Hardware makers such as Microsoft (formerly Nokia), BLU, HTC, Samsung and many others sell various Windows Phone handset models in markets around the world, and your options will vary not only by locale—some phones are only sold in the United States, for example—but by wireless carrier. Additionally, these firms have developed ways to differentiate entry-level, mid-level and high-end Windows Phone handsets, with some important features only offered on more expensive mid-level and high-end devices.
Note: This article is excerpted from my e-book, Windows Phone 8.1 Field Guide, which I’m currently writing. During this pre-release period, you can download the book for free in PDF, ePub and Mobi formats from the Field Guide Books web site. Thanks for reading! –Paul
Since the Windows Phone handset market is always changing, and can vary wildly depending on where you live, it doesn’t make sense for me to try and recommend specific devices. But there are a few things you need to consider, more generally, including the wide range of hardware components that you can and will see across the various available phones. You should also seriously consider limiting your choice to Microsoft’s Lumia handsets, as I’ll explain below.
While technology enthusiasts often obsess over and endlessly compare and contrast the minute details of which hardware components are in each phone, Windows Phone somewhat undercuts these concerns. First, Microsoft’s mobile platform is far more efficient than the Android OS that can run on similar devices, so it runs better on lower-end hardware. And second, Windows Phone handsets present a generally consistent set of capabilities across the various device types, with higher-end devices of course differentiating themselves from a specifications standpoint.
With that in mind, here are the hardware components that you should—and should not—factor into your buying decisions.
Processor. While all Windows Phone handsets come with an ARM-based microprocessor of some kind, the number of processor cores and the clock speed of that processor will vary from dual-core and 1.2 GHz clock speeds in entry-level models to quad-core and 2.2+ GHz in mid-level and high-end phones. In theory, more cores and faster clock speeds are better, though there are few real-world differences in day to day use. But some users, including heavy gamers, will benefit from a higher-end processor. That said, the processor is rarely a true differentiator for actual buyers. You’re going to buy the phone you want—or at least a certain type of phone—and get the processor it ships with. It’s not like the PC world, where you can sometimes choose the processor type.
Graphics. Since graphics processing is built into the processors used by all Windows Phone handsets, this is also not a concern for most would-be buyers. Windows Phone provides DirectX-powered graphics support with hardware acceleration for Direct3D.
Display and device size. Windows Phone handsets come in a variety of sizes, with a variety of screen sizes that range from 4-inches to 6-inches. Bigger screens require bigger devices, so the trade-off to the copious real estate is often a bigger, heavy and thicker device. Display size is a personal preference, and I happen to prefer devices with bigger screens. But I find that 5-inches is the sweet spot for displays, and that handsets with larger screens are simply too unwieldy.
Left to right: relative sizes of Lumia 530 with a 4-inch screen, Lumia 830 (5-inches) and Lumia 1320 (6-inches)
Display resolution. Windows Phone supports multiple screen resolutions, including—but not limited to—WVGA (480 x 800), 720p (720 x 1280), WXGA (768 x 1280) and 1080p (1080 x 1920, sometimes called Full HD). As a rule of thumb, the larger resolutions tend to be made available on bigger screens, which somewhat mitigates the presumed advantage of the extra pixels, and on higher-end handsets. But contrary to conventional wisdom, even the supposedly lowly WVGA resolution can look just fine in Windows Phone—depending on the display technology used; see below—with crisp text and clear graphics, thanks to the resolution independent design of the operating system. With very rare exceptions you’d have to be looking for to really see, I’ve found that the display resolution does not matter much, and I have no issues going back to a WVGA screen after using a WXGA-based device.
Display colors. Windows Phone requires a minimum color depth of 16-bits, but all of the real-world handsets I’ve seen—regardless of which part of the market they serve—offer 24-bit color, or 16 million colors. You can consider that the standard, and do not need to generally worry about devices offering poorer color support.
Touch display. All Windows Phone handsets provide a multi-touch screen with at least four touch points. I’m not aware of any handsets that offer more than four touch points, nor is it clear why such a thing would be desirable anyway.
Display technologies. In addition to the size, resolution and color depth of the display, Windows Phone makers are free to use their choice of display hardware technology as well. The screens themselves can range from standard LCD-style displays to AMOLED-type displays that offer more vivid colors and deeper blacks. And there are other differences to keep an eye on, including brightness. Most Windows Phone handsets also utilize some form of Gorilla Glass technology, which helps protect the screen from scratches and, oftentimes, from breaking after a fall. And certain screens can even be touched and used while you’re wearing gloves, a nice addition for those in cold climates. If possible, compare the screens of the devices you’re considered in multiple lighting conditions, especially outside, where most smart phone screens get washed out and can be hard to read (or impossible with sunglasses on). This is an area where device makers try to differentiate, but the options can be confusing. Trust your own eyes.
RAM. Windows Phone handsets must ship with a minimum of 512 MB of RAM for those devices with WVGA (800 x 480) screens, 1 GB of RAM for those with 720p (1280 x 720) and WXGA (1280 x 768) screens, and 2 GB for those with 1080p screens. As a general rule, you will see 512 MB of RAM in low-end phones, 1 GB of RAM in mid-level phones, and 2 GB in high-end phones. Unless you’re specifically buying a very inexpensive handset and can’t afford anything better, you will want a device with at least 1 GB of RAM.
Onboard storage. Windows Phone requires that the device include a minimum of 4 GB of flash memory, or onboard storage. Practically speaking, you will see 4 GB or 8 GB of internal storage on low-end devices, 8 GB or 16 GB on mid-level devices and 32 GB or more on high-end devices. 8 GB is actually fine for light usages, but only if the device is expandable via microSD—see below—which will generally be the case. But if you’re serious about Windows Phone, I recommend 16 GB or more and a device with microSD expansion if possible.
MicroSD storage expansion. Windows Phone devices can optionally provide internal storage expansion of up to 128 GB (depending on model) via a microSD slot that supports either microSD or microSDXC memory cards. With such storage you can optionally configure the device to store music, photos, videos and apps and app data on microSD instead of the onboard storage, and you can add this storage to the device at any time. Oddly, a handful of high-end phones with 32 GB of onboard storage do not support microSD expansion. I recommend getting a device with microSD expansion if possible.
Networking. All Windows Phone handsets support 802.11b/g Wi-Fi-type wireless networking, Bluetooth, and some form of cellular (voice, text, 3G/4G/LTE data) networking, the latter of which will vary by phone, locale, and wireless carrier. 802.11n and 802.11ac networking is optional. Practically speaking, most Windows Phone handset buyers will find their choices limited by the devices made available through their wireless carrier, and each of these devices will support the fastest and most reliable cellular networks provided by that carrier.
Hardware sensors. All Windows Phone handsets provide an accelerometer, as well as GPS navigation with Assisted Global Navigation Satellite System (A-GNSS) support and a vibration motor. All but newer, low-end handsets include a compass and proximity, magnetometer and ambient light sensors. Handset makers can optionally provide a gyroscope sensor as well, which provides more accurate device positioning capabilities and is useful for games and some apps. This is an area where hardware makers can cut costs, and my recommendation is look for devices that have at least an ambient light sensor, which is useful for automatically changing the screen brightness as needed.
NFC. NFC (near field communication) can be used to make secure payments, share items (photos, contacts, documents, and much more; perhaps you’ve seen the ads where users “bump” their phones together) with others who also have NFC-compatible devices, pair more easily with Bluetooth devices (including speakers) and more. NFC is available on many Windows Phone handsets, especially mid-level or high-end devices. Generally speaking, it is a nicety not a requirement, though that will change over time as more NFC-compatible devices emerge.
USB connectivity. All Windows Phone handsets include a micro-USB 2.0 port for charging and PC connectivity.
Headphone jack. All Windows Phone handsets include a headphone jack for headsets and speakers, and all provide support for three-button headsets for phone and media playback capabilities. Note, however, that Windows Phone is not compatibility with iPhone-style headphone controls.
Hardware buttons. All Windows Phone handsets include six hardware buttons (though the latter three can optionally be implemented onscreen in software): Power, Volume Up, Volume Down, Back, Start and Search. A hardware Camera button is optional but preferable. The use of these buttons is discussed in the Windows Phone User Experience chapter.
Camera(s). All Windows Phone handsets ship with a main, rear-facing camera, and device makers can (and usually do) also add a secondary, front-facing camera. Both must be at least VGA quality (640 x 480, or the equivalent of about .3 megapixels), but for the most part you will find rear-facing cameras with 5 megapixels (and better) in low-end devices, 8 megapixels (or better) in mid-level handsets, and 10 megapixels or more in high-end devices. (Front-facing cameras range from VGA to HD resolution.) Megapixels refers to the number of pixels, and is a measure of picture resolution, not quality. Most Windows Phone cameras can be considered “good” or better, while the cameras in most Lumia handsets are “very good” or better.
Wireless charging. Some mid-level and high-end Windows Phone handsets support the Qi wireless charging standard and some others can be expanded with a clip-on shell case that adds this capability. Once you’ve used wireless charging you will never want to go back to old-fashioned USB cables, and I recommend trying to get a device that at least supports this feature as an option.
One or more SIMs. While all Windows Phone handsets support at least one SIM (subscriber identity module) card, which is supplied by your wireless carrier, some support two. This capability is found in some devices aimed at emerging markets, since it facilitates moving between wireless carriers, which is common in such markets. But it can also be used to provide two separate phone numbers on a single device and perhaps enable personal and work calls to use different numbers.
While I’m not a Microsoft spokesperson, it’s important for any potential (or existing) Windows Phone user to understand that when it comes to this market, there is Lumia and then there is everything else. Yes, others firms make Windows Phone handsets and, yes, some of them are even excellent. But where these other firms make most of their profits and sales on Android-based smart phones and consider Windows Phone a minority side-project, only Microsoft’s handset business is “all in” with Windows Phone.
Note: Nokia sold its devices and services businesses—including its Lumia-branded Windows Phone smart phone line to Microsoft in 2014. Though you still see Nokia-branded devices in the market, Microsoft has stopped using the Nokia brand on new Lumia devices.
Some of the advantages to Lumia include:
HERE location apps and services. Microsoft’s Lumia handsets come with a variety of excellent HERE-branded location apps, including HERE Maps, HERE Drive and Drive+, Here City Lens, and HERE Transit. This technology is so good, in fact, that Microsoft made HERE the underlying location services platform for all Windows Phone handsets. So this technology even drives the Bing Maps app on non-Lumia handsets.
Exclusive Lumia apps and services. Aside from the superior HERE apps, Lumias also come with a great selection of exclusive apps (and games), providing Lumia users with a range of content that isn’t available to other Windows Phone users. This includes a wide range of excellent photo apps and popular games like Bejeweled Live+.
Superior camera technology. While some Windows Phone handsets offer decent cameras, the cameras in high-end Lumia devices don’t just trounce the Windows Phone competition, they’re superior to anything available on Android or iPhone, especially in low-light conditions. Put simply, these are the best-overall smart phone cameras available anywhere. That’s true across the Lumia product line, but those who are interested in photography above all else should pay attention to the Lumia 1020, which provides a category-busting 41 megapixel camera with superior optics, or the Lumia 1520, 930 and Icon, each of which includes 20 megapixel units. But even mid-range devices like the Lumia 730/735 and 830 provide excellent cameras.
Hardware accessories. Microsoft is the only Windows Phone maker to support the ecosystem with a wide range of compatible hardware accessories that make your Lumia handset better. These include speakers (with wireless charging built-in), headsets and headphones, wireless chargers of various kinds, portable USB chargers, wireless car chargers, special cases, and much more.
Now, you may be perfectly happy with an HTC handset or whatever. But just be aware of the advantages that Lumia brings to the table. They are considerable.