I’ve always been interested in Windows Phone. I’ve been interested in the platform since it debuted with the Lumia 800 and I even sat in the rain for two hours trying to win one. Since then, things for Microsoft have changed drastically and the fact that I’m writing these opening paragraphs from a Lumia 930 using the swipe keyboard says a lot about how things have changed for the brand. You may remember, dear NAGlings, that I was recently handed one to review and now that I’ve used a high-end one for a solid amount of time, I have a very different opinion about where Microsoft is going with this platform.
At a glance
Nokia Lumia 930 Smartphone
Windows Phone 8.1 with Lumia Cyan update (soon to be Windows Phone 10)
Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 Krait quad-core 2.2GHz
Qualcomm Adreno 330
5.0-inch 1080p IPS
Gorilla Glass 3, Nokia ClearBlack
32GB, no SD expansion
20MP Carl Zeiss Pureview with OIS, LED flash
WiFi 802.11ac, 3G HDSPA, LTE (network dependent)
Office integration, Windows Integration, Onedrive Integration, Offline document editing, GPS with GLONASS and free voice guidance and lifetime map updates, App store, HTML5 browser
2420mAh integrated, Wireless Qi charging, Qi charging bed in retail package
It’s mostly composed of the same set of Live Tiles you see on the desktop version of Windows 8. The Start menu acts as both a launcher and a information hub, where a selection of live tiles gives you at a glance without having to open the applications they are based on. Applications either spend their time minimised, or they exist as a Live Tile, as in the case of the weather app, or they are in the foreground. It’s a weird UI shift to get used to if you’ve never had a truly smart smartphone but it does take hold eventually.
You can move the tiles around, you can customise their size (only three options for now; small, mid-sized square and wide rectangle), you can customise the colour of the tiles that are transparent and come pre-installed on the phone (like Phone, Messenger, Outlook and Internet Explorer) and if you choose a suitably sized desktop background, you can have that background show through in some of the live tiles. If you use a Windows Phone device that has a OLED screen, set the background to black to preserve battery life.
There’s a lot of functionality you’ve come to expect from mobile operating systems. The keyboard has smart suggestions and with the latest version, Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft has Swype-like functionality. There’s an app store, there are downloadable apps, it syncs up neatly with your email provider and overall Windows Phone is fairly smart with how it works with you and for you. For example, setting Outlook to only download mails based on your usage sets Outlook to download and update you on mails constantly during the week, but if you only check your mail twice during the weekend then it will only download mail when you open the app to save on battery power. The longer you use Windows Phone, the more it learns about you and your habits.
Windows Phone 8 also went though a lot of changes to get where it is today. For example, it’s now possible to sync up your Internet Explorer bookmarks and history like Microsoft promised a while back with your desktop computer. It still takes about two to three minutes to have your open tabs, history, bookmarks, favourites and passwords synced, but it does work (although it took me three tries before I realised I should just be patient and give it time). The syncing, however, only applies to Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 devices and you need a Microsoft account to sign in to all the devices. That limits your options somewhat, because this ties you into the Windows ecosystem.
You can, however, have bookmarks synced with Opera and Opera Mini, which is currently in beta on Windows Phone and has the sync operation working like a charm. That way you have access to your bookmarks, history, passwords and Speed Dial shortcuts from Windows, Apple and Android-running devices as well as Linux operating systems running the Opera or Opera Mini browser. God bless you, Opera.
There’s also this strange tit-for-tat between Microsoft and their long-time enemy, Google. Google won’t let their apps and services exist on Windows Phone while Microsoft refuses to write apps that don’t run in native code. Google requires that all official stops on other platforms use HTML 5 as the foundation, but since the Windows runtime is more efficient, Microsoft made their apps using their own APIs instead. When Google found out, they promptly locked out all Windows Phone versions of their services to spite Microsoft.
There’s a similar, but relevant reason for there not being a version of Chrome on Windows Phone as well – Google doesn’t want to be restricted to using the Internet Explorer engine. They’d much prefer to be running their own fork of Webkit.
Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s new CEO, has said he wants the company to move to a mobile and cloud-first strategy and to have all their apps and services on multiple platforms. Office is now on the iPhone and iPad and soon there will be a Android version of all their offerings, complete with integrated access to OneDrive. But his goodwill won’t salvage the relationship in a quick enough time frame to make the platform more attractive to Android and iOS converts. So until then, they have to make do with some workarounds.
Like enabling audio playback of YouTube videos in Internet Explorer while the lock screen is active. They also have a few optimizations inside Internet Explorer to make the experience more palpable, although I prefer using Opera Mini for surfing the majority of the internet. There are still far too many sites which simply don’t play nice with mobile browsers or that accomodate the needs of mobile users properly.
In the meantime, Google continues to wage their petty little war by doing things like killing off calendar sync and not packaging Hangouts as its own app for Windows Phone. When I wrote a while back about how choosing a platform to stick to for the next few years was difficult, this is pretty much why. I’m a user, a paying customer, I don’t want to be caught up in this petty little scuffle. The people who bought WebOS devices and who still cherish their Symbian phones and the Nokia N9 will know what I’m talking about.
Being stuck between the frontlines of that war is petty and stupid and I wish Google would just accept that they have market dominance and won’t lose it any time soon, giving them ample time to make their services more accessible on other platforms. Microsoft’s pragmatic approach to getting their brands on to more platforms is far friendlier to the user, even though they may currently be tied into an ecosystem not controlled by Microsoft.
The Windows Phone experience
Lets get one thing out of the way – Yes, there is an “app gap”, as some American journalists like to call it. Windows Phone is definitely a very attractive, stable platform and already a number of South African developers and game programmers are targeting the platform. But it’s not perfect – as I said in my opinion piece, no platform is. You’ll find a lot of the commonly available apps on the store and even incredibly useful ones that don’t appear on other platforms (Remote Desktop, anybody?). Don’t be bugged by Google or Apple or Microsoft throwing around random app numbers like they’re all individual, beautiful flowers – they’re not.
Many of the apps are clones of other, more successful apps, or some of them just act as shortcuts to a web interface for a service in Internet Explorer. Microsoft is still working on trimming out the fat and their position in the market currently as the third-smallest app vendor gives them some flexibility to make drastic changes and shed off the excess weight. But the barrage of stupid voice squeakers is offset by some of the better implementations of other services that I’ve ever seen. Skype has integration with the Phone application, Facebook and Whatsapp both follow Modern UI design and there’s things like Netflix and Amazon Kindle and Instagram and even IM+ Messenger which works about as well as Pidgin for syncing me up with Google Talk.
In order for Netflix to actually work, you need a subscription to Unotelly and a subscription to Netflix, both which cost some money. Legally, this violates Netflix’s terms and conditiions to using the service. Don’t do it just because you’ve seen evidence that I do.
For the majority of the population, then, Windows Phone is a suitable replacement for whatever phone they had in most cases. It has most of the applications and services that are popular, Microsoft is not letting it die thanks to the hard work of Joe Belfiore and the Windows Phone team and I’m pretty happy with it as a replacement for Symbian S60 or S^3 in the mobile phone market, although I still have my reservations that Microsoft ever needed Windows Phone in the first place. They have lagged behind the rest of the market, but they would have mounted a bigger and better comeback than BlackBerry has managed so far.
There are also games in the market. Lots of games. You could say there’s an overwhelming amount of games and you’d be only scratching the tip of the iceberg. Windows Phone might not be pulling in the big AAA titles on the mobile scene, but they’re steadily improving that by using what they’ve learned from the Xbox division and applying it to the Windows Phone store. There’s a lot of games available for just about every genre and there are even first-person shooters and DOOM II clones, full-on-3D racing games and even some real-time strategy titles. I can afford the princely sum of zero games at the moment, although I’ve largely gravitated to spending time with Hill Climb Racing.
Why? Because’s its a little bit fun and mildly challenging, now get off my lawn! My exploits with HCR on the Lumia 930 though have resulted in very high localised warmth. Although it’s not uncomfortable, it is a bit concerning when you have to consider how it affects battery life. I suppose Nokia has done a lot of testing to make sure that the phone isn’t negatively affected by heat under a typical game load, but with these phones getting thinner and thinner every year it may just be a function of the phone’s body acting as a large heat sink.
Aside from that, there’s really not much wrong with Windows Phone. It does what it needs to and more, provides a solid foundation for anyone who’s currently invested in the Windows ecosystem and especially with Windows 8.1 and Office 365 and as a productivity tool it does more than most people will ever need. I’ve already done some test recordings using the OneNote application and without asking it to, it synced my notes and audio files straight up to the cloud to OneDrive. That’s incredibly convenient.
Looking to the future
My concerns for Windows Phone, however, are two-fold. On the one hand, Microsoft doesn’t have the kind of dominance it expected from the platform in its launch. Windows Phone 7/7.5 showed a lot of promise but they ditched the platform altogether, leaving it in the lurch. Now that Windows 10 is on the way, things are a lot more tricky. Microsoft needs to get their old partners back on board and they need to be able to get the deals that allow them to have Windows Phone 10 on the same flagship phones for HTC, Samsung, Sony Xperia, Huawei, ZTE, LG and others. They can either do this, or run the risk of creating yet another Symbian, where it’s a brilliant platform hindered by it only really being available through one or three big-name brands.
On the other hand, I don’t want Microsoft to fall into the trap of introducing planned obsolecence too quickly into the life of Windows Phone.
That’s how Apple keeps the cycle going. They’ve gotten very good at releasing iOS updates that eventually make their old flagships tremendously slow. In fact, many technology-focused companies in the US that bank on planned obsolescence incorporate it into their product design and marketing. Microsoft makes the Xbox One so big because it gives them leeway to make a slimmer, more attractive chassis a little down the road to boost sales whilst also letting them figure out optimal cooling for the super-hot AMD APU at the heart of it all.
Microsoft isn’t good at planned obsolescence. Millions of people still use Windows XP and Office 2003 and it works perfectly well for them. Millions still are going to stick to Vista and Office 2007 until they absolutely have to upgrade. This is a company that makes software built to “just work” for years.
At the same time, Microsoft isn’t known for engineering discontentment into their operating systems. Now that they own Nokia’s former manufacturing and mobile division, they need to tread this path a little lighter and with more forethought, because its a completely different market. Windows Phone pairs up fairly well with the Windows desktop and there’s really very little to complain about. By contrast, there are deal-breaking idiosyncrasies with the Apple OS X and iOS combo that they’ve only recently begun to address in OS X Yosemite. Google is also working on addressing the same issues with Android L, but those devices and a properly aligned and compatible version of Chrome OS are still a little while off.
That’s the real dynamic that needs to be taken away – Microsoft doesn’t engineer in the need for new OSes because Windows has always been made first for businesses and corporations. Windows 8 was their first try at making an OS for the general public and predictably, its a market they don’t completely understand yet. Market share and mind share will always be a problem in the short term, but Windows Phone has already gone beyond the critical mass required to make the platform self-sustaining. Now it just needs to grow.
Enter the Lumia 930
Oh boy, where do I start? The Lumia 930 is one of the most arresting phones I’ve had the opportunity to handle. It is big at 5.0-inches in diameter for the display and it is slightly hefty as well, coming in at 167 grams. It is possible to hold it in one hand but this is really the limit to ergonmics as far as mobile phones are concerned. The front is protected with Corning Gorilla Glass 3.0 and Nokia has done a great job to remove any bezel on the screen, leaving you with a smooth edge-to-edge surface that your finger glides across. The display also has a hydrophobic coating, a feature I didn’t expect until some water dropped on to it and rolled off with ease.
The bezel stretching all around the phone is made of aluminium, with plastic inserts at the top for the radio antennae necessary for Wi-Fi and 3G/LTE signal. The frame is cold and a little sharp, but it offsets the black front of the phone quite well. No matter which colour your Lumia 930 comes in, it always looks good facing you head-on.
On the right-side we have the two-stage camera shutter key, the screen lock button and the volume rockers. These all feel good with a sharp, tactile button press, but they are a little difficult to hit if your hand isn’t in the right position or you’re not using your thumb to press them.
Moving to the top, we have the headphone jack situated in the middle of the device as well as the plastic antennae inserts, with the nano-SIM card slot to the right. Note as well how the gorilla glass top folds into the curve and even tapers into the corner. I cannot adequately express in words what this feels like, but its certainly black magic.
Also on the top is the front-facing speaker alongside a front-facing 2MP camera with 720p recording capability, alongside a hidden ambient light sensor and a proximity sensor, which locks the display when you’re on a phone call and will, almost surely, support some sort of Glance functionality in the future.
The left side is pretty bare. To get the unibody feel and rigidity, Nokia did away with integrating in a miniSD card slot on this side of the phone, presumably because that’s where the battery sits.
Unless they could bump up the back a little, there would be no space for the circuitry required for it, according to Nokia and Microsoft.
On the bottom, the same two plastic inserts for the antennae are there as well as a mini USB 2.0 port in the middle for charging and accessing data files on the phone. Its easy to find your way to it in the dark because the useful ports are in the middle of the device. At the bottom of the facia, there’s a pinhole for the primary microphone that captures your voice. It faces towards you, so if you’re taking a video with your hands outstretched in front of you, you’ll always be able to capture your voice.
Nokia’s only omission with this design was the lack of any front-facing loudspeakers, which we see when we flip the device over.
Because of the matte green finish of the back cover, photographing it properly was a challenge. Green is a colour that many cellphone cameras tend to struggle with and even to my eyes, reading the logos on the back of the device was difficult. The back is raised and curved ever so slightly to fit into your hand, but it’s not a hump that you notice. The camera lens is recessed into the phone but to keep it scratch-free you’d need to find a cover for it. There’s only a dual LED flash at the back. Its good for exposing some detail in dark environments, but a poor solution for photographing moving subjects in dark areas.
On the back is also the small loudspeaker inlet. On the top and bottom of the rear are another two microphones. One is used primarily for noise cancellation during phone calls, but both are used for recording audio in stereo during videos. the range of sound these can process is actually small, but they do a decent job nonetheless.
Oh, you’re probably wondering why there’s a piece of cloth under the phone…
The Gorilla Glass front is so smooth that it literally slides its way across desks, tables, chairs and other objects which aren’t perfectly level. That bench was almost level and still there was enough of a slant to let gravity assist the Lumia 930 towards its eventual doom. That video was also shot immediately after I placed the phone down to take pictures of the back and watched in a daze as it started sliding away from me. I knew this thing was slippery, but my mind wasn’t processing the all-important, “Oh shit, the phone’s going to fall off the bench!”
Keep your eye on this thing, lest you get left with a R6000-ish pile of junk from having it fall off to its death. Buy a cover, or place it on its back if you must leave it to lie somewhere unattended.
1080p with ClearBlack Technology
Nokia’s ClearBlack Technology makes its way into the features list and makes the phone usable in all sorts of conditions outdoors. ClearBlack is Nokia’s term for what is essentially a pair of polarising filters sandwiching the display pane to remove glare and improve sunlight legibility. It turns a dull picture in bright sunlight into something legibile and usable. The glare reduction is also noticeable and welcome, although there are caveats to this.
Because these are polarised filters, they’re blocking in light coming in through the display’s glass cover at particular angles. Rotating the display sideways removes some of the benefit of ClearBlack. However, there’s still the benefit to slightly richer colours and darker blacks, which still keeps things useable in the day.
Its not the holy grail of display technology, but it’s something Nokia’s been working on for years and perfected in devices such as the 808 Pureview and Lumia 925. The 930 takes it a step further, but doesn’t hit as high as the other devices becuase it doesn’t use a AMOLED display.
Camera, Video performance is great in most cases
Daylight performance of the Lumia 930’s camera is good and by that I mean freakishly good. Colours are reproduced accurately, though there’s somewhat of a dulling when it comes to deep browns and reds. Orange, shown on the garden rake, keeps its original hue while greens are very well done.
Noise reduction is handled very well (there’s basically none of it) and there’s no artifacting present. Having a large, wide light source such as the sun helps with exposure too. The only aspect of the sensor’s performance here that can be critiqued is the muddying of textures in the shadowed part of the photo. The wall to the right loses definition as you move closer to the edge of the photo and there’s a blurring effect seen as you move up the right-hand side. I’m not sure what causes this because it was present in multiple shots, but it may be due to the optical image stabilisation compensating for some slight movement in my hands.
In macro mode, objects gain a lot of fine-grained definition. The colour of the little fern is correct and all the branches are in focus. The background objects retain their original colour and lighting is controlled well, so there’s nothing that looks overblown or out of place. Even finer details like the crack in the wall to the right is perfect.
The markings on this statue are again the right colour and the camera picks up the contrast of the white detailing properly. The thing I like about this spot is that it shows up sharpening filters very easily and in the Lumia 930 they aren’t overly aggressive, at least with the Windows Phone Cyan updates in place.
It is there, though. The left-side of the statue’s head has a clearly defined edge and the gaps in the wall behind it are very sharp. I may have missed any options to turn this off to test how aggressive it really was, but I have no problem using a photo of this quality anywhere. Look at the rocks! Those are some sweet textures.
In a darkened room with the lights off and curtains drawn, the 930’s sensor switches automatically to use a longer exposure and higher ISO setting to achieve clarity and reveal detail. Songbird here is properly captured, although there’s an overall grain to the picture thanks to the higher ISO setting. This isn’t even an aggressive test – in darker environments, noise would be a much bigger issue if you’re not shooting with the flash or some overhead light.
That said, colours are great, even though there’s a noticeable loss in detail overall.
Putting the flash on changes everything quite drastically. Songbird is now clearly visible in light and the slightly shorter exposure time keeps the photo from being overblown. Colours are accurate, allowing for greater detail in the broken statue underfoot. The background objects lose out on the focused attention, but this isn’t a bad thing.
There is a minor problem of Songbirds nose and outstretched hand losing definition, but I’m not sure why those elements lost out on the focus while the rest of the body and statue is properly done. For subjects which aren’t completely still, there would be a small degree of blur and loss of detail, but this isn’t the case here.
Videos are shot at 30 frames per second and start with the autofocus mode on by default. There’s no obvious sharpening to the footage which is great, because that makes it easier on the eyes and doesn’t create any noticeable aliasing. Exposure compensation is good, but it takes a while to kick in, so there will be moments when the sensor will be overwhelmed. Colours are great, the usual definition from the camera mode is there and I’m happy with it overall. I didn’t take any low-light footage, but the image stabilisation will help to remove judders and shakes and produce a good-quality image.
The continuous autofocus is a problem though. When you notice it in action, it takes over the image and gives it a sort of watery effect, as if you’re looking at it through a fishbowl. Its great for focusing on objects very close to the camera, but it’s not aggressive enough to kick in sooner. When I move the phone between the gate rails it doesn’t seem to turn off, which suggests that the camera’s software is aggressive enough to avoid that. In this case it isn’t a dealbreaker, as you can turn this off and enjoy the benefits of having the whole image in focus instead.
Though I didn’t demonstrate it in the video above, if you stand with the Lumia 930 in video mode, start recording and don’t focus on any one object, the autofocus goes a little mad and keeps on fixating itself on objects in the foreground and background constantly. Some tuning is needed to modify the behaviour properly, but when it works it stays in focus on an object pretty well.
General usage notes
The Lumia 930 is pretty big, even by modern standards. It’s slim and still manages to fit into a lot of jeans and pants pockets, but it is a sizeable device that you’ll always notice. Some of that real estate works against it, for example, when I’m lying in bed browsing the web. Since I do this lying on my right side, I cannot grip the phone in my left hand properly because I use my thumb for navigation.
Using my right hand feels weird because I’m a lefty and I have to balance the phone on my fingers by tilting it back slightly. This works, but I’m not able to reach the volume buttons now. It sounds like a trivial thing, but it ends up being an annoyance.
The weight comes into the equation in other useability factors as well. Typing on the phone is a two-handed affair. It is possible to rely on swiping to get your messaging done, but you have to be more precise so that the phone doesn’t fall out of your hand. If there was a cover on it, I’d feel a lot more at ease carrying around a device of this size.
Sound quality was a key point I looked at and I have no complaints. Calls to others sounded clear and in tests to myself with a Skype call there were no complaints with the microphone’s performance. I didn’t have the chance to test out the noise cancellation capability properly, but it is there for you to take advantage of. Plugging in heaphones to listen to my music was also a pleasure. There was no hint of distortion or crosstalk and I could put my SteelSeries Siberias up as loud as they’d go. Using the equaliser is recommended if you want to customise the sound profile and give your music that extra edge.
I did play around for hours with Cortana and I have to admit that voice assistants on a smartphone makes a lot of sense. I can tell Cortana to set reminders for locations or times or dates, she can message people on my behalf, do internet searches, can run a number of applications for me. Hell, Cortana can even post status updates to social networks on my behalf and read out messages to me. If you’re apprehensive about the idea of using a voice-driven personal assistant, watch this Gizmodo overview of Cortana, Siri and Google Now to see just how much stuff you can do without touching your phone.
To get Cortana working on Windows Phone 8.1, you have to change the language to US-based English to see the app pop up in the applications list.
On the subject of battery life, it was good, but not fantastic given the size of the battery pack. I easily saw two days of usage taking photos and video, web browsing, tuning into podcasts through YouTube, syncing e-mail and playing Hill Climb Racing in short bursts. If you’re constantly using your phone as a messaging tool and general-purpose device, expect at least a working day’s battery life out of it once all the bugs in Windows Phone 8.1 are quashed. The biggest power hogs are the LTE radio and that 1080p display, which isn’t an AMOLED panel.
Software bugs are also something that needs more work here. Windows Phone 8.1 is not technically finished and Microsoft’s Windows Phone team has professed to continue improving and iterating on it with each new update. There will be one in the future that fixes any battery drain issues on the Lumia 930, but for now there will be some slight inconsistencies and niggles with it. This doesn’t mean that applications suffer the same problem – if they run into problems that’s because they aren’t ready for prime time, as in the case of BBM.
If you’re on the fence about Windows Phone, don’t be. Its a stable and mature operating system well into its fourth year on the market and things are looking up. Major app vendors are jumping on to the service, games continue to be added on, services like Netflix and Hulu are already there and overall there’s a general positivity about the platform. It’s no Android or iOS, to be sure, but then it doesn’t have to be. Windows Phone can be whatever you want it to be – an entertainment platform, a productivity platform, or even a basic platform for accessing Microsoft’s services and Nokia’s navigation software.
If you’re heavily invested into the Android or iOS ecosystems, this isn’t the right platform or device for you. If you’re a BlackBerry user looking for something new, this is a great place to start, but you have to accept the changes that come with it like the unstable BBM and the lack of a file and folder manager by default (there is one available from the app store made by Microsoft itself). If you’re just looking for something that’s equally as productive, you’ll be well served by checking it out, especially if you buy into the Office 365 and OneDrive services.
What Windows Phone offers is unique in its own way and cannot be completely replicated by any other mobile OS. The Live Tiles are a unique selling point and the tie-ins to Windows and to Office work and work well. But you’re only going to appreciate this once you’ve tested it out after a week or more. Like Symbian, Windows Phone is moving features of separate devices together into one converged service or device and it’ll take time to explore all that it offers. Once you try it, there’s a good chance you’ll stay and there’s an equally good chance Google’s services will take you to other platforms.
As for the Lumia 930, it was the best phone I ever had the pleasure of using and I’m tempted to get one. The software and hardware comes together neatly and it’s a great device when you make use of everything it has to offer. Keep your eye on this space, as Microsoft has no intention of slowing down now.