Having used Symbian, Windows Mobile, Meego and iOS in the past, and settled on Android for the past 18 months, I have been quite excited to check out Windows Phone’s current offer in terms of ecosystem, OS, and devices. Thus, for the past couple of months, I have been using a Nokia Lumia 800 (running WP 7.5) as my secondary device, along with my primary HTC Desire Z (running ICS). After a series of ups and downs, I have found a lovely cocoon with both platforms, although the back and forth between them is highlighting all the exclusive features in each that I wish existed on the other.
This opinion isn’t solely based on my experience with the HTC Desire Z and its meager 800MHz processor, but on dozens of modern Android devices with dual-core processors. It befuddles me that manufacturers had to go up to quad-core processors in order to make Android almost as fluid as it should be. We used to have full desktop computers running perfectly with much less than that!
Windows Phone currently only supports single-core processors, and yet it feels, acts and responds way faster than Android flagships that are clocked at double the speed. Microsoft truly delivered a masterpiece here, as there is no noticeable lag when pinching, zooming, scrolling, tapping. The whole experience is enjoyable and gets out of the way to let you do your work. Additionally, WP has proved to be perfectly stable, with me running into no freezes at all. By comparison, my Android gets a few Force Close errors in any given week.
Unified Design and Interaction Language
Before Ice Cream Sandwich, Android had absolutely no signature look. Whether it was stock or (god forbid) a skinned OEM phone, everything just felt like a mosaic of decisions made by teams who never communicated with each other. ICS introduced the Holo design directions yet many apps, even new ones, still offer an iPhone-like approach, an old Android approach with the ugly four grey tabs on the top, or even something totally out of a terminal command window. To this very day, every time I download an Android application, I have to learn where its settings and options are, as well as how to switch between different tabs or columns or views.
By comparison, after only a couple of minutes with Windows Phone, I had a perfect understanding of how the whole UI looks and works. Every application and menu are consistent with the Metro UI design, and I struggled to find third-party apps in the Marketplace that don’t follow that unified language and interaction scheme. This makes the whole experience predictable, even if you’re using an application for the first time. Moreover, you’re offered the option to switch between a black and a white background, and many accent colors. These will be applied consistently inside all default and third party apps, providing a new yet uniform look.
Same design guidelines between Music and a 3rd party Twitter client, Rowi
People, Pictures and Messaging Hubs
Android has offered an integration of contacts between different networks (Google, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp…) for a long time now. However, its execution falls well short of the People Hub on Windows Phone.
More than an address book, People offers you a glimpse into everyone’s life, with a “What’s New” tab that pulls all the social updates from these contacts, regardless of the social network they were posted on. You can even create groups and filter the specific updates from your friends, family or coworkers, for example. And viewing a contact not only offers their details, but also their specific social network updates, pictures pulled from their Facebook account, and a history of communications between the two of you.
What's New on the People and Pictures Hubs on Windows Phone 7
Windows Phone’s Pictures hub is similar to Android’s Gallery: the first pulls your picture albums from Facebook while the second checks your Picasa and Google+ photos. Besides the debate between which is more useful, WP’s hub is smarter in that it doesn’t attempt to download all your images, but rather pulls them down whenever they are needed, as well as displaying all the new images uploaded by your contacts.
The Messaging experience on Windows Phone is another well integrated one, with not only SMS but also Live Messenger buddies as well as Facebook Chat all baked into one. By comparison, Android fails to even mix Google Talk and Google+ together, let alone Messaging.
In short, Windows Phone offers a wonderful people-centric approach, much like WebOS, whereas Android attempts that and fails, ending up in the application-centric approach of iOS.
Decent Desktop Companion
Yes, we are obviously moving to the cloud more and more each day, but Android has been running, since its early days, without any desktop companion. The integration with Google services in terms of email, contacts and calendar is stellar; however, it falls short when it comes to automatic synchronisation of images, music and videos.
Keep in mind that Android is mostly popular in developing countries, where unlimited data plans are a dream and relying on the cloud for Google Music and Video or Google+ photos is impossible.
By comparison, Windows Phone comes equipped to deal with Zune (formerly) on the Windows Desktop, or Windows Phone Connector on MacOS. I have only used the latter, and the experience is terrific for managing multimedia and especially playlists with iTunes.
It might sound like a gimmick to most, but I have grown so used to the way Windows Phone lets you switch between the Camera viewer and the latest photos taken. A simple swipe from the viewfinder takes you there, and a swipe back brings you back to the camera. It’s simple, intuitive and absolutely trumps Android’s tiny image thumbnail button.
Sliding the camera viewer to the right reveals the last image taken
Built-in Music and Image Search
Although Android offers a multitude of separate clients like SoundHound, Shazam, and Goggles, it’s still another icon that you have to remember installing on new devices and looking for when needed.
On Windows Phone, the Search button encompasses not only web search, but also recognizes songs, barcodes, pictures and voice commands. You can even launch Search from the lockscreen to make it easier to access on the spot. This integrated approach has proved to be really useful for me in the past months.
Free Trials for Apps
Android’s Play Store is full of double versions of applications: Free and Paid. Whether you’re looking at a paid app and want to check it out before paying for it, or whether you want to buy an app you have tried before, you will end up going through many clicks to get to the other version.
Windows Phone, although it allows separate Free and Paid versions, adopts a much more useful approach. When opening a paid app, and if the developer has allowed it, you can click to Try it, without having to go look for the free version. Trials are either fully featured with ads or limited time, or lack certain features, basically much like the Free versions of apps on Android.
Plus, you can easily purchase a trial app from the same Marketplace listing, without searching or redownloading or changing your settings. All in all, a small change that makes a lot of difference when you test apps frequently. It also encourages developers to offer a preview of their apps’ functionality for free.
What about you? Have you tried Windows Phone 7.5, and if so, what are the features you wish to see on your future Jelly Bean devices?