Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Day 1: 2 Weeks With Windows Phone 8

Awoke with a fully charged Nokia. Today's the day to put it through it's paces!

First up, WiFi. Connected it to the 5GHz WiFi connection, quick and easy. No issues, whereas my iPhone 4 only talks to the crowded 2.4GHz band. To be fair, the iPhone 5 handles the 5GHz without issue, as well.

The folks at Microsoft touted the "live wallpaper" of Windows Phone 8 as a key differentiator. For example, being able to see a dynamic background of your Facebook photos. One area I was particularly intrigued by was the ability to set live sports scores and updated photos as the lock screen background; handy! Except...how does that work? The ESPN app came preloaded, and claims to be able to do live tile updates, but nothing shows there. And there doesn't seem to be a "Sports App" as they refer to. Sure, I can tell it to look at Facebook photos or CNN, but where's the scores?

The first of my real annoyances also emerges: there is no way MSFT intended this device to be operated with one hand. I always laughed at the Apple Zen of the single button on the front of the phone, and often wanted multiple buttons; I now see the issues, specifically with the capacitive touch buttons: while holding the phone in your hand and using your thumb on the screen, your palm occasionally rubs the rightmost capacitive button, Search (looks like a magnifying glass), and drops you out of what you are doing and into Bing. Yes, you can click the leftmost button to go back to exactly where you left off, but still. And I have smaller hands! I can't imagine what larger hands would do to this.

Oh, and about that Search: why does it only search the web and some apps? Why not contacts, Office docs? Heck, even the iOS search is fully integrated, and that's without a dedicated Search button on the main face of the phone. Bizarre.

I was pretty disappointed that, despite the AT&T exclusive, there's no U-Verse app. I switched to U-Verse last year and have been pretty delighted with the value. The iOS app is so so, but at least it accomplishes the all important task of adding shows to the DVR queue, essential when you are traveling and don't want to miss a great program. But no. Instead I get an "AT&T U-Verse Live TV" app, which is nothing more than a branded Mobi.tv app, allowing me to watch a handful of basic cable networks for an additional $10 a month. No, thank you.

Time for the major annoyance: the ability to sync with a Windows 7 PC. Ok, good news first: MSFT made a syncing app for Windows 7 & 8. Nice choice. Even better, if you've been cursed with using iTunes for your media, this app finds iTunes' libraries and proactively offers to have you sync with playlists, photos, videos, and ringtones. Nicely done; in seconds, the process kicked off. Well, more like yawned, stretched, grumbled and rose to it's feet with a loud crackling and popping. Yep, this app was slow. Dog slow. Painfully slow. But, having been beaten by iTunes so many times before, I took it in stride.

All was fine, until I got up and unplugged the phone from it's USB cable. Now, first, yes, it does not do wireless syncing, one of my most anticipated favorite features for iOS. To be fair, the iOS wireless sync does a terrible job: most of the time it doesn't work, and it only works after you've done a few "hard syncs" to get the latest changes. In other words, wireless sync has been a let down on iOS, so I tolerated WP8's insistence on the mighty USB cable. When I unplugged it, I had forgotten that the molasses like pace of syncing would be interrupted. Boy, did I, and the folks in Redmond made me pay for my impertinence. It took a force quit, an uninstall, and a reinstall before the sullen, slow plodding could begin again...but wait; instead it simply froze and inquired if I wanted to set up a new phone. Argh...

Reached out to Nokia's online chat support for help on this. Their suggestion? Install the sync app on another  computer and see if it works there. I calmly explained that the iTunes library was on the computer I was using, so even if their suggestion worked, it was impractical. They apologized and claimed the sync app was a beta, so I should expect it not to really work. No other solutions offered. After various attempts to make the app work again, with sporadic and only limited results, I gave up. Have to solve this, as only half of my media made it to the phone.

I also noticed that there was a slight lag between mails being marked read or deleted between the desktop and WP8. Very odd; I can only assume the culprit is how WP8 treats Windows: instead of having it act as an Exchange server (something MSFT considers their exclusive domain), it seems to use some other service like IMAP. iOS has no such issues.

Contact matching is worlds better in WP8 that iOS. I have two Exchange (Google) accounts, Facebook, Twitter, and Skype: WP* handled them all and automagically combined the matches. Compare that o the duplication, triplication, and quadruplication of iOS with it's iCloud. Kudos to MSFT; it's the way it should be.

Some odd experiences with the browser. It appears that, while Tabs are supported, they are even harder to invoke than iOS' Safari; not ideal. The Back button does indeed work, but sometimes does not bring you to the spot on the page you were on before you clicked away, forcing you to scroll. I think it must have to do with the code of that page; who knows? The "omnibar" is somehow less suggestive of search and URL in one, and it's placement at the bottom of the page is just...odd. And since when is Favorites a menu item buried from invoking a menu? On a mobile, you need your bookmarks, fast and simple; menus begone.

Next, it's app time! Headed over to my prepurchase analysis of apps from the iPhone and their equivalents in Windows Phone 8, and fired up the Windows Phone Store. As noted in my previous post, downloading from the Store is easy and painless, just as simple as iOS. Apps started flowing, and those pretty tiles started to fill up.

The photos app is...meh. Good integration with SkyDrive (MSFT's version of DropBox), but it also pulls in all of the Facebook albums. Nice touch. The tile, however, seems to do...nothing? The What's New in the app is kind of cool: it monitors your Facebook and Twitter for pics and displays as a real-time stream.

The Music & Videos app. Oh, how I want to love this. Until I get some playlists on there, however... The Podcasts dedication is good, but bizarre. Now, I should point out that I am spoiled rotten by Downcast on iOS, arguably the best podcast manager I have ever used, with rule based downloading and archiving, and so much more. There are rules in WP8 you can use for Podcasts, but they behave oddly. For instance, say you want to dictate how many episodes of a specific podcast you want to keep on your device. Why? If it's a daily podcast, you might only want the last one, whereas others you might want all of them. Those rules are allowed here, but they have odd effects. Say you say to keep the last three of a podcast; WP8 dutifully fetches the last three. Oh, you've listened to #3? Delete it...but then WP8 automatically fetches the next oldest: Gotta have the three! There seems no way to stop it, and yes, I won't lie: I miss Downcast. And why, oh why, do people think podcasts don't deserve playlists? It's just audio content, folks, just delivered another way. Please treat it as such, Apple AND MSFT.

Google Voice setup was easy, and the GoVoice app helps that along. In fact, it was interesting to see that Google offers a lot of flexibility on mobile: I was able to access m.google.com/sync and subscribe to several calendars I have in Gmail; each appears as a different assignable color in my Calendar app. In fact, it retained the color selection I gave in Google for each.

Bluetooth pairing was great with my headset. Calls were clear, and without the lag my iPhone does so well. I was a little startled when a text message came in and a Siri-like voice spoke in my headset, offering to read it to me. It transcribed it perfectly, and offered me the ability to respond. Curious, I tried, and I was pleased to hear it read back what it heard from me, this time rendered as text. I confirmed, and the text was sent. Very nice, very elegant and good, albeit this was in my office, not in a loud convertible. We shall see.

On to some initial app impressions:
  • AccuWeather: the live tile on this is far better than the Weather Channel app that it comes with. I prefer TWC for most things (especially since Jim Kosek left AccuWeather), but the TWC live tile alternated between a radar map of my area and the current conditions; the AccuWeather one alternated between current and upcoming weather. In Northern California, the radar's not so useful.
  • Skype. Not really ready for the prime time billing it gets. First, video chats are only in Portrait mode, and can't be refit to Landscape mode. In the iPhone, you can choose to view in Portrait, but "letter boxed" with blue background. Not here. Second, the front facing camera on the Lumia gives a pinkish tint to the video. Finally, while they tout the great integration of Skype into the background processes, IM's frequently don't show up unless you are in the app; not ideal.
  • Speaking of IM's, I needed a replacement for Trillian. While I loved version 1.6 on iOS, the 2.0 version they released is ambitious, but not ready for prime time. Glad I kept the old app. Alas, no Trillian on WP8, so IM+ gets my attention. While it does the job, it does not do it elegantly, but not everything can be Trillian...even Trillian 2.0.
  • MSFT OneNote. I'm a big note guy: bullets, checklists, etc. I use NoteMaster on iOS, which syncs with Google Docs, and it's pretty good. But OneNote steps it up, big time. I'm truly impressed; if I go past two weeks, OneNote and I will be good friends. And, since there's an iOS version, I may still do so.
  • Connectivity Shortcuts. Ah, now I'm getting a taste of non-iOS freedom. Dedicated mini tiles to trigger Airplane Mode, bring up WiFi, Bluetooth and more. Nice.
  • The shared shopping list app was a fail, however. I was looking for a shopping list that worked on both iOS and WP8, and allowed near real time updates when one person checks an item off the list in the other. Thought I had one, but the iOS version won't even allow you to register. How'd that make it through?
So, all in all, a mixed bag for Day 1. Day 2 coming up...

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