I’ve written a lot lately about what it’s like to switch from a Windows phone to an Android phone without mentioning something that might be important to the small number of people who care about such things.
I inherited a Galaxy Note II, which is three years old and was an expensive phone when new. It still has pretty good specs and can handle – as far as I can tell – anything Android has available. As noted elsewhere here, I’ve trimmed and streamlined in an effort to make the phone run as best it can.
What I haven’t mentioned in detail is the phone I switched from, the Nokia Lumia 822. It’s from about the same era as the Note II, but even back then (2012) it was regarded as pretty average. Nokia made a lot of mediocre, cheap-to-buy Windows phones, though this one was way overpriced when new on the Verizon network. I bought mine off eBay and paid, I think, $80. It replaced a much nicer HTC 8x Windows phone that suffered a broken on/off switch.
The 822 is a thoroughly unexceptional phone, a hard piece of tech to love if you’ve owned a fancy Android phone or an iPhone. Except for this: it runs Windows Phone 8.1, and I continue to insist that the Windows Phone OS is very, very good. I’m well past the age at which I can be a fanboy of technology in general, or of a given brand in particular. I use what’s put in front of me, but it’s been a long time since I’ve thought of Apple or Google or you-name-it as a force for good in this world. (In fact, Robert Reich is out with an interesting piece in the New York Times today arguing the big tech firms aren’t doing us any favors at all. I’m inclined to agree.)
But I’ll make a small exception for Windows phones. The software always seemed to me to be the product of a group of people who had their backs to the wall, trying to invent an alternative to the iPhone. They partly succeeded, and between the live tiles, the overall speed of the interface, and a number of useful things that are woven into the operating system (a trend that unfortunately has been in reverse since version 7 became 8 and then 8.1) they created something that is, in its own small way, lovely. How it survives in Windows 10 remains to be seen, and I read mixed reports on the beta-level builds people are using.
Anyway, the 822, plain as it is, runs the current 8.1 version of Windows phone software and may, eventually, be upgraded to 10 – Microsoft has been less than clear on which phones will get the upgrades. For the year or so that I ran it, the phone was almost always very fast (It developed a habit of occasionally freezing after I’d had it for about six months. A restart would fix the issue for at least a month.) and responsive, with a great keyboard and even though it wasn’t very high resolution, a decent screen. Apps were, of course, always the issue, and yes, the app store has a lot of junk in it. But the good apps were very good, and if they followed the Windows phone conventions, they could be just a joy to use.
Finally, the 822 had f.m. turned on, which is a very big deal for me. This spring and early summer I walked a lot, and having f.m. was great. I listened to our two public radio stations every day – the mighty NCPR and WRVO out of Oswego, and even though I’m sure I could get an argument from someone about this, they both sounded better than streaming. The single worst thing about the Note II is no f.m., and after the 822, Verizon went through a spell where its WinPhones didn’t have f.m. either. With the Lumia 735 that has changed – hope it stays that way on the Windows side and spreads to all of Verizon’s Android line. Having an iPhone with f.m. is no doubt too much to ask of our Cupertino overlords, ignoring the fact that an f.m. tuner is already built into the iPod Nano.
Something that’s hard to write about when it comes to Windows phones but which is obvious once you pick one up; they generally excel at one-handed operation. Because of the way live tiles work, it’s easy to flip through them with your thumb while the rest of your hand cradles the phone. That was certainly true of the 822. Also, the texting client is really good-looking and getting a notification someone had texted me was clearer and easier on the 822 than on my Note II. The phone is very well integrated with Microsoft’s “OneDrive” cloud storage and other Microsoft offerings, like Skype.
None of this adds up to a big case for Windows phone. I’m not sure there’s one to be made at this point; what I am sure of is that Microsoft got a lot of little things right with Windows phone, and then made it available on modest phones with modest prices. Granted this is all business – Microsoft is trying to get a foothold in the mobile market – but it’s also a fact that Microsoft, more than Android and certainly more than Apple, showed that “good” and “cheap” aren’t mutually exclusive. Even as a failure in the marketplace, the Windows phone has succeeded in making a point.