[REAL-WORLD REVIEW] Three months with Windows Phone 7 / Nokia Lumia 900

My Nokia Lumia 900

The Nokia Lumia 900 was named “Best of CES” by C-NET, but that was waaaay back in January.  In the fast-paced world of mobile phone releases, that doesn’t count for much today.  Still, when I had the opportunity to give the Lumia 900 a thorough test-drive in July of this year, I was intrigued.  Since the Lumia is also a Windows Phone 7 device, that meant I would be testing out the OS as much as I was the phone.  I’d heard good things about WP7 from family members who had used it, so I took the opportunity to make a temporary switch from my aging Android phone and put the Nokia through its paces.

When the Lumia 900 arrived, I was immediately taken by the form factor; this was unlike any mobile phone I’d held before.  In a world where every touch-screen phone seems to be a variation on the same theme, the Lumia 900 was strikingly different.  The solid metal body had corners like no other, and the screen itself was slightly raised from the rest of the body.  The uniform metal body gave it a very solid, sturdy feel.  I was impressed as well to see an 8 MP camera packed inside, as well as a lower-res front-facing camera.

Looks are important, but what I really wanted to test out was the functionality.  Was WP7 really as good as I had heard?  How would this stack up to my Android experience?  Could I get this phone to do what I really wanted it to do?  I dove right in, adding accounts and setting up apps.  I quickly discovered that Microsoft could play nicely with Gmail and Google Calendar — important details, since that’s where I primarily organize my communication and my life.  An even bigger detail: I could interface with the contacts from my Google account.  This was critical, because it meant all of the contacts on my Android device were instantly available on the WP7 device.  And it wasn’t an import; WP7 actually allows me to maintain my contact list at Google, and I can edit it from the phone.  That tight integration with Google made the transition extremely easy and won major brownie points for Microsoft.

A few more ease of use items caught my attention early on.  The phone has a camera button, making snapping photos very fast and easy.  The camera is quick and responsive.  The LED flash is ok in dark light situations, but not much help in more common low-light conditions.  Photos in low light without the flash don’t fair much better.  Give this camera plenty of light, though, and the pictures are beautiful.  So… better than the 3 MP camera on my older Android, but still needs work to be a perfect solution.  Sharing photos, though was very easy, which leads me to my next point: social media integration.

Windows Phone 7 has Facebook and Twitter integrated right into the OS.  This makes photo sharing very easy; you can snap a photo and have it posted on Facebook in a matter of seconds, with very few steps in the process.  Posting a status update or checking into a location can all be accomplished directly through the OS, and I found it easiest to do it that way.  There are independent Facebook and Twitter apps available for the platform, but for the most part I ignored them.  WP7 loads status updates from the people you follow right into the address book.  It also lets you create groups of contacts, which I found extremely useful for following social media posts from the people I am closest too.  I put them in a group, and from one icon (live tile in WP7 terms) on my home screen, I can see their latest updates and photos.

As a result of the ease of use with social media, I found myself more engaged with the people I actually care about — filtering out a lot of the junk that crowds social platforms — and more likely to participate.  Over the course of my first three months with the phone, I almost completely abandoned desktop access to Twitter and Facebook, preferring instead the Lumia 900 as my primary means of social media interaction.  To be fair, my Android device did try to accomplish the same thing, but it never worked well and ultimately was more frustrating than helpful.  Not so with WP7; it has social interaction under control.

Those are the highlights.  There are some challenges with the platform, too.  Some of the biggest problems with WP7, in my opinion, are not likely to be changed because of the Microsoft factor: Internet Explorer and Bing.  The only browser available for the phone is Internet Explorer, and it doesn’t do a great job of rendering web pages, especially the mobile versions of those pages.  My experience with the Android browser was that is was quite intuitive; Internet Explorer is not.  I looked for alternatives — Opera, which I had way back on WP6, or Firefox — but no alternatives were available.  As a result, I find that I will put off web-browsing tasks until I can be at an actual computer, which defeats the purpose of having a browser on your mobile anyway.

Bing is the search provider that’s built-in to WP7, but the results of the “decision engine” are no better on the phone than they are on a desktop, which is not good.  More often than not, I found myself opening up Google in the browser to find what I was looking for.  And Bing maps, while serviceable, are no comparison for Google.

In the middle — neither a highlight nor a challenge — is the app selection on WP7.  There are some essentials here — Netflix, Crackle, and iHeartRadio provide entertainment, Microsoft Office and Evernote are there for productivity, there are the required social media apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare, and you’ll find other mainstays like Amazon Kindle, Spotify, IMDb, and Skype.  Missing are Instagram and Google+, among others.  Microsoft and Nokia have actually stepped in to develop some of the missing apps themselves: the YouTube app was written by Microsoft, while Nokia has submitted a number of apps, including The Weather Channel and ESPN Fantasy Football.  Relying on your OS developer or handset manufacturer to develop the third-party apps people are looking for is not necessarily an ideal situation, but I’m glad to see both partners stepping up to make sure the phone meets customer expectations.  In the case that you don’t find the iOS or Android app you’re used to, you can almost always find a functional alternative in the Windows Marketplace.

Sticking to the app front for a moment, Nokia deserves some attention for the apps they’ve developed to extend the platform.  Many of these are exclusive to Nokia devices, so I lucked out that my WP7 test was on the Lumia 900.  Nokia Drive is a GPS/Navigation app that actually downloads the maps to your phone permanently, enabling you to still navigate even when you’ve driven beyond the limits of data coverage.  Google Maps, as good as they are, don’t offer this feature.  Camera Extras brings panorama and group shot functionality to the phone, Nokia Music provides free streaming music sans commercials, and Nokia City Lens is a fun augmented reality app.  In all, Nokia has developed 23 exclusive apps for WP7 devices, and they make a difference.

In the end, I’d have to say I’ve enjoyed my three months with the Nokia Lumia 900.  As a phone, it works well.  Call quality is ok, and dropped calls aren’t an issue.  The WP7 interface is a refreshing departure from Android and iOS, and the Lumia 900 was quick and responsive — something that was helped by the 4G data service.  I enjoyed using the phone to monitor and interact with social networks, so much so that I moved my social networking interaction almost exclusively to the device.  Taking and sharing photos was also quick and easy.  It should also be noted that my kids loved this phone — everyone from my 14-year-old to my 7-year-old ask to use it on a daily basis.  Would I recommend it?  Yes, with this proviso: if you rely on a specific app, make sure it’s available on the WP7 platform first.  Otherwise, I have no reservations about the platform, and the Lumia 900 is a great piece of hardware to enjoy it on.



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