The T-Mobile experience
Most people don’t know that you can run any AT&T phone on T-Mobile. I know this because I did software development with cell phones in my last two jobs. I was given a bunch of phones, and a bunch of pre-paid SIM cards from T-Mobile and AT&T (or Cingular as we called it back then). As long as your phone uses GSM, you can switch between the two networks without a problem. I had no problem activating my phone. The kids running the T-Mobile booth at the mall were a little skeptical, but everything turned on just fine.
So, why would you want to pick T-Mobile over AT&T?
Well, it’s cheaper for one thing. I rarely get phone calls, so I don’t like being locked into a contract and having to pay through the nose for a service that I almost never use—however, I still need to keep in touch with friends and family.
So, I went shopping for a basic plan. I looked at both AT&T and Verizon first, because they do have the widest coverage. But they were all too expensive, and they were geared toward people that are always texting and talking on their phones. Really, all I need is something to stay connected.
Second, T-Mobile’s data rates more than satisfy the minimum level of service for broadband. I get 15 Mbps download, and a little under 2 Mbps upload. That might sound a little slow compared to the other networks, but two years ago this is what Comcast was offering for its basic cable service. Think about that for a moment. Wireless tech has caught up with cable broadband.
15 Mbps is more than fast enough to stream music. Pandora requires 150 Kbps. That is 1/100th the speed. Netflix requires 3 Mbps for DVD quality, 5 Mbps for HD quality, and 7 Mbps for Super HD. My phone can only display DVD quality, so 3 Mbps is all I really need.
The final reason for picking T-Mobile was that I realized I can get Wi-Fi everywhere I go. My house has Wi-Fi. My work has Wi-Fi. Most restaurants have free Wi-Fi. The mall has free Wi-Fi. Heck, even my church has Wi-Fi. The only time I really need T-Moble’s data service is when I’m on the road and my phone needs to download real-time traffic updates, or when I’m at the supermarket and want to look something up.
As an added bonus, because I bought my phone unlocked I can turn on internet connection sharing. This means that I can use my phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot. This comes in handy when I’m traveling and I need to use my laptop, but I can’t get Wi-Fi.
My only real hiccup came not from T-Mobile, but from Windows Phone. I'd bought the phone off of Amazon from an international dealer. The phone came out of the box speaking Taiwanese. Fortunately, one of the first questions the phone asks you when you start up is what language you speak.
If you want to, you can buy your phone directly from AT&T. Call them up, and ask them politely to unlock the phone. If they get curious, tell them you want to be able to travel overseas and you can't use a locked phone on Europe's networks. You'd like to travel to Europe, wouldn't you?
So, overall, would I describe my experience with T-Mobile as unsatisfactory, satisfactory, or very satisfactory?
I’d describe it as tremendously splendid.
The Windows Phone Experience
I worked at Microsoft in the Windows Mobile division way back in the day, back when Windows Mobile 5 was just coming out (those were halcyon days, before Apple came and stole Microsoft’s lunch). It was 2006, and the biggest complaint was that none of the apps seemed to work together. I could take a picture, but getting that picture off the phone and shared on Facebook was a hassle. I had contact info in Outlook, but getting turn by turn directions on a map-app hadn’t even been invented yet.
All that is different now. Everything is tightly integrated. I can take a photo of my patio furniture after it snows and share it straight to Facebook. I can look up someone in my list of contacts, and with one tap I can get turn-by-turn directions to their house (perfect for when I have to pick up one of my kids at a friend’s house). And then while I’m out running around, I can do a Bing search and find all the nearby fast food restaurants, or gas stations, or the nearest Target. If I don’t want to use the GPS navigation to get there, I can turn on HERE City Lens and use my phone’s camera as a homing device to point me in the right direction.
The world owes Apple a debt of gratitude for inventing the integrated app store. You have one place to search for all apps, then install the ones that you like. In the Windows Phone app store you have reviews and screenshots. The store also keeps track of app updates, and lets you know when you need to download something again. If I see two apps that have four stars, and one app has 23 reviews but the other app has 10,000 reviews, it’s easy to see which one people prefer.
There is also an app called App Social. It works kind of like Twitter, and it allows you to find out what people are using. I’ve used it a little, but I don’t want to spend time building up yet another social network when the app store for Windows Phone shows me everything.
As for the Nokia Lumia 1020, itself, I haven’t been disappointed. It has never felt sluggish or un-responsive. The phone is thicker than most smartphones, but that shouldn’t bother anyone because you really ought to get a protective case and that will add at least an eighth of an inch (4mm) to your phone’s girth.
I like the AMOLED display. It’s perfect for watching movies no matter how you hold it, and I’ve never, ever had trouble using it outdoors (unlike my son’s iPod 5, which is unreadable in direct sunlight).
The camera is really, really nice, and it makes all the difference when showing off your phone. Most Windows Phone conversations go like this:
“Oh, you have a Microsoft phone. What do you think?”
For me, the conversations go like this:
“Oh, you have a Microsoft phone, what do you think?”
“It’s nice. The camera is awesome.” I flip the phone over, and they can see the beefy camera lens.
“Ooooo, let me try!”
Do you see the difference? I’ll never win a bragging war in screen size or pixel density or raw processing horsepower, but people are regularly impressed when I start taking pictures.
It’s a good feeling.
Top Ten things I use the most
10. Surfing the web. I go to NBC News for the news. I also go to The Verge, re/code, and C-Net. Honestly, though, I don’t do a whole lot of web browsing on my phone. A computer screen is much easier to read.
9. Wikipedia. This is awesome if you want to do some quick fact-checking. I have the app pinned to my start page.
8. Casual games. I’ve read all my email. Nothing is happening on Facebook. George Takei is on another social rant (blah-blah, blah-blah…oh, my!!!), and my nieces have filled up my timeline with duck-faced selfies. For such times, I have a plethora of casual games. My favorite three are Spades, Hearts, and Othello. I found an Othello game that will just clobber my butt. I’d love it if I could find 7-Card Stud.
7. Facebook. In the words of Stan Lee, “‘Nuff said.” I use the Facebook app, not the webpage.
6. Email. I can manage different email accounts. Setting up a connection to your email couldn’t be easier. You just give your email address and your password, and let the smartphone figure out all the settings.
5. Texting. My extended family does a lot of texting, so now it’s easier to keep in touch. My phone even does voice recognition, so I can dictate. It works best for short sentences.
4. Music. I am just getting into music on my smartphone. Microsoft worked out a deal with Pandora so that Windows Phone users don’t get any commercials. Very cool. You can also get Nokia MixRadio, which is very nice, and 100% free. With Pandora I find that I get the best experience over Wi-Fi. I also use a Bluetooth headset.
3. Bing music search. This is so cool. I listen to the radio a lot, and I’m always looking for something different. I tap the search icon (the magnifying glass icon), which opens up Bing. Then I tap the music note icon, and my phone listens to whatever is playing. After a couple of seconds it pops up the artist and title of the song. It even keeps a history of all the stuff I’ve searched for, so I can go through it later and update my music collection.
2. GPS and maps, with Bing search. I use this everywhere I go. I use it to check freeway traffic when I’m going to work or coming home. When I’m out running errands, I use it to search for the closest Target, or Staples, or Home Depot. When I want to grab a quick lunch, it will find me someplace to eat. When I have to pick up one of my kids at a friend’s house and the directions are horrid, it takes me straight to their front door. If my wife and I have a date at that fancy restaurant across town and I can’t remember how to get there, all I do is look it up.
1. The camera. I bought this phone because I wanted a camera, and it’s been awesome. It has macro-focus and zoom capabilities that will best any point and shoot camera for under $200. Back when digital cameras were just becoming popular (around 2002), a friend told me to get a camera that’s small. Why? Because if it’s small, then you’ll take it with you, and if you have it with you then you’ll take more pictures.
Nokia invested hard in making the camera experience superior on their phones, and they did a superior job. The 41 megapixel camera means I can zoom in to 2.5X and I still have a 5 megapixel image. It has a macro focus setting that allows me to get 4 inches away from my subject. With the digital zoom I can get down to an area just over two inches wide. It has a Xeon flash and an LED flash, too.
And there are tons of camera apps. My favorite is Nokia Re-focus. This app takes a bunch of pictures at various focal settings, and then it allows you to change which object you’re focused on. Nokia smart-cam allows you to pick the best shot, remove moving objects in the background, and do a bunch of other photo enhancements. And then there’s Nokia Glam Me, for all those duck-faced selfies you want to take.
Things that I thought would bother me, but don’t
The display is only 768x1280. There is only one reason I think having a retina-quality display (300dpi or greater) is useful, and that’s for reading e-books. After reading one e-book on my smartphone I don’t think I’ll ever do that again. If I wanted to get serious about reading e-books, I’d get something with a 10-inch high-res display.
Thick and clunky profile. Let’s face it, this phone is not slim. The camera sticks way out the back, and even without the camera, this phone would be still thicker than most of the older Android phones. However, I bought this phone because of the camera, and for that reason alone it’s perfect.
Also, I never planned on buying a smartphone without getting a protective case. I’ve seen people sporting cases that are a half-inch thick. A friend of mine has an iPhone with an Otter-box, and it’s huge.
You want to get a case, no matter what kind of smartphone you get. People drop their phones all the time. I tried using my son’s iPod 5 before I bought my Lumia 1020, and I kept dropping it. I’m impressed that Apple and Samsung can make such thin and tiny devices, but there comes a point when it’s too small and too light.
I got a really nice case by Speck, from Amazon. The camera lens protrudes through a hole in the back, but the case's protective thickness smooths out the 1020’s profile. Now it’s easy to grip, it doesn’t slide around when I set it down, it doesn’t slip out of my pocket accidentally—and if I drop it I’m not suddenly out $600 to buya new phone.
The App Store. I’ll be honest, the app store surprised me. I found a ton of GPS apps, all of which are better in some way than HERE Drive+. I found a Wikipedia app that just rocks. I got a flashlight app, a dictionary app, an app for my bank account, and an app to take notes that will do voice dictation. I even got an app that uses Google maps to show what the traffic on the freeway is like. There are only two apps I wish I could get, but neither of them are something I really need. There is no iHeart Radio app (BOOOO!), and I can’t get a decent Poker app.
I’ll be honest, there aren’t as many apps as you can find for Android and Apple. I get annoyed when I go to a website and they say they have an app, but I can’t get it for Windows Phone.
But all the really cool apps are there. Vine. Pinterest. Facebook. Netflix. Wikipedia. Instagram. WhatsApp.
You can’t find accessories. This is true, but it’s also a lie. You just have to know where to look.
I won’t deceive you. There is a tremendous community (especially in the US) around Apple and Android. Just walking through a shopping mall I’ll pass kiosk after kiosk of people hawking phone covers, screen protectors, Bluetooth gadgets. You can get anything if you have an Apple device. You can get nearly anything if you have a more recent Samsung device.
If you want something for your windows device you still have lots of choices, but you have to know where to go. If you want to get up and go to a brick and mortar store then your best bet is your local Microsoft store. I live in Salt Lake City, and they have a really nice one downtown, at City Creek Center. It’s not as huge as the Apple store (which is just down the promenade), but there is plenty of stuff to see and it’s always busy in there.
Most people don’t have a Microsoft store near them, so your best bet is Amazon. You can get anything on Amazon. The next time I have some spending money I’ll go there and get a dashboard mount for my car.
I also got my protective case on Amazon. A friend of mine has an iPhone 5S with a really nice case, made by Speck. He pulled it out of his pocket and tossed it across a hardwood floor. After I recovered from my initial shock I went and picked it up for him. Not a single crack or scratch. So, now I have a nice case by Speck.
Here are my gripes, in order of “irked-ness”, for lack of a better word.
Drive+. I have a love-hate thing with Drive+. This is the one area that I wish Nokia and Microsoft would get together and tighten things up.
- Why can’t I tap a street corner and have a menu pop up with an option that says “Drive to here”?
- When I save a location to my favorites, why can’t I give the location a name?
- Show bigger fonts and wider streets so I can tell at a glance where I’m going while I’m driving. I can’t take my eyes off the road long enough to read the tiny, tiny text.
- Why won’t it show me alternate routes and let me pick? There are probably five good ways I can get to and from work. It would be cool if it would flag some routes as green and others yellow or red based on traffic conditions. I want the app to give me some feedback so I know why it picked the route that it did.
There are a ton of turn-by-turn apps for Windows Phone. I use one called CoPilot GPS. It addresses a lot of my concerns, but the turn-by-turn directions aren’t anywhere near as good as Drive+.
The people app. It’s not a “Contacts” app any more, it’s now the “People” app. I can get used to that, but why did it have to import all my Facebook contacts? Facebook is great for keeping in touch with people I haven’t seen in 30 years, but I don’t need their info on my phone. Facebook is also great for following people like local authors and musicians, but again, I don’t want these people in my contact list. And then there’s all the younger relatives on Facebook that I don’t want to un-friend but I do want to un-follow because the clutter my timeline with banal selfies and teen-age melodrama. I don’t want those people in my contact list, either. Is it too much to ask to have an “Exclude this person” feature?
The camera apps don’t use flash. The main camera app uses flash and it takes great pictures. So why then do none of the add-on camera apps (and there are a ton) use the flash? If you’re in a low-light area then you pretty much need to use the main camera app. Nokia Smart Cam and Nokia Refocus don’t work as well.
The compass. For some reason my apps keep complaining that the compass needs to be calibrated. “Move your phone in a figure 8 pattern,” the message says. I finally found a diagram that showed an infinity pattern—not an 8. Geez, why didn’t you just show me a picture…
The bezel could be thinner and the display larger. When you put this phone side by side with a Galaxy S4, you can see what a difference a thin bezel makes. It would be really cool if they made it 1/8th of an inch larger all around. My biggest complaint with ALL smartphones in general is the tiny tiny screen. The first phone I’ve seen to really address this problem is the Galaxy S4.
No SD card slot. Seriously? Why? Ugh.
No NFC. To get NFC I need to buy a plastic cover that snaps over the back. The cover doesn’t offer any kind of protection, so it seems like a waste. Nokia says that it didn’t want to add NFC because it would make the phone thicker. What? With the camera lens, this phone is already—by far—the thickest smartphone on the market. Maybe NFC would have made the main body thicker but I don’t see how that would make a difference with the camera lens bulging out the back. Honestly, though, I haven’t needed to use NFC. So, whatever.
I can’t lay my phone down flat. Even with the nice grippy-case from Speck, my phone still slides around when I set it down. This is because of the camera lens. Just a nit-picky thing, but it’s a trade-off. I want the camera, so I just have to be careful where I set my smartphone down.
Top three smartphone fails
Let’s talk about some things that a smartphone just sucks at. These are problems that I would have if I’d bought any smartphone.
The e-reader. Can I just say that using your phone as an e-reader is a lame idea? The screen is just too small. You can only see a FOURTH of what you could see if you were holding an actual paperback. I read The Hound of the Baskervilles. I was constantly flipping pages, and the text was too small. There’s something about the way you can just thumb through a paperback and browse that I’ve never been able to do with an e-reader.
My recommendation: get a tablet, or a netbook, or a dedicated e-reader. Get something with a 10-inch, high-resolution screen (1920x1080). Also, get something that can prop itself up and won’t fall over when you tap the screen.
Watching TV or movies. Netflix works great, but watching movies on your smartphone only makes sense if you can’t get a bigger device. The screen is too small to see what’s going on when there’s a lot of action. The speakers are just too tinny to hear what’s going on if there’s a lot of noise. On top of all that, you have to hold the thing in your hands or find some way to prop it up. Using a dedicated speaker or a good-quality Bluetooth headset helps a little, but the only time I find TV and movies enjoyable is if I’m doing something else and I just want the TV on for noise.
My recommendation: anything with a 10-inch screen that can stand up on its own, and won’t fall over when you tap the screen. My wife watches Netflix all the time on my netbook.
Serious gaming. This one kind of goes without saying. I’ve tried a bunch of games on my smartphone. I downloaded a racing game, but I could never get the hang of it. I downloaded Halo: SA Lite. It was really cool, but I could never get into it.
Let’s face it, gaming on a smartphone is something you do to fill time—and only after you’ve read all your emails, and checked Facebook for the eleventh time. Casual gaming on a smartphone is great. I like card games like Hearts and Spades. I like Mahjong Solitaire, and Othello, and Cut the Rope. Angry Birds is great—but again, the really small screen makes it a little harder to play I noticed this even on my son's iPod 5.
My recommendation: if you’re seriously into gaming, use a PC, an X-Box, or a Playstation. At the very least, get a tablet.
Owning a Windows phone is a little lonely. I feel like the little brother that no one wants to play with. I feel like I’m at this super-cool party with great music and great decorations and great food, but no one is there.
That is slowly changing.
First of all, there always has been, and always will be a ton of interest around Microsoft. I’ve never been to a Microsoft store that wasn’t crowded or at least a little busy. Last night I was at a shopping mall in Murray, Utah. My wife and I were walking around as everyone was closing up. As we passed the Microsoft store (it’s more of a Microsoft kiosk, really), they were still helping people.
An article on C-Net shows that Microsoft and Nokia had strong sales for Q4 of 2013. Windows Phone has consistently grown over the last year. It is now the third largest OS, pretty much anywhere in the world. In most places its market-share doubled throughout 2013.
Another article from GSM Arena has more good news. There are 17 countries where Windows phone ships more than iPhone, and there are 14 countries where Windows Phone is the #2 OS.
So, I’m hopeful for the future.