In which we change phones, and paradigms.

Well, hello again.

So, the gastronomic and emotional endurance trial that was the Thanksgiving holiday is now safely past.  I hope those of you here in the Colonies have recovered from your exertions, and those of you elsewhere in the world have thanked $DEITY_OR_RANDOM_CHANCE that you didn’t have to suffer with us. Things were actually quite pleasant here at the House of Flying Bookshelves. My wife Meg, the Girl and I had a relatively low-key meal with my wife’s parents and a friend of hers from work, at which wine, roast chicken, and root vegetables made star appearances, whilst turkey was noticeable only by its absence. The following day, we were joined by an old friend of mine and his charming wife for the traditional Eat Nothing But Leftovers Day and a hilarilously interminable game of Talisman. (Why, yes, we are geeks! What gave it away?)

Between those two meals, however, Meg and I did something I once swore I would never do: we went out on Black Friday and purchased something.  In our defense, we weren’t at a shopping mall or a big box store buying Christmas presents, which I mention solely to soothe my wounded, indie-hipster-cred-craving ego.

We were, instead, replacing our phones.

Meg works for a company, hereinafter referred to as “NolCorp,” which, among other many other benefits, provides a significant discount for cell phone service. She had been using an old-school candy bar phone for a long, long time, and was resistant to making the leap to a smartphone. At that point, the smartphone choices were iPhones, Android phones, and Blackberry devices, none of which had impressed her much, so she saw no real need to change. When NolCorp gave her the opportunity to upgrade to a new HTC phone running Windows Phone 7, though, she decided to risk it. Fortunately, the risk paid off, and she promptly fell in love with her phone. In particular, she was impressed with the user interface (UI), which was markedly different from the iPhone or Android UIs. Watching her develop a relationship with her phone, I also got the opportunity to watch the Windows Phone UI develop from the initial 7 release through the 7.5 (“Mango”) release, and to see some of the improvements they made along the way. I didn’t play with her phone much, though. Part of that is my own issues about messing with other people’s tech, and part of it was probably that I didn’t want to become attached to her user experience. I had a lot invested in my iPhone, in time and money, and I really didn’t want to walk away from that just because it had stopped being as much fun.

And then, Microsoft released Windows Phone 8 with the new Nokia Lumia 920. Presently, it’s only available through AT&T, so Meg decided to switch cell service providers and open a joint account with me. I’d been on AT&T for some time now, largely because until recently, they were the only game in town for iPhone users, and even after the iPhone opened up, I still wanted to keep my grandfathered “unlimited everything” plan. She did an analysis of our cell usage (one of the side benefits of being married to a mathematician/computer scientist!) and determined that we could join accounts, scale down from the super-unlimited plan slightly, and still have plenty of coverage from a reasonable fee. We went in to our local shop to set this up and, of course, I discovered that I was eligible for an upgrade. The sales rep opened by offering me an iPhone 5, but I thought about it for a minute, and decided I was ready to switch. So, I gave up my iPhone, and am now rocking a Nokia Lumia 920 running Windows Phone 8. (It’s identical to my wife’s, including the color. We have to have different cases, or we mix them up.)

I’ve had the phone for about a week now, and honestly? I freaking love it.

Why? Well, here are a few reasons, starting with one I’ve already mentioned:

The user interface. I’m a fan of touchscreen devices, in part because they work the way I’ve always believed computers are supposed to work. It makes sense to my brain, on a deep and primal level, that the way to move something is to reach out with your hand and move it. I can accept, grudgingly, the idea that peripheral interface devices like mouses or styluses are necessary, but it’s never seemed right. The first time I picked up an iPhone in 2008, though, its user interface metaphor just clicked for me in a way that using a mouse never has. When a friend given a first-gen iPhone quickly became my primary computing device. I stayed with the iPhone for four years, upgrading to a 3GS when my first-gen finally started giving up the ghost, and just recently received an iPhone 4 from the same friend who gave me the first-gen. However, iOS has been moving in a new direction for a little while now, and I’ve grown increasingly disenchanted with it. Part of the problem is that I kept having to change the way I did things to suit my device… and that, as far as I’m concerned, is either a design failure of the first order or a sign that I’m using the wrong device.

The Windows Phone 8 UI, by contrast, is much more adaptable to the way I want to use a mobile device. It’s not perfect, of course, but it offers a remarkably different and, in some ways, superior user experience to the iPhone. The UI invites casual play and exploration, and bespeaks an intentional effort to actually make it fun to use the phone. The design flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that Microsoft’s UIs are clunky, ugly, and user-hostile. In fact — dare I say it? — it’s reminiscent of the early days of OS X and the iPhone, when it was fun to actually just play with these amazing devices. Additionally, I keep finding little details here and there — the way the lock screen shows my next calendar item and how many new emails or text messages I’ve received, the live tiles that display recent activity — that just impress the hell out of me. Then there are the not-so-little details…

The ability to integrate social media services seamlessly into the user experience. I’ll probably catch hell for this, but it’s really nice to be able to check and update Twitter and Facebook natively, without having to use a separate application. Having the live tile on my home screen notify me when someone responds to something I posted? Even nicer, especially since the Facebook application is so… well, keep reading.

The camera. I’m not much of a photographer, but the camera on this thing is holy smoking amazeballs good. Then again, the optics are Zeiss, so, yeah.

The screen. Everything just looks lovely, and movies (yes, on my phone, and don’t judge me) look fantastic.

The form factor. This was a bit close for me, because I’m really used to the size of my 3GS iPhone, and the Lumia 920 is big. No, seriously, it’s a big phone… and strangely, I’ve come to realize that’s a plus. It’s not just that it’s nice to have a big screen; it’s that having a larger working space in which to navigate opens up new ways of using the device. Smartphones aren’t just phones with extra features anymore, as everyone with a smartphone already knows, and they haven’t been that in quite a while. They’ve become miniature tablet PCs that you can also use to make phone calls. As much as I loved it, the iPhone felt very much like a transitional device, and as time marched merrily on, it’s felt increasingly like it was on the wrong side of the transition. The UI and the design of the device feels bound to a point-and-click paradigm, whereas the Windows Phone UI is much more firmly rooted in a tap-and-slide touch paradigm, which needs space to really work. As such, the larger screen makes the phone much easier to use, and reinforces the notion that this really is more of a full-service computing device than a “smartphone.”

And just to keep things in balance, here are a few things I dislike about the new digs:

The battery life. I’ll get this one out of the way first, because it’s both a well-documented issue and it’s honestly the biggest problem I have with the phone at the moment: this thing sucks power like whoa. Mind you, there are ways to mitigate this, but it’s a little irritating to have to adapt to them out of the box. I’d prefer that powersuck apps or background options be opt-in, rather than opt-out.

The dearth of available applications. Apple’s “there’s an app for that” campaign pivots on the fundamental truth that, if you want to do something with your phone, odds are pretty good that someone’s designed an application to do it. In fact, there are applications for the iPhone to do just about any damn thing that can be done with a phone, whether or not it should be. I knew when I switched over that fewer applications had been designed for the Windows Phone, but it was still something of something of a surprise to find that a number of services I use regularly (Spotify, Goodreads, etc.). Of course, I can’t really blame Microsoft or Nokia for that, unless something convinces me they’re to blame, and it’s a fixable state of affairs. Check back with me in a few months and we’ll see where things lie. And speaking of things that need fixing…

The Facebook app. Oh, my sweet isthmus, the Facebook app. On a scale of one to ten, this dog of an app rates about a suck-point-five. Seriously, it’s just stupid. How stupid? Oh, let’s see… how about “reloading the news feed page from the very top of the screen any time you touch on something” stupid? Or “not opening items from the notifications tab” stupid? Or “not accurately counting the number of notifications” stupid? Or “not reloading the app after screenlocking and unlocking” stupid? Or… oh, you get the idea. I’m just glad that I can do most of the things I want to do with Facebook without ever needing to use it. Again, this isn’t Microsoft or Nokia’s fault… though if I were on the Phone 8 team in Redmond, I’d be sorely tempted to call someone at FB and demand they fix this embarrassingly bad app, like, immediately.

And that’s it. Those are the only downsides I’ve encountered at this point, one week on. I have no buyer’s remorse, no feelings of nostalgia for my previous phone, no sense that I made a bad decision. Sure, it’s early days to make the call, and I might discover something that changes my mind, but at the moment, I’m a little squee with excitement. I’m genuinely enjoying the experience of learning the new phone’s , and observing the ways in which its capabilities and particularities change not only how I interact with the device as a mobile device, but how I interact with the Internet itself.  That may sound grandiose, but honestly, I haven’t enjoyed using a computing device this much since… um, since I got my first iPhone.

Huh.  How about that?

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[Postscript: Yeah, I know, this is a lot of self-indulgent blather about techie stuff. Sometimes I do that. I promise I’ll write a post with cute pictures of TARDISes sometime Real Soon Now.]

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