Windows Phone is Maturing, But Still a Bit Lost
The obvious, and really only blatant difference between the original One (M8) and One (M8) for Windows is in the software department, where the usual Sense-slathered Android 4.4 has given way to a fresh coat of lightly-tinkered Windows Phone 8.1. As noted above, Microsoft’s mobile OS has undoubtedly gotten smarter and more capable over the past several months. It’s probably competent enough to be a daily driver for more people than ever before. But it’s fighting a battle it’s never really going to win, and it can feel like a lesser imitation of Android and iOS because of it.
We’ll stick with the positives first, though. The majority of Windows Phone 8.1’s new features are implemented well. The most notable of the bunch is Cortana, a virtual assistant that does a good job of mixing the coded affability of Siri with the helpfulness of Google Now. It can search the web, set events in your calendar, recognize songs playing near you, disable notifications for certain “quiet hours,” and the like. We wouldn’t say that it eclipses either – it can be inaccurate in reading your voice, and most of its abilities are expected at this point – but it works, and it’s friendly.
The less obvious additions are even more welcome. The ability to set a custom background has been long overdue, as is being able to join apps together into folders. The default keyboard has been spiffed up to support faster, Swype-style input, and a new notification tray (dubbed the “action center”) is handy for quickly connecting to Wi-Fi and checking, well, notifications. These are simple updates that genuinely make using the OS more convenient.
They don’t do much to address Windows Phone’s more fundamental issues, though. It’s been said about two billion times at this point, Windows Phone’s big flailing red flag continues to be its app support. It just isn’t on the same level of its rivals, and frankly, we’re not sure it ever will be. There’s still no YouTube, no Gmail, no Snapchat, no Dropbox, no Flickr, no HBO Go, no Pocket, no SoundCloud, no WWE (it’s crucial to us!) – you get the idea. Some of those are coming, some aren’t, but the point is clear either way.
Those are just the big names. You also have a far lower chance finding lesser-known gems (let’s say something like Trello, or Alchemy Synth) or soon-to-be hits here than you would in the other stores. At best, sloppier, uglier third-party replacements will roll out in their stead. Game support is even worse, with most emerging developers ignoring the platform entirely.
Perhaps most damning is how rarely the important apps that are there get updated or fleshed out the same way they do elsewhere. Twitter on Windows Phone looks painfully dull by comparison, for instance, while Instagram is still in a limited beta. Those are far from the only examples.
We don’t mean to pick on poor Windows Phone here; the truth is that much of this isn’t totally Microsoft’s fault, at least if you take its decision to enter the mobile game for granted. This industry is just a popularity contest, and if you don’t have the user base, you’re not going to get the love. Windows Phone doesn’t have the user base.
That’s not to mention the various other annoyances that still plague the software. Multitasking, for instance, is still a much slower process here than it is on Android. The settings menu is just an enormous, unintuitive list. Internet Explorer is a wholly fussier web browser than Chrome or Safari. The native email client is a mess if you don’t use Outlook. The new action center, while appreciated, lacks the looks of Apple’s equivalent and the utility of Google’s. And the UI is just a bit too rigid for our liking – you can reshape and resize individual tiles all you want, but at the end of the day you’ll always be dealing with an infinite stream of squares and rectangles.
The One (M8) for Windows’ transition to all of this is mostly painless, at least. As was the case with the Android model, it uses on-screen navigation buttons that waste too much screen space, but they can be dismissed at any point with a simple swipe down. A few of Sense UI’s better features have been ported over as well: Alongside the solid camera app, Sense TV still utilizes the phone’s built-in IR blaster and turns the device into a TV remote, while BlinkFeed (which is now a tiled app instead of its own homescreen) still aggregates your social media accounts and news outlets into a customizable feed.
Again, HTC has made very little effort to adapt the look of these apps to their new OS, so they create a small amount of aesthetic inconsistency, but they still look and work fine enough. The same general sentiment applies to the One (M8)’s suite of motion gestures, although those still make the display a bit too sensitive and aren’t terribly necessary in practice.
All told, everything new in the 8.1 update makes Windows Phone usable enough to get by. It finally has the fundamentals down pat, and if you’re all-in on Microsoft’s ecosystem, it’s even better. It’s mostly smooth in practice, it’s easy to navigate for simple tasks, and in many ways it’s a breath of fresh air from iOS and Android’s samey designs.
The question is why you would settle for Windows Phone’s permanently late apps and the occasional awkwardness of an OS swap when you can have the One (M8) in its native habitat. This is even more relevant when you consider that Microsoft has made a considerable effort to put cornerstone apps like Office and OneNote on its rivals’ platforms in recent months. Even when filtered through Sense, Android just plays and feels better with this hardware.
A Slight Drop in Strength
Less disappointing but still notable is the One (M8) for Windows’ slight dip in performance compared to the original model. It’s nothing dramatic – the phone runs on the same quad-core 2.3 GHz Snapdragon 801 chipset and 2 GB RAM as before, and generally speaking it can run through the OS and most apps with relative ease. It’s more than fine in most cases, and it’s still worthy of the “flagship” tag.
But the sense of obvious power that made the Android One (M8) almost entirely painless to use isn’t quite there now. Heavier games like Asphalt 8: Airborne are prone to some stutter, web browsing often suffers some chop, and a handful of programs (like the native camera app) take a second longer to load than they should. The phone as a whole could be quicker in booting up, and it can get noticeably hot after a short while as well.
The 2,600 mAh battery here also seemed to drain a little bit faster than it did running Android, which is strange. Windows Phone is a decidedly less complex OS, yet in both casual and heavier use, we normally got an hour or so less out of a single charge. Think somewhere around 10-12 hours with average use compared to the original’s 12-15. That should still be enough to get you through a normal day, but again, the transition to the new OS isn’t as smooth as it could’ve been. That HTC’s “Extreme Power Saver” mode has been removed doesn’t help, though Microsoft’s native battery extending app is a decent substitute. The pack still isn’t removable, however.
The One (M8) for Windows also comes with 32 GB of storage, of which 25.4 GB is usable out of the box. Verizon’s bloatware on our test unit was laid on thick, but thankfully Windows Phone allows you to remove it all as you see fit. This should be a serviceable amount of space for most people’s needs either way, but anyone who wants more can add another 128 GB of room through a microSD card, which is great.