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. :-)

Some truths remain eternal

I was looking through some old posts for import, and found this from 2007. It's by an old professor and friend of mine, and is as relevant today as it was then.

And there is this, finally, to say about America’s avoidable debacle in Vietnam: something very much like it could happen again. Not in the same place, assuredly, and not in the same way, but potentially with equally destructive results. This is the central lesson of the war. The continued primacy of the executive branch in foreign affairs – and within that branch of a few individuals, to the exclusion of the bureaucracy — together with the eternal temptation of politicians to emphasize short-term personal advantage over long-term national interests, ensures that the potential will exist… . If future Vietnams are to be prevented, the American people and their representatives in Congress will have to meet their responsibilities no less than those who make the ultimate decisions. Otherwise, American soldiers will again be asked to kill and be killed, and their compatriots will again determine, afterward, that there was no good reason why.

— Fredrik Logevall in Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam

The world just changed

The world just changed. Take note of this: it's a blog post, on a blog running on my own domain, that originated in App.net as a PM. In fact, I'm writing this in Patter. For now, I've made use of Google's woefully inadequate export tool, but eventually all of the posts from my other blog will be here too. I can post from an ADN PM, or from Evernote--and either way, all my stuff is backed up. No lock-in. This is going to be huge.

A post from DotDot

A post from DotDot.

Doing a test post from #DotDot for a few reasons:

  1. To check formatting

  2. Because I can :-)

  3. To see if PourOver has updated my feed yet.

And so it begins

And so it begins. Here's to the beginning of a blog that isn't dependent on Google in any way, shape or form. Bye-bye, Blogger!

Trying something new

This is my experiment with using Evernote to post to a blog.  

I'm still new at using Markdown, but if I got it right, this will be italicized, and this will be bolded.

I'm not sure what this will do.

Let's try a link!

So, it's been a while...

I haven't been around here much, for reasons that I'm not particularly inclined to go into. But there have been a few changes…

First, you've probably noticed a couple of "ads" over on the right.1 Yes, I've joined the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and I've also re-registered with the Green Party of California. Some of you will be surprised by this, particularly the latter. You shouldn't be. I've been somewhat disillusioned with our current political system for years now, and the revelations by Edward Snowden surrounding the NSA and Prism convinced me that both major parties have been complicit in a massive violation of the Constitution, and are hopelessly corrupted.

So, after thirty years of voting strategically, being sometimes a Democrat and other times a Republican, the time has come for me to do something different. I've arrived at a place where you can believe that the government has a legitimate role to play, without violating the Fourth Amendment and becoming the modern American Stasi. Where you can believe that corporations shouldn't have unfettered free reign, that we need serious electoral reform, that secret courts should not exist in this country, and that the environment really does matter. Simply put, I've decided to stop voting for the lesser of two evils, and to use my vote for something I believe in.

Similar feelings attend my decision to join the EFF. It's one thing to voluntarily cede a degree of privacy to Google or Microsoft in the name of convenience; it's quite another for the government to track your location, and to access the metadata of every phone call you make and every web site you visit, with no recourse available to you because it's all been authorized by the decisions of a secret court to which you cannot lodge an appeal. That is not what America is about. It is, in fact, the very diametrical opposite of what America is about. The EFF is fighting that and other battles on behalf of all of us. It is fighting for your rights as a free citizen, and it deserves your support.

  1. This was true when the blog was hosted on Blogger, but not now.

The measure of my uncool

This is not a post I ever expected to write. This is the kind of thing you're not supposed to admit in public, at least not if you want to be taken seriously by the cool kids. Fortunately, I'm at the point where I'm too bloody old to care what the cool kids think.

I'm switching my primary email from Gmail to Hotmail. I've been using it for a few weeks now on a trial basis, and I like it. A lot.

I know what you're thinking. If you're a serious tech-head, you're probably thinking something along the lines of "Good Lord man, have you lost your mind?" The answer is no, I haven't, but I understand where you're coming from. If you're anything like me, you had a Hotmail account back in the 1990s, and were driven away from it by the sheer relentless mediocrity of the experience. Microscopic storage limits, banner ads, and irritating taglines appended to all of your emails. I lived through it too…back then, we saw things that would make the kids today wet their pants. If you're under 18, you've probably always had Gmail, and you…have…no…idea. Trust me.

But you know what? A funny thing happened. Microsoft woke up and started smelling the coffee. Apple started eating their lunch in mobile and tablets, Google is going after their bread and butter by marketing Google Docs (now Google Drive) to business, and Microsoft is starting to get hungry. So…email storage is now measured in gigabytes, and you can get more if you need it. Banner ads are gone, and $20/year gets you Windows Live Hotmail Plus, with no ads at all. And those irritating "Get Hotmail!" messages in the signature line? They're history. And best of all, you no longer have to have an "@hotmail.com" address. You can pick "@live.com" instead, or, as with Google, you can bring your own domain to the party and use that. Sweet.

And what's left for you to use with that domain is a really nice, functional and smooth webmail experience, one that I wouldn't have found out about if it wasn't for my irritation--and perhaps more to the point, my wife's irritation--with the changes that Google's been making to Gmail. Mind you, I've been a Gmail user since the days of the invitation-only beta, and I've sung its praises for years. But lately, it's seemed like the UI boffins have been too clever by half with their AJAX-y mouseover magic. Memo to the design team: it shouldn't move unless I click on it. Make it so.

The most surprising aspect to all of this is that I'm the one switching. I ran away screaming from Microsoft products ten years ago, fleeing to the world of Apple (and later Google), and I've never regretted the choice. But if Microsoft ain't what it used to be, neither is Apple or Google. Apple has become enraptured with its own aluminum-skinned coolness, becoming to phones and tablets what Microsoft was to computers fifteen years ago: dominant, a bit arrogant, and successful to the point of being dangerous. Google is similarly entrenched in search, is rapidly becoming a force in mobile with Android, and would really, really like me to tie everything into their pseudo-Facebook social network, Google+ (they asked me again when I signed into Blogger to write this post). Thanks, but no thanks.

So Hotmail it is. This is not your father's Hotmail. This is good. It works. It's nice. No, it doesn't tie into anything like Google Voice or Google Reader, but it does come with built-in support for Messenger and SkyDrive, and the calendar works well with iOS. When Windows 8 come out, it will work as a Windows Live ID for device sign-in and other assorted goodness.

And if you just want to send and receive some email, it's a damn fine choice for that too.

Living with Fire


Yes, Fire. Kindle Fire, to be precise.

It's been a couple of months now since I got mine, and it seems like a good time to talk about what it's like living with it, and how it's changed my thinking in some ways about e-readers, tablets, and the ways they intersect--and also a good chance to do something with my long-neglected blog.

To start with, I ordered my Kindle Fire (hereafter referred to as "Fire") about thirty seconds after Jeff Bezos finished his keynote at the Kindle product intro last September. Mostly, I was completely blown away by the low price point for what appeared to be a relatively capable Android-based tablet. I was able to further limit the hit to my wallet by using some accumulated points on my Amazon credit card, so my final price was more like $120 than the list price of $199\. How could I resist?

Waiting for it was the hardest part, the longest six weeks I've had in a while. Patience wins in the end, however, and it was delivered to me at my office the day after release. I'd already set up the Personal Hotspot feature on my iPhone, so I was able to connect it to the Internet immediately--or almost immediately, after first downloading the available update to my work computer and transferring it to the Fire via USB. The update went flawlessly, and soon I was connected to the Web and ready to go.

Without going into excessive detail, I will say I was--and am--pleased. The Fire performs about as well as I expected it to. It isn't packing the latest processor, or the most onboard storage, and it isn't based on the most recent version of Android, but it works well enough. Several updates since release have addressed some of the more glaring shortcomings, and the overall feel is now much less jerky than before, with books opening more smoothly and things just generally feeling more together (as an aside, hiding every trace of Android from the user was the right thing for Amazon to do). And the size is perfect, at least for me. The iPad is just a bit big to schlep around everywhere, but the Fire is no bigger than a trade paperback. I like it. In a very short period of time, it has become the one device I would hate to be without, and the one I use more often than any other.

That said, it's not made by Apple, and those expecting an iPad will be disappointed. But for those people, I have just one question…


A little perspective: I bought the first-generation Kindle shortly after it was released for $369\. All it did was read books (OK, it did have a built-in Sprint 3G connection, but you wouldn't want to surf the Web on it. Trust me. I tried…). The Fire, on the other hand, has immediate access to Amazon's Kindle Store, Amazon Instant Video, a damn fine Web browser, email, the Amazon MP3 Store (and all the music I have stored in Amazon Cloud Storage), limited document capabilities, and the ability to run anything that will run in Android 2.3--and yes, you can sideload apps onto it. Is there something you want that Amazon's Appstore won't sell you? Fine. If you can find the .apk file on Google, you can download it to your computer and sideload it via USB on the Fire. Or you can go to m.getjar.com on the Fire and download it directly. Pro tip: make the Dropbox app and a good file browser (like ES File Explorer) the first things you sideload, then anything you stick in your Dropbox folder on your computer becomes instantly available on the Fire.

I'm pretty sure that Amazon didn't intend to build a tablet that runs the Nook app or Aldiko, but the Fire runs both admirably. The Nook app is just for show, mostly; they don't really have anything that Amazon doesn't, but it's nice to have. Aldiko, however…well, more on that later.

So we have here what is essentially an Android tablet at a bargain-basement price. And that is where it gets very, very interesting, and why I have been doing some serious ruminating _(strokes beard thoughtfully…)._

After living with the Fire for a couple of months, here's what I've concluded, and some of it is surprising:

I'm done with E-Ink. Yes, E-Ink is lovely for brightly lighted rooms, outdoors, and long airplane flights. It needs no backlight, uses very little power, and has ridiculously long battery life. But most of my reading isn't done outdoors or on a plane. It's done in my house, in my recliner, for a few hours at a time. Battery life isn't an issue. Neither is overly bright lighting. I don't find my eyes bleeding after a few hours of reading the Fire's LCD screen, and I like not needing a clip-on book light when the ambient lighting is anything below the level of Artificial Sun. And while the Fire is heavier than my Kindle 3, it's no worse than a paper book--and when I get tired of reading, I can flip it to landscape mode and watch _Star Trek: Deep Space Nine._ Or browse Twitter.

Amazon Instant Video is awesome, but not perfect. As an Amazon Prime member, I've been having a lot of fun watching some of my favorite old TV shows and movies for free, but as it turns out, there's one movie that won't play on the Fire for some reason. Unfortunately, it's one of my favorites. If I want to watch it on the Fire, I'm going to have to rip the DVD to my iMac and sideload it. Arrgh.

Amazon is handling magazines on the Fire the wrong way. You can buy magazines on the Fire, but they're basically PDFs of the print version, and you're going to find yourself zooming in and out constantly, which is annoying. It would be better to have magazines in app form, which would make them more usable in this form factor. Case in point: the Kindle version of the Economist on the Fire is almost unusable, but the Economist Android app, which runs fine on the Fire if you sideload it, works brilliantly (you need to be an Economist subscriber for full access).

Amazon is no longer my exclusive (or even preferred) source for e-books. Amazon has a wonderfully extensive e-book catalog, but with Aldiko on my Fire, I can read EPUB books as well. This means I can buy from Google Books, Feedbooks, Smashwords, Books on Board, the Kobo store, even the Nook store…anyplace that sells EPUBs (which is most of the rest of the industry besides Amazon). Amazon is often cheaper, but not always…and there may be cases where a book isn't available in the US, but can be obtained (legally) from an overseas bookstore that sells the EPUB version. And with Dropbox on the Fire, I can have access to my entire EPUB collection anywhere I have an Internet connection, which somewhat mitigates the lack of a Whispersync equivalent (although not completely).

(Now, you may be thinking to yourself, "What about DRM with all those other stores?" Yes, DRM is there. But the Nook app runs on the Fire, Aldiko can handle Adobe DRM, and if you feel diffident about having EPUBs with DRM, you can Google a nice man called Apprentice Alf and he can help you rid your stuff of that particular infection. Not that I recommend that, mind you. Heavens, no. After all, that would be illegal in the US, and I wouldn't want to be responsible for encouraging such a thing. Perish the thought. But if it's legal in your country, or you just don't care, then…)

From now on, I'm archiving all my e-books in EPUB format. I like flexibility. I want to make sure I can read my books years from now, no matter what. Amazon is unlikely to go away, but you never know. Also, I want to be able to read them on any device I have, and as an open standard, EPUB is the most flexible in that regard, and the most likely to be readable years from now. If you think that Amazon's size and market domination mean that its proprietary format will automatically be around in ten years' time and available for whatever platform you're using, try using your iPad to open a document created by Microsoft Works sometime.

I prefer reading on the Fire to reading on the Kindle 3…but I prefer reading in Aldiko to reading Kindle books on the Fire. I've found that to my eyes, the typographic choices made by Aldiko look better than those made by Amazon, and I like its user interface better, including its ingenious method of adjusting screen brightness (if you've used it, you know what I'm talking about).

My next Kindle may not be a Kindle at all. Amazon offers Kindle apps for iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, etc. This means you can read Kindle books on non-Kindle devices. Got an iPad? Got a Samsung Galaxy Tab? You can read your Kindle books on it. This should keep Amazon honest; if they lock down the next generation of the Fire too much, I can go find a 7-inch Android tablet and move on from there. Which leads me to my next point…

Multifunction is better than single-function. I have loved my E-Ink Kindles, but they only do one thing (which they do very well). A tablet, however, does a lot of things, and does them well enough to make up for their shortcomings. Unless I'm about to board a trans-Pacific flight and I need the battery life, I'd rather have something that can do email and Twitter and video in addition to reading. That's just me; your mileage may vary.

Lack of 3G connectivity is a non-issue. At the very least, it's a non-issue if you have a phone to which you can tether the Fire. Tethering to my iPhone 4 is trivially easy, and where I live there's no shortage of places offering free WiFi. Why pay for yet another internet connection? fire.jpg

My iPhone Gets It Right