It was the last day of March 2017. I—a Windows phone user and Microsoft fanboy since 2012—received an email from Wharton Brooks, whose enthusiastic CEO made some waves in August last year by claiming that his startup company was going to be “bringing new products and services that will radically change the mobile computing industry” with an upcoming line of Windows phones. Finally, after numerous delays, the design and engineering of their first phone—the Cerulean Moment—was complete.
I was traveling at the time but forwarded the email to my buddy (and Apple-phile) Adam—who had already correctly predicted that there was no way this phone was going to be ready for the 2016 holidays regardless of what the CEO originally promised—for his thoughts.
“Good thing they sent out the email today instead of tomorrow on April Fool’s day,” he replied.
It might as well have been sent out on April 1st. The specifications were twenty yards away from cutting edge, the design was similar to an iPhone 4 (from 2010!), and the price tag was merely reasonable. Worse, this phone was only going to come to market if it obtained crowdfunding of $1.1 million on Indiegogo.com. This phone was basically Dead On Arrival.
And with it was the death knell of Windows phone. For yours truly, anyhow.
Never mind that tech media had already proclaimed that “Windows phone is dead” in numerous headlines over the last two (three?) years. Or that the storied Lumia line of phones by Nokia/Microsoft had sung their swan song with the mid-range Lumia 650 in February 2016. Only a few Windows 10 Mobile devices were still in production: chiefly, the 2016 HP Elite x2 and Alcatel Idol 4s. Zero new Windows phones were announced at Mobile World Congress in January 2017, despite the event in Barcelona being equivalent to Vegas’ gargantuan Interbike expo, but for mobile devices.
Wharton Brooks—even with the absurdity of its claims, its bookstore-like name and no history of successfully developing any physical product—was essentially the Windows phone community’s last hope for a consumer cellular device using its favorite mobile operating system. That hope went quicker than WB’s failed crowdsourcing campaign, which raised only 3% of its funding goal.
Fortunately, I had seen the writing on the wall for quite some time and already had a Plan B in place. Namely: switching to a more popular mobile operating system that retained most of the things I loved about Windows. In fact, since mid-2016, I already had a device waiting in the wings.
WHY I JUMPED TO ANDROID
With the demise of Windows phone, Blackberry OS, Sailfish, Mozilla OS, and all the other at-the-fringe mobile operating systems, the world was left with only two choices: Android and iOS.
Some Windows phone fans migrated to iOS because they can’t stand Google, mainly due to all the data the Mountain View company collects from its users. Many folks were drawn to the user interface consistency of iOS apps and optimization with Apple hardware. Those are valid points to consider.
For me, however, Android won me over due to the following factors:
- Hardware choice: There are literally hundreds of different Android phones on the market today, of small to large sizes, for meager to ample budgets. Having a plethora of device options is a big reason why Windows is my preferred choice for PCs nowadays, despite owning Apple and Linux computers in the past.
- Customizability: Android is so flexible and customizable that you can fairly easily configure it to look and behave like any OS you want—including Windows 10 Mobile. (See the next section.)
- Innovation: Most of the new smart phone features (including, admittedly, many gimmicks) of the last few years have been brought to market first by Android manufacturers. E.g., large screen sizes, always-on displays, hand-flicking gestures, quick charging, dual cameras, squeezable frames and bezel-less displays. Lately it seems like Apple is lagging behind in everything. New Android devices hit the market every week whereas new Apple produts come out only a few times a year.
There are also a few things on, say, my mom’s iPhone that threw me for a loop every time I had to service it. For example, not having a back button, not being able to drag-and-drop files between it and another computer using a USB cable, using a proprietary connector (Lightning) that none of our other devices used, and having a puny battery. It’s also a shame that as of right now (August 2017), no iPhone has rapid charging approaching Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 or some of the even faster proprietary fast charging technologies like OnePlus’ Dash Charge.
MY ANDROID DEVICE
In 2016, when I started experimenting with Android for something that could eventually become my daily driver, I was looking at devices that were relatively inexpensive (under $220) and had a fairly large screen.
First, I tried a Sony Xperia Z3. I loved its design language, but was disatisfied with its battery life and charging times, so returned it.
Then I picked up a ZTE ZMAX 2, which was an amazing phone for the price ($49). Ultimately, I resold it due to its mediocre camera and lack of gyroscope. (At the time, I was also experimenting with Virtual Reality headset—and a gyroscope is a minimum requirement for Google Cardboard.)
Finally, I settled upon a Moto G4. The reasons:
- Tech sites declared its camera as best in class. It is a solid shooter, at least with good lighting, and I really like the Moto camera’s user interface, auto-HDR and manual modes. Its low-light prowess, however, is rather lacking, and I often have to resort to manual mode to get usable nighttime pictures that are not unacceptably grainy.
- It has a removable back cover. I’m not a fan of phone cases as they add thickness, and always liked back covers that you could swap out for a different color, put a magnetic plate underneath for attaching to magnetic phone mounts, and give you access to the battery.
- It supports fast charging—dubbed TurboPower by Motorola. In fact, it supports Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0, even though the phone came with, essentially, a Quick Charge 2.0 charger. Qualcomm claims that a Quick Charge 3.0-enabled phone can be charged from 10% to 80% in 30 minutes, and that seems about right. Quick charging has changed how I re-juice my phone. Instead having to plug in the phone every night, I recharge the phone during short periods of the day when I am not using it (e.g., shower).
- The battery is reasonably large (3000 mAh) and battery life is good. I usually can make it through a whole day with plenty of battery capacity remaining, and the ability to fast charge reduces range anxiety tremendously.
- Motorola promised—and indeed delivered in early 2017—an OS update to Android 7.0, a.k.a. Nougat.
- Aesthetically, I liked how the Moto G4 was devoid of all carrier and manufacturer branding except for the Motorola bat logo in the trademark “Moto dimple” on the rear. I also liked that the frame/screen surround looked like titanium, despite being made out of plastic.
- While the battery is not easily removable, it is user accessible and replaceable by peeling off the back cover and loosening a bunch of screws.
- The screen size of 5.5″ seems to be the sweet spot for me.
- Motorolas come with little bloatware in comparison to other Android phones.
- I really like the built-in Moto gestures—particularly double twisting the phone to quick-launch the camera.
- The Moto G4 was recommended by virtually all the major tech websites for its price range.
- I could pick up an unlocked G4 at Best Buy for $200 (fall 2016—they go for a lot less now).
I wouldn’t say the phone is perfect, but it is very capable as a daily driver in all respects except for low-light photography.
In the future, the top features on my wish list would include dual cameras (with either a wide-angle lens or a lens for artificial bokeh; not sure what I would prefer), better low-light shooting capabilities, USB-C and at least 3 GB of RAM and 32 GB of internal storage. But the Moto G4 should get me through this year with no trouble.
MAKING MY “MICROSOFT-EDITION” ANDROID PHONE
After settling on the Moto G4, I set out to make it as similar to a Windows phone as possible. After all, I was still a Windows phone fan who was reluctant to switch.
Fortunately, nearly all the apps I used on Windows phone are on Android (and iOS). The main exceptions include Microsoft Edge, Microsoft Maps, and Microsoft Photos, but Google Chrome, Google Maps, and Google Photos serve as good replacements. The main drawback of Google’s services is that there is no synchronizing of data with Microsoft’s services, including bookmarks, browser history, and maps.
One of the main draws of Windows phone was the dynamic Live Tiles that flip to display notifications. To my eye, they are much better looking and more interesting than the sea of static icons that dominate the screens of most Android and iOS devices.
Functionally, Live Tiles behave like Android widgets, but have a more consistent, modern appearance and draw less power.
Fortunately, there are Android launchers that mimic the look of Windows Phone 8 or Windows 10 Mobile very closely. The launcher I am using is SquareHome 2, which is entirely free (except for advanced functions I do not need), robust, and highly configurable.
It is a brilliant piece of software. In fact, I would say that “Live Tiles” on Android via SquareHome 2 are superior to those on Windows phones for the following reasons:
- Far more configurable: You can change the color and transparency of any tile. There are more available sizes. You can also change the icon and text sizes on the tiles.
- More robust: Sometimes live tiles on Windows 10 Mobile for, say, Outlook would not clear the unread message count after messages were read. In contrast, I’ve never had such issue with SquareHome 2. Also, with SquareHome 2, swiping away notifications in the notification tray clears the tile too—something that did not happen on Windows phones.
- You can turn off individual live tiles: Unlike on Windows 10 for PC, you could never turn off live tiles on Windows phones. There are apps (like news) I do not want flashing distracting notifications, so it is nice that you can turn off notifications on any tile in SquareHome 2.
SquareHome 2 does require a lot more time to set up than the authentic Live Tiles in Windows. Also, as close as SquareHome 2 gets to the look of genuine Windows, some tiles will look worse—especially if you have to embed an Android widget on the tile to get the same functionality as a genuine Windows tile.
But for me, SquareHome 2 looks both good and close enough to Windows phone that I really enjoy using it.