Sunday, December 02, 2012

Why I'm Returning My (Beloved) Windows Phone 8x

In which I explain my love of WP8, but why I'll be returning my HTC 8x.


The 8x is the second smartphone I've owned.  I got the first (an original Samsung Galaxy S on T-Mobile) about 2.5 years ago.  Great phone, but I was very frustrated by the glacial pace of OS updates coming out for it (and then cut off completely after one major update).  I'm technically inclined & so rooted/ROM'd it up to ice cream sandwich, trading the formerly-decent battery life and stability for updated OS.  When our contract came up we decided to switch to Verizon & so needed new phones.

I love music.  Love being able to listen to whatever I want, wherever I am.  I've had some sort of personal media player since saving up paper-route money to get the Mura Hi-Stepper advertised in the Sharper Image catalog back in the early '80s.  I also love subscription music--have discovered a ton of wonderful bands through my Zune Pass XBox Music subscription, and am delighted at the number of options I now have (rdio, spotify) for music subscriptions.

I have an antipathy toward Apple products that I can't really explain, except maybe to cite the "apple tax" on their hardware, and the numerous frustrating experiences I've had with iTunes doing tech support for my wife & daughter's ipods.  But I recognize that I probably would love the shit out of a macbook pro if I could bring myself to cough up for one.

Things I like about my new phone

The 8x

It's gorgeous.  I would actually have preferred a Lumia 920 if I could have gotten it on Verizon, but the 8x is no slouch either.  It's slim, elegant-looking and eye catching.  The screen is absolutely stunning, and it feels great in the hand.  The GPS (something that never worked very well on the SGS) is rock solid. It's got excellent cameras, front and back.  I like that there's a dedicated camera button I can use to take pictures w/out having to unlock the phone.  I really like that it works with the play/pause button on my headset, so I can pause & ff audio w/out taking the phone out of my pocket. (This is particularly killer when I'm running.)

Windows Phone 8

I love the lock screen--love how much useful information it shows, love that I can configure whether it shows details on my next appointment or on the last text I got.  I love that it will cycle through my facebook album photos if I want, or ones from reddit, or ones I have on the phone directly.  I love that it shows play/pause rew/ff controls if I have audio going (whether that's music, an Audible audiobook, or a podcast).

I love the home screen with its live tiles.  I can send my wife a text from a locked phone w/one swipe and two taps.  I can see her last facebook status w/just the one swipe.  I can send my whole family a text or e-mail w/that same swipe & two taps.  I love that I can pin, not just the music app, but my favorite artist to the home screen to start them playing w/a single tap.  Or an album, or a playlist, or a podcast.

I love the light-on-dark theme that e-mail and search results have.  I love the way text squinches up & then bounces back to let you know you're at the end of a web page or e-mail when you try to scroll past the end.

The keyboard is excellent.  I expected to miss swype, but the predictive text is scary good--much better than swiftkey IMO.  I thought I would miss being able to e.g., long-press the 'w' key to get a number '2' instead of hitting a shift key to switch the whole keyboard over to numbers/symbols, but I don't.

I like that it's not overtly hostile to me using my own music for ringtones or alarm sounds.  It's not quite as easy as android (which lets you use pretty much any mp3 you can get on to the device with a simple long-press) but definitely better than ios.

And as much as anything else, I love how different WP8 is.  That's probably indication of shallowness on my part.  So be it.

Things I dislike/hate about my new phone

The 8x

Because the volume rocker and camera buttons are all on the right side of the phone, there's no easy way to get a firm grip on it without inadvertently hitting a button. I'm a runner & sometimes like to hold the phone in my hand as I run in case I need to do something with it & the first time I ran with the 8x I took a lot of pictures of the sidewalk by accident, and turned the volume down to 0 more than once.

The display brightness sensor does not seem to work--it just sets the phone to dim & leaves it there.

The phone does not heed the volume +/- buttons on my headset, which really would have been nice.  My wife's iPhone has no trouble w/this of course.

Probably the worst things about the HTC 8x are that it has no removable battery, and no expandable storage.  It took me quite a while to make peace with that, but in the end the gorgeous display won me over (I could have gotten the aesthetically-raped-by-verizon lumia 822 which has both, but it doesn't have the gorgeous resolution of the 8x).

Windows Phone 8

I really miss my Priority Inbox on gmail.  I get a lot of crap e-mail and PI is wonderful at sorting the wheat from the chaff.  Bing maps & Local Scout are both very very cool, but I really miss the free spoken turn-by-turn navigation you get for free with android.  Similarly, the voice commands on WP8 are decent, but not nearly as good as android's for understanding me and doing what I want.

I dislike that there's only one volume control for everything--alerts, music and alarms.  In particular the alarms always seem to be too quiet, which is weird because this phone has a wonderfully loud speaker on it.

I've had a pretty bad time trying to use multi-tasking on the phone.  In particular, I want to record a run with Endomondo or Runtastic, while listening to an audiobook on Audible or a podcast.  I've only had the thing a week & so probably some of this is user error, but the only way I was able to both get my run recorded and listen to audio, I had to make sure that Runtastic was the foreground task constantly through my entire run.  So no changing podcasts, no switching to music or audible--just start something playing, dismiss it to the background & keep Runtastic at the fore.  If you really have to do that it's lame.

(To add insult to injury, I've had my 2 best runs ever since getting the phone, and both times Runtastic failed to upload the data to its server (after repeated manual attempts to get it to do so).)

The new software for syncing data on the phone w/a desktop is heartbreakingly buggy and feature-poor.  This is baffling to me because WP7 used Zune software for syncing, which is a fantastic application.  I understand the zune name is marketing poison nowadays (or so goes the popular perception anyway) but given how much else consumer-facing stuff is recycled from WP7, it's inexcusable that microsoft didn't just rebrand and reuse that very functional program instead of relaunching WP with half-baked "beta" software and promises that things will get better Real Soon Now.

(My dear brother was a happy WP7 user for several years, and upgraded to a Lumia 920 when his contract was up.  The poor sync software was his reason for turning in the Lumia & getting an iPhone.)

All of this is annoying and disappointing, but I can look past it and/or hope for improvements in the future.  None of it is a dealbreaker, not even in the aggregate.

What is a dealbreaker for me is that my employer's exchange server refuses to sync my work e-mail and calendar with the device.  I believe this is because exchange server thinks my 8x is in some way insufficiently secure.  I work for a large provider of health care/health insurance, and so it's definitely worth expending some effort to make sure that our e-mail (and data generally) are secure.  But given that it's a large org and WP8 is at best a niche mobile OS at this point, our tech support has not been bending over backwards to help me figure out what exactly is lacking in the 8x, or whether it's the result of a bug either on my side, or theirs.  Android worked fine.  IOS of course works fine too.

Supposedly Verizon will let me return the phone w/out the early termination fee all the way out to January 15th.  But I expect to return it this week and trade it in on--I guess a galaxy note 2 (since it's the only verizon phone with jelly bean on it).  But what a disappointment.

For the sake of the platform & having the alternative open in the future, I hope others are having a better time of it with WP8.