I had always felt the headlines surrounding the death of Windows phone were over exaggerated. Yes, cut after cut of former Nokia staff, dwindling market share that amounts to less than a rounding error, and even Microsoft going iOS and Android first for their own latest apps has pretty much killed any chances of Windows Phone seriously competing in the consumer space.
But while it may be dead as a viable competitor, Windows phone is not dead. Depending what you need from your phone, and what you value most from your device, Windows 10 Mobile is still a viable alternative to iOS and Android, especially in the enterprise market. This is true for a variety of reasons which I won’t get into here, but you can read more in Mark Coppock’s great piece.
I thought I was plenty happy with my Lumia 950 XL, and it did what I needed it to do. But then the notion of Windows Phone’s death in the consumer space became rather real for me. Over a holiday weekend, I dropped my Lumia 950 XL while taking family photos. The phone landed on the 1mm gap between the case and the tempered glass screen protector and resulting cracks ran across my screen. I had lived with a broken screen once years ago, and I wasn’t ready to do that again. I felt like an idiot, so I hoped it could be a quick fix.
My local phone repair shop told me they couldn’t find a replacement screen. The manager said, “you know they just fired 1,800 employees.” I said I had heard. I called a repair shop across town and they said they could order it, but all in the repairs would cost me at least $250. I couldn't even find a replacement screen and digitizer on Ebay to do it myself. So while contemplating a trek to the Microsoft Store to get it fixed, I began asking myself some questions and started to think maybe this is an opportunity to try something different. After all, if the Microsoft apps I use most, and ones I wish I could use, were all on Android or iOS, why stick with Windows 10 Mobile?
Android or iOS?
As a heavy user of Microsoft services, everything from OneDrive to Groove, I began to consider which mobile OS would be best for me. And after years of seeing new Microsoft apps and Garage apps go to Android and iOS before Windows phone, I figured my experience with Microsoft apps might even be better supported on an operating system not made by Microsoft, which is an odd statement in itself.
I considered iOS briefly. Most of my extended family uses iPhones so there would be the advantage of being able to use Facetime and iMessage with them. But I quickly decided against iOS. First, I see the real advantage of having an iPhone comes when all of your other devices are Apple too. I have no interest shifting away from anything but Windows 10 desktops, laptops, and tablets. I used MacOS at an old job for years and I much prefer Windows when I have a choice.
Secondly, my friends and family also heavily use certain Microsoft services on their iPhones, and there are problems. One family member had issues editing Office 365 contacts on his iPhone, and another has to constantly reopen the OneDrive app to continue syncing their camera roll. So iOS was out for me.
This left me with Android, and it did quickly seem like a more natural fit. As an open source project, third-party developers can tap into more functionality with their apps. So there should be greater potential for superior interoperability with Microsoft apps and services on an Android phone compared to Apple devices. And with the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, texts and notifications from Android phones will show up on my Windows 10 PCs. Android seemed like the right choice.
But which phone?
There is a huge ocean of Android headsets to choose from. Based on my initial research I zeroed in on the Moto X Pure, the Nexus 6P, LG G5, and the Samsung S7 and S7 Edge. All of these phones were top of the line for late 2015 and early 2016 and I knew you couldn’t go wrong as each had received a fair amount of positive reviews. My comparison boiled down to which phone checks all the boxes of features I wish Windows Phone had or things I wasn’t willing to let go of from Windows Phone.
I ended up choosing the Samsung S7 Edge. This phone checked all the big boxes I was looking for: MicroSD expansion card slot, fingerprint reader, decent camera, and strong battery life. The cons are it does come with Samsung bloatware and tweaked interface which you wouldn't get with a Nexus or the Moto X Pure. But for me this was an acceptable trade-off.
The curved screen is nothing more than a gimmick with no real increase in the phone's functionality, but it does look nice. What the S7 Edge has over the competition is a big battery that held up well in tests, even outperforming the S7. Numerous reviews settled on the S7 Edge being the best Android phone on the market and after using it for the past few weeks I'm happy with my choice.
Hardware wise it has been an impressive phone. The battery lives up to its promise as 3600 mAH gets me through the day, the camera is a delight (but I miss having a dedicated camera button and the Lumia Creative Studio app), the screen is beautiful, and it has a nice build quality that feels solid but not too heavy nor too big.
Compared to holding the 950 XL it feels like I’m holding a finished product designed with intent, rather than a sum of parts in a bland package. This is one of the interesting things I’ve noticed from switching away from Lumias, the experience of using the 950 XL simply felt like the sum of the parts of the phone. But owning a device like the S7 Edge, all the components and hardware specs come together to deliver an experience that feels greater than the mere sum of its parts as I use it throughout the day to accomplish tasks.
But how does the Android operating system stack up against Windows 10 Mobile? While Android hardware is at a significant advantage over flagship Lumias, the verdict between which OS is better can be less clear.
Apps and Widgets vs Live Tiles – there has to be a better way
I miss Live Tiles and the Windows 10 Mobile home page. Its purpose was elegant if not even noble. It focused on what Microsoft called a "glance and go" approach that made sure your phone was there to add to your life and not take it over. But with Android you have to scroll through multiple pages, deal with app drawers, and usually have to dive into the app to get information. There are on-screen widgets that bring the functionality of an app directly to the home screen, but not every app has a widget, and those that do can tend to look odd. Multiple widgets easily stack up to be a cluttered mess.
This leads me to believe there has to be a better way. There should be a blending of Live Tiles and Widgets so you get all of your information brought to the surface through live tiles, but also the degree of interactions with widgets to perform quick actions on the go without opening apps. The cancellation of project McLaren and expanding tiles was probably well justified, but I sincerely hope that work has not been halted altogether as maybe it could have brought meaningful widget like interactions to Live Tiles.
Material design can be boring
Most of the time when I’m presented with two choices I prefer the one that is more minimalist. I prefer elegance in understatement and being able to hide complexity while simultaneously delivering it seemingly without effort. But Google’s approach is overly bland. It is simple, but it also reminds me of a strange meld of Google + and construction paper art from a kindergarten. That said there is a fair degree of customization, and you are not stuck with it if you don't want to be, unlike with Windows 10 Mobile.
But the apps...
With my Lumia I thought I was getting by just fine without having a ton of apps. And in most cases, this was true. But switching to Android has taught me that even if there are one or two key apps you are missing out on it really can make a noticeable difference. Being able to skips lines by ordering lunch or coffee ahead of time is incredibly convenient, and I simply couldn’t do that at Starbucks or Chipotle with a Windows phone (although a Starbucks app is coming soon).
Important apps like the password managers work better on Android by auto-populating login fields and unlocking accounts with the touch of my finger. There are also more mobile-friendly ways to consume content. I can thumb through the entire current edition of The Economist, or just get their daily brief with The Economist’s Espresso app with mobile phone optimized experiences.
And then there are the Microsoft apps.
Microsoft's apps on Android
In some ways. Microsoft apps just work better on Android. It is baffling that Outlook for Android’s focused inbox hasn’t made its way to Windows phone (it's coming, too). With Android, I have a choice of multiple Microsoft keyboards, from the Hub Keyboard to Swiftkey, but with Windows 10 Mobile there is no choice.
I dreaded setting up my Microsoft apps on my Android because I use multifactor authentication on my account (seriously be smart and safe, and do this if you haven’t already). Signing into things on my Windows Phone could be a chore of typing in confirmation code after confirmation code. But the first thing I did on Android was install the Microsoft account app. This made two-factor authentication as simple as tapping a box. Google has also built this feature into Android for their services as well.
The standard Microsoft apps on Android, and Microsoft Garage projects like Send, make my Microsoft account and services more functional compared to on a Windows phone.
There are things I miss about Windows 10 Mobile, like the Glance Screen, Lives Tiles, a consistent theme with customizable accent colors, and a dedicated camera button to name a few. But I'm happy I made the switch to an Android device so far. I still use mostly Microsoft apps and services, but now they work better and I'm using them on a more functional piece of hardware. I can finally get through an entire day with a single charge, and fingerprint readers are much more sensible than an iris scanner that takes longer to work than just entering a 4 number PIN.
And at the end of the day, most of my gripes with Android are about aesthetic issues which are a matter of individual taste. Plus Android is very customizable with countless themes available for download. I just wish certain UX elements were a little more thought out, but they don't necessarily detract from the overall experience.
I hope at some point Windows 10 Mobile has both more competitive hardware and software development which does not significantly lag in parity to other operating systems, especially for Microsoft's own apps. But until there are compelling reasons to switch back to a Windows phone, I'll instead go with a competing platform that even Microsoft itself prioritizes over Windows 10 Mobile.