Windows Phone 8.1: A Former Android User’s Initial Impressions



I received my Nokia 925 a couple of days ago, and after resolving a case of missing SIM holder, I upgraded to the Developers Preview of Windows Phone 8.1. Since then, I’ve been setting up the phone and re-familiarizing myself with Windows Phone after a few years on Android. I must say, the platform has improved tremendously since I last used it (which was Windows Phone 7 shortly after its initial release), but is it good enough to replace Android? That’s a tough question.

My initial, strongest, and most visceral impression of Windows 8.1 is that it’s very different from Android (and iOS), and mostly in a good way. It’s refreshing to use, with a generally smooth workflow that’s fast, efficient, and consistent—a welcome departure from the often disjointed, icon-based, inconsistent experience with Android (and, to a lesser but still significant extent, iOS). Most apps conform nicely to the Windows Phone paradigm of Live Tiles, Hubs, and panoramic app UI, and the improved multitasking, Cortana, and persistent notifications via the Action Center make for a very nice experience overall—albeit with a few significant caveats.

Notice how both the email app and the calendar app conform to the same user interface elements—panoramic navigation, controls, fonts, etc. This is a dark theme on a Nokia 925, likely due to the AMOLED display (whites use tremendous amounts of power on AMOLED), but this is still an attractive, efficient, and highly function UI.

But do I like Windows Phone better than Android? Again, that’s a tough question, and for now I’ll just say: I’m enamored with the overall experience, but it’s too soon to tell if I’ll be as productive with Windows Phone as I am with Android. That might come down to Android’s superior background processing and app selection, or Windows Phone’s more consistent experience and Office support might win out. I just can’t yet say for sure, but here are my impressions so far.

Note that I’m not basing my comparison on Android L, which Google recently previewed at their I/O developers event. First, Android L isn’t shipping yet, and while Windows Phone 8.1 itself isn’t available on a majority of devices, it’s still a real product that will come to all recent Windows Phone devices very soon. Android L will come to Nexus devices at some point in the next few months, and then in a year or two will be available on some large percentage of Android devices. Until then, I consider it a sort of beta product.

The Good
User Interface
Windows Phone is a beautiful, modern mobile operating system, making both Android and iOS seem clunky, ugly, and old. It’s also faster and smoother, with one action flowing into another. Microsoft took a tremendous risk in developing a mobile operating system that’s so different from the industry’s dominant players, but in my opinion the user interface is far superior to Google’s and Apple’s best efforts. Being better doesn’t guarantee market success, of course, but if it did then Microsoft would be far in the lead.

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It’s not that these Android apps are unattractive or hard to use, it’s that they’re different. Moving from one Android app to another can be disruptive to a workflow.

Note that not all Windows Phone apps are consistent. Even so, the Yelp app and the Kindle app share panoramic navigation, and so moving through the apps doesn’t require the user to switch from one navigation method to another.

Live Tiles
I’ve long been a firm believer in the idea of at-a-glance information on smartphones. You should be able to turn your smartphone on, take a quick look, and get all the information you need to decide whether anything needs further action—be it email status, weather, Twitter notifications, or whatever. I prefer Android over iOS largely because of its support for widgets, which can provide a wealth of info with a quick glance at the home screen.

Windows Phone’s Live Tiles approach is very different from Android’s widgets, in both good and bad ways. Essentially, Live Tiles provides information from more sources on a single screen, requiring less scrolling than Android. However, Live Tiles also generally present less information than a well-executed Android widget. Windows Phone tells you how many new emails you have, but Android’s Email and Gmail widgets can show you the actual emails themselves. Android’s widgets are also more actionable, providing the ability, for example, to create a new Evernote note with a single click.

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The Windows Phone home screen with Live Tiles shows less information per app and it’s actionable compared to an Android home screen, but it shows information from more apps at once and allows for more apps to be immediately available at once. Live Tiles are also more immediately updated in many cases than Android widgets.

It might seem that I should prefer Android’s widgets over Windows Phone’s Live Tiles, but so far that’s not been true. I’ve discovered that I’m okay with seeing less information about more things at a quick glance than getting more information but needing to scroll through more home screens to get at it. I find myself spending less time checking my Windows Phone than I do my Android phone, which is exactly what Microsoft intended for the platform.

Lock Screen
Android is steadily improving its lock screen functionality, with widget support being its main feature. However, I find Windows Phone’s lock screen to be far more efficient, with the ability to select which apps and information is displayed and to create a highly customized lock screen that—again, with the idea of providing at-a-glance information—can mean avoiding unlocking the smartphone at all.

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There’s only one Windows Phone lock screen, but I love how much information it can display at once. The Android widget is nice, but there’s only one widget per lock screen, meaning that getting to a variety of information requires a fair amount of scrolling. With Android, the user might as well go ahead and unlock, whereas with Windows phone a single glance at the lock screen can often be enough.

For example, the native Weather app can populate the lock screen with current weather information (see image above), as well as a background image that I’ve found to fairly accurately reflect the weather outside. I live in Southern California where “weather” doesn’t really mean much, because it’s warm and sunny most of the year, but it’s still nice to know weather it’s blistering hot or, occasionally, cloudy. If I still lived in the Midwest, where if you don’t like the weather just wait a few minutes, this would be a remarkably useful feature.

In addition, the lock screen can show (non-actionable, unfortunately) notifications for things like email and upcoming calendar events. My workflow with Windows Phone, therefore, has been very different from my Nexus 5, in that I quite often simply check my lock screen for pertinent information and then put it back in my pocket.

The Bad
Background Processing
By far, Windows Phone’s biggest weakness compared to Android and even iOS is background processing. Note that I’m not talking about “multitasking” here, which for many people seems to mean “task switching,” or the process of moving from one app to another. By this definition, Windows Phone is as good as its competitors, with long-pressing the back button serving the same function as, say, holding down the home button on Android.

Rather, I’m talking about how well apps run in the background, an area where Windows Phone is seriously lacking. This may or may not be Microsoft’s fault—application developers seem very inconsistent in how they support Windows Phone’s capabilities. Some apps, such as Runtastic, seem to run just fine in the background for as long as I need them to do so. Others, such as Life360, which my family uses to keep track of each other, don’t remain running in the background and thus lose their effectiveness. I’ve rarely had this problem on Android.

Update: I heard from Life360, and apparently a fix will be released soon, perhaps this week. I’ll report back on the update, and if it works then that helps confirm that the issue with background processing is app-related and not inherent to Windows Phone 8.1.

It’s entirely possible that developers simply haven’t yet adjusted to changes in Windows Phone 8.1 (see update above). After all, Windows 8.1 isn’t officially released yet for most Windows Phones, and that might be holding developers back. Also, I may be misunderstanding Microsoft’s approach here—maybe push notifications are more important in Windows Phone than in Android, and so background processing isn’t as vital. This is something I need to explore.

Either way, I hope this is resolved soon, because at this point Windows Phone is really cramping my style.

Google Property Support
Another area of weakness is Google property support. Now, I recognize that Microsoft wants to build out its own ecosystem, and they’re doing a decent (if a bit slow) job of it. Windows Phone app support in general is improving, and Microsoft is developing some nice properties of their own. But transitioning from Android to Windows Phone is difficult, given my natural reliance on tools like Google+ and Hangouts. To date, I haven’t found a good solution for either, and that makes using Windows Phone in an Android household a bit of a challenge.

Microsoft recently released an Android phone, albeit likely grandfathered from Nokia, and so providing first-party Google apps shouldn’t be such a stretch. If I’m not mistaken, Google provides APIs that Microsoft could use (although I don’t see Hangouts in this list) and so there may not be a technical hurdle to overcome. The bottom line is, if Microsoft wants people to migrate from Android to Windows Phone, then like or not they need to make the transition much easier than it is.

General App Support
Yes, Windows Phone still suffers from a relative dearth of apps compared to Android and iOS. Many of the major mainstream apps are available in the Windows Phone Store, but the farther you go down the long tail, the worse things get. Even very popular but not-quite-mainstream apps like Out of Milk aren’t available, again making it difficult for a Windows Phone user to interact in an Android family.

I’ll not belabor the point here, because app support is constantly evolving and really deserves its own treatment. I’ll post soon about the apps that I miss the most. For now, suffice it to say that making the transition from Android to Windows Phone involves a number of important compromises, not all of which can be easily worked around.

The Same

While Windows Phone is very different from Android, as I’ve noted, much of the functionality remains the same. In short, you can accomplish the same things with both platforms, just in different ways. Or at least, I can accomplish them; your mileage might vary.

For example, Cortana, Windows Phone’s intelligent assistant, is roughly similar to Google Now, even in its rough beta state. Cortana provides news updates that try to be relevant to me, just like Google Now. I can speak commands that Cortana will execute, in some ways better than and in some ways worse than Google Now.

The reality, for me at least, is that I never used Google Now to its fullest, and I don’t use Cortana to its fullest either. I use some very specific functionality of both, and ignore the rest. So far, I’ve found Cortana to be roughly as useful as Google Now, and haven’t found myself missing the latter as much as I thought I would.

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Cortana and Google Now both provide news items, although Cortana’s don’t yet seem customized; Google Now does a great job of pulling pertinent information from searches, email, etc. And, both offer voice commands, albeit with different strengths and weaknesses. I find Cortana to be as useful overall as Google Now, better in some areas and worse in others.

Windows Phone 8.1 finally introduces persistent notifications, and they’re implemented in pull-down list that’s pretty much identical to Android’s and iOS’s. Notifications in Windows Phone aren’t actionable like they are in Android (and will be in iOS), but they’re functional. Again, this is an area where I never really used Android to its fullest—I rarely used Android’s notifications actions, other than pausing music, and so I don’t really miss much when using Windows Phone.

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Android has more informative and more actionable notifications overall, but Windows Phone’s Action Center provides just enough information that I don’t miss Android in this regard.

Ultimately, making the transition from Android tablets to Windows 8.1 tablets, that is from the Nexus 10 to the Dell Venue 8 Pro and Microsoft Surface Pro 3, has been a much smoother and more enjoyable process than switching from Android on my Nexus 5 to Windows Phone 8.1 on my Nokia 925. I lose very little functionality on the tablet side, and gain quite a bit via access to full-fledged Windows Desktop apps, whereas Windows Phone has forced me into some seriously inconvenient compromises.

Don’t misunderstand me: I enjoy using Windows Phone more than Android when it can do what I need it to do. But when it can’t, it creates some real limitations. If I had to quantify it, I’d say that Windows Phone does 80% of what I need to do, and does it well enough that I don’t miss Android. But that missing 20% is significant, and makes this transition a difficult one.

At this point, I can’t really recommend that any hardcore Android user switch to Windows Phone. Perhaps my opinion will change as I continue to adjust to the platform and learn new ways to accomplish the missing functionality, and of course as Microsoft continues to improve the platform and developers continue to write apps for it. At the same time, I think Windows Phone is a fine platform for anyone who’s purchasing their first smartphone, and also for the casual Android user who doesn’t dig deep into Android’s functionality. For these folks, Windows Phone’s relative ease-of-use and consistency could be a real advantage.

I’m going to stick with Windows Phone, because that’s the only way I’ll be able to report on it and, hopefully, help guide Microsoft in the right direction. I believe that the potential is there to make Windows Phone the superior platform that it’s so close to becoming, and with advances like Cortana I see Microsoft being far more aggressive in improving the platform. And, as I mentioned in my post introducing my transition to all Microsoft products, the company’s vision of one “operating system, any device” is very compelling, so much so that I Google is making their own attempt to duplicate it (see Google I/O 2014).

That’s all for now. I’ll continue to provide feedback on Windows Phone as I go along, and please let me know where I’m missing something or where the platform works, or doesn’t work, for you.



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