As I’ve recently learned, switching platforms isn’t always a buttery-smooth experience. While it may not cost as much as is generally believed, and the app gap between Windows Phone and its competition is closing (albeit still with a long way to go), it’s the change in the day-to-day user experience that’s most jarring. This is particularly true when moving to a platform like Microsoft’s, which features a user interface that’s very unique– and as a result, not as easy for some to adapt to.
Several weeks have passed since my adoption of a Nokia Lumia 920 as my daily driver– plenty of time to experience both the highs and the lows of Windows Phone 8 ownership. Fortunately, the highs -responsive and fresh-faced UI; innovative hardware features; vibrant user community- have been compelling enough for me to seek out solutions to the lows, rather than letting them overcome the experience.
Here then, for your perusal, are my solutions to the top five frustrations I’ve encountered during the switch to Windows Phone. Some of these will be familiar to longtime readers, while others may be new revelations. Whether you took advantage of crazy Black Friday deals to get your hands on a $50 Lumia 920, or made the leap to a Windows Phone 8X or Nokia Lumia 810 instead, maybe one or two of these homespun solutions will help you out.
Use the Me and People Hubs
This is something that hasn’t changed much since the early days of Windows Phone 7, but it’s still hard to get used to, even for someone like me who’s used Windows Phone devices as his daily driver before.
The inclination, when you’re coming from another platform like iOS or Android, is to mentally silo your interactions within apps: your Facebook wall comments, status updates, event invites, etc. are stored in the Facebook app, and you open that app to get to them. Your Twitter mentions, retweets, etc. are encapsulated within the Twitter app, so that’s where you go to see them. And so on.
That’s possible on Windows Phone -the same apps are available, after all- but there’s a much better, cleaner means to access your social media: the Me and People hubs.
In the former -whose tile is graced by your current Facebook profile picture- wall posts, mentions, comments, and anything else addressed to you is collected in one stream and presented in chronological order. New notifications are displayed on the hub’s live tile, which flips periodically to give you a peek at their contents.
In the latter, the People hub, sits the happenings from everyone else: status updates, tweets, and other posts appear in aggregate form from Twitter and Facebook, again in descending chronological order. You can arrange them based on What’s New or by recently-active people, and in Windows Phone 8 this hub also includes the new Rooms functionality for group communication.
It’s a little counterintuitive at first, especially tapping on your own face to see notifications addressed to you. It also has its irritating hangups: there’s no way to Like a comment someone leaves on your status, and there’s also no auto-completion of usernames or hashtags in Twitter, to say nothing of multiple-user support. Once you get the hang of it, though, it’s a much more efficient means of scrolling through your feed for light use. For heavier integration, once again: the apps are there.
Use Live Tiles to Build Your Own Notification Center
I wrote a piece on this a couple weeks ago, but in brief: Microsoft ran out of time when it tried building a unified notification center into Windows Phone 8. As a result, the platform lacks a central dumping ground for all notifications, like the top-down “drawer” pioneered by Android and rather shamelessly copied by Apple. In Windows Phone, alerts appear along the top of the screen as “Toast notifications,” but once they disappear, they’re gone for good.
On the bright side, most apps that feature notification support also build that support into their live tiles. With the new resizable tiles allowing many more of them to fit on the same screen real estate, it’s possible to build your own notification center wherever on your home screen you want it. The down sides are significant: you still need to devote space on your screen to alerts, space that could be used to greater effect by other apps. Also, not all apps feature live tile support, so sometimes notifications really do vanish forever if you miss them, at least until you open the app they came from. So I no longer agree with my weeks-old premise that Windows Phone 8 doesn’t need a notification center; it does. But the current solution fits well within the UI paradigm of Windows Phone, and as a result isn’t as onerous as it would otherwise be.
Do the Electric Slide
In my initial encounter with Nokia Maps, I found it laughably inept compared to its Google-provided competition. Tapping on a point of interest gave me a screen with only the barest essentials, such as address, phone number, and -if it was a business- a website. Where, I thought, were the photos? The reviews? The pieces of crowd-sourced information that made Maps apps great?
I’m still not at all convinced that the Maps experience is great on any platform, let alone Windows Phone. But my initial problem in this case wasn’t with Maps, but with me. I’d forgotten a principal tenet of the Windows Phone platform: sliding panels.
When you open an app in Windows Phone, the app flies into view very quickly. In that opening animation, it displays several panes of information that clearly don’t fit onto the screen in their entirety. In fact, once the app arrives in frame, you can see bits of the off-screen components along the sides: often this takes the form of cropped text, or the edges of icons. That’s your cue to swipe to the right or left, to expose more of the relevant app.
Again, this is nothing new: it’s been a component of the platform since launch day over two years ago. But it’s something that’s easy to forget if you’re coming from more conventional operating systems. Remember: if you’re not getting the options or information you need, just try a swipe to the right or left. Odds are, you’ll find the added features you’re looking for.
Maybe Your Princess is in Another Castle
Perhaps, though, swiping left and right doesn’t get you what you’re looking for. Maybe you’re in an app, expecting some functionality that’s just not showing up. Maybe, you think, it’s just not a feature that’s supported on Windows Phone. Given the gap that still exists between Windows Phone and its competition, you may be right – but you also just might be looking in the wrong place.
That’s what I found when trying to use the Nokia Maps functionality to find pizza places in New York city a few feeks back. When a Maps search yielded almost no useful results despite my being mired in a sea of red-white-and-green kiosks of cheese-and-tomato goodness, I knew something was wrong. It wasn’t until some helpful commenters pointed out the Local Scout functionality, though, that I got the hang of how Windows Phone wanted me to look for nearby attractions.
It’s not the most convenient thing ever, but sometimes the functionality you’re used to from one platform’s app hasn’t been removed in Windows Phone; it’s just been relocated to another app.
Look Around and Poke at Stuff
Like all mobile platforms, Windows Phone isn’t the most transparent about every feature and capability it contains. The status bar is a great example of this; icons like the clock, signal strength indicator, and WiFi talisman remain hidden most of the time to preserve the Modern UI’s minimalistic look. Only those who’ve read the user manual -or watched a review or two- know that a downward swipe from the top bezel reveals those bits of data.
These are the useful tidbits that can also be revealed by the digital equivalent of an aimless wander through the scenery. Pressing and holding things, a longtime iOS and Android staple, is another fun trick, presenting context sensitive menus when employed against software objects. Even more revealing, though, is deploying the press-and-hold approach on the capacitive and physical keys: doing so on the Back button brings up the multitasking view. A long-press on the home button activates voice input. A press and hold on the shutter button in standby mode launches the camera.
These aren’t involved tricks, hot secrets, or even PROTIPs, and some of them aren’t even unique to Windows Phone. But most of them are useful to all kinds of users, be they tech-savvy customers migrating from another platform, or dumbphone refugees experiencing their first taste of the smartphone lifestyle. There’s a lot of convenience to be found in Windows Phone; hopefully some of the above has helped you expose a bit more of it. If you feel like there’s something I missed (and there’s always a few somethings), share your best Windows Phone practices in the comments below.
Adam Z Lein contributed to this editorial.