Monday, May 7, 2012

Thoughts on the Lumia 900

Just to give you a bit of background, I am not a gadget guy.  I love toys, but the new gadgets are often so expensive that I just can't justify the splashy cash outlay.  I tend to wait until adoption is pretty solid and a product has a good foothold in the market to jump.  My first smart phone was, therefore, an iPhone 3G, a few years back.

After my wife's iPhone got stolen, I took a look around at the Android market to see what the fuss was all about.  We switched both OSs and vendors to pick up Droid X models.  These phones started out beautifully, but with more and more apps installed, the battery started failing, and the button-press lag was really getting to me.

At Codemash 2012, I was talking with some Microsoft folks about their Mango phones, and the buzz there was all about this new Lumia 900 that was coming out soon.  I kept my eye on its progress, kept tabs on the launch, and was disappointed that there was a data issue at launch.  I was further discouraged by @BrandonSatrom's tweet that RunKeeper was dropping Windows phone, along with his tweet that it would not be upgradable to the next version of the OS; I had almost completely written it off.

And then AT&T or Microsoft or Nokia went and made it free.

As an apology to everyone for the botched launch, they deferred the already cheep $100 cost and gave it back with the purchase of a new phone.  I know they're betting big on the phone and the OS, and paying to get it out there, but I was surprised by this move.  With a free phone on the line, a flagship model that everyone was betting on to drive Windows 7.5 Mango OS adoption, I decided I could take the plunge.  When I got to the store, I discovered that on top of the free phone deal, AT&T was giving out a free $100 of accessories on top of that, so I picked up some Beats by Dre earbuds (they are $100, so it was a wash).

So enough backstory.  The phone:

One thing you notice right away if you're new to this new Metro interface is that it's responsive.  Fast.  I really like the menuing system, the home and back buttons.  You get one button that always brings you back to the main menu (what I call the home button, but is probably referred to as the "Windows" button, since it's the same icon as the Wintel laptops).  The "back" key, on the lower left, backs you out of applications or backs you up between applications.  Hold and press to switch quickly to any running application (like alt-tab) in Windows.  The metro interface is visually appealing, and the menus flip back and forth very naturally.  The touch screen feels very responsive and natural.

A lot has been said of the live tiles, and while they're kind of neat, I don't feel that it's that major of a selling point.  The iPhone has a little icon that tells you how many email messages you have, the Android's pull down top menu had similar things.  It's a neat idea, but not one that truly makes a difference to me.  That said, having Runkeeper tell me how many miles I've done that week can be a great motivator.

I recently found out by watching the Windows Phone Jumpstart series why all of this feels so natural.  The apps are designed so that while they can have an agent that runs in the background, the architecture has some pretty strict requirements around what that agent can do, how much memory it can eat, etc.  When a user presses that home button, the applications are forced to yield to the main process and get put into a waiting state.  Too long, and the app is tombstoned.

Keeping with the philosophy of making the phone responsive, there is a dedicated camera button for fast access when you need to take pictures.  This means when you whip your camera out, there's not a long wait before the picture can be taken.  If you have kids like I do, those seconds can be crucial.  It's right there when you need it.

So what you end up with on the Windows phone is a super-responsive interface.  And that makes it awesome.  The phone feels good, it feels responsive.  This is in strong contrast to the Droid X I had, which often felt slow and didn't respond at all to button presses.  After you've had a keypress misinterpreted and had work deleted or otherwise messed up, or even you've just had a lot of keypresses that never registered because the background threads were overloading the processor.

One other really positive thing, the battery life is excellent.  See, it's similar design choices that drive usability also help minimize battery drain, so the battery lasts longer.  So not only is your interface responsive, you can use it for a full day.  This is a good thing, because the battery isn't accessible for replacement.  With the Droid X, the battery drained fast, and even after I put in a larger aftermarket battery, the apps sucked the phone dry after a day's work.

This phone is not without its downsides, though.  Apps that are processor-intensive, to my understanding, don't run in the background continuously.  Agents that are processor-intensive, like downloading big files, synching content, can run, but they have to do it a a low-priority when the phone's not being used (on this point, I am very murky, and I would love for someone to tell me whether I'm wrong on this, and even recommend some awesome apps that demonstrate to the contrary).

I believe this to mean that for some applications that would otherwise continue to run in the background, they have to pretend to be running in the background.  Take for example the timer in the Cool Tools application.  If you switch off the application to take a text, if you don't come back to it, the timer won't go off.  Things like this you have to be careful of just when using the phone.

I think it's fundamental issues like this that may have turned some development houses off to development and kept some apps out of the Windows Phone Marketplace.  Notably, Runkeeper, an app that I truly love, doesn't fully function on the Windows phone, and the developer recently dropped the app off the Windows Marketplace altogether.  They recommended Endomondo, but I've not tried that yet.  Certain games (like Words with Friends or Draw Something) are also absent, which is disappointing, since they are so part of what makes a phone social, and that's something that Microsoft has tried hard to bake into the system.

One thing that I did like about the Android was the music player.  It took mp3s from wherever, and getting files to the phone was super easy and they were just recognized.  On the Windows Phone, you will have to download the Zune software, and though I don't find it as odious as iTunes, it's still a locked in platform that makes transfer of files, playlists, and video feel heavy handed and limited.

I mentioned that the dedicated camera button is quick to launch the camera, but the picture color on these pictures is often off (mostly in the orange direction).  I'm not a photographer (my wife is, though), so it's not that big a deal, but for some people this won't be sufficient.

Overall, I really like the Windows environment.  It takes some getting used to, and not all the apps I'd like are there, but I hope the big marketing push from Microsoft and AT&T really helps.  Events and activities like 30 to Launch drive developers to create applications, and that's what they really need right now.  Since I have decided to Speak Up, and because I am a member of the Cult of Do, I have signed up to write an application and be part of the community.  Hope you all consider doing the same.  Of course, you can expect I will write about this if and when I release.

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