Switching from Android to Windows Phone Part 2: Oddities and Stock Apps
We've already covered the overall impressions of what you may experience should you decide to make the switch from Android to Windows Phone, and now it's time to deal with the meat of the smartphone experience: the apps, including the stock apps, the Marketplace, and Google services you may not want to leave behind. Just as a quick recap, we talked about general impressions and some specific features you may miss in a move from Android to Windows Phone, and the overall impression was quite positive. If apps are the meat of a mobile platform, the UI is the flavor, and Windows Phone tastes good. It's a much more unified and well designed system than Android 2.x, which still dominates the market. Android 4.0 comes a long way, but as we mentioned, ICS is technically the 7th major iteration of Android, while Windows Phone 7.5 is really just the 2nd major iteration of the platform, so WP has something of a headstart in that respect.
Covering the overall wonderful design of Windows Phone was important to hit first, because Microsoft has some pretty strict design standards that filter down throughout the app ecosystem. This makes all of the apps, even the 3rd party apps really feel like they are part of the cohesive WP whole. Android apps can certainly be designed very well, and Android 4.0 has brought a style guide and the Holo theme to help unify the app UI with each other and with the system UI, but Android apps can also have very different designs, and some simply reuse the design of the iOS version of the app. Of course, neither way is necessarily better, it's a matter of preference. If you want the apps to feel like they are part of an extremely well-designed system, Windows Phone may be better, but if you don't mind diverse design and want more hooks into the system, maybe Android is better for you.
Before jumping into the stock apps of Windows Phone, there are a couple oddities of the system to be aware of if you're coming from Android. First is the dedicated Search button that you find on your phone. Unlike the dedicated search button found on many Android devices, the search button found on WP devices is actually a dedicated Bing Search button, which can be useful, but is odd to get used to. With Android, the search button could be used to trigger in-app searches, or a Google search if you're already on the home screen. However, with WP no matter where you are, in-app or on the home screen, the search button launches the Bing Search app, and any in-app searches can only be triggered with the on-screen search buttons found in the app. This can be a bit more confusing because sometimes an app will have a search button in the top right (like the IMDb app), or as an icon at the bottom of the screen. For a system that's so concerned with a unified UI, this is an extra odd bit of inconsistency.
can also be quite frustrating with Windows Phone. First of all, it's not true multitasking where any app can be performing tasks in the background. Rather, it is more of the iOS version of multitasking where certain apps can perform certain functions in the background, but most apps are put into a sleep state in the background. Unfortunately, unlike iOS, it's not as smooth or fast with Windows Phone and you'll end up spending a lot of time watching apps "resuming" from the sleep state, or reloading completely, even if you only exited for a second. And, speaking of exiting apps, you have to be careful how you exit apps if you want them to be present on the app switcher menu. If you use the home button, the app will end up on the app switcher menu, but if you use the back button, the app will disappear from the switcher menu, even if it is still running in the background (like a music app.) Of course, even these habits aren't 100% consistent, because some stock apps will stay in the switcher menu regardless of how you exit them, but 3rd party apps are more likely to disappear. And, the switcher menu is limited to just 5 apps, unlike the image on the right.
The back button also becomes strange with multitasking in WP. The back button's main priority seems to be allowing you to cycle backwards through your app history, and often this can take priority over being an in-app back button. So, if you open IE, then go to the homescreen, then open the People app, the back button will cycle through those three things, and when you get to IE the back button will then work as the IE back button and go through your web history, although IE seems to be one of the few apps where this always works properly. Sometimes, when using the app switcher to jump between apps, the back button won't cycle back through your in-app history (like in a news reader app where you'll drill down from headlines to articles before bouncing out to IE), but rather it will exit the app, forcing you to relaunch the app to regain your place. It's quite confusing and annoying at times.
There are more core apps to the smartphone experience like the phone, contacts, etc., but in switching from Android to Windows Phone there is nothing more central than making the switch from Google to Bing. Sure the mail app may be different, but you can still use Gmail relatively well with Windows Phone, but the switch from Google Maps or Google Search to Bing is one that worries many users, so we wanted to tackle that first. But, we've found there isn't really all that much reason to worry.
Bing Maps are actually really good, and set to get even better when Nokia Maps is folded in for all Windows Phone users. Even so, it's missing quite a lot of the features you may have come to rely on with Google Maps, even though those features may not get a huge amount of use.
The features that are considered maps basics are all there. If you just need to find places or get directions, Bing Maps should be a serviceable replacement and not cause you any problems, and could be even better than Google in some respects. Navigation is well laid out and easy to follow, the only big trouble here is the complete lack of public transportation information, which Google has been doing a great job with. Walking and driving directions are fine, but if you live in a city, not having public transport directions can be frustrating.
The maps are crisp and easily readable, and do a great job of giving a good amount of information without feeling cluttered on a wider zoom level. Unfortunately, you'll notice when you zoom in that popular places aren't surfaced the way they are on Google Maps, so Bing Maps themselves aren't that great for discovering places. But, Microsoft does have a companion app Bing Maps called Local Scout, which will give you quick access to searches for restaurants, tourist spots, things to do, or shopping.
Much like the images offered by Google, Bing Maps is one of those weird spots where it lacks the various extra features of Google Maps, and it's really up to you whether this matters. In general, the extra Google features like biking directions, Street View, or Labs features like downloading area maps or measuring distances may have a much smaller user base, or may be options you use, but not that regularly. So, you may not really notice or mind the missing features there, but if you do rely on some of those features there is a 3rd party Google Maps app, which we'll cover in Part 3 of this series.
Bing Search is the other big difference between Android and WP, and the difference is pretty big just in the way the apps are laid out, and how they work. Google's search app will search not only the web, but your phone and apps on your phone as well, so you can find contacts, bookmarks, messages, or media on your phone from the Google search app, and the results will bounce you to the app you need. You can trigger a Maps search, YouTube search and it'll launch those apps, or if you're doing a web search, all results will be displayed in your default browser, contact results will open the contacts app, etc.
Even though the Bing Search app doesn't include searches of the info on your device, it does have some extra features on Google Search. Bing Search also includes easy access to place searches (aka the Local Scout app), music recognition (like SoundHound or Shazam,) and visual search (like Google Goggles), so you really can get quite a lot of info from the Bing Search app. And, that's one thing that makes the dedicated search button pretty nice, even though as we mentioned it always launches Bing Search and cannot be used for in-app searches.