Experiencing Windows Phone 8 on the Nokia Lumia 920

This post was supposed to be titled “Windows Phone 8: First Impressions”, when started working on it in December shortly after I had gotten my Lumia 920. For a couple of reasons, I didn’t finish it until now. As I have had the phone now after a couple weeks and used it every single day, I can say, though, This article no longer contains just my first impressions but has become a complete review of sorts.

Nokia Lumia 920: Excellent

Let’s get this out of the way: The Lumia 920 is noticeably larger and heavier than many other top-of-the-line smartphones. However, the weight doesn’t actually impact my day-to-day use of the  device. I don’t understand why some reviewers are making such a big fuzz about this. The size, on the other hand, is something to worry about. Because it is hard to reach something at the top of the screen while holding and operating the phone with one hand, there have been a few occasions where I almost dropped the phone. I guess having to be a bit careful and/or using both hands is the price I have to pay for having so much screen real-estate.

And it’s worth it, because the screen is great. I have always made fun of Apple’s “Retina” displays, because (a) that is a stupid name and (b) what is the point of having so many pixels, when your eyes’ resolution is in fact lower than the display’s? For the record, the Lumia 920 actually has a higher pixels density than the iPhone 5 (332ppi vs. 326ppi). And to be fair, Nokia’s name for the display “PureMotion HD+” is just as stupid as “Retina”. But I must concede, that having a high-resolution display is pretty nice. As an experiment, I have been playing the same HD video on my old HTC HD7 (at 800×480 pixels) and the Lumia 920 side-by-side and I was just blown away by how much better the Lumia 920’s screen is. I am amazed how I have been able to put up with the HD7’s (comparatively) horrible screen. Not just in terms of resolution, but also how colors are displayed. It’s such a stark difference.

Also, the Lumia 920 has a faster processor with an additional core, and that makes a big difference as well. The side-by-side comparison showed that very clearly. In the past, I have always been complaining about my mobile carrier and their shoddy network causing web pages to load very slowly, but it seems I was wrong, because on the same network Internet Explorer 10 on the Lumia 920 renders much faster than IE 9 on the HD7 (could be the rendering engine or the processor, I don’t know).

The device is also really well made and it’s a pleasure just to hold it. Sure, it is plastic and not metal and glass as some other high-end smartphones, but it feels like real quality material. I may not be as excited as Marko Ahtisaari from the Nokia Design Team, but every now and then I just like to hold the phone in my hand. It feels really great. If you want to know more about the design of the software, Microsoft has an excellent series of videos on Channel 9 about the topic.

The best improvement over my old phone (besides the display) is the camera. The picture quality is so much better than that of the HD7. And for simple point-and-shoot scenarios where you don’t want to fiddle with camera settings, white-balance and stuff, it is even better than my compact camera. Below is a photo I have taken with the Lumia 920 at night without any manual adjustments or editing. Compare that to a picture I have taken with the HTC HD7 (and touched-up in Photoshop Elements) or worse, the HTC S720.

WP_20130114_003

One bug that has been bothering me, though, is apparently related to the proximity sensor which turns off and locks the screen during a call, so you don’t accidentally tap something with your face. Unfortunately, the proximity sensor doesn’t seem to notice when I am removing the phone from my face, so the screen stays turned off. The other day I have been in a call with someone for many minutes, because he didn’t hang up and I was prevented from hanging up by the screen refusing to unlock (there is a split-second window where you can tap end call after pressing the power button, but it took me several tries to do so). From all the talk in Nokia and Microsoft support forums, it seems this is a very common problem. Some people have expressed hope the sensor’s sensitivity might be fixed in a future software update and since I rarely use my phone to make phone calls (that’s not what smartphones are for, anyway), I am holding out for such an update.

Finally, the Lumia 920 is also a big improvement in terms of storage. It doesn’t have an SD card slot, unfortunately, but for now at least, the 32GB onboard storage is more than enough. In the past, I was micro-managing which albums I could sync to my phone, now I just have Windows Media Player copy over my entire music collection and I still have gigabytes to spare.

Sync: Meh

This brings me to another sore subject for Windows Phone 8: syncing your media with it. While the Zune PC software used with Windows Phone 7.x  wasn’t perfect, at least it made it possible to sync everything in one place with reasonable convenience. With Windows Phone 8, the Zune PC software is no longer supported. Instead you get a wide range of sync options. Some of them are very welcome. For instance, I love the fact that I can just copy media to and from the device using File Explorer in Windows. Or that I can use Windows Media Player for syncing, which is great, because it’s the one place where I organize all my music and videos anyway.

What is missing, though, is support for podcasts. Windows Media Player doesn’t have it, and the podcasts section on the device is empty, too. It tells me to look in the store, but at least here in Germany, I can’t find the Windows Weekly or Stack Exchange podcasts I would like to listen to. In the Zune PC software it was also more convenient to select which content to sync, just right click an artist, select “sync with phone” and when you bought a new album from that artist, it would automatically end up on the device; no manual sync necessary. As I mentioned before, this deficiency is mitigated by the fact, that the Lumia 920 has enough storage for me to just sync everything. The downside being that sync does take a while.

I am not quite sure why I would really want this, but just to try it out, I have also synced a bunch of pictures to my phone (from vacations, mostly). These pictures are organized in folders by year, then by occasion and finally by activity (e.g. My Pictures\2012\12-08-04 Norway Vacation\12-08-07 Flåm for my trip to Norway). Windows Media Player doesn’t allow me to sync everything under the Norway folder. For that I have to use the Windows Phone desktop app. Running it for the first time took forever, because it needed to scan my entire media libraries, but once that is done, photo sync is pretty straight forward. It would support music and video sync as well, but Windows Media Player does a better job at that, in my opinion. There is also a Metro version of this app, but that one is so basic, I can’t recommend it to anyone (and therefore won’t even link to it).

Finally, it is very nice that the media hub on the phone no longer locks up while syncing content.

Windows Phone 8: Awesome

The first big improvement you’ll notice compared to Windows Phone 7.x is support for different tile sizes. Being able to customize the screen, so that I can fit more tiles on to it, but also make the ones I use the most large and easy to tap, is awesome. In addition to the three sizes they have now (large square, small square and large rectangle) I would also like to have “small rectangle” for all those apps where the icon by itself isn’t very distinctive/descriptive and it would be nice to have the name of the app on the tile as well (e.g. for Microsoft’s own PDF reader app which has a really nondescript icon).

Even though auto-correct in Windows Phone 7 had already been excellent compared to other mobile platforms, it too has been improved dramatically in Windows Phone 8. Based on the words I have typed, it can now predict what words I am likely to type next. E.g. when setting up an alarm with the message “good morning sunshine”, it suggested “morning”, “day” and “evening” after I had typed “good”. But it gets better, because apparently, auto-correct is also learning: A number of times I have created calendar entries “visit grandma Elli” for visiting my grandmother. So whenever I am creating a new entry to visit her, I only have to type the start of “visit” and the rest is suggested for auto-completion. That’s awesome.

Because this article is already way too long, I will just list the remaining things I think are worth noting as short bullets:

  • As a replacement for Bing Maps, Nokia Maps is excellent and free (now even on other platforms and non-Nokia devices).
  • Skype is no longer just a separate app, but is nicely integrated into the people hub, so you can Skype call or text someone right from their contact card.
  • Internet Explorer 10 now includes “Find on Page” again, after it was originally in Windows Phone 7 but then removed at some point. Weird.
  • It is unfortunate that none of my apps, texts or other settings could be migrated from the HD7 to the Lumia 920, but for future upgrades, Windows Phone 8 now includes a capability to sync some settings via the cloud (e.g. text messages).

Conclusion

I am very happy with my upgrade. Both the hardware and software is excellent, aside from a few issues (mostly sync). If you are happy with Windows Phone and are looking for a new device, I have no reservations recommending this. If you have been skeptical of the Windows Phone platform before, I would say it is definitely worth taking another look at. I can easily image it becoming one of the major three platforms (i.e. the only ones that will matter) in the near future.

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