A longtime iPhone user gives the Windows 8 phone a try

It’s a special bravery to admit that you could be wrong. Perhaps the brand you prefer isn’t the best one available…how many of us would be willing to take that chance?

I’m being a bit facetious here, but there is a point to be made. When it comes to things like cars, beer, sports teams or personal tech devices –like smartphones–some folks get pretty worked up, because everyone thinks theirs is the best. If you don’t, there must be something wrong with you!

Lives have been lost over such disagreements…property has changed hands, usually unwillingly. No one wants to take the chance that they might be wrong, and that the other guy’s car/beer/smartphone/sports team might be better than whatever you like.

So, give credit to Lex Friedman of Macworld.com for putting aside his iPhone 5 for a Windows 8 phone for one month. After only one week, there are already some surprises.

Here’s an excerpt:

I love my iPhone 5. In fact, I’ve loved every iPhone I’ve ever owned, and lusted after the few I didn’t. But while I’m well aware that Apple makes great products, I know it’s not the only company capable of making great hardware. For example, I mostly prefer my Roku (and TiVo) to my Apple TV; I use a Logitech keyboard and trackpad; and I have a third-party case on my iPad.

And despite my affection for iOS, I also have a few complaints. Microsoft’s release of Windows Phone 7, and then Windows Phone 8, piqued my interest about what was going on over on that side of the smartphone aisle. So when Microsoft offered to send me a Nokia Lumia 920, I jumped at the chance.

My plan is to stick with the Lumia 920 for no fewer than 30 days. I popped out my iPhone 5’s nano-SIM, and used an adapter to fit it into the Windows Phone. My iPhone remains off throughout the month, with the rare exception of when I need to test iPhone-related accessories or software for Macworld. But it’s never in my pocket; the Lumia 920 is now the phone I take with me.

I’ll post updates about my experience over the next several weeks. Which brings us to the first week of my Windows Phone experience, and the perhaps surprising headline: There’s an awful lot to like.

First impressions

An early version of my Windows Phone homescreen

After I knew I would be trying this experiment—but before I’d so much as touched a Windows Phone—I already had some preconceptions about how it would go. I expected to like a lot of what the phone could do, miss some of my favorite iOS apps, and wish I could build an amalgam of the two operating systems that could run all my favorite apps.

A week in, my prediction feels spot on, with one significant caveat: I like more things about the Lumia 920 than I expected, and I like them a lot morethan I expected.

The Lumia 920 is big and heavy. It weighs 0.4 pounds and is more than five inches tall. The screen is 4.5 inches, with a pixel density of 332 pixels per inch—slightly more than the iPhone 5’s 326 ppi Retina display.

I love it. I love the ridiculously huge screen. It’s big, bright, and crystal clear, and having more space on a phone’s screen works great. Yes, it’s bulkier in my pocket, and yes I sometimes need to work a little harder to move my hand from one corner of the screen to the other. But it’s worth it.

The larger screen means the OS can fit a more feature-rich keyboard without eating up too much screen real estate. (I’ll write more about the keyboard in another entry.) It means I can read more and scroll less. Just as iPhone 5 users acclimate to the larger screen and find themselves surprised by how short and squat previous iPhone screens feel, I’ve adapted to the taller, wider Lumia 920 screen. The larger surface area of the Lumia just the phone more usable—and that makes using it a pleasure. I didn’t expect that.

Stranger in a strange land

This is not my beautiful Tweetbot! But it’s Rowi, which is a feature-rich Twitter app for Windows Phone.

I dived into my Windows Phone without reading any manuals or guides, and at first, I was fairly confused—which is to be expected. Where my instinct was to swipe to delete things, I quickly learned that doing so often had unexpected consequences. Windows Phone apps often organize content by screens; where on an iPhone, you’d switch to a different tab, on Windows, you swipe the entire screen to pull the next “tab” into view. So, whenever I tried to swipe to delete an email, I instead swiped from, say, my inbox to a view of just my unread messages.

I’m also still adjusting to the hardware Back button. Some apps offer in-app navigation to go back to where you were, while others require that you use the hardware back button instead. I’ve developed a sense for it over time, but it still feels a little foreign to reach for a hardware button to navigate within an app.

I knew essentially nothing about the third-party apps in the Windows Phone store, and even though I had a $25 store credit that Microsoft had given me, I still wanted to make sure I avoided buying lemons. But there’s nothing to fear: You can download any app in the store for free, with all paid apps offering trial modes. It’s fantastic, and for me, really underscores how disappointing it is that Apple still offers no analogous option in its App Store.

I definitely miss apps I love: my standbys, like Tweetbot, Reeder, and Mailbox; apps I use to sync my fitness trackers like the Jawbone Up and Fitbit; apps that connect with my bank accounts; and apps that are part of Apple’s ecosystem, such as Reminders and Messages (particularly iMessaging).

But the apps I’m discovering on Windows Phone are often decent, frequently good, and occasionally beautiful. I’m using Weather Flow, Rowi for Twitter, Nextgen Reader for RSS, and I keep discovering other solid apps, too. It’s also worth mentioning that, despite the seemingly close relationship between Facebook and Microsoft, the Facebook app for Windows Phone is rather poor and clunky, and far less usable than the iOS and Android versions.

A new place to call home

My current homescreen. For today, anyway.

Windows Phone takes a markedly different approach to homescreen management. Where Apple’s still sticking with the app icon grid, Windows instead relies on Live Tiles. Both approaches come with their fair share of frustrations, but one week in, I think the Windows way is far and away the lesser of two evils.

Apps can take one of three sizes on the Windows Phone homescreen: tiny squares, large squares, or wide rectangles. And not every app needs to be on your homescreen at all. You can thus arrange only the apps that you use the most frequently on the homescreen. All of your apps are discoverable from a second screen, accessed by swiping across the main homescreen, where they’re alphabetized and searchable. iOS can do the searchable part, but the surprisingly handy alphabetical list feels like an obvious omission now that I’ve used it.

Windows Phone’s Live Tiles add a degree of intelligence to the OS’s homescreen. Instead of simply badging app icons, many app icons (tiles) can instead show actual data pulled from the apps in question: Your Twitter tile might cycle through recent mentions or direct messages, a weather app’s tile can show the forecast and current conditions, and the calendar tile can show upcoming appointments. What a given tile shows is defined on an app by app basis—and depends on how big or small you make the tile. Though limited by space constraints, the feature is clever, and it works well.

While you can choose what color Windows Phone uses for all the default apps’ tiles, and for any apps that don’t offer tile customization, I would prefer finer-grained control: I wish I could, for example, make the calculator green and the phone tile yellow, just so I had an extra visual cue to tell them all apart.

You’ll have to click on the link above (or here) to read about more of his experiences.

It’s not giving away too much to say that he was pleasantly surprised.

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