It turns out the old saying about Microsoft applies to Windows Phones, as well: Wait for the third version of its products because it takes the company a few tries to really nail it.
Maybe that’s why so few people bought Windows Phones when the new platform debuted in 2010.
Those who waited will be pleased with the new Windows Phones going on sale later this month, including potent new models from Nokia and HTC that I’ve been using.
The Lumia 920 offered through AT&T and the HTC 8X from multiple carriers are great phones that combine Microsoft’s elegant software with fresh and powerful hardware that will appeal to technophiles and first-time smartphone buyers.
They offer refreshing, modern alternatives in a market dominated by Google and Apple. But there are some trade-offs, particularly if you’re attached to iPhone or Android apps not available on Windows.
Both the Lumia and HTC have distinctive, colorful cases fronted by big, vivid displays. They have fast dual-core processors, 8-megapixel cameras (8.7 on the Lumia) and near-field communication radios that do tricks like sharing photos by tapping phones together.
The Lumia has a bit more technology packed in. Highlights include more-advanced photo capabilities and a free music service, plus the ability to wirelessly recharge by setting it on accessory charging pads.
But Nokia declined to join the cult of thinness with its new flagship.
The Lumia 920 feels stout compared with the more tapered 8X and the twiggy iPhone 5. You don’t forget which pocket is carrying this phone. In a pinch you could use the Lumia to hold down a tarp in a windstorm, or put it in the trunk for added traction on icy roads.
I expected the Lumia to be the hottest model in the new lineup, but the svelte 8X is stealing some of its spotlight, as well as its color scheme. The 8X has a grippy, rubberized back and sleeker case that feels better to hold and elicits more oohs and aahs.
Both are based on Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 8. The moniker highlights the affinity with Windows 8 for PCs, which borrowed its touch-friendly, dynamic desktop interface from the phone software.
Microsoft has been making smartphones for eons, but it rolled out an entirely new platform that it called Windows Phone 7 in 2010.
Last year it released a big update in version 7.5, and now — with Windows Phone 8 — we’ve got the magical version 3.0.
Unfortunately for those who took the plunge earlier with Windows Phone 7 and 7.5, Microsoft won’t let them upgrade to 8. At least the power connectors are staying the same.
Microsoft’s platform still lacks the amazing variety of apps available on Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android platform.
It’s unlikely to catch up before these phones are obsolete, but the number of apps should accelerate now that Microsoft has improved tools for app developers and made it easier to write apps for both Windows phones and PCs.
Meanwhile, the situation is partly compensated for by some excellent new apps developed by Microsoft and its partners that are available only on Windows Phone. They include photo apps that Nokia built to take advantage of the Lumia’s top-notch camera.
Windows 8 also has a new feature called “Kid’s Corner,” which lets parents create a kid-friendly sandbox on their device. When it’s activated — with a few swipes on the screen — kids playing with the phone can access only apps, music and videos selected by the parents.
Microsoft is adding a Skype app that will keep the phones continuously connected to the service, so you can make or receive calls through Skype or your wireless carrier. It wasn’t yet available on my review hardware.
Also coming is a new feature called “Data Sense” that will reduce data usage by compressing images, offloading some tasks to Wi-Fi and adjusting data usage as you approach the limits on your wireless plan.
Perhaps the best apps on Windows phones are the Microsoft online services that you can use to stay connected with friends and family, share photos and keep your digital life synchronized across different devices.
These have been there since the first version, but they’ve been improved — especially the online storage locker SkyDrive, which is really polished now. It also helps to connect to these services on the latest, 4G wireless networks.
Over the past week, using various flavors of Windows 8, I grew accustomed to having photos I took with the phones automatically backed up to SkyDrive so I could look at them at my desk or when using a tablet. Then it was a snap to email relatives a link to the SkyDrive folder containing our Halloween pictures.
Tapping the phones to share photos worked, but it was relatively slow.
Another feature, Microsoft’s “People” hub, collects your contacts and social-network pals. You can view their updates and tap their names or pictures to place calls or send email. New to Windows Phone 8 is the ability to create groups of contacts and “rooms.” You can invite friends or family to join a room where you privately share messages, calendars and photos.
All the new Windows Phones use Nokia’s great mapping software. The Lumia also has a gee-whiz augmented-reality app called City Lens that displays nearby attractions, shops, bus stops and other map items when you point the camera in their direction. These items are overlaid on the image of the streetscape that you see though the lens. It makes finding a coffee shop feel like a video game.
For now the Lumia 920 is exclusive to AT&T and uses its 4G LTE network. AT&T loads a default search page that doesn’t do justice to the software’s clean design.
UPDATE: AT&T announced that it will sell the Lumia 920 for $100 and the smaller 820 for $50 starting Nov. 9. Later this month AT&T will offer the 16 gig HTC 8X for $200 and an 8 gig version for $100.
LTE is great, but it’s a battery hog. The Lumia ran a full day on a charge, but Nokia needs to tune the power consumption further to catch up to the battery life of newer LTE Droid phones such as the Razr M, which can last multiple days with light usage. The Lumia’s charge messages can be misleading; one time it said I had 13 hours left, but the battery was dead a few hours later.
I can’t really compare the battery life on the 8X because I was using a foreign model on T-Mobile’s 3G network, though it lasted several days on a charge in that mode. HTC claims 14.7 hours of talk time and Nokia claims nine hours on a 3G network.
T-Mobile will begin selling the 8X on Nov. 14, starting at $150 for a 16-gigabyte version. Verizon soon will be offering the 8X starting at $200.
If you’re shopping for a smartphone this holiday season, I suggest at least taking a look at these phones to see the new direction Microsoft, Nokia and HTC are taking in phone design and technology.