Windows Phone: The final review

Over the course of five articles, David Gewirtz has explored Windows Phone and its place in the smartphone market. In this article, his final in the series, he shares his final conclusions. Is Windows Phone a strike out or a home run? Read the article to find out.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Let's get the bottom-line out of the way at the beginning: Windows Phone is a fine smartphone operating system and the Lumia Icon is a very nice phone. If you're entrenched in the Google world, you might struggle with it, but if you're a Microsoft user or a new smartphone buyer, Windows Phone can be a good option.

Those are the broad strokes. There is a lot more to discuss.

Before I get into those details, let's recap this project. I wanted to look at Windows Phone because I'd previously dismissed it as marginal in terms of market share, and therefore not worthy of much editorial attention. But I was bothered that I had absolutely zero experience with the platform, so I set out on a month-long exploration to get to know Windows Phone 8.1

I need to give a shout-out to Microsoft for this. They provided me with a loaner phone knowing full well that I was intending to compare it with Android and iOS and give it a subjective series of reviews. As I've been writing about both the positives and negatives of the phone, they've been pleasant in their responses. At no time did they try to influence my coverage while at the same time, they've provided timely answers to questions.

In previous articles (see the box on the right) I discussed my evaluation approach, first impressions, some nice features, and the big one: whether I could move from Android to Windows Phone and still get my work done.

I ran into some brick walls, but was pleasantly surprised by how well-evolved the Windows Phone environment was from an app perspective.

In this final article of the series, I'm going to talk about the Lumia Icon itself, some final overall impressions of Windows Phone as a user, why I would or would not switch to it, and my expectation for Windows Phone in terms of the future of smartphone competition.

Let's start with the hardware

Despite the many phones I've owned over the years, I have never owned a Nokia phone. It just worked out that way.

From a hardware perspective, the Lumia Icon is a very nice phone. The three factors that caught my attention immediately were the stellar screen quality, the built-in inductive charging, and the extra button designed specifically as a camera shutter release.

Speaking of camera, the Lumia Icon camera is excellent. It's clearly superior to the one in my Android S4. I can't tell you if it beats the iPhone 5S (which has a great reputation for camera quality) or the Samsung S5 (because I'm still on contract with the S4). But comparing my iPhone 4S and the Samsung S4 to the Lumia Icon, the Lumia wins. It's a very nice camera.

Heft, weight, size, and design feel are all very well-done with the Lumia. If it ran Android, I'd break my contract right now and swap out the S4 for it.

That, by the way, gives me a good lead into the rest of our discussion. If it ran Android...

Would I switch to Windows Phone?

I took this question on in substantial depth in my app challenge article, but there are two important factors that come into play: my work collaboration needs and my personal preferences.

Bluntly, if I wanted to just carry one phone around, I couldn't switch to Windows Phone because it doesn't support my work collaboration needs. I communicate with my colleagues using Google ecosystem tools that are simply not available on Windows Phone. This is certainly not the fault of Windows Phone, but it is a reality.

Given that work collaboration is an absolute necessity and I don't want to carry two phones, Windows Phone is out for me.

But what about my personal preferences? If I didn't have these Google-specific collaboration needs, would I switch?

Probably not.

I use widgets on the launcher screen extensively, and found the live tiles to be too inflexible for my needs. I was disappointed that I couldn't change colors on some tiles, I couldn't resize some tiles to the width of the full screen, and I couldn't fully control what I wanted to display.

To be fair, I didn't spend a tremendous amount of time researching live tiles. There could be third-party apps that provide all the customizing I would want. They didn't show up in early searching, but they might be there.

Another deal killer was the keyboard. I didn't realize how attached I got to dictating into my phone until there was no microphone button on the keyboard. Even for simple, quick things, I seem to use a mix of typing and talking. I found I grumbled with frustration every time the Windows Phone keyboard popped up and there was no microphone.

These are subjective impressions, so keep that in mind. Remember: I'm a geek. I write the DIY-IT column. I customize, tweak, and hack pretty much everything. I am not the target user for Windows Phone.

I might not be the target user for a Windows Phone, but will I recommend it? Click on to the next page...

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.

Would I recommend Windows Phone?

This is the much more valuable and useful question. My personal usage pattern is pretty different from the norm. Heck, I have to install updates on light bulbs. I have 10+ monitors in my living room. I am not exactly "normal" in any sense of the word.

But what about other people. Would I recommend Windows Phone 8.1? The answer to this is a simple "yes." Windows Phone is a fine OS.

When recommending a smartphone, there are the same sorts of "if this, then that" questions I'd ask anyone who wanted to know what computer to buy. For example, I recommend Chromebooks as starter laptops for people who just want to surf, use email, and Facebook. But I'd never recommend one to a photographer.

Windows Phone is not perfect for everyone, but it is very nice. At this point in its lifecycle, I can confidently say that it's as usable a smartphone platform as any of the others, and it does some things very nicely.

The usual qualifiers apply. For those who need to be tied into the Google ecosystem (like I do, for work), Windows Phone is not a win. For those who want access to all of the iOS apps on the app store or need specific apps for specific needs, Windows Phone might not be a win.

But for those people who just want a very nice smartphone, and one that can be had for a good entry price, with a good camera, Windows Phone is pretty excellent.

The future of Windows Phone

Windows Phone currently has a very small market share compared to iOS and Android, but I don't think that's the key data point. After all, both iPhone and Android had a very small market share once compared to the powerhouse that was Blackberry, and who would have expected Blackberry to sink into irrelevancy so quickly?

While there is certainly an app gap, my recent project has shown that the app gap (at least for most normal phone uses) is not terribly significant. Yes, if you're looking for one specific thing, you might not be able to use Windows Phone, but if you just want a nice smartphone, you'll never notice the difference.

Instead, there are two key considerations for the future of Windows Phone: Microsoft's overall strategy and compatibility with third-party devices and systems.

Let's look at the second item first.

Today, if you buy an app-enabled device (whether it's a thermostat, a light bulb, a blood pressure cuff, or a door knob), that device is absolutely going to support iOS and almost definitely going to support Android out of the box. Unless it strikes the fancy of a third-party tinkerer, it will not support Windows Phone.

Take, for example, the Logitech Alert camera system I have installed. Even though there's a Web interface, I can't access it on Windows Phone. Of course, there are apps for iOS and Android.

That is a market share decision that developers make every day. Porting and supporting multiple platforms is expensive and a lot of work, and until Windows Phone picks up good numbers, many developers will simply not invest the additional time and money necessary to support it.

When it comes to competing ecosystems, that's a bigger challenge. It's not Microsoft's fault that Google has been unsupportive of Windows Phone. You could look at it as a competitive decision on Google's part or, again, simply one of market share. They sure haven't ignored the iOS environment -- but doing so would be suicidal.

On the other hand, if you as a phone buyer need to coexist with an existing infrastructure of systems, whether as a work requirement (like me) or based on prior choice, the challenge is that Windows Phone often doesn't connect.

This will not get better. It will only get worse. As more and more users get tied into their ecosystem, they will be buying devices, storing data, setting up relationships, and building their personal infrastructures around these ecosystems. The cost to switch becomes higher and higher.

Let's take Skype and Hangouts as an example. I use Hangouts to talk with my work colleagues and Skype to do my video interviews and many of my outgoing phone calls. When I said I needed Hangouts for work, many who commented on my previous article asked why we couldn't switch to Skype.

The answer is simple: the company uses Hangouts. It's a very large company and that's what they use. Period. If you're going to work with an organization, rarely will the entire organization drop its infrastructure just because you like a certain phone.

Next, there's the question of unique advantages and this is where Windows Phone comes up short. Sure, there are live tiles. Okay. And then there's Cortana, the voice response system built into Windows Phone 8.1.

Many of my commenters also asked why I didn't discuss Cortana in-depth. The answer is simple: Cortana is just not that interesting. Neither is Siri or Google Now. They all do voice response and all do so with mediocrity. Yes, Cortana is more friendly and personable than Google Now, but so is any salt shaker. Beating Google Now for personality is not exactly a high bar.

No one, not even the biggest Halo fans, will buy a Windows Phone just for Cortana. Yes, it does a few things nicely, but it is far from perfect and, frankly, like its other two competitors, it's just not worthy of much discussion.

The bottom-line: a base hit

At the beginning of this article, I told you that Windows Phone is a fine smartphone operating system and the Lumia Icon is a very nice phone. This is true. But here's the problem: Windows Phone is not fantastic. It's no strike out by any means. It's just not incredible.

The bottom-line, the final statement of this entire review process is this: there is not enough uniquely advantageous in the Windows Phone environment to make it a better buying choice for anything but the most deeply Microsoft-entrenched.

Windows Phone is up to par, but there's nothing that makes it a compelling buy. "Yeah, Windows Phone is okay, too" is not a rousing endorsement. If Microsoft wants to overcome the incredibly vast lead of iOS and Android, it has to find its niche. It has to do something that knocks it out of the park.

I'm not seeing home runs here. I'm seeing a solid base hit. The problem is, Microsoft is playing base hit ball against two home run kings. They're not going to win that way.

After all this exploration, I can honestly say Windows Phone is nice. But nice will always keep it as an also-ran. If Microsoft ever kills off Windows Phone, this will be written on its tombstone: "It was nice, but it wasn't undeniably better. Nice wasn't good enough."

What about you? Would you recommend Windows Phone? Will you buy one? Will you switch from Android or iOS? Let us know in the TalkBack below.

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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