a BlackBerry, it's worth a look. I actually think these scenarios are Microsoft's best for getting up to the double digit (10%+) market share that Steve Ballmer said was his first-step goal when speaking at the BUILD conference in October.
At the same time, it's not better-enough than the iPhone for me to yell from the rooftops that everybody should buy one. If you've come to depend on particular apps, you might not find decent equivalents on the Windows Phone platform. Some of the consumer experiences, like music playback, just aren't as good as they are on the iPhone. I also had pretty poor customer service experiences with Microsoft's partners -- AT&T and HTC -- which make me reluctant to recommend it over the full Apple experience.
This isn't meant to be an objective point-by-point review. If you want that, read Galen Gruman's take, which I mostly agree with. Rather, it's meant to give you an overview of what it's like to switch -- not as a reviewer who's trying to uncover and evaluate every feature, but as a regular smartphone user who actually went through the changeover process, and is living with the phone day to day.
What I like best: contacts, photos, and the cloud
The best part of my new phone, by far, is the People app -- the Windows Phone contact manager. It makes the iPhone's Contacts app look primitive by comparison, and would be the hardest thing to give up if I went back.
Because I'm a journalist, I have well over 1,000 contacts in various places, mostly in my personal Gmail account and Outlook app on my work PC, plus a few from a brief aborted attempt to use Hotmail as my main email account back in 2008 or so. Then, I've got people whom I've added in LinkedIn but never added to my email contacts, my Facebook friends, and people I follow on Twitter.
It took me about five minutes to set up all these accounts on my Windows Phone. The People app consolidates all this data under a single name -- so, for instance, when I look up my wife, I see her all her phone numbers, email addresses, and data stored in her LinkedIn and Facebook accounts, and all the updates from her Twitter account. I can contact her using any of these platforms, all from a single location with her picture at the top. It also shows me her latest social network updates and communications to me, all in that same spot.
This all assumes that most of your contacts are stored in various online services. If you've got contacts that only live on your iPhone, you'll have to transfer them via iTunes and the Windows Phone client software on your computer (I didn't test this), or enter them in by hand (which I did for about five vital phone-only contacts.)
Still, it's way more efficient than the iPhone's contact manager, which is filled with duplicates, does not include social networking info, and which continually amazed me with how broken it was -- I recall looking for people with whom I'd exchanged hundreds of emails, only to find that their contact data had never been synced.
Other improvements over the iPhone include:
- The Photos app, which lets you scroll through photos stored on your phone, stored to SkyDrive, or stored on Facebook. You can swap locations -- for instance, take a photo from Facebook and store it on your phone -- and share any of them to Twitter or Facebook from within the app.
- OneNote has come in handy a couple times for taking notes on my phone -- and you never have to hit "save."
- Auto-correct. The iPhone's auto-correct is one of its greatest features -- in fact, it's made me so lazy, that when I briefly tried using a Galaxy Tab running Android Honeycomb, the inferior auto-correct made it almost unusuable. Amazingly, Windows Phone 8 is actually better -- not only does it guess what I'm trying to type, it suggests multiple alternatives halfway through each word. Once you get used to it, you can type one or two characters at a time and then select the correct word from the menu across the bottom of the screen. I'm typing faster, with fewer mistakes.
- The use of the cloud. On the iPhone, using iCloud (and MobileMe before it) always seemed like an all-or-nothing proposition -- to get the most out of it, you have to connect all your Apple devices, and back everything up into Apple's service. It also seems really glitchy -- I stayed away from storing contacts in iCloud after seeing a mass of duplicates on my wife's iPhone. With Windows Phone, it's a lot less complicated -- everything shows up on your phone, regardless of which service you originally stored it in, and you don't really have to think about where it actually lives.
What I don't like: music and crummy third-party apps
The aspect of Windows Phone that Microsoft should be most ashamed about is the music experience.
I have my entire iTunes library of more than 4,000 songs stored on a Mac, and the Windows Phone 8 app -- which you download from the Mac App Store specifically for this purpose -- works fine. I was able to get my custom "Matt's iPhone" list (about 1,000 songs) onto my new Windows Phone with no hassle.
But once they were on the phone, lots of things went wrong. About 20% of my album art got lost, and checking the box to fill it in from the Xbox Music store did not work. The Smart DJ function -- Microsoft's version of Apple's iTunes Genius feature -- inexplicably works only if you start playing a song from within the Albums view, not from within the Songs view. If you need to delete songs for more storage space, you can only do it song by song, not whole albums or groups. Albums were randomly split into two or more "albums" with the exact same title. My custom genres were randomly (but not always) replaced with the genres from the Xbox Music store, which meant a bunch of totally un-like music is now all tagged with the meaningless term "Alternative." There's no gapless playback, which is horribly annoying for live albums and side 2 of Abbey Road.
There's actually a whole list of glitches on the Windows Phone Community forums page. I personally encountered many of them.
Some of these glitches relate to how iTunes stores song metadata. But Microsoft actually did a much better job with some of these features in the Zune HD and Windows Phone 7 platform, making this feel like a step backwards. Overall, it just feels like music isn't that important to Microsoft's Windows Phone team -- it's a checkbox feature, not something they actually care about.
The other glaring shortcoming was with third-party apps.
Microsoft has been working hard ever since Windows Phone first came out to get more apps on board, and the store now contains more than 100,000 of them, including a lot of big hits like Twitter and Angry Birds. It's even got equivalents to many of the long-tail apps that make the iPhone so indispensible for a lot of people.
But there's still a huge problem with app quality, and this can be marked down to the lack of platform traction.
For instance, when I commute home from work using San Francisco's notoriously spotty MUNI transportation system, I depend on an app that tells me when the next bus or train is coming. (There's a transfer point where if I miss a bus, I have to wait 30 minutes for the next one.) The NextBus iPhone app works perfectly -- it knows where I am, which bus lines stop at that spot, and tells me their estimated time of arrival based on GPS transceivers in each vehicle. (It can't do anything about MUNI's inexplicable train schedule and all-too-frequent service outages, but at least it lets you know if there's a problem.)
Windows Phone 8 has an equivalent called MobileMuni, but it's buggy. At first, it won't recognize my location and says that I have location-tracking turned off -- and then it shows my location on the map. It won't show nearby stops unless I navigate into and out of the menu of bus lines. It works, but it's not pleasant to use.
I've seen similar problems with the official Twitter app for Windows Phone (it can't even deliver accurate character counts and doesn't enable spam reporting; fortunately SharpGIS Peregrine is a solid alternative) and the Facebook app (which lists photo albums from random friends -- not my most active or closest friends -- and won't let me see other photos at all). It's like the developers built an app for the platform at Microsoft's behest...and then went on to other more important projects.
That said, other apps like Urbanspoon and the official NFL Live app are as good or better than their iPhone equivalents, so perhaps this gap will close eventually ... just as is happening with Android.
Other stuff that left me cold:
- The tile-based UI is a mixed bag. On one hand, I love being able to personalize my start screen with my most common contacts and Web pages. The live updates are neutral -- I didn't find them distracting, but neither were they particularly useful. More like pleasant eye candy. But as Galen Gruman pointed out in his review, once you get past a few apps and pinned favorites, the screen gets unwieldy because you have to scroll so far to see everything. I also found some of the tiles to look too similar, or to be too indistinct -- I can never find the calendar app because it's a bright red square with some text (the info about my next appointment) among a bunch of other squares with text.
- Crapware. Because I have so much music, and because I have only 16GB of storage -- as I did with my iPhone -- I need every bit of space I can get. But AT&T (or somebody) packed the phone with random apps like Family Map, which lets you track your family members who have AT&T phones, and a GPS navigation app. There was even a Flashlight app which I immediately deleted. And I'm still running out of space
The partner problem
There's one other area where the Windows Phone experience doesn't stack up to the iPhone, and this one isn't really Microsoft's fault at all. Rather, it's a byproduct of Apple's approach of strictly controlling the end to end experience, versus Microsoft's more partner-driven methods.
When I decided to switch, I walked into an AT&T store with my two phones -- the 8X with a SIM card for the temporary one month of service that Microsoft gives reviewers to test the phone (including a temporary phone numer), and my two-year-old iPhone 4, which was still my main phone with my main number.
"I have an iPhone," I told the clerk. "I want to switch my service over to this new phone, which I got from a friend." (I didn't want to let on that I'd be writing about the experience.) "How do I do that, and how much will it cost?"
Amazingly to me, she knew what the 8X was -- she had been surprised to see a small line when it went on sale a couple weeks before. She wasn't 100% supportive of my choice, though. "You're really going to give up your iPhone?" she asked, like she thought it was some kind of prank.
Once I convinced her I was serious, she popped the SIM card out of each phone, walked into the back of the store to see if I needed a new SIM card for the 4G connection on the HTC (she thought I didn't; she was wrong), then swapped them. I was out of there in five minutes. My new phone seemed to be working fine.
But then I started getting texts and emails imploring me that I needed some kind of new service plan. It turns out that I was still on the 3G network that I'd been using for years with my iPhone, not the faster LTE network that the 8X runs on. (The iPhone 5 and many Android phones also use LTE now.)