The Nokia Lumia 900 has much riding on it, perhaps even more than last year’s Lumia 800. It’s the first Lumia Windows Phone designed with the USA, home of the stretch hummer and ultra widescreen TV, in mind. Its huge 4.3-inch screen is designed to make it appeal to American tastes, and its blinding 4G connectivity is a real differentiator against an army of huge Android phones and the iPhone alike.
In the UK however, things are a little bit different. We’re still lacking 4G, and you can already buy a Nokia Windows Phone, the well-received Lumia 800. So what makes the Lumia 900 stand out?
Don’t get me wrong. I like the Nokia Lumia 900. It’s certainly the best Windows Phone by far, it doesn’t suffer the Lumia 800’s haphazard battery woes but its constraints make it a viable option only for those yet to taste the sweet, sweet convenience of a smartphone.
The Nokia Lumia 900 doesn’t try much new here: this is a Nokia N9/Nokia Lumia 800 embiggened. The display is a larger 4.3-inch panel, but many of the hallmarks remain: the rounded edges, the flat top and bottom with speaker holes drilled in, and a polycarbonate casing with colour running all the way through. It’s pretty stunning, especially compared to the rather uninspiring plastic of the newly announced Samsung Galaxy S3.
There are some changes, however, beyond just the bigger dimensions. The side keys are sturdier, and the micro USB charging port is no longer tucked behind a delicate, pointless flap. And to get at the micro SIM tray, you’ll need the little toothpick that comes in the box, iPhone-style.
And yet, the Lumia 900 isn’t quite as gorgeous as its smaller brother. Actually what I missed most was the curved glass across the top of the Lumia 800 (also on the HTC One X). Without it, the Lumia 900 seems a bit flat, asymmetrical and more prone to screen smudge.
Speaking of that screen, Nokia’s ClearBlack tech makes it one of the most visible AMOLED displays ever in direct sunlight, but the 480×800 resolution stretched across 4.3-inches makes it look rather grainy compared to its rivals. It’s particularly noticeable on web pages, and makes reading long articles a tad off-putting.
To be fair to Nokia, it’s not so much a flaw with the handset as a limitation of Windows Phone itself: 480×800 is the only resolution Microsoft’s OS supports. But discerning viewers ought to look away now: this pales in comparison to the pixel-packed 720p displays on the HTC One X and even last year’s Galaxy Nexus. On the plus side, AMOLED really shows off Windows Phone’s homescreens, which are laden with deep black and contrasting blocks of colour.
Windows Phone Tango
The Nokia Lumia 900 actually runs a new version of Windows Phone, rather than the Mango 7.5 build we’ve been treated to since last Autumn. It’s called Tango: its most important new features are support for lower-specced smartphones and new languages, but there are a few other new features too, including support for video attachments in text messages, and a cap of eight background tasks, rather than the previous five.
There are also a couple of new features new to the Lumia 900. Internet Sharing, which lets you tether a laptop to the phone, is included out of the box, and there’s a front facing camera for video calls, although its value is debatable: Outside of testing phones for review, I have never once felt the urge to make a video call on a mobile in my life.
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A few added touches then, but by and large you get the same Windows Phone experience on the Lumia 900 as you did on the Lumia 800 – something of a double-edged sword.
At a glance, Windows Phone now feels like a modern, competitive smartphone OS. It never taxes the phone’s single core 1.4GHz processor, and gliding through the live tiles of the Lumia 900’s homescreen is fluid. Multi-tasking with the back button is easy, and the voice commands, an oft-ignored feature of Windows Phone, are remarkably impressive and accurate.
What’s more, there are now enough apps and services to satisfy the average punter. Check out our Best Windows Phone apps: Top 100 list if you need proof.
But as time goes on, Windows Phone’s niggling problems have started to become much more serious issues. The Windows Phone People app is baffling, and places a strange amount of importance on what you’re saying on social networks, as though you might forget what it was you just tweeted.
Then there’s my biggest gripe: Internet Explorer. It was never the fastest, but lately it’s started driving me up the wall. Popular sites, even mobile versions of sites, sometimes don’t load properly. When I tried to buy some tickets using Vue’s mobile website, it couldn’t even load the security form.
It wouldn’t be so bad if there were a viable alternative: Windows Phone doesn’t let you specify a third-party app as the default browser, and the options on the Marketplace are scant anyway. As such, it’s tough to recommend the Lumia 900 for hardcore mobile web browsers.
But these problems are true of any Windows Phone, I should stress. And Nokia, to its credit, has done a decent job of making the platform as compelling as possible. Its free global satnav app, Nokia Drive, makes it the only Windows Phone worth considering. Nokia Music’s a welcome free streaming internet radio service, and though I wasn’t able to try it out, Nokia Reading is expected any moment now too – that will eventually provide a Flipboard style social reader experience built around Microsoft’s slick Metro UI.
And Nokia’s trying to get more developers and apps on board, although the pace is slower than Android or iPhone, which is disheartening and frustrating.
Aside from a new front facing camera, the internal hardware inside the Nokia Lumia 900 is identical to that found in the Lumia 800: that 1.4GHz processor keeps everything running smoothly, except when you stumble across an app that doesn’t support “Tombstoning”, and you have to wait for it to reload when you try and switch back to it.
It’s largely reassuring, and the battery life is too: Before its recent software fix, the Nokia Lumia 800 suffered battery life woes and random, sudden discharge, as well as an irritating bug that stopped you from answering calls (rather the raison d’être of a mobile phone). I’ve not seen any evidence of those problems so far with the 900, and I’ve found the new Lumia reliably lasts a good day and a half before tanking out, so that’s a massive improvement, verging on impressive.
But that same spec also means the 8MP camera’s rather flat and disappointing, especially for a Nokia sensor. This is not the best Windows Phone camera phone: that title goes to the now discontinued HTC Titan. I can’t wait to see what Windows Phone Apollo will be like if it includes Nokia’s stunning PureView tech (currently only available on the Symbian-powered 808), but sadly you’ll never see the Lumia 900 take such amazing, jaw-dropping imagery. Right now, the Sony Xperia S and iPhone 4S are much smarter camera options, if that’s a dealbreaker for you.
The British dilemma
But there’s one more thing to consider above all else. The US mobile market is ludicrously anti-competitive and over-priced. Many new phones are $199 or even $299 upfront, which makes the 4G Nokia Lumia 900 at $99 or less a bargain. Unfortunately, with no LTE in the UK, and a lot of aggressive competitors, it sadly presents a much less compelling option on these shores.
For instance, right now, the Nokia Lumia 900 is free on a £36 per month contract from Carphone Warehouse. The superb HTC One X, which uses a very similar polycarbonate moulding, costs just £30 per month. Combined with Windows Phone’s limited range of apps, that’s a tricky sell for any phone shop employee to make.
But there’s no doubt the Lumia 900 is a joy to use. For anyone upgrading from a feature phone for the first time, it’s a hassle-free walk in the park. The big worry? It won’t make converts of people who already own smartphones. And if Microsoft’s platform paired with Nokia’s hardware is struggling to do that now, three phones into their partnership, then it could be a cause for concern back in Espoo.