When Abi got an iPhone 6 in the autumn of 2014, Alex got Abi’s old iPhone 5, and I inherited the iPhone 4 he had been using until then. This was Abi’s iPhone 4 from 2010. I had been using a Nexus 4, and I was not enormously happy with it. It was fine as a phone, but I don’t like the intrusiveness of Google’s services under Android.
The iPhone 4 is stuck on iOS 7. It can’t update to iOS 8 or 9. Its hardware, awesome as it was back in 2010 (I remember very clearly how excited everyone was about the retina screen), is very out of date now. App developers aren’t even trying to cater for it any more. Back in October, the latest version of Google Maps crashed whenever I tried to open it, and the latest version of Spotify couldn’t play music without stuttering. The phone’s hardware was starting to fail as well: the home button only worked intermittently.
I wanted a new phone. The iPhone 6S had just landed, but was really expensive, especially because I wanted the OIS feature, which is only available in the 6S Plus model. Similarly specced cameras were available on a variety of Android phones, but I still don’t trust Android. So how about…a Windows phone again? Microsoft announced the new Lumia 950 phones at the start of October, but they wouldn’t be available until December, and they were still going to be expensive. But last year’s model, the Lumia 930, was still available, and had come down in price quite a bit. I was able to get one for under €300.
Ever since using an LG Optimus 7 back in 2011, I have liked the Windows Phone (“Metro”) interface. The design language speaks to me. Apart from the sometimes curious back button behaviour, I find it very natural to use, and delightful to look at. I like the hardware design of the Nokia Lumia phones, too. They’re sleek, well-built, understated. I had been a little concerned that the un-expandable 32GB memory would be too little for me, but that hasn’t been a problem so far. This might be because of what most people perceive as the main problem with Windows Phone: apps, or the lack of them.
Maybe I’m not a typical smartphone user , but I just don’t use many apps. I’m not constantly scouring the app store for the latest games, and I have never integrated my phone into my “productivity workflow” like others have. (Listening to the Cortex podcast with Myke Hurley and CGP Grey, especially the early episodes, is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people who do much, if not most of their work on mobile devices.) When it comes down to it, there are only a few essential apps I need/use/want on my phone:
- Phone calls. This definitely isn’t the most-used aspect of my phone, but I do still need it.
- Text messaging. I’m not a heavy messaging user, but I still text more often than I speak on the phone.
- Camera. This is the most important feature for me. I had been taking fewer and fewer photos with the iPhone 4 because I kept being disappointed by its camera.
- Music. My experience of Apple Music was so bad that I have almost entirely stopped using iTunes. I was part-way there earlier in the year, but iTunes 12.2 was so egregiously bad that it was the final straw. I use Spotify just about all the time now.
- Web browser.
- Podcasts. I listen to a lot of podcasts now.
- Email. I don’t like email, and I rarely write email from my phone, but it’s sometimes useful to see what has come in.
- Find My Friends.
Optional: some kind of video player to play mp4 files, Netflix, Dropbox, 1Password, weather, GPS tracking. Calendar? Yeah whatever.
All of this is easily available on the Windows Phone platform. The built-in camera app and photo viewer are good enough. The Spotify app isn’t as polished as the iOS version, but it works. The built-in podcasts app is basic, but fine. Some websites hate it, but Internet Explorer does the job. The maps apps get me where I need to go. Life360 seems to be an adequate, and above all cross-platform replacement for Apple’s native Find My Friends tool. Apps open quickly, and when they’re open they’re responsive.
Better yet is the feeling of not being locked in to the iOS or Android platform.
There are a few niggles, of course. The first one was not a problem with Windows Phone, but rather with Apple: getting me off of iMessage. Abi still has her iPhone. It took us a couple of weeks to get to the point where she could actually send me an ordinary text message again, without iOS “helpfully” trying to route it over the iMessage system to the phone I no longer had with me. It’s annoying of Apple that they don’t have a better and more obvious way for people to leave their ecosystem. (The “Deregister iMessage” is neither good nor obvious.)
Getting a case for it is hard. Very few retail stores (at least here in NL) stock cases for Windows phones.
The Dropbox app is a disappointment. On the iPhone, it was an essential part of my photos workflow. I would take photos and videos, then let Dropbox automatically sync them to my “Camera Uploads” folder, and from there I’d pick them up on my laptop. It worked fine. On Windows phone, not only will Dropbox not sync videos, it also sometimes skips photos. Just often enough that I can’t trust it, and have to double-check that it has grabbed everything. If it has missed something, I have to use the Nokia Photo Transfer tool to import the missing photos manually, because Dropbox forever refuses to catch up with them again. Finally, if I allow it to run in the background, it crashes the phone entirely every 12 hours or so, putting it into a mode where it doesn’t receive phone or text messages, but doesn’t actually reboot & work again until I try to unlock it.
This annoyance is compounded by the fact that the latest version of OSX El Capitan has dropped the ability to natively talk to Windows Phones. So no automatic import into iPhoto. The Windows Phone Connector app has been deprecated, and doesn’t work on El Capitan any more. The only thing that does work is the rather primitive Nokia Photo Transfer tool.
Did I say “disappointment” and “annoyance”? I meant “hideous mess that will lead to data loss.” Don’t use Dropbox for Windows Phone.
But overall, I like it. It takes pretty good photos. It plays music and podcasts when I’m in the car, and in other transport. I can read web pages and check my email. The battery life is fantastic — it just keeps going for days. It’s neither iOS nor Android, and it was satisfyingly inexpensive compared to other flagship phones. I’m kinda looking forward to Windows 10 when it arrives, but I don’t think it’ll change how I use it. Which is good, because that means I’m not heavily locked in to the Windows ecosystem either, and will be able to leave it easily when the time comes.