Windows Phone is now called Windows Mobile (again) and I will save my comments about the constant name changing of products for a different post.
I have used a Widows Phone for many years, since Windows 7, and have some doubts about the future of the platform. I “needed” (more wanted really) a new phone. More specifically I wanted a full powered flagship/hero phone, the kind that my oldest son has been using for the better part of a year. So in order to gain some perspective I have been using an Android phone for the past week and a couple of days. After using the phone and talking with a coworker I am kind of surprised to say I got a fresh perspective on the Windows
Phone Mobile platform that I probably missed while I was using it. The future of the platform in my mind is still in jeopardy and will likely not survive the long haul if market share doesn’t start to grow (not really the purpose of this post but worth calling out).
As soon as I started using the Android platform I could see it was fast. All of the core functions on the phone were easy to switch between and the OS ran smoothly. The three buttons at the bottom have different purpose from the Windows Mobile platform but it didn’t take me long to convert. Of course the app store was full of apps that I have never had access to on the Windows Mobile platform and it was a treat getting to install some of the ones that I thought I would be using. Having come from the Windows Mobile platform and being a Microsoft consumer in general I use Outlook.com, Office 365, Groove and OneDrive and was slightly concerned that I would loose one of them along the way. However, over the past year Microsoft has taken great efforts to make sure that their software is available on all Android and Apple platforms and those efforts made my transition to Android very easy. Being a technical person I don’t just use Microsoft software and services. I also have a Gmail account and other services like Pandora, Pinterest, Facebook and so on and of course all of these are easy to find on Android.
Learning to use the Android OS and finding the settings was as challenging as I remember it (I had an Android phone before my Windows 7 phone). I found myself going into individual apps like Outlook in order to turn on contact synchronization. The phone I got from AT&T also had several browsers installed and choosing the default browser was a question that I was asked multiple times, I am not sure that I ever really got it set correctly. As I was going through this transition experience I mentioned to some coworkers that I was experimenting with the Android platform and was looking for pointers if they had any. Andre heard my call for help and spent some time talking to me about the platform and something he said really helped me understand why I was struggling with it. The Android OS is a foundation of functionality and is very open to extensions. It is this power of extensibility that has lead to a collection of applications that don’t always feel like they are working together. At least to me coming from the Windows Mobile platform it didn’t feel that way. Each app seemed to need a little help getting connected even if it was a core experience like email or text messaging.
This experience of applications on an island made me think about the integrated experience I had with Windows Mobile. I just needed to sign into my Microsoft account during the setup process and the core applications seemed to just fill in the blanks. This experience isn’t just driven by my use of Outlook.com and other Microsoft properties it is driven by my use of Windows 10 on my laptops and desktops. My preferences and account settings are synchronized across systems independent of hardware which provides me with a real seamless experience as I move between devices. But what about those apps that I wanted to use, the ones that I so quickly located on the Android phone and installed even quicker. Turns out that I just don’t use the apps as much as I thought. Keep in mind that most of the core apps I am looking for, things like Facebook, Pandora, Spotify and my banking application, are available on the Windows Phone platform. There are a few apps that I only use occasionally like Pinterest that aren’t available natively but have a great web based experience that does the job.
The power of a 30 day return policy.
So after a week and a bit of carrying an Android phone in my pocket I was at a real crossroads. My experience with the Android platform had been positive but not as simple as my Windows Mobile experience. I really thought that the app gap was going to be something that kept me on the Android platform but after not really taking advantage of the apps I wasn’t sure how important all those apps were. I needed to make a choice and move forward. I was considering two different phones both of them with similar hardware and price points, LG v10 ($700) or the Lumia 950 XL ($650). After braving the Bellevue Square Mall on Black Friday and reviewing the LG v10 again and seeing the Lumia 950 XL for the first time I decided to give the Microsoft Mobile platform another try. The 950 XL is a solid piece of hardware and I was told that if I didn’t like it I could return it so long as I returned it by the end of the year.
After getting home and going through the basic setup, I chose not to restore any backups from previous phones, I have been really impressed by the experience. If the Windows Mobile platform goes away some time in the future I will pick up and Android phone without blinking an eye but for now I really am enjoying my new Lumia 950 XL running Windows 10 Mobile.
It is just plain fast
I got a 1020 when it came out and really enjoyed using it despite the awkward shape and lack of built in Qi charging. I then moved on to the Lumia 830 after using the phone for a hackfest at work. The 830 was a solid middle of the road phone but lacked the raw horse power that is required to deliver a stunning experience. The 950 XL doesn’t miss a step in the horse power category and delivers the kind of performance I expected to have from a hero/flagship phone. Navigating between apps, app quick restore and network communications all exceeded my expectations. The performance of core apps like Outlook, Pictures and One Drive really shine on this hardware.
It doesn’t feel as premium as it could
None of the Lumia phones have every had a real premium feel to me, although the Icon came close. Unfortunately, the Lumia 950 XL doesn’t change much in this category. The back of the phone is a removable plastic case. The removable part is nice because it makes it easy to get to the sim cards, expansion slot and battery. The phone has two sim slots and I do a bit of travel for work so the ability to have an extra sim in the phone for international trips will be handy but changing the sim on the phone isn’t really that hard. It is a nice to have but not a deal maker/breaker for me. Snapping the rear cover back into place just feels a bit cheap for a $650 phone. Holding the phone in my hand it feels light enough and not to large but it doesn’t feel as good as the iPhone.
An extra row of tiles means the home screen is filled with information
Because the Lumia 950 XL has a 5.7 inch screen the Windows Mobile OS gives you the option for a fourth row of mid sized tiles. This option was also available to you if you had the 1520 phablet. Live tiles are one of the features that I didn’t realize how much I used until I started using an Android phone. With all of those live tiles on the screen the home screen turns into a bit of a custom dashboard with information about email, calendar, news, stocks, Facebook, weather and whatever else you have pinned to the home screen. The home screen is easy to navigate and densely packed with the information that is most important to me. Another nice part about live tiles is that they just work out of the box without any configuration steps on my part.
Glance is a great feature
Every time I pulled my Android phone out of my pocket I looked at the blank screen expecting to see the time and the next thing on my calendar but instead I saw a blank black screen. Once you have the glance feature it changes the way that you use the phone. I don’t need to look at a watch or unlock the phone to see what is going on. I only need to take the phone out of my pocket and I get a very nice simple display that tells me the date and time and some current information from my calendar. As soon as I had the Lumia 950 XL configured I was pleased to see this feature running as expected. If the calendar isn’t import to you, you can change the home screen to display something else like Twitter or Facebook.
Windows Hello is interesting but needs some work
The Lumia 950 XL has an iris scanner built in so I went through the Windows Hello setup and was surprised by just how close I have to have the camera to my face in order to get it to work. This doesn’t feel like a socially comfortable action kind of the way that tapping two phones together while using NFC looks like two phone trying to make out. In practice Windows Hello works but only some of the time and it feels like it will take practice to get it to work better. I would hope that the Windows Hello experience can be changed to match the experience on the Surface products or maybe give up on the iris scanner and move to a finger print reader. I don’t think this is a feature that will get widely used because even typing in a long 8 digit pin is probably faster.
Update 11/28/2015: While setting up and experimenting with Windows Hello last night I was in a low light environment. Today I am using it in a well lit environment and the response is noticeably better. It is faster and feels a little more natural to look at the phone and have it recognize you. The phone still has to be closer to your face then what feels truly comfortable. All that said I find myself using the Windows Hello sign in instead of the pin more often than not.
Continuum surprised me and I look forward to improvements
While I was going through the settings making sure that I had everything configured the way that I wanted I happened across a setting that talked about wireless connectivity to a display. Until now I had thought that Continuum was a feature that required the docking station and while I was switching my TV input I fully expected to see my phone home screen displayed on the TV if it worked at all. I was completely surprised to see a Windows 10 desktop experience show up. As described in the Windows 10 Continuum presentations my phone turned into a touchpad for controlling the cursor on my desktop/television. I quickly learned that not all applications are supported in Continuum. For instance Dragon Mania Legends is greyed out but Office, Email and the web browser all work just fine. The cursor control from the phone touchpad was lagging and I suspect that it gets better with the docking station instead of a wireless connection. I am looking forward to improvements to come in cursor experience as well as more app support.
The camera doesn’t disappoint
The camera on the Lumia 1020 was awesome and the pictures it took were truly amazing but the camera was slow. A great camera is a critical part of a mobile phone for me but if I miss the shot then I might as well not have a camera at all. The Lumia 950 XL has fixed the timing issue and while the megapixel number has come down to a measly 20 (sarcasm is hard when you can’t hear the inflection from my keyboard) I can’t tell the difference in the picture quality. All the great features of the camera such as swipe to zoom, lenses and granular controls are present. I am looking forward to taking a lot of pictures of my family and my travels and being proud to share them with others.
One Drive has deeper integration
One Drive integration on the Windows Phone 8.1 platform was pretty deep but as the One Drive capabilities have grown so has the integration into the platform gotten deeper. My new favorite feature of the One Drive is the albums. They are simple virtual folders that I can use to group pictures together and then share them with friends and family. Sharing the album means I can send a link instead of huge attachments. It doesn’t matter how I move the pictures around inside my One Drive account the album stays intact. Because Windows is now one operating system the Pictures app that you have on your Windows 10 desktop is the same Pictures app you have on your Windows Mobile device (the same is true for other apps like Outlook and so on). The app itself will go and find the albums that you have created in your One Drive account and make them available on your phone. Of course this is pretty handy when you display your phone on a TV that support wireless connections. Simply bring up the app and you have amazing pictures on the big screen for the entire room to see. Another key change is that One Drive no longer offers the capability of downsizing the pictures and video before they get saved to the cloud. This means that you will always get the full resolution in your One Drive account by default.
Disclaimer: I, Ryan Pedersen, hold a long position in Microsoft stock and have been a full time employee of Microsoft for over 4 years. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. You and I may not hold the same opinions, but I hope we can both agree that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors and technologists. I copied most of this discloser from a Motley Fools article recently written by John Maxfield.