Review: It's strike 3 for Microsoft's Windows Phone

The HTC 8X and Nokia Lumia 800 series are solid smartphones running a dubious mobile OS

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Web and Internet: Incompatibilities ruin the experienceMicrosoft wants you to believe that IE10 is a modern browser, able to hold its own against Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or Apple Safari -- all three of which moved quickly to support HTML5 while Microsoft continued to focus on a nonstandard, proprietary engine. Sadly, IE10 is more of that same proprietary incompatibility. I was shocked how poorly IE10 in Windows Phone works with websites such as the InfoWorld and Cnet mobile sites that the mobile versions of Chrome and Safari, as well as the stock Android browser, handle with ease. Other sites, such as Google Drive, were rendered at unreadably tiny sizes -- unlike in iOS or Android. (Windows Phone 7.5's IE9 had the same poor rendering on the same sites.)

The screens below show how Windows Phone 8 renders the InfoWorld and Cnet mobile sites compared to what you get in Android or iOS.

    The InfoWorld and Cnet mobile websites on Windows Phone 8's IE10 (left) and Android 4.1's Internet browser (right); the sites on iOS's Safari 6.0 look like they do on Android.

Windows Phone 8's IE10 is the only browser I've ever used that could not at least open our content management system's website. Every Android, BlackBerry OS, Chrome OS, OS X, WebOS, and Windows browser I've used have opened the Web page, even if some had trouble with its JavaScript and AJAX controls.

The website's automated tests bear out Microsoft's browser backwardness. IE10 in Windows Phone 8 scored 320 out of 450 possible points, versus 434 for the stock Internet browser in Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean," 390 for Google Chrome in Android 4.1, and 386 for Apple Safari in iOS 6. Windows 8's IE10 is likewise a laggard for HTML5 -- scoring 320 versus Chrome 23's 448, Safari 6.0's 378, and Firefox 16's 372 -- but it at least renders websites correctly.

The only advanced features in Windows Phone 8's IE10 are its SmartScreen filtering of suspect sites and the ability to configure whether IE10 self-identifies as a mobile browser or desktop browser, which in some cases can help you get around sites it can't correctly render (Android has a similar feature). You get basic bookmarking, as well as the ability to add bookmarks as home screen icons, but no reading list capability as in iOS or Android, no ability to create bookmark folders as in iOS, and no ability to sync bookmarks to other devices.

You can share URLs via email, messaging, and social media, and you can search within a Web page -- as iOS and Android also offer. Like the competition, Windows Phone 8 lets you control how cookies are handled, but there are no options to manage other personal information such as "do not track," browser history, cache, form data, passwords, image loading, autofill, fraud warnings, or debugging. iOS has all of these controls and Android has all but "do not track." Nor does Windows Phone let you choose among search engines -- there's just Microsoft's own Bing.

Finally, the Windows Phone 8 devices were unable to connect to InfoWorld's certificate-secured Wi-Fi network, even with certificate validation disabled in the Wi-Fi settings -- yet Windows Phone 7.5 had no trouble doing so. They all connected fine to regular Wi-Fi networks, such as those using WPA-2 passwords.

Apps: Limited choices, lightweight capabilitiesEveryone knows that iOS's App Store likely has an app for that, and the Google Play market for Android has a good general-interest selection for news, games, utilities, and more. There's much less in the Windows Phone Store -- no productivity apps, for example. For categories where apps do exist, such as cloud storage, banking, and RDP apps for Windows, there are few choices, if any.

Most apps are lightweight or basic, including some of the apps that come with Windows Phone 8, such as Alarms, Calculator, Maps, Phone, and Photos. That's perfectly fine for many apps, such as newsreaders and weather programs, but not for the likes of Office.

Of course, not all Windows Phone 8 apps are slackers. The Camera app has a strong set of capture settings, rivaling that of a digital SLR. As previously mentioned, the People app is one of Windows Phone's most capable apps. And the Wallet app looks intriguing, with more payment capabilities than Apple's Passbook and the same ability to store tickets and loyalty cards. But given that very few services support Wallet, it's too soon to call it an advantage. Finally, Gannett's USA Today app for Windows Phone is nicely designed for readability and navigation -- an area where its iOS and Android versions have grown increasingly worse with each subsequent update.

A few apps are problematic. For example, the Music + Video app distorted videos, compressing their width, even after I toggled between the fit-to-screen and fill-the-screen modes; iOS and Android devices played the same video undistorted. HTC's own Weather app is largely unusable because the weather conditions' tiny white text is superimposed over often light-hued moving images of skies, sunshine, snow, rain, and clouds -- rendering it unreadable. And the Nokia Transit app's routing for public transit seems determined to send you on the longest itinerary possible, at least in San Francisco.

Overall, iOS has the richest apps, as well as the broadest selection. Android has typically less-sophisticated apps and a decent selection. Windows Phone has the least-sophisticated apps on average and a small selection.

iOS's multitasking dock lets you easily see which apps are running and switch among them, and Android 4.1's Recent Apps tray does the same with a more visual punch. Windows Phone 8 has no equivalent, so switching among apps means finding them on the home screen or the apps screen, both of which involve lots and lots of scrolling if you have numerous tiles and apps. You can arrange the app tiles on the home screen where desired, as you can in iOS and Android, to help limit the back and forth. But you can't set multiple home screens, as you can in iOS and Android, to group your apps, nor can you create app folders as you can in iOS. All of this means that finding and switching apps in Windows Phone 8 takes more work than it should.

Android and iOS have long offered a notifications capability that apps can use to keep you updated on status, and iOS adopted the notification tray approach pioneered by Android in iOS 5. Windows Phone doesn't provide such notifications; it expects you'll use the home screen's tiles to track what's happening. Likewise, iOS's App Store app shows you when there are app updates available, while Android's Google Play app has a list of apps with available updates and lets you set apps to auto-update. Windows Phone has none of these conveniences; you only find out an app has an update when you open it and get an alert telling you to go to the Windows Store.

Like its predecessor, Windows Phone 8 supports dictation (pioneered by Android and added to iOS 6) and voice-based queries (pioneered by iOS 5's Siri and added to Android 4.1). The dictation capability in Windows Phone 8 works as well as in its competitors, and the voice recognition is more accurate than in Windows Phone 7.5. But its voice-based query is primitive. It supports only a few basic commands, such as "open application" or "call Bob," relegating all other queries to Web searches. Android and iOS both have a much richer vocabulary and can handle free-form inquiries such as "what's on my calendar?" or "how hot will it be tomorrow?" Windows Phone 8 has a long way to go to play in the voice game's big leagues.

For businesses, Windows Phone 8 adds a welcome feature: the ability to connect a device to a corporate app store, for easy dissemination of work-issued apps. Android has no such concept, and iOS's reliance on the use of OS X Server or third-party application management tools is more complicated for both IT and users.

If you're a Mac user, Microsoft has a free Windows Phone app in the Mac App Store to sync videos, music, photos, and podcasts to your smartphone. Unfortunately, it doesn't sync music or podcasts; the late-October update for Windows Phone 8 broke that functionality, and it's unclear when Microsoft will fix the problem.

Usability: Form rules over functionWhen people first see Windows Phone, they usually remark on its clean, colorful tile interface. The bold look is appealing, but it soon loses its luster in daily use. You realize quickly how Microsoft is all about superficial impressions, not optimal user interactions. For example, the tiles are often hard to tell apart, as almost all are the same color. Yes, the icons differ, but not as distinctly as the multicolor icons do in Android and iOS. And live tiles -- those that display information such as the current time (the HTC weather app) or date (the Calendar app) -- typically have no identifiable icons, so you have to figure out what app is hiding behind that particular status. The more you have, the harder it is to keep them straight.

As the number of your apps and tiles increases, the more tiresome the scrolling becomes. Endless scrolling is part and parcel of the Windows Phone experience (and now of the Windows 8 experience). Unlike iOS, Android, and Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 doesn't have a simple way to search your apps or tiles.

The preference of form over function is evident in other ways as well. Although some labels are very large, text in the Windows Phone 8 UI is usually tiny and hard to read at a glance, especially if you're over 40. I strongly encourage you to go into the accessibility settings and increase the text size used for email, messages, and other common apps. This won't solve the problem of tiny UI text but will at least make more apps usable for their core content. As I mentioned earlier, the iconography is often obscure, and when those indistinct icons are small, such as the copy and paste functions in Office, you're left to guess what will happen when you tap one.

Windows Phone 8 defaults to white-on-black display of text, which is also hard to read for older eyes. Fortunately, you can reverse that ill-considered default in the Settings app.

Windows Phone 8 also lacks quick access to common functions. There's no notification tray that lets you adjust Wi-Fi settings or enter airplane mode, as Android has. There's no quick list of recent messages and appointments, as iOS and Android have. There's no multitasking dock or lock-screen setting for quick controls over music playback, as iOS offers. Although the lock screen can display a recent email or message, you can't tap a notification to open its app, as you can in iOS, and you can't see multiple notifications for multiple apps, as you can in iOS and Android.

Windows Phone 8 is especially bad at text selection. Typically, when you tap and hold text to insert the text cursor, the text is selected instead. I'm not sure what makes Windows Phone 8 insert the text cursor rather than select text -- it's always trial and error for me -- but once you get into text-insertion mode, don't expect to be able to place the text cursor where you want. The text-cursor icon appears a line or two above your finger, well away from your text. Because the text is obscured by your finger, you can't tell where the text-insertion point really is.

Here's what works in practice: Release your finger and backspace to where you want to go, or try again if the cursor is in front of the desired location. By contrast, iOS has that wonderful magnifier when you tap and hold on text that allows precise cursor insertion with little effort, and Android's quick tap on text produces an easily movable pointer for precise cursor location.

Although Windows Phone 8's usability doesn't scale well as you increase your demands on the OS and its apps, the UI is well suited for basic usage. Nnontechies are apt to prefer it if they focus their usage on email, social networking, messaging, a few widgets, and the like.

Security and management: Finally, but barely, in the gameEver since Windows Phone 7 debuted in fall 2010, I've been dumbfounded as to why it had no support for on-device encryption, VPNs, or EAS policies. After all, the Windows Mobile OS that Microsoft sold for a decade had all three, and Microsoft invented the notion of EAS policies. Apple's adoption of EAS in 2010 soon made iOS the most corporate-capable mobile device on the market after the BlackBerry. About a year ago, Google's Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" also began offering basic security and management capabilities -- but not Windows Phone 7.5.

Windows Phone 8 finally supports on-device encryption (it's on by default and can't be disabled, just like iOS) and EAS policies. But it has just the basic capabilities, falling far behind both iOS and Android. A company with simple policies, such as for password complexity, will be fine with Windows Phone 8, but if your employer has stricter controls, don't count on being able to use your Windows Phone 8 device to access corporate systems.

Windows Phone 8 still doesn't support VPNs.

Microsoft restricts app installations to apps from its Windows Phone Store, which it curates just as Apple does the iOS App Store. The chances of malware finding its way to Windows Phone devices is very small, unlike the malware-infested Google Play market for Android.

Windows Phone 8 also can back up your app settings to your Microsoft account, along with photos taken by the device, easing recovery if your device is lost, stolen, or damaged. iOS and Android have similar capabilities, with iOS providing full backup via iTunes of all device contents. Like iOS, Windows Phone has long had a "find my phone" function to locate a lost or stolen device and, optionally, lock or wipe it. (Android requires the use of a third-party app to do this.)

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