why i love windows phone 7

The internet, in general, hates Windows Phone so I decided to write a quick post to explain why I’m completely smitten by the platform. For background purposes, the Nokia Lumia 900 is my fourth smartphone after a BlackBerry Curve 8310, the iPhone 3GS and, most recently, the HTC HD7S. I’ve been using the Windows Phone platform since about July 2011 (the HD7S) and there’s no looking back, for me. Let’s go into details.

It’s Freaking Beautiful

The UI is absolutely stunning. Yes, the screen resolution doesn’t allow for “retina display” and WP manufacturers have not entered the ongoing pixel arms race, but the actual presentation of the operating system is beautiful. Metro is easily my favorite user experience on any piece of software I’ve used. The large tiles are bold and bright and the sharp edges gives them definition. Compare this with the grid of tiny icons that iOS/stock Android presents you (along with a number-based notification system) and the difference is massive if you allow yourself to believe in it. Of course, iOS and Android are making strides with an improved notification system and widgets, respectively, but I’m a fan of the WP presentation. It’s sexy and utilitarian. If I want to check the weather, I just need to unlock the phone and the live tile tells me the current weather and the next two days. If I want to see if anyone has posted anything on my Facebook or tweeted anything at me, once again, the live tile grabs all this information.

Everything is integrated

When I was using an iPhone, I had:

  • My contact list on my phone
  • My music playing off of Spotify with the Spotify app
  • My Facebook notifications coming through the FB app
  • My Twitter notifications coming through the Twitter app
  • Any synchronization being done through the shitty iTunes interface
  • QR Code/barcode scanning being done through third party apps
  • Pandora for live radio
  • Shazam to do song recognition

And it goes on. I use my phone primarily to keep track of my social networks, to text my friends, to listen to music and occasionally make a call or two. All the above things I mentioned are integrated into the core Windows Phone operating system. When I first set up my phone, I logged into my Windows Live and Facebook accounts. This grabbed all my contacts and even matched them up with the relevant Facebook accounts. I did install the third-party Facebook app but I hardly use it (also, it is extremely buggy).

The Windows Phone search button (a dedicated touch button that can be pressed at any time) allows you to not only search for text but to scan a barcode or QR code or even listen to music. Yup, the Shazam feature is automatically built in. Pandora still needs a third-party app (wpFandora does an excellent job) but more importantly, all my music is tracked through the Music & Videos hub. This means that if I heard a song on Pandora and then listened to other stuff on my phone, I can easily find the track in my music history as if it were being played from the same source.

I cancelled my Spotify subscription in favor of the Microsoft Zune Pass, which is the same price. The advantages? I don’t have to use iTunes again, ever. I can’t put into words how huge this advantage is for me. I absolutely detest iTunes. Zune is a more than worthy replacement and is about 1,452,530 sexier than iTunes. You know how OS X has been building up all these “full screen, immersive apps” the last few months? Well Zune has been doing that since… well, a long time. Another positive of Zune Pass is that it is essentially iTunes, Spotify, Spotify Mobile and Pandora rolled into one. I can listen to any song on Zune through subscription, and I can download it to my phone and play it offline. Of course, if I haven’t downloaded a song, I can look it up and play it from the marketplace section on the phone and even download it and save it to a playlist. Without having to buy it. Without having to download Spotify. The Pandora equivalent is “Smart DJ”. You can search for any artist and click “Smart DJ” and it will start playing related songs. Sure, their algorithm is probably not as good as Pandora’s, but you can get started with it immediately.

The hardware and software are unique… “different”

I find it most hilarious that I’m using Microsoft software and being “different”. It seems like only yesterday when Apple was forcing “think different” down everyone’s throats. For those not in the know, Nokia is using the slogan “beautifully different” to drive Lumia sales. And it’s ironic, but Microsoft’s product offering here is really unique and different. The iPhone is now the go-to smartphone for most users and the marketing advantage that Apple had with Macs of having “something cooler than yours” has not carried forward to their phone product line. Everyone has an iPhone. Except those people who have Android, which, in my opinion, basically means that you want (/need) to tinker with your OS to customize it to your needs or you are just to cheap to buy an iPhone. Or you hate the fact that Apple makes minor improvements to their product every year and then sells it as if it’s the greatest new thing. Android buyers have the latest technology available at a low price now, instead of next year. Alas, it comes at the cost of a fragmented marketplace that is struggling to deal with all the different versions of the operating system on their hardware, now.

Windows Phone has a minuscule market share and one that Microsoft, I think, should increase only enough to become the Mac of the smartphone market. The Lumia 900 is a fine hero device because it’s not just Android hardware with the WP software on it, but a device built from scratch to match the sexiness of the WP7 operating system. Of course, MS has historically operated on volume so they are trying to give the device away for free to try and get it in people’s hands. I suppose this works, but at some point I think MS should try to make Windows Phone a luxury device, rather than the Dell of smartphones.

And finally, the negatives…

Of coures, there are several negatives with the platform. The two that have been brought up the most are (1) “there are no apps” and (2) “this is last year’s hardware”. Yes, the app offering is fractional compared to the iTunes App Store and the Google Marketplace (or whatever its name is, right now). And the bigger problem, in my opinion, is that most big-name developers don’t even consider developing for WP. Which is mindblowing to me, as a developer, because Microsoft’s developer suite (Visual Studio) is heads and shoulders above iOS’ (XCode or Mono Touch) or Android’s (Eclipse or whatever Java editor you choose to use). .NET technology has been around for ages and most developers already know how to code in it. One would expect there to be a lot more Windows Phone developers, but I guess they are driven by market needs.

But going back to the crux of the issue, yes, there is an app problem. Any Windows Phone user who tries to tell you otherwise is just lying to himself or herself. I want to play Draw Something on my Lumia. I want to be with the “in” crowd of whatever game ends up being the next viral craze. This is a work in progress and it’s only going to change if there is a sufficient shift in market share for Windows Phone. All that said, the apps for WP are legitimate in themselves. There are several really nice apps that take advantage of the Metro UX and understand Microsoft’s vision with the operating system.

The second negative is, in my opinion, mostly just FUD. Yes, current generation Windows Phones are babies compared to the technical specifications of Android. Isn’t there an Android phone out there which is going to be quad-core? And really, the first thing that comes to my mind is, “why the hell do you need four cores on your phone?” It sounds like either the developer SDK is not efficient or that the developers are dumb. Windows Phone works like a dream with a single core. Everything is snappy and I have encountered little to no lag. That said, I do think that a few of the software requirements/implementations could use improvement. For example, I’d like to have higher resolution graphics and better camera software. I’m hoping Apollo will change some of this. And if Apollo does include dual-core support, I can’t imagine how awesome the platform would be. If WP’s performance is already comparable with iOS/Android with a fraction of the cores, a multi-core experience is only going to be better (especially given that MS has software pedigree in developing successful multi-core operating systems).

Alright, I’m gonna step off my soap box, now, since this was a fair bit longer than I expected. Keep in mind that these conclusions are drawn based off of my Lumia 900. A few of my opinions would be very different if I had been writing this article whilst using the HD7S, which is essentially just an Android phone with the Microsoft OS on it.

Feel free to comment with your opinion! I completely understand that my love of the MS offering is highly subjective. As with taste in music and preference for beer styles, I respect the fact that people like different things.

taxes and technology

I don’t think I’ve griped about my iPod Touch potentially dying last week. Apparently my iPod freaked out when I plugged it into my entertainment center last weekend to play some Ke$ha (yes, this was probably my mistake). The iPod was unsyncable through iTunes for some reason and since we had people over and I didn’t really feel like troubleshooting, I let YouTube and my collection of music on the hard disk take over. Later last week I took my iPod into work to listen to some music. Unfortunately, it would play only one song. I repeat, only one song. At the end of the song, I’d hear approximately 0.83 seconds of the next song and then the music app quit.

Any other app I opened did not work either. Just boot up and shut down immediately. I did a reboot on the system a couple of times and there was no improvement. Finally, I got the chance this weekend to try and figure out what the problem was. When I plugged the iPod in, it told me I needed to update my software. When trying to update my software, it said that it could not backup my profile. I had all my music on my computer and all my apps are on my iPhone now so I thought, what the hell, let’s just do a full-scale restore operation. Restore failed. A couple of times.

Luckily I was watching TV at the time (I think Modern Family or The Office or maybe even an NBA game or something) so I had the patience to keep trying. Finally, the restore went through. However, it then promptly hung when I tried to name my iPod (configuring it as a brand new device). I quit iTunes forcefully and upon restarting, it gave me the “Cannot Sync” message, forcing me to restore it again. I had to do about 2-3 clean restores before I was finally able to configure the device to work (I think). Once I finally managed to name my iPod (going with the generic sohum’s iPod instead of something as exciting as sohummm or maybe even iSohum) I decided that I had had enough of iTunes.

Fortunately for me, I had stumbled upon an article a couple of weeks ago about how an iPod user wanted to divorce iTunes. If you recall my “iTunes kills the iPhone experience” blog, you will note that I was in much the same position (except that I would never be able to overlook iTunes’ many flaws to ever marry it in the first place). One of the alternatives was MediaMonkey, which I promptly downloaded, installed and fired up. While the interface isn’t as clean-cut as iTunes, it is infinitely more performant. It took me about 25-30 minutes to set up my sync list and then I clicked one button and it was ready to go, quietly doing its stuff in the background. The last time I tried to use iTunes to set up a new iPod with my music (my iPhone, in that case), I had to live through about 2 hours of iTunes trying to figure out whether each song in my library should be included on the “gapless” playback list before my computer was usable.

I don’t change my music all that often–just add new tunes here and there, so it seems MediaMonkey is the perfect hands-off tool for me to sync my iPod without having to deal with the crapware that is iTunes. I’m not interested in buying crippled, low bitrate music from iTunes and even if I did, I would do it directly through my iPod (if that’s possible).

Anyways, that’s the technology part of this blog. Tomorrow will be a test of whether my iPod is truly fixed or whether it was just pretending to do so.

The other thing I wanted to touch upon was taxes. Yep, tax season is coming up! While at Rice, the international student office kindly set us up with a license of the CINTAX (hilarious name, yes?) software to help us crunch the numbers. It had always seemed like such a painful and tedious process? Doing it on my own this year showed that it is actually not that complicated, especially if you have a simple financial situation, as I do. First of all, since I’m still technically a non-resident (in fact, an NR student, to be precise) I don’t really qualify for any extra deductions/exemptions. The tax treaty with India (Article 21(2) to be exact) allows me to get the standard deduction ($5,700) and my lowly income allows me to get the standard exemption ($3,650). However, this may be the final year that I will have such a simple process since next year I will be in H-1B status for part of the year, meaning that I may need to split my taxes or do something exciting like that. I will probably need to consult professional help at that point in time, but for now I am rejoicing in having solved one of those annoying life problems. 😛

Anyways, I got a lot of information from a website called VisaTaxes.com, if any of you are international students and have stumbled upon this blog because of tax season. Here are a few more keywords to hook you into this blog (is this unethical?): 1040NR, 1040NR-EZ, Form 8843. Grin. 🙂

C’est tout!

iTunes kills the iPhone Experience

This Black Friday I made the jump to purchasing an iPhone. AT&T had a pretty awesome deal going on which allowed me to snag a refurbished version of the 3G-S 16GB for a mere $49+$18 upgrade fees+some taxes. Total price was around $70, the condition being a 2-year contract, which I’m not too worried about since I’ll probably be staying with AT&T anyways. I was already paying for a BB data plan, which is equal to the iPhone one, so no extra charges there.

The phone itself is beautiful. Of course, having used the iPod Touch for nearly a year now, I knew what I was getting myself into. I was able to activate after a few issues and copied over all my apps from my iPod Touch using iTunes. So far so good. Next, I found a tutorial on the web that essentially used iTunes to create ringtones. Splendid, right? So I created a couple. Then, I thought, “Oh, I might as well get all my music into my iTunes.” This was possible now finally that I have my Windows 7 Homegroup set up properly. So I went ahead and added the music folder to iTunes and went and did my P90X workout and showered.

Once I came back, I was ready to crank out some ringtones manually. Not. iTunes was busy “Determining Gapless Playback Information”. A feature that I really don’t care for. And one that is programmed badly enough that it ends up using all of iTunes’ resources, rendering the program unusable. Now, iTunes wasn’t a fantastic program to begin with, being slow and clunky, so imagine how the end user experience is when your mouse events are delayed by 5-10 seconds. Ridiculous. Luckily, there was an “X” right next to the message, and I clicked it and decided to hunt around in the Preferences for a way to disable it.

Midway through my search of the first Preferences tab, I noticed my mouse events slowed down again. “What?” I thought to myself. After about half a minute more I was out of the preferences dialog and to my disgust I found that iTunes had decided once again to “Determine Gapless Playback Information”. Annoyed, I clicked “X” again and sure enough, about 5 seconds later, it was back! Not only that, but it started from the first track every time! Looking around on the internet for a few fixes, I found a couple that should have worked but didn’t. I realized that now that I have bought my first “real” Apple product, I will have to enter that realm where I sacrifice a few of my rights as the owner of a device to do what Apple wants me to do. In this case, this means that I will have to let it run for the 30-60 minutes it must take to set up this feature which I don’t care about, anyway, and come back to do my ringtone-making tomorrow.

And they complain Windows 7 takes a minute to boot up…