Switching to Windows Phone

A few months back, I wrote a series of posts on longposts.com describing my experience in moving from the iPhone to Windows Phone. Since then, several people have expressed an interest in it, so here it is, combined into one post and updated.

The first thing I'm asked when people find out I've switched away from the iPhone is, "why?" There are a lot of answers I could give, but the simplest one is that I was ready for a change. I have no loyalty to platforms or devices, and I don't really understand that mindset. I've never purchased the same make of car twice in a row, and I'm not sure why it should be any different when it comes to devices. I buy what I like, and what works the best for me. That's all.

A few months ago, Windows Phone wasn't even on my horizon. I knew of it, but had figured that my next phone would be the new Nexus. Two things changed my mind about that: first, that the Nexus 4 lacks LTE, and second, that my carrier, Verizon, doesn't offer it. So I started looking around, and the more I looked at WP8 the more I liked it. Last year, I switched away from Gmail to Outlook.com on my own domain, and I've been pleased, so the idea of using something that was tied into that ecosystem was attractive.

I also found the user interface of WP8 intriguing. There's no question that Apple redefined the smartphone when it introduced the iPhone, but after several years, both iOS and Android remain stuck on the icons-on-a-desktop metaphor. It feels like more can be done. And when I put a WP8 phone next to the Galaxy S3 at the store, it looked much cleaner and more appealing to my eye (admittedly a subjective thing).

The phone I chose was the HTC 8X, so this will focus on the WP8 experience as used on the 8X (_note: since this was written, I've also picked up a Nokia Lumia 520_). I considered the Lumia 920, but as that device is AT&T-only in the U.S. for now, it would have meant switching carriers, which would have meant switching my family plan with 4 lines. Not fun or inexpensive. However, keeping my options open, I went to the local AT&T store and played with one. It's a beautiful phone, but for me, the extra size and weight didn't seem justified by the additional features (storage capacity, Nokia apps, Carl Zeiss lens, etc.). The 8X was much lighter, slimmer, and felt better to hold. So that's the one I went with, staying with Verizon.

There were a few tradeoffs to be made. The 8X is limited to 16 GB, and there's no SD card slot, so you have to manage your storage. But with automatic upload of photos to SkyDrive, there's really no reason to keep photos locally on the phone, which helps keep things manageable. I don't keep a lot of music on my phone, either; if you do, you may wish to consider alternatives. And finally, if you're an app addict, be aware that there are fewer apps to choose from, and you'll need to be more conscious of keeping stuff that you never use. That said, I've had no problem finding equivalent apps for the things I needed. Sometimes that means using apps from third-party developers, which should be a welcome concept for the ADN community. :-)

None of those were problems or deal-breakers for me, but if they are for you, you'd be advised to look at something with more, or expandable, capacity such as the Lumia 920 or the Lumia 822 on Verizon. Of course, each of those comes with tradeoffs as well, but I won't go into those since I have no experience with using them beyond a test flight at the Verizon and AT&T stores. My usual caveat remains: your mileage may vary.

Oh, one last thing before getting into the details: I can't tell you what it's like to use Gmail on WP8, or Google Drive, or so on. I haven't tried. Part of my experiment is to use as many Microsoft services as possible, so that means SkyDrive, Outlook.com, and so forth. If you're hooked on Google Docs, for example, you'll probably be happier with Android. But if you're willing to try the MS stuff, you might be surprised at how well it all works.

With the preliminaries out of the way, let's take a look at the stuff that's really impressed me on my 8X, and on Windows Phone in general.

First, as regards the 8X, I find the design very attractive, and I find that it strikes a good balance between being lightweight and having a comfortable amount of heft. The soft-touch surface provides good grip, and if you feel the need for a case, there's an OEM case that matches the "California Blue" color perfectly (unfortunately, it's only available in that one color at the moment). A few niggles: the power switch could use some more travel, and it's occasionally reluctant to depress. I have found that to be less of a problem as I get used to the device, however. There's also a dedicated camera switch on the side (hallelujah!), but you can still tap the screen to take a photo if you prefer that--it's a user setting. There have also been reports of the finish darkening at the corners, or the soft-touch material flaking off, but I haven't seen any evidence of that yet.

As regards Windows Phone 8, I find it refreshing. It's nice to see a company trying to do something beyond the "iPhone clone" school of design, and I believe that Apple's attorneys actually cited it in the Samsung case as an example of an OS that doesn't infringe Apple's design. Some have consequently argued that it represents a design intended to avoid legal action, rather than a best-practices design, but I disagree. I like it. It avoids skeumorphism, which I hate, and the tiled interface is often easier to manipulate. Live tiles provide the advantages of Android-style widgets while maintaining consistency of design. If this is the result of attorneys consulting on design, then three cheers for attorneys! Overall, WP8 feels very integrated (yes, in an iOS-like way), much more so than Android.

At least on my phone, battery life has been phenomenal. I ordered extra chargers with the phone, but it may have been money wasted. The Verizon version of the 8X offers inductive charging (Qi-compatible), and once you've gotten used to simply setting the phone down on the charging pad, you'll never want to go back to the old way. I take it off the pad when I leave for work, and don't usually need to charge it until I go to bed at night, except in the case of exceptionally heavy use. I've taken a few steps to optimize my battery life; there's a post at http://forums.wpcentral.com/htc-8x/203318-battery-tricks-tips-htc-8x.html which offers some astute suggestions, most of which are common sense. I leave location services on, but have turned off Bluetooth and NFC, neither of which I use.

As for photo quality, it's good enough for me. If you're exceptionally picky about your photos, you may want the Lumia 920, but for the kinds of shots I take the 8X does fine. I'll let the photography geeks argue about the finer points of white balance and low-light image quality, but if you're that particular, you should probably be using a DSLR anyway. I like very much that auto-upload to SkyDrive is in place. If you want the original quality to be preserved (and who wouldn't?) then you need to go into the settings and select that option, which restricts auto-upload to Wi-Fi connections. Otherwise it will upload a reduced-quality image over LTE.

Music? Like I said, I don't put a lot of music on my phone. Right now, in fact, I have no music on my phone, mostly because I haven't decided on what my approach will be. There's an app in the WP store, CloudMuzik, which accesses the Google Play music library, and I might do that. PC users, and those with current Macs, can simply drag-and-drop to the phone, but as I'm on Snow Leopard that's not an option for me. Also, I'd like to minimize the storage footprint on the phone, so a cloud solution is attractive. More on that when I choose something.

Now it's time to look at the negatives--but first, a word about apps.

There's no question that there are fewer apps on WP8 than there are on iOS or Android. That shouldn't surprise anyone--it's a newer platform. But there's a lot of FUD out there about it, and my experience is that there's no problem finding equivalent apps, at least for the things I care about.

Here's a few of my favorites:

ADN: DotDot

Twitter: Mehdoh

Weather: I use the stock Microsoft Weather app, but Bing Weather is a good alternative

Newsblur client: Metroblur

Google Voice client: Metrotalk

Dropbox: BoxFiles

Reddit: Baconit

Kindle: Kindle for Windows Phone

ePub reader: Readu

Facebook: Facebook for Windows Phone

Google Maps: gMaps (although the Bing Maps app works really well)

YouTube: MetroTube

Picasa Web Albums: Picasa Metro

Starbucks: Starbucks Finder

Traffic: INRIX Traffic

My bank has an official WP app, Amazon is there, Fandango is there. I'm not a gamer, so I don't care about game apps for the most part. I use the standard mail app with my Outlook.com account. The apps I listed cover 99% of my daily app needs. I'm not seeing a huge problem here. However, if you want to download your local grocery store's app, then no, it might not be here.

And now, the negatives:

  1. If you're hooked on Apple services, save yourself a lot of heartache and buy an iPhone. You won't find iMessages here, or iCloud support. You can't open a Pages file on WP8 as far as I know. And if you're coming from an iPhone, you'll need to deregister your old device from your Apple ID before the Apple servers will allow iPhone users to send you SMS--otherwise, they'll be sending iMessages that go nowhere.
  2. If you're looking for Android-style openness, buy an Android phone. WP8 follows the same practice that iOS does when it comes to default apps. There's no way to tell it to use anything but IE for http links, for example, or to set a different default mail client. Fortunately, the default apps are damn good, but if that bothers you, look elsewhere. The flip side of that is that WP8 feels integrated in a way that Android doesn't, but your priorities should take precedence in your decision.
  3. There are a lot fewer Microsoft Stores out there than Apple Stores, so if you're used to running down to the Genius Bar for stuff, that may be more difficult. Personally, I've never needed to go to the Genius Bar for a phone, but it could happen. There's no Apple Care, so if you need an extended warranty, buy one from your carrier.
  4. The ecosystem for accessories isn't as extensive. You won't find as many different cases, for example. Nor will you find them on sale at the local airport as you race to catch a flight to Tokyo. On the other hand, they all use industry-standard earphones and Micro-USB power supplies, so your Kindle charger should work, for example.
  5. Finally, you'll have to explain to people why you switched. Some will think you're nuts. Fortunately, I've never cared much about that. ;-)

Would I recommend that someone switch? It depends on the person. My wife is addicted to her iPhone, and very happy with it, and as a smart husband I'm not going to disturb that. But if you're willing to try new things, or you just like playing with the new and the shiny, I think you'll be very pleasantly surprised by Windows Phone 8\. I've had no regrets about switching, and frankly can't imagine switching back.

This most definitely is not your father's Microsoft. :-)