Sunday, 16 June 2013

Moving to Windows Phone 8 with Google

My LG P500 Android phone has finally slowed to an unusable crawl. Even a Cyanogenmod ROM couldn't revive its performance once I had loaded the modest collection of apps I use. For the money it was a great phone that gave two years of good service, but it has now come to the point that I can't reliably unlock the screen as it would forget the first part of the pattern half way through me drawing it.

I've been interested by what Microsoft have been doing and had a few Windows Phone (WP) using friends recommend the experience. Given that I'm deeply embedded in Google's services and the two technology companies seem to be engaged in an ecosystem war this might be a stupid idea, but with the reasonably cheap Nokia Lumia 520 I thought it would be worth taking a chance.

Here's what I've had to do so far to make the switch from Android to WP8.

When you first turn on the phone you can't avoid creating a Microsoft account, but once you've done that you are given the option of adding a Google account to sync e-mail, calendar and contacts. If you've enabled IMAP connections in your GMail preferences this should work.

First item of business is getting an authenticator app so that I can continue to easily use Google's 2-step authentication. Luckily Microsoft's own Authenticator works perfectly with Google (something they should really mention in the app's description). Just scan the 2D barcode when choosing 'Move to a different phone' in Google's security preferences section. You can also us it for Microsoft's own 2-step log-in process.

My Google Contacts appeared fine, as did my main Google Calendar. To get my others calendars to work, including shared ones, you have to log into your Google account from the phone in the browser. Then navigate to https://m.google.com/sync/settings/iconfig/welcome?source=mobileproducts&hl=en and choose which calendars you want to enable (HT to Gigaom).

On that Google Sync settings page you can also enable ' "Send Mail As" option for this device', which means if you use GMail to send e-mails on behalf of your own domain instead of the usual @gmail address it will use the default Send As address you've specified. This is fine for one sending alias, but if like me you have multiple addresses at the same domain that you wish to 'send as' you can't do this from the WP8 e-mail app like you can from the Android GMail app. At the moment the only way to do this I've found is to log into the GMail mobile site from Internet Explorer, which is not a very satisfying solution.

In the WP8 e-mail app your GMail labels appear as different folders, with the All Mail folder being the Archive. You can choose which folders to sync on the phone, but avoid syncing All Mail unless you want every e-mail in your inbox to appear twice (once in Inbox and once in All Mail). It's possible to search your whole GMail archive from the phone by using the search button, but you have to tap 'search more in Google Mail' and then 'search all folders' after you've entered your search term to get results for everything, making searching a bit long winded.

Most of the commons apps I used on my Android phone to exist on WP8, with Kindle, Spotify, Shopping List, Skype and Podcaster being successful drop-ins for the their Android equivalents. The YouTube app seems to just be a thin layer over launching Internet Explorer to view the relevant YouTube page, but all the videos I've tried to watch have worked without a problem.

There is also a Facebook app, but the stable one is a bit limited and only sorts the feed by 'most recent'. If like me you don't check into Facebook very frequently the new beta version is probably a better choice as I rely on the filtering of 'top stories' to show me the most interesting events. The beta looks a lot more like the Android app, but I occasionally found it refreshing unexpectedly and jumping between messages in a thread without warning.

RSS reading is nicely handled by Nextgen Reader and allows for offline reading and syncing reads back to Google Reader. Like my preferred Android RSS reader (gReader Pro) they'll be moving to some replacement service when Google closes Reader at the end of July, probably Feedly (which doesn't appear to have a native WP8 app).

At the time of writing the biggest missing app for me is a Pocket reader that can download stories for offline reading when I don't have reliable signal.

Pocket itself doesn't have an app and none of the various third-party apps really worked for me: Burn After Reading would crash while trying to sync some stories; Metropaper only loads some random subset of unread articles; TimeToRead couldn't display all the articles and requires you to manually save each article offline (plus no scroll bar in article view) and Pouch needed to authenticate my Reader log-in every time I opened it and doesn't seem to have offline reading. Some of these might be functions of the trial versions, but no-where could I find a warning of this. I hope Pocket develops their own app soon.

So far I'm pretty happy with the Windows Phone experience; with the exception of the limited 'send as' ability and lack of decent Pocket app. I'll try and do a real review in August once I've had a chance to use it regularly and by which time Google will have switched off the Exchange Active Sync support and the syncing will be done via other services, which might have an impact on how well some features work.