I’ve been using an iPhone with a Windows PC for about the last 4 years. Before that it was an Android Phone and a MacBook Pro. Admittedly, I’m an early adopter and generally like to play with new technology and see how it can improve my life. I love Windows 10 and the beautiful balance it strikes between touch and desktop – and with Cortana, I truly feel like Windows 10 as an OS has made me more productive than ever before. When Microsoft announced the Lumia 950 and 950 XL, it came right at the end of my Verizon contract, so I decided to make the jump. So far, I’ve had the phone for about 2 full days, and this blog post series will cover my journey from iOS and the iPhone to Windows 10 Mobile, the pros and cons, what you’ll love and what you’ll miss.
Lumia 950 XL Device
As a device, the hardware is pretty top notch. The screen is 4k, which is amazing and the camera has 20 MP, and they work great together. Sadly, almost all the apps look really bad on the high-dpi screen, with the exception of the Office apps. The outer casing is white matte plastic, and is as thin as any device I’ve seen. I personally like the plastic, even if it feels cheap, as I hate phone cases and would have the option to replace the cover if it were to ever be damaged. The back cover, however, didn’t seem to snap all the way down well and made a squishy “squeak” noise if I squeezed the phone in my hand. Beyond that, it was super light, grippy, and thin – exactly what I was looking for. Super great. The performance was snappy, comparable to any iOS/Android, and it seemed like the extra hardware of the 3GB Ram and octacore processor was mostly overkill for apps, but came in handy with Edge and Continuum.
Battery life wasn’t particularly good. At first, I was thinking the massive battery would give me a huge advantage over an iPhone 6s Plus which has one of almost half the size. In reality the gorgeous screen and processor at most of it, and I was looking for the charger with heavy use, which I had to guard with my life since none of my family or friends own a USB-C cable. Luckily fast charge is exactly that, and charging is incredibly quick.
It’s Windows 10 on mobile for real! Windows 10 on the desktop is a solid piece of software, a far cry from Windows 8/8.1. It works great on touch, on my desktop machine, and has brought new life to a lot of my devices. While the common pieces of Windows 10 that carry over to the phone are solid, it feels like the parts that are phone-specific are a little half-baked. When viewing an app and then hitting the back-button to view the app list, the background would go away so that you couldn’t read any app names. Windows Hello would have its eyeball just randomly showing up over top of apps sometimes.
The App (Gap)
I had always heard of the dreaded “App Gap” on Windows Mobile, but Windows 10’s release gave me new hope for the OS. Microsoft’s office apps are gorgeous, well designed on Windows 10 Mobile from playing in the store, feeling almost Android-like, a welcome difference from the old style of Windows Mobile 8.1. I use Siri frequently, and Cortana on the PC frequently as well, but for less things. The thought was that I could use pinned sites, which are basically webapp bookmarks placed on the home screen, but Edge didn’t pull in favicons automatically if developer didn’t specify a logo to use for the pinned site, so it ended up as just a massive row of Edge “e” logos, and even so, the ones I pinned didn’t implement push notifications, or anything else usefully app-like.
Continuum is the future. My parents and many people of the world who aren’t developers/tech enthusiasts upgrade their phones every 2 years, but still use that same old rickety XP box from 2003. The Lumia 950 XL is faster than any machine at my parents house, as well as many small businesses. You can see why having a phone that, when docked, becomes a fully functional PC, while still being able to use the phone as a phone, is an amazing feat. I truly feel like MS has a grand slam with Continuum, saving families hundreds or thousands of dollars over the course of a few years and being able to bring your PC with you everywhere or just not have to buy a separate PC outside their phones. The reality is that even though that ability is here for most people, the apps for continuum aren’t yet with the exception of Office and a couple others. It was my understanding going in that apps from the desktop Windows 10 store would be available for download onto my device and be usable there as well as with Continuum enabled for the desktop experience. That was not the case. The apps in the mobile store are a mix of 8.1 apps and a small handful of Windows 10 apps, and was hard pressed to find any, with no indication from the store if they were Continuum-enabled.
There have been rumors of intel chip-based Surface phones that are coming that would enable Win32 type applications, such as Visual Studio, and other developer tools that I use on a daily basis. That would be the ideal world for me. At this point, Continuum is great for bloggers, info-workers, or if you just use basic Office and a browser, but for everyone else, this is little more than an “I can see the glorious future coming” moment. Hopefully in the next year or so there will be a solid flow of universal apps coming to the PC, which should translate to a lot of them being enabled for phones, but today, there’s not much here.
Let me tell you that Edge is the Lumia 950 XL’s and Windows 10’s saving grace. Microsoft Edge renders content better than mobile Safari by a long shot. It’s faster, has less “quirks” when trying to order gifts online, and is overall a better browsing experience than other phones I’ve used due to it being the “real” Edge browser from desktop Windows 10. That’s right, it’s a universal app. It runs the same engine across all Windows 10 devices, which means I actually have a “real” browser now, and if I request a desktop site, it’s still fast and fluid. I will honestly miss Edge on any other device I use. Hopefully this will push Apple and Google to make their browsers faster on mobile, but of course, it could just be the hardware pushing it as I admittedly don’t have a 3GB RAM/Octacore Android device to test out.
Living images on the Lumia feel gimmicky. There, I said it. I don’t know if it’s just that I need to take a picture of a waterfall or a city scene, but they’re generally just a garbled mess and look confusing when taking a photo for me, particularly if the “Live” part is just someone posing for a shot. Sometimes it takes me a few seconds when I’m trying to browse photos to figure out what’s going on. At least you can export the living portion as a movie, so that does mean you could potentially get a usable photo if your main one was blurry, by cutting out a shot from the movie.
— Aaron Hall (@GoodThings2Life) November 28, 2015
The photos themselves come out great, though, even in low light. My 5S was worthless before putting the kids to bed when we had the lights down. In addition, the triple-LED flash is fantastic, and makes the photos look life-like and not washed out, however there were a ton of red-eye moments that made many of the photos unusable (or needed me to go back and edit), where iPhone photos had none.
The Lumia 950 XL had no problems capturing those moments of cuddling on the couch, though neither does any other flagship phone that I’ve tested out. The difference was the hardware camera button. Wow, is that thing fast. I can take my phone out of my pocket and be ready to take a photo near instantly, and that was important. If you have lots of moments that you miss with your current camera, the Lumia 950 XL is the best phone I’ve found so far for that.
Aside from taking photos FAST, the actual photos and video didn’t feel natural to me. They felt overly vivid, like things were cranked up to make them “pop”, but ended up making them look a bit like a comic at times. Here’s an example of 4K video from the Lumia 950 XL. It had trouble getting things in focus sometimes, and coloration, just felt off on many occasions.
One of my favorite parts of the camera? Saving in RAW .dng format. That’s right, photo geeks, you can save photos in RAW!!! For those that don’t know, this means uncompressed, lossless, full control over your images in apps like Photoshop and Lightroom. Quite possibly the best camera feature of them all.
It’s in beta, but they shipped it in a production, consumer product, so I’m going to review it. I currently wear glasses most of the time. It could recognize me…after about 2~3 seconds, and only after having to put it about a foot in front of my face, directly at my eyes, looking like a complete idiot. I turned it off on day 2 and just used my passcode. Whatever.
The Lumia DOES have NFC hardware inside, as stated on the Microsoft Store, however Windows 10 doesn’t have any payment solution currently. In addition the “wallet” app only defers you to 3rd party apps, and there’s no built in way to add a simple barcode based card to your wallet. It’s ALL 3rd party, which I’m not so sure I trust an app by “Joe McSketch” with wallet information.
THE BAD: Things I do frequently in iOS that I couldn’t do in Windows 10 for Phones:
- No combined Inboxes: On iOS I have about 40 options for a mail client, but I use Outlook because it’s awesome and has combined inboxes since I have about 6 different email accounts that I check. On WP 10 I have Outlook, but there’s no combined inbox. That means I have to manually click 6 different inboxes to check all my mail. Slow.
- Bing Maps didn’t have my house that I built last year: That meant I couldn’t navigate home, instead opting to set my home as a nearby business to where I’m “close enough”. This meant Cortana reminders for arriving/leaving home were broken as well, a function I use very frequently with Siri.
- No NFC payments, at all: No Starbucks card, Walgreens, Visa, DD cards – nothing. The workaround on WP was a 3rd party app for the QR code to display and be scanned, and then pinning the Starbucks, DD sites to check balances, but couldn’t add balances easily, and definitely not fast enough, as I usually only remember once I get to the drive-through. Also the design of the wallet cards were so bad I would be embarrassed if someone saw me paying with it.
- Bad Twitter Experience. While Twitter has an app, it still has stars instead of hearts. It looks like it was built in 2011 and can’t do quoted tweets.
- Skype is the only Video chat: I have 2 girls and when I told my wife we couldn’t use Apple’s FaceTime anymore I said “Hey, don’t worry we can just use Facebook Chat!”, which I know she has. The WP app doesn’t have video chat. There’s also no hangouts. The ONLY video chat solution is Skype, which is 1st party (you’d think would be great!), but it crashed multiple times for me. In addition, my wife doesn’t have a Skype account, and nor does she want another username/password to keep up with for another app.
- No “Find my Friends” equivalent: My family uses Find My Friends extensively on iOS. Everyone’s on it and we use it to coordinate on big family trips to the beach, or to pull off surprise parties. I can’t do this on WP, and even the Facebook “Nearby Friends” feature is missing on the WP app.
- Cortana is not conversational: With Siri, I ask her all sorts of questions. I get calculations at the store for the best price, say things like “Hey Siri, do I have anything after lunch?”, read/send messages, open applications, turn on/off low power mode and other deep settings on my phone, all with my voice. I do this because I don’t want to take my hands off the keyboard sometimes, or my hands are full, or most commonly because I’m driving. I play music, podcasts, search, a ton of things while I’m driving, and I can just speak to Siri in my own voice and rarely does she not understand me. Cortana doesn’t feel personal yet. You have to learn the specific commands that she understands. Siri will understand me 9 times out of 10, which means on W10 Cortana is much less useful.
- Lock Screen Notifications: On the iOS home screen, you’re given a list of the notifications you missed, but in Windows Phone, you can only have a single app show you a full, written notification. On iOS I can just glance at my phone when I hear a ding and say “ok, I don’t need to check that or do anything with it”. On Windows Phone I have to open the app to see it. Sure I can see a number next to a text icon (only up to 5 notification icons on the WP lock screen at any time), but I have no idea if it’s from my wife or a new customer or facebook two-factor authentication (texts from facebook to log you in).
- Live Tiles Made Finding Apps hard (I have well over 100 on iOS that I use at least once per year): Windows Phone has long been highly regarded for its live tiles, which show extra information on the tiles of apps, but after using them in the real world, I found them minimally useful at best, and frustrating at worst. Live tiles are great for photo apps, but for me, they never gave me enough information to where I felt like I didn’t need to open the app anyway. Emails or calendar events would have the title, but would be cut off if too long, or sometimes it would change the whole tile to some photo it thought I’d want to see, but it ended up that I couldn’t even tell the difference between 3 different tiles because they were all just photos. Is that my photo app or a travel app or my onedrive app? Who knows? The weather app was the only live tile I felt like was actually useful, which explains why it’s always the one demoed. In the end I would rather just say “Hey _____, how cold is it going to get today (at which point Siri would tell me the temperature out loud, while Cortana would say “Here’s the forecast”, meaning I still have to look at my phone if I’m driving.) Not to mention Skype push notifications were completely broken for me.
- Casting: While WP 10 does support Miracast to mirror your screen or pull up Continuum, I use the Netflix and Youtube’s “Casting” feature, which sort of cheats by tying in my Xbox to my Netflix account, which means from my phone I can select to broadcast to my Xbox, and it magically goes to the app and plays, in full quality, as if I was streaming FROM my Xbox (which it is). No Youtube app on WP means I can’t do that, and I wasn’t able to find the option in the Netflix app.
- Missing Apps: Periscope, WordSwag, Product Hunt (pinned webapp workaround), Google Hangouts, Google Maps , Strava, my local bank (pinned webapp workaround), Target/Cartwheel, Shopkick, Skitch, QMix-AI (For Presonus sound boards so I can control my in-ear monitors when playing music on stage), Buffer, GIF Keyboards, Google Now.
- WP Apps with missing features: Facebook (It’s like Facebook from 2012, so basically every feature since then), Twitter (no quoted tweets), Outlook/Mail (No combined inboxes), Podcasts (it’s just really bad)
The Good: Features on Windows Phone 10 that are new and useful to me
- Sync Across Devices: On desktop I love Windows 10. Seriously, it’s so great. My Lumia 950 XL would transfer notifications and reminders across my devices while keeping those reminders and notifications in sync. I could ask Cortana to remind me about something and it would alert me everywhere on every device. Awesome.
- Cortana (some parts, but overall Siri wins this one): I mentioned Cortana isn’t conversational, but I do like where Cortana is headed. Her voice doesn’t sound “computery” like Siri’s usually does, which adds to the personal feel, and she’s quite sassy. In addition, I can tell Cortana all about me, what restaurants I’m into, sports teams I like, and she picks up travel plans like TripIt and Google Now to surface information for me and give me context-aware proactive reminders, which is great. In addition, there are Cortana APIs, which means developers can add commands for apps to Cortana. This means that I can say “Hey Cortana, Netflix, search for Daredevil”, and it can pull up the search within Netflix. Now that’s awesome, and something I really wish other assistants had. In addition, you can place a generic location reminder, like “Remind me to pick up a power cable at Best Buy”. Siri would need a specific address to do a location reminder, but Cortana lets me be a little loose. I live in-between 2 best buys, and sometimes I go to a different grocery store depending on my routine. Cortana reminds me at any place matching the type of store I give her, making this feature truly useful and helpful.
- Office Continuum: I have a problem of taking my laptop on trips and it just sitting in my bag, or me being tempted to pull it out. Continuum means I can leave my laptop at home, but then use continuum to a TV and get work done if something explodes, since I’d have TeamViewer or Remote Desktop (Remote Desktop didn’t seem to work in Continuum, but I’m sure it’s coming soon.)
- Xbox Integration: I’m a huge Xbox gamer (RyGon2, add me!), so most games on mobile are tied to Xbox Live, and carry gamerscore over. That’s pretty cool!
Who is Windows 10 for Phones for?
Who it’s for: People entrenched in the Windows ecosystem, fans of Windows, or people coming from “dumb” phones to smartphones for the first time. If you use OneDrive, Office, Email, Calendar, and regular phone/SMS services, you’ll be right at home and love Windows 10 Mobile. The Office apps and mail/calendar apps are high quality.
Who I can’t recommend it for: If you use a lot of social apps, are in marketing/social media, run your business from your phone almost exclusively (like me), then it’s probably not for you. If you’re a millennial, or use social media apps and want to interact with your friends on pretty much all the popular platforms (Snapchat, Periscope, Yonder, etc), then it’s not for you. There’s only now an Instagram app, and it’s in Beta after about 3 or 4 years, which seems to be the general theme – it’s like going back in time 4 years to how apps looked and acted in the past.
I genuinely feel like Windows 10 for Phones will be great in a couple years. The platform is now (finally ready) with true universal app capability and Windows 10 across all devices. However, the app gap is real, and in a way it feels like they’re trying to iterate so fast that they aren’t testing to see if anything breaks along the way. I found the whole experience buggy in general, with hints of the greatness that it could be, but isn’t. I’m hopeful that in a few years it’ll be ready, but I can’t recommend it to most people that I know today. I ended up deciding to send my Lumia back, so I requested a return label and picked up an iPhone 6S instead until Windows Phone gets up to speed. After the phone arrived, it seemed that the vast majority of Windows Phone users who were singing its praises had actually never owned an iPhone or Android, or at least not for a long while. As someone who does use their phone extensively, for running their business, running their family, and a ton of things in-between, I just can’t make the jump today. I can’t without significant pain, lost productivity and potentially lost savings with apps like Shopkick and Cartwheel. I’ll likely give it another go in a year or two, but not soon.