Running Windows Phone so I can stay 100% Microsoft is totally fine, even if it’s 2019. Nothing else out there strikes the balance I’m looking for. I don’t need any apps that I don’t already have. I like having an unusual phone, even if it’s showing its age a bit. Someone needs to carry this torch. I can hold out until Microsoft gets its act together and comes back to mobile with a new offering.
Freaking Microsoft! I still can’t believe they dropped Windows Phone after all this time. Why do they always do this? The only reason it failed is because they didn’t try harder. The market needed a viable third option, and they somehow managed to blow it. They have all the money; they could have bought their way into the market, but they chickened out and didn’t pay the cost of being late to the party.
Well, maybe I can switch to Android and just use the Microsoft apps. Thank goodness I at least have that option instead of being stuck with only Apple. I’ve heard that the Microsoft apps on Android are actually better in some ways than the native apps I’m used to. I know I’ll adapt quickly. It will be only a temporary inconvenience.
This sucks. Android is annoying and different. I will miss my clean interface and Live Tiles. I don’t care about the new features, I just wish it had the polish and nuances of Windows Phone. So few people will ever understand how great Windows Phone was, and there will be no empathy from anyone who doesn’t know what I know.
This Android thing actually has some nice features, and it’s really nice that it runs Chrome. I guess it’s kind of cool that I can run the Alexa and Hue apps on my own device now, instead of stealing the family iPad. I can deal with the changes I don’t like because, if I’m being completely honest, there are a few things I like better.
And so it begins
Yeah, I know I used this intro before. But I figure it’s only fitting to reuse the same format to tell a similar tale. Like Windows Media Center, Windows Phone has a long history and, also like Media Center, I’ve been a user for a long time. And of course, Microsoft unceremoniously abandoned Windows Phone, just as it did Media Center.
This phone was great for playing emulated SNES Harvest Moon
My tutelage as a Windows Phone, then Windows Mobile, user began with the Samsung BlackJack II sometime in early 2008. That may seem like an odd choice given that the plucky new iPhone had just hit the scene and Android phones were coming. However, Windows Mobile was the “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” of smartphones at the time, so as an IT professional, I rolled them out to all my users when we switched from Verizon to AT&T, and they served us well.
Time marched on, and a couple of years later we reached the quaint (by modern standards, but practically obligatory at the time) two-year upgrade cycle and contract renewal with AT&T. This is arguably where I first went wrong. The iPhone 3GS was a viable option back then, as was the Google Nexus One, but I still wasn’t convinced by these newcomers. I placed the “safe bet” and stuck with Microsoft, issuing the HTC Tilt 2 to all my users. It turned out they were just, you know, kind of okay. We didn’t make it to two years before switching things up.
This phone’s screen still impresses me
In late 2010, I was salivating over the prospects of Windows Phone 7. Finally, I could give my users a modern mobile experience and still stay within my trusty Microsoft ecosystem. This is what everyone had been waiting for, right? I was first in line to use our early renewal option and purchased a fleet of the Samsung Focus. At the time, the AMOLED screen it sported was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen an image displayed on, and, oh my, black was black. The combination of the screen and the colorful if unorthodox GUI completely won me over. I was hooked, and my users dug it, too.
This phone should have taken the world by storm
Strangely, by the time late 2012 came around, Windows Phone hadn’t taken over the mobile world. I didn’t understand it, but whatever. A couple of my users seemed interested in the iPhone 5—their family and friends liked it I guess, blah blah blah. But I had my eye on the prize: the Nokia Lumia 920. How could you could you not love that spec sheet? Magical wireless charging, an awesome camera, dual-core processor, 32 GB of memory, and Windows Phone 8, too? I mean, come on… It even had brightly colored polycarbonate bodies as an option. Of course, I ordered all of ours in black. It was heavy, too. Really heavy. It had the kind of weight that you knew meant “quality,” the kind of weight that meant if you dropped it on your toe, you’d lose a toenail (true story). This was validation that hanging with Microsoft mobile for nearly five years had finally paid off.
But then it was suddenly the end of 2014, and not only was Windows Phone still just a bit player in the market, there wasn’t even a new flagship phone for me to switch to? What. The. Heck. Microsoft? That’s not how acquisitions are supposed to work! I couldn’t believe that the only Windows Phone worth upgrading to was exclusive to Verizon. I felt, for the first time since going all-in on Windows Phone: I’ve made a huge mistake.
This phone was an underrated workhorse
By the summer of 2015, my users were questioning my judgment and giving me strange looks when we crossed paths. They couldn’t get the apps that they heard everyone else talking about for their dumb Windows Phones. It was time to switch gears. I had to play the value card. Management would ignore all the user complaints if I could point to a huge pile of savings. iPhones and flagship Android phones were just too expensive, and I couldn’t justify recommending them just because people wanted to use Waze to help them speed. So I switched to Verizon, went no-contract, bought a bunch of $200 Lumia 735 handsets, and used the financial win as the reason for giving Microsoft one more chance. These phones were for work, after all; they didn’t need to be fancy.
But by late 2016, I could no longer hold back the tide. Adding insult to injury, the new Lumia 950s came out on AT&T not long after we switched to Verizon. Screw it, we’re going BYOD, I thought. I cooked up a plan for the company to offer everyone a $300 phone credit every two years and washed my hands of the entire mess. Some people jumped ship from Windows Phone right away. Others still cautiously trusted me and my Windows Phonedom, and waited to see what I would do next.
This phone was five years old before being put to pasture
Nobody liked what I did next. And they stopped asking me for advice. In early 2017, I was still in denial and picked up a refurbished Lumia Icon for a song. Sure, it was older than the Lumia 735 I was still using, but it was better in every way. It ran Windows Phone 10 just fine, too. Of course, the battery life wasn’t great, but I wasn’t a heavy user anyway, and chargers are everywhere. What did I expect from an already three-year old phone? It would last me until something better came along, at least.
Nooooo! I missed my chance—my absolute last chance—to get a respectably modern Windows Phone. It was late 2017, and the HP Elite x3 got a surprise Verizon-compatible version out of the blue. You could order it right from the Microsoft store, but it was like $600, and I couldn’t stomach the expense, even with the BYOD credit I’d devised. So I foolishly waited for a price drop, but by the time I caught wind of the sale, the damage was already done: All the Elite x3s were gone, and they were never coming back. (Trust me, I looked.) I had gambled and lost.
And that’s the sordid tale of how I ended up using a five-year-old refurbished Windows Phone all the way into early 2019. Fish, you idiot, you shouldn’t have waited. Yeah, I know. The last straw was a pair of incidents last month where my Icon died on me while I was taking photos, even though it reported that the battery was more than 80% full. I can put up with a lot of crap, but I absolutely need a reliable phone. It was time to move on.
I don’t know phones, but I know what I like
With the history lesson over with, we can finally talk about the device I chose to replace my beloved yet accursed Windows Phone. I’m not suggesting that my choice is the choice for Windows Phone refugees. I don’t have enough experience to properly compare and contrast my new phone with the alternatives. Further, I’m all too aware that my preferences in this arena don’t align with those of most other people. You could be kind and say that I have a massively skewed perspective. If you were less kind, you could say that the depth of my ignorance is practically a superpower.
You know what they say about ignorance, though. It really has been bliss until now. You would think that with such low standards, I would be impressed by almost literally any handset in the modern midrange-on-up collection, right? Ha! I’m more jaded about the mobile scene than I’ve ever been. I find all these new phones completely and utterly boring. The prospect of selecting a specific slab of overpriced smart glass from amid the nearly identical options felt like pure tedium to me. This is not to mention the sky-high prices of the so-called “flagship” devices. Oof, I don’t think so.
This phone is basically just me throwing a hissy fit
That’s why I bought a BlackBerry KEY2 LE. The goof factor was high, and it ticked everything on my meager list of so-called “right boxes.” After scoping out my many options, I felt that the KEY2 LE was the most interesting choice, and no other superlatives mattered to me. (As a bonus, Bruno thought it was stupid.)
The KEY2 LE’s most obvious feature is a physical keyboard, which is something I haven’t had (and haven’t missed) for nearly a decade. That leaves the phone with a somewhat odd 4.5″ 1620×1080 screen. However, its 3:2 aspect ratio is good enough for Microsoft Surfaces, so it’s good enough for me.
As to the rest of the specs: The KEY2 LE has an octa-core Snapdragon 636 SoC, 4 GB of RAM, and 64 GB of storage. The storage is expandable, though, and the phone supports dual SIM cards in the same internal bracket. It comes running Android Oreo 8.1, but an update to Pie is purportedly coming soon. It packs in three cameras—a 13-MP-plus-5-MP duo on the back, and an 8MP front-facing camera. The KEY2 LE supports fast charging over its USB Type-C port and, get this, it has a 3.5mm headphone jack. I’ll never use that port, but I will lord it over more courageous phones. All in all, not too shabby for $450 (or less, depending on sales).
Launchers to the rescue
There’s one more piece of the puzzle to talk about before I can tell you if and how my gamble on an oddball smartphone paid off. Arguably, this leaves me firmly in the “denial” stage of this whole ordeal, but I’m willing to accept that. I got wind of these things called “launchers” on Android. I already knew about the ones that OEMs use to ruin what I’m told is a perfectly functional stock interface. What I didn’t know was that there were third-party options out there that were made to look like Windows Phone. I did some research and picked Launcher 10.
My home screen after my first week with the KEY2 LE
The first thing I did after getting through the initial setup process on the KEY2 LE was to hit up the Play Store and download Launcher 10. I immediately paid for both in-app purchases—ad removal and access to the Live Tile functionally—for a grand total of $8.50. I unapologetically did not give stock Android a chance. All told, I probably spent less than five minutes poking around at what normal Android (technically, the BlackBerry Launcher) looks like before forcing it look like Windows 10 Mobile. I just wanted to keep the dream alive, even if it was just a facsimile.
Over the course of the next few hours, I moved into my new phone and got it into a basic usable state. It was a lot less painful than I was expecting, and I credit Launcher 10 for making me feel at home much more quickly. The stage was set.
As I write this sentence, I’ve been using the Blackberry KEY2 LE smartphone for three weeks. It’s a strange brew, but it’s working out incredibly well for me so far. I am highly amused by the combination of the keyboard and Launcher 10, and that delight has gone a long way toward easing the sting of the switch from Windows. After the initial setup, I feel like I’ve made fewer and fewer tweaks each day and may finally be completely settled in. I’m not going to recap all the nitty gritty details; their nature is all too familiar and mundane. To name a few examples, though, I’m talking about sorting out duplicate contacts, getting calendars properly synchronized, and making numerous adjustments to permissions and notifications.
We’ll dig into the three most significant changes shortly, but I want to start with some general commentary about the phone. These are simply likes and dislikes that have stuck with me so far.
I like the fingerprint unlock, which resides in the spacebar of the keyboard. I’m glad there’s no silly “my face is my warrant” unlock nonsense happening here. However, I have noticed that the fingerprint reader won’t read any of my digits the first few minutes after I’ve gotten out of the shower. It makes sense, and it’s a common issue with fingerprint readers on smartphone, but I’d never encountered it before.
I don’t like the lack of wireless charging. It’s handy, cheap, and protects the port from wear and tear. It should be standard at this point, and the fact that it’s missing from the KEY2 LE was almost a dealbreaker for me.
I like having a normal rectangular screen; there’s no notch drama here. I feel like a notch would drive me crazy. It’s not an OLED screen, but the black levels on the KEY2 LE are good enough to meet my personal performance preferences. Overall, I’m happy with the screen quality.
When connecting to Bluetooth in my car, the KEY2 LE connects the Hands-Free Profile almost instantly, but the Advanced Audio Distribution Profile frequently drags behind, anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes. It’s extremely annoying—distracting, even—when I’m ready to go and want to start listening to a podcast but must wait.
Many of the reviews I read before buying the KEY2 LE dinged it for its low-end camera. Indeed, even my old Lumia Icon is better than this new handset’s camera. Even so, I don’t think the camera is as bad as reviews made it seem. It does feel like a compromise coming from my old phone, though, which is unfortunate. I’m not losing sleep over it, though; I think of a phone’s camera as something pretty utilitarian. If I need better photos, I can find better lighting.
Finally, we come to the battery. It’s a good one. I’m not a heavy user; I don’t play games on my phone nor spend long stretches browsing the web with it. But I went two full days of normal use without having to charge the KEY2 LE, and it still had a 36% charge left. I expect heavy users will have plenty of battery left after an entire day, and moderate users will have no problem stretching to two days. It’s all academic to me, though; any phone that can get through an entire day is good enough in my book.
So the BlackBerry KEY2 LE has a physical keyboard. It’s not calculator watch-levels of dorkery, but it’s, you know, different. Look, I’m not going to argue that physical keyboards should make a comeback on phones. There isn’t the same case to be made for them as for mechanical keyboards with a PC. But I would argue, especially now that I’ve gone back to one, that the primary reason physical keyboards are obsolete is because the software component of a phone’s keyboard is more important. Swiping keyboards and improved text prediction rightly take precedence over tactile feedback for most people.
Even so, there’s something about the KEY2 LE’s physical keys that are charming. I personally dig the throwback to my old BlackJack II, which I was very fond of. This might sound weird, but having a tiny keyboard on the bottom makes the phone feel more like a proper little computer, instead of just an all-screen pocket gizmo. Now, where’s my CLI?
I do feel like the balance of the entire phone is a little off, though. Sacrificing a bit more of the screen for a taller keyboard would have been worth it. (Before you object on the grounds of video-friendliness, know that if I’m watching video on my phone, my values have already been severely compromised, and a little bit of letterboxing is the least of my concerns). I could really use an extra row of keys on the top that are dedicated to symbols.
No school like the old school
Speaking of the keys, they feel good. I’ve used crappy, tiny “keyboards” before—you know, the $20 Bluetooth garbage meant to pair with a tablet or as an all-in-one device for media playback control. By contrast, the KEY2 LE gives you a keyboard with keys you actually press, instead of just squish. My gut tells me I’m already a bit faster on the KEY2 LE than I was on my Lumia, except when it comes to punctuation. It’s not a dramatic difference, though.
I decided to use SwiftKey on the software side, just to push my Microsoft theme to the limit. Even though I can’t swipe with the physical keyboard, I like SwiftKey well enough. But I’ll keep hunting for a software solution tailored for phones with a built-in board. It would be really nice simply to have a single row of user-defined keys always at the bottom of the screen. I suppose the software side of the keyboard is one aspect of the KEY2 LE that I’m not 100% settled into yet.
If you’re a Windows Phone diehard, this is the part of the story you’ve been waiting for. (Also, hi guys, I’ll see you at IHOP on Friday). Launcher 10 is the key to this experiment—to making Android feel more like a Windows 10 Mobile feature update instead of an entirely new operating system. I did consider a couple other Windows Modern UI-esque launchers, including Square Home 3 and the Microsoft Launcher, but by all accounts, Launcher 10 was the most faithful imitation of what I know and love. So I just went for it.
The thing about the standard iOS and Android interfaces, in my opinion, is that they just feel like cluttered desktops full of shortcuts. I just think they’re hideous, or at the very least, inelegant. There are better ways to manage shortcuts than to have them lazily arranged on screen after screen of grids.
Windows 10 Mobile’s Live Tiles, which Launcher 10 imitates, offer a better UI. Sure, the so-called Live Tiles are shortcuts to their respective apps, but they’re also essentially mini versions of the apps themselves, capable of showing notification information right inside each tile. I can see upcoming calendar information, messages from Slack, or traffic updates in them, just to name a few functions. Of course, those notifications are also available from the normal notification center in Android, as they were on Windows 10 Mobile. That makes the launcher a largely aesthetic choice, but I still found it invaluable for getting over the sour feelings I had about switching to Android.
It’s a bit of a bummer that the fake Live Tiles in Launcher 10 are limited to only the information that can be gleaned from notifications, though. It makes them a bit less robust than Windows Phone Live Tiles that could access data that ran a bit deeper. For example, I miss my weather Live Tile, but using an Android widget in its place is working out just fine. Launcher 10 lets me customize widgets to match the look, size, and layout of my other tiles by specifying their height and width, so they fit in. I can do the same tweaks to Launcher 10’s Live Tiles, with greater flexibility than true Live Tiles. It’s good stuff.
Launcher 10 also gives you fine-grained control over the background colors of the tiles, including the level of transparency. You can rename the tiles, group them into folders, change the icons, and override the default Live Tile data that’s shown. There’s even a handy real-time preview of all these tweaks so you can see the outcome as you make your adjustments.
In short, Launcher 10 gives we Windows 10 Mobile refugees almost exactly what we’re used to from the home screen and the app list (that you reach from swiping to the right). Of course, once you launch apps, native or otherwise, you’re back in Android land; but honestly, just finding everything in the same place I was used to finding it was most of the battle for me. It turns out that was all the victory I needed (well, that and using Microsoft apps when possible). Once you’ve seen one settings control panel, you’ve seen them all, you know? To any remaining holdouts, come on in, the water’s fine.
For Android users without Windows Phone experience, you can expect to create a vertical home screen full of tiles. It scrolls fluidly, so you don’t have to flip through pages of icons. There’s an alphabetically sorted list of apps at your disposal off to the right side that looks identical to the scrolling app list from the Windows 10 Start Menu. Consider giving it a try, if for no other reason than to see what weirdos like me have been squawking about for years. Launcher 10 is an excellent facsimile of Windows Phone.
The OS and native apps
Can you Android people explain why your silly OS complains to me about memory all the time? My KEY2 LE has 4 GB of RAM, but apparently Android is incapable of managing it without my help. What’s up with that? I refuse to install an app to sort out what the OS should be handling on its own, so when I see that message every couple of days, I just restart my phone. Maybe the Pie update will fix it.
I’ve got it under control now, but holy cow there are way too many notifications on by default. I just shut up a lot of apps by turning off their ability to talk with me unless I ask them to. For some of the others, I denied specific types of notifications. The first couple of days I had my phone, it was incredibly annoying to constantly be interrupted, track down the source of the interruption, and shut it down. The first time I took my phone with me to a store, it asked me to leave a review of the store when I left. I’m not a prude about location services, but I was not happy about being spammed with nonsense like that while out and about in the real world. As Phoebe from the Magic School Bus would say, “On my old phone, we never saw anything like this.”
As for the rest of the OS, I’m pretty Krogothed. I mean, it’s just a platform for apps that’s flexible and feature-rich. (That may be the shortest Android review ever.)
I have few comments about native apps. I’ll start by saying that I don’t have anything to say about the Google Assistant, because I switched to Cortana before I even tried it. Unfortunately, I have yet to figure out how to get Cortana to read me my texts in the car. That’s annoying and may cause me to look for a solution elsewhere. I’d prefer not to, though. Alexa and Cortana are already more than sufficient digital assistants for me (and they play nice together).
So far, I’ve been using the Google podcast app, but I might search for an alternative because it annoys me that it won’t automatically download podcasts. Yeah, yeah, it’s a streaming world, but data caps are a thing, and so is spotty cell coverage. I’d just as soon have my podcast app download my shows over Wi-Fi and play from a local copy without me having to do it manually. Google’s approach is a bit too modern for my taste, which is a shame, because the app is otherwise satisfactory. I don’t think I’m using any other native apps except for Chrome and Maps.
I’ll concede that maybe I’ve been using phones “wrong” and that maybe I’d be more excited about them if my lifestyle or age were different, but they aren’t, so I’m not. I guess my own personal flavor of reality is what’s allowed me to reside happily in my own little Windows Phone world while the rest of civilization continues to be unaware it was even an option. The good news is that it turns out the switch from Windows 10 Mobile to Android can be almost completely painless. I wonder how Linux feels about that.
A modern stone age family
After years of resisting and lots of apprehension about making the switch to a different mobile platform, I’ve arrived, and now I’m left wondering what exactly I was missing. Seriously, what’s the big deal again? Why were people telling me my phone was so backwards? I’m perfectly happy with where I landed, but I was happy where I was before. There wouldn’t even be anything remotely noteworthy to write about if I hadn’t started with a history lesson, picked out a quirky phone, and insisted on a Windows-like launcher. Is that a good thing? I’m not sure, but it feels like proof of what I already thought: For all their prowess, phones are just dreadfully dull, even when you try to spice them up to entertain the gerbils.