How to Windows Phone 8 and influence people

Live tiles, a universal charger, the Office suite, and an 8.7-megapixel camera: My two weeks with the Nokia Lumia 925 showed that it certainly has some things going for it, but it's still sorely lacking in the most important areas.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

"Why is this so hard?" was my constant refrain throughout the seemingly never-ending two-week period that I used the Nokia Lumia 925 for.

At the device's launch in Sydney, my editor challenged me to use it for a fortnight as my sole phone. The goal was to provide an account of the everyday usability of the device, in both business and personal life.

Slippery hardware

To get the specs count out of the way, the Lumia 925 has a 4.5-inch AMOLED screen, an 8.7-megapixel camera, a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage (or 32GB, if you get it through Vodafone), 7GB of free SkyDrive cloud storage, 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, long-term evolution (LTE), near-field communication (NFC), and a non-removable 2,000mAh battery. The phone's dimensions are 70.6x129x8.5mm and it weighs 139g, with a 1,280x768-pixel (332ppi) screen.

Nokia's Lumia 925 comes in white, grey, and black.
Image: Nokia

The hardware is thus excellent, if a little slippery.

"Go ahead and drop it," a Nokia rep told me at the launch. "It will still work fine."

And drop it I did. The shiny metal edging on my review model has about seven separate dents in it after only two weeks — not that I was attempting to destroy the phone. (Indeed, I signed a waiver saying I'd return it in its original condition.)

The handset is just too big for someone with small hands like mine, and slick enough to constantly slide out of pockets and off tables. Had Nokia included its optional wireless charging case, perhaps it would have been easier to grip. But as a stand-alone model — and while I appreciate the size of the screen — it's quite unsuitable for those who are more on the petite side.

How many more times can it handle falling onto tiles and concrete (I never seemed to drop it in carpeted areas, of course) before it does stop working?

The only benefit to its lack of grip is that it's now completely child safe, as all four corners have been dinged flat.

The volume, power, and camera buttons along the right-hand side are well positioned for using the phone one handed, and the on-screen touch buttons for back, home, and search are acceptably placed, too — as long as you have a large enough hand to reach them (ahem).

The inbuilt speakers are amazing, playing music without any noticeable loss of quality. But bar the worst sorts of people on public transport, who really plays music directly out of their handset without the use of headphones? It's not the most useful feature to have.

I won't bore you with endless descriptions of what is usually described as its "beautifully crisp" screen, either. Of course it's clear; it's a new smartphone, and unless you're buying a budget model from a terribly low-end manufacturer, they generally get better each time.

What is important about the touchscreen is that it works even when you're wearing gloves. For someone living in south-western Sydney in the middle of winter, this was a godsend. It did have the unfortunate downside of being woken up by anything that touched it, though; headphone cables, sleeves, pockets...

In short, if you enjoy pocket dialling people, then this is the phone for you.

WP8: The tiles, they live

Before using the phone, I was extremely sceptical about the merits that the Windows Phone operating system has to offer, and, as expected, it was a bit of a culture shock for someone moving away from four years of iOS exclusivity.

However, while I didn't find the ecosystem as intuitive as Android or iOS, the learning curve was slight enough that it only took half a week or so of adjustment before I was using the phone confidently, which was of course a quarter of the time I had the phone for, so not so great for me.

To parrot an Apple ad, things just work better on my iPhone, no matter how lovely and entertaining the live tiles are.

Apps, or lack thereof

While the live tiles are certainly fun, the likelihood is that for business users, they will inevitably merely become embarrassing by flashing up with banal information on who liked their latest Facebook status update and rotating through personal pictures taken over the weekend for the gallery app.

The moving, colourful blocks will also only keep your attention away from the lack of apps for so long, unless you happen to be a preschooler who's easily amused, or a teenage girl who can't get enough of seeing pictures of her boyfriend cycle through the home screen. But even those two esteemed target audiences will begin searching for more apps, and the preinstalled Angry Birds and Facebook applications, respectively, will only keep them satisfied for so long.

The pretty, pretty live tiles.
Image: Screenshot by Corinne Reichert/ZDNet

You can, however, do a hell of a lot more customisation of your home screen on this phone than you can on an iPhone (unless it's jailbroken), though not as much as you can on an Android. There are three sizes of tiles to choose from, and seemingly endless ways to position the apps. If you prefer an exhaustive, alphabetical listing of your installed apps, though, just swipe to the left; that's on the next page.

Apple has made a hobby out of creating the impression that it offers applications that are unique to its ecosystem, apps that you cannot live without. Sure, the Lumia doesn't have FaceTime or iMessage, but, being Microsoft-owned, it of course has Skype, and you can download Viber.

There are often also clients for the apps that aren't yet available on WP8 — Swapchat for Snapchat, and Instance for Instagram, for example. Not that I downloaded the former; these were simply the suggestions of my friendly neighbourhood Nokia rep.

And emojis? Windows Phone has managed to translate all of Apple's emoticons into Windows emoticons, so there are no empty boxes to be seen in SMSes from your iOS friends.

"Problems" solved.

You can choose to tie Facebook in with your lock screen to show four randomly selected photos from your profile that constantly change.
Image: Screenshot by Corinne Reichert/ZDNet

The phone also comes standard with the Office app, so you have the ability to create Word and Excel files on the phone that you can save to either the handset or your SkyDrive. If you're big on cloud and Windows, as many businesses still are, you're going to love it.

It's also incredibly easy to transfer photos and music between the phone and a Windows computer, whereas iPhoto on my MacBook Pro wouldn't even register that there were any photos on the Lumia.

Nokia's Here maps suite is great, with plenty of mapping information to use wherever you need it, but its Drive turn-by-turn navigation app crashes often — though this is to be expected from an app that's still in beta. Drive also doesn't come with a voice, unlike Google Maps, which is something that I didn't discover until I was trying to use it in the car. You can choose to download one, but watching the download crawl its way up to 4 percent, eating both my battery and download allowance, with the car already running, I just couldn't wait for it to finish, rendering the app useless as a Navman-type system for that trip.

Navman fail.
Image: Screenshot by Corinne Reichert/ZDNet

Drive did come with an annoying three-chime alert every time I went 5km/h over the speed limit, however. Of course there's a way to turn this off in the settings, but by the time I realised the phone's horrid habit, I was already driving and it would have been far too dangerous to look down and swipe through endless menus. Rest assured that it was one of the worst 1.5-hour drives of my life, though.

High-megapixel, high-smudge camera

The Lumia 925 is billed as having a fantastic low-light camera, and it does; although it still needs some sort of stabilisation.

The low-light but unstabilised Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Image: Corinne Reichert/ZDNet

The camera lens, however, is positioned in the exact spot where your index finger naturally rests when holding the device. It's therefore constantly being smudged, arguably depleting the high pixel count.

The phone comes standard with Nokia's Smart Camera app, which allows you to shoot a series of photos over a short timeframe and then stitch the shots together to make the best possible photograph. It's cool, but gimmicky. How often would you really be using this app? Only once, to test it out, in my experience.

Tap + Send, whereby you use NFC to share a picture with a friend by tapping your phones together, was great fun and highly convenient for the 30 seconds where I had a friend who also had a Nokia (before she switched back to her Samsung Galaxy Note 2). It's that same old conundrum: Everyone has to have a Nokia before this will be handy in the slightest. But is Tap + Send a good enough reason for all of your friends, family, and business associates to switch over to the Lumia?

Of course not.

The battery is dead again

If you use your phone like me, with highly frequent messaging, calls, note taking, and data usage, including email, maps, and social networking, the battery drains in far less than 24 hours. It also takes an age to charge it fully.

On the day I forgot to bring my Nokia charger home, I switched back to my iPhone and gazed with horror at the tiny screen and even tinier icons — until I realised that my brother's HTC charger would fit the Nokia. I can't even begin to describe the triumph I experienced in this moment.

Now that is something that the iPhone, with its proprietary Lightning charger, cannot compete with — though the iDevices' pervasiveness seems to mean that there's generally a charger lying around, no matter where I am.

The 4G LTE was obviously wonderfully fast; so fast, in fact, that I got a warning message from Telstra that I was getting dangerously close to using up my download allowance. It's just too easy to exceed it when web pages load so quickly. 4G also aided the already terrible battery to deplete even faster.

What strangely didn't load quickly, though, were picture messages. They simply would not download to the phone, even when I was in full-reception 4G areas, which was extremely irritating and baffling. And the one time I used Instagram/Instance, it took more than half an hour to upload a picture.

The low-light camera is perfect for embarrassing friends at dinner when it's not even their birthday.
Image: Corinne Reichert/ZDNet

Things that actually work

In reference to the new LG G2, my colleague Andrew Nusca last week wrote that smartphone makers "need to sell experience, not specifications". With the Windows Phone 8-based Lumia 925, Nokia seems to be angling for this — and it certainly is a different experience compared to everything else currently on the market.

My usage of the phone seemed to chart like a bell curve; I found it unbearably frustrating while learning to use it for the first half-week, thoroughly enjoyed it for the next week straight, and then spent the remainder of the testing period anxiously awaiting a return to my own version of "normality": The admittedly tiny-screened iPhone.

While using the Lumia has given me a penchant for large screens, as one of my friends reminded me, "It's not the size that counts; it's how you use it." And Apple uses its screen real estate extremely well, with plenty of apps, a decent camera, a handset that doesn't slip off everything, a battery that doesn't run flat superfast or take aeons to charge, and, overall, things that actually work. iOS 7 is coming soon, too, and it looks to equal the novelty of Windows' live tiles.

And while the Nokia reps refused to comment every time someone asked when the Lumia 1020 is being released, the fact is that it's coming soon. Even if someone were to forsake either Apple or Samsung for Nokia, why would anyone commit to the 925 when an even better model is coming along?

This is a subjective article based on personal experience. To read ZDNet's full review of the Nokia Lumia 925, go here.

Editorial standards