April 4, 2012
From 2 Struggling Giants, One Beautiful Phone
By DAVID POGUE
What’s better than a good story about an underdog? A story about two of them.
First, Nokia. Nokia has been pummeled by bad news. Sales of its phones have dried up worldwide. It has been forced to lay off thousands of workers, its stock has fallen sharply and its phones dropped in popularity among Americans, from “very low” to “Nokia who?”
Second, Microsoft. Its effort to compete with the iPhone and Android software is called Windows Phone 7. It’s beautiful, fast and good software. But it came late to the app phone party — so late, the band was already packing up. Today, in a room of 100 phones, you could count the number running Windows Phone 7 with one finger.
And so it came to pass that these two struggling giants decided to join forces. They would merge their expertise. They would share technology. They would give the American market one last big and desperate shot, spending hundreds of millions of dollars — the biggest marketing campaign ever for Nokia.
On Sunday, Nokia’s do-or-die phone finally arrives.
It’s the Lumia 900. It’s beautiful, fast and powerful, and it’s only $100 (with a two-year AT&T contract). That’s half the price of an iPhone or a comparable Android phone — but you’re still getting a top-of-the-line machine.
Its design is striking and unusual. The back and sides are molded from a single piece of hard, grippable plastic, in your choice of black, white or blue. (Nokia hopes that when you read “plastic,” you won’t think “cheap and crude”— you’ll think “tough” and “terrific antenna signal.”) The edges are comfortably rounded and entirely uninterrupted by seams, flaps or screws.
The screen is bright, vivid and with little glare, although finger oil frequently builds up. It’s a bigger screen than the iPhone’s: 4.3 inches diagonal. The Lumia 900 feels gigantic if you’re accustomed to an iPhone — but the big screen is handy when you’re reading maps, e-books and Web pages.
Then again, the Lumia actually shows you a larger area, but in less detail. Its resolution is 800 by 480. The iPhone’s 3.5-incher has 960 by 640 pixels, so Apple’s screen is far sharper.
The rest of the Lumia specifications are what you’d expect of a top-grade app phone: 8-megapixel camera, with flash, on the back, 1-megapixel camera on the front; GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth; overseas roaming; 14 gigabytes of available storage. Some of the iPhone-like downsides are here, too: nonremovable battery, no memory card, an inability to play Flash videos online.
But the iPhone doesn’t yet use 4G LTE — and the Lumia 900 does. That means brisk Internet connections in 4G cities (of which AT&T has many), and incredibly fast speeds in LTE cities (of which AT&T has only 31 so far). Apps download fast, Web sites load fast, videos don’t pause to load.
As usual, the price you pay is battery life: this phone might not make it through the day if you’re online a lot in a 4G city.
The right side has all four physical buttons: volume (up and down), sleep/wake, camera. The earbud cord is the antenna for the built-in FM radio. Call audio quality is excellent.
The software (Windows Phone 7.5, the latest and most polished version) is spectacular. It’s Microsoft’s own invention, a crisply scrolling virtual canvas of information. It’s sharp looking, responsive and loaded with thoughtful touches. For example, even if the phone is off, you can hold down the dedicated camera button and the phone wakes directly into camera mode, ready to shoot.
The Bing Maps app gives you spoken driving directions. Android phones have more map features, like walking directions and street-view photos. But Bing Maps covers the basics extremely well. When you scroll the map quickly, city names zoom up in size so you know where you are as you pass by — a great feature.
The Home screen is the software’s most noteworthy feature. It offers two colorful columns of tiles. Each represents something you use frequently: an app, a speed-dial entry, a Web page, a music playlist or an e-mail folder. These aren’t just buttons; they’re also little status screens. The music tile shows album art, the calendar tile identifies your next appointment, a person’s tile shows his latest Twitter or Facebook blurb. It works.
There’s speech recognition, but you can’t speak-to-type (except in the text-messaging app). You can speak some commands, like “Call Dad,” “open calendar” and “find local sushi.” Unfortunately, this isn’t Siri, the iPhone 4S’s star feature. You don’t get follow-up questions, smart substitutions or free-form syntax. (Or jokes; this is Microsoft, after all.)
So there you go: the Lumia 900 is fast, beautiful and powerful, inside and out.
Unfortunately, a happy ending to this underdog story still isn’t guaranteed. Windows Phone 7 faces the mother of all chicken-and-egg problems: nobody’s going to write apps until WP7 becomes popular — but WP7 won’t become popular until there are apps.
Microsoft says that 70,000 apps are available, an impressive start for an 18-month-old operating system. But Android has four times as many, and the iPhone has over eight times as many.
Still, if WP7 offers the most important 70,000 apps, the total doesn’t matter. So to gauge the completeness of Microsoft’s app store, I checked its list against the apps I use most often on my iPhone.
Many of the essentials are there: movie apps like Netflix, IMDB and Flixster; restaurant apps like Yelp and OpenTable; check-in apps from Delta and American Airlines; popular apps like Groupon, Foursquare, Kindle, Spotify, Twitter and Facebook. A few of my other favorites have also made it: RunPee (tells you when during a movie it’s safe to run out of the theater without missing anything important), Speedtest (measures Internet speed) and Flight Track (tells you everything about your flight).
And, of course, Angry Birds.
Unfortunately, there’s an even longer list of important apps that aren’t yet available for WP7 phones: Yahoo Messenger, Dropbox, Pandora, Mint, Bump, Draw Something, StumbleUpon, Pinterest, Urbanspoon, Hipstamatic, Instagram, Barnes & Noble Reader, Cut the Rope, Scrabble, Words With Friends, Google Voice, AOL Radio. Bank of America has an app, but Citibank, Chase, HSBC, Capital One, American Express and other big banks are missing.
Plenty of my less famous favorites are also unavailable: Line2, Hipmunk, Nest, Word Lens, iStopMotion, Glee, Ocarina, Songify This.
Even Microsoft’s own amazing iPhone app, Photosynth, isn’t available for the Lumia 900. Skype (which Microsoft owns) is still in beta testing.
Embracing the underdog also means turning your back on the universe of cool, useful accessories that work with an iPhone — all those thousands of speaker docks, alarm clocks, car adapters, external batteries, carrying cases, camera lenses, medical sensors, TV output cables and so on.
These days, an incredible number of hotels have iPhone charging docks or alarm clocks in the rooms. Your odds of finding a hotel-room dock for the Lumia 900? Zero.
(It’s not even clear that charging docks or speaker docks could be designed for this phone. Its charging and headphone jacks are on the top edge instead of the bottom.)
This Nokia phone and its Microsoft operating system are truly lovely — more beautiful than the iPhone or Android software, and, for most functions, just as powerful.
But is that enough to make you willing to sacrifice important apps like Scrabble, Pandora and Dropbox? Is “just as good” enough to justify losing out on the universe of accessories and compatibility?
I’m rooting for these long shots. They’ve done great work. But I have a sinking feeling that this breed of underdog will turn out to look more like a Pekingese than a Doberman.