Every time the FedEx guy stops by my office, it's to deliver another cookie cutter smartphone stamped out of cheap plastic for me to review. The differences between each phone are so subtle, it's nearly impossible to tell them all apart now.
So it was refreshing to finally get my hands on the Nokia Lumia 900, the new flagship phone for Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 platform.
From a design standpoint, the Lumia 900 is easily the most unique-looking smartphone out there. Its body is made from a single piece of durable polycarbonate plastic (available in blue, black, or glossy white), giving the phone a solid feel that's a welcome departure from all those flimsy Android phones flooding the market nowadays.
Unfortunately for Nokia, a pretty face can't solve everything.
The smartphone war still feels like a two-man race right now, with the iPhone and Android devices dominating the market. Is there still room for a third contender? And if so, is Nokia's Lumia 900 good enough to make Windows Phone 7 the next big thing?
Before it's even turned on, you can tell the a lot of thought was put into the Lumia 900's aesthetics. I was happy to see Nokia go with a solid unibody design, and the polycarbonate plastic material feels great to grip on to. (There will also be a white version of the Lumia 900 that has a glossy finish.)
On the side, there's a volume rocker, power button, and dedicated camera shutter button, which also launches the camera app. Nokia placed the camera bit too low for my grip though, and it took awhile to train myself not to accidentally press it while holding the phone during a call.
The Lumia 900 is plenty thin and light too. It's not as svelte as the iPhone or other slim devices like Motorola's Droid Razr, but it's definitely not too bulky either. Plus, each end tapers off nicely, making the Lumia 900 a delight to hold.
Despite the Lumia 900's striking beauty, it's not totally perfect though.
There's an annoying raised lip that borders the screen, making it feel like the display was sunken into the device instead of placed flush with the body. It acts like a barrier between the phone's screen and the rest of the device. What makes this even more frustrating is Nokia didn't keep the gorgeous curved display it used on the Lumia 800. Bummer. I was looking forward to that.
The buttons on my review unit felt a little loose too, wiggling and jiggling around whenever I picked up the phone.
Hardware and Performance
Things get bad once you switch the on the Lumia 900. The screen is just plain awful. We're in an era where customers expect dazzling high-res displays. Meanwhile, Nokia is using a screen that would've appeared mediocre two years ago.
The Lumia 900's 4.3-inch screen has a 800x480 pixel resolution. For comparison, the iPhone's 3.5-inch screen has a whopping 960x640 resolution. That means the Lumia 900 has a lot fewer pixels spread over a larger area, resulting in blurry images and grainy text. Ugly. You won't see screens that poor on an iPhone or Samsung phone.
But the screen is really the only major flaw with the Lumia 900's performance. The phone runs on AT&T's insanely fast 4G LTE network, which means you'll get download speeds that can rival your cable modem's. It's awesome. Unfortunately, AT&T only offers LTE service in about 30 U.S. cities right now, so make sure you ask if you're covered before you buy. Everyone else will be stuck on AT&T's slower HSPA+ or 3G networks.
Battery life was pretty good too. I was easily able to get more than a day's use out of the Lumia 900, even with the power-hungry LTE turned on. However, the stand-by battery life wasn't so great. The battery seemed to drain a lot faster than normal, even though the screen was powered off. Perhaps the LTE is to blame for that.
Despite all the talk surrounding the Lumia 900 camera's Carl Zeiss lens, I found its performance to be just so-so. It only shoots 720p HD video. That's pretty disappointing, considering most premium smartphones can shoot full 1080p HD video. The 8 MP camera does take decent photos though. Here's one I recently snapped near my office:
I usually gloss over call quality when I review phones, but I had to write about it here. The Lumia 900 audio quality is just incredible. Even people on the other end noticed how much better I sounded. The phone did a great job at blocking out all the extraneous noise from the streets of New York.
The downside: I feel like I'm yelling into a tin can when I talk on my iPhone now.
Using Windows Phone 7
Today, hardware and specs on a smartphone can only get you so far. The real story behind the Lumia 900, moreso than the physical device, is the operating system.
The Lumia 900 is powered by Windows Phone 7, the OS Microsoft introduced about a year and a half ago. Since then, Microsoft has released one new major version of Windows Phone 7 called "Mango," which is what the Lumia 900 runs on today.
Windows Phone 7 is radically different from iOS on the iPhone and Google's Android. Instead of a home screen littered with apps, your screen is now a grid of what Microsoft calls "Live Tiles." Those Live Tiles are little squares and rectangles that update in real time with news, weather, sports scores, unread emails, calendar events, etc. The idea is to let you take in all your online updates in a quick glance. Tapping one of those tiles will launch the full app.
One of my favorite parts is how well Windows Phone 7 integrates with all the social networks and online services you already use. For example, once you log into your Facebook, Twitter, and/or LinkedIn account, all your social activity is immediately sucked into Windows Phone's interface.
Want to see if you have any new replies on Twitter? Just tap the "Me" tile to get a quick snapshot of what's going on. You'll be able to see Facebook and LinkedIn activity there too, all in one handy list. Your Facebook photo albums get pulled into the phone's photo app as well.
I'm a big fan of the care some developers took when bringing their apps to Windows Phone 7. Foursquare, for example, has been redesigned from the ground up. Frankly, I think it's prettier and more useful than it is on iPhone or Android. Same goes for Spotify, Facebook, and Evernote. Unfortunately, the app selection on Windows Phone 7 is pretty lame. (More on that in a bit.)
It's Not All Good
Now do I think Windows Phone 7 is the best smartphone platform out there? No. That title still goes to iOS on the iPhone. There are a handful of glaring problems with Windows Phone 7 that will probably be a dealbreaker for some people.
The most notable problem is the poor app selection.
Right now, you'll find a handful of big-name apps in the Windows Phone Marketplace: Evernote, Twitter, Netflix, Foursquare, Spotify, and Facebook are all there. Other than that, it's mostly junk. For example, a lot of smutty apps like "HD Babes Free" and knockoff games like "Tetris7" comprise the Marketplace's most-downloaded lists.
And when it comes to hot new apps, developers still tend to make them for iPhone and Android first, often ignoring Windows Phone 7 because it has such a tiny user base. Instagram, which only recently came to Android, is one of them. I would be shocked to see a Windows Phone 7 version of Instagram any time soon.
Windows Phone 7 is also missing a few handy features that should come standard in smartphones today. Notifications are pretty much nonexistent. That means if you have an app open, you won't know what's going on until you close it and take another look at your Live Tiles.
Multitasking is a pain too. In order to view apps that are running in the background, you have to hold down the back arrow key. This brings up a slideshow of tiles with your most recent apps. As far as I can tell, there's no way to get those apps to close for good.
During my time with the Lumia 900, I didn't have a single problem with Windows Phone 7's functionality. Everything worked perfectly. Apps opened instantly. Graphics and animations were smooth. It was fun to use.
Then, as if on cue, the OS started bugging out on me as I sat down to write my review. The full apps list wouldn't load right away when I swiped over from the home screen. Instead, each individual app would pop into view after a few seconds. I also experienced a good amount of app crashes. Windows Phone 7 is due for another update soon, so hopefully these issues will be fixed. In the meantime, it's just a pain.
Should You Buy It?
The Lumia 900 boils down to two glaring problems: the screen resolution is horrible by today's standards and the Windows Phone 7 software suffers from a handful of fatal flaws, most notably the poor selection of apps.
But at just $100 with a two-year contract from AT&T, you're getting a decent deal, especially considering the Lumia 900 is a 4G LTE phone. (Verizon tends to price its LTE phones at an unreal $300.)
The Lumia 900 does its best to provide a premium smartphone experience at a fraction of the price. It doesn't completely succeed, but it's not a bad purchase if you're on a budget. But if you don't mind spending an extra $100, you're honestly better off with an iPhone or high-end Android phone like Samsung's Galaxy S II.