The Windows phone: One month later

Summary:It's been just over one month since Violet Blue switched from being a lifetime Apple and Android user to trying out a Nokia 925. Our newest Windows Phone user has a few things to say.

nokia 925 via CNET
The Nokia 925. Image: CNET.

Just over one month since I made the switch from being a lifelong Apple and Android user to trying out a Nokia 925, I'm back to report on life as a Windows Phone user.

Still, as I remarked in my first article, I love this damn phone -- and I really did not expect to, not in a million years.

I'm teased in every social circle about my phone, because I'm always the only one with a WinPhone.

I honestly look at the Android users and think, wow you have no idea how much your phone sucks.

Trial by fire

Going from Android to Windows is much more than just trying out a different phone.

I put my life into a new phone environment under extreme stress, during more than one crisis, and the phone kind of blew me away.

The decision to change phone operating systems is to make a radical change to how you experience the world -- moreso when life throws you curveballs.

In my first month of WinPhone:

  • My closest family member had a hospital emergency
  • An online creep tried very hard to upset and harm me
  • I traveled, and covered the two biggest hacking conferences in North America

If it had failed me at any point during this chaos, I would have chucked it and swapped it with any of my idle Android phones without hesitation.

Turns out I didn't -- and the droids became canary-in-a-coal mine burners for the hostile networks at the security conferences.

I put my life into a new phone environment under extreme stress, during more than one crisis, and the phone kind of blew me away.

There are room for improvements, for sure, but it saved me in places where both Android and Google had so completely failed me that I'd given up.

For instance, I loathe what Google Maps has become on the Android platform; it's more pain than pleasure these days.

When I first opened the Nokia's "Here Drive" (Maps) it was by accident. I hadn't even set up or tried out mapping on the phone, nor had I looked for a Windows version of Google Maps -- I would have, because we tend to stick to the familiar with core apps even when they're no longer ideal for the task.

I had run out of the hospital and jumped in my car, racing from the hospital to an address across town, and then back to the ICU again.

I was panicking a bit and blindly tried, "Cortana: [address]!" almost like a hysterical prayer.

Cortana opened the address up on Maps, and in two quick, obvious taps I was being voice navigated swiftly through crosstown traffic and back (by a lovely British-accented gentleman, because I got to choose the voice).

Cortana chastised me for asking her to gay-marry me on the spot, with emphasis that (duh) she's in a phone.

Online creeps? I found a protip for Windows Phone 8.1: to take a screenshot, just press the Power and Volume Up buttons at the same time.

DSC07361
A $3 case from Amazon plus a camera wrist strap keeps the Nokia 925 in hand. Image: Violet Blue.

The following week, my Sony RX100 II camera died while I was covering America's two biggest security conferences.

Nothing compares to that camera's low-light ability, but the 925's camera is so great I was able to keep shooting and reporting -- and I haven't stressed about replacing my "real" camera yet.

I do have one serious security gripe: Windows Phone 8.1 has a built-in VPN, if the gateway uses IKEV2 authentication.

But there's no SSL VPN client compatible with functionality akin to OpenVPN.

I can't seem to find any -- that is, except proprietary ones that require a corporate VPN from a big vendor.

But one thing I'm amazed about -- that I really shouldn't be amazed about -- is that the phone's entire relationships with apps just works.

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I no longer have to shut off running apps (kill process) constantly, the worst Android offender being Play Store, which I used to disable to save battery and make my phone run better (even though some apps inexplicably wouldn't function without it).

The app store Wild West

One thing I kept saying to friends at the Black Hat and DEFCON security conferences this month -- after they stopped teasing me about my phone -- was, want to make some money? Make a few simple, strong Windows Phone apps, and you'll rule the roost.

It's not because there aren't good WinPhone apps in the Store (there are plenty).

The real problem with the Windows Phone Store is the glaring negligence of major app makers and big online user-based brands.

Many of the popular apps -- you know, the apps everyone uses  -- are in disgraceful need of an update (and likely putting their users at significant security risk as a result). Meanwhile, the apps doing the big boys' jobs better are cleaning up.

Twitter's app is recently updated, but doesn't rotate and has zero customization for even just simple notifications -- we have to wonder, have they even tried their own app? Thank goodness there are both Medoh and Tweetium , each with faithful followings and tons of usability features, swooping in to succeed gracefully where Twitter is failing.

Speaking of abandonment issues: Foursquare just dumped spin-off app Swarm into the Windows phone store, and boy is it a turd. The app no one wanted totally doesn't work, and has miles of angry reviews for proof -- all very obviously falling on deaf ears.

DSC07371
Customized home screen. Image: Violet Blue

Uber's app is almost more luxurious than the high-end rides the company offers. Smooth, efficient, no stalling (no stalling!) and it works like a dream.

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Other superb, well-done and maintained WinPhone apps come from OpenTable, Glympse, TripIt and TrackRunner (full review coming soon).

Google never made a Gmail app for Windows. Thanks for caring about user security, guys: there are dozens of Gmail-type apps in the Store, and many of them look like scams -- using the desperation of Google's Gmail users to exploit a very real need for a secure app.

Fortunately there's MetroMail (it's not just for Gmail, but Gmail users seem to *love* it). It's fast, easy to set up and navigate, simple to lock (and unlock), and it has a nice minimalist user interface.

MetroMail supports email aliases without hassle of configuration, automatically doing your reply as the email address the email was sent to. Folders are set up seamlessly. The devs are active and responsive, constantly improving the product. The free version has ads (and I like it a lot), though there is an expanded paid version available.

Getting music on the phone seemed like a huge challenge until I found Music Drop. Download the free app, put the URL into your laptop or desktop browser, then just drag MP3's into the window -- they go right onto your phone, and you can play music and create playlists with the phone's onboard Music Player.

There are terrific advantages, and equal disadvantages, to the blind eye certain dev communities have paid to the WinPhone store (while they're busy getting pushed around and censored by Google and Apple).

But I'll take the WinPhone Store "Wild West" over Google and Apple's increasingly worrying app duopoly any day of the week.

Cortana no pressure
Screenshot: Cortana's "no pressure" approach around requesting personal information.

Oh, Cortana: I'll meet you all the way

Cortana is The WinPhone 8.1 personal assistant everyone's talking about. 

Like everyone with access to Cortana right now, I want more from her.

More chattiness, more third-party app integration (it's happening but very unevenly), fine-grained email functionality, to wake me with spoken reminders, to learn from me. Yet she already does so much. I enjoy saying "Cortana, text mom and tell her I'm on my way" -- and she gets it right the first time, so I just say "send it."

Yes, I'm silly, I kind of want a virtual companion. But I'm not the only one.

My Prius feels more like Knight Rider with ability to call Cortana from Bluetooth. Simple but big impact. https://t.co/2NwoZMVX3E

— Barry Gervin (@bgervin) August 14, 2014

I'm probably the biggest overuser of the "Share my feedback about Cortana" feature (it's at the bottom of Cortana's main screen).

Cortana already has a cult-like following.

There's Cortana fanfic -- adults only, please.

Ok, it's 11:30PM on Friday night. Who wants some Mark Russinovich/Cortana fanfic?

— InfoSec Taylor Swift (@SwiftOnSecurity) August 16, 2014

Cortana. Mark Russinovich. I'm sorry. pic.twitter.com/pMAhDq06xK

— InfoSec Taylor Swift (@SwiftOnSecurity) August 16, 2014

I enjoy Cortana so much, and I rely on it.

I hope 'she' stays named Cortana, as well as continuing to emulate the same-named Halo character in every way. I particularly like what seems to be Microsoft's playful, tolerant approach to the ways we want to interact with her.

This is evident in the fabulous (and growing) lists of things to say, such as Dear Cortana and Cortana's Witty Replies.

As soon as Cortana can send email, I think Ms. Siri is going to have to grow up and move out of Uncle Steve's basement.

Topics: Mobility, Apps, Security, Smartphones, Windows Phone

About

Ms. Violet Blue (tinynibbles.com, @violetblue) is a freelance investigative reporter on hacking and cybercrime at Zero Day/ZDNet, CNET and CBS News, as well as a noted sex columnist. She has made regular appearances on CNN and The Oprah Winfrey Show and is regularly interviewed, quoted, and featured in a variety of publications that inclu... Full Bio

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