As an iPhone user, you probably have little interest in the other mobile platforms - but they do exist.
I take my iPhone everywhere I go, and for the most part, it’s a satisfying device to use. There are some rough edges, though. There aren’t many ways to customise iOS to your individual tastes, for example, and the hardware is extremely expensive. I’ve been experiencing a growing restlessness with it lately. I find that in some ways it lacks character - and indeed a boldness of aesthetic. It’s a little (dare I say it) boring.
Some of that feeling is just because of familiarity; I’ve never used a non-Apple smartphone for more than a few minutes. There are other options out there, and I decided to explore some of them. In this article, I’m going to talk about Microsoft’s Windows Phone.
I’ll distinguish between the terms used on different platforms with colours and shapes, if you’re reading this article on the web.
iOS terms look like this
Windows terms look like this
Android terms look like this
This isn’t a review, or even a comparison. You can think of it as a sort of traveller’s guide for iPhone users, who find themselves in the land of Windows Phone. It’s also about the platform itself, rather than any specific handset.
I’d like to thank Microsoft for noticing that I was interested in their mobile platform, and sending me a device to play with.
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The first thing you’ll probably do is setup your device. In short, it’s a simple process of a few steps, with on-screen guidance. It’ll be broadly familiar if you’ve used any other smartphone. iOS users will have no trouble at all.
There’s no SIM needed when setting up a Windows Phone, by the way, and no need to connect the device to a computer. You’ll need a Microsoft (or Live) account, which you can create at the time if necessary.
Amongst other things, you’ll set the date and time, and choose a wi-fi network. The interface is simple and high-contrast, which is the platform’s hallmark.
In a minute or two, you’ll be up and running. The first thing you’ll see is the primary interface of a Windows Phone: the Start screen.
Start screen and apps
On Windows Phone, the equivalent of the iOS Home screen is the Start screen. You’ll be seeing it a lot, usually for a brief moment or two as you launch an app. It’s one of my favourite features of Windows Phone.
On iOS, the Home screen hasn’t significantly changed since its first iteration: it’s static and utilitarian, offering the canonical (and only) complete list of the apps installed on your device. You can organise with folders and screens, reorder and delete apps, and that’s about it. For customisation, you’re limited to a background image.
Windows Phone is different. The Start screen is not the canonical app-list; instead, it’s a launcher, which you can configure as you please. It displays apps as Live Tiles, which are rectangular panels that not only launch an app, but also show information or content from that app. They’re much more similar to Android’s Widgets than apps on iOS.
The default Start screen depends on your device, but it’ll look substantially like this.
Folders are available to organise your Live Tiles, if you want. In the screenshot below, “Music+videos” is a folder.
You’ll probably want to take advantage of more extensive customisation. You can set a background image, which will show through any Live Tiles that adopt the system’s accent colour. Most Live Tiles do.
Some Live Tiles are opaque instead (it’s up to the app that provides them), and show either their own branding colour (like Skype, OneNote, and Office below), a logo (like Amazon’s shopping and Kindle apps, eBay, and Three UK below), or content from the app (like Photos below).
You’ll notice that some of the tiles are in the process of flipping over; many Live Tiles animate periodically, to show information like news updates, weather forecasts, a selection of your photos, the cover of the book you’re reading, new tweets, calendar events, and so forth.
The animations are occasional, and give a pleasing sense of activity without restlessness.
Live Tiles typically support more than one display size. The Start screen is nominally six ‘blocks’ wide (or eight, on devices with high-density displays), and some common sizes for tiles are 1x1, 2x2, and 4x2 blocks.
Just like on iOS, tap-holding on any tile puts the Start screen into a special mode where you can drag tiles around, un-pin them (which only removes them from the Start screen; the corresponding app isn’t affected), or resize them.
In the screenshot below, the Google Mail 4x2 tile is selected. The un-pin icon is at the top-right, and the left-arrow icon is the resizing icon. Tapping it will make the tile assume the next available size, cycling through the options with successive taps. Tiles can be dragged anywhere on their surface, other than the un-pin or resize icons.
With the help of apps that vend blank tiles, you can make some very cool Start screens, and truly personalise the device.
The basic theme of the Start screen, and the device generally, is controlled by a simple group of settings: the background colour (light or dark), the optional background image, and the accent colour.
The accent colour is carried through the system, and will show up on navigation bars, the notifications screen, the background of the app-switching interface, text highlights, and so on.
If you don’t have a background image, the accent colour will also show through any Live Tiles that don’t provide their own backgrounds.
As I said earlier, the Start screen is not the canonical app list; it’s just a launcher. To access the full list of apps on your device, you swipe left from the Start screen (i.e. move right by one screen). You can also scroll to the bottom of all your Live Tiles and tap the right-arrow there, if you want.
You’ll then see the alphabetical app list. It’s grouped into sections by letter, with a numerical category at the top.
Tapping any group-heading letter shows an overlay of all letters, and you can tap any one to jump straight to that portion of the list. Letters without any corresponding apps are disabled.
Tapping the search icon at the top-left lets you search through all installed apps. You can also continue your search on the Windows Store.
Tap-holding on any app in the list opens a menu, where you can pin (or un-pin that app to your Start screen), review third-party apps, share a link to the app’s Windows Store page (via social media, email, etc), or uninstall the app.
Think of the app list as analogous to the entire set of your iOS Home screens, and the Start screen as like a bigger, much more customisable version of the tray of icons at the bottom of each iOS Home screen.
The interface of Windows Phone is clean, high-contrast, readable, and uses large text and flat colours throughout. There’s almost no embellishment at all, instead providing information spaces rather than discrete screens or objects.
The aesthetic really speaks to me. It’s easy on the eyes, and very sci-fi.
Where iOS has a single Home button, Windows Phone has three buttons, which may be hardware switches, or (more commonly now), soft keys at the lower edge of the screen. In the latter case, the button strip can be swiped off the bottom of the screen to hide it, and swiped back onto the screen whenever desired.
The buttons are: Back, Start, and Search.
The Back button goes back to the previous screen, either within the current app or in another, similar to the Back button on Android devices. It’s surprising how quickly you come to depend on the ability to always get back to where you came from.
Because of this button, many Windows Phone apps lack in-app back buttons to travel back up through a hierarchy or such; you just use the global button. It takes a little adjustment if you’re used to the omnipresent top-left back buttons in iOS navigation bars, but you quickly acclimatise.
Tap-holding the Back button (or holding it, if it’s a hardware button) shows the app switcher.
The most recently-used screen is at the right, and you can scroll horizontally back through previous screens. You can remove screens (which closes their app) by either tapping the Close button at the top-right of a screen, or by swiping it downwards, off the bottom edge.
The Search button provides search functionality, locating items on your phone or via Bing web search. It’s analogous to Spotlight on iOS.
If you instead tap-hold the Search button, you’ll trigger Cortana, the voice-interface intelligent assistant.
There are some notable elements of the general interface style of Windows Phone that differ from iOS. The main example is tabs.
On Windows Phone, tabs are textual, in large fonts across the top of the screen. Their size is determined by their title, and they scroll off the right of the screen when necessary.
In the screenshot below, “all” (selected), “unread”, and “urgent” are tabs.
You’ll also notice the second interface element you’ll see a lot of: the navbar. It’s the toolbar of icons along the lower edge of the screen, just above the softkeys.
The ellipsis “…” indicates that the navbar can be expanded (either by tapping the ellipsis, or dragging the bar upwards) to peek at the titles of each button. It’s very, very handy to get a quick idea of what a button does, if the icon isn’t as obvious as you’d like.
If there are some other menu options available, they’ll be stacked below the expanded navbar too, instead of in a menu/basement/hamburger icon as is more common on iOS.
Now, let’s talk about the on-screen keyboard. Here’s an example:
It works just as you’d expect, and will be very familiar to iOS users. The keyboard glyphs become uppercase when the Shift key is engaged. Double-tapping the Shift key enables Caps Lock. Word predictions are shown above the keyboard as you type.
You can also tap-drag across the keyboard to quickly enter words, without any third-party software.
As with iOS, tap-holding on letters shows a pop-up menu with accented or phonetically-related variants.
Emoticons are also present and correct, via a dedicated key to the left of the spacebar.
Text selection again works as with iOS, including tapping on words, and dragging selection-handles. The contextual menu of text-related options uses icons instead of command titles. In the screenshot below, the word “tweet” is selected, and the available contextual option is Copy.
You can configure how the keyboard behaves with regard to corrections, shortcuts, and suggestions. You can also disable flick-typing (dragging across the keyboard to enter words), if you like.
As you’d expect, a variety of system and keyboard languages are available.
Notifications and the Lock screen
One of the most important features of a mobile OS is how it handles notifications. iOS was fairly slow to get a robust notifications implementation, but now it offers a rich set of options for when, where, and how we’re informed about significant events.
Windows Phone has much of what you’ll be used to from iOS, with a few interesting extra options regarding the Lock screen.
The Windows Phone Lock screen is as stark and high-contrast as the rest of the system, by default.
The rectangular icon (with three lines inside it) in the status bar along the top indicates that there are notifications in Action Center.
Here’s a Lock screen with a customised background image, and a Twitter notification in a Quick Status slot.
You can also select one app to provide detailed status information on the Lock screen. In the following case, I’ve chosen my Gmail account. Windows Phone classifies each email account as essentially a separate app (though you can merge them as you wish), which makes it easy to segregate notifications and Live Tiles for different accounts.
You can also pick Twitter (or many others) as detailed status providers. Calendar events and alarms are also displayed by default.
You unlock a Windows Phone by swiping upwards. If you’ve set a passcode, you’ll be able to enter it. Tapping anywhere on the Lock screen will make it subtly bounce up and then drop back down, indicating the direction you should swipe to unlock.
There are a few options available regarding Lock screen status display. You can choose a background image, of course, and the aforementioned detailed status provider app.
You can also choose up to five Quick Status providers, which are shown as icons along the bottom of the Lock Screen with numerical badges, if the corresponding app has any new notifications for you. All the expected candidates are available, including calls, Skype, messaging, Facebook, Twitter, your email accounts, calendar, WhatsApp, and so forth.
Windows Phone also has a dedicated notifications area called Action Center, available by swiping down from the top edge of the screen at any time. It’s analogous to an iPhone’s Notification Center.
Action Center also contains options that iPhone users will recognise from iOS’ Control Center, and on Windows Phone, they’re configurable.
You can choose up to four (on Windows Phone 8.1; more in the upcoming Windows 10 version) Quick Actions, which are shown at the top of Action Center. There’s an extensive list available.
You can also adjust the system’s two independent volume levels: the one for the ringer and notifications, and the one for media playback and apps. Pressing the hardware volume controls shows a status strip across the top of the screen, which can be expanded to show the relevant controls.
You can also toggle the vibration function from here.
Windows Phone’s intelligent (and voice-controlled, if you like) assistant is called Cortana, after the AI character from the Halo videogames series. Cortana is analogous to Siri on an iPhone.
When you invoke Cortana from a Live Tile, you’ll see some information that’s relevant to your interests (Cortana will ask about those interests after you set up your device, and then periodically when you’re interacting with her).
As with Siri, Cortana can find nearby locations, restaurants, facilities and so on. Suggestions are displayed for further interactions. The voice recognition accuracy is excellent, in my experience.
The assistant will also tell jokes, and respond to references to the Halo franchise, much as Siri knows about Apple products and personnel.
Cortana has a notebook of knowledge about the device’s user, which you can inspect and configure at any time. There’s an explicit interface for what the device knows about you, which is a pleasant change from Siri’s mostly opaque sense of context.
The assistant will recognise your home address based on your usual location during evening hours, and will confirm this assumption with you. You can also add more locations yourself.
Cortana will also learn about your most frequently-contacted acquaintances, and will make assumptions about family members based on shared surnames, and other cues. Close contacts are added to your inner circle, and can be allowed to break through even if you’ve set your phone to not disturb you during certain hours.
Windows Phone’s equivalent of an iPhone’s Do Not Disturb feature is called Quiet Hours, and Cortana uses your inner circle list when screening calls, texts, and related notifications.
You can tell Cortana to automatically respond to screened contacts, telling them that you’re busy at the moment. She can also ask inner circle members if they’d like their text message to break through to you, on a case-by-case basis.
Windows Phone has a Settings app, just like iOS, with system-wide and app-specific settings. There’s a vast array of options available.
There’s also a tab of app-specific settings, though I believe it’s limited to built-in apps. Third-party apps, as on iOS, tend to provide their settings in-app.
There are a few interesting options, for those coming from iOS.
Certain Windows Phone devices (some Microsoft Lumia phones, for example) support double-tapping the screen to wake up the phone. You can also make the phone vibrate subtly when the softkeys are tapped, which provides a pleasing sense of interaction and positivity to virtual buttons.
Cortana’s text-to-speech functionality can be configured to read aloud incoming messages, and this feature can be limited to only certain audio output devices, like Bluetooth peripheral or wired headsets.
Windows Phones can backup to the cloud, just as iOS devices do with iCloud.
System settings and app data backups are independent, and you can manually trigger a backup or manage remote backups from the device.
You can also choose to sync your settings across your other Windows devices, including your passwords, browser settings, and Start theme.
Over-the-air software update checking is enabled by default. You can choose whether to automatically download updates as soon as they’re available (respecting your data usage settings), and when to install updates.
By default, installation occurs in the middle of the night, as you’d presumably prefer.
Windows Phone naturally includes a mobile version of Internet Explorer, just as iOS includes Safari.
The browser interface is as minimal as possible.
Both portrait and landscape modes are naturally supported.
IE has a reading mode, like Safari’s Reader feature.
Tapping the button to the left of the address bar shows the tabs interface, which is a grid of open tabs, with content previews. Tabs can be closed from here, via the Close button.
You can also see the tabs that are open in IE on your other devices, via the Other section of the tabs view.
Pinch-to-zoom also works as you’d expect on web pages, and double-tapping to auto-zoom to the tapped content area.
Windows Phone supports a variety of email accounts, including the expected Exchange and Office 365, Outlook.com, Live.com, Hotmail, and MSN. It also supports Google (Gmail), Yahoo, iCloud, and regular IMAP or POP accounts.
Once an account has been configured, it will show up as a separate app in the App List to the right of the Start screen. It can then be pinned to the Start screen as a Live Tile, or added to the Lock screen.
Mail folders, like the inbox, are clean and readable, with almost no clutter or ornamentation.
The compose screen is similarly simple, with a large text size by default.
Inline spelling-correction is supported as ever, and Windows Phone has a nice feature whereby an apparently misspelled word can be added to the dictionary by tapping a special item in the on-screen keyboard’s word-suggestions bar.
The menu within the navbar has a “Link Inboxes” option, which unifies the mail accounts you select, letting you access them with a single inbox.
Contacts and Calendar
Windows Phone’s address book is called People, and it works much like the iPhone’s Contacts app.
The default view filters out contacts without phone numbers, and you can easily toggle to showing all contacts. The scrolling list is in the same letter-categorised style as the App List.
Profile pages for individual contacts are simple, and make common actions prominent.
There’s also a useful History screen, showing a log of recent interactions with the chosen contact. On iOS, you’d access this information from the Phone app.
Windows Phone also includes a Calendar application. The day view is simple and readable, and includes weather information.
The week view is arranged like a day-planner, with weather information superimposed, and a mini-month display.
The month view is quite dense, with small, coloured markers for events.
Finally, the year view is essentially a wall-calendar in miniature form.
Calendar data is shared across the system where appropriate, as you’d expect.
Phone and Messaging
I almost never use my phone as a phone, but the function is naturally present anyway. The default view is a list of recent calls, with attached contact info if the caller is known to you. Voicemail access, a dialling keypad, and your phone book are all present and correct too.
Incoming calls use a full-screen display with large buttons to answer, ignore, or reply via text. Contact pictures are displayed if appropriate.
You can block certain numbers if required, which will ignore both calls and text messages from those senders. You can also choose to be informed via notifications about blocked calls, and you can automatically block withheld numbers.
The SMS Messaging app uses a familiar conversation interface, like Messages on the Apple platforms.
Text, attachments, and voice are all supported.
Conversations can be muted or deleted, and individual messages can be selected and deleted.
There’s also a Messenger app, which is Facebook’s individual and group messaging system.
It wouldn’t be a Microsoft platform without Office applications, and the usual suspects are all pre-installed. Office is a unified app on Windows Phone (8.1), though I believe that Word, Excel, and PowerPoint may be split out into individual apps on Windows 10.
Office natively provides access to documents on the phone’s internal and removable storage, in email attachments, and in your OneDrive or Office 365 account. You can organise them as you wish.
There’s also a dedicated OneDrive app, which is handy if you store a lot of stuff in Microsoft’s cloud. It’s a simple file-browser, with the ability to organise files as well as inspect them.
Word has a simple interface, with distinct viewing and editing modes, much like Pages on the iPhone.
A subset of all supported formatting options is presented in straightforward panels.
Excel is here too, complete with its trademark green livery.
Landscape mode is naturally supported.
PowerPoint is here too, but you can only open, view, and edit presentations on Windows Phone - not create them. You can make them in Office on a computer or in Office 365, and add them to OneDrive, though; then they’ll show up on your Windows Phone device.
PowerPoint supports presentation mode in landscape orientation, including external displays.
Settings for presenting on external displays live in the Settings app.
No self-respecting mobile platform lacks an app store, and Windows Phone is no exception. An iPhone has the App Store, and Windows Phone has the Windows Store.
Apps are categorised in various ways, including the usual featured and top-selling collections. You can see a selection below.
The store tries to suggest apps based on what you’ve already downloaded too.
One interesting thing is that some big-name apps are listed as being by Microsoft; this is because Microsoft is trying to boot-strap the Windows Store by creating apps for third-party services itself, until official versions exist.
Ratings are displayed prominently, before even the details view for an app.
App details include download size, change notes, and publisher information.
There’s also a list of all apps you’ve previous downloaded, and a tab of active downloads.
The Windows Store has a complete web interface, too, which knows about your devices via your Microsoft account. You can browse apps on the web, check compatibility, and even remotely install an app on your phone via the web.
Unlike on iOS, there are also trial versions of apps, which can be similarly installed on your phone from the device itself or from the web. Trial limitations are up to the developer. A common style is a time limit of 14 days.
I’ve download various apps, including social media, Amazon shopping and Kindle, PDF readers, PayPal and eBay, Instagram, and such. Here are a few more.
There’s a Files app which lets you access the device’s entire filesystem, organising and making folders as you like. Many iPhone users have hoped for something like this in a future iOS version.
The official Twitter app is simplistic, but many third-party options exist.
Last but certainly not least, there’s an up-to-date Dropbox client app, which is essential for me.
The Windows Store certainly has far fewer apps and games than either the iOS App Store or the Google Play Store on Android, but in terms of the apps I use every day, I actually didn’t find many notable omissions.
Other services and features
This section deals with miscellaneous other features, services, and applications.
Find my phone functionality is present and correct. You can ping your device from the web interface. You can also choose whether the commands are sent via push notifications (requires a data connection), or by SMS.
The maps app has a handy feature which finds nearby wi-fi hotspots.
Usefully, it also offers to save that map for offline use.
Maps has a points-of-interest interface, as well as the conventional mapping display. The data sources for this are Yelp and TripAdvisor.
Each place has a set of information associated with it, including opening hours, contact info, photos and so on.
Directions work as you’d expect, with easily-readable, high-contrast turn information.
Navigation has a simple, vector interface, with zoom controls and a full-screen mode. Voice prompting is available too.
There are useful configuration options for how a route is generated too.
Windows Phone has three built-in helper utilities for mobile users: Battery Saver, Data Sense, and Storage Sense.
Battery Saver profiles the apps that are using power, both actively and when in the background.
You can configure it to conserve battery life by limiting background app activity once the battery drops below 20%, and you can also temporarily enable it until you next plug the phone into mains power, which is a clever option.
Data Sense tracks your data usage, both cellular and when on wi-fi. Its Live Tile can keep you updated on that without having to launch the app.
Usage is broken down by app, for both mobile and wi-fi. You can see which background services are using data too.
You can set a data usage limit, either monthly or one-time, and the device will restrict background data as you approach the limit.
Storage Sense gives you an overview of the space your data is using on the device’s internal and removable storage, and you can choose where Windows puts certain types of data in each case.
All three apps have Live Tile displays with a summary of their relevant information.
As a Mac user, my initial concern was how well Windows Phone would work with my computer. Most of my data is in the cloud in various formats, but I do occasionally want to directly access the device from one of my Macs.
Microsoft provides a Windows Phone app on the Mac App Store, which is very much like iTunes on OS X.
You can view and sync various types of data, just like the device screens in iTunes, and view a chart of what’s taking up space on your Windows Phone.
Photos and screenshots can easily be taken from the device either automatically or manually, either en masse or individually, just like in Image Capture on OS X.
I care a great deal about accessibility features, particularly for people with visual impairment. VoiceOver on iOS is a best-in-class screen-reading technology, and Android of course has TalkBack too.
Windows Phone also provides accessibility functionality, which is gathered under the title ease of access.
Text size controls are available, as is zoom, and the ability to make the interface even more high-contrast. Here’s the regular appearance:
And here’s the high-contrast version:
The screen-reader on Windows Phone is called Narrator, and is analogous to the iPhone’s VoiceOver feature.
As on iOS, there’s a quick-launch button combination for Narrator.
Narrator works very much like VoiceOver: putting the device into a mode whereby a single tap simply selects items on screen, reading out information about them, then a double-tap (anywhere) activates the currently-selected item. Even the keyboard interaction works in the same way as iOS with VoiceOver enabled.
There are a few rough edges compared to VoiceOver, like alerts not automatically being read, but it’s still very good. Narrator does currently require US English, but this will presumably change in future.
One small annoyance is that the synthesised voice quality isn’t on par with VoiceOver or TalkBack yet.
This article isn’t about hardware, but it’s worth making a few brief points that are relevant to users of other platforms.
Windows Phone devices seem to generally use micro-SIMs, rather than the nano-SIMs used by recent generations of iPhone.
Sync and charging connectors are all standard micro-USB; no custom ports.
Removable storage slots are available, and use regular micro-SD cards.
The devices are cheap, in iPhone terms. Top-end, high-resolution Lumia devices are around half the cost of a new iPhone.
Batteries are user-replaceable.
On many devices, the back cover is swappable, and available in several colours.
There’s no SIM needed for initial setup, or indeed for use.
I wasn’t asked for a credit card at any point, until (days later) I decided to buy an app on the Windows Store.
I used more than one Lumia device during the past month, but the one that I spent the majority of my time on was the ultra-affordable Microsoft Lumia 535.
Here’s a quick shot of the device and its packaging.
It’s pretty much the same size as an iPhone 6.
If you’re interested in reading more about using Windows Phone, I can recommend Microsoft’s Windows Phone How-To. If you decide to try a Windows Phone device yourself, you might also want to look at Microsoft’s guide on moving from iPhone to Windows Phone.
There’s no question that it’s easier to use a mobile device from the same maker as your computer; you benefit from integration features, and first-class support. But you’re also limited by what’s on offer.
These days, most of us keep our data in the cloud as well as locally, and the kind of data that makes our devices truly ours is the sort of stuff that can be kept in places that are platform-agnostic: contacts, calendar info, email accounts, photo libraries, bookmarks, and so on. There’s always another app to do what you want, too.
As a long-time iPhone user, I was surprised to find that the only thing I really missed from my iPhone was a feature I’d barely thought about: iMessage. Everyone I know is a blue-bubble friend - though admittedly my social circle is artificially tech-savvy and Mac-centric.
There are other options for that, certainly: WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger being the primary ones. I was just amused that a text-messaging app was almost a deal-breaker for me, given everything else that these devices do.
Windows Phone is a compelling and surprisingly mature mobile platform. Its aesthetics are bold and information-focused, and it has all the functionality that a truly modern mobile OS needs. I’m very comfortable when taking a Windows Phone device out with me instead of an iPhone.
There are little differences that require some mental adjustment, and there are some rough edges. There are idiosyncrasies, as with anything - but on the whole, I really could switch full-time. I didn’t expect to be able to say that.
Maybe I’m just used to iOS, rather than bored with it. Maybe I don’t need the customisation and personalisation of my Live Tiles. Maybe Apple will finally do something with the stale, static Home screen in iOS 9. I’ll certainly be watching, and I’m not throwing my iPhone away.
What I’ve learned, though, is that there are absolutely other viable options - including one from Microsoft. It’s not corporate, or jargon-filled, or business-centric. It’s not cluelessly enterprise-focused, to the exclusion of regular users.
What it is, though, is a boldly different yet mature and capable mobile platform, with an aesthetic that I find exciting, and an obsessive dedication to presenting information cleanly to the user.
If you find yourself feeling restless with the safe choice, perhaps you should consider doing the unthinkable, and trying what Microsoft has to offer. I think you might be as surprised as I was.