"We've changed the clock speed of Nokia," CEO Stephen Elop proclaimed less than two months ago at Mobile World Congress. Elop declared that Nokia's products were now in more than 100 markets, that the company had shipped three new phones in the past year, that it was dominating in places like Russia, and that it had launched a location and commerce unit, which produced an initial set of apps, like Transit, Drive, and Maps.
Nokia then announced some new "feature phones," showed off the Lumia 900, hyped enhancements to its location apps, and then, in a bit of a surprise, unveiled the PureView 808, a smartphone with a--this isn't a typo--41 megapixel camera running--this isn't a typo, either--Symbian. Windows Phone 7, Microsoft's compelling, but fledgling phone platform, is the one to which Nokia has tightly hitched its future prospects.
Nokia has never been a deficient innovator. Traditionally, its smartphones have been fascinating marvels of ingenuity, packing power and functionality, but too often hiding it all in some opaque user interface. The company's dominance at the low end of the mobile phone spectrum never quite translated into the ideals of North American power smartphone users.
That's why Nokia's commitment to Microsoft's platform nearly a year ago-- which reportedly came with an investment from Microsoft to develop Windows Phone 7 hardware--was a large, but necessary risk. Competing among all of the Google phone manufacturers may have provided Nokia a short term benefit, but Nokia would have merely been one of many. But becoming, arguably, the premiere Windows Phone 7 manufacturer (with apologies to HTC and Samsung) would allow almost every new Nokia phone to stand alone in the spotlight.
Ultimately the fate of Windows Phone 7 will dictate the wisdom of Nokia's decision, but for now the company seems to be enjoying the spotlight. The new Lumia 900, which begins shipping in North America on Sunday (for $100), is probably the most compelling Windows Phone 7 smartphone available--though that is largely because of a dearth of choices.
Hands-On With Nokia's Lumia 900
Make no mistake: The Lumia 900 is big, bold, fast, sleek and--dare I say--sexy. But based on my hands-on experience with the Lumia 900, there isn't much to set it apart from the Apple iPhones and Samsung and HTC smartphones shipping for the next several months.
Where the Lumia 800 has a 3.7 inch screen with 800 x 480 resolution, the Lumia 900 has a 4.3 inch AMOLED display at the same resolution--a resolution that is fantastic, but doesn’t match the iPad Retina display. Because the display is black, smudges are visible, but mostly in screen lock mode; this isn't noticeable when an application is in use.
The Lumia 900 is thin, at 11mm, but plenty of phones are slimmer (the Samsung Galaxy S II is less than 9mm thick). Like the 800, it has a single core 1.4 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, whereas many phones have dual-core processors (and now many have quad core processors.) At the same time, this chip runs plenty fast enough to power most any app available on the Windows Marketplace (which doesn't have many of the graphic intensive games of the Apple App Store).
The Lumia 900's plastic (polycarbonate) case feels good, solid, and credible. The phone comes in black, white, and cyan. It has an 8 megapixel camera (still and video), but, unlike the 800, the 900 has a front facing camera (1 megapixel) for video chats. Skype for Windows Phone 7 is still in beta, but the Lumia 900 ships with Tango, which is also available on Android and iOS. In other words, the front facing camera will become far more useful in due time, and more powerful for the enterprise when Cisco's WebEx or Fuze Meeting comes out on Windows Phone 7.
The rear camera has Carl Zeiss optics, with a f/2.2 aperture and a 28mm wide angle lens. It includes dual LED flash (pretty standard these days) and auto focus, capturing video in 720p (HD) resolution. Compared to the iPhone, Nokia's camera output is warmer and more precise, and the colors are more true and crisp, but the overall quality isn't necessarily a deal-maker. Even a 2x zoom starts to destroy the quality of a photo, especially in poorly lit rooms. Still, it's a welcome improvement compared to other smartphone cameras.
AT&T LTE 4G Speed Impresses
One of the Lumia 900's big differentiators is that it runs on AT&T's LTE 4G network--an option available only in about 30 cities today. But the HSPA+ fallback is just fine. Performance testing is an imprecise sport. Variables like network saturation (not many are using AT&T's LTE), time of day, web site anomalies (ads change from second to second, for example,) make it nearly impossible to test the speed of a browser, let alone the network. Anecdotally -- in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and areas around Los Angeles--the speed was outstanding, with really fast page loads on some graphics-rich web sites. Everything from Netflix to Pandora (using Pandora client Radio Controlled, since Pandora isn't available on Windows Phone 7) performed extremely well.
The phone keeps the basics simple: silver buttons on the side for volume, lock screen and camera, a microUSB port, a headset jack, and a SIM card slot (accessible with an accompanying key) are sensible and easily accessible. The unit comes with 16 GB of internal storage (Microsoft offers its personal cloud service, SkyDrive.)
I am a fan of the Windows Phone 7 user interface. (You can read more in our side-by-side comparison of Apple's iOS, Google's Android, and Microsoft's Windows Phone 7, which covers a few phones, the user experience, enterprise-readiness, and the state of applications on each platform.) Note that Windows Phone 7 is still hampered by the lack of encryption on the device, not the only weakness that continues to make the phone an undesirable corporate citizen.
Nokia has been hard at work on developing its own applications for the "Nokia Collection." Transit, Drive, and Maps look interesting. For example, Drive lets users set alerts when they exceed a particular speed, and works offline. The company has announced Nokia Reading and Newstream. The Nokia ESPN app (really a "hub" in Windows Phone 7 parlance) is fantastic--much richer than what's available on other platforms. Soon it will allow users to pin individual teams or players to the home screen for live data feeds.
Nokia offers a variety of alternative headsets (including the Purity by Monster, which is great), bumper covers and soft covers, and car accessories.
All of this makes Nokia, for now, the king of the Windows Phone 7 hill. It's not a big hill, but it's probably a better place than where Nokia was two years ago. If Microsoft succeeds with Windows 8, the company's perseverance with its phone platform could pay off more. That's a big "if," but one Nokia will do well to fuel. The Lumia 900 is not a bad start.