Ditching the iPhone for Windows Phone 8

I gave up Windows for Linux years ago. After that adventure, I decided that sound drivers should work consistently and adopted OSX for day-to-day work. These days, I code on a 13" Macbook Air and consider most other machines rubbish. Similarly, I was an early Windows Mobile adopter, shuffled off to a despicable Android, and finally enjoyed the smartphone experience with my iPhone. With the exception of my TV, which is powered by Windows 7 (better than cable!), I'm a "Mac guy."

Last week, I decommissioned my iPhone and bought a Windows Phone 8x by HTC.

It all comes down to courage, really. The way I see it, for Microsoft to co-opt Apple's tagline and "think different," someone at Redmond must be sporting a big, swinging pair. While everybody else is playing the same game of catch-up, doing things Apple's way, Windows 8 has the balls to propose something better. Whether or not it's actually better remains to be seen, but I want to give those guys a shot.

I've used Windows Phone 8 as my daily dialer for four days now, recording everything I've noticed along the way - good, bad, and weird - in the transition from iOS.

"iPhone" implies both hardware and software. "Windows Phone 8" is just software, so for the purposes of a hardware comparison I'm using Verizon's WP8 flagship: HTC's Windows Phone 8x.

Design philosophies

It's clear that Microsoft and Apple have come at the same problem, a delightful smartphone, from two very different angles. Most people are familiar by now with the iPhone's icon-and-app design. When you first unbox a Windows Phone, throw away the instructions, and begin exploring, the striking differences in design philosophy are what you notice first.

Interactions are more important than apps

On iOS, the app is king. Every app is a silo, and that silo has a very narrow interface with other components in the phone's ecosystem. Using an iPhone is analogous to using a toolbox: which tool is appropriate for the task I'm trying to accomplish?

Windows Phone feels more data-and-interaction centric. Many 'apps' don't feel like apps at all: they're just views onto a common underlying data model. It feels like The Phone knows a lot of stuff, and can do a lot of stuff, and the apps provide windows from different perspectives into that world.

For example, on iOS, if I want to know what my friends are up to, I open the Twitter app. Or Facebook, or Messages, or Email. Each of these apps 'owns' a subset of my interactions. On Windows Phone, I open up the People hub, which shows aggregated tweets, facebook statuses, email and sms conversations, and contact information. Notice that the name, "People," is the goal, rather than the mechanism (Twitter, Facebook, SMS, etc).

Twitter and Facebook on iOS 6

Twitter and Facebook on iOS 6

Windows Phone - People

Windows Phone - People

Windows Phone Recent Conversations

Windows Phone Recent Conversations

WP8 also encourages me to access this data elsewhere. I can explore just the messages, tweets, and posts addressed to me from the Me hub, or get home-screen updates on certain people by "pinning" them as a group.

A rebellion against skeuomorphism

Skeuomorphic design emphasizes old, unneeded elements in order to help users understand a new interface. For example, the bevels on a button represent a subtle hint that it can be pressed, like a physical button. Apple has become the standard-bearer for skeuomorphism.

The Windows Phone takes interfaces in the opposite direction with a minimal - and very digital - aesthetic.

iPhone Email

iPhone Email

Windows Phone Email

Windows Phone Email

Screenshots of WP8, while vibrant, fall short of the real experience. Motion, the final ingredient in Microsoft's visual formula, makes this phone feel modern, sleek, and exciting.

Video: Windows Phone 8x Interface

There isn't a superior choice here - the design paradigms are so different between these operating systems that it's difficult to make any sort of comparison. I enjoy both styles - iOS seems more friendly, while WP8 feels more exciting. Microsoft's choices are certainly eye-catching and innovative, but they don't appeal to everyone.

Navigation turned on its head

Apple seems to have taken a scientific approach for the dimensions of iPhones 1-4S. It seems that 3.5 inches, at a 2:3 ratio, is ideal for reaching all areas of a screen one-handed. This allowed iOS to enforce its 'navigation at the top' pattern. On iOS, the ubiquitous 'back' button, URL bars, and other navigation elements all live high on the screen.

Unfortunately, the top-navigation pattern constrains Apple's ability to extend the size of the iPhone's touch screen. At just four inches, the iPhone 5 has already garnered reports of difficult one-handed use. If the iPhone grows any further, it will land solidly in the realm of a two-handed device.

The Windows Phone 8x, however, boasts a 4.3-inch display - and great single-handed performance as well (with one caveat, discussed below). Microsoft has accomplished this by inverting the traditional navigation pattern. WP8 presents navigation elements at the bottom so URL bars, back buttons, and menus are all accessible by thumb. Further, WP8 implements a swiping-tab gesture that allows users to change tabs without tapping on their (out-of-reach) labels.

Pros

While some of the WP8 differences are just that - different - others are clearly wins for the user experience. Let's briefly explore the things that Windows Phone 8 does better than iOS.

Useful unlock screen

The iPhone unlock screen is pretty… and pretty useless. With the Windows Phone 8x, on the other hand, I frequently don't have to go past the unlock screen to get the information I'm looking for.

iPhone Unlock

iPhone Unlock

Windows Phone Unlock Screen

Windows Phone Unlock Screen

Live Tiles

I was skeptical about the usefulness of live tiles. No longer - these things are great! Compare the home screen of an iPhone and a Windows Phone. The Windows Phone provides a gallery of useful information, beautifully and vibrantly displayed. Changes to a live tile are subtly animated, so new notifications 'bubble' in a pleasing way.

iPhone Home

iPhone Home

Windows Phone Home

Windows Phone Home

Windows Phone

Windows Phone

Even smarter keyboard

Somehow, I can type just as fast on my Windows Phone after four days as I could on an iPhone after years of practice. I suspect this is largely to do with the slightly wider touch screen.

WP8 doesn't 'correct' as much as the iPhone, which has tradeoffs. For example, sometimes I'll type 's' instead of 'a,' which my iPhone would correct. However, I find myself fighting with autocorrect far less than I did on iOS. WP8 also predicts likely next words, so typing "The sun is " prompts shining/out/up/coming.

Windows Phone Keyboard

Windows Phone Keyboard

Windows Phone Keyboard

Windows Phone Keyboard

Contact management

Changing phones can be a harrowing experience, so I've been pleasantly surprised with WP8's ability to aggregate contacts. Verizon wasn't sure how to move contacts from my iPhone, so I left the store with an empty set. Minutes later, WP8 was talking to Twitter, Facebook, and GMail, and somehow coordinated a clean set of contacts from these sources with very few duplicates. A call, received just after getting the phone, properly identified the caller beside her facebook photo and most recent twitter update.

I love that Windows Phone groups my friend's various online personas into one place. Sometimes the automatic linker misses something, like "Jon Roes" vs "Jonathan Roes." Fortunately, the contact manager suggests likely duplicates and has (so far) been 100% accurate.

Windows Phone Contact

Windows Phone Contact

Windows Phone Contact Link

Windows Phone Contact Link

Tethering

Windows Phone has "Internet sharing" built in. Granted, Verizon lies somewhere between Scrooge McDuck and Mr. Grinch when it comes to potential profits, so individuals who haven't been (forcibly) switched to the "share everything" plan (like myself) have to pay extra for it.

A large display with great ergonomics

Unlike most other large smartphones, the HTC 8x is incredibly pocketable. At 4.3 inches, it feels smaller and more comfortable than my 3.5-inch iPhone when carried. I love how the curved, textured back sits well in my hand. For its flagship WP8 device, HTC has invested in exceptional build quality - especially the subtly curved and beveled Gorilla Glass 2 that covers the entire front face.

"This phone feels like a rubberized katana blade—solid like an iPhone, but without the fragility." - Gizmodo

While the iPhone is a more classic beauty, the WP8's large, interactive glass feels like a gadget from the future.

WP8x

WP8x

Windows Phone Angle

Windows Phone Angle

Really embracing HTML5 and JavaScript

As a web developer, this is one of the most exciting parts about the entire Windows 8 ecosystem - and one of my primary motivations for buying a WP8 phone. Everything from phones to servers to miniature helicopters is running on JavaScript these days, and everyone is working on improving JS execution speed. Apple offers developers a half-baked solution for HTML5 and JavaScript apps: "add to homescreen." You can take this a bit further with Phonegap, but in the end you sacrifice speed, user experience, and capabilities.

Microsoft has embraced JavaScript as a first-class citizen in Windows 8. In fact, some of the 'native' Windows Phone apps are HTML5-based.

One side-effect of this tight operating-system integration with HTML5 is that JavaScript executes incredibly quickly. The SunSpider JavaScript benchmark, which the iPhone 5 completes in 914.7ms, runs slightly faster (906.7ms) on my 8x. Beyond just JavaScript speed, WP8 renders HTML elements on the GPU for increased performance. As far as I can tell, Windows Phone HTML5 apps render as fast and fluidly as native ones.

Cons

Physical buttons

Oh, HTC. It's so sad to see a near-perfect piece of hardware marred by such oversight. If I could change anything about this phone, it would be the impossible-to-see-or-feel physical buttons.

While the WP8x presents a fantastic, large, one-handed interface once you've turned it on, turning it on is (essentially) impossible with one hand. If you try, be prepared to change your volume or take a photo as you 'choke up' on the phone and squeeze the awkwardly positioned buttons. Whenever I hand my phone to a friend to try, the first thing they do is accidentally trigger these annoyances.

The under-glass capacitive home button is very nice, visually, but removes the iOS-style workflow of 'grab phone, press hardware home button, swipe to unlock.' Instead, you have to monkey around with the very distant (and impossible-to-feel) top power button.

I also find myself missing the hardware 'silent' toggle from the iPhone.

Dumber tap interpretation

You don't notice brilliant tap-target detection until you use a device without it. The iPhone is great at figuring out, from a distant zoom, exactly which link my huge, fat thumb drunkenly pressed - or tried to press.

While the Windows Phone isn't bad at this, it doesn't quite match the iPhone's psychic interpretation of intent.

Fewer big-name apps

This either matters to you, or it doesn't. I've bought maybe a dozen apps, and there are only a few that I really miss on Windows Phone:

I've been impressed with the quality apps already available for Windows Phone 8, but it certainly doesn't rival the iOS app store.

More powerful, less intuitive

I would not recommend Windows Phone to my mother or grandmother. I'm not sure I'd recommend it to a non-technical friend, either. You certainly couldn't hand it to a small child and expect them to use it, though I've seen parents do just this with iPhones and iPads.

Icon-based navigation

More experimentation is required to really understand an interface in Windows Phone 8. It tends to use icons for buttons rather than text, which means you're either guessing or tapping the '…' menu to caption the icons. However, once you 'get it,' the fluid interfaces become fast and fun.

Less fantastic camera

The WP8x comes with a good 8-megapixel camera. The iPhone 5 comes with a great 8-megapixel camera.

For an in-depth iPhone vs Windows Phone camera shootout, head to CNet.

Shorter battery life

I've noticed that the WP8x lasts about a workday (~8 hrs) of heavy use, which is a few hours shorter than my iPhone. It's definitely a "charge every night" device.

Less developer support

Finally, it pays to be popular. Most developers are kitted out with Apple products these days, so the OSX / iOS / WebKit combo gets tested first and most thoroughly when software is being developed. This means that not only are there fewer apps, peripherals, and websites built around the Windows Phone ecosystem, but also that most software is unlikely to have been tested with WP8 at all.

With IE10's improved HTML5 support, I haven't noticed many glitches on the web, but there have been a few.

Suggestions for the Windows Phone team

…because the Windows Phone team definitely reads my blog.

Make the hubs a deeper part of the experience

I love what you've done with the hubs, and I'm not alone. However, I wish I could add gmail accounts to the Me hub and stop checking email separately.

Further, the Me feed should provide more contextual information. I replied to a Twitter DM via 'Me,' and there was no indication that it was a DM, rather than a regular tweet. Twitter conversations aren't exposed in 'Me' or 'People' - you only see the last message in the thread.

Expose the file system

Many users, myself included, dislike Apple's aversion to the file system. iPhoto, iTunes, iPhones, etc all build their own abstractions instead of using files. Unfortunately, abstractions leak, and sometimes you just want to use a damn file.

I installed an app that claimed to operate on "files in my downloads folder." Well, I tried to download a few files, and never actually found any way to do it. For example, an MP3 - I could play it all day long, but was totally baffled trying to store it somewhere.

Add holistic actions for lists

I really enjoy the email client that comes with Windows Phone, but I'm frustrated by its lack of a "mark all as read" option. Instead, I have to select each new message, open the menu, and mark them as read. I'm certainly not the only young professional dealing with dozens to hundreds of emails per day, and I love tools that let me deal with them efficiently.

This is also true for the music player, where I can perform actions (play, add to now playing) on individual songs, but have no way of selecting multiple tracks and then performing the action as a group. I would much rather select 20 songs then tap 'add to now playing,' than bring up the context menu for each one individually.

Don't jump the shark

The modern, large-margin and high-contrast look is great. Don't over-do it. Some of your layouts already abuse my valuable display area. Somebody went crazy with font sizes in "People," to the detriment of the number of people I can see at a time. Headings are more reasonable in the music app, but indicators that should be horizontal are stacked vertically. I hope this trend reverses quickly, because my 4.3" screen should not feel cramped.

Windows Phone Recent Conversations

Windows Phone Recent Conversations

Windows Phone Song List

Windows Phone Song List

Final thoughts

I was worried about hating the Windows 8 experience after my years with iOS. Apple first successfully married elegant mobile hardware to delightful software, and Microsoft seemed an unlikely challenger.

Fortunately, Windows Phone 8 is nothing short of brilliant. It delivers what the iPhone 5 failed to: excitement. However, if Apple devices test the limits of your digital comfort zone, Windows Phone is not for you. WP8 is squarely aimed at the consumer who wants something more edgy and progressive than iOS, but with greater polish and refinement than Android's fragmented offering.

Try one for yourself. Don't judge it too quickly - at first, you'll try to apply the metaphors, gestures, and interactions you're familiar with… but this is a whole new animal. This is Microsoft - thinking different.