A Picturesque Trainwreck of a Lockscreen
When Microsoft announced Picturesque, their new lockscreen replacement for Android, I was skeptical. Originally I ignored it, but finally I decided to try it out. At a first glance, I was impressed: the interface was surprisingly clean and appropriate for an Android phone, and it seems Microsoft left their Windows Phone motif completely behind for this task. The result is rather good looking, and it has a nice glass design pattern to it that sort of reminds me of iOS in some ways. While it is pretty on its own, it suffers from the fact that it is not entirely consistent with the rest of Material Design, and thus, it wouldn’t appeal to those who have Lollipop.
The application features a somewhat minimal design structure: Swipe to unlock message prompting you to do the same gesture you do on stock Lollipop (which, to be honest, proved to be very convenient and intuitive). The only problem to this feature is that, at least on my devices, it does not reveal the background as you slide it up. I suspect this is because of how it is more of an overlay than a naively supported lockscreen, The effect is rather jarring to me, and I really think they could have worked around the limitations to provide something more pleasant – if not more original.
Picturesque features a camera shortcut at the bottom left, which is handy if you want to quickly access your camera. However, I see this as a fault too – I strongly value navigation on my operating systems, and I always try to pay attention to it or discuss it thoroughly in articles, including one solely about the topic. From this standpoint, I think that phablet users will find it a little annoying to have it there. I tested this app on both my Note 3 phablet and my 5 inch Nexus 5, and with my custom DPI on the Note 3, the camera was unreachable by default. If they would have also added a call shortcut to the left side, you’d argue the design would make some sort of sense, as calling is a priority as well. Instead, the other side sees an “information” button that tells you a little bit about the picture in a toast message. This is an immense functionality sacrifice and I’m sure they could have found another way to incorporate this feature.
This leads me to the pictures: the whole point of this app seems to be the pretty background images featured through Bing, which grabs beautiful photographs for you to glance at on your lockscreen. They change periodically and rotate. But the selection is not that huge, and today I could only cycle through 7 pictures. If you like customization, this Lockscreen wouldn’t entice you very much. You can shake the phone to change the picture, which is extremely gimmicky – but in its defense, it works flawlessly. Something that bothered me is that some pictures had beautiful bright colors, but the lockscreen puts a transparent black film over it to make it more subtle and flow with the interface. While I understand that from a design standpoint the white elements need to contrast with the background, it seems odd that you have a lockscreen whose original trait is photography, yet the photos are mostly not curated around the interface. Then again, Google and others do this too, although they don’t base their lockscreen on beautiful and detailed photos.
Newsfeed, powered by Bing™
To the side you’ll find a News feed that Microsoft powered by Bing (something Microsoft really wants you to know, as indicated at the bottom of the interface). You have some categories to choose from, which include Top Stories, US, World, Sports, Health, Politics, Business, Entertainment, and Science & Technology. Now, while Google adapts their Google Now feed around your interests, this shows you trending or important news from mostly popular sources, and they don’t seem to necessarily adjust to your likes and dislikes. I wouldn’t say this is a bad thing, as I think Google’s self-tayloring search algorithms hurt reaching out to new websites and new content that one wouldn’t necessarily find or get involved in otherwise, perhaps something new and interesting – you know, what the whole point of web surfing was back in the old days. But Bing’s solution is mostly very cookie-cutter news from extremely well-known sites, so it doesn’t give you much of a reason to check that very much. Oh, and the thumbnails are often low-resolution, but that’s a pet-peeve.
Toggles, powered by Bing™
If you scroll again, you’ll find quick toggles, settings, and… Microsoft propaganda. This is probably the most annoying part of the whole service. Bing watermarks on every screen but the main one, which instead features the search logo in a clashing unfitting yellow. “Powered by Bing”, Bing at the bottom, Bing to the left, Bing to the right. “check out Bing Search”, “set Bing image as wallpaper”. Bing, Bing, Bing. It even reminds you that the Bing powered image you just downloaded on this Bing-based app was featured on Bing. But I don’t want to say the word Bing again, so let me talk about the actual page: There’s quick-toggles, such as Wi-Fi, Volume, Bluetooth, Brightness, and Flashlight. You know, all of the ones that are found on the Stock Android toggles. The worst part is that it takes either the same number of swipes or more to get to them, depending on your ROM. If they were intuitively or easily accessible, I wouldn’t have a problem, but you have to swipe twice to the right a bunch to get to it. Below that, though, you’ll find Microsoft app recommendations… of Microsoft apps. Then a Bing watermark.
Notifications… this one is the part that probably confused me the absolute most. Lockscreen notifications are perhaps my favorite Lollipop feature, and Picturesque’s solution is not even competitive. It supports notification display for missed calls and text messages – and just about that. But the text messages weren’t working for me, at all. Turns out I had to switch to the stock SMS client for it to work, as Hangouts wasn’t supported. So that’s already pretty bad. The worst part, though, is that there was no message preview, the notification just told me I had a message. And it didn’t display the contact either, just the phone number – which I think is a bug with my N5. I looked around Playstore reviews and apparently, other people are having bugs on Nexus 5 and Nexus 6, and the application is incompatible on some Lollipop devices like my Note 3 (the actual lockscreen worked when side-loaded, but there were many transition bug and force-closes). You also get missed call notifications, but that’s about it. You can dismiss the notifications by swiping left, or do an action when swiping right. With messages, it’ll take you to view or respond to it. With calls, it just automatically calls the person. This led me to an accidental call, as a rookie’s mistake. You might like that feature, though. I like a little more safety and confirmation before I bother someone if I happen to accidentally call them, which is why I also disabled swipe-to-call on my Samsung devices.
I just don’t see the app as a good replacement for the standard Lollipop lockscreens. The news feed is not innovative and it brings dull content, the toggles are borderline useless, the search engine is Bing and does not even support native voice dictation, and the whole thing is plagued by Microsoft advertising. It adds nothing truly new or useful to other alternatives, and it doesn’t do anything exceptionally well either. Some things it does awfully bad, if anything. The app is pretty, though. And it performs excellently with very modest memory usage. But to be honest, it doesn’t bring that much to the table on Lollipop devices, and it has plenty of permission requests when installing it too, so beware.
I don’t think I will be touching this app again. But it is free, and it might be your thing, so there’s not much of a risk in checking it out (unless you don’t trust Microsoft, which in this day and age I can’t blame you for). Don’t make my Note 3 mistake and make sure your device is supported just in case a buggy lockscreen makes accessing your actual phone a hassle (which would also make removing the buggy app a little annoying or difficult if things go very wrong). On my Nexus 5 it worked, but it disappointed me for other reasons. To Microsoft: If this is another trick to promote Bing and make up for how much money it has bled you, well done – many casual users love it, but I’ve got higher standards than that.