Windows Phone 8.1: What if it's actually good?

Windows Phone 8.1: What if it's actually good?

Summary: David Gewirtz begins to take a serious, no-holds-barred look at the new Windows Phone. In this article, he outlines the criteria he'll be using to compare it to the best of Android and iOS.


I've never paid Windows Phone much attention. I always figured its share of market was too small to be worth much of my writing time. Oh, sure, whenever I wrote about Android or iOS, the Windows Phone crazies would jump out of the woodwork, but outside the comment pages here on ZDNet, Windows Phone pretty much stayed off my radar.

My loaner Windows Phone sits, unopened... for now
My loaner Windows Phone sits, unopened... for now

With the exception of a few Microsoft employees who are friends, no one I know uses Windows Phone. I have never held one, never booted one, never used one.

Then I read James Kendrick's article on why his next phone will be the upcoming iPhone. He talked about the possible lack of apps on Windows Phone. He talked about "its own little island in the Microsoft sea" and he talked about being entrenched in the Google ecosystem.

As I read James' piece, I found myself nodding along, in complete agreement of everything he said. Then I thought about it. While James has used Windows Phone, I haven't. How can I possibly agree completely with an assessment of a device and ecosystem, when I've never even used it?

I feel comfortable criticizing iOS. I have iPads and iPhones. I feel comfortable criticizing Android. I have a Samsung Galaxy S4 and a variety of Nexi. I feel comfortable criticizing Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux. I use all of them daily.

But I don't use Windows Phone. Never have. Until now.

I decided it wasn't fair to just go around with an impression of Windows Phone and make allusions to its pitiful market share without any experience of the device, OS, and ecosystem. So I reached out to Microsoft. I asked them to send me a loaner, something as close as possible in functionality to my Samsung S4, which is the phone I travel with most.

Today, that phone arrived. It's a Lumia Icon and it's on Verizon, because I get better Verizon coverage and my S4 is on Verizon.

I have NOT opened the box the phone came in. That's because I want to establish some review expectations before I have experience using it. I want to make a general list of what I expect I'll need to be able to be comfortable with a replacement phone. That includes apps, hardware, services I use, etc.

Once that list is in place, I'll start using the phone and report back to you over the next few weeks. I honestly have no idea if I'll like it or not, but here's how I'm going to evaluate it.

Evaluation questions

First, I'll consider whether it can be used in my current world. Do I have to give up any essential services and capabilities? If I wind up having to carry the Android phone along with the Windows Phone to conduct my daily activities, the Windows Phone will have failed.

Here are some specifics: 

  • All my phones use inductive charging. Can the Windows Phone? I requested it, but we'll see.

  • Can I connect to both my email and my calendar? My email is Office 365 via Exchange and Outlook, but I live off of Google Calendar. Can I still manage my Google Calendar with this thing?

  • What about Facebook and Twitter?

  • How does it do in the car? I use GPS and Pandora constantly, along with links to my car's Bluetooth environment. Can Windows Phone keep up?

  • I use my phone to control my Hue lighting system. Can Windows Phone, or will I have to reach for an iPhone or Android to turn on the lights?

  • My family uses Life360 to keep track of where we all are. We have some aging seniors, so this is a very key application for family management. Can Windows Phone handle this?

  • I use a tool called Fing as a network diagnostic tool. What sort of network diagnostic apps are available for Windows Phone?

  • I have a couple of widgets that show on my home page, indicating whether my Web sites are up or down. Can I replicate this on Windows Phone?

  • How does texting work and can I integrate Google Voice well enough to call out, get calls, and do the same with texts?

  • My primary editorial management tool with the other ZDNet and CBSi editors and project manager is Google Hangouts. Can I still chat with my team?

  • I use the Logitech Alert system to monitor the grounds around my home. I have a great little app on both iOS and Android that I can check. Can I do this with Windows Phone?

  • How is Kindle reading on this thing?

  • I use Google Authenticator and another authenticator application for multi-factor authentication. Do I need to dig up my Android or iPhone to authenticate to services or can I use Windows Phone?

  • Evernote and Dropbox are critical daily-use tools. How do they stand up?

  • What about CrashPlan? With either iOS or Android, I can check and manage my offsite backups.

  • What about my password manager? I can use it on iOS and Android, Windows and Mac, but what about Windows Phone?

  • What about Withings? I use Withings to manage weight and blood pressure, by connecting via Bluetooth to either Android or iOS. Can I do this with the Windows Phone?

  • I've just started using Trello as an organizing tool. How well does that work on Windows Phone? It works just fine with very nice iOS and Android apps.

That list represents the "big hurdle" for Windows Phone. Because if I can't do most of what's on that list, I would have to change my life considerably just for the phone. That won't happen.

Then there are the subjective use questions. How is the camera? How does it feel to use? How good is the OS? Will I like those colorful boxes in the UI on the phone more than I do on Windows 8? How is carrier reception and build quality?

Since Windows Phone 8.1 is almost ready to be pushed out to consumers, I'll be running these tests with that version of Windows Phone.

Stay tuned. This will be an interesting experiment. What do you think? Do you use Windows Phone?

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at

Topics: Mobility, Android, iOS, Microsoft, Windows, Windows Phone


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • I See Issues Ahead For You

    I love Windows Phone, but it is just now getting some of the capabilities you are needing like Bluetooth 4.0 LE. So, the apps that make use of 4.0 LE will need to follow (but of course cannot be there yet).

    Also, Google is not playing nice (do they ever?) with Windows Phone and has almost no apps. But Microsoft is trying to get the apps on Windows Phone.
    • Gotta disagree - WP8.1 is solid

      I have to disagree with your point on the Bluetooth 4.0. Hell, I'm on Sprint, which isn't known to even support WP that much, and even my Samsung branded WP device has it.

      The apps debate is becoming tiresome. The WP platform has plenty of apps now (with of course, the exception of specialized ones, such as a particular game or banking app, whatever). Google doesn't need to make the official apps, because frankly, there are better 3rd party apps out there. Let's take YouTube as an example... before it got pulled, their attempt at a WP YouTube app was pathetic. Now, there's MetroTube, which is more than enough and vastly superior.

      I've been testing WP8.1, Cortana included, and it's a solid package. I fear that it'll be overlooked just because it's Windows Phone and not for any other reason. People are quick to jump on the "hate WP" bandwagon when they've never tried it. I switched from Android and have never been happier with a device.
      • What lets it down

        Is the lack of decent apps, it's going to take some time to fix as I'd say they are 2-3 years behind IOS and Android in that department
        Alan Smithie
        • Get off Zdnet

          Get off Zdnet if you're going to be lazy and not even open up a box that got sent to you. What kind of journalist are you or tech person if you don't even review something given to you.
          • He *is* going to review it

            You should try reading the whole article. He is going to use and review the phone. This article is describing what his criteria for reviewing it are going to be.

            "Once that list is in place, I'll start using the phone and report back to you over the next few weeks. "
          • You get off

            DouchNozzle. F'n read before you show yourself the fool.
        • How many versions of the same app do we need?

          I remember with my Android, I would search for an app and there would be two thousand varieties of the same app. It was very frustrating. And the battery life on the phone was so bad that once I would install my apps and widgets, I could not enjoy them because the battery would run down too quickly. I like making it through 36 hours battery life with my Lumia 1520. And as for apps, it probably takes me less time to decide on one since I don't have so many, many versions to wade through. Maybe that is why my battery life is so very good? Nah!
    • I would say yes, but not as bad as you think.....

      He will find a few that he can't get and out of the list above he won't be able to get. There are some good app choices for the remaining ones. GoVoice was great for Google Voice, but Google has blocked it from working and they have no app available. You can use it in a browser, but not fully integrated like an app would be. Hangouts also doesn't look to be available as well, but there may be a third-party option in the store for it. The other one that is not available is the Logitech Alert app and there is no third party for that at the moment. All the other apps have pretty good third party support for example Oni:Light Control and Hue Lumixury for Hue Light Control, Site Monitor for Live tile site monitoring, Network Tools for network tools, Authenticator+ for Google Authenticator, CloudSix for Dropbox, and MyHealthTracker for Withings support. All the others are available first party apps like Evernote, Crashplan, Kindle, etc.

      Not sure if those third party apps will hold up but most have great reviews and seem to be good so I hope they can do what he needs them to do. We will see.
      • no he will be fine

        Hangouts has a native replacement as you can group your work friends. And name it whatever. Gvoice is basically skype. Other apps are fine but the Logitech light will be a issue.
        • Does the Logitech Alert system have a web option?

          I honestly have no idea about the answer to this, but if it does he can always just pin the website to his start screen.

          Plus it is possible for updates on the page to then appear on the Live Tile as if it were an app, though I think that would require Logitech to enable something within the site which I'm going to go out on a limb and say they probably haven't/won't do.
      • The Icon will win him over.

        Could be he will be so impressed by the freshness, functionality, and fluidity of the os that he will decide to stay and wait for the apps to be developed. That is my prediction. I have tried all of the platforms, and Windows phone has won my devotion. I tried a popular Android recently and waited three days before returning it to the store for the Lumia 1520.
    • can you blame google?

      Microsoft has sued or settled or seemingly forced it's license deals on all the android makers. The ones that stood up to them, (B&N, and Motorola) didn't end up getting dire consequences that MS predicted did they? In fact B&N got a 350million odd cash injection for not giving in.

      Google don't' need to justify not helping an MS platform.. Near as I can tell, Microsoft has used every tactic they can think of to force companies to use their OS, or pay for the privilege of not doing so. And now we know why B&N didn't cave as china leaked the patents involved and most are low quality or duplicates I've read. And yet, even as indignant as Microsoft are, they've never gone after Google or Linux companies like Redhat directly for their "alleged" abuses.

      Why in gods name would Google help Microsoft establish a new platform? If the usage statistics were reversed do you think office for android would be happening any time soon?
      • Don't Be Evil

        Google shouldn't support the Windows Phone platform out of a benevolent desire to "help" Microsoft; it should do so because THAT'S WHAT ITS CUSTOMER WANT.

        I'll almost certainly never own an Android device. I've chosen Windows Phone as my platform of choice, and am happy with it. If Google won't support me, the user, on that platform, then I'll need to stop using Google. It's that simple.
    • Lumia 1520--Best handsfree texting

      I used the htc One M8 for three days and returned it. I missed the functionality of my Bluetooth headset. I could NOT get the Android phone to read back to me the text I had just dictated before sending it. (My Lumia 920 would also give me the option of sending, adding more, or to try again.) With the Android, I had to LOOK at my phone, read the text, and then hit send. With my Lumia 920 it was ALL handsfree. There is no comparison, in my opinion, when it pertains to using Bluetooth for handsfree texting and calling. Windows phone, in that respect, is way ahead of the competition. It is a solid performer with a beautiful fresh os. No little tiny icons to push here to there and then have to search for, either. I have used all four platforms--Rim, iPhone, Android, and Windows. I am currently with the Lumia 1520. Best phone--bar none--that I have ever had the pleasure of owning.
    • Google is not playing nice with Microsoft

      "[Google CEO] Eric Schmidt is a [expletive expletive]! I'm going to [expletive] kill Google! I've done it before and I can do it again! [Throws chair]" - Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer as given in the Marc Lukovsky deposition.
  • It'll be just fine.

    You are already a Microsoft fan; the only question is why you haven't already tried it.

    You'll be just fine. What are you waiting for?
    • What makes him a fan?

      Because he uses some Microsoft products?
    • Just keep this in mind David Gewritz

      If Google calendar doesn't work right off the bat, go into your outlook calendar settings and add the Google calendar link to your outlook calendar. I am using Windows Phone 8.1 DP and when I added my Google calendar to the calendar app none of my notifications appeared in the calendar so I had to add my Google calendar to my outlook one and now it works very well, live tile and everything.
      Free From Apple
      • and

        Don't mind my username. I made that account years ago when I was immature and thought I knew stuff.
        Free From Apple
  • Main reason

    Main reason for going to a Windows Phone is to get away from ridiculous Apple prices and Google spying. Why would you want to bring Google spy apps with you? Dropbox is also way overpriced compared to OneDrive and Dropbox seems to be specifically blocking support on WP. I assume they're getting some kind of kickback from Google.
    Buster Friendly