I’ve been a happy iOS user since the original iPhone, and have used an iPhone 4 for the last year as my mobile device. While Apple’s mobile platform is arguable a very powerful one, especially due to the number of third-party apps, I remain interested in the other mobile Operating Systems. I haven’t been “attracted” by Android devices (I haven’t tried Ice-Cream Sandwich yet) due to the fragmentation, no appealing hardware, the major lack of guarantees that you will get OS updates on your device and the “geeky” nature of the look & feel (yes, I know, strange coming from me 😉
And outside of WebOS (lucky that I didn’t go down that path), I’ve been intrigued by the Windows Phone 7 OS since its launch just over a year ago. But the first iteration of the OS was too rough around the edges, and the lack of great hardware got me to stick with iOS until now at least. During a recent trip to the UK, I decided to get myself a Nokia Lumia 800 running Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) and I have to say that outside of a few little details (see below), I am really impressed by this device!
Let’s start with the hardware. I always loved Nokia hardware. And while the N900 was a little too bulky to my taste, the Lumia 800 feels really great in the hand. The weight is just right (for me at least) and the 3.7’’ screen size is exactly what I want. The industrial design / rounded shape of the phone has a very nice touch to it, and having all the connectors hidden is really nice, even if I am expecting the flip to the micro-USB port to break soon (so far so good). One the downside of the hardware, the Lumia only comes in a 16Gb model, but so far, it isn’t a big problem for me.
The 8 megapixels camera produces really good photos based on the little testing I have done. It isn’t a DSLR, but for a mobile phone, it does the trick really well to take pictures of white-boards at the end of meetings and the 720p videos are of good quality. Having a physical camera button that can be used at any time is really nice. I know some sites have done detailed comparison with other mobile phones, and you should look into these if the camera is the most important thing for you.
The one negative of the hardware is the lack of “ecosystem” around the device for in-car integration (or external loudspeakers, …) that is available around the iPod/iPhone dock connector. Not a deal-breaker, and it’s the same for any non-Apple based device I guess.
But what makes this device one of the few mobile phones that can really compete with an iPhone in my mind is the combination of the beautiful hardware with the really innovative and fluid UI from Microsoft’s mobile OS.
Metro, the user interface used by Windows Phone 7.x and that will also be the basis for Windows 8 when it comes out next year, is really enjoyable to use. Its task-centric approach compared to an app-centric world for iOS (and Android from what I can tell) is very refreshing. While there are many apps available for Windows Phone, the great integration of the main components with the key things you do on the phone anyway covers the majority of your needs out of the box. And as Harry McCracken wrote in a recent review: “I not only lived to tell the tale, but enjoyed doing so. In most respects that matter, Microsoft’s mobile software is terrific.”
One example of how this task-based WP7 OS user experience is different from iOS: if you want to contact a friend, you go to the People hub and select their name, without having to know if their details are in an Outlook, Office365, Facebook or LinkedIn contact. It’s one place to see your contact, get the recent status updates on the various social networks and to give them a call (it is a phone after all). On other devices, you would have to go to the built-in Contacts app, or to the Facebook app, or to the LinkedIn app… to find the right place. Yes, you will most often go to the right place for your common contacts, but it is very nice to have one hub to go.
The pictures hub works in a similar way, showing your camera roll, your synced photos as well as the Facebook albums from your friends. The messaging hub integrates SMS with Facebook chat and MSN Messenger all in one place. And the “me” hub centralizes your online profiles and ways to post status updates / check-ins in one place. I guess you get the idea 😉
The web browser is a mobile version of Internet Explorer 9. While it isn’t compatible with all the latest mobile-OS frameworks which require a webkit browser, e.g. Sencha Touch based mobile apps won’t work for now, the rendering engine is fast and fluid, and the way multiple tabs are implemented is working well for me.
When it comes to Office compatibility, Microsoft has a great implementation (as expected) that integrates really well with SkyDrive, Office 365 as well as with SharePoint servers, and is compatible with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Sadly no WordPerfect support out of the box, but that would have been a huge surprise from Microsoft 😉
But where Windows Phone 7.5 really shines compared to iOS is regarding Exchange / ActiveSync integration (including Office 365). You can combine multiple Exchange accounts into one consolidated inbox or keep them separate, which isn’t possible on iOS. The email functionality is really nice on WP7.5 and includes a conversation view very similar to the one in Outlook 2010, integrating the full discussion from all the folders and not only from the inbox. The only strange behaviour so far is that while I have configured my phone to use push-email, there doesn’t seem to be an automatic sync happening when you use your email client on the phone. Here is an example: I get a new mail. I read it on the phone (e.g. it gets marked as read) and then move it to an archive folder. That change will take a while to replicate on the server, but I can force the sync by a simple press of a button (I guess that this reduces the bandwidth used). But the really annoying thing is that the message in my archive folder will be marked as unread on the server!
On the subject of Exchange integration, the calendar and especially the group scheduling features are miles ahead of iOS. You can accept a meeting tentatively, propose a new time, include a comment with your answer, forward a meeting to someone else, and much more. The one thing not supported by WP7.5 is the ability to subscribe to iCal calendars (I want my TripIt calendar on my phone for example). The work-around here is to add the iCal calendars to your Windows Live Calendar, and they will then get automatically synchronized with the phone.
Throughout the phone, you can see that Microsoft has followed the rule that “perfection is in the detail” and that they went the extra mile to add little touches here and there. For example, when you scroll through a web page “almost” vertically, the phone will know that you actually wanted to be “really” vertically and will constraint the scrolling. Another example is how the spacing changes when you come at the bottom of a list, giving and elastic feel to the experience. One more example is when your phone is in your pocket with the screen off and a reminder rings. When you pull it out of your pocket, the phone turns on in locked screen mode with the reminder readily visible. No need to press the power button. This attention to details really makes the Nokia / Windows Phone combination a highly enjoyable experience.
There are three buttons on the front of every Windows Phone device. While the Windows logo gets you to the home / start screen, it will start the voice command feature if you keep it pressed. But not everything is perfect, and the voice recognition on the device is far from it. The idea is great (and Apple was able to implement it very well with its Siri acquisition from what I understand), but Microsoft still has a lot of work ahead to make this even close to usable.
To the right of the Windows logo is the search button, which opens Bing. One very nice touch there is that you can do an image search and there is built-in support for QR Codes / Microsoft Tags without the need for an extra app (again, task centric). But at the same time, the text scanning feature is far from perfect (or even usable), at least for the small tests I have done so far.
On the left of the Windows logo is the back button. Apple implemented something similar with 4 finger gestures, but this button is a welcome addition. Most apps / hubs us it extensively to come back from the setting for example (they are accessible from within the app, not hidden in the control panel). It is therefore very quick to go back a step if you tapped the wrong button, and by keeping the back button pressed, you will see the list of previously launched apps / hubs side by side for quick access.
The one hub I didn’t mention yet is the ”Music & Video” one. It is another example of a single place to access all your media. Overall this works well, but (yes, another but) I am really missing the 2x feature to listen to podcasts. I do listen to a lot of podcasts, and not having the option to go through them at double-speed in the car is really preventing me from using my Lumia for podcast listening. My only solution for now was to get a small iPod Nano for the car. This also means that I am unable to move away from iTunes, which is a shame.
There are tons of apps for Windows Phone 7.5 including a PDF reader from Adobe, a Kindle reader from Amazon, an Evernote client, a Netflix app, TripIt, RSS readers, and many more. The Nokia apps built-in are really nice as well, including one for off-line turn-by-turn navigation at no extra cost. But two are missing for me: Audible (rumoured for the 1st half of 2012) and Skype (shouldn’t be too hard now that this is a Microsoft product).
In summary, I am really thrilled by the Nokia Lumia 800 and its combination between the hardware and the software. It is impressive how mature a 1 year old operating system is, and while ahead on many aspects compared to the 5 year-old iOS 5 level, it still has a few things missing. If you are a heavy Outlook / Exchange user, this is well worth considering (I guess a Google Apps user will have a better experience with an Android Phones). If you want to get a taste of the user experience, try the Windows Phone simulator on a mobile webkit based browser. I will be using the Lumia for a while and will most certainly be selling my iPhone 4 shortly.
Update 19.12.2011: Just wanted to add on more piece of comparison. The Nokia Lumia 800 (16Gb) unlocked phone in the UK is GBP 399, while the iPhone 4S (16Gb) unlocked is listed at GBP 499 on Apple’s site. For those outside of the UK, keep in mind that the VAT rate is 20%, which is included in the price quoted above.