Here's what I learned going from Windows Phone 8.1 to Windows 10 Mobile, to Android - and back again

Windows 10 Mobile is getting much better, but so many of the features I rely on are still only on Windows Phone 8.1.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor on

The Lumia 1520.

Image: Nokia/Microsoft

I have a very specific set of requirements in a smartphone, which sound very much like 'must be a Lumia 1520 running Windows Phone 8.1'. I got to find out how real those are for me recently, when I dropped the 1520 I'd been using for two years and three months (and was planning to keep on using until I found something that suited me better).

A cracked screen isn't always fatal, but the cracks ran across the capacitive buttons and touching the sides of the phone started generating phantom button presses.

As I was about to leave on a three-week business trip, I pulled a few options from the phones we had on hand: a Lumia 950 XL running Windows 10 Mobile and the new Wileyfox Spark running Cyanogen Android.

I like a large phablet screen, but as Wileyfox has a larger model I did my best to ignore that, so I could see how Cyanogen works for me. It was more of a problem that the Spark is a budget device that needs an SD card if you're going to install a decent number of apps. It's beautifully designed for a budget device, but I found it was sometimes slow when I tried running more than three or four apps at once. I also pulled out an older Lumia and put Windows Phone 8.1 on it as a fallback.

Everyone looks for something different in their phone, so what matters to me is probably very different from what you're looking for.

Generally, I liked using both the Windows 10 Mobile and Wileyfox handsets. As a Windows Phone user, the way Windows 10 Mobile puts the back stack in reverse order is about as confusing to me as the fact that Cyanogen has both a Back and a Back Stack button, and I'd rather have a long scrolling start screen than multiple home screens on any phone size.

I like to have both a physical camera button and actual, permanent buttons for the main system functions that are always visible. I don't want to have to swipe up from the bottom of the screen to get to the back button or the home button (I've lost at least one game of Threes by getting that swipe wrong). The 1520 has all of those.

The Spark navigation buttons weren't really what you'd call separate but they never seemed to disappear: Windows 10 Mobile hides the buttons whenever it feels like it and I find it infuriating. It also feels like it's bad for accessibility: you have to swipe very precisely to get the buttons back, whereas on Windows Phone 8.1 I can navigate to the Start or Search screen with my big toe.

I was initially sceptical of the shape-writing keyboard in Windows Phone 8.1 but I quickly became a convert (it was the Windows Phone 7 and 8 keyboards that won me over to a touchscreen phone without a physical keyboard in the first place).

Many of our ZDNet blog posts have been written on my 1520 because I can shape write faster than I can touch type with my thumbs (as a BlackBerry veteran, that's pretty fast). When I've got frustrated with Windows Phone 8.1 from time to time, it's been the keyboard that's kept me happy with the platform.

The default keyboard on the Wileyfox phones has excellent shape writing that worked immediately, without any training. I love the way it shows me what the word I'd writing is going to be recognised as before I finish it, avoiding frustrating surprises. That was just one of the ways Android has matured since I last used it for a significant amount of time.

On the other hand, the shape keyboard on Windows 10 is a complete disappointment.

Not everyone has a problem with it, but I'm not the only person who finds it hopeless for anything longer than six or seven letters. Long words like 'parliament' or 'sovereignty' or 'appalling' are impossible to get right, no matter how carefully I swipe; it's as if the algorithm gives up halfway through the word, because the suggestions are usually half as long as the word I had in mind. I got a tip to turn the keyboard off and on again to reset the customisations; this improved things for a while but after three or four days words were going wrong again and the long word problem never really went away. Writing anything was often so frustrating I switched to another device.

Restoring a backup of my 1520 to another Windows Phone didn't just give me my apps; it gave me my custom keyboard history of which words are likely to follow each other (which makes swiping my address very fast) -- and the excellent keyboard.

I'm told that Microsoft is working on improving shape writing on Windows 10 Mobile -- that needs to be done urgently. I'd like it to be as good as Cyanogen but I'd settle for as good as Windows Phone 8.1. Right now, the Windows 10 Mobile keyboard is a source of constant frustration, taking away a key feature that's kept me on Windows Phone all these years.

Browser sync has been in IE since Windows 8. It means I can start reading a web page on my phone and then pick it from a dropdown in IE on my PC if I want to refer to it later (and I can see recent links from IE on the PC on my phone too). It's one of several reasons that Edge still isn't my default browser (AdBlock Plus works as well as the built-in TPLs but there's no way to search history and an inferior tool for clipping to OneNote).

Edge doesn't even have this with Windows 10 Mobile (and with no IE on Windows 10 Mobile, I had to resort to searching, scrolling back through Twitter and typing URLs in by hand). I could get it on Android easily, as long as I was happy to switch to Chrome or Firefox, which I'm not planning on doing.

Android has a good selection of Microsoft apps from Outlook to OneNote (and the default mail client on Cyanogen has the useful side swipes of Outlook), but my favourite Tweetium app isn't there for Twitter so I tried out the Plume app instead. Highly recommended, Plume even lets you compose tweets offline and send them when you're connected. That's the feature I missed most when I stopped using the Spark regularly -- but I couldn't stay on Cyanogen.

OneNote is one of my most important tools. The first time I tried to make Windows 10 Mobile my main phone I gave up because the OneNote client couldn't record audio (it's how I record all my interviews). Annoyingly, it now has audio recording, but only a minute at a time. As I can't record my interviews a minute at a time, that doesn't work for me. The Android OneNote client doesn't have it either, and is sadly basic (if there's a way to italicise words I couldn't find it), although I love the widget that let me create a new OneNote note from the home page.

Really, my smartphone is my portable OneNote system that also gets email, plays games and shows me Twitter, with the odd Skype call. That means that Windows Phone 8.1 is still my only real choice of smartphone at the moment, and I was able to replace my 1520 at the end of the trip. For now, I'm happily back on Windows Phone 8.1, swiping away at speed, although I'm worried about how long it will be until Microsoft turns off Skype for these phones.

There are certainly things I miss from Windows 10 Mobile. The camera on the 950 XL seems slightly better than the (still great) camera on the 1520. I didn't get browser tab sync, but I loved seeing notifications and text messages from my phone on my PC (Android users get that too, courtesy of the Cortana app). Having the Settings searchable is far better than the 'crammed in with a crowbar' approach of Windows Phone. And the Photos app on Windows 10 Mobile is a great way to see photos from OneDrive -- something I loved in older versions of Windows Phone and have missed for some time.

Then there are the things that are better on Windows 10 Mobile, because Windows Phone 8.1 is (understandably) neglected.

Twitter threading is broken in Tweetium on Windows Phone 8.1; it's a known bug that the developer plans to address, but the small Windows Phone user numbers for Tweetium mean it's not the highest priority.

I kept forgetting that the hamburger menu was the way to change folders in Outlook, but I quickly got used to the swipes for flagging and deleting messages and I still find myself trying to do that -- a sure sign of good feature. Outlook on Windows 10 Mobile doesn't have Focused Inbox yet; when it arrives it will be driven by the same system that powers the Clutter filter I love so much for keeping my email under control. Sadly, when it does arrive, it means Clutter itself will stop working.

Like losing Skype, that will be a big blow for Windows Phone 8.1, unless Microsoft decides to make Clutter continue to work as a server-side filter for Office 365 users who don't have a device with modern Outlook -- or just prefer another email client but still want this Exchange feature.

Windows phones aren't Microsoft's focus for this year, and when they are I expect them to be more a way of taking UWP apps from a Windows two-in-one device like a Surface out of the office than the passionate 'users first' approach of Windows Phone.

But UWP apps will never be a real solution unless there are phones to run them on -- especially as there's no sign of a small tablet Windows Phone users could switch to. (You can put Windows 10 onto an eight-inch Atom tablet but OneNote doesn't have audio recording there either, and there's no shape writing at all.)

That means by hook or by crook, we will see new Windows Mobile devices.

But whether it's an OEM phone like HP's Elite X3 or the perennial rumour of the Surface phone, a new Windows Mobile handset might not be as important as filing the rough edges off the OS itself.

Fixing the keyboard is a high priority. Double tap to wake returns with the latest firmware (which still hasn't reached my 950 XL). OneNote is my personal showstopper; other users will have some other need they absolutely can't manage without.

And after trying some alternatives, it's good to know that if the OneNote app on Android improves faster than the OneNote app on Windows 10 Mobile, I could probably manage on Cyanogen. That might be a good thing for Microsoft's cross-platform future, but it's disappointing for a Windows Phone fan.

I'm still uncomfortable with the amount of information Android wants to gather about me, and it's key to choose an Android phone that will get timely updates for as long as you need it for, because Android security continues to resemble the Windows XP era -- when you could be safe online, as long as you knew what you were doing.

Cyanogen helps with both of those, and it's an excellent choice for Wileyfox. The £89 Spark is a little too budget for me personally, but even on another handset, I'm hoping it's not the choice I actually have to make.

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