posted by Thom Holwerda on Fri 25th Jul 2014 11:37 UTC
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I'm lucky. My financial situation allows me to buy several phones and tablets every year to keep up with the goings-on of all the major - and some of the minor - platforms currently competing for prime real estate in your precious pockets. It also means that I am lucky from a psychological point of view - by being able to buy several devices every year, I never fall into the all-too-common trap of choice-supportive bias. I don't have to rationalise my device purchases after the fact, so I won't have to employ all sorts of mental gymnastics to solve any states of cognitive dissonance caused by hardware and software flaws - the number one cause of irrational fanboyism.

And so, I try to rotate my phone of choice around as much as possible. I enjoy jumping from Android to my N9, then onwards to Sailfish, back to Android, and then have some fun with Symbian on my E7 - and beyond. I've got a long list of platforms I want to add to the collection - one white BlackBerry Passport please - but in general, I'm pretty well-rounded.

Usually, after using a platform for a while, I run into some issues that eventually push me to make another jump. The more obscure and/or outdated the platform, the more serious or pervasive these issues tend to be. Symbian, for instance, can be fun for a few days, but the lack of a good browser and the regular performance issues quickly become tiring. Harmattan on the N9 is probably the most intuitive platform to use - in theory, because in practice, the underpowered N9 makes everything laggy, stuttering, and slow. Sailfish is also a joy to use, but there are like three proper 3rd party applications and that's that (but Sailfish' state is a story for another time).

For the two big platforms, the issues tend to be more subtle or philosophical - and thus, far more subjective. I bought an iPhone 5S on release day late last year, but after a few weeks, the tiny screen, the inability for applications to communicate, the horrid iOS7 user interface, and a few other things (most notably: you cannot make your iPhone your iPhone) started to work on my nerves so much I decided to give it away to my father (a €700-800 device is too expensive to collect dust in a drawer - it needs to be used, hence I gave it away). These are personal preferences, however; I know many, many people see these as strong points instead.

On the flip side, iOS and the 5S also had many things to offer I haven't yet found in any other platforms. The feel of the 5S' hardware is unparalleled, the operating system is smoother and more responsive than its competition, and it's far easier to find genuinely good, high-quality applications.

Android also has its share of subtle, philosophical issues. User interface performance and responsiveness still isn't up to par - especially not when compared to iOS and Windows Phone. Unless you buy Nexus, you'll most likely have to jump through hoops to have an up-to-date operating system. Your Android phone most likely came with a bunch of crap you couldn't uninstall. Lastly, the quality of mainstream applications lags behind iOS. These issues, too, tend to be personal preferences; most people won't be bothered by an occasional hiccup in scrolling, and the fact that you even can switch ROMs is a strong point to many. I've also heard many, many people who actually like the additional "crap" HTC and Samsung put on their devices.

Of course, Android also has a lot to offer that competing platforms do not. I already mentioned the whole ROM thing, but even with stock ROMs it's so easy to make your Android phone your Android phone. I lost count of how many times my friends accidentally mixed up their iPhones, because aside from wallpaper, there's really no way to take ownership of your iPhone. The choice in hardware is also a major plus for Android, as is its wide price range.

Then there's Windows Phone. It always kind of dangled somewhere between the obscure and minority platforms on the one side, and the two major platforms on the other. It was clearly more complete, modern, and well-rounded than, say, Sailfish or Harmattan, but at the same time, it lacked certain features and had some pervasively annoying issues that kept it from being on par with iOS and Android.

This past week or so, I dusted off my HTC 8X, and decided to dive into Windows Phone once more. It's running the Windows Phone 8.1 preview - which is more or less the final version by now - and as time progressed, I started noticing something: I wasn't noticing the platform's traditional shortcomings anymore. It's still a bit too early to tell, but my gut is telling me that with the 8.1 update, Windows Phone may actually be mature enough to firmly join the ranks of Android and iOS.

One of my biggest issues with Windows Phone from day one was the slow loading of applications. Whether it be the infuriating "Resuming..."-screen or just slow loading in general, it was a consistent and pervasive hiccup every single time you opened or switched to an application. With the 8.1 update, however, I'm finally seeing most applications open instantly, and even when you do see the "Resuming..."-screen, it's only for a second, instead of anywhere between five and ten seconds. It's still not up to par with the competition, but it's gotten to a point where it doesn't really bother me any more. It will most likely be even less of an issue on a modern Lumia (my HTC Windows Phone 8X by HTC is, after all, a few generations old).

I can't stress just how much this contributes to that gut feeling I mentioned earlier. Slow loading applications on a modern smartphone are dealbreakers; as Palm already discovered way back in the '90s, pocket computing competes with paper, and needs to be instant. Up until very recently, Windows Phone was anything but.

A second major improvement is the arrival of the notification centre. Microsoft originally intended for live tiles to take care of notifications, but this system never really worked very well. Tiles would often refuse to update, so either they would not show notifications you actually received, or they would show notifications you already dealt with days ago. If you missed the little banner notification as it arrived, you would then be left to your own devices to figure out what the notification was for, a search mission made worse by the non-updating tiles. If the notification belonged to an application without a tile on your homescreen - it would be lost forever.

The notification centre - which is a one-to-one copy of the one found on Android - fixes all of these issues in one fell swoop. Notifications are now properly collected in a single location, which is great for all the reasons Android users (and now iOS users as well) are already familiar with.

Thirdly, third party applications have improved by leaps and bounds in the past year or so. Many have received visual overhauls and performance improvements, making them much more pleasurable to use, with less stutter and waiting. Many also stopped trying to force the Windows Phone panorama layout in places where it doesn't make sense, which makes them a little less exotic, sure - but also a lot more usable. The rate of improvement has also increased sharply; previously, I would be happy to receive application updates once per month, but lately, I've been getting updates on a daily basis.

The last point I want to touch upon is something Microsoft has been working on for longer than just Windows Phone 8.1 alone: personalisation. With the additional tile sizes and the ability to set a Start screen background, it's much easier to make your Windows Phone phone (ugh) your phone. It's still much closer to iOS levels of non-customisability than to Android's free-for-all, but it's a big improvement over the few preset colours schemes and only two huge tile sizes of yore. My 8X is much more personal now - you won't mistake it for being anything but my phone.

There are still problems, of course. Windows Phone still seems to have issues with networking performance, where, say, reloading feeds or updating a reddit page in a reddit application takes far, far longer than it should. I've been having issues with this on several Windows Phone devices (on countless networks, both 3G and WiFi), but I do have to admit they've all been older devices like my 8X. Modern Lumia devices may fix this issue. I'm sure another issue is related to this: Windows Phone won't connect to a new wireless network until you unlock it (say, when you go from your own house to a friend's house).

Then there's the issue of notifications always coming in a little later, or on rare occasions, not at all. This can be quite annoying during business hours, as you get this uneasy urge to manually update your email to make sure you haven't missed any important ones. Related: whereas iOS and Android have no issues receiving mail over 2G connections (my town doesn't have 3G...), Windows Phone (like the minority platforms) often refuses to receive email while on 2G.

No platform is perfect, though, but overall I have to say that with Windows Phone 8.1, it seems that Microsoft finally has all its ducks in a row when it comes to smartphones. I'm no longer frustrated while using the platform, I no longer long for an Android device - I'm actually perfectly satisfied using my 8X with 8.1. At this point, I really think we have three major platforms - not two.

Whether or not this will translate into real-world sales figures, I don't know. I sure do hope so, because two really isn't much better than one.

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