Windows Phone 8 Review: Good, But Not Good Enough

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The smartphone industry is a little bit like the car industry these days: At more than a certain price, there aren't any bad products anymore. This happened in the last 10-20 years in the car industry, and in the last one to two years in the smartphone industry.

I have now spent a week with the HTC 8X smartphone,which runs the all-new Windows Phone 8 operating system from Microsoft ( MSFT). This is notto be confused with Windows 8 or Windows 8 RT, as those operating systems power PCs and tablets.

General Douglas MacArthur reputedly said, "Behind every lostbattle there are too words: Too late."

This applies in many ways toWindows Phone 8. If this operating system (and the related phones) had been launched two or threeyears ago, it would have been class-leading. Today, the competitionfrom Apple ( AAPL) and Google ( GOOG) has improved so much that I recommend iPhone and Android/Nexus products for most users.

First, let's take a look at the various phones that will be available for Windows Phone 8.

> > Bull or Bear? Vote in Our Poll

Depending on your carrier, your hardware choices are these: Twophones from Nokia ( NOK), two from HTC, and one from Samsung. These will beavailable in various stages across geographies over the next 30 or sodays. The admittedly very few Microsoft stores will supposedly carryall of them.

Nokia: Thick and Heavy

According to camera experts, Nokia is the best. The Nokia also hasinductive charging, for those who care about that. Now for the badnews: Nokia is extremely heavy and thick, even with its good 2,000 mAhbattery. Unless you're a camera buff, Nokia isn't the best WindowsPhone.

HTC: Class-Leading Design

These new HTC designs give Apple a run for its money. I spent a weekwith the high-end 8X, which is extremely thin and light, and hasa curved back, wrapped in a soft-touch material. You absolutely musthold this in your hand. If "feel" were among the criteria for display at The Museum of Modern Art, this phone would be hanging on the wall there.

The HTC 8X has some modest disadvantages as well. The 1,800 mAhbattery is smaller than Nokia and Samsung, although I found thebattery life to be competitive with the best products using Android,iOS and Research In Motion's ( RIMM) BlackBerry operating systems. The lock/power switch is very difficult to use, especially combined with the placement of the volume buttons, often causing you to press both. The corners are very square, perhaps not toeveryone's liking. Lastly, I have not yet seen how thatwonderful soft-touch back/side material works with someone who wantsto add an extra cover/case around it.

Samsung: The Bigger Battery

If you have seen a Galaxy S III, you have pretty much seen the SamsungATIV. It's a fully competent, very thin, light smartphone with a relatively boring/standard design. Nothing wrong with that! Mostimportantly, the Samsung has the largest battery of all the newWindows Phones: 2,300 mAh.

Before I outline my criticisms of Windows Phone 8, let me note the system's positives. And yes, for some people these will be sufficient andlegitimate reasons to pick Windows Phone 8 over iPhone andAndroid/Nexus.

Software: The Advantages

1. Skype

Microsoft acquired Skype a year ago, and it will soon (days, weeks?) make available full Skype integration into Windows Phone 8. This isproper Skype, all-IP end-to-end. It will also work in a way thatensures it is connected persistently, but yet does not draw materialbattery power. No doubt, this is a huge selling point.

2. Microsoft Office

For the remaining souls who have not yet migrated to Google Docs,which I find to be so much better, the Office integration issuperb. I might add "obviously" as that brings out the larger pointof the vertical services integration for all the major ecosystems: Apple, Microsoft and Google.

3. SkyDrive

Surprise! For reasons similar to Office, SkyDrive integration isgreat, and SkyDrive is much better than Apple'siCloud. It's not necessarily better than Google Drive, though.

4. Kid's Corner

This is basically a long-overdue "guest mode" for the smartphoneindustry. It happens all the time that you want or need to hand yourphone to someone else, and the ability to put them into "guest mode"is a material advantage. I wonder how long it will take Apple andGoogle to match this. For the time being, however, this is a strongMicrosoft advantage.

Software: The Drawbacks

The downsides of Windows Phone are also material, for many users.

1. The Number of Apps

Superficially, the number of apps sounds great: 120,000, including allegedly 56 out of the top 60. The problem is that it simply doesn't match my own reality. Among the 25 or so top apps that I use the most, there are sufficient holes that Windows Phone 8 just does not work for me right now. Perhaps later, but not with the missing apps.

Just to give you a flavor of what Windows Phone 8 is missing: Sirius XM ( SIRI), OnStar,ChargePoint and the whole Google suite of services: Reader, Voice,Talk, etc.

Someone may argue: "But when you switch to Windows, you're supposed toget rid of all of your Google services, and use Microsoft's equivalentservices instead." Yeah, good luck with that. I use Google Chrome,Drive, Reader, Voice, etc. on Apple's iOS products (iPhone, iPad,etc.) in most cases, just like they are built into everything Android.

The fundamental problem here is that with a few exceptions (OneNote,Skype), Microsoft is becoming a platform island to a greater degreethan Google. Apple may be just as bad as Microsoft, but all this doesis to argue for Google's multiplatform compatibility.

2. The Quality of the Apps

This one is tricky. What I mean here is that some of the WindowsPhone 8 apps don't work as well as they do on Android or even iOS.

Gmail: Yes, Gmail. The email client on Windows Phone 8 is bothbeautiful and good, but once you go beyond the beauty, it doesn'tperform any better than the Gmail client on Android/Nexus. Refreshthe list? You can't pull down to refresh; you have to find/press abutton.

Twitter: Again, an aesthetic beauty. Too bad it just doesn't work aswell as it does on Android/Nexus. Pull down to refresh? No.

Browser: It seems like an OK browser, but it's not Chrome. Whycan't I run Chrome on Windows Phone 8? I have Chrome on all of myother devices, so that I can access all open tabs from any device.

3. Other Issues

No AirPlay. Apple has the great advantage of selling the $99AppleTV, which can play almost anything from/through the iOS devicewith outstanding ease.

Price. You can buy a Google Nexus device for as little as $299unlocked, contract-free. Then you can trek to Walmart and buyunlimited data for as little as $30 per month. So far, Microsoft hasonly announced contract-based prices (industry-typical, at $199 and alittle less), forcing you to pay outrageous monthly fees to carriers. With these, you lose the international flexibility of a SIM-unlocked device. Iwill never again buy any smartphone that's not SIM-unlocked and notcontract-free.

Bottom Line

Windows Phone 8 is great for some users but not for most.

The computing industry has now arrived at a point of ecosystem lock-inwith only a few ways to be multiplatform as a user. In this bravenew world, Windows Phone 8 is a strong performer in terms of its basicoperating system stability. However, too many apps are still missing,and if you are already knee-deep into the Android and iOS ecosystems,I simply cannot see any compelling reason you would want to switch toWindows Phone 8 except for those mentioned above.

The vast majority of smartphone users are better off buying the Nexus4 directly from Google for $299 (and up) and choosing the cheapestpossible month-to-month data for as low as $30, which will save themmore than $1,000 over two years, while at the same time giving them asmartphone with more and better apps. For those willing to spend alot more money, the iPhone 5 is a worthy contender for the smartphonethrone as well.

At the time of publication, Wahlman was long GOOG, AAPL and MSFT.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

More from Technology

One Chart Will Make You Even More Pumped Up to Buy Tech Stocks

One Chart Will Make You Even More Pumped Up to Buy Tech Stocks

IBM Shares Climb After Hours on Earnings Beat

IBM Shares Climb After Hours on Earnings Beat

Video: What to Expect From Microsoft's Earnings Thursday

Video: What to Expect From Microsoft's Earnings Thursday

Lee Munson: Not Peak FANG Yet

Lee Munson: Not Peak FANG Yet

Amazon's Cloud-Market Lead Is Being Threatened by Microsoft

Amazon's Cloud-Market Lead Is Being Threatened by Microsoft