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The Windows Phone Experiment: Week Two

The Windows Phone Experiment: Week TwoMy Windows Phone Experiment continued this past week. As I’ve been settling in with my new device and started to explore some of its features and limitations, I’ve had some pleasant findings and some less pleasant ones. This week I’ll focus on some more of the phone’s primary features, and I’ll dig a little into some of the challenges I’ve encountered with its relatively limited ecosystem.

Crapware

First things first. This device has a pretty small amount of on-board storage and no options for adding to that with external cards. After learning what apps I want to use and what apps I don’t need, I’ve started to cull. It turns out that Nokia and T-Mobile have both “customized” the phone by adding some of their exclusive apps.

While most of Nokia’s apps add value, T-Mobile’s apps are largely expendable. T-Mobile TV is a paid subscription mobile video app that looks and works nothing like a Windows Phone app but was instead likely ported from some other platform. Uninstalled. Slacker Radio is a service I don’t use. Uninstalled. TeleNav GPS Nav is a paid subscription navigation service that is redundant to Nokia’s very good (and free) turn-by-turn Nokia Drive app. Uninstalled.

The Weather Channel app is pre-loaded on the phone, but I almost immediately swapped it for the less heavily branded and better designed AccuWeather.com app. And Netflix is pre-loaded, too, but I can’t imagine ever watching a movie or TV show on this size screen now that I own a tablet.

Pictures

The Nokia Lumia 710 has a decent 5 MP camera with a flash. Perhaps more importantly, it has a dedicated camera button that you can use to both wake the device into camera mode and take pictures. The phone also takes 720p HD video.

Like iCloud for iOS and Instant Upload for Android, you can automatically upload photographs to your Microsoft SkyDrive account as you take them. Like iCloud with Apple TV, you can view these photos on Media Center as they’re uploaded. We posted a Media Center quick tip earlier this week with easy instructions on how you can set this up. With Nokia’s beta Play To app, you can also stream pictures and videos from your phone to a compatible Play To target (e.g., an Xbox in extender mode).

Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 Connector software for Mac can sync pictures to your phone from iPhoto or Aperture. You can choose from albums and events in your library. Connector can also optionally sync the pictures and videos you’ve taken from your phone to your Mac. That’s something you still can’t do with iTunes and an iPhone.

Syncing to iPhoto is a bit cumbersome since it launches iPhoto every time it finds new pictures and videos to offload, and even though you specify the name of the event for your pictures, it creates a new one (with that same name) every time.

Skype

Microsoft released its official Skype app for Windows Phone last week, and it seems like a huge missed opportunity. I talked about this—more like ranted about this—quite a bit on the latest episode of Entertainment 2.0, but I’m still scratching my head, trying to understand what Microsoft has been doing with Skype for the last year.

Google has its Google Voice product baked into the core of Android phones, and Microsoft’s failure to do the same for Windows Phone with Skype just baffles me. Skype is a premier brand, and they seem to be wasting it.

With Skype for Windows phone, you can make voice and video calls and send instant messages to other Skype users. It does not work with Bluetooth. You cannot send SMS messages. You cannot receive Skype calls unless you have the app open and active. One more time for effect: You cannot receive Skype calls unless the app is open and active.

Ridiculous. But the biggest missed opportunity here is that Skype contacts don’t integrate with your People hub in any way. Microsoft intentionally designed a phone platform that provides for integration with third party directory services, but it is either not extensible enough to support Skype or Microsoft just decided not to take advantage of this capability for Skype—the leading consumer VoIP platform. That they own.

Ridiculous.

Other Apps

For the most part, the major apps that you’d expect on a phone platform are available in one form or another. As I mentioned in last week’s review, Google’s presence is all but nonexistent, but there are numerous apps that take advantage of Google’s APIs to make Google services available to Windows Phone owners.

There are a couple of great apps I’ve come to like a lot. Foursquare has a very good app. Sports Tracker is a great activity monitor for running, walking, and exercise tracking. Evernote and OneNote give me access to saved snippets, and the rest of the Office suite gives me access—even the ability to edit—Microsoft Office documents. I also like Amazon’s ubiquitous Kindle app, Spotify, and OpenTable.

There’s no official app for GetGlue (and the third party app is crap—it’s just a wrapper to GetGlue’s mobile web site that’s actually harder to use than the site itself). There’s no Google+ app, but their mobile site works fairly well in IE. There’s no app for my bank, no apps for my favorite airlines, and no Pandora.

TripIt has an app that’s compete crap—it’s less capable than TripIt’s own mobile site, and it seems to have been developed by someone who’s never read Microsoft’s Windows Phone user experience guidelines. There are several third-party TripIt apps that are far better than TripIt’s own. I’ve chosen My Trips.

I’ve realized pretty quickly that there are many crap apps out there. Metro introduces a new way of thinking about user experience and UI design, and a lot of developers clearly just don’t get it or haven’t bothered trying. I’ve passed over or already uninstalled numerous apps that have offended my UX sensibilities.

To Unlock or Not

I realized last week that I haven’t been receiving text messages sent to my old number since I can forward calls but not text messages. Between that and the disappointing service that I get in my neighborhood and home from T-Mobile, I decided to try unlocking the phone so I could swap in my old AT&T SIM card.

I quickly learned that while my AT&T SIM gave me a working device with my old number and much better phone service, I couldn’t get any data service. It turns out that T-Mobile and AT&T use different 3G bands, so I had a decision to make: better, more convenient phone service, or data service. I chose data. But hey…now I have an unlocked phone. That’s good, right?

Headset

I’ve been spoiled by the hardware ecosystem that’s grown up around the iPhone and iOS devices. I can go to pretty much any corner store and pick up a cheap set of earphones that work with an iPhone for calls. Nowadays many of them can even control music and trigger voice prompts.

Nokia’s Lumia 710 doesn’t come with earphones. So I tried using some old iPhone headphones I have lying around. I can listen to music, of course, but I can’t use them for phone calls or voice prompts, and the buttons don’t seems to control anything on the Lumia.

I went to Nokia’s web site. Nokia’s documentation for the Lumia says “you can connect a compatible headset or compatible headphones to your phone.” They don’t, in any way, define compatible. Nokia lists two Monster-branded (read: expensive) options on nokia.com, the cheapest of which is about $90. Not gonna happen.

So I contacted Nokia support to find out what headsets might be compatible. They told me that the only headphones they know will work with the Lumia phones are those listed on their web site…for about $90 and $200, respectively. They do not offer a less expensive alternative, and they don’t have any information about any other compatible products.

If for no other reason than to say that they promote safe driving, Nokia should either offer an inexpensive headset for the Lumia or be prepared to recommend some compatible options. Bluetooth? Well that would be an option, but Nokia’s own product manual recommends using Bluetooth sparingly to conserve battery life. And Skype won’t work with Bluetooth, remember?

The Experiment Continues

When I started this experiment, I said I’d use the Windows Phone for two weeks, then I’d decide whether to continue using it for another two before making the big decision: stick with my iPhone or switch.

I’m two weeks in, and at this point I see no reason not to keep going. Sure, this week was bumpier than last, between my frustration over Microsoft’s Skype swing-and-a-miss, a mixed bag of app support for services I use, and my astonishment over Nokia’s failure to either offer or recommend an affordable headset. But there’s still a lot that I like about this phone and this OS.

Next week introduces an added challenge: I’m traveling for business. I’ll undoubtedly turn to my mobile devices for different needs than I might at home and around town. I should also get a much better sense of this thing’s battery life.

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About the author

Richard Gunther

Richard is a product experience consultant with a life-long interest in consumer electronics. He has been immersed in smart home tech for decades now and hosts The DMZ's home automation podcast, Home: On and co-hosts Entertainment 2.0 with Josh Pollard. Richard looks at products through an experience lens, always seeking the right mix of utility and delight.