Friday, August 23, 2013

An Android Guy's Guide to Windows Phone 8

Switching cell phones is a pain. It's hard enough when you're going from one Android phone to another Android phone (or iPhone to another iPhone). There's always something that doesn't quite work the way you're used to it working. Switching to another OS entirely opens up an entirely new set of problems. So when I decided to switch from Android to Windows Phone 8, I knew it wasn't going to be easy.

The truth is, I've always though it a bit silly to stand in line and wait for the opportunity to buy the new version of anything, especially electronics. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against pre-orders and Day 1 purchases. I pre-ordered the original Sony PlayStation, and I've patiently waiting for my Day 1 Microsoft Xbox One. I've even pre-ordered a few games just to get the bonus content. Phones and tablets are a different story. So, even as much as I love my iPods, switching to an iPhone was never really an option.

Coming from a Samsung Galaxy phone and a Nexus 7 tablet, the HTC Windows 8 phone seemed very intuitive. But there are some things that I miss:

It's all about the Apps

Any conversation about the Windows Phone 8 has to start with the apps - or lack thereof. Microsoft has put a lot of marketing effort into getting developers to product more apps, but a recent study still shows that less than half of the top 100 apps on iTunes are available on the Windows Phone.

What took the longest time before I was able to switch was determining which apps I could live without and which were "must-haves." If you're really serious about upgrading, then you'll have to find substitutes for those "must-haves." Generally speaking, banking apps will be the hardest to replace. Most banks simply don't have Windows Phone versions of their applications.

Chrome

Google Chrome is just a great browser. It syncs bookmarks and tabs seamlessly from one device to another. It offers the ability to stream YouTube and Netflix content to a Chromecast device. Not to mention, the performance while surfing the web is great. All of this makes Chrome an obvious choice for most PC users and for all Android users. But Microsoft makes a browser too.

But that's about all you can say about it. Internet Explorer for Windows Phone 8 is a fairly basic browser. It offers some sharing features, but they revolve around sharing a page to another user over social media or email. Gone is the ability to sync bookmarks or favorites from one device to another.

But there are a lot of good things about the Windows Phone 8 from an Android perspective.

Live Tiles

Whoever came up with the idea of Live Tiles is a genius. They provide just the right amount of information at a glance. This means that you don't have to open the app as often on a Windows Phone 8 as you would on an Android or iPhone device.

The style of the Live Tiles is simple, almost minimalistic. Compare this with an iPhone and the difference is clear. While an iPhone icon, in iOS 6, will be multi-colored, detailed and complex, the Microsoft Windows Phone 8 icons are the opposite. It has simple color schemes - generally your default color and either white or black depending on your theme. This makes the icons instantly recognizable, even at a quick glance.

Personalization

Google is making a big effort to promote the color personalization of the new Moto X phone. Windows Phone 8 already includes a lot of color options in the OS by default. The user can select any one of 21 different accent colors to use as a background and icon color. The user can also select a Dark or Light option which will make the text color black or white. All this gives the user quite a lot of options on a Windows Phone 8 to really make the phone feel like their own.

Ease of use

Have you ever picked up a new device and struggled how to do some simple task? We've all had those moments. Mine was when I first sat down in front of a Mac. When it took me what seemed like forever to figure out how to close a window, I knew I 'was a PC'.

Android phones and tablets have always seemed very intuitive to me. Apple phones, by contrast, did not. There are plenty of users out there who feel the same, and plenty who feel that iPhones are easier to use than Androids. It just depends what you're used to.

When I picked up a Windows Phone 8 for the first time, there was no learning curve. Coming from my Samsung Galaxy and going to an HTC 8X felt seamless. Sure, things were in different places and there were some quirks to how things worked. For the most part, things worked the way you'd expect them to. A swipe, long-click or double-click in one app would generally act the same in another app. That's just good design.

Xbox Live

I'm a gamer. Not really a hardcore, stand in line for the new Madden kind of gamer, but more of an intense casual gamer, if such a thing exists. So when I heard that the Windows Phone would allow access to my Xbox Live profile, it was a major selling point. The phone will allow me to play certain games (not all, unfortunately) and earn Xbox achievements. I also envision a similar relationship between the Windows Phone and Xbox as there is between the PlayStation 3 and Sony's portable systems. This would allow users to unlock content or perform side missions on their portable device that they could access on their console. I don't know of any games that use this functionality right now, but the potential is there.

Cost

I'm not going to try and say that Windows 8 Phones are cheaper than Android phones across the board. That's not really a good comparison. There are simply way more Android phones out there. But, the main Nokia and HTC Windows phones are both free from major vendors with 2 year contracts, whereas the Samsung Galaxy S4 is still $200. Granted, the Galaxy is a mature model line and the S4 is simply an awesome phone, but the Windows Phones are nothing to laugh at in terms of performance.

It's Microsoft. Period.

The main strength of an Android is its flexibility. Anyone can develop for the Android platform. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's very easy to create an app, which means you can get a lot of poor quality apps. What's worse, since Google does not verify apps before they are available for download, some of these apps can be dangerous to download and install. Symantec, makers of Norton Anti-Virus, recently published a warning to users about over 1000 suspicious Android apps.

By contrast, apps available through Microsoft's Store (and also through Apple's iTunes) are verified before they become public. While the apps may not be the best quality, at least they're not going to harm your phone or your sensitive information.

In contrast to Android, the main strength of the Windows Phone 8 is that it is Microsoft behind the product. Microsoft has put a lot of money, time and effort into making their mobile phones a success. It's still too early to tell if this is going to pay off, but I've been in the technology industry long enough to know one thing: Don't bet against Microsoft.

The Verdict

For a lot of people, Windows Phone 8 is no substitute for Android. It is not as infinitely customizable and doesn't have as many apps. But it is a clean, elegant interface coupled with some really good hardware. For some people who don't require the flexibility and want something with a bit more structure, the Windows Phone 8 makes for a great phone. It will be interesting to see how things stack up in 2-3 years.