Windows Phone goes from obscurity to the limelight, just like that. That's the power of Nokia and the relentless evolution of Microsoft's reborn mobile OS. When Windows Phone 7 landed in the fall of 2010, it boasted a unique UI, fast performance and the expected excellent support for MS services, but the hardware seemed dated and important features were missing. Now we've got the features: cut and paste, multitasking and support for fast LTE 4G data networks; and Redmond seems poised for a comeback. The only problem? It's a chicken and egg thing: there are only about 80,000 apps in the Windows Phone Marketplace because the OS has relatively little marketshare. If the Lumia 900 sells like hotcakes, more developers will jump on board with great apps and expand that ecosystem. But will users buy a phone whose app ecosystem is currently dwarfed by iOS and Android's? Perhaps there's nothing to worry about: apps on the Marketplace are proliferating like bunnies at Easter. We're seeing about 350 new apps added daily and Microsoft expects to reach the 100k mark in weeks.
The Nokia Lumia 900 is available on AT&T in the US and it has a 4.3" Super AMOLED ClearBlack display, a 1.4GHz CPU, 16 gigs of storage and LTE 4G. For a flagship phone, it sells for a remarkably low $99 on contract and $449 without contract. The smartphone runs Windows Phone 7.5 Mango and it has a GPS, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR and WiFi 802.11b/g/n as well as an FM radio.
Design and Ergonomics
The Nokia Lumia 900 is a little piece of modern art. Nokia knows high end design, and the unibody polycarbonate casing available in black, cyan and white, is a sharp study in modern minimalism. The Lumia 900 looks nearly identical to the smaller Nokia Lumia 800 sold overseas and the Nokia N9 (its MeeGo OS twin). The design is perfection on the smaller Lumia 800, and loses just a little appeal and one-handed comfort when stretched to 4.3 inches. The elegant corner taper is a little less gradual and striking, and the curved glass on the 800 is replaced with a 4.3" Gorilla Glass flat panel with a raised edge. Still, it's a great looking phone that's comfortable in the hand, though those with small hands might find it a bit too large (it's almost as big as the 4.7" HTC Titan and is the same size as the 4.5" Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket). Like the car market, Americans want something bigger than their European counterparts, and the Lumia 900 fits the US mold.
The 5.6 ounce, 0.45" thick phone has flat top and bottom edges, making it less like a slippery bar of soap that many curvy Android smartphones. The texture is anything but slick, which is great for grip though the black version still shows some fingerprint oil. The chrome camera lens bezel is flat rather than raised, so the phone doesn't rock on the table nor does the lens make excessive contact with the tablet. Gone is the weird micro SIM and micro USB two part door from the N9 and Lumia 800. The micro USB port is exposed on the top (fine by us), and the micro SIM uses a tray not unlike the iPhone 4s.
The headphone jack is conveniently located up top and the speaker is on the bottom edge where your hand might muffle it when playing games in landscape mode. Otherwise, it's a fine location for speakerphone calls and watching movies. The volume rocker, power button and dedicated camera button are on the right side, and the controls are easy to operate but not easy to hit by accident. The 1830 mAh Lithium Ion battery is sealed inside, and like all Windows Phones except the original Samsung Focus, there's no microSD card slot (Windows Phone handles removable storage in a challenging way, so manufacturers avoid the option).
ClearBlack AMOLED Display
We said it with the Nokia Lumia 800, and we'll say it again here: Nokia's AMOLED ClearBlack display is simply stunning. It has incredibly rich colors but none of Samsung's Super AMOLED cartoony exaggerated hues. Contrast is very high and blacks are inky thanks to Nokia's ClearBlack technology that also reduces glare for improved outdoor viewing. Photos look better than life, yet colors aren't unnatural.
At 4.3", web pages and videos are pleasingly easy to see and text is sharp thanks to Microsoft's keen attention to typography. Videos are vivid and photos pop. The high contrast is great for reading eBooks and webpage text. But you're still looking at an 800 x 480 display, and those with very good eyes and those who crave the best specs will feel a little second class when their buddy whips out a Samsung Galaxy Nexus or HTC Rezound with a 1280 x 720p display. The resolution is a Microsoft Windows Phone limitation; it's not that Nokia and HTC don't want to bring higher resolution displays to market. But the bottom line is how the phone looks, and I'd wager that if you handed the Lumia 900 to customers who were unaware of the specs, they'd probably pick it out as one of their favorite smartphone displays.
Performance and Horsepower: it's Fast
This is the oddball section for Windows Phone. Their specs seem lame when pitted against the computer-like Android ecosystem where folks shop phones like they do laptops: based on ever escalating CPU, RAM, GPUs and storage specs. Windows Phone doesn't support dual core CPUs, nor does it need it. What we have here is a second gen single core 1.4GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon APQ8055 CPU with Adreno 205 graphics. It has 512 megs of RAM (that's the MS standard RAM spec) and 16 gigs of storage. About 13.8 gigs are available for your use. There's no SD card slot, and thus no additional storage expansion.
Here's the revelation: you don't need no stinkin' dual core CPU. The Lumia flies. Microsoft's Metro UI is rich yet fast, and the Lumia is noticeably peppier than my year old 1GHz HTC HD7S. This is iPhone 4S fast. This is no waiting and wondering what's going on behind the scenes fast. Multi-tasking and fast app switching is quick (press and hold the back button to move through open apps). Video playback is smooth with HD content. HTML5 video plays smoothly.
Data and Two Flavors of 4G
Finally! LTE 4G comes to Windows Phone. I honestly don't care how many cores my phone's CPU has as long as it's fast. I actually don't care if there are 70k or 700k apps in the store as long as the staples are there. But I really don't want to lose out on very fast data. For those of you who aren't yet in an AT&T LTE coverage area, there are two consolations: 1) they're rolling out LTE very quickly and 2) the phone falls back to AT&T's also speedy HSPA+ 21Mbps network which the carrier also calls 4G. Data speeds are significantly faster than on the HTC Titan and Samsung Focus S Windows Phones released just a few months ago on AT&T. On LTE, we averaged 18Mbps down and 8Mbps up according to the Bandwidth app available on Windows Marketplace. That's much faster than my iPhone 4S on AT&T (5Mbps down and 1Mbps up), and comparable to the speeds I get on the LTE enabled Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket on AT&T. Windows Phone used to fall behind on data speed tests (the HTC Titan couldn't match the iPhone 4S and Android HSPA+ phones on AT&T), but the networking bits have clearly fallen into place.
The Lumia 900 can act as a mobile hotspot so you can share the data connection over WiFi with needy tablets, laptops and other devices. If you get the $50/month 5 gig data plan, the service is included. In our tests, we averaged 8Mbps down and up according to Speedtest.net on our Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook. That falls behind the Galaxy Skyrocket, which managed 15Mbps down and 7Mbps up, but it's still plenty fast enough.
The phone has WiFi 802.11b/g/n for those times you don't want to eat up your data plan. We noted some flakiness with our Apple AirPort Extreme access points where the phone would show the WiFi connection as full strength but would stop transferring data over WiFi until we toggled WiFi off then on or rebooted the phone.
Calling: Nokia Rules
Nokia has long been the king of call quality and reception. The Lumia 900 lives up to that with crystal clear call audio and solid reception. Earpiece volume is louder than average, and at max volume could stand in for the speakerphone. The Lumia 900 played well with a variety of Bluetooth headsets and our BMW built-in Bluetooth.
This is a quad band GSM world phone with 3G HSPA+ 21Mbps on the 850/900/1900MHz bands (works on AT&T in the US and on 900MHz in Europe). It has AT&T 700MHz LTE and 1700/2100MHz LTE (an atavistic appendage left over from AT&T's once-planned acquisition of T-Mobile). If you're on T-Mobile and hoping to unlock the Lumia 900, you won't get 3G or 4G on T-Mobile US.
Software and Windows Phone (this section is for WP Newbies)
Windows Phone has been out 1.5 years, and this probably isn't the first Windows Phone review you've read. Heck, maybe you've even owned one. But just in case, we'll cover the basics. Windows Phone 7.5 Mango (the current release) uses the lovely Metro UI with Live Tiles, which Microsoft is bringing over to Windows 8 (with tablets in mind). It's extremely intuitive, cheery, fast and fun to use. It's low stress and like iOS, there's not as much customization as you'll find on Android. If you're a tinkerer and like to change your UI and launchers and load lots of widgets, you might be bored here. But if you like a bulletproof OS that's fast and stable with more customization than iOS, read on.
Live Tiles at the outset, weren't as lively as we'd hoped. When Windows Phone 7 launched, there was no third party multi-tasking and thus Live Tiles not made by Microsoft really didn't do much. With Windows Phone 7.5, we now have Live Tiles that show you the current weather, stocks, sports scores and breaking news. You can pin any app as a Tile on your home screen and change their order. You can change the default background color for tiles and select a white or black background. You can remove pre-installed apps (including carrier bloatware) that you don't want and you can remove those tiles from your homescreen. Rather than a palette of icons like iOS or an app drawer in Android, your full app listing is just that: a text-based list with small icons that pops open from the upper right corner in alphabetical order. The rules are simple and straightforward. Microsoft put a big emphasis on typography and the fonts are good looking and clear. There's no window chrome or 3D effects to slow things down. It's clean, fresh and easy.
Microsoft is trying to be as kind as Apple, and release major OS updates to legacy devices, so you won't feel left out in the cold because your device is 6 months or a year old. MS allows carriers to skip a maximum of 2 updates (small ones with bug fixes count toward this allotment). That doesn't mean your year old phone will get the latest OS the day it releases; so far it's taken a few months, but at least you generally will get it.
The standard software includes IE 9 mobile with HTML5 video support but no Adobe Flash (don't expect it to come since Adobe has stopped new mobile Flash development and is only doing maintenance releases). IE mobile has come a long way since the first Windows phones, and it now does a capable and attractive job of rendering complex desktop sites. Pinch zooming is quick and fluid, and the tap to zoom and reflow text feature generally does the job well.
Bing search and maps are on board, and Bing is actually a decent search engine. Likewise Bing Maps has excellent POIs and related location info plus the Local Scout feature that finds stuff near you (restaurants, entertainment and stores). You can download Google's search app, but there's no Google Maps for Windows Phone.
Facebook and Twitter integration are excellent, and the People Hub isn't just about contacts, it's a place where you can check the latest social network updates and post your own updates. It's slick, quick and well integrated.
The Nokia comes with the usual Zune music and video player on the phone, a photo viewer and the Windows Phone Marketplace where you can download apps and music.
This is a Microsoft product, so you get an email client that handles MS Exchange and Hotmail/Windows Live Mail well, including push. It also does the usual POP3 and IMAP as well as Gmail. The phone syncs to the cloud for contacts and calendar, not over USB. You can sync to Windows Live services, MS Exchange and Google contacts and calendar. It all works well.
AT&T includes AT&T Navigator, U-verse Mobile, AT&T (Bar)Code Scanner, myWireless and AT&T Radio. You can uninstall any of these you don't want.
Zune, Music, Videos and iTunes Sync for the Mac
Music, videos and photos are a USB endeavor, but you're not limited to the cable. You can send media and documents back and forth through Skydrive and there are third party Dropbox clients. If you want to do cable transfer of multimedia files, you'll use Zune Desktop under Windows and Windows Phone 7 Connector on the Mac. Zune is actually a fun and easy to use music and video player that you can use to rip your music CDs and convert and import video for use with the phone. If you subscribe to the $10/month Zune Music Pass service (not required) you'll get music subscription with a large library at your disposal. You can access the Zune streaming service directly using your device (use WiFi so you don't eat up your data plan), via the Zune desktop app and using a web browser.
Mac OS X users can sync non-DRM iTunes playlists and videos to the phone and sync photos to iPhoto. The Mac Windows Phone 7 Connector also handles updating the software on your phone, just as Zune does in Windows.
The Lumia 900's bottom-firing speaker has good volume and decent sound, but hey--it's a phone speaker and it sounds like one. Things look up when you plug in a good set of wired headphones or wired/Bluetooth stereo speakers. Good, rich sound.
Microsoft put a lot of effort into the gaming ecosystem, and there's a healthy selection of high quality games that sell for $4.99 or less. You can try games before buying them, and the trials run long enough to get a good feel for the games. Game performance overall is very good and graphics quality is good to very good, though 3D games don't always look as high res as they do on the iPhone. Windows Phone has XBOX Live integration complete with your avatar, friends, accomplishments, game tips and tricks and developer interviews.
When Nokia decided to jump on the Windows Phone bandwagon, they were granted most favored nation status. That means they get to customize the software and add their own apps that actually compete with the built-in Microsoft apps (Nokia and Microsoft call it enhancing the experience, as do we). Each manufacturer can add their own apps or a hub where users can download these apps. HTC has their Hub, Samsung has a selection of apps, but Nokia's are meatier and more central to core functions. Nokia Maps, Nokia Drive and Nokia Transit (for mass transportation location services) are on board, as is an excellent camera and photo enhancement called Creative Studio (mini-Photoshop crossed with a selection of entertaining effects). Nokia Read, an eBook reader app is coming soon.
Windows Phone Limitations
First, there's the app story. Want excellent 2D and 3D games? We've got that thanks to XBOX Live and Microsoft's big push for high quality games. But the sheer number of apps is small compared to Android and iOS right now. That said, most of the top popular titles are here, from Pulse news to The Weather Channel, Skype (beta) and Kindle. But there's no B&N Nook app yet, nor is my favorite multi-platform grocery shopping app Grocery IQ here. Good quality password managers with desktop syncing are slim pickings.
The OS runs super fast on single core CPUs, as do 3D games. But the world is obsessed with tech specs and speeds, and the fact that Windows Phone doesn't support dual core CPUs hurts in the marketing (not performance) department. Microsoft actually made a concerted decision to not offer dual core CPUs because they felt there was no performance benefit and single core CPUs mean less expensive phones.
You can have any resolution camera you like: the HTC Titan II has a 16 megapixel camera. But the OS currently limits video capture to 720p. Ouch. Really?
In the future, Windows Phone will support various display resolutions, but for now, Windows Phone 7.5 only supports 800 x 480. No matter how big that piece of glass, it can only run at that resolution. That hurts now that 720p displays are increasingly common on top dog Android phones, and the iPhone 4 and 4s run at 960 x 640.
Removable storage. Somehow we get the feeling that Microsoft thought it was OK to roll with the same limitations the iPhone had in its first two iterations. Now they've realized they need to offer more than that market-grabbing monster and compete with Android too. So we've seen the addition of copy and paste, multi-tasking, fast cellular network support and front cameras with video chat, but not removable storage. No microSD card slot for you, and we're not sure if and when that will change. Windows Phone 7 formats the microSD card (even if user accessible like the original Focus) and internal storage as one spanned volume. It's a proprietary file system and if you remove the card, you corrupt the file system. It's great for DRM management, but a nightmare for customers. Thus there's no accessible microSD card slot on Windows Phones.
There's a single volume control that handles ringtone volume, alert volume and media volume. You can't set these independently. Really.
Camera, Front and Rear
If you're a smartphone and Nokia veteran who loves to take photos, your heart goes pitter-pat when you hear "Carl Zeiss lens". Megapixels are only so meaningful; it's the quality of all those pixels that really counts, and the fast F 2.2, 28mm equivalent Zeiss lens plus Nokia's prowess at making high end camera phones makes all the difference. The Nokia Lumia 900's rear camera with LED flash takes really, really lovely photos. The ClearBlack display makes them look even better, but there's no let down when you transfer to them to your computer and look at the images full size. Photos have a natural look rather than having the telltale camera phone flat look. Colors are accurate and vivid. Noise and excessive sharpening are kept at bay. With a little sharpening on the desktop, these are photos you could print and not feel like you're wasting expensive photo paper.
Video also has excellent colors and sharpness, but the 30 fps 720p resolution makes me a little sad. You just know Nokia could've done 1080p with this hardware nicely. I'm hoping that Windows Phone 8 gives us 1080p video recording, though Microsoft hasn't yet provided a date.
The VGA front camera does better than average video chat. Tango is pre-installed, but we installed the Skype beta for Windows Phone and enjoyed decent colors and sharpness with less noise than we see with many phones. Better yet, we weren't forced to use WiFi for Skype video chat. Good times.
The first photo was taken outdoors in party sunny conditions, the second was taken indoors in a supermarket with low fluorescent lighting. Click on an image to see a larger version.
The Nokia Lumia 900 has an 1830 mAh Lithium Ion battery that's sealed inside. Nokia claims up to 7 hours talk time, 60 hours of music playback with the display off, 6.5 hours of video playback and 300 hours of standby. In our tests with 2 push email accounts set up, moderate use of the web browser, 30 minutes worth of calls, playing several YouTube videos and listening to music with the screen off for an hour, we had to charge nightly. The Lumia 900 is no better than other powerful smartphones when it comes to battery life. And LTE is a power hungry feature, and there's no way to turn it off if you need to conserve power.
If you got the idea that we really like the Nokia Lumia 900, you're right. The elegant and durable design, unique appearance, simply irresistible ClearBlack AMOLED display and fast performance have us hooked. Throw in 4G LTE with fallback to HSPA+ and Nokia's excellent camera with Carl Zeiss lens and it's good times for Windows Phone 7.5. The Lumia 900 has excellent call quality, good reception and a compelling selection of Nokia custom apps. If you're willing to give Windows Phone a try, it's hard to do better than the Lumia 900.