Using Windows Phone 8.1 as we head into 2017

Lumia 1020 on 8.1, with working media controls

In search of answers, I’ve been using a Lumia 1020 (resolutely back) on Windows Phone 8.1 for the last few days, exclusively. And you may not be surprised to learn that the experience has been refreshingly smooth (yes, even on the 1020’s slow S4 chip) and I hit very few issues. Rather amazingly given that development of Windows Phone 8.1 stopped around a couple of years ago and that most 8.1 applications are now effectively frozen in time/version now.

It wasn’t all roses, of course – I did miss the raw speed and screen size of the latest flagship Lumias – but there were plenty of positives, from the full implementation of Glance screen (complete with weather integration) to the fully working media controls at every turn (unlike W10M).

But could I (or you) really live with Windows Phone 8.1 today, let alone into the new year (2017), with – effectively – a three year old operating system? Unlike in the Android and iOS worlds, this ‘age’ doesn’t mean much of a security risk, since a) the OS was already very secure, and anyway b) the installed base of WP 8.1 users was too small a target (in the grand scheme of things) to really attract the attention of thieves, scammers and hackers.

There are other issues though. In no particular order:

  • The HERE suite (Maps/Drive) is not being updated anymore, so that means no extra features, no updated country maps, and very limited traffic data/awareness (if any – this could stop working any day too).  
  • Skype is no longer supported or updated, and will stop working soon (months, probably, at most – though it’s fully working as of mid-October 2016).  
  • The version of Office version is more limited, albeit not tied to Office 365 at all, so whatever your status on the latter, Word and Excel are fully working for all file locations.  
  • You’ll miss out on virtually all new application development – UWP apps are all for Windows 10, by definition. Now, some UWP apps are rewrites, ports or re-imaginings of older Windows Phone 8.1 applications (e.g. City Art Search, Office Lens, ProShot), but the majority aren’t. So, for example, you’d miss out on AAWP Universal, Newsflow, Starbucks, Maps App Discovery, and Perfect Flicker, to name but five that we’ve featured recently.     
  • The Windows Phone 8.1 applications that you do use have mostly been frozen or even abandoned, so you’ll be stuck at the current version in the Store forever. If the applications are bug-free and do what you want then fine – if they don’t then you’ve got a problem.  
  • No Bluetooth keyboard support – this came in (belatedly) with Windows Phone 8.1 Update 2, and this was only ever available to a handful of product variants. Don’t go looking for it though, since this support was very buggy – it was only in Windows 10 Mobile that Bluetooth keyboards became practical.

I’ve been racking my brains after a few days of 8.1 exclusivity and the points above are really all I could come up with in terms of things I missed about living with the older OS. There are other features which are W10-only, but then again there are some which are 8.1-only, so I’ve stuck to the factors which made (or which would make) a difference to me in real life.

Of the points above, the mapping and Skype issues are perhaps the two biggest and the ones which are the biggest hindrances to (me personally) carrying on the experiment into 2017. Certainly once Skype stops working altogether – and by which time HERE Maps will no doubt be missing various new bypasses and junctions – it really will perhaps be time to consign Windows Phone 8.1 and these older devices to the desk drawer.

In the meantime, the jury’s out though. None of the above are genuine showstoppers, at least in terms of a basic smartphone experience, and I can see many Lumia 820, 920, 925, 1020 and 1320 owners* still using Windows Phone 8.1 fairly happily well into the New Year. And, unlike the 2015/16 period, the temptation to jump up to Windows 10 Mobile on the Insiders programme is now gone, taking away that terrible, terrible ‘do I or don’t I?’ choice.**

note that I’m only including devices with 1GB RAM in this list, which will still offer a decent experience. The 512MB RAM devices are still probably too limited for AAWP reader ‘main phone’ use, whatever the calendar year!

** while it’s technically possible to upgrade an 8.1 device to W10M Redstone nowadays, it’s a genuinely scary hack, is device-dependent, and is very risky – I really don’t recommend trying.

What about you? I want to hear from anyone else with a main phone running Windows Phone 8.1 – what do you see as the main restrictions and issues for you as we head into 2017?

Lumia 1020 with Glance weather

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