Left: Nokia Lumia 925 with Windows Phone 8.1. Right: Nokia Lumia 830 with Windows 10 Mobile
One of my readers remembered my lengthy piece from November — A few days with Windows Phone 8.1 and a Nokia Lumia 925 — and has noticed I’ve recently doubled down by also getting a Nokia Lumia 830 to update it to Windows 10 Mobile and try that more recent version of Windows for mobile devices. So I received a brief email the other day and, among other things, I was asked: So, how’s that Windows Phone experiment going? Thinking about embracing the dark side for good?
Pretty well, I’d say. And no, I’m not switching to Windows Phone full time and leaving iOS behind. But — after using the Lumia 925 for more than three months, and the Lumia 830 for one month and a half — my experience with the hardware and the software has been truly positively surprising. I’m at a point where what started as a mere experiment driven by curiosity for the user interface of Windows Phone, now isn’t an experiment anymore. I always carry with me one of those two phones above, together with my primary iPhone. They are valid secondary devices, and in a rare instance where the iPhone ran out of battery, they managed the role of primary device with little effort.
When I first got the Lumia 925 back in early November and started finding my way around Windows Phone 8.1, looking for apps and trying out many of them, I was impressed by how the system kept up with anything I tested, and by how the phone maintained responsiveness. But you know, I thought, these are just a few days, the system has been freshly restored and all… Let’s see if things start degrading after a longer period of time. They have not.
In three months’ daily usage (usually light to moderate), the Lumia 925 with Windows Phone 8.1 has been the most stable system I’ve used that is not iOS. The phone has never shown unexpected behaviour, never froze, never stuttered. In a couple of occasions, an app had to be uninstalled and reinstalled to restore functionality, but I ascribe that to a bug of an app which clearly lacks refinements, and which I later deleted for good. As I wrote in my original piece, I really enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, Windows Phone 8.1’s UI. It’s consistent, predictable, thoughtful, visually vibrant, fun to interact with and, especially in my initial exploratory phase, it has been a breath of fresh air versus iOS’s ‘business as usual’.
When it comes to the Nokia Lumia 830 and Windows 10 Mobile combination, my general impression is roughly the same, although I must say I enjoy Windows 10 Mobile a bit less than 8.1, and that the Lumia 830 has impressed me more than the software. Specifically, I’m surprised at how well this phone handles the more resource-hungry Windows 10. The experience has had a few more bumps so far than Windows Phone 8.1 on the other Lumia: sometimes apps have quit on launch, and one time the default camera app became unexpectedly unresponsive, but nothing more (even under iOS I experienced similar issues in the past). I know things are smoother on devices such as the Nokia Lumia 930, 1520, and 950/950XL, all phones with faster CPUs and more RAM.
I’m still looking for a 930; I made do with an 830 because I found one in good condition at a bargain price, but it’s a nicer phone than I expected. For someone who finds 4.7-inch iPhones to be the maximum comfortable size, the 5-inch Lumia 830 handles quite well in my hands, and I have very little problems reaching the farthest areas of the UI. The fact that it has a removable battery and expandable storage through mini-SD cards is certainly a bonus and helps extend the phone’s life and usefulness.
Windows 10 Mobile vs. Windows Phone 8.1
Earlier I said I enjoy Windows 10 Mobile a bit less than Windows Phone 8.1, and I wanted to elaborate a little. While the general interface of Win10M retains an indubitable degree of familiarity for those coming from WP8.1 — the customisable Start screen, Live Tiles, lock screen, status bar, the All Apps list view, etc. — there has been a refresh across the whole UI to make it look perhaps more ‘professional’, more homogeneous across various Windows devices (tablets, convertibles, PCs), more subdued, with familiar UI elements taken from other platforms (e.g. the so-called hamburger menus); and the end result, while still visually pleasing, is also blander and more unimaginative. And even a bit inconsistent in places.
Perhaps my very first impression is still the best summary of Win10M’s general feel. As I said on Twitter in January: It’s as if WP8.1 got married, had kids, and stopped being a rebel artist.
A few quick comparisons (WP8.1 on the left, Win10M on the right):
Calendar, week view — The Win10M version may sport a sleeker interface, but by mimicking the week view of a paper organiser, the WP8.1 version delivers more information at a glance (including weather).
Mail — The reason the backgrounds are so different is because on the Lumia 925 (WP8.1) I prefer the Light theme, while Outlook Mail in Win10M on the Lumia 830 is set to match the ‘Windows mode’ on the phone. As for the UI here, it’s a matter of taste. I prefer WP8.1’s bigger text and the navigation by headlines. I can easily switch from All, to Unread, to Urgent by tapping on those big targets, while under Win10M a similar effect is achieved by tapping that small ‘All’ drop-down menu on the top right, which triggers an equally had-to-tap list of options.
MSN Weather — At first glance, the UIs aren’t that different, but on Win10M the information doesn’t feel as efficiently organised. On WP8.1 there is a clear hierarchy, designed to guide your eyes towards what feels more important. Another thing that WP8.1 in general got right (more on this later) is the horizontal navigation, where you usually get pages of information you access by swiping horizontally. In MSN Weather on WP8.1, then, there is more breathing room, because you get separate pages for the Daily and Hourly forecasts. On Win10M, all the information is compressed in a single page and you just scroll down to see it all. There is little differentiation among the app’s visual elements and the overall impression is that it’s just a bunch of information thrown at you.
MSN News — Here the difference in how the information is displayed and accessed is more evident, and while the Win10M version has the typical ‘big photo + headline’ presentation of many other news publications on the web, the WP8.1 displays more content at a glance, and feels more organised hierarchically. And you have to scroll less.
Blue Skies — This is a third-party weather app, but I chose it because once again it exemplifies the difference between the two core paradigms for content presentation and navigation in WP8.1 and Win10M: in WP8.1 we have distinct screens or pages, where you don’t need to scroll down because all the information is neatly displayed in each page; then, usually, you move to the other page or section horizontally. In Blue Skies for WP8.1, the three blue dots at the bottom clearly indicate that the information is spread across three pages: the landing page (current weather), then a Today page, with a summary of the weather for the day, and finally a 5 Day page, with the forecast for the next 5 days. In Blue Skies for Win10M, all the information is presented in a single page, and you have to scroll, scroll, scroll to see everything. Swiping horizontally, looking at the content thoughtfully presented in a paginated view is, in my opinion, a better UI design and it’s less tiring when you use the phone one-handed.
Settings — In this case, Win10M has definitely the better UI. While I love the WP8.1 aesthetics, in Win10M the different system settings are more clearly divided in subcategories. They’re easier to discover and memorise.
The Windows Phone interface has nice touches and features here and there that add to an overall smooth and pleasant experience. When you adjust the volume with the phone hardware buttons, an overlay appears at the top of the screen, showing the volume level; this overlay can be expanded and you can easily see and adjust the volume levels for Ringer + Notifications, and Media + Apps. This way you can, for example, keep notifications at a volume you can hear, and mute any sound produced by media content and apps, so that if you stumble on an autoplaying video while checking a website, you can make sure you (and those around you) won’t be startled by a sudden blast of music or sound effects.
The Battery Saver settings in Win10M have a clever feature I highlighted in this tweet: you can specify exactly when the battery saver should turn on. On iOS, the equivalent Low Power Mode can either be activated when battery drops to 20%, or manually, whenever you need it. But you have to remember to activate it, if you want it to kick in before the iPhone battery reaches the 20% threshold. In Win10M, things are a bit more flexible: I can set it to any value beforehand, start in the morning with the phone battery at 100%, and when it reaches, say, 55% the battery saver activates.
What we know as Notification Centre and Control Centre in iOS, can be found merged in the same pane in both WP8.1 and Win10M. You swipe from the top of the screen, the Notifications pane slides into view, and at the top of it you can access Quick Actions (the Windows Phone equivalent of iOS’s Control Centre). In WP8.1 these are just four (customisable). In Win10M you still see four, but they can be expanded to show all available Quick Actions. There is no Today View or other fancy things we have in iOS, but in daily usage I’ve found this more utilitarian approach to be refreshing and effective in its simplicity. It’s all there, you don’t need to memorise where to swipe from to get what.
It truly is a pity that Microsoft has decided to not develop Windows 10 further for mobile phones, and it’s sad that the ‘lack of apps’ mantra has contributed to the sinking of the whole platform. It’s true, there is less choice than on iOS or Android, but — on Win10M more than WP8.1 — there are enough decent apps to cover almost all the essential services and provide enough functionality to make a Windows Phone handset still useful today.
I’ll close by reiterating a paragraph taken from the conclusion of my previous piece on Windows Phone: Now that I’ve used (and own) iOS, Android, webOS, and finally Windows Phone devices, I think it’s really sad that today it’s just iOS vs Android, basically. The real pity is that, UI-wise, the ‘loser’ platforms are, in many aspects, more innovative, creative, daring, and in most cases more consistent than the two giants. And after more than three months with these Windows Phone smartphones, I can also add that Windows Phone (especially 8.1) has proven to be more stable and reliable, if not than iOS, at least than Android.