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Windows Phone 8.1 vs Android: Windows Phone finally grows up, but how does it compare?

Google Nexus 5 next to Nokia Lumia 822
Many years ago, my first "smartphone" was a Windows Mobile device named the HTC Titan. Many will recognize it by its Sprint name, the "HTC Mogul", and for its time, it was a great device compared to what was out there.  Sure, Windows Mobile 6.1 on that hardware wasn't the fastest for its time, but it was pretty close to what Android offers today.  You could customize it with different launchers, app stores, browsers, tons of apps, roms, etc.  The biggest issue was that the OS wasn't particularly finger friendly since it was made for stylus use, but as Windows Mobile got updated, Microsoft was able to remedy that, and HTC made it even better with their "Sense" skin.

Then Microsoft killed Windows Mobile long before Windows Phone was ready.  To add fuel to the fire, the new Windows Phone 7 would be similar to the iPhone of the time. A highly locked down system with Microsoft in charge, little to no expandability or customization, and basic features like Cut and Paste not included. Additionally, Windows Mobile apps could not be installed on Windows Phone, leaving many customers angry.  In many ways it was a HUGE departure from the more Android like Windows Mobile, and since there were no direct upgrade options, many Windows Mobile users jumped to the Android platform to continue enjoying the features that they were used to.   To add insult to injury, those who were loyal to Windows Phone got burned twice, as Windows phone 7 was short lived, and incompatible with Windows Phone 8 when it was released.   With such a messy "upgrade" path, has Microsoft done enough with Windows Phone 8+ to entice customers back to their platform in comparison to Android and iOS?   Let's compare the features.

Meet my Windows Phone device, the Nokia Lumia 822
My test device is a Nokia Lumia 822 which was a mid range device when released.  In many ways, it could be compared to the Nexus 4.   When compared to my Nexus 5 however, the Nokia 822 is no direct competition in terms of hardware, but we're looking at the OS here.  Let's get on with my observations.



Home screen

When Windows Phone 7 was released, the tile system was in one word... UGLY.  There was a lot of screen space wasted on the right side of the screen, tiles were large, solid colored, low resolution blocks, and there was no way to set any type of wallpaper.

This has been resolved with the 8.1+ version of Windows. You may use nearly your entire screen now, and tiles may also be translucent (developers need to update their apps to enable this option), which allows you to set a wallpaper that you can actually see.  The tile size selection has also been expanded which allows some home screen customization options.

Compared to Android, the options are still limited, but if compared to iOS, then the Windows Phone screen comes out ahead in usability.  Android however, is still king of the home screen.  The widgets, live wallpapers, and launcher replacements just can't be beat.  Especially when one can easily emulate any other OS if they decided to choose that route.

Overall, Windows phone 8.1+ looks great though, and the live tiles are great substitutes for widgets.  There are rumors that Microsoft will add interactivity to the live tiles which would be great if implemented correctly. Add the option of live wallpapers, and an option to change the current vertical scrolling (as is the current default) to a more Windows 8+ option to scroll horizontally, and they'll have a pretty killer home screen.



Lock Screen

Your Windows Phone Lock screen can be customized with any picture stored on your phone. It will normally give you the date and time, and selected notifications (for example, email, alarms, calendar events, or instagram) depending on what settings you choose.  You can activate a passcode for your device to protect it from prying eyes or thieves.

Depending on your device hardware, you may also have the "glance" option which is similar to the glance functions on the Galaxy S and Moto X phones which let you get very basic and specific information displayed by simply hovering your hand over the phone.



Notification Drawer

Android's notification drawer is one of those genius additions to the mobile OS that to this day makes it a pleasure to use.  Apple recently added their own implementation to iOS, and now Microsoft has added it to Windows Phone.  While neither implementation compares to the original in pure usability, the Windows Phone version is "good enough" for a recent implementation. It has Wifi, bluetooth, Airplane mode, and Rotation lock buttons, as well  as an "All settings" shortcut.  When you get notifications, there is a clear all button.  You can swipe to the right on notifications to dismiss them, but unfortunately, when playing music, your radio controls do not show up in the drawer.  There is room for improvement, but it's a great start, and a useful addition.



Controls

Most Android users should feel right at home using Windows Phone.  Similar to Android, there are Home, back, and search buttons.  Each works exactly as their Android counterpart would.  In addition, many apps have an overflow button, similar to Android 4.x.  Many apps also include a "share" button that links to other apps for easy sharing to social media sites, picture editors, e-mail, etc.  Screenshots can also be taken with a similar command. On Android, it's volume down plus power while on Windows Phone, it's volume up plus power. While many of the original Windows phone devices features capacitive buttons, Windows Phone 8.1+ is now using virtual soft keys depending on what device is used, similar to how Android 4.x devices operate.



Multitasking

Ah, multitasking.  I remember the "Web OS" days where it absolutely crushed everyone elses implementations.  To be honest, while that OS is long dead, even today, the multitasking on it is great.  Android and Apple have liberally borrowed from the Web OS implementation of multitasking with slight twists on the original idea.  Now it is Microsofts turn.  By holding on the "back" key, you will get a "card" view of all your open applications.  Pressing on the "X" or swiping the card down off the screen will close it.  Simply tapping on it will switch focus to that particular app.  It's simple, but makes the OS a joy to use.



Camera

The camera app has the basic snapshot, video, auto flash, auto focus, buttons,as well as scene modes for different types of lighting. Again, similarly to the Android camera app which lets you go straight to your picture library be swiping left, the Windows camera app has similar functionality by swiping to the right.



Once in the gallery, the overflow button lets you choose a picture editor. The stock version has crop, rotate, and auto fix functionality.  The are very basic functions compared to the current Android and iOS implementations.  You may want to download a third party solution if you need more functionality.

NFC

Although not as widely used as it should be, NFC is a great addition to Windows Phone that Android users have enjoyed for years.  With the proper implementation, it allows you to pay for things, or share information as well as files by simply tapping your phone against a compatible device.  One great thing is that this also allows some basic sharing compatibility between Windows Phone and Android.  By tapping my Android phone to my Windows Phone, I was able to transfer simple things like web pages, and contacts.  Items like pictures, music, and videos however, will not transfer between the two operating systems due to their differing implementation of transfer protocols.  They will transfer that type of content within their own ecosystems however.

Overall, I hope to see more NFC inter-compatibility between Android beam, and Tap to Share, even if Apple does not want to play along.

The Windows 8 sync app for Windows Phone
Storage and Expandability

While lately, Google seems hellbent on taking a very Apple-centric route in regards to Micro SD card expandability, it seems like Microsoft is heading in the opposite direction. Windows Phone has full support for micro sd cards and allows things like app to sd installs.  This is something that Google themselves removed from Android and is a subject of much controversy within the Android crowd.  With Google also adding restrictions in regards to how file management works, and not having a true file manager of their own, this is one area where Microsoft is definitely neck in neck and possibly starting to get ahead in as they do have a file browser app in the Windows store that allows you to navigate through your file structure.

One feature that I miss from the Android side is "unknown sources", which allows you to install your own apps from outside of the Play store.  It's entirely optional, and can be left unchecked for security .  Even if you do check it and install your own stuff, you can opt to have it scanned for safety reasons by either Google, or other parties for signs of malware.  Considering this is called "Windows", and "Windows" itself has always allowed one to install their own software, I am surprised that this has not yet been implemented.

Connecting your phone to your PC via a USB cable allows you to browse it like any mass storage device. It appears to use the MTP protocol, so when attempting to use your device with OSX, it will attempt to sync with iPhoto instead of mounting directly to the desktop.  There is an sync app in the Mac App store with mixed reviews, so your mileage may vary.  Most Android devices work in the same way, so those who are coming from that camp should be familiar with this scenario.  On Windows 8 devices, a Windows Phone app will open when connecting your phone.  Like previously stated however, you can browse the file system like a mass storage device if you prefer.




Web Browsing

This is one section in which Android absolutely crushes all competition.  Windows Phone only allows one real browser, which is Internet Explorer.  Honestly, compared to prior versions of IE (mobile or otherwise) it's not a bad browser.  It's reasonably smooth, with quick pinch to zoom, has tabs, renders most sites adequately, pins web pages as tiles on your home screen, downloads files, and syncs with IE on Windows 8.  Unfortunately, if you don't like how it works, renders, or need adobe flash, (though it's finally nearly dead, hooray!!!) then too bad, as it's the only real choice that you have.  There are other "browsers" in the Windows store, but they are only skins that rely on IE to work.  There is also a Nokia Express browser in the app store that seems to be like Opera mini, but it's far from great.

Android allows third party browsers with their own rendering engines in the Google Play store, so you have all the classic contenders from the desktop OS's such as Firefox, Opera, and Chrome, in addition to many browsers from smaller companies.  Some are simply re-skins of the Android browser or Chrome, but some like Firefox, and Opera classic have their own individual rendering engines, and in some cases add-on's such as Ad block.

This is definitely an area in which Microsoft needs to relax the rules.  If they develop IE to be great, then they don't need to worry about the competition.  Locking the OS down to just one browser just seems "insecure" and is anti-competitive.



Cortana: The digital Assistant

For something that is technically still in beta form, Cortana is impressive.  It's a great balance of both Siri and Google Now, and extremely competitive with both.  Like Siri, it allows for you to activate/use many Windows Phone functions, but it also attempts to predict and display relevant information similar to Google Now.  With the Google Now launcher on Android, you can swipe left and have "cards" with relevant information displayed at any time.  Likewise, on Windows Phone, Cortana displays relevant information on its live tile.

Unfortunately, Cortana has to be activated manually instead of through Voice commands which is a bit of a bummer.  I would not be surprised if this was being worked on however.  Hopefully, Windows phone will incorporate "touchless" controls on the home screen for search, or even better a Moto X style implementation when it works even if your display is off and you're on the other end of the room.

At least naming it "Window" in spanish (Cortana) makes it sound fairly bad ass. I look forward to playing with Cortana as it gets updated.  It honestly is great and highly usable in its current form.



The App Gap:  Yes, it's real

The good news is that if you aren't a big gamer, or not tied into Google's services, it's not quite as bad as it used to be.  Unfortunately, you can definitely see the growing pains in Microsoft's store with all the "junk" apps all over the place.  Some of them seem to be outright rip off's that are only allowed to inflate the application count.  These apps are literally, just links to web pages.  While iOS and Android have both gone through this phase, I just honestly expect Microsoft to police its own store a lot better.  Quality over quantity right now please.

Most of the basic staple apps are there however.  You have your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, iMDB, Yelp, Netflix, Amazon, Skype, Pandora, iHeartradio, Paypal, etc apps covered.  Most of them actually look great, and are actually a pleasure to use.  The problem is that most of them are also behind their Android/iOS counterparts on features, and a few have not been updated in a while.  For example, iMDB does not have message boards, Instagram does not have video uploads, and Netflix does not have profiles. You can only create drafts on Yelp.  I'm hoping that these issues get resolved soon, as I said, many of the apps are beautiful as well as a pleasure to use.

Another issue, as mentioned prior, is lack of Google services.  While Google bends over backwards to provide services for iOS customers, they do the complete opposite in regards to WP customers.  There are no official Youtube, Gmail, Google Maps, Google Music, Google Drive, Docs, or Hangouts apps. In some cases, you can get decent third party alternatives such as Metrotube, but in some cases, such as with Hangouts, you'll just have to do without it.

To be fair, it's not just Google's fault. Apple doesn't exactly share most of its apps either.  I doubt that we'll ever see iphoto, garageband, iwork, aperture, itunes music, or facetime on either Windows or Android.  Patent trolling after Android manufacturers that they were trying to court over to the Windows side was not a smart move on their end.  Their best bet (if they haven't tried already) would be to work out patent arrangements with Google similar to what Microsoft and Apple have.






If you're in the Microsoft ecosystem, things aren't so bad.  Microsoft has some powerful brands that they really need to push more on Windows phone.  Examples are Microsoft Office, Skype, HERE maps, and Xbox Live gaming, which includes Video and Music.   Some of these are available on rival platforms, and apps like Xbox live music don't offer the option to upload your music to the cloud ala Google Music, although it is rumored that is planned for some point in the future.






The Xbox Music and Video apps are fairly bare bone, but get the job done.  As previously mentioned, you can't upload and play your current library through the cloud as of this time. You can however, play purchased music through the app from the cloud.  Similarly, the Video app also lets you stream Video purchased from Xbox Live, and watch some of the more common file formats stored locally on your phone. Controls for both apps are basic, Xbox music featuring shuffle, repeat, fast forward, rewind and search, while Xbox video features subtitle, repeat, share, caption settings, play, fast forward, and rewind.

Supported file formats can be found here.

On the plus side, the Microsoft store also allows apps such as emulators and torrent clients.  Anyone who is on iOS knows that Apple seems to especially hate emulators.  With a decent emulator and some roms, you can greatly expand your on the go game library.  They may not be native games, but beggars can't be choosers.



Security, Safety, and Backup options

With Microsoft keeping Windows Phone mostly locked down, security issues are few.  As mentioned before, use common sense even with their app store since some apps appear very shady.  Other than that, there is a "find my phone" option included in the OS, and similar to the iOS and Android versions, it allows you to ring, lock, erase, and locate your phone via GPS.   You can password protect the Microsoft store, set up a "kids" profile that restricts them to certain apps, and even set up your phone to only be able to access certain apps if you hand the phone over to a friend/relative. There are also VPN and Driving modes which offer different kinds of protection.  There is a call and sms filter, and finally you can back up your device to the cloud.  Backup settings include, app settings, text messages, and photos/videos.



Keyboard

This part of the review is simple.  The stock keyboard now comes with word tracing (swiping) technology built into it.  For most people, this will help speed up typing on the touch screen keyboard.  If you do not like swiping, you can still touch type each letter individually.  Windows phone does not offer the option for third party keyboards. This is something that has been a part of Android since its inception, and will be added to the next version of iOS.  Hopefully, this means that Microsoft will also join them in third party support soon.

Bluetooth and peripheral support

Since I was testing out the software keyboard, I decided to try out my bluetooth keyboards as well.  To my surprise, they all connected just fine, but they would not do anything in the OS.  Attempting to type in the address bar in Internet explorer, or a Word document had absolutely no effect.  I had the same luck when connecting my bluetooth mouse.  It paired just fine with Windows Phone, but had no other effect.  I then decided to try my no name bluetooth speaker, and my Vizio soundbar.  The speaker would not detect, no matter how much I tried.  The soundbar worked seamlessly.  I also paired a pair of stereo bluetooth headphones, and those worked seamlessly.

Next, I paired my Gametel controller with Windows phone in both HID Gamepad mode, and Keyboard mode.  As with the keyboard and mouse, I had no luck getting it to work with anything.  The only app that detected it was a Gameboy emulator, but it only detected left and right.  From what I see, Moga controllers seem to have limited support depending on the app.

Feeling brave, I pulled out my USB OTG cable, and plugged in my thumb drive, and a logitech USB mouse. Sadly, since the cable was not powered, it does not seem like my Nokia had enough power to power either of the devices.

Honestly, this part of my experience is pretty disappointing. If Microsoft is going to name something "Windows", then it should have a lot of the out of the box support of the main operating system. While some devices were hit and miss on Windows 8.1, they ALL worked seamlessly on my Nexus 5.  The bluetooth mouse brought up a mouse pointer as soon as it connected, the gamepad worked with my emulators, and many games, the keyboards typed, and allowed me to navigate my device.  All audio devices just worked.

Android really put Windows to shame on this test.  I hope that with the future versions of Windows Phone and Windows RT merging along with a unified Windows experience, address these issues.  When people think of Windows, they tend to think of device compatibility, and this area is in need of massive improvement.  Especially if they are marketing it not just to consumers, but to business minded people who most likely need keyboard and mouse support.  I'm hoping that the USB to GO issue was simply an issue with the power output on my phone, but I doubt it.  From the way testing has gone, it seems as if Windows phone needs a lot of help with peripheral support.

On a positive note, depending on your hardware, you do get FM radio support (headphones serve as an antenna) which can come in very handy in certain situations as well as offline GPS.

Conclusion

Windows phone is finally shaping up to be a contender to both iOS and Android.  While it's not quite there yet in many ways, I expect it to get better once it gets integrated with Windows RT and Windows 8 for better compatibility. Universal apps should give the ecosystem a boost if Microsoft can convince developers to get on their bandwagon. There are already some in the Windows store, for those looking.

The OS is smooth, fast, and has plenty of features.  Now it's attractive as well.  I would personally like for it to gain some market share and keep both Google and Apple on their toes.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy my Dell Venue Pro 8 vs Nexus 7 comparison, to see how a Windows 8 tablet compares to an Android tablet.

As always, please feel free to share, comment, and subscribe!!  As a follow up to this article, I may post which apps I'm currently using on Windows phone.  Particularly the substitutes for what's missing!



If you like this page, or any of my articles, please feel free to click on an ad when visiting.  It helps keep the blog going.  If that sounds like too much work, then please share the blog with your friends! I love visitors!


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