The Lumia 900 is without a doubt one of the most important smartphones to launch in 2012. This is the phone with which Nokia marks their grand reentrance into the North American market. Some may even argue that this is the Finnish phone makers first real smartphone. This is the phone that Microsoft hopes will propel their Windows Phone OS to consumer electronics stardom. But while the Lumia 900 has been met with a fair bit of fan fare, can it live up to these extremely high expectations? Will the Lumia 900 restore Nokia’s status as a household name? Will it help kickstart the momentum of Windows Phone, and earn the fledgling OS a top spot in the increasingly competitive smartphone market? And perhaps the most important question: is it any good?
Nokia has always been known to produce beautiful, modern hardware, and they’ve delivered yet again with the Lumia 900. Building on the design first seen in the MeeGo based N9, and later in the Lumia 800, the Lumia 900 is without a doubt one of the most beautiful handsets on the market right now. Constructed from a seamless polycarbonate shell, the Lumia 900’s rounded edges feel great in hand and very ergonomic. The soft-touch shell is a great trade off; it’s lighter and more scratch resistant than aluminum, yet it still feels like a premium material. At 11.5mm thick, the Lumia still feels thin and very solid; this is a phone I have no problem setting down without a case. The Lumia 900 provides the best of both worlds: a well-built, strong phone that looks amazing.
To preserve the minimalistic design of the Lumia 900, Nokia has kept ports to a minimum. On the top you’ll find a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, alongside the microUSB charging port and microSIM tray. The volume rocker, sleep/wake button, and camera shutter button are all located along the right side of the phone, while the left side remains empty and clean. The buttons have a soft click to them, which makes me wonder if they won’t become sticky or lose responsiveness over time.
On the front sits a 4.3” ClearBlack AMOLED display, as well as the standard Windows Phone capacitive buttons. The sliver thin earpiece is almost unnoticeable, hidden at the top of the screen directly above the Nokia logo. A 1MP front-facing camera sits above the screen as well, while on the back you’ll find an 8MP Carl Zeiss shooter and LED flash (more on that later).
As I said before, the Lumia 900 is one of the most beautiful smartphones around. It’s clean, sleek, super smooth, and very nice to hold. If nothing else, the Lumia 900 shows that smartphone’s don’t all have to look the same. Nokia has designed a phone that looks nothing like other smartphones in hopes that it will stand out from the crowd, and it most certainly does.
INTERNALS AND DISPLAY
When it comes to specs, the Lumia 900 may be considered “last-gen”. The phone packs a 1.4GHz single-core Qualcomm processor and 512MB of RAM. Not exactly future-proof, but it’s not a huge problem in practice. Windows Phone runs well on the single-core processor, with no slowdowns or lag to speak of. The OS feels fast and responsive, and games like Angry Birds and Super Monkey Ball run well on the device. While it’s hard not to compare it to other modern devices packing quad-core processors and 1GB+ of RAM, Windows Phone doesn’t need that kind of power, and the Lumia proves that.
16GB of storage is built-in for music, apps, and games, but unfortunately there is no microSD slot for expansion. Nokia and Microsoft suggest Skydrive as an alternative for those who need extra storage, which offers users an additional 7GB for free. Other specs include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, and an 1830mAh battery. In addition to 3G HSPA+, the Lumia 900 features 4G LTE connectivity on Rogers here in Canada, and AT&T in the US.
The display on the front is a 4.3” ClearBlack AMOLED display, with a resolution of 800 x 480. In general, the display isn’t too bad. It’s bright, colours are vibrant, and Nokia’s “ClearBlack” provides deep, rich blacks. The low resolution, however, leads to a poor pixel density of just 217ppi. Text is noticeably pixelated, especially in the white-on-black Windows Phone menus. The brightness of the display tricks your eyes into thinking the quality is better than it is, but text stands out as being noticeably low resolution. It’s a real shame, as the Windows Phone UI is gorgeous, and I would love to see it on a Retina caliber display.
I had high expectations for the camera on the Lumia 900, and I have to say I was somewhat disappointed. Nokia has a strong history of packing fantastic cameras into their phones, and they always emphasize the inclusion of Carl Zeiss optics. On paper, the Lumia 900’s 8-megapixel camera sounds great, seemingly on par with the iPhone. But the photos don’t hold up.
To be clear, the images aren’t awful, they’re just not great. Low-light shots turned out quite grainy, while outdoor shots looked over-saturated and washed out, with a sort of glowing, dream-sequence effect. While photos taken with the iPhone 4S could be mistaken for a point-and-shoot digital camera, Lumia 900 photos look like camera phone photos.
The Lumia 900 is also capable of recording 720p HD video at 30fps. Video quality is pretty good, but suffers from some of the same problems as still photos: low-light indoor shots are quite grainy, and colours are over-saturated. In addition, the camera sensor is very sensitive to light, so the video constantly readjusts to changing light.
Most people won’t have a problem with the camera, as the photos are clear and definitely better than some other phones. But 8-megapixels is at the high-end of smartphone cameras, and for that I expected more.
Time to address the elephant in the room: how does the Lumia 900 work as a phone? Modern smartphones do so much these days, it’s easy to forget that this thing actually makes phone calls and sends text messages. And as expected, it works. It makes calls. It sends texts. What more can you say about the phone features of a phone? Call quality was as good as it gets, and I always had good signal on Rogers’ 3G network. While I previously mentioned that the Lumia 900 is a 4G LTE device, I wasn’t able to test Rogers’ LTE network since it’s not in my area yet. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Rogers and AT&T’s 4G LTE networks, so I’m sure customers will be pleased with 4G data on their Lumia 900.
The Lumia 900’s 1830mAh battery holds up well. Using mostly Wi-Fi, 3G, and messaging (with Bluetooth turned off), the battery lasted most of the day but hit critical by the evening. As is standard fare with modern smartphones, you can expect to be charging the Lumia nightly. Microsoft has conveniently included a Battery Saver setting with Windows Phone that will turn off location services and other battery-munching features as the battery nears critical.
As I previously mentioned, though the Lumia 900’s specs aren’t up-to-par with most other modern smartphones, Windows Phone is optimized for this level of hardware. The OS runs smooth with no perceivable stutter or lag. Video and game playback is smooth, as is scrolling, swiping, and typing. Performance is no issue for the Lumia 900.
I went into this review a fan of Windows Phone. Granted, I had never used Windows Phone as extensively as I did during this review period, but I loved the UI and from what little time I had spent with the OS, it worked well.
Unfortunately, during my extended use of Windows Phone, I ran into some annoyances that have slightly swayed my opinion of the OS. That’s not to say there aren’t any positives to Windows Phone, because there are, and I’d like to start off by discussing what I do like about Windows Phone. Obviously I can’t touch on every aspect of the OS, so instead I’m going to focus on what stood out to me the most.
First is Metro UI, probably one of the most beautiful and modern design styles I’ve ever seen. The bright colours, flat shapes, modern fonts, and “rule of thirds” layout is a combination I find very visually appealing. I like it because it’s simple, and I believe this will appeal to consumers as well. In comparison, I think Android comes off to some people as confusing; small app icons, live wallpapers, widgets, app drawers, multiple home screens… it’s a lot to learn. Windows Phone presents everything to the user in a simple, easy to understand format that looks great.
Of course, software isn’t judged entirely on how it looks, and Windows Phone has some strong suits in the features department. Core smartphone functionality such as calls, texts, and email are all present and work well. I’m actually a big fan of the Windows Phone keyboard, which surprised me because I usually find it difficult to adapt to new touch-screen keyboards. The Windows Phone keyboard was easy to pick up and plenty big enough on the Lumia’s 4.3” screen.
I also really like the People app, how it integrates social networking as well as contact information into one central HUB. As well, as I’ve already stated multiple times, Windows Phone is fast and fluid; no stuttering or lag to speak of. I am, however, somewhat baffled by the fact that Microsoft’s first-party Stocks and Weather apps don’t come preloaded on the phone (they are instead offered as Marketplace downloads) as those features are included out-of-the-box on most other smartphones.
Despite what I enjoy about Windows Phone, there are a bunch of little annoyances that make the experience less than stellar for a power user. For starters, one of my biggest gripes with Windows Phone is that nothing feels accessible. The Start screen only displays 8 apps at a time due to the large size of the tiles, and scrolling up and down the Start screen gets to be quite tedious. Similarly, the app list only shows one app per row, which again leads to a lot of vertical scrolling. It seems like an inefficient way to organize and access apps.
The multitasking tray should fix that, but I found it wasn’t the most pleasant experience. Many apps just relaunch instead of resume, defeating the purpose of multitasking. In addition, horizontal scrolling in the app switcher didn’t feel very smooth, and I found it could be hard to stop on the app you want, most times requiring two or three taps before it will actually launch.
I have some major issues with Internet Explorer, issues that make me wonder how Microsoft could have approved and shipped this browser. While I usually complain about scrolling lag and pinch-to-zoom stutter on mobile browser, those two features actually work well in IE on Windows Phone. My major concern is that some core browser functionality is missing, namely back and forward buttons. Who ships a browser without back and forward buttons? Apparently Microsoft does, the company who practically invented the web browser! While the capacitive back button works in the browser as a back button, it doesn’t work as expected, sometimes taking you back out of the browser and into the last app you were using instead of back to the last page you visited. And you’re still left without a forward button, instead relegating you to jump into a menu and dig through a list of recently visited sites. Not cool, Microsoft.
Of course the main problem with Windows Phone right now is lack of third-party app support. There are a few glaring omissions, and Microsoft even had to publish their own Facebook app, while Nokia has done the same for CNN. Still, you won’t find popular iOS and Android apps like Instagram, YouTube, Flipboard, HBO Go, Dropbox, Google Maps, Pandora, TweetDeck, Square, Angry Birds Space, Words with Friends, Draw Something, or Spotify on Windows Phone.
For apps that do have a Windows Phone variant, such as Twitter, they don’t work quite as well as their iOS or Android counterparts. Twitter’s Windows Phone app doesn’t feature the new “Fly” design that has already rolled out to the web, iOS, Android, and feature phones. I think this is a clear indicator that some app developers are having a hard time figuring out how to build their apps for the Metro design language.
Likewise, the selection of games available on the platform is fairly lackluster. Some major titles such as Angry Birds, Doodle Jump, Fruit Ninja, Sonic 4, and Super Monkey Ball are all here and run pretty well. However, newer titles like Angry Birds Space are still missing, not to mention the cornucopia of other popular games that aren’t available at all. While the games that are available run smoothly, they feel almost like emulators rather than native apps.
While Windows Phone looks beautiful, some of that beauty comes at the expense of usability. Missing buttons, options hidden in menus or beneath long presses, and lack of great apps. To do simple, basic tasks such as make a phone call or send a text, even check email, Windows Phone works fine. But it almost feels too simple in spots, which will end up being a nuisance for power users.
Making a final judgement on the Lumia 900 is tough. Nokia has done a remarkable job with the hardware design. It’s a gorgeous device that looks unlike any other smartphone available today. On the flip side, Windows Phone looks beautiful and core smartphone functionality works well, but the software has its faults. Apple and Google had a 3 year head start with their respective mobile operating systems, and it feels like Microsoft is still trying to play catch up with Windows Phone. The biggest hurdle they need to overcome is third party app support. If customers don’t see the apps they want, they won’t buy.
So my verdict is this: the Lumia 900 is perfect for someone looking for a simple, beautiful, easy to use smartphone. Perhaps a first-time smartphone buyer, or someone who is confused by their iPhone or Android. But for power users who rely on multitasking and third-party apps, there are better smartphone choices for you. The Lumia 900 may not be the worst smartphone out there, but it’s not the best either.