The Windows Phone Experiment: Week One
When Microsoft ran the Smoked by Windows Phone competition a few weeks back, I jumped at the opportunity to finally get my hands on a new Windows Phone. I’ve been excited about Microsoft’s new mobile platform from Joe Belfiore’s first announcements about Windows Phone 7. We talk about Windows Phone quite a bit on Entertainment 2.0, and I wanted some direct exposure to the apps and entertainment features we regularly discuss.
Aside from Media Center, though, I’m largely a Mac guy. I’ve been using iPhones for years, and I’m heavily invested in Apple’s ecosystem, so I hadn’t considered actually using a Windows Phone as my primary mobile device. But when I “lost” Microsoft’s competition and received a Windows Phone of my own, I decided to try an experiment: I’d use the phone exclusively for a few weeks to learn first-hand how it would fit into my Apple-centric life.
And so it begins….
Nokia’s Lumia 710 on T-Mobile
I chose the Nokia Lumia 710 as my Windows Phone, primarily because it was available on T-Mobile’s network, and T-Mobile offers pay-as-you-go voice and data plans that don’t require a contract. I’ve played with the device in stores more times than I can count, and though it’s not one of the hot, new 800 or 900 models, it’s quite attractive and capable.
The phone itself is light and solid, but it feels somewhat plastic-y with a rubberized, removable back panel. That back panel exposes a removable battery—a nice change from the factory-sealed iPhone. And the removable battery may be more necessary I than first thought, too, because so far the battery life on this thing seems pretty terrible (I’ll be able to better test that when I take this phone on the road with me in a few weeks). The 710 is about the same size as the iPhone 4 that now sits neglected on my desk, but the corners and back edges are more rounded, making it more comfortable to hold and pocket.
Despite the nearly identical dimensions, the Lumia’s display is larger than the iPhone’s, sporting a widescreen profile when turned on its side. The 800 x 480 resolution doesn’t live up to Apple’s so-called “retina” display at 960 x 640, but I can’t say that’s worth all the attention the tech press has been giving it. The Lumia’s display is bright and beautiful, and it’s more readable in sunlight than the iPhone’s.
As it turns out, T-Mobile may not have been the best service choice for me. I often have no signal in my house, and my neighborhood overall has pretty lousy coverage. That’s disappointing for a major metropolitan area, but my mobile phone isn’t my primary phone. I’m one of those holdouts who won’t give up my land line, so the percentage of time that I typically use a mobile device as a phone is pretty low.
As I mentioned earlier, this is an experiment. I have no idea whether I’ll continue to use the Lumia as my primary mobile device after this review period, so I didn’t port my number to the new device. Instead, I’m forwarding my old number. That handles phone calls, but not text messages. For now, they’re getting lost and ignored.
For my work number, I use Google Voice. There’s no native app for that on Windows Phone yet. In fact, there’s no app support from Google worth talking about, and many of Google’s mobile web offerings look like crap in the phone’s mobile IE browser. Some third parties have released compatible apps for Google Voice, but here’s where my distrust kicks in.
Your Google Voice number is inherently linked to your Google Account—communications, schedules, contacts, financials, browsing history, and a ton of personal information is accessible via your Google password. Why would you trust that password to a third party? You’d think these apps would leverage Google’s native authentication interface, but they do not—they pass it through their own UI, and you just have to trust the developer (or not).
Google’s 2-factor authentication allows you to create an application-specific password that you can revoke at any time, but even that authorizes more access than you may feel comfortable sharing with a third party. In my opinion, this is an area where Google needs to improve its authorization model. Like with Reader, apps for Google Voice have no need to access anything other than the limited scope of information and APIs supporting very specific functions.
The other communication channel I use regularly is Skype. Microsoft’s late-to-the-market beta offering for this wholly-owned service provides adequate access for making Skype calls, but not for receiving them. Microsoft’s beta app has no background or live-tile support, so your only option for receiving inbound calls is to use Skype forwarding to your mobile number.
Windows Phone does a surprisingly good job of integrating contact lists in the People hub. Contacts from Microsoft (Windows Live), Exchange, Google, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn are listed together, and you can hide specific account’s contacts from your list (e.g., to avoid cluttering your address book with everyone you follow on Twitter or Facebook). Windows Phone also integrates and links contact information between accounts—even those that you’ve hidden from view. So, for example, the real-life friends in your address book will include their Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ account information—even their profile pics if you haven’t assigned one.
The phone does not import groups from these accounts but instead lets you create groups of your own, incorporating contacts from across services. And you can pin any contact or group to the Start screen, which is handy for family, friends, emergency numbers, etc.
There’s no way to directly sync contacts from a Mac’s Address Book to a Windows Phone, so you’re left with two options: transfer or sync through the cloud. Nokia’s phones include a Contacts Transfer app that uses Bluetooth to download contacts from your old phone. I tried this approach literally dozens of times before I gave up on this option with my iPhone 4, even though customers on Nokia’s support forums reported eventual success.
That left me with syncing through the cloud, which is probably a better option anyway, because it’s continual—not just a one-time download. Mac users have three cloud syncing options for contacts: Google, Yahoo, and iCloud, so to Sync with Windows Phone, you have to use Google. Since I’ve never hosted my contacts in the cloud before, it meant doing some cleanup. I quickly learned that merging, deduping, and archiving is easier once your contacts are online. I’m still doing some housekeeping, but using Google to sync contacts brought all my contacts into my phone, including relationships, notes, and contact photos.
One annoying thing I’ve noticed is that profile pictures imported from Twitter appear crisp and clear, while those assigned in my Address Book or synchronized from Google look terrible in comparison, especially when enlarged to identify an incoming call. So here’s a tip: If you have real-life contacts with Twitter profiles, edit their information on your phone and choose the photo from their linked Twitter profile.
The People hub gives you limited access to updates from your Twitter, Facebook, and Windows Live accounts, but you can only register one of each one of these accounts on Windows Phone. This probably isn’t a limitation for most people, but it can be a problem for people who have multiple accounts—either for themselves or because they maintain a page, a blog, or an account for work or another organization.
One great feature is that you can limit this so-called What’s New stream to only show updates from people you’ve chosen to include in your contacts list. So if you’ve filtered your contacts to only show your friends in real life, you can similarly limit these updates to that same list. I love this!
Posting messages and checking in via Twitter, Facebook, and Windows Live [does anyone do that?] is done through the Me tile—not the People hub. This separation of incoming and outgoing messages seems like an odd juxtaposition. I just can’t get the hang of it, but I haven’t worried about it too much, since the phone’s own Twitter support is too limited for my needs.
Instead, I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking for a decent Twitter client. My requirements: support for multiple accounts, live tiles, and notifications. Twitter’s own app is pretty clumsy and useless and has no integrated notifications. Seesmic and Rowi both offer live tiles, but only at the lowest account/feed level (in other words, you’d have to pin separate tiles for mentions and direct messages for each account). My pick: Carbon. For $1.99, it does everything I wanted plus some. The UI is a bit sloppy and cluttered, and their insistence on overusing a ridiculous and dated dot-notation on every feature and heading is tiresome, but it notifies me and integrates all my feeds, making it easy to switch between my different .accounts to read my .timeline, .mentions, .messages, and .retweets. [See what I mean about .tiresome?]
Windows Phone handles mail beautifully, offering push delivery from IMAP and Exchange services and variable periodic polling for all others. Accounts can be merged together to create a Linked Inbox, but unlike the iPhone, it’s not an all-or-nothing deal. For example, you can combine your personal Windows Live, Google, and Yahoo accounts into one inbox, while keeping your work email separate. Each linked and unliked inbox automatically appears on the start screen as a live tile and on your lock screen, showing the number of new messages since you last checked your mail.
I had some initial difficulties configuring my Google accounts, but after the first day that problem went away, so it may just have been a glitch on Google’s side.
Audio and Video
The Zune media experience has always been a great one all the way back to its roots in Microsoft’s now-retired Zune device line. That DNA is obvious throughout the Windows Phone UI, and the Music + Video app is no exception. It brings together your music, video, podcasts, with radio, the Zune Marketplace, and other media apps. I’ll run through my experience so far with each of these.
Music. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t sync a Windows Phone with your Mac. It frustrates me to no end when I hear even the tech press concluding that these two platforms are incompatible. Even as recently as last weekend, they mis-stated this on This Week in Tech.
You can sync Windows Phone with Mac, and Microsoft created the Windows Phone 7 Connector program for this very purpose. It’s not as full-featured as the Zune software for Windows, but it’s not designed to be. It’s designed to synchronize content from the media libraries you already maintain on your Mac—iTunes and iPhoto.
Connector lets you sync playlists, genres, artists, and even specific albums from your iTunes library. Copy-protected music isn’t transferred, of course, but not many of us have copy-protected iTunes music anymore.
Video. Connector also syncs your videos, movies, and TV shows—sort of. Videos are synchronized from your iPhoto library, which is perfect for home videos. Movies and TV shows can be synchronized from your iTunes library, but you’re not going to see any content you purchased from the iTunes Store on your Windows Phone since it’s copy protected.
But if you’ve archived content from a DVR or video library to iTunes as H.264-encoded MPEG-4 video files with a tool like Handbrake, you can sync those to your Windows Phone. You can also sync videos you’ve downloaded from iTunes U. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s interface for selecting videos to sync is a disaster. Files from your Movies, TV Shows, and iTunes U libraries are all mixed together. They’re sorted alphabetically by episode name, without differentiation and without being grouped by show name or any similarly useful attribute.
Podcasts. Windows Phone offers mixed support for podcasts. It’s often praised for its ability to natively subscribe to podcasts from the Zune Marketplace directly on the device. I’ve yet to figure out how this works.
It’s likely that if you subscribe to podcasts in iTunes, though, you don’t just watch or listen to them on your phone but also on a computer, on an Apple TV, or on other iOS devices. So you need iTunes to keep your subscriptions and play positions in sync. Connector does a decent job of incorporating your Windows Phone into this ecosystem.
There are several ways to sync podcasts with Connector. You can sync all podcasts or a number of the most recent podcasts. This may work fine for most people, but I have a number of podcast subscriptions for which I’m a number of episodes behind. While iTunes has options to sync the oldest or newest available episodes, Connector only syncs the newest. If you’re conserving space on your device, this means you may be catching up on your favorite shows in reverse order.
An unpublicized feature also lets you synchronize podcasts from a playlist. You can select the playlist while selecting your music playlists, and Connector will sync all of the podcasts in that playlist. This is great if you use iTunes’ Smart Playlist feature for quick access to your favorite daily shows.
While Connector will sync the podcasts in a playlist, it won’t also sync the playlist itself since the Zune software doesn’t support playlists for podcasts. This seems like a huge oversight, and I can’t imagine why this isn’t supported. Podcast playlists can not only be used to organize your podcast content, but they can make your drive or commute safer by simply queuing up a series of shows. Microsoft: Fix this!
Radio. My Windows Phone comes with built-in FM radio support. It gets pretty decent reception, but it only works when you have earphones plugged in since it uses those as an antenna. I have to wonder: is that good for you to have the tips of an antenna stuck in your ears?
Zune Marketplace. Among other things, you can purchase music and download or subscribe to podcasts in the marketplace. Purchases are billed to a credit card or to your mobile provider’s account. As a Mac user, you don’t need to worry about Zune software to access the marketplace or to take advantage of the Zune Music Pass for $10-a-month access to the entire Zune music library. It’s all accessible right on the phone. Having just started my free trial, I’ll probably have more to say on the Zune Music Pass later.
Apps. Microsoft does a nice job of integrating playback and access to third-party media apps into the Zune software, so you can get to all your services from one place. Of course you can still pin Slacker, Spotify, and other media apps right to your Start screen if you’d like, but access to these apps from within the Zune environment is incredibly convenient.
Overall, the media experience on Windows Phone is very good. The album art is beautiful, playback is straightforward, and the integration of third-party media services is fairly seamless. Frankly, this integration is a refreshing departure from Apple’s latest trend to segregate its audio and video experiences on iOS devices.
The biggest drawback for Windows Phone as a media device is the lack of third party product support. As best I can tell, there’s no way to connect the phone to a hotel TV, for example, to watch Netflix or YouTube videos like you can with an iPhone. There’s no onboard DLNA support, though Nokia’s released a beta application that promises to bridge that gap for Lumia customers (I’ll address this more in a later post). Perhaps most significantly, there’s no connectivity beyond basic A2DP Bluetooth streaming for automobile integration. This is a huge issue for me, and I imagine it would be for anyone who does any significant driving or commuting.
Enough For Now
I’ve spent an enormous amount of time acclimating myself to my new Windows Phone, the ecosystem supporting it, and methods of integrating it into my current digital lifestyle. Over the next few weeks, I’ll chronicle other aspects of my experience, using the device for reading, working, exercising, and a variety of other activities.
If you have specific questions or would like to see me cover a particular aspect of my experience with the phone, please leave a comment below, and I’ll do my best to answer or include your request in an upcoming post.