Hands on Review: Nokia Lumia 900

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In recent years, good news has been few and far between for Nokia when it comes to the smartphone market and their flagship devices. While the devices were not sub-par by any stretch of the imagination, it always seemed to come too late to market, sometimes with specs that were already outdated when looking at other manufacturers’ flagships. The Nokia Lumia 900 launch in the US went well, where it shot to the top of the charts when launched and it has also been available in SA for a while now. We were lucky enough to get our hands on it for a couple of weeks to give it the rundown.

There does seem to be quite a big question mark about this device in the worldwide release, and also criticism towards the Scandinavian company because it seems that the Lumia 900 will not be receiving the Windows Phone 8 update, news that wasn’t made available before its US release. This does take some shine out of the device, as the new operating system is said to make wholesale changes to the Windows experience on mobile devices.

Here is a summary of some of the key features:

  • Quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE support
  • Quad-band 3G with 42 Mbps HSDPA and 5.7 Mbps HSUPA support
  • 4.3″ 16M-color AMOLED capacitive touchscreen of 480 x 800 pixel resolution
  • Gorilla glass display with anti-glare capabilities
  • 8 megapixel autofocus camera with dual LED flash, 720p@27fps video recording and fast f/2.2 lens
  • 1MP front camera
  • Windows Phone 7.5 OS (Mango), upgradeable to Windows Phone 7.8
  • 1.4GHz Scorpion CPU, Adreno 205 GPU, Qualcomm MSM8255 chipset, 512MB of RAM
  • Non-painted polycarbonate unibody
  • GPS receiver with A-GPS support and free lifetime voice-guided navigation
  • 16GB storage
  • microUSB port
  • Bluetooth v2.1 with A2DP and EDR

The Lumia 900 is (obviously) the big brother of the Lumia 800, which we have reviewed here. What is interesting though is that it is literally just bigger. The screen size has been increased from 3.7”to 4.3”, and has immensely improved resolution. Other than that, not much seems to be much different within. Does this mean that it will give us the same experience? That’s what we wanted to see.

The first things we noted with the device are the big, high quality screen, the fluid and intuitive OS and truly brilliant build of the device. Nokia really wanted to impress, and frankly, they needed to.

Design and Build

Most recent Nokia handsets have had more or less the same look, from the N9 to the Lumia series of devices and the 900 is no different. It might be starting to get a bit outdated, which is not to say it is boring. It is a very simplistic but compelling design and the aesthetics do work very well with the screen and functionality of the buttons.

When you compare it to the Lumia 800 (which you would naturally do if you have ever seen the 800), the designs do ring true to the same base of thought that brought us the previous models, with the only real difference coming in the size of the device. Here is a comparison of the white Lumia 900 compared to the black Lumia 800.

Talking about colours, the phone does come in black, white, magenta and cyan, although the latter two might be difficult to get a hold of. Interestingly though, it’s only the white phone that has a glossy finish. The matte covers of the other phones could possibly make it more practical and easier to hold in the hand.

The build quality, as in all recent Nokia phones, is basically flawless. It also looks very sturdy, with the matte finish lending itself to a rugged look. This is a device that can take a lot of abuse from drops and bumps, with a blend of the Corning Gorilla Glass to protect the screen and the heavy duty polycarbonate. Because the plastic isn’t painted, but simply manufactured in the specific colour of the device, scratches are difficult to see.

The Lumia 900 has an AMOLED screen, and while some people might not like the PenTile matrix that was on the Lumia 800 (that has been dropped), in this case the AMOLED does work very well. A high quality AMOLED screen and Windows Phone seem to be made for one another.

This is because of the superior contrast of AMOLED screens compared to other types. Windows Phone uses a lot of deep black themes, both in the backgrounds of many apps, but also for the overall look and feel. This looks great with the AMOLED screen’s capability to unlock a ‘true’ black, and not ‘absence of colour’ like other screens, which often give it a very dark greyish look. In the specs you’ll notice that the pixel density of the screen isn’t brilliant, but that is not necessary in this case.

The 4.3” screen is good, despite its smaller resolution. While it’s not in the league of the iPhone or the newer Samsung Galaxy phones, it still holds its own.

Above the screen you will find the earpiece, light and proximity sensors and of course the 1 MP front facing camera. There are three touch sensitive buttons below the screen, which almost blend into the background of the OS.

There is nothing on the left side of the phone, but on the right is the volume rocker, along with the power/lock screen. The phone also has a dedicated camera button on the right side.

The top is quite busy, with the audio jack, microUSB port and the noise cancelling secondary microphone. Alongside that is the microSIM tray, which can be quite tricky to open if it’s your first Nokia smartphone. On the bottom is the loudspeaker as well as the mouthpiece.

Single-handed use is simple with this device, which is helped by having all the controls on one side. Whether you are left or right-handed, it works very well and fits perfectly in the hand. In short, the phone looks great and is well put together.

Battery Life

Interestingly, the Lumia 900 has a non-removable battery. The 1830 mAh battery’s performance is better than you would expect though, partially because of the OS.

With mild use, you can get about a day and a half. The 7 hours of video playback is not as good as some of its competitors, but talk time around 8 hours isn’t too bad. You might be able to work it for a full day if you use this battery aggressively.

User Interface

The Lumia 900 runs on the Windows Phone 7 OS of course, which has also taken strides for the technology giant in terms of mobile operating systems. It runs the latest build available (7.5) released at the Mobile World Congress this year, and is called Tango.

The biggest difference of 7.5 over previous versions is not, as some would expect, a massive overhaul of features and design, but rather that it was actually created to be able to run on lower hardware specs. While the specs of the Lumia 900 aren’t bad, they certainly don’t compare to some of the other devices out today. But, because of the OS, this makes no difference.

The current generation of Windows-powered smartphones will only be able to update to the upcoming Windown Phone 7.8 build, with no further software updates coming. That is a real shame, as there seems to be some great features and enhancements from the first demos. We are not sure why Microsoft made this decision, but we believe it’s a lazy one.

Push the unlock button and you see the current time and date. It also shows the calendar and other notifications, like missed calls and emails.

You unlock by swiping the lock screen in an upward direction and you are greeted by the live-tile Metro user interface of Windows Phone. It is a great interface, something completely different from other OS experiences you might find. It’s a vertical grid of tiles, which can be ordered and reordered any way you choose. Basically anything can be placed on the home screen as live tiles, and you can have a pretty comprehensive home screen should you wish.

You swipe to the right to go to the menu of apps on the phone, and by tapping and holding down over an app, you can select ‘pin to start’ to put it on the home screen.

The interface is crisp, clean and simple. Relevant information is displayed on the live tiles, with them flipping over to reveal updated info. The manner in which they do this depends on the application and whether it is a third party app or not. Your marketplace will also show you if there are updates, and you can add nice touches like a pictures tile, where it basically flips through your photo library.

Android users might find it easier to feel at home if you are new to Windows Phone 7, because these live tiles have a widget feel to them, but are completely unique. In Windows Phone 8 you are able to resize these tiles too, which would have been great on this phone.

Windows Phone 7 is of course not a true multi-tasker (which we hope will change in WP8), apps in the foreground are actually suspended when not open. This is how iOS uses its apps as well. You switch between apps by pressing and holding the Back key and the app ‘drawer’ will open and you can see snapshots of the app in order of when they were opened.

Only the last 6 apps will appear in this list though, further proving the OS is not made for doing multiple tasks in quick succession. Because it is not a view of open apps, but simply a list of recent apps used, they are not running and therefore cannot be “closed” from this screen. This means that apps will start to drop off once the list exceeds six, and they will need to be opened again. This can be quite a nuisance.

Strangely enough, some apps will still work when moving to another app. For example, your browser will still load the last visited site. Apps with active background tasks like online radio streaming, or the media player for that matter, will keep on working.

All in all, the interface works well enough. But as mentioned above, there are a couple of shortcomings. The fact that this won’t be able to be changed with a WP8 update leaves you feeling utterly duped.

Nokia and Microsoft Apps

Nokia Drive and Nokia Maps are the two navigation applications Nokia have released with the device. Nokia Drive lets you download maps for offline usage should you wish, which is handy and means you always have turn by turn navigation at hand.

The only problem is that it is quite large, around 250-500 MB per country. That might be too large for people that want to download multiple countries, seeing that the on-board storage is only 16GB. Drive supports a 3D view and has 3D landmarks for some of the bigger cities around the world.

Nokia Maps has three views you can use if looking through a city – satellite, map and public transport (although the latter is not that useful in SA). The performance of the app is quite impressive, but then again, there isn’t as much data to display as, for example, Google Maps.

An alternative to Nokia Maps is Microsoft’s Bing Maps, and this is the one to use, because of the superior data. You have free driving navigation, of course, but you might not be used to this kind of navigation. There is no unenthused lady telling you where to drive, it is not voice-guided. You set up a route and listen to the first instruction, but thereafter the phone will beep and highlight the next instruction. You have to tap it for the phone to read you the instruction. It is unfortunate that you have to take your eyes off the road to use this navigation.

The other interesting Microsoft app on Windows Phone is the Xbox LIVE gaming application. It looks a lot like what you will find on your Xbox or Windows LIVE on PC, and it works pretty much the same. It syncs between all of them, as you would expect.

You have a Collection section where all you games are housed. Finding new ones is as simple as opening the Marketplace. The Adreno 205 GPU coped well with all the games I tested.

Camera

The camera shipped with this device is an 8MP that has a 28mm wide-angle F2.2 lens. The sensor is designed very cleverly, giving you multiple options. You can shoot 8MP photos with a 4:3 aspect ratio, or 7.1MP if you would rather shoot at widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio.

The UI of the camera is easy to use and very intuitive. You basically just have your viewfinder, with all your options and settings on the right.

Some of the settings, of which all work well, range from applying changes to the saturation, sharpness, ISO, contrast and more. The camera does not have facial recognition, which really does hinder it when comparing it to its competitors.

The camera performs well enough, but won’t replace your digital camera any time soon. Image quality is good, with enough detail and good colours. Low light conditions do not suit the device at all, though.

Conclusion

Nokia launched this latest flagship hoping to bite out a larger share of the market. Unfortunately, that is very unlikely to happen. The biggest reason is because of a lack of planning, seeing that Nokia and Microsoft are in the midst of a major platform overhaul, with Windows Phone 8 being launched soon.

Because their current handsets won’t be upgradable to WP8, this device is stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one side, some people would rather wait for the first WP8 handsets if they have their minds set on a Windows operated phone. On the other side, if there are folks that have to have a Windows Phone 7 operated Nokia right away, there is the sibling Nokia Lumia 800.

Luckily for Nokia, there aren’t many good Windows Phone competitors for this device. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Lumia 800 owners completely ignore and disregard this device, though; they will be sure that they have made the right decision. If you can find a Lumia 900 for a great price, it’s worth a go. But the device is priced too closely to Apple, Samsung and HTC flagships to compete.

This device has nothing new to offer (except the larger screen) when compared to the Lumia 800. You will notice that I did not speak about the performance too much; reason being it is pretty much identical to the previous model. That was to be expected with exactly the same hardware specs. There has been no effort to improve performance whatsoever in order to lure more people to the handset.

Once again, the premium build and fluid UI makes this device worth considering. The screen is also a plus if you aren’t looking at the giant screens of some Samsung and LG devices. The device does look great as well.

However, this device will be among the forgotten within a year’s time. It was supposed to be this Windows Phone generation’s last hoorah, but you should rather go for the Lumia 800 if that is what you are looking for.

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  • ThomasWils

    Nice to see such a fair review of a Nokia and a Windows phone. I think its a great phone but I want Windows 8, like you say. On the other hand, most phone buyers out there cant tell the difference between 7.5 and 8 and Nokia should just market the hell out of the device. It will help if they drop the price. You’re spot on Theunis.