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.

What I HATE about Windows Phone 8.1

Customization Options

The operating system is extremely customizable, but there is a limit. That limit is where I get frustrated.

Example 1, Transparent Tiles: Finally, you have the ability to add a background image to your Start screen. This option makes many of the icons on the Start screen transparent so that you can see through to your background image. However, not all application icons become transparent. You’re left with that Fisher Price look we’ve become familiar with from Microsoft, from the Windows XP and the Windows 8.1 desktop operating systems. I personally want all of the icons to be transparent so the background image can shine through. Microsoft isn’t entirely to blame for this. They give developers the option to include transparent tile images for their applications. More developers are, but there are some that seem extremely stubborn in releasing a transparent icon for their application. They demand that their icon stand out like a sore thumb among all of the other beautiful transparent tiles. It is usually the social network sites that INSIST on this.

Example 2, Live Tiles: Simple live tiles that alert me to the number of unread messages or missed calls, I am fine with those. However, I absolutely hate live tiles that cycle through an entire news feed. I hate looking at my Start screen with the desire to scream “SHOW ME THE MONEY” as if it were a slot machine. There is one exception to this frustration. I am fine with the stock weather app cycling through the weather report. I keep it at the bottom of the Start screen, below all of the beautiful transparent tiles. I can’t keep all of the blinky, blinky apps at the bottom of the Start screen though. Ok, yes, technically I could, but that would look terrible and be terrible from a usability perspective. Again, this isn’t entirely Microsoft’s fault. They do give developers the ability to allow users to turn off their application’s live tile. It seems as though some application developers think their content is so important it must stare me in the face as soon as I unlock my phone! There are some media outlets, I’m looking at you CNET, that insist on having constantly updated information on their tile, no matter how small you make the tile.

Feed Resiliency and OS Navigation

Windows Phone 8.1 is ABSOLUTELY TERRIBLE at remembering where you were on the previous page when you hit the back button. The best example of this is the Facebook application (which is developed by Microsoft because Facebook doesn’t believe in the Windows Phone platform). As I am scrolling through my news feed I will inevitably come across a link that a friend or a news outlet has posted. I will click the link and read the article. When I press the back button to go back to Facebook and my news feed I expect to be able to pick up where I left off. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask for, does it? Well, I guess it is because I am instead taken ALL THE WAY BACK TO THE TOP OF MY NEWS FEED. That is like having to start reading a traditional newspaper from the front page after you’ve read an article! This is, quite possibly, my biggest problem with the operating system. It is one of the most frustrating problems because it affects me constantly. The good news is that there are some applications that are good at remembering where you were. Not all of them make me want to bang the phone on sharp objects and run it over with my car!

Side note: While I do have major gripes about the Facebook application that the Microsoft team is developing. I have to also thank them for stepping up where Facebook won’t.

When I am finally ready to be taken back to the top of the page I am on, there is not a universal gesture for returning to the top. Most mobile operating systems allow you to double tap the top of the screen to return to the page you’re on, but not Windows Phone OS. If the application developer hasn’t added a method for returning to the top in their application you will be doing a lot of scrolling to get back to the top, refreshing the page or closing and re-opening the application you’re in.

There are some sections of the operating system that provide you with a quick way to jump down the page to the section you need to get to. Example: From the Start screen you can select a letter and then select the first letter of the application you’re trying to get to. Tapping the letter ‘S’ allows you to get to the applications that start with the letter ‘S’ very quickly. Unfortunately, not all applications provide this feature. Looking through long lists of folders in the Windows Phone Mail client, this feature would be extremely useful. This must be an easy feature to add, but I don’t know why Microsoft didn’t add it wherever they could in their own applications.

Limited Network Share Support

I hate that I have to install a third party application to access network shares on a Windows Server from my Windows Phone. I guess their intention is for you to store everything on OneDrive? I would love to have my favorite home network shares automatically mount on my phone when I connect to my home network’s wireless access point. I am sure that is asking for way too much! I won’t hold my breath waiting for that wishlist item!

For years, I have been able to watch a plethora of media file types across my home network by simply mapping to the share. Rarely, have I ever had to copy the file down to my device to watch the file. However, many file types that are supported by Windows Phone simply will not play unless you copy them to your device. It seems as though iOS and Android are better at buffering the data stream from server to device than Windows Phone is. WMV files that I attempted to stream to my Windows Phone were the worst. I would get a few seconds of video, playback would begin to buffer, but playback would never resume. This was not a problem from Android or iOS (with the same .wmv file).

How the **** Do I Copy and Paste Text?

It was the season for shipping and receiving when I first started testing Windows Phone OS. My inbox was full of tracking numbers. I wanted to copy and paste these tracking numbers from the mail client into the tracking application. One would think that you could simply tap, double tap or simply hold your finger on the area you want to select to get a highlighter to appear, but one would be wrong! In the Windows Phone Mail client you have to hit the reply button in order to copy and paste text from an email message. Thankfully, in other applications such as Internet Explorer, copy and paste doesn’t appear to be so frustrating.

Lack of Default Stock Applications

I am sure by now all of you have seen the image where someone has laid out all of the devices that a modern mobile phone has replaced. Microsoft forgot to include a few items from that image: Compass, level, world clock, voice recorder, stop watch and a note pad. I can deal with the omission of a compass because there is a stock map application. Also, the Lumia 635 does not have a built-in compass. I can deal with the omission of a level, but it is still a nice feature to have. It is great when you don’t have a spirit/bubble level handy when taking pictures. I think a world clock, stop watch and alarm should be combined into one application. Yes, the phone does include Microsoft OneNote for notes, but I hate it. I guess I am simply one of those people that “doesn’t get it.” Perhaps if I took a class and learned how to use it and all of its features I would learn to love it. However, all I really want is an application that allows me to take quick notes and have those notes sync across all of my devices via OneDrive. It took a few days to get all of these features onto my phone. Microsoft does provide applications for some of these features, but you have to hunt for them in the Store.

Lack of Security Applications

There does not appear to be a built-in mechanism for scanning for viruses. It doesn’t appear as though there are any reputable solutions in the Store either. Being a Windows OS based device, I would think it would be a necessity. This seems like the perfect opportunity for Microsoft to release a version of Windows Defender for Windows Phone.

The OS also does not provide any security for your SD card. Anyone can pull the card from your device and access the contents. There are no options for encrypting the data on your card.

After a few days of having the device I noticed that in the Wi-Fi Sense application the option for “Connect to Wi-Fi hotspots” was on by default. I would love it if we lived in a world where everyone who has an open WiFi access point had good intentions, but we don’t. I highly recommend turning this off. You’re phone will still automatically connect to the networks you intentionally connect to (i.e. your home network.

VPN Issues

Speaking of security. One of my goals for 2015 is to be more secure. To do that I intend on utilizing a VPN while using public WiFi. According to Microsoft the Windows Phone VPN client supports IKEv2 or L2TP with IPSec. I attempted to create a VPN using Windows Server, which should support IKEv2, but I was never successful in getting the Windows Phone to connect to the VPN server. I won’t blame anyone but myself for this. I’m sure I just need to learn more about it. Unfortunately, despite all of the documentation that states the option for “L2TP with IPSec” should be an option, it is not.

You have tasks to complete, but Cortana won’t tell you about them.

First, I find it completely absurd that tasks are hiding under the calendar. Once you are in the calendar application you click on the “…” menu and then click on tasks to access them. I feel as though tasks should be its own application.

Second, you can add tasks all day long. However, if you ask Cortana what tasks you have, she won’t see any at all. If you ask Cortana to remind you to do something at some point during the day she will gladly create a calendar reminder and you will be reminded. Tasks though, they don’t seem to be relevant in Cortana’s world.

Miracast Is The Way Of The Future

If you have a TV, gaming console or some other set-top box equipped with Miracast you can stream content to those devices from Windows Phone. Supposedly. I don’t have any Miracast devices in the house to test this feature with.

I did play with the “Project My Screen App” app to mirror my phone’s display to a Windows desktop. Unfortunately, I was only able to get it to work while having the phone tethered to a computer via USB cable. I can see a lot of uses for this feature (especially in the classroom).

I am disappointed that DLNA devices are not supported for streaming content to. Since Windows 7 the “Play To” feature has been equipped with the ability to stream content to DLNA certified devices. It is sad to see that this was not included in Windows Phone.

One would think that Microsoft could simply allow a Windows PC to act as a projector for a Windows Phone, but no.

USB on the Go Is Not Available

I would love to be able to connect a USB on the Go cable to my Windows Phone so I can connect a card reader or a USB flash drive. There are many uses for this. Sometimes you simply don’t have access to a computer or a WiFi connection. I have had the occasion where someone has handed me a USB flash drive and I am not able to view the files until I get home. USB on the Go would solve this problem. I could connect the flash drive and provided that it wouldn’t take too long I could upload the files to OneDrive and hand the drive back to its owner. USB on the Go cables are supported on Windows 8.1, so I don’t understand why this feature was stripped from the mobile operating system. I can’t see it taking up that much space.

I, like Steve Jobs, HATE Adobe Flash

Browsing websites on my iPhone I got spoiled by not having random audio coming from some hidden location in a webpage. Flash simply wasn’t supported in iOS. When clicking a YouTube video link the MP4 version was streamed instead. In a separate application with accessible controls. It was a beautiful thing. Now, like on the desktop, I have to fight the myriad of flash popups and banners. Flash videos play automatically and inside the browser windows. Some of the players built into the webpage are absolutely atrocious. You can barely access their controls because they weren’t built for mobile clients.

Speaking of YouTube. The stock YouTube application is terrible. Absolutely awful. It is simply a wrapper application that utilizes Internet Explorer. Look for a third party client for a better YouTube experience.

Check Your Backup Settings

This is just a personal preference, but if you look at the backup settings, by default photos and videos are only set to upload a “Good quality” version. I personally prefer to wait until I am on WiFi to allow pictures and videos to be backed up so that the “Best quality” version will be uploaded. I would rather have the peace of mind of knowing that the full resolution version has been backed up instead of a lower quality version.

I also highly recommend enabling the settings and application backup to the cloud.

Where the **** is the Lumia Denim Update?

The Lumia Denim update was announced several months ago. Since that time several Lumia devices have started to receive the update. Unlike Apple, Microsoft is not rolling out the update to all of the Lumia handsets at once. Instead, they are rolling it out to a few devices at a time. Unfortunately, when you have a ton of different devices to support, it is much harder to roll out a software update to all of those devices. This is something I will have to get use to on this platform.

OneDrive.com is TERRIBLE

I could write an entire blog entry about why I think OneDrive.com is terrible, but I don’t want to induce a heart attack. I hate comparing everything in Windows Phone OS to my experience with Apple iOS, but seriously, iCloud.com is phenomenal. Don’t get me wrong! There are a ton of features I would love to see implemented on iCloud.com, but compared to OneDrive.com, Apple got it right! Microsoft has some SERIOUS work to do with OneDrive.com! For a start, why must everything load in a separate window?

Having an online component, that works beautifully, allows users to manage their information much more easily and from any location, from any device, without having to install any software. iCloud.com is beautiful and each application available on the site is essentially a replica of the mobile client. Sometimes you don’t want to tap data into your phone or your tablet. Sometimes you want to sit at your computer to update your contacts or calendar items. Not everyone wants to use Microsoft Outlook. You won’t always be on your home computer.

While OneDrive.com does provide the same functionality as iCloud.com, I very seriously hope Microsoft invests some money into improving it.

Lack of Applications and Hardware Accessories

When I first started investigating the possibility of switching to Windows Phone, one of the biggest complaints I heard from other users is that there is a major lack of applications. While yes, I have found that there are a lot of companies that I would like to see applications from, I have been able to find applications from third parties to get me by. Sometimes the applications from the third parties are better than the application I had experience with on iOS or Android.

The lack of applications is not the fault of Microsoft. As I mentioned earlier in this article, Microsoft is developing a Facebook application on their own. Facebook has released one Windows Phone application for Messenger. They could VERY EASILY release an application for Facebook. Google has released one application for Windows Phone. It only provides one feature, searching Google. Yes, there is voice support, but nothing more. Why bother when asking Cortana is faster? I wish they would develop their own Google+ client for Windows Phone!

Windows Phone adoption is on the rise thanks to Microsoft introducing low-cost smartphones. This trend will only continue. Hopefully, at some point in the near future, these companies will see the benefits of offering their services to Windows Phone users. Microsoft, on the other hand, has been trying to get their applications and services into as many user’s hands as possible. Whether they are using iOS or Android devices.

During my conversion to Windows Phone I had to look for suitable replacements for applications that I used on iOS. On iOS I used a lot of remote applications to control playback on my media center PC. Apple has a good one for iTunes. Thankfully, there is a good one available for VLC Media Player on Windows Phone. Unfortunately, I don’t see the same type of application from Microsoft for Windows Media Center, Xbox Music or Xbox Videos.

It is amazing how many add-on devices you can get for an iPhone these days. There are add-on camera lenses that allow you to take 360° photos and videos. There are meters, readers and all kinds of measurement add-on devices that you can get. Unfortunately, I fear it will be a very long time before any Windows Phone enjoys these same wonderful accessories. Thankfully, I’m hanging onto our old iPhones.