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How does the Windows Phone 8 Kool-Aid Taste?

I’m just going to come out and say it: I drank the Windows Phone 8 Kool-Aid.

My coworkers mock me, and I accept this. But darn it, I want to believe! (and it tastes a lot better than what I was drinking before.) And it’s certainly better than if I wandered over to the iOS lemonade stand down the street to join the fancy club.

I made the switch two months ago to a Windows Phone (HTC 8X, to be specific) for three reasons:

  1. I was sick of Android and its issues
  2. Windows Phone 8 is absolutely beautiful
  3. And, I want the platform to succeed

I will say it again: I am absolutely sick of Android and its issues. Yes, it is an extremely powerful and flexible platform. You can do almost anything on it, if you are patient…but I am not patient.

I do not need to do all these strange things like dealing with the arms race of unlocking and jailbreaking my phone. I cut my teeth in the tech world unlocking and jailbreaking iOS back in the 3.x days, so my aversion is not one born of technical inadequacy. I just don’t want to deal with it. And this is coming from someone who builds his own gaming computers and overclocks them until he literally cannot get one more MHz out of the rig (It’s true, if I push the bus by 1 MHz more it will lock up so badly I have to reset the BIOS. Tried for weeks to get past that but it was my road block.)

I want my phone to get properly supported, be mostly uniform in architecture and software so that troubleshooting is easy, and I want it to work out the box without having to “tweak” it. I am tired of dealing with what is essentially a custom Linux distro that maybe 12 other people in the world have besides me. In short, I want an iPhone, but I hate the iOS interface, Apple as a company, and the cult-like mentality of its fans — which is why I chose Android two years ago for my first smartphone.

When I got my first Android phone (Droid 2 Global) a lot of the features never worked properly out of the box. I was never able to get my Yahoo account to sync properly, and I found the default Gmail implementation to be extremely hit-or-miss (along with every other built-in functionality). The third-party apps for the major services were by and large great, especially Dropbox, Amazon Cloud MP3, etc. In addition, I was never able to apply a single OTA software update for my phone. Verizon did release 2.3 for my phone, but I never got it. The update was available. I could download it. I had the option to apply it. But even after a factory reset, the update failed to apply, leaving me stuck on 2.2.

After this issue, I wasn’t sure who to turn to for support. Verizon just had my factory reset my phone. Do I write an email to Google?  (Good luck.)  Go post on the XDA forum and hop someone out there has my obscure phone with my impossible to duplicate software environment, and pray that they had the same obscure problem I did? (Hint: nobody had.) For the most part, those that replied to my post asked for information I’d provided already and gave me generic advice like “turn some tasks off to speed up performance.” I desperately longed for official documentation (Windows Phone gets that aspect right in every way). When my contract was up, I ditched Android.

So, I tried Windows Phone 8.

I had to simply accept that there were things I was going to miss (amazingly, the lack of a notifications center actually didn’t bother me after the first day or two), and things I would not be able to do. There are “features” that make me rage. The “tile” experience of Windows Phone is interesting, but not the great innovation that MS Marketing espouses. Android Widgets are actually far more powerful, as you can actually press a button that does something right from your wallpaper. Windows Phone is far prettier, and FAR smoother. And honestly, if I use something this much, I’m going to take pretty and smooth over more powerful design.

It also seems I am the only person who rages about Aero Glass and Flip 3D being removed in Windows 8. When I was at the Microsoft Store, I was frankly pretty annoyed by the salesman who showed me my phone. His arguments for why his platform was superior to mine when I showed him item by item things that I would have to give up was literally “yeah but…. Windows Phone is great!”

Examples of things that I really miss about Android:

  1. Scrolling through a long UI menu is painful.
    Android has that cool fast scrolling bar that acts like a scrollbar on any computer interface since 1990. Windows Phone doesn’t. Yes, I’m serious. It doesn’t have it. What it DOES have is a feature that allows you to select the letter you want to jump to. I don’t know about you, but I find it was a lot easier to sort through my contacts with a scrollbar than by jumping to “K” every time I want to call one of my coworkers. Her name is the last K in my contacts list. I have 30 contacts that start with K. It’s tolerably bad, as long as I don’t need to go to the top of a text message chain.
  2. The back button is a true UI back button, not an “up one level” back button–sometimes.  The behavior is inconsistent, which is even worse.  Sometimes it goes back, sometimes it goes “up” a UI level.
    This is bad. Really, really bad. So bad, in fact, that in many apps, including built-in OS menus, you can literally become stranded in the UI, unable to get to where you want without hitting the home button and starting the app over. What were you thinking, Microsoft?

I could go on for pages, and part of me wants to, but I will simply leave it that there were some extremely poor UI design choices, and it feels like I am living in the computing world of 2006 sometimes.

As I write this, I am honestly taking a very serious look at my commitment to Windows Phone, because I have outlined a lot of negatives. Let me highlight some of the positives before I become upset:

Windows Phone 8 is not just pretty. It’s beautiful.

The tiles are absolutely beautiful, and the way UI elements seem to “fly” from screen to screen like pages of a book is the most beautiful effect I’ve ever seen on a mobile handset. I am literally feeling giddy as I try to describe it. My words are inadequate. Find a friend and play with his handset for a few minutes to see what I mean. The app that best exemplifies this is the Baconit Reddit app, which is far more useful on Windows Phone than Android.

Perhaps most importantly: everything worked out of the box.

My work email is Gmail-based, but does not use the @gmail.com domain. I was never able to get my Android phone to latch onto my account unless I did all the setup manually. On my 8X, I just signed in and everything was golden.

Xbox music pass is amazing. I paid $100, and for one year I have access to pretty much any album ever recorded. I am enjoying being able to listen to whatever I want, whenever I want. Hands down, this beats Pandora for a long road trip, though I still enjoy Pandora for discovering new music.

The battery life on my 8X is amazing as well. I am literally able to go from wakeup to sleeping time without recharging my phone. I was lucky to get 6.5 hours on my Droid 2, even with an extended battery. The hardware is beautiful, both to the eye and to the touch. It brings joy to my fingers to caress the velvety blue exterior of my 8X. I never once felt that way about my Droid 2.

I could not in good conscience write this and skip the application problem. Yes, Windows Phone has one. 46 out of the top 50 is not good enough. Dropbox, Facebook (the OS integration is one of those terrible orphaned UI moments I mentioned earlier), and others. Dropbox is the biggest issue for me, as I was heavily invested in it. I think it handles everything SkyDrive does much better. This is a major sticking point for me, and I’m taking a wait-and-see approach. If things don’t improve 12 months from now, I may very well be writing another blog about how I switched back to Android. Cautiously, let’s wait and see.

I have been rambling somewhat, and it may seem like I don’t really know what I want to say about Windows Phone. In some ways, I really don’t. I am definitely conflicted. Am I truly happy with it? No, I’m not. But I’m a lot less unhappy with it than I was with Android. And to be honest, I’m a lot happier with it than I was with Android (and yes, those are definitely different things!)

I would recommend Windows Phone to anyone who is not an Android power user, and certainly for the average iOS user. My advice? Try it out. There will be a few things that you miss, a few things that make you rage, but it’s ultimately a better experience. It’s prettier than iOS, more functional than Android out of the box, and the app problem will go away if enough people buy into the platform. It’s ok to drink the Kool-Aid if the Kool-Aid is the best drink at the lemonade stand.

If you want to know more, ask me in the comments and I will get on the phone with you and talk your ear off for as long as you like.

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