What’s up with Windows Phone 7’s networking performance?

A few days I switched back to Windows Phone 7.5 as my main smartphone operating system. Why? Well, because I can. I like to change things up every now and then, and blessed as I am with an iPhone 3GS (currently pulling duty at my best friend as her portable gaming device), Galaxy SII with CM9, and an HTC HD7, I have the luxury of doing so. Now that I’m back in the neat, tidy, and straight-lined arms of Windows Phone 7 – three long-standing issues really break the illusion, which all come from one source: the networking stack.

I’ve never made a secret of my love for Windows Phone 7.5 – a love which, come to think of it, is quite strange. I jumped on the WP7 bandwagon from day one, importing the HD7 from the States even though it was far from officially available in The Netherlands. The end result? A thoroughly limiting experience – no paid applications, no Xbox live integration, and so on. This actually happens to be the reason I never did a proper review of Windows Phone 7.

Luckily, that has all changed. I can now buy applications, which is a pretty big deal. The application selection has increased considerably, of course, but like with other platforms, most of it is crap. Finding the gems – like the excellent Twitter client rowi or the beautiful and delightful baconit Reddit client – requires traversing the web, but that’s hardly different from how I find stuff for Android or iOS.

Still, three issues really break the Metro illusion for me: WP7’s horrible wifi sleep policy, slow network performance, and live tiles that refuse to update. All three of these – including the last one, as strange as that may seem – are, or appear to be, related to networking.

The first one is actually the most annoying one. Windows Phone 7’s policy is to turn off wifi after the device has been sleeping for 30 seconds. After pressing the lock button, wifi is turned off after 30 seconds. This wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that it takes WP7 really, really long to reconnect after waking from sleep. This means that whenever I grab my phone to check some mail or launch Facebook, I have to wait 20-25 flow-breaking seconds. First-world problem for sure, but it’s really, really annoying when you quickly want to check some stuff.

Sadly, there’s no way to change this. This policy is put in place to preserve battery life, but honestly, when I’m at home, I couldn’t care less about battery life. Giving me the option to set wifi to always-on would massively improve the user experience – especially since for some reason, I’m the only person in my small hick town who can’t get a 3G connection in this little piece of nowhere (cross-phones, I can’t hold a 3G connection here even though everybody else can. It’s creepy as heck).

The second issue is also quite annoying. I’m not sure if this is an issue with the applications, or with the networking stack itself, but pulling data from the web is often painfully slow, and often will just fail entirely – no matter the wifi network or 3G connection. Twitter clients, the People hub, the Facebook app, Reddit clients, and so on – it’s quite annoying, especially since other phones are blazing fast.

Third – what’s up with live tiles taking ages to update? Do they have some sort of update policy we’re not privy to? I’ll often see Facebook notification badges accumulate for hours and sometimes even days, even though I’ve already dealt with them on the phone itself, on the website, on other devices, everywhere. The live tile of the rowi Twitter client has been showing 70 at-replies all day – and I have no idea how to force the tile to update (I’m not that popular – it’s just counting all my at-replies).

I’m guessing the live tiles aren’t updating easily for me because once the phone goes to sleep, it doesn’t have wifi, and, as I explained, there’s no 3G to fall back on. In other words, all it can use is slow 2G (or whatever it’s called), and it might even be the case that live tiles refuse to update at all without 3G or wifi.

Especially the first two issues are close to gamebreaking for me – both Android and iOS have virtually zero issues with networking for me, so this really takes me back to the old days of wireless networking on my PalmOS and PocketPC devices, which was slow as well and couldn’t hold a connection through sleep either.

Other than these issues – and the obvious lack of quality applications – Windows Phone 7 is still every bit as fresh, fun, beautiful and fluid as when it was first released. Whereas iOS and Android essentially cram a WIMP interface onto a small display (don’t believe the PR speak), Metro has truly and honestly been designed from the ground up for smartphone displays and input, and that alone makes it special. As a geek, you owe it to yourself to at least go to your nearest phone store and play around with Metro.

And, that keyboard. Ah, the Windows Phone 7 keyboard. It’s so much better than the competition I can hardly believe I managed to do without since November 2011.


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