Monday, January 27, 2014

Windows Phone 8 / Nokia Lumia 521

My Galaxy Nexus got finally to the point of being unusable — it was almost impossible to charge, and neither Google nor Samsung seem to have any desire to support the phone. I went and plopped down $69 for a Nokia Lumia 521 at a local Microsoft Store (which turned out to be a kiosk in a mall food court, not quite competition to the nearby Apple store). I had eyed the Moto X, but $400 vs. $69 is a pretty big difference.

I'm on a grandfathered plan with T-Mobile, and traditionally it has made more sense for me to keep buying unlocked phones. Philosophically I also prefer paying for my service, then paying for my phone separately from it, without being locked into contracts that obscure the true cost of what I'm getting. Luckily T-Mobile makes this easy.

The Lumia 521

$69 for a smartphone with no commitment is a pretty sweet deal — or rather, one should set one's expectations accordingly. The Lumia 521 has no front-facing camera for video chats, has no hypergigapixel camera (5 MP), has no flash or autofocus light for the camera, has no acceloremeter, doesn't even have the FM radio found in every other Nokia phone I've had over the last decade. It doesn't have a trueblack screen. It comes in white, white or white.

It does, however, have a micro-SD slot taking up to a 64 GB cards, allowing you to download music, maps etc. It seems to work fine with my old Galaxy Nexus headset, which is good because it didn't come with one.

The phone consists of two parts. The back and sides are one continuous piece of plastic, similar to protective covers you can buy for other phones. To get to the battery, SIM and SD-card slots you simply pry it off the phone. The power button, volume rocker and camera shutter button are integrated into the cover. They have a surprisingly good feel, and it's noteworthy that the camera shutter is a proper two-stage affair.

The second part is the guts of the phone; only the camera lens and display are visible through the wraparound cover when it's on. Like some of the higher end phones in the Lumia line, the benefit of the wraparound plastic is that even if you scratch it, the scratches won't be particularly visible as there's no smooth surface to damage and the color is part of the plastic rather than a coating. I put the phone in my pants pocket without even a thought of a protective cover, although its price may have also encouraged me in this.

My initial impression was very positive. I had worried about the logistics of getting a new SIM card from T-Mobile (the Galaxy Nexus uses a mini-SIM, the Lumia 521 uses a micro-SIM; some other new phones have a nano-SIM. So much for that standard...) but it turns out this was a non-issue; there was a micro-SIM in the box with a phone number and URL. I punched it up in my mobile browser from my old phone, and within minutes my old SIM was deactivated and my new phone was up and going. Easy-peasy. Kudos to T-Mobile.

The phone comes with the SIM card, micro-USB charger, and super-short micro-USB cable, and some paperwork. No case, bag, or earbuds.

Compared to the Galaxy Nexus, the Lumia 521 screen is vastly better, although it's being lambasted as being fairly poor as far as current phones go. I have no complaints. You can't calibrate the touchscreen, although you can set the sensitivity. It's supposed to work even if you have regular gloves on.

Inexplicably, when T-Mobile had Nokia spin the Lumia 521 variant of the 520 model, they added some 4 millimeters in length. Internet wisdom suggests this is so they could print their carrier logo on it. Of course the one I bought from Microsoft has no logo on it. What this means, though, is that aftermarket covers and similar accessories meant for the Lumia 520 don't fit the 521. In fact, the selection of specific accessories is next to non-existent.

Battery life is considered poor by other reviewers, but it's no worse than the Galaxy Nexus was when new. If I don't use the phone for more than the occasional email and Facebook check during the day, I have more than half battery left by the time I've made it home from work. On the other hand, running GPS-enabled fitness apps and podcast playback in a forest with borderline cell coverage (meaning that the phone has to use full power on its radio) will suck half the battery in a matter of an hour and a half. It seems to charge back up quite quickly too.

Windows Phone 8

The user interface is amazingly smooth. Swipes are easy and smooth, and the inertia works as expected. Many of the basic functions of the phone, like unlocking, alarm clocks, contact list and so forth are as good as instantaneous. Night and day compared to my Samsung Galaxy Nexus.

The Windows Phone 8 Metro interface divides people. I dislike it intensely on my Windows 8 laptop. On the phone, however, it's great. I love the consistent visual look in apps and the consistent behavior of left/right swipes to move between screens. The transition animations are pleasing. Every other phone OS could do well to learn a lot from this.

I use relatively few apps, so your needs may be quite different. The Windows Phone 8 main screen has tiles on a grid. Full-size tiles are two cells high and four wide. Half-size are two cells high and two cells wide. Small size are one cell. For most apps you can pick which size you want to have. The tiles can be "live tiles" i.e. update information constantly and provide you the latest Facebook update, weather etc. at a glance.

...and here's the first caveat. Especially in this phone due to its RAM, you're limited as to how many apps you can have running in the background updating tiles. In practice this means you have to pick only a few. Even worse, in my view most of the tiles are useless, as they tend to only show one thing. The calendar only shows the next appointment. The Facebook tile only shows one update. The email app only shows the latest message. It's visually much prettier than Google Now cards, but Google's cards are vastly more useful, both in information content and their ability to change cards based on what's relevant. One attempt to make up the difference is the Here suite "My Commute" where you tell it ahead of time around what time you're typically going from where to where, and it'll prefetch the traffic and routing info into a live tile. This is similar to the Google Now card, though doesn't work quite as well in practice.

The second issue with Windows Phone 8 is the utter lack of customization. It goes to ridiculous lengths. For example, the phone has a volume rocker. It sets the phone volume. This is used for all alarm sounds as well as audio playback. To repeat — you can't set the ringer volume separately from the audio playback volume. There is no ascending volume either. There are no real themes to change the visual appearance of the phone, and you're pretty limited on what you can do with the lock screen. You can load your own ringtones easily enough, though.

In the Symbian era Nokia made great phone hardware, consistently let down by half-baked software. Has Windows Phone 8 changed that? I'd have to say yes and no. The operating system and the integrated Here suite of apps certainly are of higher quality than even Symbian^3. However, the apps are another story altogether. Here's a list of the apps I use, and my problems with them:

  • MyFitnessPal — It's just plain broken. You can't add entries to your food diary. Not that you can't add new foods; you can't add an entry of what you ate. They've been aware of it since early December last year, but so far no fix in sight.
  • Endomondo — I still miss the Nokia Sportstracker, but that aside, I used Endomondo a lot on my Galaxy Nexus, paired with a Zephyr HxM Bluetooth heart rate monitor (HRM). Surprise! For no obvious reason, there's no HRM support on the Windows phone version of Endomondo. No official response from Endomondo on their support forums that I can find. Instead I switched to Caledos Runner, but it's wretched and borderline unusable. It should be mentioned that the HRM pairs with the phone like a dream, and another Caledos app that does nothing more than show the current BPM works peachy.
  • Google+ Doesn't exist. Neither does Google Maps, Google Now, Gmail or virtually any other Google product. This kind of hurts.
  • LastPass — Works great.
  • Waze — The Windows Phone version is quite buggy. For example, pulling up your podcast app to pick something to listen to during a drive, then switching back to Waze causes it to crash. Navigating in an area with sketchy cell coverage causes it to crash. You get the idea.
  • Podcast Lounge — None of the podcast apps I used on Android appear to be available on Windows Phone, so I went with this. It's visually pretty, but it has some screens you can't get rid of (like a category directory pre-populated and non-editable), and it insists on updating a feed every time you enter the episode list. This takes a while, especially if you're out of coverage. "Now playing" is fairly well hidden as well, and not the default screen you get to when resuming the app from the background.
  • Yelp — I only use this to look for restaurants; I don't have a login. Works great.
  • Facebook — There is no Facebook app from Facebook for the phone, but Microsoft has cooked up their own. It's pretty slow and appears to have no way to do things like timeline review (links to it do nothing). It's usable, though.
  • Pandora — I had gotten rather used to Google Music instead, but had to switch back to Pandora since Google Music won't work. No problems, aside from occasional failure to return to playback after being interrupted by a GPS announcement or text message.
In fact, one of the most glaring annoyances is switching between tasks. I don't know if it's the limited RAM, the OS, or badly written applications, but you need to get used to the idea of switching from one application to another taking an inordinate amount of time. Even worse, a lot of apps, when brought back to the foreground, don't put you on the screen you were in when you backgrounded them, but act as if you had just started them from scratch. Some, like the built-in Here navigation work fairly well with it, taking a while to figure out what they were doing and resuming. Others, like Waze or Caledos Runner, just completely forgot that you were navigating or in the middle of an exercise activity, so you have to restart things every time.

Much like Facebook, in the "neener neener, I'm not touching you" act Microsoft and Google appear to be engaged in, Microsoft has rolled Gmail support into their native email app (which, incidentally, is probably the best I've seen in supporting email services and being pretty functional). The phone integrates corporate Exchange contacts, Google and Google+ contacts, Skype contacts, Microsoft Live contacts and Facebook contacts. This is nice, though not quite as well done as it was on Symbian^3. It is also very annoying when people have bogus or old information on Facebook, as the phone won't let you edit or delete those entries. The contacts functionality works well in general, and Gmail support is usable, though it comes with all the usual IMAP/POP3 limitations.

Purchasing apps is dangerously easy. The app store, by default, charges your purchases to your cell phone account, so you don't have to add separate payment info.

One aspect where Android wipes the table with Windows Phone is the keyboard. Android has built-in a Swype-like functionality where you just swipe your finger on the keyboard, and don't have to exactly hit the keys. The Windows Phone keyboard requires you to actually hit the keys, and it doesn't allow you to enter numbers and symbols with a long press, you have to actually switch modes to do that. Swype is not available as an app, either.

The phone comes with speech commands. They're somewhat more limited than Google's, but appear to work about as well, i.e. when I try to navigate somewhere or send someone a text message, it works about half the time, and lands me in a web search window the other half. A special kudo goes to the text message functionality, though. When the phone is paired to my car and a text message arrives, the phone announces that I have just received a new text message from sender, and asks me if it should read it or ignore it. If I say "read", it reads the message, then offers further actions like reply, call. I can listen to the message and dictate a response without pressing a single button.

Conclusion

The Lumia 521 is an amazing value for money. It's clearly limited in hardware and in software, and some of those limitations may be severe enough that this is not the phone for you. It's not the phone for Facebook addicts, multitaskers, app-addicts or users of Google services. On the other hand, it's visually elegant and works well; the things it does it does well. The camera is basic, but surprisingly decent.

Microsoft's SkyDrive is a very reasonable Google Drive replacement; pictures can get auto-uploaded to it and the web interface is way nicer than Google's. Instead of Google's Keep, there's OneNote. There are also some media services under the X-Box and Zune labels, but I can't speak to those.

If you tend to use one app at a time, if the apps available are enough for you, and you just need a basic smartphone, it's hard to not see the Lumia 521 as a winner.