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3 Weeks With Windows Phone 8 – Part II.

I’m trying out a Nokia Lumia 920 with Windows Phone 8 for three weeks and this is the second post in a three part series about my experience. In the first post, I had a look at how Windows Phone is currently doing against other competitors, like iOS and Android, and how Nokia has moved closer and closer to the financial abyss during their partnership with Microsoft. That post is available here. In this second post, I’ll be looking more closely on Windows Phone 8 itself and how the core features and stock applications work. In the third and final post, I’ll take a dive into the Windows Phone Store to see if it’s capable of competing with the selection in Apple’s App Store and Google Play.

Windows Phone 8 is not that different from iOS and Android, and not at all different from Windows Phone 7.5. Turning on a Windows Phone for the first time takes you through a welcoming process that’s very similar to other mobile phone operating systems and it help you through everything you’d expect: Select language, set the time, connect to a wireless network, connect to you Microsoft account and so on and so forth.

What struck me when I went through the welcome wizard is how little Windows Phone has changed visually since we last met. Over the last couple of years, both Android and iOS has evolved considerably visually. Windows Phone, on the other hand, has not. I feel like it has almost stagnated completely. Although visuals are perhaps not what makes or brakes an operating system, it’s important for first impressions and, together with usability, an important part of the user experience.

The Windows Phone 8 home screen consists of two parts: The tiles you can see on the image on the top of this post and, with a swipe to the left on the screen, a list of all available applications. The list is not paginated, meaning that if you accumulate a lot of apps, finding a particular one can be a bitch because the list can get quite long. Fortunately, Microsoft has realized this and made shortcuts that enables you to jump to application starting with a particular letter. But it’s not as convenient as a paginated list would be. On Windows Phone 8 you have to swipe to the left to get to the apps list, click on a letter in the list to open a screen of available letters, then click on the letter you want to jump to (for instance I if you want to jump down the list to Internet Explorer). A paginated list is, at least for me, easier to navigate. If I know that the app I want is on page two, I only have to swipe once to the left and I’ll immediately see the app I’m looking for. That’s one swipe, instead of a swipe, a click and then another click.

The tiles on the home screen an be rearranged freely, resized to three standard sizes and of course be removed. You can also add new tiles, either shortcuts to frequently used applications or applications can use tiles to show live information on the home screen. The Bing Weather app can, for instance, show you updated weather information for a given location. Nifty, but not exactly revolutionizing. Also, this is not a new feature in Windows Phone 8.

Among the stock apps, we find Bing Finance, Bing New, Bing Sport, a calculator, calendar, a camera app, Internet Explorer, Messaging and a phone app. The Lumia also comes with a map app, HERE Maps, and a driving navigation app, HERE Drive+. HERE Maps is a Nokia app and replaces the native Bing Maps app that Windows Phone 8 is shipped with, so it’s hard for me to tell how well the Bing Maps app works. But at least I’ve used HERE Maps a little and it seems to be able to handle the job well.

Everyone and their mother are talking about the cloud these days, and Microsoft is no exception. Windows Phone 8 is shipped with OneDrive and OneNote. OneDrive, formerly SkyDrive, enables you to sync your files between you phone and OneDrive, while OneNote lets you create notes that are also saved on the famous cloud. The OneDrive app will allow you to automatically sync every photo you take, which is a nice feature. For some reason, however, it only allows you to sync high quality versions when you’re on Wi-Fi. This is a weird design decision by Microsoft, since unlimited data plans are available. I can understand that it can be a good thing to prevent people who are not on unlimited plans to use all their monthly data on transferring pictures, but it should at least be an option to upload high quality photos even if you’re not in Wi-Fi.

Of the available stock apps, Messaging, Mail, Internet Explorer, Calendar, Camera and the alarm are the ones I use the most. The alarm is the most basic, but also the most important app since it gets me up in the morning. It does everything you’d expect an alarm app to do, but I couldn’t find a way to adjust the alarm volume separately from the phone volume. A quick search on the internet revealed that this is, in fact, not possible. And I find that pretty weird, to be honest.

Surfing the internet with Internet Explorer works fine. In terms of speed, it’s just as fast as Chrome on my Android phone. The time when Internet Explorer was a sub-par browser, both on mobile and desktop, seems to be a thing of the past. There’s one major annoyance in Internet Explorer, however. It’s not possible to upload files. Any web form that allows you to upload files are pretty much useless. You do get a “Browse” button you can press, but nothing happens when you do. At first, I thought it was a terrible bug, but it’s not. It’s a terrible design decision. For security reasons, Microsoft does not allow Windows Phone apps to browse the phone’s file system, which basically renders the browse button useless. There’s a fine line between security and usability, in this case Microsoft is standing on the wrong side.

The Messaging and Mail apps are pretty standard, they basically let you read and write messages and mail. There’s nothing special about them, really. The same goes for the Calendar app, except that it has one particularly annoying bug (or feature, I’m not sure): It insist on moving all the appointments I make on the phone one hour back. So if I create an appointment at 12 pm, save it, exists the Calendar app and then starts it again, the appointment is moved to 11 am. Fantastic stuff. I’ve checked and double checked all the time zone settings I could find, both in the Calendar app, on the phone and on Google, which is the calendar I’m syncing with, but I’ve been unable to find anything that would suggest why this is happening. So now I’m creating all my appointments one hour into the future to make sure they show up at the correct time.

I’m using the camera quite a lot for my A Picture A Day feature. It comes with all the standard features and settings, but also supports what Microsoft calls “lenses”. To me, this basically looks like shortcuts to other apps that use the camera. If you install Twitter, the Twitter app will appear as a new lens. We’ll have a closer look at lenses and other third party applications in the next post in this series.

Although Windows Phone 8 comes with a lot of features and a load of different stock apps, everything is pretty much like every other mobile phone operating system. It’s really nothing in there that stands out as particularly mind blowing, instead it is the bugs and annoyances that steal my focus. Normally, I’m using a Nexus 4 with the latest version of Android, and I’m not going to lie to you: I think Android is a great mobile phone operating system. Because of this, it’s probably easier for me to see the annoyances of Windows Phone 8 than the occasional strokes of genius.

In the next entry, we’ll have a look at third party apps for Windows Phone 8. Two years ago, the number and quality of third party applications for Windows Phone was unimpressive compared to Android and iOS. But that was then, has things changed for the better? We’ll find out.

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