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Love-Hate: 5 things we HATE about Lumia Windows Phones

Love-Hate is an occasional series in which we discuss the things we like most, and the things that drive us crazy, about products, services, people and ideas from across the world of technology.

Earlier, we discussed five things that we love about Lumia Windows Phones. But while there’s a lot to like about Microsoft’s mobile devices, let’s not delude ourselves. Almost five years after Microsoft launched Windows Phone 7, the platform that has continued to evolve from those origins has been a sales failure in the face of fierce competition from Android and iOS – today, Windows Phone 8.1 has only around 3% of the global smartphone market.

And of that pitifully small proportion of worldwide smartphone sales that Windows Phone clings on to, a massive 97% of all those devices are from Microsoft itself: the Lumia range that originally began with Nokia before its devices business was acquired by MS last year.

Given how few devices it sells each quarter compared with its rivals – Microsoft actually dropped out of the list of top 10 global smartphone vendors earlier this year – it goes without saying that its handsets aren’t perfect. Some problems with the Lumia range – and, inescapably, with the Windows OS – are small or relatively easy to fix, but others pose much bigger challenges.

Let’s take a look at some of the things we hate about Lumia Windows Phones.

Too much low-end

Forgive us for banging this drum again, but however many times it’s been discussed recently, the point still stands: Microsoft has been focusing way too much on the lower end of the market. The company has launched seven new handsets in the last eight months (430 Dual SIM, 435, 532, 535, 540, 640 and 640 XL), and all of them have been aimed at more budget-conscious buyers.

Now, let’s not be unreasonable here – that low-end focus is working out well for Microsoft in some markets, including India, for example, where the company’s sales grew 20% in Q1 2015, despite the overall smartphone market there declining by 8% during the same period. Clearly, there’s demand for affordable Lumia handsets, and Microsoft is smart to seize upon that opportunity.

But Microsoft’s latest flagships are long overdue replacement. The Lumia 1520 was unveiled in October 2013 and is no longer widely available, while sales have also ended of the Lumia Icon, which first went on sale in February 2014. That leaves no high-end Lumia phones at all in the US.

Still, while this issue continues to irk us, there is light at the end of this particular tunnel. Microsoft has promised that new flagships are on the way this year – but with Windows 10 Mobile not expected to launch until around October or November, there’s still a long wait ahead.

Always catching up

The Nokia Lumia 1020, which launched in July 2013, was one of the most exciting smartphones ever released, with an incredible 41-megapixel camera that took mobile photography to a whole new level. But that was a rare example of the Lumia range leading the way for others to follow.

The OS itself has certainly been at fault on this front since the Windows Phone 7 days, when that version launched without basic functionality like copy-and-paste, and with no real multitasking support. A notification center didn’t even show up in the OS until last year.

But the Lumia range isn’t exactly known for offering cutting-edge hardware specs either. Consider the Lumia Icon – by the time that flagship went on sale internationally as the Lumia 930 in July 2014, it was up against the likes of LG’s mighty G3, despite the 930’s specs more closely mirroring the G2, which was released a year earlier.

Quad HD displays, curved displays, biometric sensors, laser-aided autofocus, stylus support, the latest processors… It seems like a given that when some exciting new hardware feature first appears on the market, it won’t be on a Windows Phone. Sure, not everyone cares about having a flagship crammed full of the latest bleeding-edge tech, but it's worth noting that innovation at the top end often has a ‘halo’ effect on the rest of the range, and helps to create the impression that the manufacturer is constantly bringing the latest technology to its customers, even those that don’t splash out on its range-toppers.

The sad thing is, we almost got a taste of some real hardware innovation last year with a new flagship, codename ‘McLaren’, featuring an astonishing array of external sensors, along with a new ‘3D Touch’ interaction system. Sadly, the handset was cancelled while still in development.

So when it comes to both software and hardware, the Lumia range never really seems to lead the way when it comes to delivering new features first – and ‘the platform that always plays catch up’ isn’t the most persuasive marketing slogan for selling phones.

Same-again designs

The late 1990s brought some truly insane mobile phone designs, as handset designers went wild in response to soaring demand for new and original form factors. There was the ‘lipstick’ phone; a handset with a keypad that rotated through 180 degrees to reveal media controls; and another with a bizarre circular keypad that was hilariously difficult to use.

Of course, many of these outlandish devices prioritized form over function, but amidst the lunacy of the more extreme designs, some more functional (but still creatively styled) handsets made their way to market. But so many of these designs – both the bonkers ones, and the slightly less outrageous ones – had one thing in common: they came from Nokia.

Microsoft acquired a huge pool of talent when it bought Nokia’s devices business last year – and while many of them have since been forced to leave the company, it’s hard to believe that there isn’t some creative spark left over from Nokia's glory days of truly creative handset design still at Microsoft today.

Let’s be clear: there’s nothing especially offensive about the styling of the Lumia range, but there’s no denying that so many of them are starting to look like the same device scaled to different sizes. Yes, it’s tough to think completely outside of the box when you’re constrained by the need to accommodate a large rectangular display into the design – but surely it can’t be beyond the ability of a company like Microsoft to mix things up a bit in the design department?

The 'missing' camera button

When Windows Phone 7 launched in 2010, Microsoft mandated specific requirements that would be common to every Windows Phone handset, including features like the Back, Start and Search buttons on the front, and a dedicated hardware button for the camera. In an effort to convince more manufacturers to adopt the OS, the company later relaxed these requirements, so that OEMs could easily take existing Android hardware and sell those devices as Windows Phones with minimal changes. Among the revisions, Microsoft dropped the requirement for a dedicated camera button.

That makes sense for other OEMs, but it doesn’t make a great deal of sense for Microsoft to drop the camera button from some of its own Lumia handsets – especially when you consider that the company made quite a big deal about the usefulness of that feature as part of its “get in, get out, get back to life” marketing campaign, highlighting how quick and easy it is to use Windows Phones. Even its promotional video for the 'latest' Lumia 930 flagship shows how handy this button is.

In a nutshell, you can push the button – even when your device is on standby in your bag or pocket – and it will immediately activate the device and start up the camera, ready for you to take a pic with another push. It’s super-convenient, but for some reason, Microsoft is now reserving this feature exclusively for its higher-end handsets.

If you can’t afford one of those, you won’t get that handy usability. Instead, you’ll have to turn the device on, swipe down from the top of the screen, tap to launch the camera app, and then you’ll be able to take a pic using the on-screen controls. This process is slower and more fiddly, and makes it far more likely that you’ll miss those fleeting moments when you want to quickly capture a photo of something.

Given that all Lumia handsets used to include this useful dedicated button, it’s disappointing that it’s now only available for those who can pay top dollar for Microsoft's high-end devices.

Windows Phone app-gap

This isn’t a problem unique to the Lumia range, but given that Lumia basically is Windows Phone (well, 97% of it), it’s an issue that’s intrinsically linked to Microsoft’s mobile devices. In fact, the platform’s ‘app-gap’ is also a problem that the company has sometimes done its best to pretend is already fixed.

In late 2013, Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore famously declared that we would all ‘look back’ on that year as “the ending of the app-gap for Windows Phone”. Try telling that to millions of Windows Phone users still waiting for the likes of Periscope, Pebble, Snapchat, HSBC, Barclaycard, Comixology, Tinder, Grindr, HBO GO, Odeon Cinemas, Official F1, Nike+, Virgin Atlantic Airways, Starbucks, and many more high-profile apps like these, to make their way to the OS.

And even when apps do arrive on Windows Phone, they almost always arrive weeks or months after launching on other platforms – and even then, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be feature-complete, or regularly updated.

All too often, apps launch on Windows Phone with only a subset of the features available in the same apps on iOS and Android. And in some cases, even big brands can’t be bothered to maintain their apps to a high standard on Windows Phone – for example, it’s now been over 15 months since Instagram last updated its app, which is still in beta almost 20 months after its launch.

Unfortunately, if you buy a Lumia handset, you’re buying into this app-gap issue as well – but there is a faint glimmer of hope on the horizon. Microsoft is working to make it easier for developers to bring their apps from iOS and Android to Windows with minimal changes, and that could spark significant improvement - in both quality and quantity - of apps available on Microsoft’s mobile OS. But it will take some time for the effects of that initiative to kick in – and in the meantime, the app-gap remains far from closed.

Of course, these are just our picks of the things that drive us crazy when it comes to the Lumia range – but you may well disagree with them, or even have some suggestions of your own. Be sure to share your thoughts below!

Image credit: Lumia concept phone via Phone Designer

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