Windows Phone hasn’t had a great year. Since its release back in late 2010, Microsoft has seen little success, only able to control about 2% of the US smartphone market, compared to 30% and 51% that iOS and Android have, respectively. The pairing of Nokia and Microsoft is still too fresh to know if it has indeed borne fruit, but if the Lumia 900 is any indication of the OS’s direction, then there may yet be hope.

Hardware

The Lumia 900 is Nokia’s, Microsoft’s, and in the US AT&T’s flagship WP7 phone. It ships with a 1.4GHz single-core processor, 512MB of RAM, 16GB of flash space (12GB of available space), and an f/2 8MP 1080p camera. Relative to most Android phones, this isn’t an appealing gathering of components, but don’t fret. Like iOS, WP7 is very conservative with its processing power and manages to make excellent use of what may seem to be lower-end specs.

That said, my greatest fear with purchasing the Lumia 900 is based on its internal parts, and most specifically its CPU. While the fast clock speed and brand new architecture make it one of the fastest CPUs on the market, it is a single-core processor. Nearly every smartphone today ships with a dual-core processor, and while that in and of itself has no bearing on the 900, future firmware updates, and perhaps even upgrading to Windows 8 (or Windows Phone 8, wherever the nomenclature leads it) may prove problematic.

The Nokia Lumia 900 beside the iPhone 4S

Nokia has taken a bold step in differentiating the Lumia 900 from other smartphones, both from its past lines to anything available today. Save for its unreleased N8 (which the Lumia 800 takes after), the 900 is brick-shaped and large. So big, in fact, that it tips the scales on both width and thickness. At 11.5mm thick, if you walked into the store and held the phone, you might think its a few years old.

The actual design, however, is masculine. It’s big and stark, unlike most smartphones today which attempt to be as skinny and light as possible. The bright blue, white or magenta colors available make it uncommonly recognizable as well, almost like the glass casing of the iPhone 4/4S. The 900 has sharp corners, can stand upright, and has a powerful build. I have zero fear of it breaking if I dropped it because it is so solid.

Part of that comes from the unibody design, which has some serious drawbacks. First, the 1830mAh battery isn’t removable. Memory is not expandable, and while that’s not necessarily the fault of the build, not being able to open up the phone certainly puts a damper on using flash cards. Furthermore, typically phones like this are slimmer, thinner, and lighter. None of those traits match the Lumia 900, which begs the question: why bother have a unibody design?

The iPhone 4S, HTC One S, and Lumia 900

The answer is simple: to maintain a singular shell for both aesthetics and stability. Unibody designs are always more stable and less likely to break because there are less moving parts.

In the hand, I’m conflicted about how the Lumia 900 feels. The polycarbonate shell feels good to hold, but it’s slippery. In an interesting twist, humidity or dampness in the hands elimianates the silky feel and makes the frame easier to grip. I never thought I’d find a phone made better for humid environments. Suffice it to say, in the dry heat of Los Angeles, the Lumia 900 isn’t the easiest phone to hold.

It’s also awfully wide. I said in my review of the Samsung Epic 4G Touch that we’re at the point where phones are getting too wide to use one-handed. The Epic 4G Touch was at that cusp, and thanks to its plastic rear panel I had a lot of trouble using it, especially in the car. Larger devices have come and gone, and have strangely made the Epic 4G Touch easier to hold. Not so with the Lumia 900. The combination of width and thickness, as well as the slippery frame, makes it a challenge to hold one-handed for more than 5-minutes at a time.

This proved especially difficult when using the phone for navigation. I think Bing Maps, while not as accurate as Google Maps, is better when driving in unknown areas because of the clarity of text and street names. But after ten minutes not only did the Lumia 900 get hot (like most phones using the GPS), it got tiring to hold. 15 minutes in and my hand was aching. The same goes for making phone calls; because of the larger size and weight, it isn’t comfortable for making calls for too long, though after holding the phone for enough time the natural skin oils make it easier to grip.

From left clockwise: HTC One X, Lumia 900, HTC One S, iPhone 4S

Telephony on the Lumia 900 is good, with a strong connection and clear audio in and out of calls. Like every Nokia phone I’ve tested the cell reception is excellent, and the signal strength is regularly 2-3 bars better than competing phones like the iPhone 4S. The speakerphone is also very high quality thanks to the giant speaker on the bottom of the phone. Like the iPhone and unlike most Android phones, the speaker isn’t on the back, which muffles sound when the phone is face up. This makes the audio for videos sound strange depending on how you hold the phone, but it also provides clearer, better sound.

One small additional point before we move along. There are four buttons on the Lumia 900: a volume rocker (2 buttons), power/standby, and the shutter release. Like Samsung’s smartphones, the power/standby button is on the side, but unlike any other phone I’ve tested its in the middle of the phone. All of the buttons are on the right side, which is conducive to right-handed users (though holding the 900 in the left hand is still fine for pressing any of the buttons, except the shutter release), but this design choice is a good one. It’s just far enough to hold the phone normally and still press the button comfortably, instead of changing the grip.

What I like most about the hardware of the Lumia 900 is also the one thing I despise the most: the display. It’s a beautiful screen, one which produces the best color reproduction and the most vibrant images I’ve ever seen on a phone to date, as well a tablet. That’s thanks to the AMOLED ClearBlack technology, which makes images appear striking. High quality video and photography is simply stunning to view. Unfortunately, the screen isn’t as bright as other smartphones, and isn’t completely visible in direct sunlight.

The problem with the screen is the resolution. WP7, since its inception, has been stuck at 800×480, a resolution found mostly on low-end smartphones today, if at all. The only exception is the Galaxy S II, which shares this 5:3 aspect ratio screen. Most phones today are either qHD (960×540) or 720p, both HD-standard definitions. That means that video takes up the full screen. Now while there’s nothing wrong with 800×480, its time for WP7 to move up a notch, and as the flagship device the Lumia 900 was the perfect platform for that move. But we don’t get that. Instead, text on web pages appears small and clunky, and unreadable until zoomed in on. So while the screen is brilliant for color and video, it’s not great for text.

Software

The Lumia 900 runs Windows Phone 7.5, codenamed Manga, and comes with a ton of software from Nokia. Frankly, WP7 is so well built and so in-tune with everyday user needs that the additional software is, while not irrelevant, somewhat excessive. For instance, Nokia Drive offers navigation and downloads the maps directly to your phone, so it doesn’t require a data connection. Then again, maps use already is fairly light on data usage, so unless you live in an area with poor cell coverage, it’s not better than the preinstalled Maps. It just is a matter of preference. And I prefer Bing Maps. Nokia Maps is a similar application which handles maps specifically, not navigation.

Nokia Transit is a very intelligent app that provides a detailed guide for getting around using public transportation. It’s basically a simpler, more ergonomic system that works like Google Maps, with a lot of detailed choices for times. I wouldn’t say it’s better, but it is far more impressive than using Google Maps in the web browser.

There are some additional apps not exclusive to Nokia, like ESPN, which work excellently.

WP7 itself is an excellent OS, something we’ll talk more about in the future in depth. For now, the way I see it is akin to today’s browser wars. WP7 is like Opera: it’s fully inclusive, has everything you need built right in, is fast, and is very comfortable to use. iOS is more like Firefox, with tons of apps, and Android (at least for 4.0) is like Chrome, always getting faster and quickly growing beyond everyone else’s reach. If you’re wondering whether it’s worthwhile to switch to WP7 over Android or iOS, the question you have to ask yourself is this: are you more interested in apps, the latest games, and the latest access to the newest software? Or are you more interested in the simplest, most convenient, and in my mind the most human smartphone experience?

I’ve used the Lumia 900 for two weeks now, all the while using an iPhone 4S and switching between recent Android phones. While all have certain traits that make them stand out, WP7 is the most finely tuned, the most thought out, and really the only OS that I feel knows what I need. If I enter a business, it gives me all the information I need or want, from ratings to directions to a phone number, all on one screen. Navigation is simple. There are certainly some holes that need to be plugged, like how email integration isn’t completely perfect (delete an email on the phone, and it doesn’t delete on your actual email account or show as read). I believe, however, that anyone looking for a smartphone would have an excellent experience with WP7, and especially with the Lumia 900.

Performance

Normally I reserve this section for benchmarks ran and tested, but unfortunately there are so few WP7 devices and benchmarks available that there wasn’t much to test. The browser doesn’t function the same way as Android or iOS, and while the CPU is brand new, the GPU is an older stock Adreno 205. And as a single-core processor, even a newer one, would likely score worse than competing Android phones.

Instead, in this section I’ll talk about actual performance, starting with the browser. The Lumia 900 uses Internet Explorer 9 (the mobile version, that is), and frankly, its slow. Benchmark tests have poor performance, general use is mediocre, pages load slowly, and if there’s flash on the page, forget about it. There’s a lot to like about the design of IE9 on WP7, but actual performance is poor.

The OS is extremely fast. WP7 has always been a very smooth experience, like iOS, and that holds true with the Lumia 900. I never once had any problems with slowdown, app usage, battery life problems, or anything else. It’s the most stable phone I’ve tested in a long time.

Battery life is pretty good, matching the iPhone 4S in most benchmarks but in real-world use exceeding it. I think this is because various apps on the iPhone are more power hungry than others, whereas on WP7 there aren’t as many apps to use. While my iPhone 4S will last about a day under normal use, the Lumia 900 lasts about a day and a half.

Overall I’m happy with the performance of the Lumia 900, but as I mentioned earlier, I am concerned about it’s software upgradeability.

Camera

Like HTC, Nokia just can’t stop talking about the camera on the Lumia 900. Except from Nokia, that’s a big deal. The Finnish company has regularly put out phones with excellent cameras, which is one reason why the Lumia 900 was so talked about. Unfortunately, the pictures aren’t as great as I’d hoped.

[nggallery id=270]

By that, I mean that picture quality is great, but not better than some of today’s best phones. As you can see in the images above, photos have good color and light contrast, but are also soft and often blurry. The camera itself doesn’t shoot as quickly as expected from an f/2 lens, which is partly because of the shutter release button (the physical button adds slight shake to the camera), and partly because there is no on-screen shutter release. The only way to take a picture without the physical button is by tapping on the screen where you want the camera to focus, and it’ll just take the shot.

Because of that, photos tend to come out a little blurry. Some of my test shots had to be redone twice or three times because the original was blurry, so blurry that the 8MP shot appeared fuzzy on the low 800×480 display. Video quality doesn’t suffer from blur in the same way, and video quality is good. However, while the camera is still good, it isn’t as good as the cameras found on the iPhone 4S or Samsung Galaxy S II.

Conclusion

The more I use Windows Phone, the more I like it. I think that it has a great potential future, so long as it can find an audience. That’s the most difficult task ahead for Microsoft, Nokia, and AT&T, one they are fighting head on with a massive marketing campaign and the very low price of $50 for the phone. For a high-end smartphone, that’s the best deal you can find.

But as I mentioned earlier, WP7 is like Opera; it has everything you need, but it’s very limited in apps, aka, what people want. The WP7 development community is growing, but my impression is that as far as app development is concerned, WP7 is a lost cause. Microsoft should focus its attention towards Windows 8, which will be able to share apps across all computing devices, from desktops and laptops to tablets and smartphones. That way there will not only be the largest audience for apps available anywhere, it will already have the infrastructure in place to make app development successful and profitable.

This, of course, leaves users with a connundrum to solve: are you a WP7 user or not? The Lumia 900 is the best Windows phone out, period, and the one that users switching to WP7 should buy without a doubt. But what makes someone want WP7? It may sound strange, but I’d say people over 50 would love a phone like this, both because of its size and strength (it won’t break when you drop it, and it’s not too small to use), and because of its simplicity. The live-tile system is simple, using apps is simple, and navigating between different apps to achieve a certain goal – be it getting directions with voiced navigation to finding a recipe – is just easier on WP7. This is something that, while the cool kids won’t care about because they just Google everything, your grandparents might really enjoy. The incredible screen is great for seeing pictures of the grandkids, Zune integration is far easier and faster than iTunes, the quick camera control is easy, and it’s not the type of thing you can just lose. I don’t think it’s not for younger people per se, but everything has an audience. I definitely recommend the Lumia 900 to any and all users, but some people will certainly appreciate it, and not feel left out, far more than others.

Editor’s Rating:

Rating: ★★★★☆

Great

Bottom Line: The best Windows phone out and a strong device to boot, users will love it.

Pros:

  • Very fast, very simple, and very masculine
  • High quality display is the best low-resolution screen out
  • Very strong camera and decent battery life
Cons:
  • The sum of its parts is not as good as top-of-the-line competitors like the iPhone 4S or HTC One X
  • Low resolution display for the flagship WP7 phone is a shame, and a waste
  • The internal components are moderately powerful today, but may not last the lifespan of the phone










James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.