Here’s some thoughts after just over a week with the phone, a timeframe which captured fairly typical activity: going to the shops, going to the pub, going to a business meeting, and nipping across to Germany to spend a few days with family. All in all, a good opportunity to road-test the device.
Some random observations:
- It was nice being woken up by a different ringtone. I think I’ve got really sick of the iPhone kicking me out of bed every morning.
- I missed Siri, especially when cooking. “Countdown 20 minutes” (or however long those potatoes take to boil) is the most. useful. feature. ever. The Windows Phone 8 speech recognition doesn’t seem to cover this yet.
- Installing multiple apps is really tedious: go to app store, find an app, click the app, click install, get a weird pause, get shown a download screen, get taken to app list, curse, hit the back button until you’re back at the app store. It’s almost as jarring as the iPhone dumping you out of the app store and onto the home screen so you can see the progress of your app download.
- The one stand-out feature so far is the here.com maps. This is good, because it’s Nokia’s differentiation on top of stock Windows Phone 8. Of course, you can download HERE Maps on other Windows Phone devices (and iOS), but it was great to have them installed by default.
- Microsoft must have a ton of designers, and yet they still use a floppy disk icon to indicate Save? And worse, sometimes they don’t, they use a tick instead. Consistency? Not so much.
And that brings us neatly to the crux of the problem with the Nokia Lumia 920: any review of the device has to take into account Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8. And no matter how good the device may be, it is frankly hobbled by the Windows legacy.
So on with the review. I made this review by taking screenshots on the phone whenever something struck me as noteworthy, and by keeping a longer-form log in Microsoft OneNote.
WP8 has a very strong design, which at times works against it. For example, I hated the Kindle app’s presentation in the app store and in the app list; I was forever looking for the person reading under the tree.
Incidentally, I also had problems with the Kindle app; it would occasionally try to sync twice on startup, which usually resulted in it crashing. Several launch attempts later, it finally settled down. Some work required there, I think.
Over the course of the last week, I downloaded several apps from the store (mostly free or trial, but a couple of paid apps too). Aside from the ugly path error during download, there was only one occasion when this didn’t work, when trying to install the Kindle app:
Most of the apps you’d expect to see were available, but not always in the way you’d expect to see them. For example, Fruit Ninja was available, but it looked very fuzzy on the Lumia’s screen.
That’s a real shame, as the screen is one of the standout features of the Nokia hardware. It’s also an old version – from early 2011 – and many of the store comments are requesting updates. The iOS version of Fruit Ninja is just a few months old. The Android version of Fruit Ninja is from March 2012.
The situation may be different for other games, but Fruit Ninja was the first to catch my eye, and is a game I know well.
Let’s talk more about maps. I tried them out on several occasions:
- finding a route from a train station into central London for a meeting
- finding a route from a tube stop to a restaurant for brunch
- trying to find a nearby pub
- finding the location of my holiday apartment in Berlin
- tracking my location across Berlin’s metro system
Only searching for a pub was less successful than it could have been – based on experience and a race against an HTC Android device, Google Maps would have been more effective.
A standout feature of HERE maps is the ability to download maps for offline use. Google Maps offers limited caching, but not quite as effectively. This Nokia Maps vs Google Maps Youtube video demonstrates it nicely. Given o2 only give you 25mb of data per day in Europe, being able to download 601mb of German maps before I set off was a real life-saver.
The maps also looked good, and felt like the best bits of TomTom’s navigation and Google Maps combined into one. A couple of examples of using the navigation:
The map overlays also worked very well, in particular the public transport overlay. Here’s what they look like in Berlin:
It was also really nice to be able to pin locations to the phone’s home screen for quick and easy access. Note also my XBox avatar in the screenshot, offering some great personalisation by leveraging different Microsoft properties:
I did notice a few glitches. During my travel across Berlin, I kept losing the data connection. At one point, the phone was very convinced that I was in fact in London – even claiming to have established a GPS lock:
Another glitch was frequent updates to the terms and policies for using the maps. These would be displayed and required confirmation, but as they were shown in white text over the top of the map, it was impossible to read them:
The final glitches are more of a user experience fail:
- Every time I launched the maps app overseas, I got reminded to download maps. The first time was useful, but if you’re using the maps frequently abroad, it gets really annoying – especially if you’ve downloaded the maps for offline use.
- The compass icon for launching maps from the home screen was less than obvious, and the name “HERE Maps” doesn’t have sufficient recognition (yet). I asked a couple of people to start the maps app, and both struggled to do so.
Some things didn’t work so well.
Voice recognition is handy on a mobile phone, and although I couldn’t set a countdown timer for my spuds, I was happy to try it out for searching bing. Because I’m a sadist, I tried this in a crowded and noisy pub on St Patrick’s Day. Accessing voice recognition is just like the iPhone – you hold down the equivalent of the home button until prompted to speak:
We were having a typical pub conversation, involving rivers running green in the US in honour of the Irish saint. So my voice search was “Saint Patrick’s Day Chicago”. How was this interpreted?
Windows Phone decided to search for “patrick stacey croyden”. This was excellent entertainment value (and possibly some clever geolocation optimisation), but needless to say did not deliver the required results. A couple of additional attempts failed, and so I gave up. A friend tried on an HTC Android handset, and was successful on the second attempt.
WP8’s version of Internet Explorer in some ways is really very good: fast loading, smooth scrolling, good rendering, and a wonderfully uncluttered browsing experience that maximises the visibility of page content.
There were a few sites that didn’t work for one reason or another. Surprisingly, the BBC was subject to unfortunate wrapping of headlines. Unsurprisingly, the excessive crap on forbes.com didn’t render properly, and ended up messing with some page content. Frustratingly, I was unable to enter start or destination airports on Easyjet’s website. Those were the only significant glitches I noticed, despite doing quite a lot of browsing.
However, it’s not all roses with WP8 IE. The minimal UI has a few drawbacks: extra taps required to access tabs (I recommend changing the “address bar button” in settings to display tabs), extra taps required to get to favourites, inconsistent back navigation (sometimes it goes to the previous page, sometimes to the previous app) and no forward navigation.
The browser is also poorly-integrated into other apps. The mail app is a particular example. It would be wonderful to be able to open emailed links in the phone’s browser, but long presses on links only offer the option of copying the link. This seems very odd. If you want to open an emailed link in a browser, or share the link to social networks, or bookmark a link or pin it to the start screen, then you have to manually copy it and paste it into the browser’s URL bar:
The mail app is broken in other ways, too. Microsoft have pursued an admirable security policy of not downloading any email images by default. But there’s no setting to change this. Unfortunately, this means that almost every email you receive looks rubbish, until you track down an image and click “Download pictures”. And that includes emails from Microsoft themselves:
As I was travelling to Germany, I needed to send some text messages in German, so I wanted to swap keyboards. I had to RTFM to find out how to add language packs, and once I did find out, I was surprised by how large they were. This was particularly annoying as the first attempt to download failed, requiring me to go back in and restart each language pack download.
I was unsurprised but disappointed that installation of the language packs required a phone restart. I was rather surprised that the installation took over five minutes to perform (although in fairness I was warned of this).
Once installed, the language packs worked fine. Switching language worked just the same as on iOS. Predictive text was predictable.
It’s not all doom and gloom. There are some great things about this phone and this platform. The things that stand out so far about WP8 specifically:
- It has a unique and interesting user interface, that stands out from other platforms (and actually works, unlike the Windows 8 desktop train wreck).
- It uses gestures in some places, and I can only hope for more in the future (for example swipe up to close apps in the tasks view).
- Pinned apps and live tiles are useful and look great.
- WP8 had most of the apps I wanted to use (I think London Tube Deluxe was the one I most missed).
- The browser capably handled most sites I threw at it, and there are websites to cover most of the missing apps (e.g. TfL and traintimes.org.uk for Tube Deluxe)
- The integration with bing is useful and well thought out.
And about the Lumia hardware in particular:
- The battery took a hammering and lasted well (including several hours of non-stop browsing and twittering).
- The screen is amazing (and I say that as an iPhone 4S and a Retina iPad user): bright, startlingly clear, vivid colours.
- The bright yellow case makes the phone easy to find (seriously) and injects some fun into the day. It’s not another boring black or aluminium or plastic slab.
- The camera is magic – I’ve never seen a phone camera work so well in low light situations.
One of my favourite features of the phone was the ability to automatically pull a new image for the lock screen every day. They were all beautiful. For example:
And with that, I’m going to duck out of doing a final summary. I have a few more hours to play with the phone before I pack it up and send it back to Nokia, so I’ll save my final conclusions for another post.