It’s been a good few years since I last used a Microsoft phone OS on my main device (the Orange SPV-E200 and M500 back in the early noughties), and it’s fair to say I wasn’t that enamoured back then – regular crashes whilst taking phone calls proved to be a great reminder why I no longer allowed a Microsoft Windows laptop or desktop into the house!
As the years have gone by, at Collaboration Matters and within my family, we’ve experienced most mobile OS platforms that have been available, from Blackberry through Symbian and Android to many iOS devices. Whilst the many flavours of Android have led to some great options in terms of innovative handsets, my lack of affection for the Google OS (it just leaves me utterly cold from a user perspective) has meant that we’ve been overwhelmingly Apple-based over the years.
However, despite the fanboy tag being often flung in my direction, I’m very open to trying any new device or platform… So when Nokia offered a Lumia 920 device on trial for a couple of months, it didn’t take much convincing to give it a go. My eldest kids both have Windows Phone 7.5/7.8 devices (an HTC Radar and a Nokia Lumia 800) so I’d played with Windows Phone a fair bit already, but there’s no doubt that using a new mobile OS full-time is the only way to really know how it stacks up.
First impressions were fantastic – the Lumia 920 is a really well-built, comfortable to hold handset with a truly beautiful 120×768 pixel display. It is not svelte by any means, with that 4.5″ display being surrounded by a pretty robust polycarbonate frame. The overall package is 130.3mm x 70.8mm x 10.7mm (5.13″ x 2.79″ x 0.42″) and switching from the iPhone 4S or 5 to the Lumia 920 makes you feel every millimetre of those dimensions. However, the biggest shock is when you feel the weight of the device in your hand, as the 180g mass is considerably greater than the 140g of the 4S or the still scarcely believable 112g of the iPhone 5.
That’s not to say that big is necessarily bad. I’ve admired and used the Samsung Galaxy SIII and Note II and can see the charm of a larger handset. The Lumia 920 is smaller than these two in terms of display size, but the build quality and design makes it feel much chunkier in real use. That heft does give you a feel of quality though, I was much less careful of the Nokia handset than either the iPhones or Samsung devices. It feels as though it will soak up minor knocks without any concern. However, the display does sit a little proud of the plastic frame, so this needs to be taken into account when placing the device down on a hard surface.
The rest of the handset design itself is also pretty pleasing – I had the white Lumia 920 which is very handsome to use, though not as striking as the yellow Lumia 820 model that Mat Newman is sporting these days. The button layout makes a lot of sense too, with the power/unlock button on the right side of the device about half way up. It falls to hand much easier than the unlock button does on the iPhone for example. Of course, I’m a right-handed user so I’m not sure how this will work out for the lefties amongst us. The volume controls are nearer the top of the device on the right-hand side as well. Lastly, the other physical button on the device is for the camera shutter – it’s also on the right-hand side but this time about 2cm from the bottom of the device. I can’t say I used this button very often – it triggers the camera app whenever it is pressed, assuming that the phone is unlocked. However, when the camera app is loaded, I found it much more intuitive to touch the screen to take photos – this has the advantage of focusing the camera on the area touched.
Charging takes place via the standard-for-everyone-except-Apple micro-USB lead, and seemed pretty fast. Nokia sells an optional wireless-charging cushion for the device which looks very cool, though I didn’t get to try this outside a few minutes on the Nokia stand at the Connect conference. Battery life aligns with expectations for a top-of-the-range SmartPhone – with minimal use it will just about do a full 24 hour stint, however in most cases in my hands it managed 12 hours of average use, thus fulfilling the breakfast-to-supper requirement just fine.
The Lumia 920 ships with Windows Phone 8, which has some useful enhancements on the 7.5 variant that has been around for the last couple of years. The biggest of these is the probably the ability to resize the home screen layout with three different sizes of live tiles. I must say, despite my less than positive attitude toward Windows in general, and specifically toward Windows 8 when running on a full sized PC, I really like the Windows Phone 8 OS itself. The live tiles are easy to navigate and customise, the scrolling is smooth, the phone settings are simple yet flexible. Above all, it is really snappy on hardware like the Lumia 920.
If one sticks to just the built-in applications and features, or even to just Nokia’s own apps, all in the garden is rosy. As mentioned above, I’ve got access to both Android and iOS devices aplenty, and I’d be happy to take the Windows Phone OS over either of them for daily use. The ‘people hubs’ are just fantastic, with all social media updates and communications with each individual in your address book being aggregated (and dedicated tiles can be created for as many individuals as you wish). The camera app is awesome, with very easy access to advanced features. The music app is great and video playback rocks. As a podcaster myself I find the absence of decent podcast support built into the OS to be a shame, but third party tools can fill that gap as Downcaster and others do so well on iOS. Lastly, sharing from the default apps is pretty trivial and very fast compared to the other platforms.
However, the Lumia 920 isn’t a £100 feature phone, it’s a top of the range smart phone, and therefore must be judged as a platform for both consumer and enterprise apps. This is where things begin to fall apart. Whilst access to the app store is straightforward, the apps themselves are both scarce and (in my experience) very poor in quality. Apps for common platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Dropbox are not a patch on their iOS or even Android peers. In most cases, they’re slow, poorly integrated into the OS, inadequately cache content so every time they are loaded it takes a long time to access the key content and all-in-all, just aren’t great experiences. In addition, in a lot of cases there just aren’t the apps that I would expect to find. This isn’t just on the enterprise software side either (though IBM’s lack of support takes its toll), common consumer requirements such as Spotify, Sonos, Runkeeper and Instagram are missing. In some cases there are third party apps that try to fill the void, e.g. Caledos Runner for Runkeeper compatibility and Phonos for controlling the Sonos, but these do not work well in my experience.
The issue around caching is worth exploring in more detail. It is extremely noticeable that Windows Phone 8 apps seem to take a very long time to start up, often taking up to 10 seconds to retrieve startup content whether from the phone itself or from the internet. This is incredibly irritating and really hits personal productivity. It can be minimised somewhat by always ensuring that when switching between open apps this done via the app switcher (found by holding down the back button) rather than closing the app and clicking on the relevant tile. This differs from iOS where there is no speed differential between double-tapping the home button and switching versus re-opening apps via their icons. The official Facebook and Twitter apps seem to be particularly bad performers in this regard.
While we’re on the subject of using the back button, this shows up the problem of using large format Windows Phone 8 devices. The back button is the left-most of the three touch-sensitive buttons at the bottom of the display. It is used in every application, in the home screens and for switching between the open apps. For this right-hander with medium-sized hards, that button is a massive issue. It is too big a reach when using the phone one-handed, meaning that the device must be shuffled into a different part of the palm when the back button is needed, or else used two-handed. In the time I used the device, I lost count of the number of times that I almost dropped the phone doing the ‘one-handed back button shuffle’. The same is true for reaching to the top left of the display as well, but this not such a problem as with the back button. This issue alone means that if I was to buy a Windows Phone 8 device for my own full-time use it wouldn’t be the Lumia 920 – it would have to be a 4.3″ display or smaller…
What makes the issue worse is that the third, and most accessible, of the buttons on the device is (in my opinion) a complete waste of space. The search button simply brings up a dedicated Bing search tool. In all the time I had the device, I never once thought to use this button. If it allowed search of the entire device (as you can on iOS by swiping left from the home screen) then that would be useful, but as a way to search the web I’d always want to go through the browser app itself and most likely would choose to use Google anyway.
So having used the Lumia 920 for a couple of months, would I recommend it as a professional device? Sadly, no I wouldn’t. It is one of those devices that overall is much less than the sum of its parts.
On the positive, the device build, camera, display and built-in apps are great. I do like Nokia’s approach to device style, it stands out from the other leading vendors such as Apple and Samsung. The display is also truly stellar…
On the negative, the paucity of decent Windows Phone 8 apps is a massive issue. If this was just on the enterprise side then that would be one thing, but sadly even on the consumer/social media aspects, the support given by the third-party apps is incredibly poor. As an IBM partner I obviously miss Traveler support, no Sametime or Connections apps and so on. However, I knew that before I got the device and expected to be able to rely on the inbuilt communication and collaboration tools. However, whilst the email support is good, I found the lack of a unified inbox to be a real surprise. If you have three or four email accounts you will have a tile for each and have to check them individually.
In the end though, the final nail in the coffin for me is the size of the device in combination with the restrictions that Windows Phone 8 places on the user. The need to so regularly adjust ones hold of the device just to use the back button, especially for app switching, means that the Lumia 920 is a non-starter for this particular user. That’s not to say that phabs are a bad thing per se – I love the Galaxy Note II and I’d be thrilled to get my hands on a 4.5″ or 4.8″ iPhone – but this 4.5″ Windows Phone just not an option for one-handed use.
I really wanted to like the Lumia 920 and its Windows Phone 8 OS, in the end it didn’t quite fly. Give it another year of 3rd party app development, more options for customising those buttons and a high-res 4.0″ display and I’d definitely take another look.