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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.