Windows Why

I fell wildly in love with Windows Phone when I bought a second-hand Samsung Omnia 7 a few months ago. That has dampened somewhat with my recent foray back into Nokia’s Swipe UI, but I know for sure that there’d still be things I’ll miss if I had to move to any other OS. So begins a series on why I would wholeheartedly recommend a Windows Phone. I’ll try to keep it balanced – and we’ll see where this takes us.

WW#1: Live Tiles
Microsoft has tried, but it hasn’t done a good job of showing how useful this feature is. (Unlike Apple , who always pick a “hero” feature for their ads) If I had to pick a single feature of the OS that I really love, this would probably be it.

I love Live Tiles. They’re a lot easier to understand and pin to start than Android’s widgets, and when used well provide a great balance between the simplicity of Apple iOS and the detailed information shown on Android widgets. Let’s take a deeper look…

Windows Phone has two main homescreens – the first is what I call the “Start Screen”, where all your Live Tiles are displayed. The second is the App List, which displays the list of installed Apps vertically, and in alphabetical order. To add a Live Tile, just press and hold on an Application in the Apps List, and select “Pin to Start”.

That’s it.

While it doesn’t match the simplicity of the notification centre and App grid in iOS, or the deeper functionality in Android widget, I think it’s a great trade-off between the two. Live Tiles serve two functions: information and convenience. Information, because Live Tiles can display, well, information. For example, Runkeeper displays my total running distance, MyStocks shows quotes for six stocks, Arkwords shows the word of the day, SGTransport shows how long it takes before my next bus comes etc. Think of them as a window into your Apps – so you can take a sneak peek without having to launch the App.

I especially love this because in iOS, I tend to forget to check word-of-the-day type Apps. Plus I don’t like putting their information in the notification centre, because it just clutters it. There are also certain things you can’t put in the notification centre either, such as the aforementioned bus arrival times and running distance. And unlike the notification centre, Live Tiles let me customise the order in which the information is displayed, since I can just rearrange the tiles.

The second is function is convenience. And I mean it when I call it a function – there is some usability to it. Quite a number of Apps let you pin shortcuts for important functions as Live Tiles. The common examples would be the ability to pin a frequented website, a contact, or a group as a tile. But there are so many other options, as long as developers enable them: I can pin a shortcut to create a new note in Evernote, a shortcut to check-in on 4th and Mayor (a great third party foursquare client), a shortcut to my Pokemon game in Purple Cherry (don’t judge me)… The list goes on.

It’s also convenient in the sense that they’re generally easy to add to the Start screen. Shortcut tiles require you to find the “pin to start” option within the App, but overall Live Tiles are easier to understand and manage than Android – where widgets and apps have to be added in separate sections. Widgets are handled like Apps in Android, just relegated to a second category – which means a second list to search through and delete if you want to remove them. In WP, uninstall the App from the App List and voila. All Live Tiles are also completely removed.

Now it isn’t a perfect system. As i said, shortcut tiles are found within their respective Apps – it is usually unclear what extra goodies you can pin to the start without doing a little exploring. Maybe future versions of WP will get developers to have a more consistent means of adding shortcut tiles and informing users of the functionality, but it’s not a big issue.

There are also some niggles given that refreshes aren’t always pushed – for example, my social network notifications through the “Me” tile are refreshed only every half-hour. However, I guess the need to balance battery life is a huge consideration – hopefully WP8 will be able to optimise this process and it’s effect on battery consumption. For now, some developers allow you to adjust the refresh rate. Overall though, I am pretty pleased with the implementation, and am looking forward to how it all turns out on Windows 8 and the next version of Windows Phone.

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