Is the cost of Windows Phone 8.1 performance too high?

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Windows phone has long had the reputation for running great on all things. It’s that reputation that in most editors’ opinions makes the 50ish dollar Lumia 520 a virtual steal. Here you have a phone that would barely tread water with Android, and probably even iOS on it, and with Windows phone, it’s doing laps in an Olympic sized pool.

When Windows Phone 8.1 came out, there was much rejoicing. Cortana was far and away the star of the show, but numerous other features – a notification center and live tile backgrounds in particular – made this new update so great because it really caught up to the other kids on the playground and surpassed them in many ways.

But then some interesting news started rolling in. Suddenly, reports were stating that Windows Phone 8.1 was slower than Windows Phone 8. Even our own Adam Lein commented that some parts of Windows Phone 8.1 on the Lumia 630 seemed slower than on its predecessors. But it wasn’t just Adam, there were others who had similar notes.

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Well, I suppose that makes sense and for a couple of different reasons. First of all, Windows Phone 8.1 is a more robust operating system. It takes a lot of work, from a processor’s point of view, to store and instantly access all your notifications when you pull down that shade. It’s a bit of a haul to make those tiles transparent and do a parallax effect on the live tiles. I’m not saying it’s a ton of work, but it’s more than not having to do it.

Another fact, which Adam points out in his review, is that many of the features in Windows Phone 8.1 had to be re-written as independent apps, as opposed to cooked into the OS itself. This is a very good thing, because it allows for independent app updates instead of requiring a full OS update, just to put the shuffle all feature to the music player. Thank goodness that won’t require a full OS update when Microsoft finally adds that. Right, Microsoft? You’re adding it, right?

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So, it’s great that we can explain all this. More features, more frequent updates to core apps – all good things right? Right. We’ve established that. Now, we have to look at the timing. Because the timing…it ain’t so good, boss.

We are at a time right now, when emerging markets are critical to a platform’s success. Emerging markets that generally will be looking to go cheap or go home. Considering this has traditionally been a strength of Windows Phone, that spells good things for the company. But, if recent updates have suddenly made Windows Phone not so good on the low-end hardware, what does that mean for the phones emerging markets are going to be buying? Will they just suffer through a poor experience? Or will those low-end phones just not get those updates?

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What’s more, Android is starting to solidly emphasize its low end hardware compatibility. Kit Kat was designed specifically to run better on low-end hardware, although truthfully, I’d say that’s more a concession to mid-range hardware. I still haven’t met a low-end Android phone I’d carry (The Moto G is really close though). But, Android has already dominated the high end market and is now moving into mid-to-low end hardware as a way of expanding its territory. For Windows phone, that is its main territory. If Windows Phone is “sabotaging” that market with an operating system that isn’t better than Android in terms of performance, I don’t think I need to spell it our any more than that. But If I do, let me know. I made flash cards.

Lumia520Of course, it needs to be mentioned here that I did come across an article that points out that Windows Phone 8 versus Windows phone 8.1 is very much a see-saw battle with Windows Phone 8.1 out dueling its predecessor in a few categories of benchmark tests. But at the same time, we need to mention that those tests were run on Lumia Icons – top of the line hardware where 1.2 seconds to launch an app is shorter than 1.5 seconds, but who really gives a crap? We’re talking about low-end hardware here where every cycle of that processor is gold.

All that being said, until I see a Lumia 520 with Windows Phone 8.1 versus a Lumia 520 with Windows Phone 8 comparison video, I’m inclined to believe the reviews that I’ve read that say Windows Phone 8.1 feels a bit slower. I’m also willing to forgive the “slower” part because of the preceding “a bit” part. But I am going to caution Microsoft not to put their muddy boots up on the table it eats from. Muddying the waters of the low-end market with new features for the OS is a very slippery slope. Tread carefully.

Or as I often tell my kids – “You’re forgiven…this time.”

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About The Author
Adam Doud
Adam joined the tech world after watching Jon Rubenstein demo the most epic phone ever at CES 2009. He is webOS enthusiast, Windows Phone fan, and Android skeptic. He loves the outdoors, is an avid Geocacher, Cubs/Blackhawks fan, and family man living in Sweet Home Chicago, where he STILL hosts monthly webOS meetups (Don’t call it a comeback!). He can be found tweeting all things tech as @DeadTechnology, or chi-town sports at @oneminutecubs.Read more about Adam Doud!