Where are the Mobile Windows Devices?

That was one of the questions one of the Oracle’s Executives asked when we presented our new Cloud UX Lab.  The short answer was that there were none.  As far as I am aware, we never did any testing of any of our prototypes and applications on Windows Phones or tablets because, frankly, we thought it didn’t matter.   Windows Phones (and tablets) are a distant third to the 2 behemoths in this space, Android and iOS, and even lost market share in the year just wrapped up compared (2.7%) to 2013 (3.3%) according to IDC.  However, they are predicted to do better in the years ahead (although these predictions have been widely off in the past) and it seems that there is some pressure from our Enterprise Apps customers to look at the Windows Mobile platform, hence the question.  Never afraid of a challenge, we ordered a Surface Pro 3 and a Nokia Lumia 1520, used them for a few weeks, ran some test, wrote some apps and jotted down our findings, leading to this blog post.

Initial impressions

Surface Pro 3

I’m going to be short about the Surface Pro 3, it’s basically a PC without a physical keyboard (although you can get one if you want) but with a touch screen and a stylus.  It even runs the same version of Windows 8.1 as your PC.  I must admit that the Tiles seem more practical on the tablet than on a PC, but I could do without the constant reminders to “upgrade Windows” and “upgrade Defender,” complete with mandatory reboots, just like on your PC.  The most infuriating part about this is that the virtual keyboard does not automatically pop up when you tap on an input field, just like on your PC that doesn’t have the concept of a Virtual Keyboard.  Instead you have to explicitly open it to be able to type anything.

Fortunately, there are some advantages too, e.g. anything that runs on your Windows PC probably will run fine on the Windows tablet, confirmed by our tests.  It has a USB 3.0 port that works just like … a USB port.  Plug in a USB Drive and you can instantly access it, just like on your PC, quite handy for when you have to side-load applications (more on that in a later post).

The whole package is also quite pricy, similar to a premium laptop.  It’s more of a competitor for the likes of Apple’s Macbook Air than the iPad I think.  I’m thinking people who try to use their iPads as little laptops are probably better of with this.

Lumia 1520

The phone on the other hand is a different beast.  The Windows 8.1 Phone OS, unlike the tablet version, is a smartphone OS.  As such, it has none of the drawbacks that the tablet displayed.  My first impression of the phone was that it is absolutely huge.  It measures 6 inches across and dwarfs my iPhone 6, which I already thought was big.  It’s even bigger than the iPhone 6+ and the Samsung Galaxy Note 4.  My thumb can reach less than 50% of the screen, this is not a phone you can handle with one hand.

iPhone 4S vs iPhone 6 vs Lumia 1520

iPhone 4S vs iPhone 6 vs Lumia 1520

Initial setup was relatively quick, it comes “preinstalled” with a bunch of apps, although, they are not really installed on the phone yet, they get installed on first boot.  It took about 10-15 minutes for all “preinstalled” phone apps to be installed.

The screen is absolutely gorgeous with bright colors and supreme fine detail, courtesy of a 367ppi AMOLED ClearBlack screen.  It also performs very good outside, in bright light.  It has an FM Radio which uses your headphone cable as the antenna (no headphones, no radio), a USB port and a microSD port.  It also has a dedicated, two stage camera shutter button.  There’s no physical mute button though.  The Tiles work really well on the phone.  They are much easier to tap than the app icons on either Android or iOS and you can resize them.

I tried installing the same apps as I have on my iPhone, but this was unfortunately where I hit my first giant snag.  I knew the ecosystem was underdeveloped compared to Android and iOS, but I didn’t know it was this bad.  Staples on my iPhone like Feedly, Flickr, VLC, Instapaper and Pocket don’t exist on the Windows Phone platform.  You also won’t find a dedicated app to listen to your Amazon Prime music or watch your movies.  If you want to watch the latest exploits of the Lannisters, you are also going to have to do it on another device, no HBO Go or XFinity on the Windows Phone.  There is also no version of Cisco VPN, which means it’s a non-starter for Oracle employees as that is the only way to access our intranet.  Weirder still, there is no Chrome or Firefox available on Windows Phones, which means I had to do all my testing on the version of IE that came with the phone (gulp!).

Impressions after a week of usage

I used the Lumia as my main phone for a week (poor pockets), I just popped in the micro SIM card from my iPhone into the Lumia and it worked.  I really got hooked to the constantly updating Live Tiles.  News, stock prices, weather, calendar notifications, facebook notifications etc. get pushed straight to my main screen without having to open any apps.  I can glance and drill down if I want to, or just ignore them.  They are a little bit of a distraction with their constant flipping motion, but overall very cool.

The other thing that was very noticeable was that the top notification bar is actually transparent and so it doesn’t seem like you lose that part of your screen, I liked that.

The Windows Store has a try-before-you-buy feature, something that would be a godsend on the iPhone: my kids love to buy games and then drop them within a day never to be used again.  You can also connect the Windows Phone to your XBox One and use it as an input device/remote control.

Another feature that I highly appreciated, especially as a newbie to the Windows Phone, was the smart learning notifications (not sure if that is the official name).  Rather than dumping all the help-information on you when you open the app for the first time, the phone seems to be monitoring what you do and how you do it.  If there is a better/easier way of doing that task, after repeated use, it will let you know, in a completely non condescending way, that “You are doing it wrong.” This seems to be a much better approach because if you tell me the first time I use the app how to use all its features, I will forget by the time I actually want to use that feature, or worse, I might never use that feature so now you wasted my time telling me about it.

As for overall performance, there was some noticeable “jank” in the phones animations, it just didn’t feel as buttery smooth as the iPhone 6.

The camera

The camera really deserves its own chapter.  The 1520 is the sister phone of the Lumia 1020, which has a whopping 41 megapixel image sensor.  The 1520 has to make due with 20 megapixels but that is still at least double of what you find in most smartphones.  Megapixel size isn’t everything but it does produce some wonderful pictures.  One of the reasons that Nokia went with these large sensors is because they wanted to support better zooming.  Because you can’t optically zoom with a phone camera, you need a much bigger lens for that, a phone does digital zooming which typically leads to a pixelated mess when you zoom in.  Unless of course you start with a very high resolution image, which is what Nokia did.

One of the interesting features of the photo app is that it supports “lenses.”  These are plugins you can install in the photo app that add features not available out-of-the-box.  There are dozens of these lenses, it’s basically an app store in an app, that add features like (instagram) filters, 360 shots, panoramic pictures etc.  One lens promises to make you look better in selfies (it didn’t work on me).  One really neat lens is Nokia’s “Refocus” lens that brings a Lytro-like variable depth of field to your phone, and it works great too.

Refocus

In the same lens app you can also filter out all colors except for the object you click on, called “color pop,” so you get this effect:

color pop

Color pop in action

In the app, you can keep clicking on other objects (e.g. the table) to pop their color.

Other than the 20 megapixel sensor, the phone is also equipped with a top notch Carl Zeiss lens.  The phone has a physical, dedicated, two-stage shutter button, half-press for focus and full press for taking the picture.  It also has a larger-than-usual degree of manual control. You’ll find the usual settings for flash mode, ISO, white balance and exposure compensation but also parameters for shutter speed and focus. The latter two are not usually available on mobile phones.  The camera also performs really well in low light conditions.

Summary

I like the phone and its OS, and I really like the camera. The Tiles also works really well on a phone. I dislike the performance, the size and the lack of applications, the latter is a deal-breaker for me. I had some trepidation about going cold turkey Windows Phone for the week but it turned out alright. However, I was happy to switch back to my iPhone 6 at the end of the week.
I’m a bit more on the fence about the tablet. If you get the physical keyboard, it might work out better but then you basically have a laptop, so not sure what the point is. The fact that it runs windows has it’s advantages (everything runs just as on windows) and disadvantages (keyboard issues).

I can’t wait to get my hands on Windows 10 and a HoloLens 🙂

Happy Coding!

Mark.

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