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

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.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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 Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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