Long-awaited, heralded, longed for, lusted after, overdue, deal breaker, savior, second coming, dead-on arrival, revelation, last gasp, comeback, hail mary pass, flagship… finally! If that string of descriptors hasn’t already tipped you off, Nokia’s Windows Phone messiah has arrived stateside to either silence critics or give’ em fodder for further nay-saying. Ensconced in a polycarbonate frame that’s similar to the N9, the Lumia 900 on AT&T’s LTE network is widely understood to be Espoo’s first true stab at building a presence for a mobile brand that’s ubiquitous everywhere but here.
To understand the gamble the company’s making with the Lumia 900, one need only look to another critically acclaimed, yet interminably stalled overseas import: Kylie Minogue. That foreign pop siren, a music industry veteran, has repeatedly failed to empty mainstream American wallets with her scattered hits, despite enjoying chart domination across the globe. Indeed the formula for US success is a fickle one. No matter the product category, the crossover membrane can sometimes prove too thick to permanently breach, often resulting in a “one and done” mentality marked by an inevitable retreat to more conciliatory European shores.
For the time being, though, it appears that Nokia’s going all in, ready to see its folie à deux with Microsoft through to the end. Indeed, with an irresistible on-contract price of $99, it would seem both parties are counting on this to be the mass market magic bullet they’ve sorely needed. So, can the Lumia 900, a single-core 1.4GHz handset hampered by a so-so 800 x 480 display, prove this tech alliance wasn’t ill-struck after all? Can an attractive industrial design and simplified UI triumph over seemingly modest specs? Will Nokia end up retreating to its overseas kingdom? Abandon those fanboy caps all ye who tag along, as we put this Finnish smartphone under the hot lights.
Given that it borrows from the Lumia 800’s quirky design, you’d assume your initial brush with the 900 would be love at first sight. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. Something’s slightly amiss here, and it took us a moment to hone in on what, exactly, is keeping the 900 from a front row seat in the wow department. Eventually, though, it came to us: that screen! Forget its humble 800 x 480 resolution for the time being; that’s not the glaring flaw. What kept us scratching our heads was Nokia’s decision to nix the 800’s sinuously tapered curves, that chassis whose glass panel seamlessly bled into the polycarbonate hull. It’s gone, and for no good reason. Instead, users are treated to a jarring experience: a border now surrounds that 4.3-inch display, causing it to protrude awkwardly from that shapely, cyan body. Suffice to say, it makes for an unflattering first impression.
So, that’s ding one: some unequivocal ball dropping on Nokia’s part. Are you prepared for aesthetic con number two? This change is more subtle and once again, it wasn’t for the best. If you’ve ever held an 800 in hand, you how premium it feels. Inevitably, then, you’ll notice the change in this handset’s texture. A body that was once smooth and polished has grown rougher in its journey across the Atlantic. Of course, most consumers will probably be none the wiser, having never handled the Lumia that started it all.
For the most part, Nokia’s kept the general layout of the buttons and ports intact. The volume rocker, power button and dedicated camera keys still lie along the right-hand side of the device, leaving the opposite edge clean. Thankfully, though, these flush, metal buttons have benefited from a little tightening — they feel more rigid than the ones on the 800, and you won’t encounter any loosening or jiggle. At the base, the speaker melds beautifully into the polycarbonate hull, making hand obstruction unlikely. Meanwhile, uncovered ports for a 3.5mm headphone jack and micro-USB socket sit up top.
The unit’s micro-SIM can also be accessed here. However, Nokia retooled the device so that you no longer have to depress, flip and then slide out that slot’s flimsy drawer. Instead, there’s an included door key that, when inserted, causes the sealed tray to pop out. SIM-swappers might take issue with this admittedly inelegant solution, as it’ll force them to keep vigilant watch of an easily lost sliver of metal. To that end, we’d advise prospective owners to keep a host of pins at the ready.
Flip the phone on its face and you’re met with a uniquely contoured back, broken only by a metallic ellipse housing an 8-megapixel shooter with a f/2.2 Carl Zeiss lens and accompanying dual LED flash. In a remarkable show of restraint, AT&T kept its logo-happy paws off, allowing users to revel in the 900’s naked beauty. The camera module should trigger some déjà vu: you’ve seen it not once, but twice, in the N9 and Lumia 800. A tour of the device’s front finds a VGA camera, ambient sensors, a trio of capacitive Windows Phone buttons and the only instance of branding — double billing for Nokia and AT&T.
For top-shelf phones, an HD display has become a must, be it qHD or 720p — just look at the Galaxy Nexus or HTC One X. Sadly, fans of the Windows Phone experience have had to make do with a software-dictated resolution cap of 800 x 480 — a frustrating limit that on paper, at least, keeps even the worthiest Mango handsets positioned below other flagships.
Still, with the inclusion of Nokia’s ClearBlack AMOLED display tech, prospective owners will be treated to an incredibly bright and intensely saturated screen that’s refreshingly liberated from the 800’s PenTile trappings. Even when viewing it outdoors in direct sunlight, we had no difficulty discerning the contents of our live tiles or even the camera interface. Granted, we had the brightness cranked to the max, but contrast this readability with the high level of glare commonplace on competing handsets and you should be able to overlook the Lumia 900’s graphical shortcomings. Truly, the simplicity of the Windows Phone UI — specifically the undemanding design of its icons — works well within these constraints. It’s only when you visit image-heavy websites or attempt to view the shots in your photo library, that this pitfall becomes impossible to ignore.
Performance and battery life
Windows Phone favors the charm of its animations over the immediacy of loading applications.
Windows Phone Mango, as we’ve said again and again, is an operating system constrained by an unfortunate combination of inflexible spec requirements. To know its ease of use is to love it, but that clean UI comes at a single-core price. True, WP handsets with beefier CPUs are reportedly in the pipeline, though what they are and when they’ll launch is anybody’s guess. For the time being, we must contend with the 900’s 1.4GHz Snapdragon processor and 512MB of RAM, neither of which should be underestimated.
That preamble aside, the Lumia 900’s performance is remarkably smooth. Note we didn’t say fast — not that it doesn’t display considerable speed when piloting through its live tile homescreen or app list. No, it’s definitely speedy, but there’s no arguing that the handset moves at its own fluid pace. It appears as if all WP navigation takes on a consistent cadence; it’s a UI that favors the charm of its animations over the immediacy of loading applications. Oddly, too, though it consistently scores higher than the Lumia 800 in benchmarks, it feels like it’s operating at a more leisurely pace: it doesn’t launch apps quite as promptly, and scrolling isn’t as brisk. Where that more diminutive phone zips, this one floats. It may frustrate users accustomed to lightning-quick smartphone responses, but eventually the 900’s flow wins you over until you completely forget it was a distraction in the first place.
Nokia Lumia 900 Samsung Focus S Nokia Lumia 800 HTC Titan
WP Bench 92 91.54 86 96
Battery rundown 4:29 4:24 2:40 3:00
SunSpider (ms, lower numbers are better) 6,902 6,914 7,200 6,500
Stacked up against its WP comrades old and relatively new, including mid-rangers and high-end handsets, the 900 disappoints. With a middling SunSpider score, a WP Bench result that fails to best last year’s Titan and battery life on par with Samsung’s (non-LTE) Focus S, the 900 safely earns the underachiever crown. It’s disheartening to see this highly anticipated phone fall prey to whatever discord resulted from AT&T, Nokia and Microsoft’s combined software broth.
Web browsing on the Lumia 900 is handled well by the native Internet Explorer app, although, as highlighted by that SunSpider result up there, full desktop pages can take some time to fully render — about 30 seconds on average. We pulled off pinch to zoom without a hitch, with no white spaces or checker-boarding.
It was Andy Lees, Microsoft’s former Windows Phone chief, who claimed late last year that the company’s resistance to issue LTE-capable handsets stemmed from a desire to create longer-lasting, more power efficient handsets. Remember the Thunderbolt? Apparently, so does Redmond, and although that particular misstep belonged to HTC, Android and Verizon, the lesson was not lost on the WP team. Determined to vault past criticism of releasing devices ill-equipped to handle the demands of AT&T’s 4G LTE network, the Lumia 900 hits shelves with a 1,840mAh battery in tow. Sounds like it would be enough and it is… just enough.
Compared to all the Lumias that have come before it, the 900’s charge does nearly double duty, holding on a respectable four hours and 29 minutes. That’s still hardly impressive, of course, but bear in mind that this was with a video playing in an incessant loop. Under the duress of real-world usage — that’s with the brightness at its medium setting, Twitter set to sync at 15 min, one push mail account and GPS and WiFi connected — we were able to squeeze just about two full days from one charge. Make use of Mango’s battery saver settings and we’re convinced moderate to light users will enjoy nearly 72 hours of productivity.
Nokia’s imaging know-how elevates this device beyond its workhorse performance and into a realm that quite nearly rivals the heights attained by Samsung’s Galaxy S II and Apple’s iPhone 4S.
Like a beacon of hope shining in the midst of this less-than-perfect storm comes the Lumia 900’s 8-megapixel rear shooter. Nokia’s imaging know-how, cemented in the outing of its 41-megapixel 808 PureView, elevates this device beyond the flavorlessness of its workhorse performance and into a realm that quite nearly rivals the heights attained by Samsung’s Galaxy S II and Apple’s iPhone 4S. Imbued with the same f/2.2 Carl Zeiss lens outfitting both the N9 and 800, the 900 should delight novices and pros alike with an intelligent sensor capable of arrestingly vivid images. Hold down the dedicated camera key and you’ll wake the phone from sleep directly to the camera app — a handy shortcut when photographic inspiration unexpectedly strikes. And while the shutter can easily be triggered by this very same hardware key, you can also tap onscreen, hold to focus and snap, allowing the sensor to adjust for the scene, white balance, ISO and exposure. Or you can manually tweak these settings, as well as swap out the 4:3, 8-megapixel resolution for 16:9, 7-megapixel shots.
The 900’s imaging software doesn’t quite match the superior optimization on the N9, but it certainly outranks the 800. As you’ll see in the gallery of sample shots, the phone’s module displays a knack for depth of field, crisp replication of detail and balanced color. While you won’t be able to appreciate this astonishing performance on that 800 x 480 display, you’ll sit back and smile when those pics stream across your desktop.
Video on the 900 performs just as admirably, with the phone set to record at 720p. A few hiccups did surface during playback — you’ll notice the sensor occasionally adjust the focus as we pan 180 degrees. Audio clarity also suffers slightly, but we’ll chalk that up to the high winds howling in the background as we filmed.
Users familiar with Mango’s underpinnings (our full Windows Phone 7.5 review is here) can move along — there’s nothing new to see here. But even as Tango’s suite of UI improvements wait in the wings, prospective Lumia 900 owners can still savor this older, slightly over-ripened software. Clean design abounds in this mobile phone OS for dummies — and that’s a compliment. From the wide-blocked live tile homescreen to the easily accessible and alphabetically categorized app menu, all the complicated and unnecessary bits that would confound the less nimble smartphone user are tucked out of sight. All told, the experience is amazingly intuitive and fluid, as we’ve said before, though it could frustrate power users with its lack of personalization options.
The 900 never lags or stutters, defaulting instead to a measured, graceful flow.
To Microsoft’s credit, the 900 never lags or stutters, defaulting instead to that measured, graceful flow we described earlier. Certain applications load appreciably quicker than others, particularly native ones, but thanks to that pristine, visual uniformity decreed by Microsoft, even the slowest of apps manages to dazzle. Gone, too, are the days when WP critics could deride Redmond’s smartphone ecosystem for a paucity of these pinnable tiles, as there are now over 40,000 80,000 apps available in its Marketplace. Nokia and AT&T have done their best to tread lightly with the bloat, choosing to pre-load the Lumia 900 with only a dozen applications, like Code Scanner, myWireless, U-Verse Mobile, Xbox Live, ESPN, Tango and Maps. Blessedly, 80 percent of these are removable, so while this handset may ship with a plump software load, users at least have the option to clean it up and make the most of that allotted 16GB of storage.
In a welcome turn of events, Nokia is also releasing the 900 to the public with Internet Sharing enabled from the outset; an option that was sorely missing on T-Mobile’s Lumia 710 and the unlocked 800. So, if you decide to opt in for this handset and happen to call one of AT&T’s 4G LTE or HSPA+ coverage areas home, you should have no problem tethering to your laptop and enjoying the freedom of a true mobile hotspot — your data plan, willing.
This is Windows Phone’s first dance with LTE and, despite being late to the ball, the Lumia 900 still gets to surf along those radio waves — they’re just no longer as incredibly blazing. Speeds have diminished somewhat since AT&T’s 4G LTE network officially launched in New York City, owing undoubtedly to an uptick in consumer adoption. Considering performance consistently maxed out at about 21Mbps down and 8Mbps up, users won’t have much to gripe about, with typical downlink results ranging between 17Mbps to 20Mbps and uplink at 5Mbps to 7Mbps, perfect for streaming Netflix or sharing large files over SkyDrive. Default to an HSPA+ only zone and those downlink speeds will hover around 5Mbps to 8Mbps — still more than adequate for most uses.
Windows Phone fans have waited with bated breath for the Lumia line’s “true” stateside debut. Standing tall with a 4.3-inch display and being the first of Nokia’s brood to boast LTE connectivity, the 900 is the company’s call-to-arms, a mid-range contender crafted with a single-minded mission: shore up the gaps left by the lesser 800 and 710 and establish a brand presence. Those handsets, for all their good looks and performance strengths, were more mobile welterweights than anything else: they aimed too low and too wide to capture the public imagination.
This Lumia, though, was supposed to change all of that, backed by a considerable marketing push and higher-end ingredients. While we wouldn’t color this AT&T debut as a failure, we wouldn’t call it a crowning achievement either. Apart from a stated preference and dedication to Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS, savvy geeks on the cusp of the next best thing won’t necessarily want what the 900 has to offer, especially in light of that other spotlight-stealing flagship, the One X. By no means are these phones on equal footing. It’s just that Nokia may have shot itself in the foot, succumbing to the hazards of hyperbolic quicksand far ahead of launch day. Much ado about nothing? Not quite, the Lumia 900 has its strengths, coming mainly in the form of optics, but it’s the overall package and performance that’s simply too plain, too ordinary, too dependable to merit the haughty flagship halo it aspires to emanate.
In that context, the Lumia 900 comes off as yet another decent offering on AT&T’s increasingly bountiful LTE lineup. Dispense of Espoo’s rose-colored glasses and the case for this middle of the road Lumia becomes somewhat clearer. Filter out the marketing noise and focus on its superb performance as a reliable point-and-shoot and now you’ve got a winner. Toss in those considerable network speeds and default access to Internet Sharing and, suddenly, it’s a shining star. Sprinkle all of that with an attractive polycarbonate case, a saturated and legible display and the magic eraser of its $99 on two-year contract pricing and, ipso facto, you’ve got a no-brainer purchase staring you in the face. Does the Lumia 900 fail to find its place amongst other smartphone hulks? Well, yes. But again, it’s playing in a league of Windows Phone’s single-core own. With the careful cultivation of a cultish, fashion-conscious consumer following, however, this could very well be Nokia’s greatest hit.