I spent a few not particularly pleasant weeks with Microsoft's latest effort to achieve mobile relevance.
Windows Phone 8: Star Features
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Microsoft's approach to mobile devices reveals an apparent case of bipolar disorder. It alternates between cold dismissiveness -- treating the little gadgets as just another peripheral that's regularly tethered to the almighty PC -- and an enthusiastic embrace, in which the Lilliputian computers are legitimate inheritors of the mighty Windows franchise. The company is currently in one of the passionate phases, seemingly putting as much marketing muscle behind tablets and phones as it does laptops and all-in-ones.
In other words, the reality that Apple, Google and its Android partners, notably Samsung, are eating Microsoft's lunch has finally hit like a two-by-four between the eyes. Although Apple fomented the mobile device revolution, Google now owns the largest share of U.S. smartphone sales while Microsoft barely registers, and the situation is nearing the point of no recovery. Thus, Microsoft is making one last-ditch push for mobile device relevance with its two-pronged Windows 8 tablet/smartphone strategy. And success is riding on a new generation of Windows 8 phones, headlined by Nokia's Lumia 920.
This fall has seen a flurry of smartphone releases, and having recently reviewed the iPhone 5, I was eager to see how the latest crop of high-end products like the Samsung Galaxy Note II and Lumia 920 stacked up. AT&T kindly obliged and I've been putting both devices to the test for the past few weeks for an upcoming report.
We'll get to the hardware later, but the elephant in the room when evaluating Windows 8 -- whether on phones or PCs -- is the new Modern UI. Unlike the Android-powered Note, which comports with iOS-inspired smartphone tradition, Windows Phone 8 apes its PC namesake by utterly dispensing with the familiar multi-screen grid of fixed icons. Instead, there's a row of what Microsoft calls, in a classic bit of marketing overstatement, Live Tiles. If the ability to display information updates from an underlying app means live, I guess the term fits, but I'm having hard time seeing the functional improvement over iOS icon badges, Android's home screen widgets and both platforms' notification bars.
Live Tiles are arguably a clever innovation. However, as UI guru Jacob Nielsen noted in discussing the PC incarnation, the actual implementation leaves a lot to be desired. "Unfortunately, application designers immediately went overboard and went from live tiles to hyper-energized ones ... The theory, no doubt, is to attract users by constantly previewing new photos and other interesting content within the tiles. But the result makes the Surface start screen into an incessantly blinking, unruly environment that feels like dozens of carnival barkers yelling at you simultaneously."
In contrast, dispensing with multiple home screens in favor of a single scrolling list of app tiles is a clear step backward. There's a reason educated civilizations replaced scrolls with the bindable codex for manuscripts: browsing for information by flipping through pages is a lot more efficient. All the more so since Windows Phone 8, unlike Android and iOS, has no way to search for locally installed apps. That means get used to a lot of scrolling.
Yet in many ways, Phone 8 is a decided improvement over previous versions. Perhaps the most useful enhancement is a browser made for the era of HTML 5 Web apps. Although the phone edition of IE 10 is a notable improvement, it's still a work in progress. We ran across several websites that Safari or Chrome rendered with aplomb that IE clipped or garbled. This is manifested in IE's inferior scores on the HTML 5 fidelity test: 320 out of 500, versus 386 and 390 for Safari and Chrome, respectively. Other Phone 8 improvements include mobile Office apps and system-wide integration to Microsoft's cloud storage, Skydrive, similar to OS's iCloud and Android's Google Drive.
Workmanlike, if not Extraordinary, Hardware
When it comes to actually building a platform to display Microsoft's wares, Nokia has done a commendable, if not particularly elegant, job. This isn't surprising for a company that long ruled the cellphone market but never seemed to appreciate the public's fondness for Apple's sleek and sexy designs, substituting Nordic practicality for California design flair. Although the Lumia 920 is attractive and obviously well-constructed, svelte it isn't: no one will ever confuse it for an iPhone. It's almost as thick as a 10-year old iPod and weighs 65% more than the iPhone 5.
Its hardware specs, which comprise a dual-core Snapdragon S4 Plus (ARM A9 variant), 32 GB of integrated flash storage, and both LTE and dual-band Wi-Fi radios, place it solidly in superphone territory. However, in our benchmarking, which admittedly includes only browser tests since the standard system and graphics benchmarking apps haven't been ported to Windows, it lags both the iPhone 5 and Galaxy Note II by about 30% on average. Two areas where the Lumia does excel are its display, which is stunning, and its rear camera, both of which boast higher resolution than the iPhone (although I found low light shots from the iPhone more vivid).
But high-end hardware is of limited use if there's nothing to run on it. Like Apple and Google, Microsoft has finally created its very own app store, an addition that certainly makes it easier to find, buy and install apps -- that is, if there's anything worth installing. Here the Windows Store is still relatively barren by comparison, although in fairness, I've seen noticeable improvement over the past few weeks. Still, most of the apps are games and freebie utilities. There are a few big names like Evernote, Twitter and Facebook (which was actually developed by Microsoft), but no Flipboard, Gmail, or Instapaper.
The Lumia 920 represents the pinnacle of Windows Phone design, but it's unlikely to convert many existing iPhone or Android users. In fact, its primary selling point is price. At $99 on contract it's less than half what you'll spend on an iPhone or Galaxy. As others have noted, this means Microsoft might be resigned to the fact that its target market will never be the smartphone cognoscenti in the U.S., Europe and Japan, but rather feature phone converts in the developing world. I know I certainly won't be suffering any separation anxiety when this tester goes back.
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