Nokia sorely needs a "hero" smartphone with the looks, the speeds, the specs, and a price that will hush the doubters. With the Lumia 900, Nokia proves that it has the chops to compete. We thought so at CES, where we awarded it best new smartphone, and I think so now.
But is the Lumia 900 a breakthrough device? The features are high for Windows Phone's threshold (the OS doesn't yet support multicore processors), but the phone lacks a halo-making feature like the Nokia PureView with its gasp-inducing 41-megapixel camera. While a revolutionary new feature could clinch Nokia's victory, what it has now in the Lumia 900 is the best Windows phone I've tested yet, and it's perfect for the mainstream market. Of course, my assessment could always change in a week when the HTC Titan II launches, with its whopping 16-megapixel camera, though to me, the Lumia 900 is ahead in style points. It's also half the price: $99.99 versus $199.99.
Beyond the looks, I'd recommend the Lumia 900 without hesitation to anyone considering a Windows Phone -- although I'm psychologically incapable of leaving out important caveats. I love the Lumia 900's bold look and the way that the phone's style and screen make the Windows Phone interface pop. With Windows Phone nearly identical on all handsets, Nokia really only has the hardware to control, and in terms of specs, it did a great job (mostly). LTE...check. Strong camera quality, check. Fast processor, sturdy construction, check and check. There are still some changes I'd make if Nokia had asked for my opinion, including the placement of some buttons, quality control when it comes to calls and on a couple external components, and 1080p HD video rather than 720p. However, none of these flaws would keep me from using the 900.
If you imagine the cell phone section of a funky, Scandinavian design shop run by avant-garde youths, the Lumia 900 would fit right in. Its lightly sculpted unibody chassis and deliberate use of color scream "lifestyle product." Bold as an exclamation mark, the Lumia 900 has pure pop-art coursing through its electrical veins.
What makes the Nokia Lumia 900 so eye-catching? Even without the electric blue version that I have, the bright white color arriving April 22, or the more-understated black color, the 900's profile stands out. The chassis has a perfectly flat top and bottom, with round sides and a slightly curved back, which Nokia then topped with a large, glossy screen.
At 5 inches tall by 2.7 inches wide by 0.45 inch deep, it's a large phone. The smooth, matte finish helps it slide into pockets and purses, but because of the width and flat back, the Lumia 900 did feel a little flat in my hand. However, it was comfortable on the ear. It may feel a bit heavy at 5.6 ounces, but it's also very solid. I'm a little worried about the long-term effect of finger grease and residue on the color, but in the short term, the finish survived my residual hand lotion and the direct application of a goo-gone solution without marring the color.
Back in its heyday, Nokia phones were largely synonymous with solid construction and thoughtful -- and sometimes daring -- design. The Lumia 900 may not present a strictly new design, since it's clearly adapted from the Nokia N9 Meego-based phone released in Asia, and the Lumia 800, the European version of the N9 that runs Windows Phone, but it's a good one that offers slight variations.
For example, the Lumia 900 is larger than the 800 and features a front-facing camera in addition to that all-important LTE and a larger battery. Then there are the more-minor surface variations, which you'd only really notice holding the two phones side by side. On the 800, the display bubbles out about 2.5 millimeters, like the surface tension curving a drop of water. The 900's screen, on the other hand, looks more like a slapped-on postage stamp. My review unit had a few gaps that were barely perceptible, but were there nonetheless. The most obvious was large enough for me to stick my fingernail into the space around the SIM card slot, and pull up a corner of the locked door -- that's sloppy. There was also a thin gap where the right side of the screen meets the body of my review unit, with no gap whatsoever on the left side of the screen.
I had no complaints with the display itself, though, and it's easily one of the Lumia 900's key selling points. The beautiful 4.3-inch AMOLED screen features ClearBlack display technology and Gorilla Glass. Colors look richly hued, bright, and sharp. I compared the Lumia 900 with the Samsung Focus S, which has an identical screen size and WVGA resolution (800x480 pixels). In both brightness and richness, the Lumia 900 absolutely blows away the Focus S, which at the time I hailed as a beautiful Super AMOLED Plus screen in its own right. At the same levels of full and automatic brightness, the Lumia 900 shone about a full level brighter than the Focus S.
I also compared high-res photos on the two handsets. While they both looked terrific, the Lumia 900 showed noticeably greater contrast, with blacker blacks, more color spectrum variation, and greens so bright they looked a bit unnatural.
Beyond the screen, there's the front-facing camera and three touch-sensitive navigation controls on the phone's face. Nokia's sense of chic minimalism extends to the silvery controls on the right spine. From top to bottom, you encounter the volume rocker, the power button, and the camera shutter button. I'd prefer a different placement for the power button and volume rocker, but I could get used to it. The top of the phone houses the ports: the 3.5mm headset jack, the Micro-USB charging port, and the micro-SIM card slot behind the push-in door. As with the iPhone, you can insert a narrow "key" (or thin, unbent paper clip) into a hole to pop out the small SIM. Nokia kindly tapes a key right in the box, saving you from paper clip mutilation.
Thanks to its unibody construction, the back of the phone is smooth, with no openings whatsoever. There is, however, the 8-megapixel camera lens and a dual-LED flash.
Operating system and Nokia apps
Thanks to a close partnership between Nokia and Microsoft, the Lumia 900 runs the most recent iteration of Windows Phone OS, version 7.5 Mango. As a result, the Lumia 900 can perform every software task that other Windows Phones do, too.
Unlike Android, Microsoft keeps its OS pretty locked down, so Nokia has little room to add its own flair on the software side, a strategy I appreciate for uniting the phone experience across devices, but one that makes it harder for manufacturers to stand out. Still, Nokia does make a mark with the nice Nokia Blue color theme (it's the Lumia 900 default) and with a suite of Marketplace apps that include Nokia Drive, Nokia Maps, Nokia Transit, and Nokia Contacts Transfer. This section also highlights partners' third-party apps, like ESPN and CNN. It's a shame that the Lumia 900 doesn't have Nokia's music app, Music Mix Radio, like its European counterparts, and I hope the right deals are signed soon. The absent app, which serves streaming radio and creates mixes, is similar to a Windows Phone feature, but it's also an alternative that could give Nokia some additional cred.
Since Windows Phone OS pretty much behaves the same on every handset, it's the extras that are important. LTE was the most crucial feature Nokia needed to sell this phone on our shores, and it'll be one of the first two Windows phones with LTE. (The HTC Titan II, which goes on sale the same day, is the other.)
Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth are standards, though sadly, the Lumia 900 ships with Bluetooth 2.1, practically antique compared with the new Bluetooth 4.0 standard we're starting to see in mobile devices.
Windows Phone OS handily provides e-mail and social networking integration through account log-ins in the settings, an option for linking inboxes together, and support for group messaging. There's also threaded text and multimedia messaging, and a cool feature that can weave together messages sent between IM and traditional texts. Task-switching, voice search, and scan searches with Bing are also included, as are conference calling and voice dialing. (For even more on Windows Phone OS, read my full Windows Phone 7.5 review.)
On the apps side, you'll find basics like the clock, a calendar, a calculator, Internet Explorer 9 (with HTML5 support but no Flash), and podcast subscriptions in the Music + Video hub. There's also a Maps app, with turn-by-turn directions for walking and driving, Microsoft offers Xbox Live integration through the Games hub, an FM radio, and the SmartDJ feature that creates mixes from your collection. When it's time to get to work, you can create and view Microsoft Office apps from a variety of sources.
I already mentioned Nokia's app contributions above, but AT&T also preloads some programs. There's the carrier's usual bundle: a bar code and QR code scanner; AT&T Navigator with turn-by-turn directions; AT&T Radio; and AT&T U-verse Mobile, (the mobile version of U-verse TV for streaming shows; it costs $9.99 per month if you create a new account from the phone). For video chats, the Lumia 900 gives you the Tango video chat app, as well as YP Mobile for yellow pages. For everything else, there's the Marketplace.
Nokia boasts that its 8-megapixel camera on the Lumia 900 has Carl Zeiss optics, which, along with its dual-LED flash and autofocus, are meant to boost image clarity. I took about a hundred photos on the 900, outside during bright daylight, inside with artificial lighting, front-facing, and in low-light situations. As with all smartphone cameras I've tested, the Lumia 900 did best in outdoor shots with abundant natural lighting. Also, like all the camera phones I tested, photos ran the gamut of excellent and very sharp to slightly fuzzy and disappointing.