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Can Windows Phone - and Nokia Lumia 900 - take on iPhone, Android?

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Updated: April 16, 2012 12:21PM



It’s finally starting to look like we have a three-horse smartphone race again.

Though I immediately recognize that I can’t use that metaphor without making a clarification. While it’s true that Research In Motion still has a horse on the turf, Blackberry is down and it hasn’t moved in a distressingly-long time. Track personnel are raising a large tarp around it so that nobody can see what’s going to happen next.

Otherwise, yes. After spending a few months with the latest edition of the Windows Phone OS, and the past week with the Nokia Lumia 900, I see three solid, credible choices where I once only saw Android and the iPhone.

Windows Phone needed to be made. It commits itself to three beliefs that seem to have been either overlooked or dismissed by the other two mobile operating systems:

1) A mobile user interface shouldn’t stress you out.

A famous line by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry sums up the mandate for Windows Phone and its apps: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection when there is nothing left to add, but nothing left to take away.” Windows Phone strives to reduce a screen to just the barest essentials of information and interface. It doesn’t even display the status bar that’s been a visual staple in phones since the screens were LCD. Not unless you need to see it (because your battery is dying) or you want to see it (just swipe down from the top of the screen).

Windows Phone -- and the majority of its third-party apps -- feels no need to lay out all of its features at once. It adds data and UI elements to the screen cautiously. It’s content to merely hint that there are more features and information waiting somewhere off to the right of the screen, if one cares to swipe in that direction.

It’s refreshing. It also forces me to realize just how little onscreen clutter a mobile OS requires. After I’ve used Windows Phone for several days, my iPhone screen suddenly seems . . . untidy.

The spartan interface does force you to take some things on faith. At first, I grumbled about “discoverability.” That’s the notion that there should be clear visual cues for every available function. I got over it. Windows Phone isn’t unclear. It’s just different. iOS slaps a “share” button on every screen where it’s appropriate. With Windows Phone, you tap-and-hold on any object you want to do something with, and trust that a popup will appear.

I like it. Even though I think this minimalism has its limits. I can’t imagine a truly muscular app (like iPhoto for the iPhone) translating to the Zen rock garden of Windows Phone. But let’s be fair: I’m talking about about a rare kind of high-level app that aims to be as functional as a desktop app. Many -- I want to guess “most” -- users value serenity and clarity as highly as they value those “post PC”-style apps.

Peace is underrated. I mean, good heavens. When I’m stuck looking at the standard progress indicators of iOS and Android, I feel myself getting more and more anxious. Windows Phone’s indicator is a Newton’s cradle-style line of glowing dots that roll in and out like a wave. Ommmm . . . ommmmmm . . .

2) The central interaction with a smartphone should be the simple act of waking it up and glancing at the screen.

Useful information and functions should surface themselves right into the first screen you see when you take the phone out of your pocket and wake it up. You shouldn’t need to drill down into apps.

You either agree with this idea or you don’t. If you agree, then Windows Phone is instinctively the right answer. You wake the phone and you see a Start screen filled with live tiles. If you took your phone out of your pocket because you wanted to message your spouse, tap on his or her face and you’re there. If it was because you’re standing at your front porch and you’re ready to start your daily constitutional, tap your exercise playlist.

Or are you just bored? Glance, and you’ll instantly see that you’ve received nine new emails; that your college-aged kids seem to have posted things to Facebook that any parent should investigate; and that a breaking news site has just posted something about missiles tracking towards the East Coast from one of the Koreas or the other.

The Serenity principle comes into play here in the land of tiles, too. The Mail tile tells you that 9 new messages have arrived since you last opened the Mail app. Well, that’s common to mail clients. But Windows Phone does something smart: if you tap on the tile and glance at the message headers, Mail resets that counter to zero instead of constantly reminding you of nine emails that weren’t even important enough for you to individually open and read.

The Start screen is the shortest distance between a phone asleep in your pocket and it doing something useful. Windows Phone’s approach trumps the iPhone’s unhelpful mosaic of app icons and it’s also a more orderly solution than Android’s desktop widgets. It’s the single feature I missed the most when I switched back to my iPhone.

Finally,

3) A phone shouldn’t try to be a PC.

That might even be Windows Phone’s defining concept. Again, you might not agree with this idea. The iPhone, and Android phones, just extend the standard PC metaphor into handheld devices. Wake the computer up, go to the Desktop, launch an app, spend some time inside that app’s exclusive space, and then either put the computer back to sleep or move to a different app.

When Windows Phone works well, it appears as though you’re running one big mobile app that covers everything you’d ever want to do with a smartphone. Beyond just a consistent UI, I mean. Windows Phone allows you to focus on nouns instead of verbs. It’s a completely different vibe. Once you’ve jettisoned your iPhone or Android verb-driven mindset, you natively start thinking about the person you want to communicate with, and not the app you need to launch in order to make that connection. At this specific instant, I’m the only one who’s shown up for bar trivia and I only care about the group of people who’s supposed to be here with me. Why should I spread my focus across five or six apps? Isn’t it much more sophisticated to keep my focus on the group I’ve defined?

Which brings up another thing I like about Windows Phone: it’s a people-oriented OS. You would correctly assume that I have a close and highly-interactive relationship with my editor. On my iPhone, I can search my Inbox for messages to and from him, check Twitter and Facebook for his postings, and this follow his communications and his activites from space to space without ever leaving this one screen.

In Windows Phone? I just pin him to the Start screen. There’s our email correspondence about this very column; there’s the photos he’s posted to Facebook, and the Tweet to my latest column that he’s recently posted to Twitter. I can get in touch with him in a bunch of different ways . . . and it’s all done through his own tile, If I hadn’t pinned him, he’d still surface in any part of the phone where my social connections are relevant.

Bottom line: Windows Phone’s strength isn’t in hundreds of thousands of the best apps available for any mobile platform anywhere. It’s more about having an important collection of apps that work together better than they can on any other OS.

Devil’s in the details

That’s Windows Phone, in 3 philosophical movements. When we get down to the details . . . yeah, there are still a bunch of rough edges here.

Windows Phone is another piece of evidence in the case against hardware navigation buttons. It’s got three: Back, Windows, and Search. System-wide Back and Search are fine ideas but it’s almost impossible to make them work consistently. Time and time again, I find myself thinking “I need to go back” and seeing two different left-pointing arrows: the hardware button silkscreened under the display, and one drawn by the app. Ditto for the Search button. I hate having to guess and I really hate guessing wrong.

The “Search” button itself brings some nice features. Tap it to bring up the Bing search page. It combines the nicest features of a half-dozen third-party search apps into a single tap. A “Local” button digs up all the nearby “see things, find things, eat and drink” information. You can perform searches by voice. Search also incorporates barcode and QR code scanning. And if you aim the camera at printed text, Windows Phone will OCR it and put it in the system clipboard, or translate it into the language of your choice.

Lovely. But I dearly wish Search could do something as simple as perform a search of the data on my phone.

The Windows logo in the center is the only thing about the Lumia 900 or any other Windows Phone that seems like a direct lift from the iPhone. Tap it to go back to the Start screen. Tap and hold to bring up the Siri-esque Microsoft Tellme service.

Windows Phone’s built in apps are a mixed bag. The map app is is a bit bare, though it’s exceptionally handy for finding local information. I like Mail about as much as I like the iOS Mail app.

The web browser is resoundingly mediocre. Explorer is a rare case where I wished for a little more onscreen guidance from Windows Phone (the Maps app is another). Managing multiple webpages was trickier than it should have been. Also, Explorer often made rendering mistakes. These errors weren’t frequent, and they were never the sort that made a page hard to read. Also, dammit: it’s a web browser. Android and iOS both use the same web rendering engine. It’s possible that I’m just looking at a bit of CSS that had special case-exceptions for the peculiarities of those two browsers but not for Windows Phone Explorer.

But the browser isn’t a rarely-used mobile app. So it’s a pity. iOS and Android have browsers that are damned-near as good as anything on a desktop. Clearly, Explorer needs a lot of work.

Big win: Office. Many Android devices come with a hacked-down Office clone. The Windows Phone edition of Office is certainly limited in features and scope -- mostly: making notes, and making edits to “real” Office docs that you’ve ideally shared via Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud service. It’s good to get a meaty editor as a built-in.

If only it were compatible with the Office 97 files that most of my Mac apps spit out. Docs I generate from Office itself carry over just fine; I can read, add notes, make changes, and save it back to SkyDrive. But it turns its nose up at the documents I export from the iPad edition of Pages.

No shots for these apps

Another win: you’re not stuck with carrier-installed apps. In the Android world, a preinstalled app is like a case of herpes. You can’t get rid of it and you curse the individual who gave it to you. The Lumia comes with AT&T’s $9.99 a month car nav app pre-installed. I quickly deleted it and downloaded a free nav app from Nokia instead.

Windows Phone’s notifications need work. Just this second, the Lumia told me that there are updates available for some of my apps. Hooray! I tapped the notification and it took me . . . to the entrance to the Marketplace. Why not show me the updates?

This isn’t the first time Windows Phone played the “Nyah, nyah . . . now go and find it yourself!” trick on me. Twitter and Facebook are deeply integrated. Good! But after a tile eagerly tells me that I’ve been Mentioned, I need to drill down by hand to actually read them.

I particularly liked the music player and the Mail app, though. Stylish and simple, they let you do what you want to do and mostly try to stay out of your way.

The Nokia Lumia 900

Onward to the hardware itself, which is an AT&T exclusive.

The Lumia is a solid, metal-clad device with premium build quality. It’s exactly what you hope to pull out of the box after you spend $199 for a new phone. The fact that it only costs $99 makes you even happier.

Its 4.3-inch display puts it in the mainstream of handset sizes, and also makes the Lumia a trifle less easy to manipulate one-handed than an iPhone. Still, its rounded edges fit your hand nicely, and the lack of overall clutter and large button targets in Windows Phone makes the Lumia far more comfortable to work than a similarly-sized Android device.

The screen is an AMOLED and like all members of that species, it’s a bit garish. The images definitely pop, and that truly enhances the Windows Phone UI (which uses bright color so judiciously). But the Lumia sometimes turns a bucolic autumn New England landscape into a postcard of the Las Vegas strip. Screen resolution is just 800x480, which is below that of phones that cost twice as much. It’s easy to read anyway, even in bright sunlight.

There are only four mechanical buttons on the device, all Lumia and they’re all lined up on the edge of the Lumia to the right of the screen. The bad news: they’re unlabeled, and they’re identical. It’s easy to suss that the two that are buttressed together are the volume buttons. But every time I wanted to wake the phone I’d guess incorrectly and press the camera shutter instead. This problem went away when I asked myself “Which of these four buttons happens to fall under my dominant finger when I hold it?”

Bingo. So I suppose that indicates the amount of thought that Nokia put into the design.

I’m always pleased to see the Carl Zeiss name next to a cameraphone lens. I just wish it reliably meant a great cameraphone. The Lumia’s 8 megapixel rear-facing camera shoots Perfectly Decent photos. I’d even say it’s a step above most of the 8 MP Android cameraphones I’ve tried. It can’t hold a candle to even last year’s iPhone, however. I like the fact that the dedicated shutter button is two-step; press halfway to lock focus.

The camera shoots 720P video instead of 1080P (no big loss, on a camera that doesn’t take exceptional photos) and its front-facing chat cam is a decent 1 MP.

Should you be worried about what’s under the Lumia’s hood? You get 16 gigs of non-expandable storage. Which is better than basic, but it’s not exactly an enormous homestead. Well, I’ve already said that Windows Phone doesn’t have big, “leave your notebook at home” apps. If you’re expecting to carry your whole world around on your phone, you’re probably better off with an iPhone or an Android anyway. It’s appropriate for this kind of device. 16 gigs will easily hold enough documents and media to last you until your next desktop sync. Though yes, yikes, a few games and an onboard street atlas can quickly make you wish for a card slot.

Then there’s its single-core Snapdragon CPU. That’s not exactly state-of-the-art. It is, however, about what you’d expect from any smartphone in this price range. Even Apple’s $99 iPhone 4 is built around a single-core chip. The important bit is that Lumia certainly doesn’t feel like a slow phone. It’s about as responsive as a good Android handset.

Fresh from my trials and tribulations in testing the AT&T version of the new iPad, I was able to bullseye myself to the right spots in New England to test out the Lumia’s LTE radio. I was reliably pulling down data at greater than 20 Mbps and uploading at two or three. This is somewhere under the maximum I was seeing on the iPad but it still kicks the butt of my (increasingly shamed) home WiFi.

One of the incidental advantages of a larger phone is that there’s room for a larger battery. The Lumia consistently ran for two days between charges, despite heavy use. In a worst-case scenario -- screen at max brightness, watching videos streamed from Netflix -- I got through a little less than four hours of movies before running low.

The Three-Horse Race

I spent a lot of time here talking about Windows Phone’s basic design philosophy because it represents a unique approach to a mobile phone OS. And that’s the central point in any argument about making the Nokia Lumia 900 -- or any other Windows Phone -- a top-tier choice.

You need to appreciate Windows Phone as a terrific solution to inadequacies that Microsoft saw in existing phones. You can’t really put Windows Phone and another OS into a table of features and fill the grid with green checkmarks and red crosses. That approach kind of works when you compare iOS to Android; you’re comparing NFL football to Canadian league football. Comparing Windows Phone to iOS is like comparing baseball to hockey. You can’t possibly determine that one is better than the other. You can only figure out which of these appeals to you, personally. You’re the person who’s going to be using it. If Windows Phone is the right phone for you, what does it matter that it isn’t the right phone for other people?

Windows Phone’s most obvious drawback is the relatively small catalogue of apps, which is in the tens of thousands instead of the hundreds of thousands. And yet, I was able to find Windows Phone editions of most of the apps that define my iPhone. I’m glad that the app ecosystem isn’t the wild, uncontrolled battledrome of scams and malware that I associate with Android, and that I have the ability to conscientiously sideload apps outside of the Marketplace if I so choose.

Is Windows Phone worthwhile?

Windows Phone still has rough edges. Maybe more than you’d expect from an OS that’s more than two years old. iOS has its annoyances, too, and don’t even get me started on Android. Deeper thought on the subject reveals that many of its “rough edges” are simply differences between the Lumia and the phone I’ve been carrying for three years. I was annoyed by Windows Phone on day one, but filled with respect by the end of my first week as preconceptions dropped away.

What must I conclude about Windows Phone? When we jettison any childish and utterly useless interest in who’s selling how many units, and how many apps are in which store, and where this OS was after two years relative to this other one, I’m left with the conclusion that Windows Phone is about as good as Android or iOS.

My take on this is informed by my own experience as a Mac user. Why did I use a Mac for so many years, despite the fact that PCs running DOS could do so much more, for so many years? Simple: I had no interest in a computer that could do the things that a PC could do. I wanted one that could do things that at the time, only a Mac could do.

As such, the Mac made me exceptionally happy. I didn’t want WordPerfect and Visual BASIC. I wanted MacWrite and HyperCard.

This is why I can recommend the Lumia and Windows Phone. The iPhone can’t possibly please every conceivable user. I love the fact that I can use my iPhone 4S to open a presentation file that I created on my desktop, change half of my slides around, and then drive the actual presentation itself from the phone via a VGA adapter.

Good for me. But what about the consumer who doesn’t want a phone that’s as capable as a notebook? What about a user who can go an entire week without knowing or caring what the Hot New Must-Have App is?

Every consumer -- even iPhone and Android buyers -- gives up something he or she wants because it means they’ll get something that they want even more. iPhone users give up a lot of freedom. Android users give up security and consistency. A Windows Phone user has to willfully reject the benefits of a fully-mature OS with more features and more powerful apps.

But if he or she is OK with that, they’ll wind up with the simplest, cleanest, calmest, and most elegant smartphone-class OS on the market. For the sort of user for whom a phone is simply an accessory to life and is neither the lens through which life is experienced nor the sword with which their daily battles are fought, the Lumia 900 and Windows Phone are worth wanting.



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