You may be thinking I’m having a psychotic episode, but with malice aforethought, I knowingly bought a Nokia Lumia 635 running Windows Phone 8.1. I learned from Chris Ashley on the SMR Podcast that Nokia (aka Microsoft) was selling the Nokia 635 off-contract for only $100. He said it was a decent phone and I figured for that price I could use it as an iPod Touch and learn about the device and the operating system with a very low commitment. It would have been even more fun if I could have taken my SIM card out of my iPhone and really committed to the phone but they take different sized SIMs.
As I said last week, I do not hate this phone. If I were looking for my first phone and didn’t have an investment in one of the other platforms, I would definitely put the 635 in the running. The build quality of the device appears to be quite good and it even survived a 2-3 foot fall to concrete without a scratch. At 4.5″, the screen is a bit bigger than the current iPhone and is bright and crisp. I know it’s not supposed to be a high-end phone but it feels at least as good as an iPhone in my hand.
I was very pleased that I had no trouble figuring out how to do the basic things. I was able to:
- Figure out how to connect to network
- Determine how to add my email accounts (harder to figure out how to rename from generic “G-mail” and “G-mail 1”)
- Search for how to add contacts, not realizing adding the email accounts already did that for me
- By experimentation figure out how to unpin stupid AT&T crapware from home screen and how to pin stuff I did want. Here’s a distinction from Android – you can permanently DELETE the crapware on Windows Phone.
- Easily determine how to move and resize tiles – very intuitive. The tiles can be small squares, small rectangles or big squares. This makes it really easy to get access to the stuff you care about quickly
Since I didn’t have a cellular plan with this phone, I couldn’t make phone calls, but is that really in the list of things we care about any more? I connected my Windows account to Skype and that solved the phone call problem.
I think one of my favorite things about Windows phone is that the built-in keyboard shows you capital letters when you hit the caps key, and lower case when you don’t. How hard would it be for Apple to give us that for crying out loud? Maryanne from New Zealand is often ranting about this and I have to agree. I imagine the first keyboards we see in iOS 8 will simply have this feature and nothing else. What would you pay?
Windows Phone has built in auto-complete, but does it completely differently than iOS. When you start typing a word, it shows you possible matches to what it thinks you’re about to type. Tap the word you like and it’s auto-completed. This does require you to stop typing and look up above the keyboard, so for those that are really good at typing on small keyboards this wouldn’t be a huge feature, but there’s only three of you out there anyway. I noticed one time it even correctly predicted the next word I was going to type, simply from the context of the words I’d already typed. I wrote, “does this make” and Windows Phone correctly offered the word “sense” completing my thought. Very cool.
Some of the native apps on Windows Phone have trouble displaying the titles, cutting them off to the right. In some cases they use this technique to show you that there’s more information to the right. But it happens incorrectly in the native Email application so that you can’t read the name of the person from whom the email has come. This occurs because the font is too big, and I didn’t see an obvious way to fix it. I hadn’t turned on giant text or anything like that so not sure why the default would be dumb like that.
Two-fingered pinch-to-zoom in and out works really well on Windows Phone, especially on e-mail. I set up three e-mail accounts on the phone and it created three separate tiles for the three accounts, which I really don’t like. I go into mail and read all of them together, and would have preferred one app with the three accounts. I might be weird that way – perhaps most people like to have their accounts separated. Not a huge deal but not what I would have chosen. I mentioned earlier that Windows Phone uses the technique of having words go off screen to indicate more information, and one of the places this works well is in Mail. At the top you can see All, Unread, and Urgent, inviting you to scroll to the right to change the mode. I really like this method of changing what I’m reading. The only problem is that the Unread mode isn’t just unread email and I never figured out what it was deciding to show me that was different than “All”.
I love how Windows Phone puts my day’s appointments on the lock screen. I would like it even better if it wasn’t fishing through my Facebook contacts to get their birthdays and plopping those on my home screen. I say yes to every person who wants to be friends on Facebook, so seeing everyone’s birthday is a mess for me. I think Microsoft should give you an option to see Facebook info or not. I was a bit annoyed that it decided this for me. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe Facebook did that on its own. I did search through the settings, found notifications, and was able to turn off Facebook in its entirety which is better than nothing. But just shutting off the dumb birthdays would have been nicer. I DO like how it actually notifies me of Skype conversations and Whatsapp notifications. For some reason I cannot get iOS to reliably give me notifications on those two apps.
About Those Tiles
As much as I like being able to change the tile sizes and move them around easily on Windows Phone, I really don’t like the tiles at all. You get two kinds of tiles, those that are a single color so you can’t distinguish them unless you read the name of the tile, and those that have random images bouncing around on them. There’s a People tile that’s your Facebook friends with tiny randomly-chosen profile photos rotating in and out. Super distracting and annoying, but at least it’s not bland blue or orange or whatever colors scheme you’ve chosen. It’s ugly and bland on one hand and distracting on the other. I hate it.
The Nokia 635 came with its own microUSB charger, but I didn’t bother with that at first – I just used an iPad 10-watt charger I had plugged in. Surprisingly the 635 announced that if I insisted on that inferior charger, it would charge very slowly and I really should consider using the real one. I don’t get why a 10-watt charger isn’t considered good enough for this little phone but since I was leaving it charging all night I didn’t worry about it. I’m not a fan of proprietary charging so I hope it’s just a fake message.
What About Apps?
It’s common knowledge that Microsoft is caught in a chicken and egg situation with their app store. Adoption of Windows Phone is hampered by a lack of apps, but app developers are not flocking to write apps because there are no users to buy them. I went into this experiment with an open mind and assumed a lot of the big players would be absent. What I found was more disturbing.
Let me walk through this by example. I went to the app store to look for Google Plus. This may have been a mean test to start with but it did show something interesting. I had my choice of many different Google Plus apps. I chose one that had hundreds of reviews, with an average of 4+ stars. It was intuitive how to install the app and I was not challenged with my Microsoft password. The app was horrible. Pop up ads all over the place and virtually unusable. I went back to the store to verify that it had high ratings, and looked at the reviews. They were pretty much fewer than five words each. Works great, like it, fine app and more like that. Makes me think that the rating system is actually fake.
I went looking for a Podcast app and found one called Casts, again highly rated by hundreds of people. I downloaded it, searched for my own show, found it and subscribed. So far so good. At some point though I tapped something that made my podcast alone be pinned to my start page on Windows Phone. It was a nice feature, but I’m not sure how it happened. Oh well, I hit play to test it and it worked. Only one problem: there’s no stop button! I’m not joking, I could NOT figure out how to make the darn thing stop! I finally shut the phone down to get it to stop. I looked at the app again later, and the play button successfully turned into a pause button that time. Ok, maybe it’s an aberration. But there’s more. Now that I have subscribed to the NosillaCast, I cannot for the life of me figure out how to subscribe to a SECOND podcast. The only option I can find that’s under an ellipses symbol is the option to share my choice of podcast with someone else via email. Good thing I picked my OWN show, right? So again I ask the question, how can an app that performs this poorly get 4.5 stars with 298 reviews? Only if these reviews are completely fake, or possibly because the bar is set so low for apps in this store.
Next I thought I’d look for LastPass. I stopped dead in my tracks. If people can make apps that claim to be Google Plus, then how do I know that LastPass is really by LastPass? It said that LastPass was the developer but my one bad experience made me terrified to enter my most precious last password into an app from this store.
I mentioned on a previous show that Chris Ashley has a group of buddies who all use Windows Phone and he affectionately refers to them as his minions. One of the most helpful minions is Joel Rushworth, and he sent me a message telling me an interesting, if arcane, way to get the real LastPass. He sent me a link to wpcentral.com where they’d reviewed a few apps, one of which was LastPass. On that page they have QR Codes so you can scan them in via your phone to install. That sounds good when you say it that way but if you think about it, it’s really convoluted. Here you are with a mobile device, but you have to use a “real” computer to bring up the web page because you can’t scan a barcode with the phone using the phone’s own browser.
Not only that, but scanning is accomplished via the Bing Vision utility which is available inside the camera app, but you have to choose the Lenses option to get to it. Like I said, it’s pretty cool that you can install apps by pointing your phone at your computer screen but I’m holding a mobile phone in my hand right now – why should I need a computer to do it? I appreciate Joel helping me with this and I don’t mean to mock, but I can’t help but think about Scott Stratten’s book “QR Codes Kill Kittens” where he does mock this exact use of QR Codes.
Camera and Cortana
I’m not going to do an exhaustive review of the camera, but I’d say it was a midrange camera. Nothing to write home about but got the job done outdoors. You can install the Nokia camera software which lets modify white balance, aperture, shutter speed, ISO and more before taking the picture, just like the big boy Nokia 1020. Don’t have high expectations for a $100 phone and you’ll be happy.
I didn’t get a lot of time to play with Cortana yet so I don’t want to go on too much about it just yet, maybe if I get more time later I can give it more of a wring out. I found a setting in networks to turn off Wifi until I’m near my favorite networks, which is an awesome way to save battery – love it!
Blind Accessibility of Windows Phone
Kevin Barry challenged me to talk about the blind accessibility features in Windows Phone, because he was under the impression that Windows Phone 8.1 is completely inaccessible to the blind. Luckily, he’s wrong about that. I went into Settings, and under Ease of Access I found something called Narrator. I turned it on and just like with VoiceOver, the phone read out loud to me everything I touched. It told me what was a button and what I could do with it, like double tap to open. I was able to navigate back to the home screen and then double tap on mail, and open mails and read them. From the list of emails (before you open them) it read them out loud in their entirety. If I opened them, sliding my finger on screen would read them line by line. Scrolling is supposed to work with two fingers, but it was a bit unreliable. That’s an important feature to have work consistently.
As usual I am not an expert on accessibility but within my small skill set in using VoiceOver, it seems that Narrator has at least some of the features required to operate it without sight. I didn’t find anything like the rotor that’s used to enhance navigation but as far as reading things out loud I didn’t find much that didn’t work.
Time for the first two weeks’ bottom line assessment. I’m going to go beyond “I don’t hate this phone” and say “I like this phone”. I really do. Beyond the physical phone itself, the OS is intuitive, it’s responsive, even on this very inexpensive phone, and I find certain things delightful like how consistently it gives me my notifications. I dislike the app store intensely but from talking to Joel I’ve learned that Microsoft is really attacking the problem of bad apps and cleaning out the worst offenders.
Would I buy this phone? No, but you knew that going in. I’m a card-carrying Apple fan who didn’t even give up on Apple when they were weeks from bankruptcy. Would I recommend this phone to someone getting their first phone or maybe on a tight budget? I definitely would. For a phone that requires no contract so you can pay as you go, I think it’s fabulous. In the time since I bought the phone, it’s dropped to $92 on Amazon if you pay attention! You get to choose whether to buy it with AT&T’s crapware on it or T-Mobile’s crapware which is nice too, but for some reason the T-Mobile one is going for $129. I think, and don’t take me at my word on this, but AT&T and T-Mobile are interchangeable so I bet you could use the AT&T one on T-Mobile, but check first before listening to me!
I’m a surprised as you are that I really like the Nokia Lumia 635 running Windows Phone 8.1.