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What It's Really Like to Use a Windows Phone

"What about Windows Phone?" I always ask app developers. Some of them laugh at my question.

Vjeran Pavic

What is it like to use a Microsoft Windows Phone?

Statistically speaking, most people never have. Windows Phones make up less than 3 percent of the global market for smartphones. Even in emerging markets, Google Android has been eating Microsoft’s lunch.

Just yesterday, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced that the company would be cutting 7,800 jobs and restructuring its phone division, after having just spent more than $7 billion last year to acquire Nokia’s handset business.

At this point, all of us are armchair quarterbacks for Windows Phone — except, of course, for the people who have been making decisions around Microsoft’s mobile strategy over the past couple years.

Given this week’s events, I thought it might be a good time to describe what it’s like using a Windows Phone. I’ve been trying out a new model for the past week, ditching (or trying to ditch) my everyday smartphone in exchange for a Lumia 640 XL, which is running Windows Phone 8.1.

 Microsoft’s Lumia 640 XL smartphone
Microsoft’s Lumia 640 XL smartphone
Vjeran Pavic

The Lumia 640 XL launched overseas earlier this year, and just came to the U.S. at the end of June, along with a couple other Lumia phones. It gets the “XL” label because it’s a phablet, with a giant 5.7-inch display and a thick build. It’s also a budget phone, more comparable to something like the Asus Zenfone 2 than it is to the iPhone 6 Plus or Samsung’s Galaxy Note models.

Here’s the thing about using a Windows Phone: The experience isn’t as terrible as the reports from mobile analysts might lead you to think. It’s really not bad at all. (Cue the knee-jerk reactions from the few diehard Windows Phone users out there.)

First off, if you’re an extremely budget-conscious consumer, you can’t beat the price: The Lumia 640 XL is 99 cents with a two-year contract through AT&T, or $12.50 per month on a 20-month plan, or $250 outright. The downside is that it’s only available in the U.S. through AT&T, which means it’s loaded with all sorts of “fun” AT&T bloatware.

It’s made of a matte plastic, and it’s fatter than the iPhone 6 Plus and Google’s Nexus 6 phablet. It certainly doesn’t feel like a premium phone, but at least it’s light. I carried it with me during a long hike last weekend, and it wasn’t onerous — it didn’t feel like a brick in my hand.

The display specs aren’t anything to boast about — it has a 720 x 1280 pixel display — but it’s still bright and easy to read.

 The Lumia 640 XL is thicker — and cheaper — than the iPhone 6 Plus or Nexus 6 smartphones.
The Lumia 640 XL is thicker — and cheaper — than the iPhone 6 Plus or Nexus 6 smartphones.
Vjeran Pavic

One of Windows Phone’s most notable features is its “live tile” interface, a series of colorful squares-as-apps that can be moved around in a Tetris-like fashion to suit your needs. These tiles, of course, are also a part of the Windows 8 operating system for desktop, and they have gotten mixed reviews. But I like these tiles on the phone. They act as mini-widgets, showing snippets of information within the tile itself — calendar appointments, news updates, Facebook notifications and Fitbit steps are some examples of the info that appears without having to open any apps.

The Lumia 640 XL’s cameras aren’t nearly as impressive as the camera tech on the last Lumia I used, the Nokia Lumia 1020, and pictures in low light didn’t come out as well as the ones taken with iPhone 6. But the 640 XL still comes with a respectable 13-megapixel rear camera, a five-megapixel front-facing camera and a few different built-in apps for effects (like “selfie” enhancers and the ability to create animated GIFs).

Call quality is good. Battery life has been very good, although that’s often the case with bigger-bodied phones, which offer more housing for larger batteries. While running my usual circuit of email, social networking, music-streaming and workout apps, with the display set to auto-brightness, the Lumia 640 XL lasted almost two days on a full charge.

And even though its 1.2Ghz Snapdragon 400 quad-core processor is on the lower end of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon series, the phablet never felt annoyingly sluggish.

But then there are the apps — or rather the lack of apps. It’s maybe the most consistent and biggest ding against Windows Phone, and it’s what kept driving me back to my iPhone this week.

It’s not a numbers thing — no human being could ever use all of the mobile apps that are available in app stores — but it’s an issue of whether the key apps you want are available.

 Selfie time!
Selfie time!
Vjeran Pavic

Twitter and Facebook, yes. Spotify, yes. Fitbit, yes. Evernote, yes. GoPro, yes. MyFitnessPal, yes. Dropbox, yes. Instagram, yes — a beta version.

Snapchat? Nope. RunKeeper or Strava? Uh-uh. Slack, which our office now uses obsessively? No. Gmail or YouTube? Come on, give me something … nope. My banking app? Nope. Periscope? No, although there is an app for watching Periscope streams. I just set up a new Nest product at home; no Nest app available in the Windows Phone store.

“What about Windows Phone?” I always ask developers when they pitch me a new mobile app that’s bound to change my life. This is usually after they’ve explained their iOS-first, Android-second strategy. No plans for Windows Phone, most say. Some of them even laugh at my question.

It’s hard to imagine that situation getting any better, with Microsoft publicly admitting that it is scaling back its investment in the phone business.

On the upside, Windows Phone smartphones come pre-installed with Microsoft Office Mobile and OneDrive, as well as the the reputable Here Maps app. Also, Windows Phone has Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual assistant.

The thing is, right now, the Windows Phone experience is pretty much the same, regardless of the hardware. Microsoft’s recent strategy hasn’t been to differentiate in any way.

Just a couple years ago, you might have gotten a more premium-feeling handset, or a whiz-bang camera with certain models. With the current selection of cheaper phones, the specs are fairly similar across the board. Sure, one of them might have a slightly faster processor, a removable back for swapping out SIM cards or a better selfie camera. But none of them are deal-breakers.

Microsoft has said it would be launching a flagship device later this year, and many people are eagerly awaiting the upcoming release of Windows 10 for both desktops and mobile. Microsoft has stressed that its approach to the new operating system will make it easier for developers to write apps across devices (and make it easier to port apps from iOS and Android to Windows Phone mobile).

Those are both in the near term. Long-term, it’s unclear what consumers can expect when it comes to Microsoft and mobile, if there is anything to expect at all.

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