About a month ago, I made the radical decision to move from my iPhone to Windows Phone. I’ve always liked Nokia products, and when the Lumia 928 came to Verizon the temptation was overwhelming, so I took the plunge. You can check out my first impressions here. Since this was such a radical change, and since Windows Phone has so many proponents and detractors all by itself, I’ve broken this review down into two sections: Windows Phone itself, and the Lumia Hardware.
Before I get into the phone itself, I think it’s worth spending some time initially on Windows Phone. Switching ecosystems was the biggest hurdle in getting rolling on this phone, and when discussing the Lumia line, the specter of “no apps” seems to come up all the time. So lets look at a typical use of my smartphone.
Let’s say my wife Sarah and I are out and I see something cool. I snap a picture, edit it if needed, and upload it to Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest etc. Or I get an email about a post that needs editing for Gear Diary, and I pull it up in WordPress to take a look. Maybe that picture I snapped is worth a post, and I write it in the same WordPress app. We might use GPS on the phone to find directions, or look up food nearby. And when we’re standing in line at the store, I play Angry Birds, browse RSS, or check social media. The point, aside from how boring I am, is that all of these things can be done on any platform. For everyday workflow, there’s almost no difference in mainstream apps between Android, iOS and Windows Phone.
In fact, if I were to list my main iPhone apps, almost all of them have Windows Phone analogs (iPhone in italics, Windows Phone app in bold):
Angry Birds–Angry Birds
Kingdom Rush–Mystic Defense LF
The point, without getting into every app I own, is that aside from having to hunt down some new apps, I’m not missing anything. If there’s not an exact match for the app I use, there’s an equivalent. At the end of the day, it’s disingenuous to say Windows Phone is “a nice platform if you don’t need apps”. Does it have 100% parity with iOS and Android? No. Is the difference so glaring that you’ll feel like a social pariah if you switch platforms? Hardly. At this point, most smartphone platforms are close to feature parity, and it’s become about the little things that make the bigger differences.
So what are those little things about Windows Phone that make me so happy? Well, there’s the interface. Yes, it is very minimalist, but it can be customized with Live Tiles to make it exactly what you want it to be. Live Tiles can function similar to widgets, with updated app information, news, weather, etc. The difference is that you can mix small tiles with big ones or double sized ones, in whatever formation strikes your fancy. I have mine set up one way, and someone else with a Windows Phone can have the same apps and functionality in an entirely different setup.
But the features I like go way beyond the user interface. There are things like the first time my phone was connected over Bluetooth and offered to read me an incoming text message. That’s not surprising, as Siri can do that too, but Siri doesn’t proactively offer me that option while my phone is in my pocket. THAT was darn cool. I also love that if I download new camera lenses/apps, I can access them from inside the camera app. This means the dedicated camera button mapping remains in place, but if I don’t like the default options and want something special, it’s just one or two taps away. Finally, I discovered last night that the flashlight app I downloaded can be controlled with the camera button. Once I launch the app, I can flip the flashlight on and off with the tap of a camera button, which is handy if my hands are full and I can’t tap the screen easily (this happened last night, and I discovered the camera button function when I hit it by accident).
The point of all these is that Windows Phone has a clear design and feature plan. Everything is streamlined and minimal, but at the same time, there are systems in place to make use automated and easy. Bluetooth settings that read your texts, camera lenses that integrate with the camera app, flashlight apps that use the camera button-these are all simple concepts. But they all work smoothly together, so there’s no jumbled mix of settings, no entering and exiting apps to find the one that does what you like. If you need something, it’s no more than a tap or two away. Once you get your Start set up the way you like, and get rolling on apps, you find an operating system that manages to mix design and efficiency shockingly well!
Granted, there are a handful of things that I don’t love. Facebook’s integration into contacts is excellent, but the actual app can be a bit buggy. Also, I really hate that music volume and ringer volume are linked together; I keep my phone on vibrate, because if the ringer were on at the same volume I listen to music, all of New Jersey would hear when I got a phone call. But in many ways, Windows Phone reminds me of Android when I first bought my Droid; it’s still slowly building an app library and a stable of features, but the potential is there, and it’s fun to experience it as it matures!
Of course, Windows Phone needs solid hardware to go along with the software, and that’s where Nokia comes in. They’ve been the biggest manufacturer of Windows Phone devices for the last few years, and slowly but surely they’re refining the Lumia brand with each generation of devices. The 928 falls in a funny spot — it’s a slight improvement over the 920, with a better screen, a Xenon flash, and a more streamlined look. At the same time, it’s very much overshadowed by the even sleeker Lumia 925, the GSM successor to the 920. Still, the 928 is the top of the line for Verizon Wireless, and it is a pleasure to use.
It is a bit on the large size, even for a phone with a 4.5in screen. There’s definitely some wasted bezel space on the top and bottom, and it’s not going to win any “thinnest smartphone” awards, but it has a slight curve to the back, and feels really good to hold. I have no problems using it one-handed and even typing one-handed with my thumb, but someone with smaller hands might find reaching the top corners to be a bit of a stretch. At first it felt a little bit too big, but after a few days of use I was so adjusted to it that Sarah’s 4S felt like a mini-phone in comparison. The screen is an AMOLED with Nokia’s ClearBlack enhancements, which basically means it is very vibrant, blacks look very black, and its remarkable readable in direct sunlight. I will say that it does not look as good as an Apple Retina screen if you look up close, but if you need to hold your smartphone six inches from your face, then you have a bigger issue than the quality of the screen … I would suggest reading glasses at that point.
My biggest peeve with the build of the phone is how slippery the casing feels. It’s plastic, but a very solid feeling phone. It’s just very slippery, and while I love the look of the black face and white body, I do keep it in a case much of the time. I have a two-week old child and a 100 pound labrador at home, so we’re sort of at the point in our lives where everything should be covered in bubble wrap. The Lumia looks fantastic caseless, but I feel better adding a touch of bulk and better covering the phone. Verizon sells TPU-style cases for the Lumia, and I found a bright green hard case on eBay that looks great against the white polycarbonate, so at least the phone is stylish, even if it is encased!
I stated in my first impressions post that one of the things I really loved about the phone was the camera, and that’s definitely one of the standout features for me. In fact, I bought the phone in large part because I use my smartphone camera constantly, and having a camera that could replace my point and shoot was really intriguing for me. I’m terrible about remembering to bring my camera, keep it charged, locate an SD card, etc…but I always have my phone on me. The camera is fantastic, even if I use the default lens settings, and it’s simple enough to use that any stranger can use my phone to snap decent pictures. This was put to the ultimate test when our son was born a few weeks ago. Sarah was busy actually giving birth to him, so we had my phone out for his first photos. Not only was I able to quickly fire off shots of him, but the interface and dedicated camera button made it simple enough for the nurses to grab my phone and take pictures. None of them had seen a Windows Phone before, but all of them complimented the quality of the photos and the ease of being able to quickly snap the pictures.
The phone’s size and lens orientation work well from an ergonomic standpoint, since it feels like you’re holding a very thin point and shoot when snapping photos. Your fingers naturally support the phone and stay away from the lens, and the shutter button is easy to access. Plus the important settings like flash, front and back facing camera, video camera, and lenses are all lined up where your right thumb is, so you can rest your pointer finger on the shutter and use your thumb to navigate changes while using the screen as a viewfinder. It just feels very natural, and that’s key if you want good pictures under all circumstances.
Of course, the phone is good for far more than just snapping photos. Call quality is so good that I actually was asked one day where I was calling from, since I sounded much clearer than I usually did on a cell phone. Granted, my 4S and my car’s bluetooth were not always the best of friends, and callers often told me I sounded staticky and like I was in a wind tunnel, so the bar wasn’t the highest for the Lumia, but it is a marked difference. And I hear a big difference on my end for sure. Calls sound clearer, and I don’t need to put the volume up to near-max levels to hear conversations.
One of the other things that drew me to the Lumia was how fast the phone moved through the user interface, and I have not seen a slowdown despite significant daily use. In a typical morning, I wake up, fire through email from 2-3 different email accounts, check Facebook, Twitter, NextGen RSS, and then play Pandora while walking the dog and driving to work. Over the course of the day I usually repeat those actions, with a fair amount of WordPress, texting and phone calls. I also have Accuweather, NBC News, NextGen and a stocks app all updating Live Tiles throughout the day, and nothing hiccups. I do have a few games, including animation heavy ones like Rayman Jungle Run, and nothing has slowed down or stuttered no matter what I had running.
In fact, when we were in the hospital after my son’s birth, I found myself using the Lumia and my iPad pretty interchangeably. This was a big change from how I used my iPhone versus my iPad, where my iPhone was mostly for quick emails, games, Facebook, and Twitter…I only reached for my iPhone for anything more intensive for content consumption when it was my only option. The Lumia’s screen is big and clear enough that I was equally happy using it to keep on top of the world as I was grabbing my iPad. In fact, because we were in that “Oh wow the baby twitched better take a picture” phase, it was helpful to have it so close by! But even for just catching up on RSS or reading Kindle books in the small snatches of downtime, I didn’t feel like I was limited — it was just big enough to make comfortable for longer form reading as well as quickie items.
All this use does slurp battery life, but I’ve been VERY pleased overall with the strength of the battery in the Lumia 928. In a typical day I can get about 12 hours of standby and active use from charge to drained, and I usually make it all day by topping the battery off midday. I bought a Nokia Wireless charging plate to keep at my desk at work, and it’s the greatest invention I have ever seen. I simply drop my phone on the charge plate when it needs to be charged, and if I need to use it, I pick it up, use it, and put it back for more charging. It’s so seamless that I wish I had bought at least one more for home as well! Regular charging takes place via microUSB, which makes life pretty easy since those are almost as common as plastic wrap when it comes to electronic devices. I swear I have at least two microUSB cords for each device I have with a microUSB port, so it’s easy to carry extra charge cables just in case…but luckily I haven’t needed to do an emergency charge yet!
There are really only two things that stand out as flat-out failures for me with the phone. One is Nokia’s HERE DRIVE beta maps app. It doesn’t offer a list of directions, just barks them turn by turn at you, so if you want to know HOW the app is directing you the only option is to scroll around the map and see where the line is headed. This also means you don’t get a choice of routes, and that’s problematic if you want to see your options with and without toll roads, different traffic patterns, etc. The good news is that it’s been mostly good at getting me from point A to point B, but I will be seeking out better options. The second issue is a Verizon one, and I’m hoping they really do come through with a fix soon. See, the issue is group messages, or lack thereof, and it’s entirely a Verizon problem. If I send a group message, I see the group text in my list of messages, but the replies all come through individually…so if I want to reply to the whole group, I have to go back to that initial group text. Worse, any group texts I receive come through as though they went just to me, and not to a group, so my replies go to the person who sent it but not the rest of the group. It’s a pain, but Verizon has promised a solution soon. I hope…
Overall, I am really, really happy with the Lumia 928. I took the plunge and switched platforms without any real experience on Windows Phone, but the learning curve was slight, and so far the rewards have been great. The combination of Windows Phone and Nokia’s excellent hardware makes for a truly fantastic device, and in my opinion a worthy competitor to the iOS/Android choices available today!
MSRP: The Lumia 928 is $99.99 from Verizon Wireless with two-year contract — prices vary at other retailers.
What I like: Beautiful screen; very fast performance; great battery life; Windows Phone offers a clean and minimalist design; camera is fantastic
What Needs Improvement: Volume is the same between media and system settings; not all flagship apps from other platforms available on Windows Phone; Nokia Drive beta needs work; Verizon group messaging needs to be fixed.