An iPhone fan’s month with Windows Phone: Week two

Lex Friedman, TechHive
26 March, 2013
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Last time, I chronicled my early thoughts after a week with Windows Phone – specifically, the Lumia 920 that I’m using full-time, having locked away my iPhone 5. I wrote than that I was pleasantly surprised by many elements of the phone, and that’s still true. But two weeks in, I’m also feeling frustrated by a few of Windows Phone’s shortcomings.

No ’tifications

I previously lamented that Windows Phone lacks an equivalent to iOS’s Notification Center, but I’ve realised since then that it’s an even bigger issue. Notifications are plagued with problems.

If you miss banner alerts, there’s no way to find out what they were, because there’s no roll-up of your accumulated notifications. Many notifications seem to use the same stock sounds, so it’s often not possible to determine which app is notifying you unless you look at the phone’s screen; and, if you don’t look fast enough, you may never know. Only one app can offer “detailed” notifications on the lock screen, and even those are often minimally useful: For example, if you choose to have the mail app occupy that spot, all you’ll see is the subject line from a single email.

The rest of my apps must content themselves with an icon and counter on the lock screen, so I might know that I’ve received three text messages, or that I have four Facebook alerts – but there’s no information about what they are unless I unlock the phone and launch the appropriate app. And as soon as I do so, any other lock screen icon notifications are wiped out.

Worst of all, some apps that support notifications don’t support even the tiny lock screen icon alerts. So if I miss a Twitter direct message when it first arrives, the lock screen shows no indication at all that said message is waiting for me in the Rowi app.

It also seems that Windows Phone receives notifications slower than my iPhone. Some of that may be an issue with the developers behind certain apps, whose server resources may be constrained. But my Mac and iPad regularly receive notifications from App.net, Twitter, and Facebook before the Lumia 920 does. And sometimes, the Windows Phone seems to miss out on notifications entirely. iOS fares far better on this front.

Talk to the phone

Oh, how I miss Siri.

On my iPhone 5, I’m a Siri power user. I believe that Siri and Google Now have successfully demonstrated that many common mobile tasks are faster to complete with speech.

Windows Phone’s TellMe, however, is lagging behind.

There are numerous annoyances with TellMe. On my iPhone, I can hold down the Home button at any time, even if the phone is locked, to prompt Siri to listen. With Windows Phone, I need to first wake up the phone, and then press and hold the Windows Phone button. That’s a minor grievance, but as someone who is eager to turn to speech-controlled actions throughout the day, it’s only exacerbated by its repetition.

Once I do successfully get Windows Phone listening, there’s a new problem: It just can’t do that much. The supported stock actions are limited to just a few: Call, Open (an app), Text, Note (which saves the text you speak to One Note), and Find, which performs web and business searches.

Before I criticise this limited set of actions, I should point out that with at least one of them, Windows Phone outshines Siri: I can say, “Call Andy Ihnatko on speaker” to my Lumia and it does the right thing; I’ve long wished my iPhone could do the same.

But the rest of the built-in TellMe options are mediocre at best. On the iPhone, I can tell Siri, “Text my wife; tell her I’m on my way home.” TellMe can’t handle that. Instead, every text is a multi-step process: “Text Lauren,” I say. Then Windows Phone prompts me to indicate what I’d like to say. Only after that’s transcribed can I instruct TellMe to send the message. The extra round of speaking, followed by waiting for the transcription and interpretation, gets tiresome.

TellMe doesn’t seem interested in letting me offer up punctuation, either. With Siri, I can say things like, “Hey Lauren comma I’m bringing home Chinese exclamation point.” Say that to Windows Phone, and you’ll get something like this:

To its credit, Windows Phone does automatically add in proper terminating punctuation on its own – or at least it tries to. If TellMe determines that you’re asking a question, it uses a question mark; otherwise, it uses a period. That’s really not enough, though. The best TellMe can do is a full stop at the end of a text like this one: “Please pick up the following things while you’re at the supermarket milk eggs donuts thanks so much honey I love you.” That’s disappointing.

I want to schedule reminders, send emails, book appointments, and get sports scores and weather forecasts with my voice; Windows Phone won’t let me. When it doesn’t understand what I want, TellMe immediately goes to perform a web search, which is annoying, too; I finally get why Siri asks for confirmation before it launches one.

One theoretical advantage of Windows Phone is that third-party apps can register speech triggers with TellMe. So I can say “Rowi new tweet” or “Weather Flow current location.” That launches the appropriate app, ready to help me accomplish the task in question, but the spoken instruction feels clunky, and the interactions can’t approach Siri’s speed at the same actions.

There are a few third-party apps for Windows Phone that aim to offer a fuller, Siri-like experience. I use Ask Ziggy for reminders now, though it’s a far cry from Siri paired with the Reminders app. For one thing, you need to launch the app, instead of holding down a button. Its transcription and interpretation are accurate, but slow. It takes a somewhat odd, tile-based approach to reminders; if you have more than nine, new ones are added off the bottom of the screen. And it takes a whole lot of presses of the Back button to return to the screen where you can give another vocal instruction.

Ask Ziggy can handle a lot of other actions though, including calendar-related tasks, emails, directions, and more. Many aren’t handled especially deftly, however.

A newer, similar app is Maluuba. It’s very good, and incorporates many of Siri’s features, though sports aren’t available, and its movie knowledge is limited. In its first few days, Maluuba’s servers were overwhelmed and I couldn’t get consistent results from the app. I’ll be making it my default alternate Siri next week, in large part because it can actually handle this command: “Text my boss I’m on my way.”

The keyboard

As I wrote last week, I love how the Lumia 920’s big screen allows more room for the keyboard. The keyboard does a lot well. For example, I appreciate the predictive text: Based on both the characters you type and the words you use, Windows Phone offers up suggestions for which words you might be looking to type next. Tap a suggestion from above the keyboard, and the word is instantly inserted, along with a trailing space. Tap a punctuation mark and Windows Phone is smart enough to realise that it should go right up against the last word, automatically removing the unnecessary space.

Still, the Windows Phone keyboard frustrates me, because it has the potential to be much better than iOS’s keyboard, yet squanders much of it. One big problem is that Windows Phone doesn’t trust itself enough: As you type, if it’s certain that your typo-laden word is meant to be something else, Windows Phone will autocorrect the word when you hit space. But it’s too often not comfortable enough making the correction on its own; instead, you must tap on the correct word above the keyboard. Trust yourself, Windows Phone! Of course by “vimputer” I meant “computer,” buddy! Don’t second guess.

Part of the problem is that Windows Phone punishes fast typists. If I type “vimputer” and wait a beat, Windows Phone autocorrects it. But when I’m typing quickly, and move onto the next word right away, the mistake goes uncorrected. What’s more, I find it difficult when using the dark theme (white text on a black background) to distinguish between a bolded suggestion (which means it will be used as an automatic correction) and a regular one (which will vanish as soon as I tap space, without automatically fixing the word in question).

With a little algorithmic fine-tuning, Windows Phone’s keyboard could blow iOS’s out of the water. Right now, though, typing is my least favourite part of my Windows Phone experience, and that’s after two weeks of keyboard adjustment time. And those typing issues only increase my frustration with TellMe and its limitations.

Onward

Though I’ve focused primarily on complaints in this installment, I maintain that there’s a lot to like with Windows Phone. The Me and People tiles are very clever – and decidedly un-Apple-ish – and I’ll devote them the attention they deserve next week. But I’ll also complain about the built-in email app, because it’s starting to get on my nerves.

 

By Lex Friedman, TechHive.
Lex uses a MacBook Pro, an iPhone 5, an iPad mini, a Kindle 3, a TiVo HD and a treadmill desk, and loves them all. His latest book, a children’s book parody for adults, is called “The Kid in the Crib.” Lex lives in New Jersey with his wife and three young kids. Follow Lex on Twitter: @lexfri

 

 

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