I found my way back into the Windows Mobile universe this weekend, after a lengthy absence. Prior to this, my last encounter with Windows on the small screen was with the HP iPaq 6500, a QWERTY-keyboard smartphone running Windows Mobile 2003, so I’m not exaggerating when I say that it has well and truly been awhile. I’d spent the past four years using the various iPhone incarnations exclusively and had never felt the need to explore what else was out there. Recently however, I’ve found myself becoming interested in the Windows Phone experience again. Partly this was because of my growing dissatisfaction with the iPhone 4S on the woefully unreliable Globe network, and partly because my startup was becoming more and more embroiled in the handheld space, so I needed to familiarize myself with all the various Apple competitors.
And so I found myself at a Smart Store earlier in the month queued up for a Nokia Lumia 710, which came free with their PhP1500/month unlimited data plan. Not surprisingly, you can’t just walk in, sign up for a postpaid plan and expect to walk back out with a working Lumia. There’s a 1-2 week wait for these models, which either implies that they’re short on stock, or that the demand isn’t particularly high (so they don’t keep them in their stores). You can buy a 710 from the local gray market for less than PhP13,000 these days, but since an unlimited data plan is all but required to really get the most of this phone, I just signed up with Smart and got it that way instead.
The Hardware Situation
On the surface, the Lumia 710 is a pretty little thing. It’s roughly the same height and width as the iPhone 4S, but it’s also chunkier and mostly made of plastic. It does feel lighter in the hand and, due to the more curvy body style, isn't quite as imposing as the hard-cornered Apple flagship. It’s important to note that it’s smack in the middle of the Lumia series, sandwiched between the entry-level 610 and the high-end 800 and 900. As such it feels like a very reasonable balance between price and performance, especially when you don’t necessarily care about the features that differentiate it from its big brothers. (The main differences include higher storage capacity, an AMOLED screen and a much more capable HSDPA antenna—which may or may not be fully usable in the Philippine setting.)
It predictably has more buttons than the iPhone: Along with the ubiquitous Home button, it has a volume control, an on/off switch, and dedicated hardware buttons for Back, Search and Camera. Of the three dedicated buttons, I found the Search button to be the most weird. Naturally, it uses Bing, and naturally you can’t switch to Google. This lack of choice is offset mildly by the fact that it has voice search and image search built right in, both of which seemed to work well enough without exactly bowling you over.
Interface Design Decisions
When Microsoft redesigned their mobile operating system, they took a long hard look at what Apple and Google were doing with their respective offerings and decided to go in a completely different direction. The most obvious distinction is in the use of the Metro-style Live Tiles, i.e., positionable blocks of content on the phone’s home screen that represent running applications and display a summary of that app’s contents. The Tiles interface is an interesting beast. There’s something very modern about a GUI that exposes multiple buckets of content in a neatly structured, annotated way, and I certainly enjoyed organizing my tiles to maximize the information I could view at a glance. The problem is that it’s really just a matter of perception. Although the various running apps on iOS don’t show you their contents unless you click on them, most of the time-sensitive ones will have a red badge alerting you to important content.
The average iOS home screen will have 20 icons on it, with each one of them having the potential to call your attention when necessary. On Windows Phone 7.5, you can usually only fit 7-8 tiles within the immediately viewable 480×800 area, which is actually less stuff, not more. And even if you had 20 tiles on your WP home screen, you’d need to scroll past each one to see which of them had new content for you, because the callouts can be pretty understated.
Don’t get me wrong—I like the WP solution quite a bit. It’s a nice approach, and it certainly distinguishes itself from its competitors with its great sense of proportion and tastefully minimal transitions. I just don’t buy that it’s functionally superior from a usability standpoint.
My hesitation extends to some of its integration decisions as well:
The People app, for example, is part Address Book and part News Feed, compiling your contacts from all your various accounts into a single huge directory on one screen and then displaying their aggregated status messages and media on another. I personally found this to be a strange choice, as the Address Book view can only seem to fit 6 names before you need to scroll down. Granted, the font size is huge and very readable, but these are names I’m already familiar with; surely they could have tried to fit 10 people on there? The News Feed view (called “What’s New”) meanwhile can only fit three new posts on screen before the user needs to start scrolling. This is all due to the fact that a good 100px of vertical space is taken up by the huge “People” header at the top of the screen, which certainly looks nice, but doesn’t feel particularly efficient in such a constrained medium.
This same spatial extravagance is on display in nearly every app, with inordinately large headers screaming the names of the apps that the user had only just clicked on. I’m personally not bothered by these design choices, but I felt that they were indicative of how much the interface is influenced by form instead of function. In a world where everything is three-dimensional glossy rounded-corners, the stark vector icons against simple, monotone blocks is certainly a refreshing, if a bit eager, strategy. This allows for some really beautiful, minimalistic transitions between app and home screen, with the blocks cascading into and out of place like shutters being blown by the wind.
The Software Situation
Windows Phone 7.5 is meant to be paired with the Zune app on the desktop in much the same way as the iPhone goes hand-in-hand with iTunes. In this respect, the two companies couldn’t be more similar. The Zune/iTunes desktop app is responsible for synchronizing your content to the phone, as well as managing software updates and storing backups. When I plugged in the Lumia for the first time, I found a bunch of software update packages waiting to be downloaded. One key update contained software for Internet Sharing, which allowed me to turn the 710 into a mobile hotspot in the same way you would with an iPhone or any number of Android phones. Very handy indeed when you consider that the antenna on the Lumia is capable of 14.4 Mbps HSDPA. (Its big brother, the 900, can even hit 42Mbps.)
Apart from synchronizing and updating via Zune, Windows Phone also has its own App Store equivalent, dubbed “Marketplace.” My initial impression is that it’s a ghost town; loads of Solitaire, Chess or Texas Hold ‘Em variants peppered with some truly bizarre clones of iOS originals. (My current favorite is Angry at the Birds a ridiculous mashup of Duck Hunt, Fruit Ninja and the Rovio blockbuster it stole its name from.) Don’t bother looking for Evernote, Dropbox or Instagram here. Few of the iOS heavyweights have thus far made any moves into the WP platform, although enterprising developers are trying to take advantage of their APIs and relative inertia to cash in on their absence.
This dearth is perhaps the most obvious failing for Windows Phone, press releases to the contrary. Granted this is the same chicken-and-egg problem Blackberry faces with its own App World : the developers won’t write new software until there are more users to sell them to, but the users won’t buy phones unless there is software to improve them. It’s important to remember that the only reason Apple didn’t look pathetic during the early days of iPhone and its App Store was because there was nothing out there to compare it to. Nowadays you have to worry about Android apps totalling nearly half a million and iOS itself sporting over 650,000. Windows Phone’s app population, sitting just south of a hundred thousand, feels miniscule by comparison.
The bottom line is that this is not a bad phone. It’s not a particularly good phone either, largely because the software library is very thin. Its design sensibilities feel fancy for the sake of being fancy, which may or may not bother you depending on how much utility you need to squeeze out of your device. A part of me really likes its various contemporary flourishes and its opinionated approach to app UI, but I think that that’s because there’s no real lock-in here: I know I can just grab the iPhone whenever I want to actually accomplish something.
I probably wouldn’t feel the same about it if the Lumia 710 was the only phone I had though.