February 3, 2014

Two Weeks With the Lumia 900

After several years of working with the same mobile operating system, it’s easy to get a bit tunnel-visioned when it comes to accepting or appreciating alternatives.

My first iPhone was a 3GS, and for the past three years I have been thor­oughly inves­ted in the iOS eco­sys­tem. I’ve explored the depths of the jail­break scene, enjoyed the wealth of apps, and appre­ci­ated the pro­fu­sion of tal­ent in the iOS design arena.

Dur­ing that time, I also had sev­eral oppor­tun­it­ies to play with Android phones, but I was always put off by the inde­cis­ive and incon­sist­ent feel of the oper­at­ing sys­tem. Now, I own a Nexus 7 and firmly believe that Android 4.0 is a good indic­a­tion of where Android was try­ing to get all along. While Black­berry stumbles toward its next release, another player in the mobile space has been con­fid­ently assert­ing itself in the back­ground, fight­ing to gain some mind­share: Win­dows Phone.

I had never had a chance to play with a Win­dows Phone, mostly because the retail pres­ence and mar­ket­ing is awful around here. How­ever, I was always intrigued by what I had read about them; strong, unique design lan­guage, inform­at­ive inter­face, stream­lined integ­ra­tion of major social ser­vices, etc.

Now, cour­tesy of the kind folks at Nokia, I have the oppor­tun­ity to spend two weeks with a Lumia 900 — the cur­rent flag­ship phone — and I will be doc­u­ment­ing the experience.

Over the Rainbow

In order to fairly judge the Win­dows Phone, I decided to try and see if I could have it entirely replace my iPhone for the dur­a­tion of this two week period. Since they use an identical MicroSIM card, I could con­ceiv­ably hot swap between the phones as I please, but doing that wouldn’t really give me a sense of what it’s like to have a Win­dows Phone as my daily driver.

The trial Lumia 900 is a sleek black polycar­bon­ate slab, sport­ing a large screen, com­fort­ably roun­ded corners, and an unashamed sense of weight. Unlike my iPhone 4S, it feels sub­stan­tial and dur­able. I don’t feel the need to keep it in a case, and although I won’t be per­form­ing any drop tests, I’m con­fid­ent that it would have little trouble sur­viv­ing them.

There’s some­thing inher­ently play­ful in the design of the Lumia, as if it doesn’t take itself too ser­i­ously. Right out of the box, I was struck by how dif­fer­ent it looked from the usual selec­tion of smart­phones. Nokia has always been known for their phone engin­eer­ing, but the Lumia 900 is a par­tic­u­larly fine product — in cyan it would be truly striking.

The phone has four but­tons: a power but­ton, a cam­era but­ton, and a volume rocker. Though there’s noth­ing wrong with the but­tons them­selves, they are all laid out in a row along the right side of the body, and the fact that they’re identical to the touch makes it some­what chal­len­ging to hit the right one without look­ing at the phone. I sus­pect this is some­thing that I’ll get used to as I’ve used it more, but as a first impres­sion it seems ergo­nom­ic­ally questionable.

Right out of the box, I was struck by how dif­fer­ent it looked from the usual selec­tion of smartphones.

Without a doubt, the phys­ical attrib­utes of the phone are appeal­ing to me in gen­eral. Com­ing from the 4S, I expec­ted the Lumia to feel unne­ces­sar­ily bulky, but the truth is that for my big hands it feels per­fectly comfortable.

First Steps

Upon turn­ing the Lumia on, I was greeted by the Win­dows Phone logo and swiftly promp­ted to log in using my Win­dows account (formerly Win­dows Live ID). As more and more of our inform­a­tion lives in the cloud, I’m get­ting used to this sort of thing, and sure enough after enter­ing my cre­den­tials and log­ging into my WiFi net­work, I was taken to a beau­ti­ful home screen full of bright tiles that reflec­ted my cal­en­dar and con­tact information. That was easy.

Using a Win­dows Phone, there are sev­eral things that stand out imme­di­ately. The first is how integ­rated everything is; instead of hav­ing to go to two sep­ar­ate apps to post status updates on Face­book & Twit­ter, you can do both from your Me tile. This is not unlike iOS6’s noti­fic­a­tion centre post but­tons, though the abil­ity to post to mul­tiple ser­vices at the same time gives Win­dows Phone a slight edge here. Like­wise, keep­ing up with con­tacts is a breeze thanks to the robust People tile.

Unlike a stand­ard con­tact book, this app also shows the most recent Face­book, Twit­ter, LinkedIn, and Win­dows Live updates from all your friends, allows you to respond to those updates, and offers you all avail­able inter­ac­tion meth­ods right from within the same interface.

Fur­ther­more, each con­tact can be pinned” to the start screen as their own tile, and you can even cre­ate groups of con­tacts and pin those, in which case you’ll have the option of send­ing the group an email or SMS right from the tile. These people tiles are fant­astic and a breath of fresh air when com­ing from iOS’ static con­tact book. The fact that I can pin all of my favour­ite con­tacts to my start screen and then see all their latest updates, post to their wall, call them, email them, text them, or even map their address right from within a single app is not only a huge timesaver, it’s also quickly become indis­pens­able. It seems like one of those no-brainer things that should be in every smartphone.

The one glar­ing down­side that I noticed was lack of Gtalk integ­ra­tion in the Mes­sen­ger app.

Other tiles, like the Mes­saging app, are like­wise more thor­ough than I’m used to. Instead of only allow­ing SMS mes­saging, the app also integ­rates Face­book chat and MSN/Live Mes­sen­ger, and con­ver­sa­tion threads are flex­ible enough to allow you to switch between these pro­to­cols at any point in time. It’s all about stream­lin­ing in Win­dows Phone, and the Mes­saging app is one of my favour­ite aspects. The one glar­ing down­side that I noticed was lack of Gtalk integ­ra­tion. Per­haps I don’t rep­res­ent the major­ity, but I use Google’s chat far more often than Facebook’s or Windows’.

The Big Leap

Once I had set up the basics — noti­fic­a­tions, date/time, col­ours, etc. — it was time to make the leap: put­ting in my SIM card and ditch­ing the iPhone. The Lumia swiftly picked up my Rogers sig­nal, auto­mat­ic­ally grabbing the 4G band since it’s an LTE phone, but only phone calls and reg­u­lar SMS mes­sages were work­ing. No MMS, nor data ser­vice. I popped open the Net­work Setup app that comes pre-installed on the phone and after a few seconds, it had prop­erly con­figured my phone and I sud­denly had all sys­tems go.

An amus­ing side-effect of Apple’s recent integ­ra­tion of iMes­sage addresses with iOS6 was that mes­sages from my friends with iPhones con­tin­ued to go to my iPhone even after I removed its SIM card. I had to manu­ally turn off iMes­sage on the iPhone in order to have all texts arrive on the Lumia as expected.

It’s the little things that make the dif­fer­ence. Both in a pos­it­ive and a neg­at­ive sense, I’ve found that noth­ing has affected my opin­ion of this phone more than the details.

Some­times, it’s been silly things like not hav­ing an easy way to activate/deactivate the LEDs so I can use the phone as a flash­light when I’m going to get a drink at night (a prob­lem it shares with the iPhone). Or the fact that there’s a con­sist­ent lag on the first digit when input­ting my PIN to unlock the phone.

Other times, it’s been more sig­ni­fic­ant details, like the design of the Mes­saging app tak­ing up so much space for the key­board and bubbles that it’s impossible to see more than the last line of the con­ver­sa­tion even on the Lumia 900’s spa­cious screen. Or the fact that Win­dows Phone optim­izes screen real-estate so that it’s only ever show­ing you what you actu­ally need to see.

As someone who’s used to both iOS and Android, this took a bit of get­ting used to. Where’s my bat­tery indic­ator? What’s my sig­nal strength like? Relax,” the Lumia seemed to say, everything’s just fine. I’ll show them to you when there’s a prob­lem.” And indeed it did, drop­ping the bat­tery indic­ator down subtly when I was get­ting close to empty, and coo­ing uncom­fort­ably at me when juice was crit­ic­ally low. This is peace­ful, and a wel­come res­pite from some of the unne­ces­sary visual clut­ter of other oper­at­ing systems.

This time around, I’m going to share some spe­cific and often tech­nical details of the time I’ve been spend­ing with the Lumia to help illus­trate the things I’ve come to love and hate (as a smart­phone power user) about Win­dows Phone as my daily driver.

Social Awkwardness: The Double-Edged Sword of Integration

If I could high­light a single thing that charmed me about Win­dows Phone, it would be the hol­istic approach to social feeds and inform­a­tion — everything brought together logic­ally, sat­is­fy­ingly, effi­ciently. I struggle to deal with the scattered design of Android or iOS now. But this integ­ra­tion can also be sur­pris­ingly clumsy. Clumsy in ways that are frus­trat­ing because of how simple they would be to rectify.

For instance, while I love being able to see LinkedIn, Face­book, and Twit­ter updates from all my friends in the People app (or their spe­cific tile), I am baffled to dis­cover that Win­dows Phone does not respect my Face­book set­tings for what kinds of posts to show me. Instead of being a true reflec­tion of what I would see on my timeline (spammy app posts removed), I just get everything tossed in. Well I’m sorry, friends, but I have no interest what­so­ever in sup­port­ing your Farm­ville addic­tions. I’m not even able to adjust those set­tings from my phone some­where to set up a cus­tom fil­ter of con­tent for my People tile feed vs. what is shown on my offi­cial Face­book timeline.

The Me tile has become tre­mend­ously valu­able to me in that it func­tions as a sort of noti­fic­a­tion centre for Win­dows Phone — a lack that I have hon­estly found less frus­trat­ing than I expec­ted to. Being able to see what social inter­ac­tions I’ve recently had is use­ful, but again I have run into bewil­der­ing lapses in func­tion­al­ity. I can see all Twit­ter men­tions and Face­book com­ments, but there’s no indic­ator for receiv­ing new Face­book mes­sages nor Twit­ter DMs?

The Me tile has become tre­mend­ously valu­able to me in that it func­tions as a sort of noti­fic­a­tion centre for Win­dows Phone

You don’t have to show the mes­sages to me if you don’t want, but I’d appre­ci­ate at least know­ing that I’ve received them without hav­ing to dig out another app — wasn’t that the whole point of this entire integ­rated philo­sophy? Not hav­ing to jump around between apps to accom­plish basic tasks and stay aware of updates?

Notification Interactivity

Fur­ther­more, while I can under­stand a cer­tain jus­ti­fic­a­tion for lack­ing a cent­ral­ized noti­fic­a­tion centre — that being that most people don’t real­ist­ic­ally need one if they’ve pinned their core apps to the Start screen and can see everything on the tiles at a glance — this doesn’t cut it for power users. If I receive a noti­fic­a­tion from an app that isn’t pinned, where can I quickly review it? If I’ve had to swipe away the Toast noti­fic­a­tion (or none was triggered), then when I fin­ish my call or whatever I was doing, all I know is that some­thing beeped some­where on the phone and I can enjoy search­ing around to fig­ure out what needs my attention.

This is incred­ibly counter-intuitive and inefficient.

Oth­ers have already poin­ted out basic ideas that could resolve this; ways of hav­ing a cent­ral­ized noti­fic­a­tion centre in Win­dows Phone without com­prom­ising its design philo­sophy. Whether it’s a swipe to the right to access a noti­fic­a­tions his­tory list, or a simple noti­fic­a­tions tile that can be pinned wherever you want it. Either method would work, and in fact even the cur­rent lack of one is sur­viv­able for now, but as more and more applic­a­tions appear and are used, it becomes impractical.

The prob­lem with Win­dows Phone’s lack of a cent­ral­ized noti­fic­a­tion sys­tem is that it’s not a scal­able approach, espe­cially in an increas­ingly notification-heavy digital world.

The prob­lem with Win­dows Phone’s lack of a cent­ral­ized noti­fic­a­tion sys­tem is that it’s not a scal­able approach.

One of the things that has always frus­trated me about using iOS is that even now, in iOS6, you still can­not act upon noti­fic­a­tions when you receive them. If I get a text mes­sage from a friend, I can see the mes­sage in my lock screen and I can swipe to go answer it, but I can’t do any­thing without unlock­ing the phone and going to the application.

Mean­while, in jail­break land, apps like BiteSMS have made it pos­sible to reply to and cre­ate mes­sages right from the lock screen as soon as you receive a noti­fic­a­tion. This is so basic and obvi­ous as to make it incom­pre­hens­ible that Apple con­tin­ues to avoid includ­ing it. Sadly, I dis­covered that Win­dows Phone does not resolve this issue either. When I receive a noti­fic­a­tion, I can­not imme­di­ately do any­thing with it until I open the cor­res­pond­ing app.

Are You Sleeping?

Being used to that though, it wasn’t what bothered me most about noti­fic­a­tions on the Lumia. Since I often have my iPhone (on WiFi) nearby when I’m around the house, while using the Lumia I could meas­ure the delay between my iPhone get­ting a noti­fic­a­tion and the Lumia receiv­ing it. This delay is often unfor­giv­ably huge — spans of fif­teen minutes are not uncom­mon. I would hear my iPhone ping in the other room and then wait and glare at the Lumia, hop­ing it would catch up.

I could meas­ure the delay between my iPhone get­ting a noti­fic­a­tion and the Lumia receiv­ing it — this delay is often unfor­giv­ably huge.

While I don’t need to be aler­ted to basic emails and such in any hurry, being unable to trust my phone to notify me when some­thing hap­pens has been a sur­pris­ingly dis­tress­ing con­sequence of hav­ing the Lumia as my main phone. As of iOS6, my iPhone has also allowed me to set up its Do Not Dis­turb fea­ture to auto­mat­ic­ally silence noti­fic­a­tions dur­ing the night — on the Lumia I still have to manu­ally set the phone to silent mode every even­ing. A small incon­veni­ence, but…details.

Not only that, but the fact that I can’t assign cus­tom tones to noti­fic­a­tions on a per-application basis means that I don’t even know where the noti­fic­a­tion came from (out­side of Email vs. Some­thing Else) without look­ing at the screen. I’m a com­poser, so audio cues are import­ant to me, and the lack of any sort of con­trol over that aspect has been jar­ring to deal with. I can’t even set dif­fer­ent sounds for receiv­ing a work email vs. a per­sonal one, even though I’ve grouped my email accounts separately.

There’s also an unfor­tu­nate slug­gish­ness in the email client’s abil­ity to sync read states back to the server. If I read an email on my phone, I have to manu­ally hit the sync but­ton to make sure that those emails don’t show up as unread still when I flip back to my com­puter five minutes later to answer them. I have never encountered any­thing like that before on any of my devices, so ini­tially I didn’t even grasp what the hold-up was.

Keep Smiling

All that being said, that abil­ity to group email accounts and have sep­ar­ate tiles for them is a stroke of genius and one that I find myself miss­ing tre­mend­ously while brows­ing email on my iPhone.

Des­pite my reser­va­tions about the spe­cific fea­tures men­tioned above, I have actu­ally been enjoy­ing my time with the Lumia a great deal. It is a fant­astic piece of hard­ware with some lofty soft­ware ambi­tions that — for now — struggle to live up to expect­a­tions, but it’s hard to ignore the enthu­si­asm and bold­ness with which Win­dows Phone departs from the status quo.

And it’s import­ant to keep a pos­it­ive atti­tude when try­ing new things, even when encoun­ter­ing issues. For instance, I was bemused to dis­cover a notice on a web­site inform­ing me that the video con­tent could not be dis­played because my browser sup­por­ted neither Flash, nor HTML5 — which would have been suf­fi­ciently dis­heart­en­ing on its own were it not for the added fact that I couldn’t cap­ture the moment to share with you because Win­dows Phone doesn’t allow screen­shots. I guess now we know why?

In any event, I could do noth­ing but laugh since the issue was obvi­ously with the site: video play­back on most sites has worked just fine.

Location Aware

If ever I was inclined to call a phone loc­a­tion aware, it would be this Lumia. Hav­ing had the oppor­tun­ity to rely on Nokia Maps and Nokia Drive for my nav­ig­a­tion, I glee­fully admit that it was a rev­el­a­tion. These maps are really good. By loc­a­tion aware I mean not only that it has usable maps, but that the OS itself is designed to make using them con­veni­ent and quick.

While the CityLens app can be con­sidered some­what gim­micky at first glance, I found it to be legit­im­ately use­ful on romps through down­town Toronto. I know my way around the city, but it’s nev­er­the­less reveal­ing to see the phone work with you to dis­cover cool new places to eat or visit. And rather than for­cing me to stare dumbly at a list and decide, the aug­men­ted real­ity view lets me view the sug­ges­tions in con­text — lit­er­ally — which is pretty sleek.

The Nokia Transit app was like­wise a fant­astic resource. Hav­ing access to sched­ules and rout­ing for every major transit sys­tem in the city in one place was a clear demon­stra­tion of the Win­dows Phone thought pro­cess: for­get hav­ing to grab dif­fer­ent apps for dif­fer­ent routes and strug­gling to recon­cile everything, just offer one app that handles all your transit needs.

If I could improve it, I would see about revis­ing the present­a­tion of routes and sched­ules because at the moment it’s not ter­ribly intu­it­ive to inter­pret the bizarre GANTT-like charts you’re presen­ted with. This is true even after apply­ing the fresh update that adds a few icons.

The Lumia not only has usable maps, but the OS itself is designed to make using them con­veni­ent and quick.

Admit­tedly, the latest iOS Maps fiasco has given birth to a num­ber of sen­sa­tional transit solu­tions on my iPhone as well, which just goes to show that there’s a sil­ver lin­ing there too. Then again, call me crazy but I haven’t actu­ally exper­i­enced any prob­lems using the iOS 6 Maps. Nokia Maps itself is superb, with Loc­a­tion Scout always around to sug­gest local food and enter­tain­ment options.

Taking it Offline

Prob­ably the most import­ant aspect of Nokia’s map­ping solu­tion that I want to men­tion is the abil­ity to save off­line maps. This strikes me as one of those things that is blatantly obvi­ous as a must-have. On Android, it’s pos­sible to save a select area to your device, but on my the Lumia, I was able to save the entire province to my phone and essen­tially for­get about wait­ing for areas to load any­more. Prac­tic­ally, this comes in very handy when nav­ig­at­ing in areas with poor cel­lu­lar coverage.

As it hap­pens, I had an oppor­tun­ity to test this out recently when I did a road trip with my girl­friend up north — far enough that it took me out­side the range of what Android would allow me to save onto my device. I decided to remove the SIM card from the Lumia entirely, load up Nokia Drive, and ask it to help me nav­ig­ate to the obscure camp site we wanted to reach. It found it, it took me to it, and it didn’t need to con­nect to any sort of net­work to handle the trip. Col­our me impressed.

I was able to save the entire province to my phone and essen­tially for­get about wait­ing for areas to load.

As with the Nokia Transit app, my biggest com­plaint with Drive and the rest of the map­ping apps is that the design simply isn’t that attract­ive. I have no prob­lem with keep­ing things func­tional, but when com­pared to the sleek vec­tors of iOS 6 Maps and the clean and clear look of Google Maps, the Nokia car­to­graphy offer­ings seem strangely muted and bland. Aes­thetic pref­er­ences aside, I found that it impacted my abil­ity to quickly grasp the visual hier­archy of what was being presen­ted. A judi­cious coat of con­trast and clar­ity would go a long way.

But set­ting aside the visual aspect, Nokia has man­aged to hil­ari­ously over­take both iOS and Android when it comes to the location-based func­tion­al­ity that’s built into the phone.

Search and Ye Shall Find

The Lumia, along with all other Win­dows Phones, has three inter­face but­tons: the Home but­ton, the Back but­ton, and the Search but­ton. I remem­ber think­ing that it seemed odd to have a ded­ic­ated but­ton just for the search fea­ture, but then I was used to think­ing of search in iOS terms — a basic intro­spect­ive func­tion for seek­ing emails (as long as you don’t care about the con­tents) or apps.

Win­dows Phone’s idea of search is sig­ni­fic­antly more com­pre­hens­ive, how­ever. Tap­ping the but­ton brings up a Bing-based inter­face that gives you imme­di­ate access to Bing search, along with four other options that would nor­mally be sep­ar­ate apps in a com­pet­ing OS.

Mak­ing a cap­able oper­at­ing sys­tem isn’t just about what you have avail­able in your App Store, it’s also about what you can do with your device right out of the box.

First up is Local Scout, the help­ful util­ity built into Nokia Maps to help you dis­cover nearby…anything really. Hav­ing that only one but­ton away at any given time makes it much more likely that I’ll use it, and indeed I have found myself flick­ing over to see what Local Scout has for me even when I wasn’t act­ively look­ing for a place. The second icon is a music search fea­ture that serves the same pur­pose as a ded­ic­ated app would on iOS or Android. But here, instead of hav­ing to fire up Sound­Hound to identify a tune that’s play­ing, you can simply tap the music icon in search.

It’s built into the oper­at­ing sys­tem. It’s awesome.

Not con­tent with just that, the next icon over is called Vis­ion and gives you the abil­ity to quickly inter­pret QR codes or other bar­code types (the abil­ity to quickly look up CD and book reviews is ridicu­lous). Lastly, the Voice icon lets you per­form all these search func­tions via TellMe, so you can save your­self the typ­ing if you have to keep your hands free for some­thing else.

Let me just remind every­one that we’re talk­ing about func­tion­al­ity that’s built into Win­dows Phone. You don’t need to do a single thing to acquire these excel­lent search fea­tures. Just hit the but­ton and you’re there. Mak­ing a cap­able oper­at­ing sys­tem isn’t just about what you have avail­able in your App Store, it’s also about what you can do with your device right out of the box. On a Win­dows Phone, that’s a heck of a lot.

Media Junkie

If you’re any­thing like me, a huge por­tion of your smart­phone exper­i­ence will be spent appre­ci­at­ing some man­ner of media. Thus, for me, this aspect was cru­cial to my abil­ity to use the Lumia 900 as a daily driver.

For music and video, I was supremely sat­is­fied. I used the built-in music app extens­ively to gather and listen to pod­casts, and I had no issues using the Win­dows Phone util­ity on my Mac to sync music (and video) to the Lumia from my iTunes lib­rary. I don’t own a Zune pass, nor do I want one, but the Apps’ tab of the Music+Videos tile gives quick access to all media-related apps on the phone. Hav­ing access to everything from any source in one single app was — once again — a tre­mend­ous relief com­ing from the iOS world.

Subscription-wise, my app of choice is Rdio, so hav­ing a good Rdio app was import­ant to me. While it lacks the fin­esse of the iPhone ver­sion, the Win­dows Phone Rdio app exists and works as advert­ised, allow­ing me to access my col­lec­tion and sync songs to the phone. I regret not hav­ing had more time to spend with the new Nokia Music app, but what I did see made a favour­able impression.

The big­ger screen should have been bet­ter for video watch­ing, but the lower res­ol­u­tion was a big deterrent and I prefer the smal­ler but clearer iPhone 4S screen.

On the video side of things, I found Metro­Tube and Super­Tube to be com­pet­it­ive apps for my You­Tube exper­i­ence. Inter­est­ingly, I found myself much more affected by the res­ol­u­tion drop than I expec­ted when going from my 4S to the Lumia. The big­ger screen should have been bet­ter for video watch­ing, but the com­par­at­ively grainy look of everything was a big deterrent for me and I far prefer the smal­ler but clearer screen to the lar­ger Lumia one.

Of course, when the 920 drops, with its super-spec’d screen, that may well change. One more reason to eagerly await the next gen­er­a­tion flagship!

Gaming

As an avid gamer and someone who writes a weekly column about the best new iPhone games, I found the Win­dows Phone gam­ing situ­ation to be pretty dire.

Out­side of Contre Jour and maybe a couple of other games, there wasn’t any­thing I wanted to play on the store, and the rate at which new games appear is so slow as to be depress­ing. Going to chalk this up as another wait for Win­dows Phone 8″ situation.

Twitter

Social media has become a large part of my daily routine, and des­pite my most con­cen­trated efforts to use and like the Win­dows Phone Twit­ter cli­ents (I believe I tried them all, set­tling on Mehdoh, Rowi, and Gleek as pass­able options), I was totally unable to pre­tend that it was okay.

Com­ing from the world of Tweet­bot on my iOS devices, I simply have not encountered a single app on any plat­form that comes any­where close to the level of pol­ish, func­tion­al­ity, and intu­it­ive grace with which Tweet­bot handles the Twit­ter experience.

Some cli­ents are miss­ing fea­tures, oth­ers look like Geo­cit­ies in the 1990s, and oth­ers still help me cur­tail my Twit­ter check­ing by ensur­ing that I can only see my tweets after it’s thought about it for a minute each time I open it. No thanks. I really did try. It’s cer­tainly usable and it’s not like I’ve fallen so far down the first world prob­lems hole that I’m going to make a huge deal out of not hav­ing the best Twit­ter cli­ent, but given the ubi­quity of the ser­vice and the strength of the com­pet­i­tion, I can hon­estly say that the gap was wide enough to make me cringe.

Call me when Nokia releases their own Twit­ter app, because that thing would likely rock. Speak­ing of calling…

It Does Phone Calls Too

Remem­ber the phone’ part of smart­phone? I have to keep remind­ing myself that these are actu­ally phones. For me, it’s par­tic­u­larly hard to keep in mind since I am on the phone very very little. Nev­er­the­less, I had ample oppor­tun­ity to test out the Lumia’s core func­tion­al­ity, and while the recep­tion, call sta­bil­ity, and gen­eral dial­ing and answer­ing exper­i­ence was fine, the actual sound qual­ity on calls was pretty disappointing.

Besides call­ing and ask­ing other people, I found the most object­ive way for me to test this was to re-record my voice­mail greet­ing and com­pare it to the iPhone-captured one. The dif­fer­ence, I’m sorry to say, was dra­matic — the Lumia soun­ded very much like a tinny, nar­row fre­quency record­ing while the iPhone cap­tured a broader range of the spec­trum, res­ult­ing in a more nat­ural sound. It’s cer­tainly not ter­rible by any stretch, but being an audio per­son I value clar­ity and have been some­what spoiled by the 4S excel­lent mic situation.

While the recep­tion, call sta­bil­ity, and gen­eral dial­ing and answer­ing exper­i­ence was fine, the actual sound qual­ity on calls was pretty disappointing.

On the other hand, the Lumia demol­ished the iPhone when it came to data speeds thanks to its LTE antenna. It’s going to be tough to go back to 3G after exper­i­en­cing this blaz­ing new devel­op­ment, but at least I can safely say that I will be mak­ing sure that my next phone has an LTE antenna no mat­ter what.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

I am very grate­ful to have had the oppor­tun­ity to spend these two weeks with the Lumia. Not only because I got to exper­i­ence a totally dif­fer­ent mobile oper­at­ing sys­tem paradigm, but also because it cemen­ted my admir­a­tion for its cre­at­ors. Nokia is a com­pany I have always respec­ted, but pre­vi­ously only in a detached sense, like one might appre­ci­ate the crafts­man­ship of a fine car brand without actu­ally hav­ing owned one.

Now I can appre­ci­ate their efforts and men­tal­ity in a more first-hand way, and I am happy to see them be so wel­com­ing of user feed­back — to the point where they’re will­ing to post a news piece about this series of blog entries I’ve been writ­ing, even though they’re not entirely pos­it­ive and cer­tainly not the kind of paid mar­ket­ing stunt one might expect a man­u­fac­turer to resort to. They like hon­esty, and that makes me like them.

It also leaves me excited to see where the com­pany goes next, and where they take the Win­dows Phone plat­form. The 920 appears to be a supremely well-endowed machine, with incred­ible specs and the same dash­ing design that sets it apart from the major­ity of the com­pet­i­tion. With Win­dows Phone 8 prom­ising a mature ver­sion of the solid but unam­bi­tious cur­rent iter­a­tion of the oper­at­ing sys­tem, I think Microsoft may finally be catch­ing up in a big way.

But there’s a prob­lem here.

How Not to Market a Phone

Being coy about their Win­dows Phone 8 mar­ket­ing a month before its release isn’t doing them any favours, though one must optim­ist­ic­ally assume that this silence pre­cedes a furi­ous storm of mar­ket­ing mojo to push Win­dows Phone 8 as an integ­ral part of the new Microsoft eco­sys­tem. Or so I hope. Recently, a cata­logue I received from one of Canada’s premiere tech stores, FutureShop, stunned me with an ad for the Lumia 610 that described it as an Android phone — I mean, really?

And the in-store present­a­tion of Win­dows Phones (at least in the Toronto area) fares no bet­ter. Not only are they dis­played as second-tier devices, they also suf­fer from a pro­found ignor­ance on the part of the salespeople who — likely through no major fault of their own — have not been adequately informed to prop­erly sell the phones.

There is no other way I can explain my encounter at a pop­u­lar cell­phone retailer in a major local mall with a sales assist­ant who encour­aged me to avoid the entire Lumia line because they’re not smart­phones”. How many aver­age con­sumers are equipped or inclined to argue with such a verdict?

Therein lies the prob­lem; and Microsoft needs to align its forces in a way that addresses this fun­da­mental crack in the Win­dows Phone found­a­tions before they can expect to suc­cess­fully build a com­pet­it­ive struc­ture upon it. Octo­ber is cer­tainly shap­ing up to be a pivotal marker in Microsoft’s history.

Bye…For Now

The Lumia is boxed and wait­ing for the cour­ier to return it to its home. I’m left con­tem­plat­ing my next phone and being sin­cerely con­flic­ted about it because of the impres­sion that the Lumia 900 has left.

There is so much about this Win­dows Phone flag­ship that is unique and so much that I love. It demon­strates unpar­alleled ambi­tion, a will­ing­ness to explore new paradigms, and a breath of fresh air in the largely narrow-minded smart­phone space. There are some mis-steps that made my exper­i­ence of using it as a daily driver awk­ward here and there, but then I am not an aver­age con­sumer and some of my issues might not even apply to others.

In the end, hav­ing brought you through my exper­i­ence, I can only hope that it’s been of value to you — a poten­tial cus­tomer, or a curi­ous tech enthu­si­ast — and I leave you with this piece of advice: until you have had an oppor­tun­ity to spend enough time with a Win­dows Phone to under­stand how and why it dif­fers from any mobile device you’ve used before, don’t jump to any conclusions.

I’m glad I didn’t.


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