lumia 900 01By Introducing the Lumia 900, Nokia is effectively bringing a larger, 4G LTE, version of their Lumia 800 to the market. It has just about all the qualities of its predecessor, but the larger size changes the user experience slightly, and the battery life seems to be better out of the box. The Nokia Lumia 900 builds on the new industrial introduced by the Nokia N9 which uses a single bloc of polycarbonate that effectively becomes a cradle for the rest of the phone. This makes it extremely resistant to shocks, while giving it a soft texture. The question is: are you ready to try Windows Phone?

Context

We all use smartphones differently, so it’s important that I tell you what I do with my smartphone: I typically check my email often with the built-in email app (via Microsoft Exchange), and I reply moderately because the virtual keyboard is slow, even on large displays. I browse the web several times a day to check on news sites, but I rarely watch movies or play music. I don’t call much – maybe 10mn a day, if at all.

On the “apps” side, I have a couple of social networks, a receipts manager, but I rarely play games or do something super-intensive. This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful.

External design

nokia lumia 900 review 03The Nokia Lumia 900 inherits of everything that is great about the Lumia 800 smartphone. The 900 body is made of a single block of polycarbonate, using a similar molding process. All the internals are then inserted into the device, then the phone is closed off by the display. The result is a very soft, curvy, and organic shape that fits very well in the hand. If you wonder: this does not feel like “cheap plastic” at all.

nokia lumia 900 review 04The main difference with the Nokia Lumia 800 (besides the size) is that the gorilla glass that tops the display does not have a curved edge. As I hinted in my Lumia 800, the rounded edge was a nice feature, but one that I could do easily do without. It looks like Nokia agrees, although I don’t know exactly why this design element has been removed

nokia lumia 900 review 05At the top, you can find the micro-SIM tray, which now requires a tool (a pin) to remove. Next to the SIM tray, there’s a micro-USB port to sync/charge. I like the fact that the port is open, and easily accessible. Finally, there is also a standard 3.5mm audio connector. Note that when cables are located at the top or bottom, they don’t hinder the normal manipulation of the phone. I find the top location is convenient when using headphones with the smartphone in a pocket.

nokia lumia 900 review 041The right side has several buttons, which include volume controls, power and camera shutter. I’m usually not a big fan of having a lot of buttons of the side because of possible accidental key presses, but so far this hasn’t been a problem. Finally, I’d like to add that I would prefer having a Power button that is at the top or in the front of the phone, as this is the single most important button on any smartphone.

nokia lumia 900 review 07The loudspeaker is located at the bottom, which is typically a good strategy to obtain a loud sound, even if it makes it hard to do stereo etc… The Lumia 900 speaker works remarkably well, and I’ve been asked to lower the volume at the office, which is always a good sign for a smartphone speaker.

Display

nokia lumia 900 review 02I liked the AMOLED display on the Nokia Lumia 800, but the larger size on the Lumia 900 makes it even better from many points of view. First, it’s a bit easier to read on. Secondly, it’s easier to type with the virtual keyboard because the leys are a bit bigger.

In terms of image quality, this AMOLED display is beautiful and well-tuned. Out of the box, the colors aren’t too “flashy”, and everything looks bright and contrasted.

Windows Phone

Windows Phone currently holds a relatively small market share, and if you have not tried it, you may ask yourself a number of questions. I’ll try to provide an overview of its strengths and weaknesses as an Operating System (OS), then I’ll cover key applications in the next section.

You may remember that some years ago, Windows CE which became Windows Mobile, held a large market share in the smartphone segment. Back then, I believe that Microsoft saw it as an IT tool. With the rise of the iPhone, then Android, Windows Mobile quickly lost market share as its user interface was clunky and rather inefficient. The Windows Mobile devices were also seen as being relatively slow and power-inefficient.

It all changed when Microsoft decided to put Windows Mobile under new management. What came out of it was a new operating system with a user interface based off the excellent “Metro” design, which is now making its way to Windows 8. Windows Mobile became Windows Phone, and the current version is 7.5. The bottom-line is: forget about Windows Mobile. Windows Phone is a completely new beast.

Windows Phone is very “fast and fluid” (the official motto at Microsoft these days). It is remarkable that regardless of which hardware it runs on (including low-end phones with only 256MB of RAM), the user interface remains absolutely fluid. The user-interface is also simple and clear, and the typography is beautiful. In a nutshell, these are the strengths of Windows Phone.

But it is not perfect: Windows Phone has less applications than iOS or Android, even among the most popular ones. It also tends to lag in terms of features. For instance, it only recently got tethering capabilities, and multi-core is still unsupported. For developers, C and C++, two of the most popular programming languages are not supported by the SDK, which means that iOS or Android applications need to be re-written to work on Windows Phone. This may explain the lack of apps…

However, the Windows Marketplace has grown considerably since the Windows Phone launch, so if the set of applications that is useful to you is available, chances are that you will have a very good user experience. I did.

Killer Apps

Despite everything that modern smartphones do, most smartphone users activity usually revolve around these activities/apps. And curiously, most apps that people “can’t live without” are in fact text-based.

nokia lumia 900 review 09Keyboard (excellent): I’ve said it in pretty much all my smartphone reviews: the Windows Phone 7 keyboard is the best in terms of responsiveness and ability to predict which key you’re trying to hit with your fingers. If you have never tried it, I suggest you do – some call it “voodoo”. The Nokia Lumia 900 takes this to the next-level because the display is bigger. Typing is a real pleasure, and I would rather do email with the Lumia 900 than any other device – including the Samsung Galaxy Galaxy Note, only because the Note is slightly “laggy”. Despite the lack of voice dictation, I’m giving an “excellent” rating to the keyboard. If you’re a text-person, take note.

nokia lumia 900 review 10Facebook (excellent): First, it is worth noting that the Facebook integration in the Windows Phone OS itself is simply extraordinary. From the People HUB, it is possible to post an update (to multiple social networks) and see your friends’ updates. In the photo gallery, the Facebook albums are accessible and the image loading is even pretty fast, which makes me wonder if the photos are pulled to a Microsoft server, shrunk down before being sent back to Windows Phone.

To access the full array of features in Facebook, there’s a native app which has a Windows Phone “look and feel”. All the Facebook features that I normally use are there (updtes, photo uploads, like/comments), but I don’t know if something is missing when compared to iOS and Android versions.

nokia lumia 900 review 11Skype (in beta): with a front camera, the Lumia 900 is now video-chat capable, and that’s great because Skype is now in beta for Windows Phone. Unfortunately Skype is very much in “beta” state, and doesn’t really work great yet. It is slow, and the contacts can’t be filtered by online/offline. It is also not very stable and overall, it deserves its “beta” status. Nokia has preloaded Tango, which is a viable alternative to Skype. It’s great, but the only issue is that most people haven’t used it yet. [Windows phone Skype download link]

nokia lumia 900 review 12Email (excellent): the email support is “top notch” in my opinion. It’s true that you don’t have things like the Blackberry shortcuts, but the Exchange Server support is great, the setup is extremely easy: I basically just had to enter my email and password. On Android and iOS I have to enter 5 or 6 long strings of information with the server URL, etc…it’s so annoying. The font used in Windows Phone and the ultra-clean design makes emails very readable. Overall, I love the WP7 email experience. I’ll take the WP7 email experience over iOS or Android any day. Only Blackberry remains the king of the hill on that one, especially on the Bold 9xxx.

Finally, Windows Phone actually downloads the message upon receiving the notification. It’s great because many smartphone out there don’t download the message in the background, which means that the download happens when you open the email app. I can’t stand it as that makes me wait another 4-10 seconds to access my email. Fortunately, this is not the case here.

nokia lumia 900 review 13Maps (good): the default mapping application on Windows Phone is Bing Maps. It’s pretty good, but unfortunately, it’s not as good as Google Maps, especially when the Android version has had so many improvements over the past year. Yet, it should be good enough for most use cases in pedestrian mode. If you are trying to use it while driving (should you?) things can be a bit tough because street names aren’t as pervasive or readable than with Google Maps. It would also be nice if this app could cache maps on the local storage.

nokia lumia 900 review 14Navigation (very good): Fortunately, for driving around, there is Nokia Drive a true personal navigation application that is great: For one, the maps are stored locally on the phone itself, so the phone does not need to download the maps in real-time, which is great for speed and battery life. The map is also a bit better in terms of street names readability. The best part is that it’s free — and you can download maps for *almost* every countries in the world (Japan isn’t available, for example).

nokia lumia 900 review 15Web Browsing (good): The new Windows Phone browser is now using the Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) rendering engine, which is much better than the IE7 engine used previously. This time, I have not seen any site compatibility issues, and overall, things work fairly well, but this phone won’t break any performance record in terms of Javascript benchmarking – more on that topic in the performance section…

Unfortunately, there is no Flash support, and although Microsoft has declared that it has no “philosophical issue” with having Flash on its platform, the current reality is that Flash isn’t available. HTML5 is well supported, so you may try your luck on HTML5 sites, but I usually hear that many smaller services, especially in Europe, still run video on Flash. Actually, that’s the #1 complaint that I hear about the iPad in Europe. Windows Phone 7.5 will have the same issue, although as a handset, it seems less of a problem than it is for a tablet.

Web search (Bing-centric): it’s not a surprise, but the default search engine is Bing (from Microsoft), and it works reasonably well. If you want, you can install Google Search as an app, but to be honest, I would have preferred to have a better integration of Google. Bing is OK, but I find it inferior to Google Search when it comes to searching for tech stuff in forums etc…

Imaging / Photography (average)

lumia 900 pot

The iPhone 4S comes out sharper. Check the original photos on our flickr page

lumia 900 tree

The Lumia 900 had a harder time dealing with the strong contrast between the tree and the cloudy sky

In terms of photography, the competitive landscape is brutal: this is obviously a feature that a lot of people care about, and that’s probably the #3 item, after the overall design and user experience. Unfortunately, the Lumia 900 does not take the best photos and videos. In my tests, I found that the iPhone 4S, or the Samsung Galaxy S2 (or Galaxy Note) can easily beat the Nokia Lumia 900 in this area.

nokia lumia 900 review 16

This does not mean that the Nokia Lumia 900 is “bad”. It’s decent, but it can’t compete in terms of photo image quality, there’s no question about it. Fortunately, it’s fairly good for web use (social networks, emails, twitpic…).The video quality pretty much reflect this as well. It’s pretty good, but doesn’t handle high contrast as well. Note that during my tests in relatively difficult lighting, both the Lumia 900 and the iPhone 4S experienced autofocus difficulties at different moments.

Entertainment (Very good)

nokia lumia 900 review 17Video playback: the Lumia 900 uses the same hardware as the Lumia 800 and it is therefore just as capable in terms of multimedia. I have tested the usual Starcraft and Gran Turismo 5 1080p trailers: both played well and looked beautiful on the big AMOLED display. Note that I’ve been only using .MP4 files and that they were all copied to the phone via the Zune software. I haven’t tried all kinds of file formats, so if there’s a demand for it, I can dig further into it.

Photo Gallery: I like the photo gallery, it’s efficient, and I can sort it by month, people or albums. It lets me access my online albums as well (I mainly view Facebook’s photos – mines and my friends’) and it’s relatively fast, even over 3G. I also love the fact that the background image in the Pictures HUB is randomly selected from my recent photos. Good stuff!

Music: obviously, you can import/buy Mp3 files, but each Windows Phone is also a Zune player, which means that you can also buy videos and subscribe to an listen music service from Microsoft. I used it for a while, and it’s pretty good. If you want more choices, there is a host of apps that are available through Marketplace: Rhapsody, Slacker, LastFM, Amazon, Sirius – just to name the most famous.

System performance (synthetically slow, perceptibly fast)

Again, the Lumia 900 will perform exactly like the Lumia 800 (see charts below). They use the same hardware, so expect the same performance. to be blunt, the Lumia 900 is not going to impress in any synthetic benchmark, and it is actually far behind in the carts. The explanation is twofold. First, Microsoft’s Javascript engine is much slower than Apple’s and Google’s. That’s why it basically loses badly in all the Javascript benchmarks. That said, Javascript benchmarks unfortunately represent much of the web experience, even if they are interesting to look at.

Secondly, the Lumia 900 is not multi-core. This means that if we were to benchmark raw CPU performance, it would also lose badly to dual-core, and quad-core systems currently on the market. This performance would be needed to run physics in games, and faster image processing, just to give you two examples.

lumia 800 browsermark

The Lumia 900 and 800 share the same performance characteristics

lumia 800 sunspider

The Lumia 900 and 800 share the same performance characteristics

Perceived performance (excellent)

Ironically, the “perceived” performance is excellent. The Lumia 900 is more fluid than most smartphones  on the market, and its user interface is incredibly responsive. It’s actually not easy to put the phone in a situation where the lack of CPU raw power is a problem. In fact, only games and select few apps would do that.

The short explanation is that user-interface fluidity and raw CPU power are completely unrelated. We’ve had smooth scrolling since the days where 8-bit computers ran at 8MHz, and if you look at three of the major mobile operating systems out there (Android, iOS, Windows Phone), only Android suffers from user interface jerkiness (especially pre 4.0). iOS and Windows Phone have been fluid from day one.

Battery Life (good+)

In terms of battery life, I like to look at the standard depletion rate in standby mode, when the phone is working at a minimum, just to keep things up to date. This basically show the maximum battery life possible with my current settings. with my settings, the Lumia 900 loses about 10% of its battery overnight (8hrs), which I would consider to be relatively good, and definitely in-line, or slightly better than most high-end devices. That translates to an effective two days of standby mode with LTE on – not bad!

From there, things can change radically depending on one’s activity. The AMOLED display should be a major power draw, followed by the processor. I’ll update this section by posting a 60mn of idling with display ON, a 60mn video test, and maybe a 60mn gaming test. Those two should give you the lower-bound for battery life. I didn’t want to hold the review while we wait for those.

Conclusion (very good)

nokia lumia 900 review 19The Nokia Lumia 900 is a beautiful 4G LTE Windows Phone. It has a great design, great ergonomics and thanks to its polycarbonate build, it is remarkably solid. If you have not used the Windows Phone operating system, I would encourage you to check it out, and try it in a store if you can. It is very fast and clear but it’s really up to you to decide if you like the design and the ergonomics.

Windows Phone works well for what I do (see “context”), and I’m just about sure that it has a lot of potential for many, but particularly for first-time smartphone owners. Now, it is clear that Windows Phone is still facing an uphill battle, and the main thing that you need to look at is whether or not it has the apps that you need. That is the single most important thing that you need to figure out. If your needs are simple (email, text, web, music, videos), this should be easy.

If you find the Windows Phone software proposition to be compelling, then the Nokia Lumia 900 is a great smartphone candidate. To make a long story short, the Lumia 900 is simply the best Windows Phone handset on the market, but the fight with other high-end smartphone is most definitely tough.

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