Assessing the Current State of Windows Phones

Posted on July 17, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Windows Phones with 0 Comments

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In 10 days I’m heading to France for our annual home swap, and the timing couldn’t be worse: Microsoft launches Windows 10 two days after our departure, so I’m going to miss that. And the software giant is in a transitionary period with Windows phones, promising future flagships while fielding a middling array of low-end and mid-level handsets. What’s a Windows phone fan to do?

So far this year, my strategy has amounted to purchasing the most recent flagship, the Lumia 930, which shipped in July 2014, a full year ago. As you probably know, however, I live in the United States, and the Lumia 930 was never released here. That meant purchasing an international unlocked version from Expansys—no worries there, I’ve always had great success with that site—but also that I would not get LTE speeds here at home; international unlocked phones don’t generally support the GSM LTE bands found here in the US. (I’m on AT&T.)

This kind of compromise is sadly typical for Windows phone fans today. But it also only touches the tip of the iceberg when it comes to compromise.

For example. We haven’t seen a flagship device here in the US since February 2014, when Nokia announced the Lumia Icon (essentially a CDMA-based version of the 930 sold only through Verizon), but that phone isn’t even available anymore. Worse, it’s on Verizon. If you’re on AT&T, which you should be if you live in the US and you care about Windows Phone, there hasn’t been a flagship release since November 2013 when the Lumia 1520 first shipped. Of course, the 1520 is a humongous 6-inch phablet; if you’re looking for a more normally-sized flagship you have to go all the way back to July 2013 and the Lumia 1020.

Buckle up, folks. Yes, it really has been two years since we’ve seen a non-phablet flagship handset on the premier carrier for Windows phones in the United States.

Two years.

Yes, this problem is well understood. But when you spell it out like that, it’s almost mind-numbing to consider how long it’s been since we’ve received a truly excellent Windows phone handset from Microsoft or Nokia.

For someone like me—by which I likely also mean someone like you—this kind of thing makes sticking with Windows phone … a bit tricky. Your own decision will be based on which carrier you are using, of course, and that will limit your choices nicely. But for me explicitly, I’m coming at this from an absolute best-case scenario in that I’m on AT&T, ensuring compatibility with the broadest-possible selection of phones, and, well, I’m me. I have access to pretty much any Windows phone handset I want.

And you know what? My choices kind of stink.

Front to back: Lumia 640 XL, 1520, 930, 830 and 735

Front to back: Lumia 640 XL, 1520, 930, 830 and 735

Part of the planning process for a three-week trip like the one I’m about to make, especially one that is so ill-timed to coincide with a major Windows launch, is determining which devices—PCs, phones, etc.—to bring. These trips are tough because I love to travel lightly, but it’s not possible for such a long trip, and with Windows 10 happening, it’s even worse because of all the testing I need to do.

That’s all very fascinating to you, I’m sure. But for purposes of this discussion it means I’ve begun evaluating which phones I will bring. This is complicated by the situation mentioned above, and by the fact that I will need to bring at least one phone for taking pictures. And thanks to Windows 10 Mobile testing, there is an added layer of complexity. Long story short, I’ll be bringing multiple phones.

For picture taking, that means a Lumia 930 or 1520. They have identical cameras and have both been updated to Lumia Denim, and that means that these devices roughly represent the apex for Windows Phone-based photography at this moment in time. (The Lumia 1020 has been left in the dust because of performance issues; but I have found that picture quality produced by the 930 and 1520 is now superior, regardless, since the Denim update.)

Both are unlocked. This is important because I will be buying a low-cost data SIM in Europe so that I can be online all of the time, uploading photos to Facebook and automatically backing up to OneDrive. Beyond that, things are less clear.

The Lumia 930 is a 5-inch device with squared-off edges, so it’s much easier to carry and, in use, to hold. But it only has 32 GB of internal storage, with no microSD expansion.

The Lumia 1520 is a 6-inch device with a smooth body, and it’s like a bar of soap that is always in danger of flying out of my clumsy hands; it’s hard to carry and hard to use because of its size. But … it has 16 GB of internal storage and microSD expansion. I’ve got a 64 GB card in there, so the storage situation is much more acceptable.

Compromises.

Beyond the phone I’ll be taking pictures with on this trip, I’m also reconsidering my daily driver. So I’ve assembled a lineup of choices—such as they are—that include the most recent (e.g. old) flagships—the Lumia 1520 and 930—and also the reasonable mid-level Lumias that Microsoft has shipped in the past year. These include the Lumia 735, Lumia 830, and Lumia 640 XL.

These three phones are nowhere near flagship territory. They each have mid-level Snapdragon 400 processors, 1 GB of RAM and 8- to 16 GB of internal storage, with microSD expandability.

The Lumia 735 and 830 are normally-sized handsets, and given my recent Lumia 1520 and iPhone 6 Plus usage in Ireland, they feel kind of small in my gorilla-sized mitts. But they’re both neat little phones, and each has a great—for its class—camera. (In my rating system, I would rate the 1520/930 camera as “excellent” and the 735/830 cameras as “very good.”)

Lumia 830 (left) and Lumia 735 (right)

Lumia 830 (left) and Lumia 735 (right)

The Lumia 640 XL has seen mixed results in my recent testing. I’ve not published a review yet, but the short version is that I really like the form factor and find its plastic body to be quite easy and even pleasant to hold, and the screen is beautiful. The camera, sadly, is not that good, even in bright sunlight. I would rate it “good” overall, but “unacceptable” in low light.

These are my choices. You probably face a subset of these choices. These are not good choices.

How might you decide?

For the phablets, it comes down to the Lumia 1520 and Lumia 640 XL. You can snag a GSM unlocked version of the Lumia 1520 from Amazon.com for $400, with the understanding that you won’t get LTE speeds. Or, you can get a used 1520 from Amazon for as little as $212, though I’d be nervous going the used route personally. The 1520 performs significantly better than the 640 XL.

Lumia 640 XL (top) and Lumia 1520 (bottom)

Lumia 640 XL (top) and Lumia 1520 (bottom)

The Lumia 640 XL is brand new, and its compromises include the lack of a camera button, a much lower quality camera, and slower performance. But, you can find the Lumia 640 XL in unlocked GSM form (no LTE in the US) for as little as $212 on Amazon, which is actually a great price for that device. AT&T is selling the 640 XL in matte white or black for $250 off contract. The additional $35 or so may be worth it for LTE speeds.

For the phones, things are more complex.

First, two are mid-level phones and one is a true flagship, even given its age. But the mid-level units, the Lumia 735 and 830, have some advantages over the flagship 930, including size, weight and heft, and microSD expansion. But none are all that broadly available in the US (save the 735 on Verizon, which I’m ignoring here).

Lumia 830 (top) and Lumia 930 bottom)

Lumia 830 (top) and Lumia 930 (bottom)

Unlocked GSM/LTE versions of the Lumia 735 are $310 to $320 on Amazon. Meanwhile, unlocked GSM versions of the Lumia 830 (no LTE in the US) are about $280, and given the price difference, I guess I would personally go with the 830. The Lumia 930 can currently be had in GSM unlocked form for under $350 on Amazon, and it represents a significant bump in camera quality and performance (but not expansion). Decisions, decisions.

There are of course phones I’m not considering here. The Lumia 640 is a non-phablet sibling to the 640 XL, but it has an even lousier camera and does not hold up well to the Lumia 735 or 830, in my mind. In the US it’s sold only by Cricket right now, but unlocked GSM versions of the Lumia 640 are about $165 on Amazon. And BLU makes a wonderful entry-level Windows phone handset, the BLU Win HD, and it costs as little as $130 in unlocked form and has a decent camera. The issue? No Lumia apps, which are a key differentiator for Microsoft’s devices. And there are of course about 100 (or so it seems) low-end Lumias not even worth bothering with.

And these are all US-based choices. On AT&T for the most part.

Like I said, complex.

With choices like these, it’s going to be a long summer for Windows phone fans, and I suspect many of us will be taking a wait and see approach. Long story short, Microsoft’s future flagships can’t come quickly enough to my mind. And as for what I will bring to Europe and use regularly, the truth is I just don’t know. I mentioned Windows 10 Mobile earlier, and I’ve been testing that system on all of these devices (which, in some cases, I have two of, making this easier). I do sort of believe that the current build of Windows 10 Mobile has hit a quality bar that may make using it regularly possible for the first time (though I will not be doing so on the device I’m using for photography). But I will need a few more days on that.

In other words, I just don’t know. I wish the choices were better. I wish the decision was easier. And really I wish that Microsoft hadn’t ignored the flagship part of the market for so long.

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