I recently won an HTC Titan Windows Phone from a contest on GDGT. If you are a gadget geek and don’t know about GDGT you should check them out. Its a community supported gadget review and information site.
I was happy to win this particular device because I have heard really great things about Windows Phone since Microsoft scrapped the old Windows Mobile and went with the new Metro UI design. However, I’m so tied into the Apple iOS world that I didn’t want to spend my own money (and burn a 2 year contract) to test it.
The phone itself is a flagship device. The HTC Titan lives up to its name – it has a giant 4.7 inch screen. It dwarfs the minuscule-by-comparison iPhone, which comes in at 3.5 inches. I really appreciated the extra screen real estate. When watching video or even scrolling around apps that are image heavy like maps or photos, it was really nice to have a big screen. I did run into that situation where it might be too big to the point of bad usability at specific times. It fit in my pocket fine really, but when I would need to use it with one hand it was difficult to hit the power button on the top and then slide to open at the bottom, or hit the volume button on the right while holding the phone with my left hand.
The phone was not onerously heavy either. In fact, because it OS longer than the iPhone, the weight is distributed and not compact in the hand. Therefore it actually feels lighter to hold. It does this without feeling cheap, despite being plastic.
On a side note – I don’t think Apple magically determined 3.5 to be the easiest form factor for usability in one hand. 3.5 was quite large when the original iPhone came out. I think they simply haven’t gone larger because they don’t want to fork developers who would then have to create a new version of apps for a larger screen, and then have a legacy version for old devices.
The phone performed quite well. It has a nice 1.4 processor, which is only single core because of Microsoft’s OS limitations, but you don’t notice it at all. And one of my biggest complaints – loudness – was not an issue on this phone at all. The speaker phone was fantastic. And it has a great feature where if you turn the phone on its face while on a call, the speakerphone comes on automatically. This is a nice touch and something I miss on my iPhone.
Having a large screen was also helpful while typing. We are all familiar with autocorrect’s shortcomings. With a larger screen, the keys are also larger and I found myself making fewer typos.
The Titan has an LED, another nice touch that many Androids have and somehting that I wish Apple would incorporate. However, the Titan’s LED was not utilized as it could be. It only showed charged status and missed calls. No voicemail indicator, no missed email or text indicator. Weird. Like a good idea not executed fully.
One note I found interesting – Microsoft still insists its phones all have 3 physical buttons. A search, back, and Windows button. Android recently moved to a completely buttonless design, and Apple has for long had one home button and nothing else. I will be curious if Windows Phone follows suits, or stays the course with their design choice.
The HTC Titan does not have expandable memory. This means you get the 16GB that come built into the phone, much like the iPhone model of memory design. Windows Phones had expandable memory when they first came out, but as of late this option has gone missing, so it is not an unusual decision. This limited memory didn’t seem to be a problem for me, as even after I installed all the apps I wanted, I still had 90% of my memory left. Whether this is because Windows Phone apps are more efficient in their storage use, or there simply aren’t as many available I am not sure where to place blame/praise.
The one shortcoming understandably is the battery. I could not get through a day with light to medium use with one battery charge. Likely this is due to the large screen. Windows Phone does have a nice feature called “battery saver” that nicely turns off some features when your battery is very low so it doesn’t completely die. This is a nice automated feature that replicates a manual process users of other smartphones have to do when they get the dreaded “10% battery” warning like turning off push, gps, and others in the background unless you use an app that needs it.
The HTC Titan came with the latest version of Windows Phone – 7.5. I will say, Windows Phone is a very visually appealing OS. I prefer the look of it over iOS. It has a nice way of integrating widget-like functionality of android without the clutter. It also has a nice way of feeling personal. Your favorite photos make up the wallpaper in the photos app. Album covers make up the wallpaper of the music apps. Your friend’s social network profile pictures populate the contacts app (called “people”) in Windows Phone. It’s very good at making you feel like the phone is a part of your personal life.
The OS makes set up a breeze. Much like Android makes you log in with a google email account, or Apple likes you to set up an iCloud account, Windows Phone uses Windows Live accounts. Most people roll their eyes here, but I bet you there are a ton of people with Windows Live accounts from using their PCs, more than there were MobileMe accounts, or even people with Gmail accounts. Plus, while the Windows Live interaction is useful, if you don’t use their services, it is very easy to simply log in from a Google account and use it for contacts, email and calendar.
The phone did come with some crapware apps installed. A few AT&T for pay apps for navigation, radio, etc. This is similar to many Android phones that come with trial games or pre-installed apps. However, unlike most of those Android phones, these apps were easily uninstalled without needing to root or hack your phone.
Microsoft insists users use their Zune software to sync with PCs. The fact that you can’t simply plug in and drag files over is strange, but I have a feeling it is because they want more people to use the Zune software, and maybe buy music and movies through it. However, much of its functionality is just redundant with Windows Media Player. The nice thing is that, like with iPhone, while it is an arguably better experience if you sync, you don’t HAVE to. Really all you need syncing for with Windows Phone is a backup and to sync music and media from the computer. Everything else is in the cloud.
Microsoft’s OS really differs from iOS and Android in how you get things done. While the other mobile OS’s are app focused, Win Phone tries to put most of its functionality in the OS itself. For example, Windows Phone has a “Me” tile and a “People” tile. The Me tile allows you to see any social network activity involving you – like when someone tweets you, or posts a facebook photo. This all happens outside of those “apps” and instead can be done in the Windows Phone Me App. Same with People. you get a list of your contacts, which you can choose to email or call, but you also can see all of your social network news feeds from all your contacts together in the app. Instead of being app-centric, Windows Phone focuses on bringing all your networks together in one mesh.
When Windows Phone first launch, Microsoft’s ads focused on these features allowing you to stop staring at your phone and getting back to the real world. What I found in normal use was kind of the opposite though. Because these Microsoft apps are dependent on the features being coded into the OS, some things are missing. For example, you don’t get notified of Direct Messages in twitter. And notifications don’t work like I’m used to in Android or iOS. You don’t get a ping for every mention. And the twitter app doesn’t do notifications at all! So, in addition to constantly turning on the phone to check the Me tile, I also have to go open twitter to see if I get any DMs. I felt like I was actually checking social media MORE often.
I think it really comes down to how you use social media. For me, I post often, but I also use it to communicate. So, I’d rather have my phone passively on me, then ping and notify me when someone interacts with me. Windows seems to prefer to leave you alone, but when you check immerse you in everything. It’s a decision you have to make about active v passive, and if you prefer setting aside a time for social media, but getting it done very efficient during that period – go Windows Phone. If you prefer to react at a moment notice, but individually perhaps Android or iOS is a better choice.
However, like the integration of social media, there are other nice touches where things are integrated nicely throughout Windows Phone. The photos/camera app allows different apps to create a hook and be added to a list of choices for where to share photos. This is very similar to Android’s “share this” jump list. For example, when I wanted to share a photo, I could share it on Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, Email, Text, WordPress, evernote, and skydrive. Any app thats wants this functionality can just use the API.
Similarly, the contacts integration is the one software feature I most want Apple to integrate. Once you connect the OS to all your social networks, the OS then combines your contacts across those networks and so the contact on your phone show their last facebook update, their twitter handle and any contact information from their Google, LinkedIn and facebook profiles. Really nice way to fill out your contacts for people you don’t have addresses for. And their photos update whenever they change their facebook photo. Really nice touches.
There are some small polish quirks that I found annoying. When there is a field to enter your email address – like when you log into many of these apps for the first time – sometimes you get an email specific keyboard, complete with @ sign. Sometimes you get the normal keyboard where you have to hit the symbol key to get to the @ sign. Likely this is a developer issue where some just aren’t using the “email field keyboard” string, but it give you the feeling that developers have a mentality of not caring about developing with as much care for this platform as others and are just putting something out.
I also could not figure out how to scroll to the top of a page quickly, like when you tap the icon bar in iOS. I would have to annoying scroll scroll scroll to get to the top of a long web page. It is small things like this that spoil iOS users.
The most common complaint about Windows Phone is the lack of apps in the marketplace. This is kind of a tired argument now. There is a thread of truth to it- the Windows Phone app universal is certainly not as robust as Android’s or iOS. However, most popular apps are on there. Microsoft has provided plenty of incentive to developers to create apps for the platform. Practically all of my most used apps were available – Amazon Kindle, eBay, ESPN, Evernote, Facebook, Fandango, Flickr, Flixster, Foursquare, Groupon, IMDb, Kayak, Netflix, NYtimes, ShopSavvy, Spotify, Twitter, Weather, Yelp. There are admittedly some glaring omissions – Pandora and CNN for example. These I consider apps that everyone has on their phone, and it is unforgivable to not have. But, as I said, almost all are on Windows Phone now.
Where apps really come across as lacking are in two situations – 1) that one midsize app that isn’t hugely popular but you use very often and can’t live without, or 2) those small apps that some guy makes in his basement. The first case I’m talking about things like the Starbucks app. Both Android and iOS have this app that lets you pay using your phone. Its annoying, but not a big oversight to not have, as not that many use it. Another would be Songkick that tells you about local concerts based on artists you listen to. Personally, I can’t use this phone without a good Google Voice app, and the third party solutions available just don’t cut it.
The second example is something like my Movember app that I used when raising money for charity in November. These latter small apps are just examples of situations where a developer has limited resources and is going to go with the platform that satisfies the most users. Microsoft can’t do much about this. Another example of this are small community banks. My stepmom uses a small community credit union, not a national bank. But they have an iPhone app. Not a mobile website, an actual app. They don’t provide one for the other platforms, because with their small number of customers it just wouldn’t make sense to serve those 5 people with Windows Phones. And it would be hard to convince my stepmom to switch if you told her she would be losing that functionality.
Sometimes, apps aren’t available, but that is ok because the OS provides the functionality itself. There is no Shazam app – but you can do the same search by doing a voice search in Bing and just playing the song. I didn’t need a panorama app because the camera has that functionality built in. There is no dropbox app, but Microsoft’s cloud storage solution, SkyDrive is nicely integrated and free. This continues that trend of the OS replacing many of the functions of individual apps and trying to be easier and quicker to use. Again, it relies on Microsoft to keep up the pace of advancement though.
So, for the most part, the apps are there. The problem comes in with them being updated with new features or having limited functionality. This is where Microsoft being a third place also-ran is most obvious. Developers want to bring their features to the most users first. For example, Flixster doesn’t have UltraViolet support, while its iOS counterpart does. Yelp doesn’t let you review restaurants in the app. It simply betrays the feeling that developers think of Windows Phone as a third priority.
Microsoft kind of straddles the line between Android’s open platform and Apple’s closed curated one. One of the weird negative quirks that carries over from Android’s marketplace is the number of weird fake apps. I ran into MULTIPLE fake apps made by some random programmer. Many fake “HBO” “TED” and “CNN” apps. Annoying and potentially dangerous. One of the weird characteristics carried over from the Apple store is that the “big 3″ games (Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, Doodle Jump) are paid apps in Windows Phone Marketplace. This is similar to apple’s pricing for these games. But on Android they are free with ad support. Strange decision for those developers to make.
In the long run, Microsoft’s next desktop operating system – Windows 8 – is taking a lot of design cues from Windows Mobile’s Metro theme. I have to think developers will develop for an OS that has 90% of the market. My prediction is that many will port their apps over to Windows Phone pretty easily, you will see the Marketplace explode at that point, and this fault will be a non-issue.
The HTC Titan is a great phone. It has changed my mind that big phones are unwieldy. It was nice having a big screen to watch videos and see pictures on. If the battery could be improved, I would be interested in a large screen device next time I’m shopping for one.
Windows Phone is a beautiful operating system. It has a different method of user interaction that is task focused instead of app focused that can appeal to users. While it is lacking polish, it certainly is a great system that competes neck and neck with Windows Phone. The issue is that with Microsoft coming into the game so late, its hard to convince users to switch after they have invested in an ecosystem – buying apps and accessories, investing time and effort to using another system already.
If I was buying a smartphone for the first time, I would definitely be tempted by Windows Phone. It is easy to understand and efficient for someone who uses social media in a certain way. Microsoft has done really well when they feel like they are the underdog. The Xbox came into a market dominated by Sony and Nintendo and has completely turned the tables. I get the feeling they really are thinking about usability on a level like Apple with their “People” tile and also technology like the integration of cloud service like Google. The question is timing, and did they come in too late. Microsoft has money to burn and (again like they did with the original xbox) is not afraid to spend in order to support a new platform. I am hoping it develops into a robust and popular system.