Windows Phone Podcasts App: So Close Yet So Far

When Windows Phone 8.1 was announced, we learned of a separate Podcasts app which was going to be made available as a pre-installed app, and instead of relying on the Zune back-end, it was going to be powered by Bing.

Having installed the Developer Preview of the Windows Phone 8.1 on my Lunia 920, I wanted to check out the podcasts app. After all, in order to become my daily driver, a phone has to be able to provide me a superb podcast experience. There is much to like in the app, but much more to dislike.

First off, some of the things I like:

International support I haven’t tried this myself but it is well-known that this new app is now made available everywhere Windows Phone is available, which is a boon to all international customers. Given that the back-end is not Zune’s, I suspect that the US-only nature of the earlier podcast functionality may have something to do with the database. Still beats me, but regardless that is a thing of the past now. All Windows Phone customers are now welcome to use podcasts “natively”.

Database maintenance Since the discovery and addition of podcasts is powered by Bing, there is usually no issue with addition of a new podcast feed. I did find it odd that a popular Windows-related podcast, Windows Developer Show was found but had no content. I know in this specific case that the podcasters changed their feed a few weeks ago but it is a bad sign that the feed was not updated even after so long. Regardless, at least it is not a person or a team that has to manage the database, which is a good thing.

Missing content in Windows Phone Podcasts app
Missing content in Windows Phone Podcasts app

Playback speed Yay, yay, yay. Finally, we can speed through podcasts with a 1.5x and a 2x setting.

Windows Phone Podcasts app: 1.5x playback
Windows Phone Podcasts app: 1.5x playback
Windows Phone Podcasts app: Normal speed playback
Windows Phone Podcasts app: Normal speed playback

Manual refresh Repeat after me: yay, yay, yay. Prior to this app, there was really no way to detect when the phone checked for new episodes and more importantly, there was no way to trigger a check. As a result we were forced to resort to hacks like unsubscribing and re-subscribing, connecting to power and WiFi and waiting, etc. Not an issue anymore, since each podcast now has a setting to refresh which checks for new episodes.

However, there are a bunch of major annoyances which I am hoping get fixed before Windows Phone 8.1 (after all, it is still in a developer preview state!) becomes final.

Episodes to keep In default series settings as well as for a specific series settings, for how many episodes to keep, I see none for streaming-only as well as discrete numbers from 1-5, 10, and “all”. However, my usual setting is to keep x number of unplayed episodes, including “all unplayed”. There is no way to have a series keep the latest unplayed episode (daily news podcast, for example, where archive is not important) or keep all unplayed episodes in case of podcasts that are not too frequent but are generally not-to-be-missed. I would love to see that selection change from how many episodes to keep, to what type of episodes to keep based on unplayed status.

 

Windows Phone Podcasts app: Episodes to keep
Windows Phone Podcasts app: Episodes to keep

Playback speed setting I will chalk this up as a bug, where the speed setting is not remembered between app launches. In other words, after I exit the app and resume, it gets switched back to 1x, or the normal speed. This one is highly annoying, and hopefully gets squashed before general release.

View only new episodes Under collection, there are two sections, one for audio and one for video. Unfortunately, once you tap into one of those sections, there is no way for you to see only the new (or “unplayed”) episodes. In fact, even on the main screen where the app shows favorites, there is no indication which series has new episodes. So I am forced to browse all the podcasts and view under the icon if it says there are new episodes. This is very annoying and I don’t think it is a bug. It seems like it is functionality that was left out, perhaps due to time constraints. Hope a setting is included under “audio”, to see only new episodes across all podcasts. Also, hoping some indicator is made available in the favorites section, to show which podcasts have new/unplayed episodes waiting to be consumed.

Windows Phone Podcasts app: Collection view
Windows Phone Podcasts app: Collection view

Played episodes not removed After I set up several favorite podcasts, I had to naturally and understandably go through each podcast and mark everything except the recent few episodes as played. That went fine, but unfortunately, the played episodes were not removed from the view. As a result, after tapping into a podcast and swiping over to the list of episodes, I have to scroll through all the played episodes in order to get to the unplayed episodes.I could use the filter and choose just “downloaded” episodes, which is what I essentially need, but that filter does not retain its setting :-(

(Side note: if I am going into the podcast from the favorites area, why show me the podcast information screen and make me swipe left in order to see the episodes? Why not just land me directly to the list of episodes? I would understand if the landing spot is the information screen if it is launched from a search but if it is from favorites or collection, I don’t need to see the information, right?)

Windows Phone Podcasts app: Scroll to find new episodes
Windows Phone Podcasts app: Scroll to find new episodes
Windows Phone Podcasts app: View options
Windows Phone Podcasts app: View options
Windows Phone Podcasts app: View only downloaded episodes
Windows Phone Podcasts app: View only downloaded episodes

 

Universal, please Finally, now that we know of Universal Apps and shared settings and configurations, I cannot see why this app cannot exist on Windows 8.x as well. I would love to continue listening to my podcasts on my PC/tablet and get the play position and subscription settings sync-ed across my devices via my Microsoft account. Hope that also happens around the time the app becomes final.

As you can see there is much to love in the app, but some key functionality is missing and needs to be present in order for this power user to truly embrace it.

Are you happy with the app? Any pluses or minuses I may have missed? Let me know!

 

Windows Phone Is Getting a File Manager App Soon

On Friday May 2, Joe Belfiore, VP in the Windows Phone team participated in a reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA). There were several good questions and more importantly, several good answers there. One of the revelations from the AMA was an upcoming File Manager app for Windows Phone 8.1.

The app’s existence, and the fact that it should hopefully land in the Store around the end of May, was revealed by Belfiore in response to a question about file management on the phone. In fact, in his response, he mentioned that it is a highly requested feature and that he was glad to announce that the app is coming.

WOO HOO! SOMEONE ASKED THIS QUESTION!! I’ve been waiting! in fact, I’ve avoided tweeting on this very topic just for all you redditors. Seriously.

in fact– you GET A CORTANA T-SHIRT FOR ASKING!! :) (PM me your size and we’ll get it to you.)

*** YES *** We are doing a File Manager for WP8.1! I know a LOT of you are looking for this (thanks for the tweets, I’ve read them all). In fact, I’ve been running a build of it on two of my phones for the last week or so and it’s getting to pretty good shape.

Here’s what it looks like: http://imgur.com/a/hvqGD#nRuOFXp

We are expecting to get it into the store HOPEFULLY by the end of May.

Some screenshots that he linked to:

Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager File Listing
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager File Listing
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Folder View
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Folder View
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Create New Folder
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Create New Folder
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Locations
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Locations
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Folder Multi-select
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Folder Multi-select
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Transfer to SD Card
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Transfer to SD Card

The app by itself is nothing special. All the functionality that you expect from a file management application seems to exist. The design is quite consistent with the Windows Phone design language, with the large tiles for folders and the large names of files making them easy touch targets.

However, my first reaction was of disbelief, that there were in fact many requests for such an app:

 

An interesting use case though, was brought up by Belfiore himself, on twitter (and the last screenshot above shows this use case in action):

 

Right, so normal users shouldn’t and wouldn’t care about managing files on the phone. However, Windows Phone supports external storage and with Windows Phone 8.1, even apps can be installed on the external storage. With microSD card storage capacities going up and the push to lower cost of phones making on-board storage minimal, it may very well be that most Windows Phone users will need a way to move files back and forth between the device storage and external storage.

Hence, this app deserves the attention it has apparently got. However, it is a good sign that Microsoft is pushing all such functionality to apps and making several things possible as a result: make it optional for customers to use this app or not; make it easy for Microsoft to update the app based on features and functionality requested by the customers; keep the OS size smaller so that phones will low on-board storage don’t end up using much of it for the OS itself, and not have to wait until the next version of OS to deliver this functionality.

I like the fact that Belfiore chose to reveal this app on reddit. I suspect most of the requests for such an app would have come from the “power users”, and those are the type of users who would be on reddit to hear what he may have to say.

My phone (Lumia 920) does not have external storage so this app is not for me yet. I may get one of the upcoming Windows Phone 8.1 devices and if they have expandability, I will most surely get an external card and will need this app. Looking forward to it regardless.

Are you?

Windows Phone 8.1’s Action Center is a Winner

On April 14, Microsoft made their latest update to Windows Phone, Windows Phone 8.1, available as a preview. I have been using it on my Lumia 920 since then, and definitely one of the top features I love in this update is the Action Center.

I recently gave up Windows Phone for an iPhone 5s, and one of the reasons was lack of a notification collection system, so it goes without saying that I am really happy to see it come to Windows Phone finally. Hopefully, being last to implement this feature means that the team at Microsoft is able to get the best of all the worlds. At its core, the Action Center is much like the notification mechanism found on Android and iOS. It resembles the Android implementation more because on iOS, the notifications are split from the “quick controls”. I like all of the things Action Center does (and can do, based on developer implementation in apps) and one big request to make it even more awesome.

Just Settings or entire Action Center: The way to invoke the Action Center is by dragging your finger from the top and swiping it down, much like Android and iOS. However, what’s cool with Action Center is that if you drag the finger slowly and stop about a third of the way down, you get access to just the quick settings area and not expose the entire notification area. This is cool, because if you just want to turn WiFi or Bluetooth on/off, you don’t need to necessarily open the entire Action Center. This is a good example of learning from the competition and doing better.

 

Windows Phone 8.1 Action Center: Quick View
Windows Phone 8.1 Action Center: Quick View
Windows Phone Action Center: Full Notifications
Windows Phone Action Center: Full Notifications
Windows Phone Action Center: Full Notifications (contd)
Windows Phone Action Center: Full Notifications (contd)

 

Settings are customizable: The quick settings area shows 4 (or 5 if you have a larger screen with 1080p, like a Lumia 1520) icons to represent settings which you may want to quickly access. You can change any of the icons to some other settings easily. So if you do a lot of tethering and are always on WiFi, you may not want the WiFi icon and may be better off with the tethering icon so you can turn it on or off quickly. Of course, there is also a link to open all settings, which nicely eliminates the need to have the settings app pinned to the Start Screen like I always have had to do.

 

Windows Phone 8.1: Quick Settings icons
Windows Phone 8.1: Quick Settings icons
Windows Phone 8.1: Quick Settings icons 2
Windows Phone 8.1: Quick Settings icons 2

 

Notifications can be dismissed individually or as a group: Another feature I like within the notifications area is that I can dismiss an individual notification without dismissing the entire group. So if I have received a few new email notifications, and I want to keep some in the notifications area as a pseudo-reminder but unclutter the area in general, I can dismiss some of the email notifications that I don’t particularly care to keep. This is not how iOS behaves, and I do think it is a good benefit to have. Of course, one can dismiss the entire group too.

Dismissing notifications resets the tile counter: I really, really like to keep my tile counter (or badges, in iOS) down to zero. So in iOS it annoys me that clearing a notification does not also clear the badge on the app’s icon. It is good to see that in Windows Phone 8.1, at least for the first-party apps like Mail, Messages, etc., clearing notifications also clears the tile counter. I know that third party apps like Facebook and Twitter don’t clear the counter, but I am hoping it is a feature that those apps need to implement and not private APIs that Microsoft is using in their apps. Assuming it is a feature all developers can use, I do hope that all devs take advantage of it and help obsessive-compulsive folks like me rest easy :-)

Developer choices: Another neat improvement over the competition in Windows Phone 8.1 is that developers have the choice of silently updating the notification center, without updating tiles or showing any banners or playing sounds. This is good because in some scenarios, just adding a notification to the notification area is enough and a user’s attention need not be taken away from whatever they are doing. Giving this choice to the developer and perhaps in turn, the developer offering these type of configurations to the user, means potentially more satisfaction with the device on the customer’s part.

 

Windows Phone 8.1: List of apps with notification settings
Windows Phone 8.1: List of apps with notification settings
Windows Phone 8.1: Tile count
Windows Phone 8.1: Tile count
Windows Phone 8.1: Setting custom notification sound
Windows Phone 8.1: Setting custom notification sound
Windows Phone 8.1: Notification settings
Windows Phone 8.1: Notification settings

 

Having said all that, there is of course one really important feature that is missing from Action Center, which does exist on Android. It is actionable notifications. This is where if there is a notification about a tweet reply, you could potentially reply to the tweet from the notification center itself, without having to open the app. If this choice is given to the developers, it would make the Action Center even more awesome.

Regardless though, this addition is immensely useful, and I am now seriously tempted to start using my Lumia 920 more than I use my iPhone 5s.