I’ve re-written this article no less than four times. Once for our review 900 crashing into the dreaded battery boot loop, and most recently due to Microsoft’s announcements surrounding Windows Phone 8.
This phone represents a fascinating partnership by three companies looking to reinvent themselves in the eyes of their customers; and while a largely successful exercise in phone development, there’s still a bittersweet taste in my mouth talking about it.
Buckle your seatbelts. It’s been a bumpy ride…
So if you follow my phone exploits at all, you’d know I already have quite a long history with the Lumia 900. I was on hand at its announcement during CES (even being interviewed by Nokia), and I’ve had my hands all over numerous engineering and pre-release samples, boring both AT&T and Nokia engineers to death with endless questions about what we could expect.
When the phone was finally released, I managed to grab one after the AT&T Lumia release party, and I’ve been using it fairly non-stop since (minus the boot loop problem of course).
In terms of hardware, we all know what to expect by now. The guts of Windows Phone are strictly policed by Microsoft, so there wont be a lot of surprises. A single core 1.2GHz processor paired with 512MB of RAM, 16GB of storage space, a 4.3″ 800×480 “ClearBlack” AMOLED screen, front and rear facing cameras, and the most gorgeously designed polycarbonate unibody design on the market today.
Large screens are the future. No way around it.
In the hand the 900 feels smaller than it actually is thanks to the tapers and smooth rounded sides of the phone. It’s a similar effect to what the Galaxy Nexus achieves. Little ergonomic considerations reap big rewards, though depending on how you hold it, the hard edges might dig into your palm a bit.
You can clearly see the evolution of Nokia’s design philosophy in the 900. Looking back to my review of the N8, the same general cues are in place, and the phone’s edges still have that muscle car taper to them. Now, the 900 has smoothed all the corners and eliminated all the seams. The N8 looked industrial, like it was pieced together by Tony Stark. The 900 looks organic, like it was grown in a future smartphone greenhouse.
Having handled all of the Lumias, my favorite would have to be the Cyan. The white 900 is striking, but the glossy surface can be a little dicey if you have sweaty hands (like I do). The black matte finish is attractive, but in a world of large slab phones, nothing stands out quite like that Nokia Blue.
The screen is very good, and it only suffers defeats from MUCH newer panels. Nokia has done a fantastic job of utilizing AMOLED in this device. Expect vibrant, nearly over-saurated colors, and blacks that look like pools of ink.
As gorgeous as screens like the one on the HTC One X are, I still prefer the insane contrast of AMOLED. Where the Lumia loses out to some of its competitors is in the resolution war. Windows Phone doesn’t currently support resolutions above 800×480, which means text and fine detail suffer. Again, it’s more of a side-by-side comparison, but the Lumia isn’t going to best a well produced 720p screen.
As I’m a heavy data user, I’m always going to side on more screen real-estate rather than less. It genuinely improves the experience of websurfing, watching media, typing. However, having now spent the last year on phones with 4.3″ and larger screens, there’s one action which has been rendered far more difficult, namely reaching a hardware button when using the device one-handed. It’s near impossible to hit the Back button on the Lumia with your thumb while trying to balance the device in that same hand. This is exacerbated with the White Lumia being super glossy and a bit slick. This issue isn’t exclusive to Nokia–all large screen phones run into it; but we’re entering an era where really good data devices cease to be good one-handed phones.
All of your device controls are on the right side of the phone, which took a little getting used to. I still accidentally hit the volume down key when aiming for the power button, but thankfully the layout seems to work equally well when I’m using the phone right handed and left. The difference between preferring fingers or thumbs for control.
I love having a dedicated camera button. It’s become one of my least favorite aspects of where Android designs have been heading. When I want to take a picture or shoot video I don’t want to look for an app.
Camera quality is a little disappointing. The Lumia sensor is not backside illuminated, so unfortunately you’ll lose a lot of the benefit of having wide aperture lens (a Carl Zeiss f2.2 in this case).
This means that the camera app is forced to use a really high ISO to properly expose in low light situations, and images are far noisier than competing handsets. In good light or when using the flash, images and video look great; but indoors at night and you’ll end up with an impressionist painting of your subject.
Video performance is very good. While Microsoft has capped Windows Phone at 720p for recording video, Nokia saves video at a very high bitrate. Looking at file sizes, Nokia saves more information per minute in 720p than the Galaxy Nexus does at 1080p. This becomes something of a personal preference, but I’ll always take higher quality at a lower resolution, than lower quality at a higher resolution.
This phone’s speaker design is pretty fantastic.
Nokia has placed the speaker grill on the bottom edge of the device as opposed to placing it on the backside. When the phone is lying screen up on a flat surface, nothing obstructs the speaker, and it’s genuinely one of my favorite speaker-phone phones for that reason. It’s interesting that my all-time two favorite speakers on phones have been Windows Phone devices.
Battery life is good, but don’t expect the magical days of classic Nokia handsets. A large bright screen plus LTE data guarantee mid pack run time. Thankfully, the conservative processor helps power requirements, and the Lumia would routinely best my Galaxy Nexus in making it to dinner time. The non-removable battery will get the job done for most, but power users will likely need to invest in some portable charging solutions.
Windows Phone performance is always a joy. This is a lean and efficient OS. Navigating the GUI is fluid, animations are clean, and MetroUI is fun to show off. Side by side with phones like the Galaxy Nexus, it’s disappointing to know how much more horsepower it takes to get Android up to a similar level of polish.
The app situation has improved tremendously over the last several months, and many of my favorite third party services now have native programs on WP. Gaming has steadily improved as well, and Windows Phone Marketplace now claims one of my all time fave tower defense games with BBB: App-ocalypse, formerly an iOS exclusive.
Using this phone has also paralleled AT&T’s LTE roll out, and I’ve been excited to find very fast data access expanding in markets like LA, Chicago and New York. The tethering capabilities of the Lumia helped tremendously in Chicago while in an area where no other carrier had faster than EDGE service.
This is the first Windows Phone I’ve encountered other people using in the wild. There’s a cool factor lacking in other WP handsets. Two years ago I wrote in my review of the N8 that if smartphones were languages, you wouldn’t have anyone to “speak Nokia” with. Now I’m starting to see more people speaking Windows Phone. Enough people that I’m starting to encounter the “Nokia Nod,” the little head nod indicating you’re “part of the club.” The community is growing, but right now there’s a fun exclusivity to owning a Lumia.
Nokia’s big gamble was siding with Microsoft for their primary phone OS. A lot of criticism has been heaped on Elop for that decision. I’ve said before how I think it was the correct move, and I think we’re starting to see the benefits. The app situation is improving steadily, with many popular services providing native WP solutions. Xbox integration is starting to be developed more aggressively, and native Office support is going to be critical for Microsoft in the face of increased pressure from Google.
AT&T was at something of a crossroad when this device was being designed. Internal chatter within the organization was pretty confident that their bid to buy up T-Mobile would be approved, and I don’t think they were properly prepared for the intense backlash from consumers. The Lumia was to be one of the first devices offered to properly support both networks as a way to help customers future proof purchases. Instead it became the premier handset to help introduce AT&T’s LTE network.
I’ve said it before, Microsoft needed premier hardware. All of other Windows Phones on the market feel like recycled Android handsets. Nokia delivered a trend-setting build process now being mimicked by companies like HTC.
Now the not so great news.
We were all very excited to see the updates included in Windows Phone 8. Microsoft will be taking some huge strides in catching up with iOS and Android, and is on track to become the number three smartphone OS. Unfortunately, this evolution will be coming at a high cost. Current handsets will not be compatible with WP8. They are an evolutionary dead end. A token update to OS7.8 will be delivered to address some cosmetic issues, and to make the homescreen look more like WP8, but owners of current WP7.5 phones will never benefit from the architectural changes coming to the ecosystem.
That’s a serious bummer.
So where does that leave us?
I like this phone. I REALLY like this phone. It’s been one of my favorite phones to review, and the last year of my tech blogging has run parallel with Nokia’s release. Unfortunately, there are caveats to my recommending it to the general smartphone consumer. If you’re only looking for a high quality LTE handset at an entry level price (at the time of this writing a penny on Amazon with 2 year contract), and wont be overly bothered by the WP8 transition, then this is an easy recommend. Many might decide to pass on this handset though, and I wouldn’t blame them. Microsoft has some pretty cool stuff planned, but unfortunately, that’ll likely have an Osborne effect on phones currently available.
It’s been a fantastic proof of concept, showing what Nokia+Microsoft+AT&T can accomplish with a VERY short lead time (less than a year bringing this phone to market), and the ecosystem is gaining momentum. Ultimately, I think we can call this a success; but it’s seriously whet my appetite for what’s to come.