The 8 Best Things About Windows Phone 8.1

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I’m working on a one-month (or so) review of Windows Phone 8.1. In the meantime, I thought I’d list the top 8 things I like best about the latest version of Microsoft’s plucky mobile operating system. Here’s a hint: I like it, and more than I like Android.

1. User Interface
The UI is a broad topic, but one that’s near and dear to every smartphone user’s heart. We touch the UI with every smartphone interaction, whether it’s checking for notifications and updates, making a call, sending a text, or otherwise using these powerful yet diminutive computers. In this respect, at the very least, Windows Phone 8.1 is my preferred mobile OS: its UI is fluid, dynamic, and attractive, making for a pleasant experience overall.

Since switching to a Lumia 925 as my daily driver, I’ve lost my taste for Android (and I was never an iOS fan, so I’ll not waste time in comparing it). I now find Android’s UI on my Nexus 5 (4.4.4) to be disjointed, jarring, and generally a kludge. I can see that I didn’t so much like Android as tolerate it. Those are harsh words, I know, but honestly I feel nearly the same about Windows Phone 8.1 as I once did about webOS: in terms of UI, it just feels better than Android. It’s not perfect, but overall I find it a far more comfortable environment for day-to-day use.

2. Performance
Microsoft has a reputation for creating bloated, poorly performing software. They’ve held this reputation for as long as I can remember, and in some cases it’s been deserved. Microsoft did once seem to have a tendency to write software that needed ever-improving hardware to bail it out–although conversely, one could say that Microsoft leveraged the ever-improving hardware to create increasingly powerful software. But that’s another discussion.

Regardless, since the Windows Vista fiasco (although there’s more to that story as well), this seems to have changed. Windows 7 runs better on existing hardware than Vista (natch), and Windows 8.1 runs better than Windows 7. Windows Phone 8.1 is the best-performing Windows Phone iteration yet, by all accounts, and it runs on lower-end devices with only 512MB of RAM. In my opinion, Microsoft makes some of the most efficient software on the market (a controversial statement, perhaps, but I’ll stick by it).

Overall, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised at just how good performance has been on my Lumia 925, a decently-spec’d smartphone but by no means the highest-end device. Apps can take a fraction of a second longer to load than on Android, in some cases, but otherwise the UI is buttery smooth–and I’m deliberately stealing here from Google’s “butter” initiative intended to improve Android’s performance. I notice the biggest difference in scrolling lists–where my Nexus 5 is very choppy, my Lumia 925 simply glides along without a hiccup.

I would compare Windows Phone 8.1 to iOS on my iPad 3, which was once my smoothest experience, except iOS 7 turned the iPad into a hot mess. Opening apps, scrolling, and in general overall performance on the iPad has become horrible, and so now my Lumia 925 takes its place as my best overall performing device. I’ll note that my Surface Pro 3 running Windows 8.1 is a close second, testifying again that Microsoft is entirely capable of making well-performing software.

3. Start Screen
The Start Screen is by far my single favorite aspect of Windows Phone 8.1. It’s the element that I interact with most often, of course, and as I mentioned in my initial impressions post, I get far more information from a single glance than I can possibly enjoy on any single Android home screen. To gain access to as much information or interactivity as on Windows Phone, I need to scroll through my Nexus 5’s four home screens, and while in some cases the information is more detailed in Android, I find that I’m opening and switching between apps on my Nexus 5 far more often than on my Lumina 925.

The Windows Phone 8.1 Update added in a number of nice features, not the least of which is folders. Microsoft knocked this one out of the park, providing what I consider to be the best folder functionality on the market. It seems like a small thing, but the ability to group similar applications together, with notifications functionality intact, makes for a surprisingly powerful organizational tool. It’s amazing sometimes just how much impact small changes can make in a device’s capabilities.

4. Lock Screen
Similarly, the Windows Phone 8.1 Lock Screen is also more informative than Android’s. I can see the time, the date, current weather conditions, and a smattering of notifications (new emails, upcoming appointments, Twitter interactions, etc.). The Lumia’s Glance function also shows the time and notifications, meaning that my workflow is often merely pulling my 925 out of my pocket, glancing (no pun intended) at the screen, and then putting it away. A couple of quick taps takes me to the Lock Screen, where I get even more information, and only if there’s something pressing do I need to swipe up and unlock the screen.

Not all Windows Phones have the Glance functionality, but Windows Phone 8.1 devices share common functionality otherwise. This means that no matter which Windows Phone you pick up, you’re guaranteed of having the same powerful and functional Lock Screen.

5. Cortana
I like Google Now quite a bit on my Nexus 5. It provides quick access to uncannily appropriate information, and provides some powerful organizational tools. Nevertheless, I like Cortana better. First, she has more personality; Google Now isn’t a personal assistant as much as it’s the interface to an extensive set of commands and search tools. The list of what both Google Now and Cortana can do is exhaustive, and so I won’t spend time right now in a point-by-point comparison.

In general, though, I’ve had just as much luck with Cortana’s responses to my queries as I have with Google Now, she alerts me as relevantly to upcoming appointments, reminders, and the like, and in general she’s just more fun to interact with. I spent some time comparing Cortana to Google Now, with an emphasis on unscripted commands, and the results are in the video below.

Microsoft has asked users to speak to Cortana in true conversational tones, because that’s the only way to train her to respond in kind. So far, those efforts seem to be working out fairly well. I feel more myself when interacting with Cortana, which is what’s going to make it a very important aspect of what I believe (and hope) will be Microsoft’s resurgence in the mobile space.

6. Hubs
Essentially, Hubs are Windows Phone elements that aggregate information. For example, there’s the People Hub, which provides not just contact info but also social media updates and contact history, all in one place. The People Hub isn’t so much a contact manager as it is a central place for managing all of one’s personal and professional interactions. Contrast this with Android, which has a People app for contact info, but where contact history is contained in the Phone and Messaging apps and social media updates are accessed via dedicated apps.

Then, there’s the Games Hub, which provides access to all of the games installed on the device, including Xbox Live games, along with Xbox Live Achievements updates, and game recommendations. Android has nothing similar–there’s no single place to access all of one’s games quickly and cohesively.

Hubs provide for a level of convenience, access to information, and manageability that simply doesn’t exist on Android. I’d like to see more Hubs in Windows Phone 8.1, and I see Microsoft splitting out more content into separate apps (e.g., Messaging for SMS and Skype for IM), but those that exist today are a real boon to productivity.

7. Software Keyboard
I’m not entirely certain what makes it work so well for me, but I like the Windows Phone 8.1 keyboard more than I expected. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about Android has been the choice of keyboards, with SwiftKey being my favorite. Since using Windows Phone 8.1, however, I have a new favorite. The stock keyboard is surprisingly accurate, and the swiping function works as well as any Android options. Autocorrection and prediction is excellent and not overbearing, and I can type as fast as I can on any keyboard I’ve used on my Nexus 5–even though the Lumia 925 screen is significantly smaller. I can only imagine how quickly I could type if I had access to a larger device on T-Mobile.

8.  Customization
Arguably, Android is a vastly more customizable platform. From sideloading apps (not easy to do on Windows Phone), to different home screen UIs, to widgets, etc., Android is a dream for people who want to customize every aspect of their smartphone. The downside of that flexibility is the time it can take to manage the environment, and I’ve found myself spending more time tweaking Android than actually using it productively.

Note that this is not intended as a knock against Android. This is much more an indictment of me and my easily distracted nature–I could easily set my Nexus 5 up once and then leave it alone. However, Windows Phone 8.1 is perfect for me because it provides for customization in just the right places, without giving me too many options to play around with. Android would be great if technology were simply a hobby for me; in terms of making me more productive, however, Windows Phone is the better platform.

Conclusion
In my experiment of transitioning to all (or mostly) Microsoft products, Windows Phone 8.1 has been a welcome surprise. There are only a few things that I miss from Android, such as Hangouts support, and overall I’ve come to rely on my Lumia 925 more than I relied on my Nexus 5. I spend more time on my smartphone actually getting things done, and less time playing around with configurations. That’s as solid a recommendation as I can make.

It remains to be seen whether or not Windows Phone will survive, even as a solid third choice to iOS and Android. If it doesn’t, then it will join webOS as a superior mobile OS that suffered from some serious marketing mistakes, in Windows Phone’s case simply being too late to market. I do hope that it lives on, however, because I really do miss it when I pick up my Nexus 5.

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