What I LOVE about Windows Phone 8.1

If you read my previous article you probably think I really do hate Windows Phone 8.1, but I don’t. In fact, I actually love it. I think it is one of the most compelling mobile operating systems that I have ever used. It’s definitely not without its flaws, but please allow me to tell you why I think more people should give it a chance.

Lock & Start Screen Customization Options

I know I complained about the lack of lock & start screen customization options in my previous post titled “What I HATE about Windows Phone 8.1” However, the customization options that are available with Windows Phone 8.1 (WP8p1) still make me quite happy. I won’t go into great detail about all of the customization options because for the most part they are pretty similar across iOS, Android and WP8p1, but there are a couple that do stand out for me.

I love that I can control exactly which applications display information on my lock screen. I even use an application called “Lock Screen Text” to display my contact information in case my phone is ever lost. I love that I can choose the size and position of the icons on my Start screen. If I wanted to go for a minimalist look I could clear all of the icons and widgets from my Start screen. I know, I know. Android fans are screaming “I’ve been able to do this since *INSERT ANDROID VERSION HERE*.” However, after having been locked into the world of iOS for many years, these are welcome options.

With WP8p1 if you choose not to display any or a few icons on your Start screen you still have quick and easy access to the Start Menu and all of your applications. It’s just a swipe to the right! I actually find the Start menu a better feature than Android’s applications menu. With the Start menu in WP8p1 you can touch a letter to bring up an alphabet that will get you to the application you are looking for quicker. With Android and iOS you sometimes have to scroll through several screens before getting to the application you’re looking for.

A Growing App Store

Believe it or not, you can use WP8p1 as your primary phone. The app store is growing constantly. There are a lot of great applications being developed by people who believe in the platform. I won’t deny that it could be better. There are a lot of mainstream sites and services that desperately need to get on board with an application for WP8p1. In many instances I have found that when there isn’t an app from a product/service that there is usually a third-party application for WP8p1. Not always, but in some cases these third party applications are better than their Android or iOS equivalents that were developed in-house by the product/service. In some cases I have found myself switching to a different service because there isn’t an application available for the product/service. An example of this is Urban Spoon. There used to be a Windows Phone version of Urban Spoon that worked fairly well, but they discontinued development of the application and removed it from the Store. Since then I have been using Yelp and find that I like Yelp a lot better than I ever liked Urban Spoon.

Windows Phone Application on the PC

Connect your WP8p1 device to your PC and you’ll be presented with a great utility for managing the content on your device. My favorite feature was getting the non-DRM’d content from my iTunes library onto my WP8p1 device. The application made it super simple.

Remote Desktop Application

I do a lot of remote computing with the computers on my network. If I’m upstairs and want to initiate a download on the media center PC downstairs I can RDC or VNC into the machine from any computer on the network. Thankfully, Microsoft has included a built-in RDC client into WP8p1. It’s basic, but it gets the job done beautifully. I am very pleased that Microsoft incorporated it. I do wish they would incorporate more business type features. A tool to mount network shares, comes to mind, but I digress (this isn’t the “What I HATE about Windows Phone 8.1” article after-all).

Podcasts

I am thrilled that Microsoft has included a podcast catcher into WP8p1. It even works pretty well. I have it set to download podcasts automatically for me and it actually works. Even better, it will download them automatically to the SD card I have in my phone! Heaven forbid I need more storage than what was provided to me by the manufacturer! This is why I could never use the auto download feature for podcasts on my iPhone. The internal storage was never enough and I didn’t want to pay the Apple tax just for more storage space. Ridiculous.

The app could use some improvements. I don’t know which directory it is searching through for podcasts. Some of the lesser known podcasts that I listen to are not found. Luckily, if you have the link to the RSS feed with enclosures you can use that to subscribe to podcasts.

Stock Applications

While in my previous post I complained about the lack of stock applications that are included with WP8p1, what is included, I do love.

News – When I first started using WP8p1 I assumed that I would need to install all of my favorite news aggregator applications. While I do have them installed, I find myself using the stock news application by default. I rarely go into Flipboard or Converge anymore. The default app is quick and always up to date. My favorite feature is that I can add topics that I am interested in and the application will pull stories based on those topics. My only complaint is that when you click on the topic to view more stories it only pulls down 20 news stories related to that topic. It doesn’t do a continuous scroll like most apps do these days. In some ways this is a good thing. It presents me with the most relevant articles and I’m out of the app faster.

Weather – When I was initially trying to figure out how I wanted to lay out my Start screen, I hated the Weather app. I hated that the live tile rotated through the weather report. After having found a less distracting location for it, I have found the live tile useful. It’s nice not having to go into the application to get the current temperature and the five day forecast. It’s right there on my Start screen. Super convenient. I use it all the time.

Data Sense – Prior to moving to my current Windows Phone I was on an unlimited 3G connection with my iPhone 4. I never worried about how much data I was using. Partially because the data connection was so slow I rarely used it. Now that I am on a metered data plan I needed to be able to see how much data I am using. I love the Data Sense application for this. I can see exactly how much each application is using. I can also tell the application how much data I am allotted each month and it will let me know how much I have left. You can use the Battery Saver application to prevent applications from running in the background to help save your apps from eating your data plan. I do think they could have come up with a better method for limiting each program from using data in the background. I always forget that you have to do it from the Battery Saver application. It seems like this feature would also be useful in the Data Sense application. I understand not wanting to duplicate functionality. I still think there is a better way and I am hopeful it will be addressed with Windows Phone 10.

Reading List – I often find myself looking at my Facebook news feed while I am on break at work. I often come across a long article that I would like to read, but you can only read so much in fifteen minutes. I love the reading list. If I come across an article I want to read later I can save it here. Not only does it bookmark the page for me, I can click a button that strips away the design elements of the website that the article is on (if the website is coded properly), which allows me to focus my attention on just the contents of the article. Since WP8p1 is cloud connected via OneDrive I can view the same articles when I get back to my desktop or laptop computer running Windows 8.1.

Storage Sense – Before moving to my current Windows Phone I made a list of requirements for my next phone. I refused to purchase a phone that did not have user upgradable storage. I didn’t care if that was the only feature that it did not have. I was not going to be locked into an environment that did not allow the user to upgrade their internal storage. Unfortunately, not all Windows Phones support this feature. I’m sure we’re going to see more phones in the future without it. Fortunately, the phone I am using does. Microsoft does a tremendous job of supporting it too. The phone I have is limited to 8 GBs of internal storage, but I can insert a micro-SD card with a capacity up to 128 GBs. Using the Storage Sense application I have new music, videos, podcasts, photos, apps and downloads being downloaded to the SD card instead of the phone’s internal built-in storage. You can also use the Storage Sense application to move most of the pre-installed and system applications over to the SD card. Not all application developers support this feature.

My only complaint about Storage Sense is that you cannot manually scan for errors on your SD card. Over the past few months I have ran into a couple of issues where applications were not loading properly. In the past I have simply rebooted the phone and a message appeared asking me if I wanted to check the card for errors. Running the scan usually repaired the errors and returned my phone to normal operation. I have been running into this issue more often. It requires rebooting the phone several times to resolve. I am thinking a format of the SD card and restoring my apps may be the way to go to resolve the issue. If I find out, I will post a future article.

I mention the above problem that I am having just to alert you that your mileage may vary with running applications off of the SD card. For the most part it works great, but I have definitely encountered issues. When you’re on a device with limited internal storage it is a blessing though.

FM Radio – I rarely use this feature, but I think it’s great to have. In the event that you’re desperate for something to listen to, wanting to listen to local radio stations while you’re traveling or wanting to get weather alerts. I am glad to see it included. Unfortunately, not all Windows Phones have an FM tuner. If yours does I recommend playing with the application. Like all Windows Phone applications it is pretty minimalist. About the only thing you can do is set favorites to stations you frequently listen to. I know it will never happen, but it would be pretty awesome to see a recording feature implemented in future versions. Maybe even a scheduled recording feature. That would be great. I won’t hold my breath though.

Windows Store – One of the best features of the store is the ability to sync your applications across multiple devices. I know you can do this on other platforms so I won’t go into great detail about this feature. It works essentially the same way it does on Android and iOS. When you have multiple devices or are switching to a new device you can have the Windows Store app restore all of the applications you have purchased/downloaded/installed previously. If you ever have to wipe your phone to factory defaults it is a great way to get back up and running again.

Bluetooth Pairing

When I first switched to Windows Phone I had a frustrating time with the Bluetooth pairing in my car. After several updates to WP8p1, Bluetooth pairing has gotten a whole lot better. When I first started using the feature I couldn’t use the forward/back buttons on my car’s steering wheel to reverse to a previous track or progress to the next one. In the beginning there were a lot of instances where the phone would lose its pairing to the car. Sometimes it would take three or more tries to actually get the phone to pair with the car. These frustrations have mostly disappeared after recent updates. I have found in some instances I have more control over the audio on my Windows Phone than I did with my iPhone in the same car.

Although this is the “What I LOVE about Windows Phone 8.1” article, I do want to address a complaint I have with the Bluetooth volume settings. I wish I could get them to stay locked to 100% all the time so I could simply control the volume using my car’s stereo controls. For whatever reason, the phone will occasionally decide to reduce the volume of the audio stream to a faint whisper. When this happens I am forced to switch back over to regular radio or find a place to pull over and fix the issue. It requires unlocking the phone and increasing the volume. Sometimes it requires a full reboot to even get the Bluetooth audio settings back.

Microsoft Office

It is really nice to have Microsoft Office support built-in to the phone. Not only can I view documents, I can edit them, in the application that I created them in. When I switch back to my desktop there is no loss in formatting. Very handy for making sure that resume you’re about to send off is in tip top shape!

Project My Screen

While I could only get this feature to work while I had my phone tethered via a USB cable (I think I need a Miracast dongle for it to work wirelessly). This feature is supposed to work the way AirPlay does for iOS devices and Stream to TV does for Android devices. In addition to the standard uses, I can see many creative uses for this feature from an educational perspective.

Multiple Camera Apps

It can be confusing as to which camera application Microsoft is devoted to as there are several. The Lumia Camera application is great if you require lots of control when taking photos. The standard camera application is great, but does not provide as many advanced features. In addition, there are several feature photo applications. One called Lumia Selfie makes it easy for people who have a phone without a front facing camera to take a selfie. Another Lumia application allows you to create panoramic shots. While I do love that Microsoft provides multiple feature applications for taking photos, I do hope that they will combine the features into one application. Also, I hope they will eventually integrate a decent HDR setting. I miss the HDR feature from my iPhone. I have yet to find a program on Windows Phone that does HDR shots as well as my iPhone 4 did.

Cortana

I love Cortana, when I have a use for her. She works surprisingly well. I am amazed at how well she can understand me. She can be a lot of fun as well. Ask her to sing you a song or tell you a story and she will. Ask her to set a reminder or an alarm for a certain time and she will do it flawlessly. That being said, I just don’t use Cortana that often. I think if I didn’t have to pick up my phone to use her that she would be a whole lot more useful.

A Beautiful Mobile OS
The more I have used my Windows Phone the more I have fallen in love with it. The more I want the platform to succeed. I think the OS is absolutely stunning. I love the minimalist look of all the applications. Many of the third-party application developers are good at keeping this minimalist look. I don’t feel like I am ever very far from anything that I need. The transitions are crisp, even on a low powered device like the Lumia 635 that I have. Everything is as smooth as butter. Yes, I know that is a phrase that gets way too often, but when on TechButter…!

I highly recommend that if you’re interested, watch for sales. Often you’ll see the Lumia 635 go on sale for $40. Pick it up just to experience something different. Give it to a kid later to use as a camera or portable music player if you don’t like it. The Lumia 640 is also out there. The extra 512 MB of RAM will definitely help out. If you can get it for a good deal, I do recommend it based on my experience with the Lumia 635.

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