The Nokia Lumia 800 is a throw of the dice. One we’ve waited two years for the mobile giant to chuck.
Two years ago, I attended the launch of Windows Mobile 6.5. It was Microsoft’s latest attempt at grabbing attention away from the iPhone, and a nascent Android platform rapidly gaining traction.
In an interview at the time Alex Reeve, Microsoft’s then director of mobile business, insisted that 6.5 was competitive with all its smartphones rivals.
I’ve never laughed in the face of a high ranking technology executive before, but I almost did then: it was dire. “There’s no excuse for this,” thundered Gizmodo. “It still sucks,” said TechCrunch. They were right: Windows Mobile, with its cruddy touch response and 2002 menus was effluent as OS, when nothing short of a reboot, Year Zero effort could keep Microsoft in the mobile race.
Earlier on that Summer, Nokia had started to exhibit the first symptoms of its own decline. The Nokia N97, its flagship, was critically mauled. A top Nokia executive later called the phone a “tremendous disappointment“, and a true flagship follow up, the Nokia N8, took a year and a half to hit shelves.
It seems strange then, or only natural, if you’re glass-half full subscriber, that Nokia and Microsoft should club together to stage a smartphone comeback. And lord do they need one.
Windows Phone 7 is out there already: pleasant, but nobody is buying it, and Microsoft is making more money out of Android. Nokia meanwhile has seen its global smartphone share drop to just 14 percent, crumpling from 33 percent in just one year.
Which brings us to this, the Nokia Lumia 800: a rehashed design lifted from a wonderful phone Nokia smothered in its crib. Plus Microsoft.
Is it a comeback?
I’ve lavished praise on the design of the Nokia Lumia 800 before, back when it was the Nokia N9, but it bears repeating again: this is a beautiful object. The machined plastic colour runs all the way through, and though its 12.1mm depth is rather chunky, it’s doesn’t matter. Nokia has bowed gracefully out of the race for the thinnest black slab, and carved up a slice of exquisite hotness instead – one that in its curves and rigid lines is clearly Nokian.
There are flaws, certainly: the flap over the top of the USB charging port looks destined to snap off in a very short space of time. The eight megapixel camera sensor is smaller than that found on the incredible Nokia N8, and while its shots are detailed and accurate with colour, it does have a tendency to blow out in daylight. It’s not a reason to switch from an iPhone 4S or Samsung Galaxy S 2, certainly.
A front facing camera for video chat is also gone, just as Microsoft has implemented it in Mango. Ironic, given that Nokia pioneered them so many years ago. And the black hue attracts more fingerprints than the cyan and surprisingly masculine pink versions.
Stephen Elop told the press at Nokia World last week that the Nokia Lumia 800 was the first “real Windows Phone“. A slap in the mouth for HTC and Samsung, sure, but the screen on the Lumia 800 delivers on that promise.
It’s AMOLED, a superb screen technology which floors the competition by virtue of boasting vivid colours, and blacks that are literally black: individual pixels are turned off. Windows Phone, with its black backgrounds and sparse “Metro” design, was meant for AMOLED.
That stark contrast between the neon tiles and abyss behind them looks mesmerising, as it did on the Samsung Omnia 7: chiaroscuro brings out the best in Windows Phone. You want to touch the tiles, you want to rove around the People hub nosing in on what your friends are up to. It looks so damn good – and not comical, as the standard 480×800 resolution does stretched across a phone the size of the HTC Titan.
I’m still mourning MeeGo, but I must admit Windows Phone’s keyboard is easier to use: the keys are spacious and easy to prod with your thumbs on the Lumia 800′s 3.7-inch display. Sure, you can’t install any keyboard you like, but this isn’t what Windows is about. It’s a casual phone, not a “smartphone”, and many people don’t want to debate the pros and cons of various QWERTY keyboard layouts.
Windows Phone itself hinted at greatness last year, but it’s taken until now to get close in feature set to iOSandDroid. The Windows Phone 7.5 “Mango” update is a crude masterpiece, broad brushstrokes of genius, with many areas still left empty.
I won’t go over those features again in detail here (Fast app-switching, contact groups, local and voice search and internet sharing coming in an update soon) but suffice to say they make Windows Phone a delight to use, particularly the People Hub.
When Windows Phone 7 was first launched, I thought it was a mess, a UI where you were never quite sure of your location. But now, perusing through all the panes, seeing what your friends – and acquaintances – are up to on Facebook, Twitter and even LinkedIn, feels like a journey, an experiment. A conversation, almost.
It’s a very different type of experience, one where speed doesn’t seem to matter. Part of that is undoubtedly is Microsoft sleight of hand: flash screen transitions mask loading times, and the Qualcomm 1.4GHz processor is pretty fast anyway. But it almost doesn’t matter: Windows Phone doesn’t seem to ask anything taxing of the phone, save for slightly lengthy app loading times.
Speaking of those apps, Nokia’s included a few extras, all the better to stand out from the crowd. App Highlights is a petite section of app recommendations, much like Samsung and HTC’s own failed attempts at differentiation.
Next up is Nokia Maps: at the time of writing, it was still unavailable to download, but it will be available to all Windows Phone users for free in due course, as we first reported back in May.
What won’t be is Nokia Drive, Nokia’s turn by turn voice navigation app. Microsoft desperately needs to build this into Bing Maps, but in the meantime, it alone is reason enough to recommend the Lumia 800 over any other Windows Phone. It’s still bare bones – you can’t for instance set a location as a tile as you can with Bing Maps – but you can bet that’ll change sharpish, and it gets you where you need to go.
Nokia Music is the other big addition to the live tile screen: it can search out gigs for you, if you’re that impulsive (I’m not), and stream music. Not any music, mind: its “mix radio” service will chuck you a playlist arranged by category and sub-category. Radio licensing rules mean you can’t skip back and replay a song on command sadly, but it is free, integrates with the lock screen track controls and serves up beautiful full screen cover art. I expected more from the folks behind Comes With Music though. Make no mistake, whenever that Spotify app for Windows Phone arrives, I’ll drop Nokia Music like a HP TouchPad.
Windows Phone has many flaws. You’ll never be quite sure when the search button is going to work or just dump you on the Bing homepage, what options a long press will reveal, or most disturbingly, if your network happens to be O2, if it’s going to change the search button to a link to Yahoo! just to add bloatware for the sake of bloatware, because that’s just how O2 rolls.
The apps though, the apps. A phone is only as good as its eco-system, and the Windows Phone Marketplace is still about as well stocked as a North Korean farmer’s market. Until now, the question has been simply, why put up with this when you can gorge on the all-you-can eat buffet of the Android Market?
But the Nokia Lumia 800 is so superbly built, for the first time with Windows Phone, I found myself asking, can I put up with this?
The wonderful WebOS on the Palm Pre posed a similar question: is the out ox box experience alone enough? Windows Phone’s People hub combined with a competent internet browser in Internet Explorer 9 and the odd bout of Angry Birds will be that for some.
For others, the arrival of copy and paste and a group messaging app with critical mass (WhatsApp) will be the threshold. Others still will want to play new games all the time, not belated ports of iPhone hits, and expect a bit more.
That’s almost not the point of Windows Phone though: if you expect more from a smartphone, Windows Phone isn’t for you. As I said last week, like HTC, Nokia is taking a step away from the old concept of a smartphone. It isn’t about expectations, just working with the minimum of fuss.
Think of it this way: what services, not apps, do you need on your phone? Some are there, others incoming, others perhaps when hell freezes over, then thaws again. Kindle? Check. Evernote? Check. Dropbox? Sorta, and anyway you have 25G of SkyDrive to use. Spotify? Still not yet. BBC iPlayer? Nope.
But for the Lumia 800, for the services I need, rather than want, I think I can put up with that.
The Nokia Lumia 800 is a gamble, and one that isn’t going to get better if other don’t take a gamble of their own. You just need to figure out what the odds are for you before you throw.
And hey, if it doesn’t pay off? At least you’ve got a bloody beautiful social networking device that rings as a consolation prize. Welcome back, Nokia.