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As AAWP heads into 2018…

I’ve gone over the ‘not dead’ status of Windows 10 Mobile a number of times here on AAWP, so I won’t repeat myself. Suffice it to say that the OS remains fully supported and patched monthly until 2019/2020, depending on the branch you’re thinking of.

What’s more evident is the lack of hardware. Microsoft shut down the Lumia factories in 2016, as part of its slimming down in the wake of the acquisition of the Nokia Devices organisation in 2013, so by the end of 2017 it is now pretty hard to buy a Lumia 950 or 950 XL new – and even harder to find spares to repair one of these phones should you break them (or should they fail).

One of Microsoft’s hopes was that third parties would license Windows 10 Mobile and produce their own hardware, much like they did at the start of Windows Phone, back in 2010, but we’ve only seen limited uptake in this regard. HP have had their Elite x3 for the last 18 months, but they crippled it with sky-high pricing (not least for their Lap dock), they were so used to selling business PCs and accessories that they made the x3 system prohibitive for individuals. HP has blamed Microsoft for not helping more in terms of development, but pricing is the main culprit here.

Of course, many AAWP readers still use older Nokias, the 830, 930 and 1520 especially. And these still rock along quite well with Windows 10 Mobile Creators Update, so all is well as long as they keep working. Ditto the Lumia 650, 950 and 950 XL, which are now up to two years old and on the Fall Creators Update officially. There are no real hardware weak points on these phones, so as long as you don’t actually drop and smash them… Do grab spare batteries if you get the chance though.

There has been some new hardware though. Alcatel committed to making Windows 10 Mobile versions of its popular IDOL 4S (originally for Android) in 2016 and the ‘with Windows 10’ version appeared as an exclusive for T-Mobile in the USA in late 2016, followed by an unlocked version in North America in early 2017 and eventually the full ‘world LTE’ version, the IDOL 4 Pro, in August 2017. This is a much better phone than you might think, with stunning screen, feel and speakers, let down slightly by having a ‘good’ rather than ‘excellent’ camera. And it’s now much cheaper, at least in the UK Store. Snap one up while you can?

And, recently, there’s been the business-focussed Wileyfox Pro, which I’ve started to review here. It’s main selling point is that, like the IDOL 4 Pro, it exists at all in a Windows 10 Mobile-hostile world.

Yes, there were some crowd-funded efforts. Wharton Brooks, TrekStor, but neither was interesting or exceptional enough to arouse interest. You’ve got to have a genuine USP to get a crowd funded project off the ground.

IDOL 4 Pro and Wileyfox Pro

Alcatel IDOL 4 Pro and Wileyfox Pro – the effective Windows 10 Mobile ‘new’ line-up as at the beginning of 2018…

So does two (or arguably three) new models for sale constitute a viable ecosystem? Probably not, but remember again the still active support for the underlying operating system and its commonality and UWP app compatibility with over half a billion laptops, tablets and hybrids across the world. The situation isn’t quite as gloomy as you might think.

For fans of Windows on phones, the ultimate hope now rests on a first party ‘Surface Mobile’, which is becoming increasingly less mythical day by day as patents and leaks appear. The recent renders seem very believable and fit right in with Microsoft’s stated intent to create hardware that defines a whole new category. Although not running Windows 10 Mobile explicitly, such a folding Surface Mobile will have an almost identical (CShell) Start screen interface, especially when folded, will have a familiar phablet form factor when needed, and will run the exact same UWP applications as we’re used to (though no compatibility with older Windows Phone 8.1 Silverlight apps and games, notably).

With the advantage of the unfolded tablet and laptop modes, but also with a much higher price tag, no doubt. My best guess for such a Surface Mobile was always Spring 2018 and this still holds true, I’d expect a dedicated event in the April timeframe.

Surface Mobile render

For image credit, see the Twitter feed linked here.

Throughout 2018, UWP applications will continue to arrive and be updated, though I’m not optimistic about much of the ‘app gap’ being filled, relative to iOS and Android. It all depends which ‘service’ applications you need. At least the Edge browser gets more powerful each day by virtue of more and more companies putting more capability into their mobile-friendly web sites (think HTML5 and progressive web apps).

[If your allegiance is just as much to Microsoft’s services (Outlook, Office, OneDrive, etc.) as to its OS then AAWP isn’t so much for you, but you’re covered well due to Microsoft’s continuing development of its software properties for iOS and Android. And good luck to you. If your allegiance was always to the Nokia brand then you’re also best covered elsewhere, since ‘Nokia’ has now made a comeback as a brand with Android phones, though don’t expect all the goodies that came with their Symbian and then Lumia hardware, the human and patent resources needed just aren’t there anymore.]

So… two new phones in 2017, full support at an OS level, and an exciting transforming first party flagship in 2018. Still something to talk about then, in features, reviews and comments through the year, even if overall activity gets slightly quieter as time goes by.

Thanks to Rafe Blandford for his financial support of AAWP as always, for his back end programming, and for his contributions via the podcast. Thanks to guest writers and guest podcasters. And thanks to everyone who has commented so intelligently and usefully in 2017. Let’s have more of the same in 2018. Let’s prove to the world that mobile isn’t completely a two-horse race.

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WP 8.1 and Windows 10 Mobile app and game directories for 2018

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After a gap of six weeks, it’s my latest update for AAWP’s directories of general applications (8 new entries, 2 removed), media, imaging and reading apps (3 new entries), and games (12 new entries). Your guide to the best of Microsoft’s on-phone Store, every item has been reviewed – or recommended by readers here.

Note, as usual, that there are no explicit ‘new’ tags – everything that’s been added has been highlighted in some form here on AAWP in an article, review or comment, so there won’t be any new entries that surprise you. I’m concentrating simply on keeping the directories as ‘current’ as possible, as a service to our readers. So do shout if you find that an app or game has stopped working or has been removed from the Store.

For each directory, click/tap on the graphical montages below:


General apps


Photo/Media apps


Games


Plenty to get your teeth stuck into then. There are plenty of ‘gaps’ in the Windows phone ecosystem – mobile payments and store apps being the biggest that I can think of – when using Windows 10 Mobile 24/7, I find myself doing rather more in the Edge browser and HTML5 web sites than I’d really rather wish to. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing available for your old – or even your new – Windows-powered phone, as these directories hopefully prove.

Feel free to comment here (perhaps for general chat about the state of the app ecosystem) or in the comments threads on the individual directories (perhaps for specific extra suggestions or corrections for each).

Mini-review: Auto Face Swap UWP

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Probably just a novelty, but the results are surprisingly well done, at least for static images, Auto Face Swap UWP does exactly what it claims, letting you put one person’s face in another persons face outline, and vice versa. See the screenshots below. Fun or freaky? You decide! There’s also a live mode, which works less well, but is something to play around with down the pub, I’m sure. This being a full UWP app, it can also run on Xbox, Hololens and desktop PC – there’s even a video tutorial, offered at startup, showing operation on a ltop or Continuum screen.

From the Store description:

  • Swap or copy faces automatically.
  • Just drag and drop the face or use the webcam for live face swapping. You can save the generated image and share it.
  • Do you want to know how your child will look in the future? Morph two or more faces together and create astonishing images.

Here’s Auto Face Swap UWP in operation on my Lumia 950:

ScreenshotScreenshot

Step 1: load up two images with front-facing faces – you don’t need to match scaling and resolution exactly; Step 2: drag one framed face to the other. Bingo, the features are swapped! Tap on either to save it, etc.

Example output

It’s me, but not me. Someone else’s features entirely! Notice the glasses meld away too. So switching faces where one has glasses and the other not is probably not going to work too well…

ScreenshotScreenshot

There’s also a ‘live’ mode, which tries to auto-swap on the fly whenever it sees two faces in the viewfinder – this works even with pictures, though swapping faces with my daughter when she was about 8 is a little surreal. This is a lot of fun and you can record video this way, i.e. with you making expressions with someone else’s face, though quality isn’t as good as when using the static face swap; (right) The app’s Settings dialog, useful for removing the bounding frames and for switching the live view to the rear camera, should it be you trying to play tricks on two people in front of you(!)

Output resolution for swapped static images is only 1MP, but I’ll give Auto Face Swap UWP a pass here, since it’s having to match up fine photo details and there would inevitably be some pixellation and discontinuities at full resolution, even if both source images were of the same size. 1MP is fine for social fun sharing.

You can grab this in the Store here, or there’s an ad-less version here for £5 or so. I was using the latter and didn’t see any ads, though perhaps these creep in after a certain number of images or after a certain time?

Source / Credit: Store

Mini-review: Scarlett Mysteries: Cursed Child

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Continuing my holiday series of mini-reviews of games for Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 10 Mobile, here’s the latest ‘hidden object’ classic from Artifex Mundi. Lush production values and flawless game play if you’re into immersive puzzlers, Scarlett Mysteries: Cursed Child is available in both full and trial forms in the Windows Store.

From the Store description:

From an early age, Scarlett Everitt displayed a gift for the paranormal, as ghosts and spirits accompanied her every step. Desperate to protect her from an encroaching darkness, her father, Johnathan, placed her in an orphanage run by nuns. Years later, Scarlett returns to find her dad, and finds a clue that leads her to the Victorian mansion of a baronet named Steameyer.

  • BUY ONCE – ENJOY ENDLESSLY! – Unlock the game to own it forever!
     
  • LOOK FOR CLUES TO THE WHEREABOUTS OF YOUR FATHER! – As the protagonist tries to locate her missing father, a clue leads her to the train station next to Baronet Steameyer’s mansion and factory.
     
  • USE YOUR PSYCHIC ABILITIES! – Scarlett possesses a remarkable gift that enables her to see where her father resided and traveled in the past.
     
  • SOLVE THE RIDDLES OF A VICTORIAN RESIDENCE! – Scarlett hopes to find her father while exploring Steameyer’s mansion. However, the huge house hides terrifying secrets and dreadful mysteries.
     
  • LEARN THE TRUTH HIDDEN IN THE DARK PAST! – What connects the heroine to the Steameyer family, and what dramatic fate befell the mysterious heiress to their fortune? Help Scarlett learn the truth!

Here’s Scarlett Mysteries: Cursed Child in action:

Screenshot, Scarlett Mysteries: Cursed Child UWP

A typical scene from the game. Around the UI, from bottom left, anti-clockwise, are shortcuts to map, visions (puzzles to reveal certain images), menu, objects that have been collected so far, objectives reminder, hint, and the glowing gold trail is showing the current hint (a cabinet to tap on)…

Screenshot, Scarlett Mysteries: Cursed Child UWP

As the game suggests, up front, crank up your speakers or put on headphones, since there’s lots going on in terms of audio.

Screenshot, Scarlett Mysteries: Cursed Child UWP

Part of the cinematic introduction, Artifex Mundi create these mini-movies, artwork and puzzles full-time, and it shows.

Screenshot, Scarlett Mysteries: Cursed Child UWP

Impressively, you can play the game in any of three different preset difficulty levels or, as here, create your own, customised to how challenging you want it to be.

Screenshot, Scarlett Mysteries: Cursed Child UWP

Using a collected piece of tin foil to bridge two connectors. Every object has its purpose somewhere in the game. Or does it?(!)

Screenshot, Scarlett Mysteries: Cursed Child UWP

Mini-games and puzzles abound. Here the challenge is to find the right plugs to fit into the tram’s plug board, to get it going.

Screenshot, Scarlett Mysteries: Cursed Child UWP

The psychic ‘visions’ system opens up visual puzzles, as shown below:

Screenshot, Scarlett Mysteries: Cursed Child UWP

Here you have to rotate all the pieces (I’ve done most of them) to assemble a scene…

Screenshot, Scarlett Mysteries: Cursed Child UWP

…and here’s the final (psychic?) image. It all helps piece together the mystery of what happened (in this case) to your father.

Terrific stuff – if you have patience then put on some headphones and immerse yourself in this atmospheric world. Artifex Mundi’s games are available for all platforms, but including Windows Phone 8.1, Windows 10 Mobile, and Windows 10 on the desktop (i.e. x86).

You can buy the full game for £2 or so here in the Store, or there’s a trial version for free here.

Source / Credit: Store

The Alcatel IDOL 4 Pro on sale, £126 off in the UK Store

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Here’s the proof, from the main order page:

Screenshot

There’s no mention of how long the offer is on for, but there’s no deadline given, so maybe it’ll be there for a while? I did look on some other MS sites, but the IDOL 4 Pro seems full priced there, etc.

Comments welcome. Will you snap this one up?

Source / Credit: Microsoft

Backroads UWP helps plan off-road treks

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The intersection of Windows 10 Mobile users and outdoor enthusiasts always seems higher than the average – maybe it’s the opportunity to use the great Lumia cameras? Anyway, we’re seeing more and more UWP utilities designed to help you when away from the roads and civilisation in general. Well, maybe the odd hotel at night and then back out into the outdoors? All planned and visualised here in a brand new application, Backroads UWP.

From the Store description:

Prepare for adventure!

Backroads is the definitive trip planner and trip companion app for the obsessive trip planner. It is designed to be the place where you gather and organize all the information you gained during planning, so that everything is readily available at your fingertips when you’re on the road.

Have you ever found yourself writing down GPS coordinates for some obscure point of interest? Saving off GPX or KML files to guide you to that unknown wonder in the wilderness? Writing down a detailed day-by-day plan for your hard-earned vacation? Or simply wishing you could visualize your upcoming trip in one place? If so, this is the app for you: Backroads was designed by obsessive trip planners to help you prepare for your own adventures.

KNOWN ISSUES: The Windows 10 Creator’s Update has a number of map-related bugs which can cause the app to crash. The Fall Creator’s Update appears to have fixed most of these issues.

Features

  • Trip planner
  • Trip companion
  • Road trip planner
  • Weather forecast
  • GPS tracker
  • GPX track viewer
  • KML track viewer

Normally I’d head outdoors and try this for real, but it’s heading into winter here in the UK, so I’ll content myself with annotating the developer’s example screenshots:

Screenshot

This being a full UWP app for all Windows 10 devices, Backroads is equally happy in landscape or portrait modes. Here a trip is visualised in overview, this is one day’s planned trek (see the tabs along the bottom)

ScreenshotScreenshot

The built-in Calendar keeps track of everything, with a Logistics view picking out the hard and fast booked items, along with details on each.

ScreenshotScreenshot

Invidual trek legs can be plotted on Windows 10 Maps’ satellite views, both in terms of planning and (later) where you actually went.

 

You can grab this in the Store here. Comments welcome if you get to try it for real.

PS. See also GeoMeterPro 10 UWP, a direct competitor, reviewed here.

Source / Credit: Store

Action Note UWP brings your notes to Action Center

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OK, so this isn’t exactly what Microsoft had in mind when it created Action Center for Windows 10 – it’s meant for notifications, but Action Note keeps content from your created notes as entries there instead. OK, so you can argue that each note might be an action of sorts, i.e. something for you to do.

From the Store description:

Action Note is not just another note taking app. It integrates into your Action Center and enables the fastest access to all of your notes. Even with photos and across all your Windows 10 devices. Bring your productivity to the next level!

  • Action Center integration
  • Attachments
  • Categorization and ordering
  • Cross-device sync
  • Offline support
  • Personalization
  • Beautiful design
  • Scan QR codes

As usual, I gave this a whirl on the Lumia 950:

Screenshot Action Note UWPScreenshot Action Note UWP

Notes are created and auto-saved, with titles, content, attachments, priority flags, and categorised by colour, pick the latter from the top right pick list. You can also pin a note to your Start screen, if appropriate.

Screenshot Action Note UWPScreenshot Action Note UWP

Your notes appear in a collapsible list in Action Notes UWP itself, all laid out clearly, just tap to edit as needed; (right) Action Note appears prominently in Action Center, with a shortcut to create a new note and your top two action notes (here I’ve tapped on ‘more’ to expand the list).

Screenshot Action Note UWPScreenshot Action Note UWP

There’s not much on the hamburger menu, but you do get to browse notes you’ve archived away, plus you get to upgrade to the Pro version – with the cross-device sync, this is pretty much a ‘must’ once you’re actually using the program for serious notetaking.

Screenshot Action Note UWPScreenshot Action Note UWP

Plenty of configurability in Settings in terms of what appears in Action Center, plus you get to set defaults for new notes and also change what the live tile does.

You can grab Action Note UWP here. It’s very slick and a way of taking OneNote-style freeform notetaking further into your phone’s interface and making sure that you ever forget anything!

Source / Credit: Store

Server speed often the biggest issue – and Microsoft is now a ‘Cloud’ company?

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On the whole, I really enjoy using Windows 10 Mobile, which is why AAWP continues to exist and be updated. However, it’s not all roses, and there’s one thing I’ve never publicly complained about. Until now. One of the biggest frustrations I have with the operating system has nothing to do with the OS at all and more to do with Microsoft making a complete pigs ear of the software on their servers. Let me explain…

How many times have you seen any of these scenarios:

  • You open the Store client, you open up ‘Downloads and Updates’. There’s a pause. Three seconds later, ‘Recent activity’ starts to get populated. You tap on ‘Get updates’… and wait some more. Perhaps 30 seconds later some updates appear. You tap on the download control and… wait some more. Eventually there’s a message about getting license information, then the download starts and even a small 10MB application can often take tens of seconds to arrive and install.
     
  • Still in the Store client, you tap on a new application or game that looks promising. You get the title and… wait a couple of seconds… a brief description. Wait a few more seconds…. look, there are some screenshot thumbnails. You’re trying to swipe further down, to see user reviews. The UI doesn’t let you, because it hasn’t got the data yet. Finally, after fifteen seconds, you have everything you need.
     
  • You open OneDrive and open a folder that you’ve been in hundreds of times before. Yet the thumbnails for each item don’t seem to have cached and you then have to wait 10 or 20 seconds before you can see (for example) which image is which.
     
  • You’re in Photos, trying to find an image (perhaps auto-added on another phone?) and you swipe down a number of screen-fulls. You’re faced with a grid of grey squares and have to wait five seconds before the thumbnails appear. No, the image you want isn’t there. So you swipe down another screen-full and rinse and repeat. Five seconds each time, it all adds up.
     
  • You head into Feedback Hub, intending to give Microsoft feedback (such as ‘Your servers are too slow!’) and tap on ‘Feedback’ in the hamburger menu, to see what’s trending. Fifteen seconds go by, while you stare at spinning dot animations. Fifteen. 
     
  • In any online application running under Windows 10 Mobile, seeing dots flying across the screen, and then flying some more…. and then more dots spinning around. Never a progress bar, to give you hope, just dot animations that are open ended…

Now the examples above apply on even the fastest phone hardware. We’re talking Snapdragon 810, 820 chipsets with plenty of RAM… and there’s no WAY that the simple operations above should take more than a fraction of a second. These chipsets are (here) programmed with a 32-bit OS and measure their speed in GigaHertz. That’s thousands of millions of operations PER SECOND. And then factor in multiple cores. So why are our Windows 10 Mobile phones being so slow?

As implied, the inefficiencies are in the cloud, on Microsoft’s servers. We’re not talking a lot of data here – much of the examples above only involve kilobytes worth of information. Multiply this up with metadata and formatting and there’s more than plain text, I agree. But the chipsets here are capable of handling and rendering all the information in a fraction of a second.

We’re not talking connectivity issues here either. I normally test these phones within a metre of a 200Mbps connection with 5GHz Wifi. There’s bandwidth coming out of every port in sight.

My contention here is that, for a cloud-first, services-based company (under Nadella – sigh), Microsoft has been doing a spectacularly (and consistently) bad job of managing the load on its servers. This should be the one thing they do best in 2017 – have server farms that can respond to millions of queries per second, from round the world, and deliver data smoothly.

Servers

Google, Microsoft’s big rival, seems to know how to do it – Google Drive, the Play Store, Google Photos, are all much quicker on Android, even on low or mid-range phones, than my Windows 10 Mobile flagships. 

And that’s frustrating. Which is why I’m surprised that more people haven’t complained about Microsoft server speed and efficiency before.

Heck, this can’t be rocket science – surely whole books have been written on distributing network load and providing fast response times… on all platforms. What about you – can I get a seconder on all this? Do you think Microsoft’s servers have been a factor in the perceived slowness of their operating systems generally?

Podcasted UWP is a straightforward podcast player

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The number of UWP podcatchers for Windows 10 continues to grow – introducing Podcasted UWP (also called ‘PodPro’ in some placesm confusingly), spotted in the Store recently. It’s minimalist in terms of user interface (just tap and play) but is functional in many ways that are not obvious, with skip controls, speed variation, a sleep timer, and more…

From the Store description:

Podcasted is set to be the most immersive podcast app on Windows Universal platforms. You can build or import your own podcast library. Sync across devices. And of course pick up your listening progress. The user interface of Podcasted aims at modern and minimalistic. Differentiate itself from old Windows app pattern. Making you experience it instead of using it.

  • subscribe and download podcast
  • variable speed: change the play speed from 0.5x to 2x
  • cast to different devices via Wi-Fi
  • sync app data via cloud

I gave Podcasted UWP a run on my Lumia 950:

ScreenshotScreenshot

Favourite podcasts (those you’ve starred) appear at the top of the main Listen list, followed by popular suggestions and recommendations. In each case, tap through to see episodes and then they auto-download when tapped on, as needed. There’s no indication of any kind of background checking and downloading, but in this always-on day and age, this isn’t necessarily a showstopper anymore?

ScreenshotScreenshot

The playback controls are tiny and stay at the bottom of the screen, while space is somewhat wasted above – definitely a few UI tweaks needed still. Early days? Note the skip, volume and speed controls down the bottom too…. (right) the Settings pane has several tabs, offering OneDrive import and export of your favourites, cleaning up when listened (though I suspect you’d have to go right to the end to qualify?), and so on…

You can grab Podcasted UWP here in the Store, the IAP is to remove the banner ads and some limitations and is £2. Worth keeping your eye on and, yes, I’m overdue revisiting my UWP podcatcher round up feature here on AAWP!

Source / Credit: Store

Tapershot UWP a capable full-res effects and editing utility

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Photo effects applications are fairly common on most platforms, but this one’s pretty well done. Tapershot (or Tapershop in the Store description, confusingly!) UWP has a vast array of effects and filters, many fully configurable, outputs at full resolution, and works on any Windows 10 phone, tablet or desktop.

From the Store description:

With Tapershop, apply professional and nice effects, filters to your photos. Pick a photo on your device or take a photo from your camera, tap on filters (more than 80 available) and give your shots some improvements!

  • Apply filters and effects
  • Import a photo from your device or camera
  • Save as PNG, JPG, GIF, TIFF, BMP
  • Display a default photos folder
  • Share
  • Crop and save
  • Set as wallpaper
  • Set as lock screen

I gave it a whirl on my Lumia 950 XL:

ScreenshotScreenshot

File and sharing controls at the top, editing controls at the bottom. Just pick a photo and then get fiddling. The Settings control brings up different sliders, depending on which editing function or filter is selected.

ScreenshotScreenshot

The range of adjustments, filters and effects is enormous, with the filter control bottom right letting you switch between banks/categories…

ScreenshotScreenshot

A wide range of formats to save to, though JPG is best and safest, of course, in terms of quality/size; (right) confirmation in Photos that the processed images are at full resolution (in this case, 8MP)…

With just a few UI bugs here and there (cough, portrait photos) and some updates needed, this is a great new little UWP application. There’s an in-app-purchase, but it’s only to buy the developer a coffee to say thanks. So, please do that, at least.

You can grab Tapershot UWP here in the Store.

Source / Credit: Store