Thursday, February 9, 2012

My review of the Nokia Lumia 800
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Click here to get a PDF version of this review.

A couple of weeks ago, Nokia has given me a Lumia 800 device to try. The only condition was that I had to share some feedback. So here it goes…

The Lumia 800 is Nokia’s new flagship smartphone running Windows Phone 7 Mango. It has been almost a year since Microsoft and Nokia announced their partnership. Nokia still is the largest manufacturer of mobile phones, but their smartphone department was not doing well. The Lumia 800 has been available for a couple of months in several countries and seems to be doing quite good so far. In Belgium it is available since February 1st for 499 euro.

Reviewing this device was not an easy task. I have done my very best to do it as good and as complete as possible. Should you buy it? Is Windows Phone mature enough? Does it work properly? Read on to find out what my opinion is.

Disclaimer: I am writing this as an independent consumer, gadget-enthusiast and app developer, not a Microsoft or Nokia poster boy. Some of my thoughts about this device might surprise you.


Hardware

The hardware of this device is very similar to the N9, so similar that usually it would be unacceptable for any manufacturer to copy itself like that. However, the N9 was born dead, the OS will not be developed any further. It is a very good thing that the innovative design and body of the N9 live on in the Lumia. The looks of the Lumia 800 are nothing short of stunning. One could argue that it is the most beautiful phone ever. It is definitely the prettiest Windows Phone available today. It is available in black, cyan and magenta (white will be available soon). The front is curved Gorilla glass with a capacitive touchscreen and three buttons: back, home and search (as required by Microsoft).

The body is crafted out of a single piece of polycarbonate by using the same techniques that others use to carve blocks of aluminum. It is curved on the sides and slightly tapered at the top and bottom. It is pleasant to hold and the ergonomics are great, the weight and size are just about perfect. It feels solid, but is transparent to radio waves, which greatly improves reception. I absolutely love it, it is so different from just about any other phone I have ever tried. It is pleasant and warm, not cold and impersonal like most other handhelds.

Screen and buttons

The 3,7 inch AMOLED screen has Nokia’s ClearBlack technology, which is big plus, it makes the dark colors really dark by being less reflective. The ClearBlack technology really shows when watching a very widescreen movie with black bands, you don’t even notice the bands, you simply cannot see where the screen stops. The screen has 800x480 pixels (WVGA) and because it is AMOLED, the colors are very rich. One beef I have with the display is that the whites are, well…, not very white.

The three buttons under the screen are capacitive and while that is really pretty, I still prefer a real buttons, I keep pushing these accidentally. The backlight of these button acts a bit weird: while watching a movie in the dark it was on at full power (annoyingly) and when you switch of the automatic brightness adjusting of the screen, the backlight of the buttons is disabled when selecting medium or high for the backlight of the screen. According to Nokia Belgium, this is intended behavior, although I still don’t see why anyone would want that.

On the right, it has some buttons: a volume rocker, a power/sleep button and a dedicated camera button. Sadly, there are a few problems with these buttons. The power button is placed terribly, right under the volume rocker. I often lock the device when trying to lower the volume, very annoying. The camera button on my device sits a bit loose, when shaking the device you hear the button make a ticking sound. I have read reports of other people having this issue with the power button. Also, the camera button doesn’t feel as good as it should. You can press it half way down to focus, but that stop half-way down is a bit too soft and easy to miss.

Audio



On the top you’ll find a standard 3,5 mm audio jack, a USB port (under a stupid hatch) and a Micro-SIM slot. That is right, the Lumia 800 is one of only three devices that uses Micro-SIM. The iPhone 4 and the Nokia N9 are the other two. It shouldn’t be too hard or expensive to get a Micro-SIM card (the Belgian provider Mobile Vikings charged me 5 euros), but this may cause some inconvenience. The holder for the SIM card is made of aluminum and should be solid enough. The hatch is a bit wiggly, but should be fairly strong as well.

Edited 9 feb 2012: A reader pointed out that the Nokia Lumia 710 uses Micro-SIM as well. I stand corrected.

The audio quality is terrible. I know that that is putting it quite strongly and that it contradicts some other very good reviews, so let’s be clear about it: the audio quality in phone calls is good and the speaker on the bottom is about as good as a tiny build-in speaker gets. However, if you plug in some good quality headphones, the first thing you hear is noise. If you like music and you would like to use your phone as music player, that is a real deal breaker. I have compared the noise levels for the same audio files and for some YouTube clips on an iPod, an iPad, a Samsung pre-production Windows Phone 7 device, an LG E900 and the Lumia 800. I have no remarks about the audio quality of the Apple device (although I have a lot of other remarks about them, but I will save that for some other time). Sadly, of the three Windows Phones I have tested, only the Samsung delivers the same audio quality, and the Samsung is the only one that you can’t actually buy. I always considered the LG just a cheap device, with pieces falling off after a year of use, so the disappointing audio quality was to be expected. I had much higher hopes for the Lumia, being almost twice as expensive and definitely having been designed with a lot of attention to detail. Today I am still carrying two devices: an iPod for music and the Lumia. That is quite sad indeed.

Camera

On the back: an 8 megapixels camera with a wide-angle Carl Zeiss lens that can do 720p video and dual LED flash, which is very, very bright. A front facing camera would have been nice, especially with Skype coming soon to Windows Phone, but I don’t consider the lack of it that much of an issue. Video calls on a mobile phone still are not very commonplace anyway. The quality of the rear camera is alright: the colors are good, the flash is bright but it adjusts well to the lighting of the scene and the autofocus is speedy (considering it is a phone and not a DSLR, of course). I have made some test shots (most are taken inside, sorry for that):



A problem I have with the camera is a reddish mist in the middle of pictures. It really shows when taking a picture of a white sheet of paper. I don’t know if this problem is isolated to my device and whether it is a hardware or software issue, but it is unfortunate.

And yes, I already had this issue before putting the device on a red background for the photos.

The camera can also do 720p video. Like the stills, the colors are good, but the video suffers some motion blur. Also, these days a lot of competing devices are offering full HD (1080p) video. Still, I think the camera is sufficient for what I think is its most important task: taking a quick picture of a funny or memorable situation and sharing it instantly.

Inside

Inside this slab of plastic and glass are locked some good components, although nothing spectacular. The Qualcomm processor runs at 1,4 GHz and has 512 megabytes of memory to work with. You get 16 GB of flash to store your apps, videos, music, email… If that does not cut it, you are out of luck, no other options are available and like most Windows Phone, there is no slot for an SD card. All expected sensors are present: an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a GPS (which is pretty good, but more about that later), a compass, proximity sensor, light sensor and an FM radio. The expected 3G, WiFi and Bluetooth are available as well. Also locked inside is the battery, which is not user replaceable, sadly. There has been some buzz about the battery running out to fast and Nokia has pushed out some updates to address this issue. I had no problems though, the battery drains just as fast as on any other smartphone I have: very fast. My golden rule of thumb is that it has to make the end of a long busy day and the Lumia does that.

Durability

The Lumia 800 is fairly durable as well. The Gorilla glass should be quite scratch resistant, although, to be honest: I have already found a tiny scratch on mine (after two weeks of use) and I am really careful with it. The polycarbonate is scratch resistant as well and the mate finish makes a big difference one you manage to get it scratched anyway. The only part that is a real scratch magnet is the little silvery, shiny piece of plastic around the camera. That makes me weep deep inside.

Accessories

In the box you will also find a very cute USB charger, a USB cable, headphones (which, frankly, I haven’t even tested) and a silicone cover, matching the color of your phone. Whether you like silicone covers or not, it is nice to have one included that perfectly fits your phone.
In general, the hardware is pretty standard these days, but the design is simply stunning and the build quality is excellent.

Software

Windows Phone 7

Windows Phone is a young operating system that has to compete with some pretty good software like Android and iOS. In some ways it still lags a bit behind, but it has some pretty cool and innovative features as well. Let me walk you through some of my favorites.



After hitting the power/sleep button on a Windows Phone you get to the lock screen, with a background photo of your choice. This screen shows time and date, the next item in you agenda and the number of items (calls, messages and emails). Unlocking is done by sliding this screen up.

After unlocking, you land on a screen that shows your favorite apps. You can pin apps to this screen and arrange them to your personal preference. The color of these so-called “tiles” can be changed, this accent color is used all over the OS and even in third party apps. The background is either black or white, but black works best on the ClearBlack display of the Lumia. Except for apps, you can also pin contacts, groups of contacts (“friends”, “family”…), pictures and so on to the start screen. Some of these tiles are “live tiles”, tiles that show useful content instead of just an icon. The phone tile displays the number of missed calls, the contacts tile shows some pictures of you contacts (this tile constantly changes), the Facebook tile shows the number of unread notifications, … There even is a tile about you: the “me” tile switches between your profile picture and the latest notifications on your social networks. Developers can enhance their apps by making the tiles more dynamic. In the screenshot above you can see my Mobile Vikings app showing my account balance and Niels’ UGent Resto app, showing todays menu in the university restaurants.

Swiping to the right brings you to the full list of installed apps, where you can also pin them by pressing and holding for a couple of seconds (this is the equivalent of a right click on Windows).



The build-in messages app is very interesting. It combines text messages with Facebook chat and Live Messenger. You can, for example, start a conversation on Facebook and continue via text messages. There is a button at the bottom of each conversation that allows you to switch.



To be able to chat on Facebook and Messenger, you have to add those accounts to you phone. You can also add Twitter and LinkedIn (and email accounts: Google works fine for contacts, calendar and mail, so does Exchange), but they don’t support chat. The contacts app tries to link the accounts people have all these networks and combines their information. If it was not able to do that (e.g. because differences in their name), you can link them manually.



The email app overrides the background color with white. It supports threaded conversations and does a good job in general, as you would expect from any smartphone. The calendar app combines calendars from all your accounts, including Facebook events and birthdays. The Office hub lets you open and edit Word and Excel files, open PowerPoint presentation (including the animations!) and to take notes that get synched to the cloud using OneNote. Good stuff!



The sharing feature allows you to share pictures on social networks or via mail really quick. This is also one of the menus that developers can extend, as WhatsApp has done in the screenshot. Microsoft is also active in the gaming business and the Windows Phone does a good job connecting you to your Xbox LIVE account. You can tweak your avatar, send messages to friends, compare achievements, … The little guy on the screenshot –my Xbox avatar– is actually a moving 3D model that you can interact with, he even starts dancing if you are listening to some music. To put music and video on your phone, you use the Zune application, which is very good. One of the features of Zune that I particularly like is that you can simply drag a video to your phone and it will automatically convert and resize it. That may not seem to be a big deal, but I also own an iPad and getting videos on that device is actually rather tricky (except if you buy them from Apple, of course).

This is all I wanted to share about the Windows Phone 7.5 (a.k.a. Mango) operating system, but of course there is a lot more to tell about it. The Verge has a well-balanced and more elaborate review of Mango.

Nokia apps

Nokia has made some little tweaks to the OS, they have added some ringtones and the Nokia blue color, nothing very shocking. Let’s hope that because of the partnership between both companies, someday, some of the user interface of the N9 makes into Windows Phone.



They have added some extremely nice apps though. Bluetooth contacts transfer allows you to transfer contact from your previous phone over Bluetooth. Handy! Nokia Music sells music.

Nokia Maps is like Google and Bing maps, but from Nokia. It is a good app, but nothing shocking. Nokia Drive, on the other hand, is a really adding value. A lot of it. Navigation with a 3D map, spoken instructions and downloadable maps and voices that works properly and doesn’t cost a fortune (still looking at you, TomTom for the iPhone), perfect! I have tested it next to a TomTom and it works well. The GPS receiver is very good, I have very good reception, even inside. This can mostly be attributed to the polycarbonate body, which is very transparent to radio waves, unlike aluminum or steel. A little remark: please let us download maps over 3G, instead of just WiFi, warn us that it is going to be expensive, but a least let us decide to do it anyway.

About third party apps, adoption and maturity

Just like the other two big mobile platforms, Windows Phone 7 has an application store, which they call Market-place.

Marketplace has over fifty thousand apps al-ready, but does that really matter? I would argue that it is more important to have the apps you really want instead of just thousands of crapps. To some degree the Marketplace has the apps you need the most: Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Skype (coming soon), Angry Birds… But then, once you have installed those, it is a bit underwhelming. Some good games are available (though they are bit expensive), but I simply can’t spend hours browsing apps in the Marketplace finding new apps to get even more out of my device like I can in the Apple AppStore.

Of course, this is easy to explain: Windows Phone has virtually no market share. According to Gartner, Windows Phone has 1,5% market share (based on sales third quarter 2011). Compared to Android (52,5%) and iOS (15%) that is a bit low. So the platform is not very attractive for app developers (or at least their companies) and few apps are built.

However, I am developer myself and one of my main reasons to use a Windows Phone is that is has a very good platform for developers. Silverlight and C# are a delight compared to Apple’s Objective C. Lack of market share is the only thing that makes the platform unattractive, everything else about it is excellent for developers. I believe the Lumia 800 and the “Microkia” partnership in general may the start of a serious raise in market share and popularity of the platform.

When the first version of Windows Phone 7 was released, over a year ago, a lot of reviewers stated that it was a step in the right direction, but lacked maturity. With over 500 new features in the Mango release it has grown up and is -in my opinion- equally capable as the iPhone or Android, except for the lack of good apps.

Conclusion

The Lumia 800 is a wonderful piece of engineering. The design is unlike anything we have ever seen: plastic, but premium. It is pretty, it will not fall apart, the ergonomics are better than any other device I have ever tested. Windows Phone 7 Mango is a good operating system, it is refreshing and beautiful. Live tiles and deep integration with social networks are real timesavers.

Does it work properly?
Yes, both the software and hardware work well, only the audio quality is disappointing.

Is Windows Phone mature enough?
The operating system feels a lot more “finished” than the first version of Windows Phone 7. Having said that, the Marketplace still is a bit disappointing compared to the competition.

Should I buy it?
If you want to buy a Windows Phone, buy this one. It is the best one I have seen. If you want to buy a smartphone, well…, you might like Windows Phone, it is something different, but there are some downsides.
The Lumia hardware may even be so good that it makes you forget some of the problems with Windows Phone and ultimately allows the platform to grow and prosper.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Nokia Belgium for giving me the opportunity to review this device and Microsoft Belgium for recommending me to Nokia.

I have done my best to add some good quality photos to this review. For a more complete photographic overview I refer to The Verge.

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