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Nokia gets back in the game: The Lumia 900 (part II)

By on 25 September 2012 in Gadgets

Nokia gets back in the game: The Lumia 900 (part II)
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First impressions

The first thing you notice is the packaging. Nokia has learnt a few tricks from Apple. The Lumia 900 comes in an impressively compact and minimalist box. It feels great, it feels premium.

Get the phone out of its box and you’re struck by a design that is elegant and purposeful but also very different to its competitors. Nokia has achived the seemingly impossible: it’s designed a slab tablet phone that looks distinctive with genuine character. The Lumia 900 borrows its design cues from the Lumia 800 which, in turn, was based on the lovely N9. The Lumia 900’s polycarbonate body is beautifully sculptured with tapered ends that belie its size and its shiny finish makes it look and feel very special indeed. We were lucky enough to bag the white version which, to our eyes, is the best of the bunch.

No doubt, the Lumia 900 makes an excellent first impression. With the exception of the iPhone, we don’t think there’s a better looking phone on the market today.

Problems? One immediate one. Before we’d even switched the device on, we picked it up to discover that that 4.3 inch screen creates a unavoidable but not insignificant issue: the phone is too wide to be comfortable in your hand. It just always feels a little bit of a stretch. You’ll get used to it of course but there’s no getting around the fact that the iPhone’s width is just right and this is just a little bit too wide.

The other blot on the Lumia 900’s copy book is a slightly cheap, plasticky feel to the buttons and a little rattle from the camera button in particular. Are we being picky? Perhaps but given its track record and the engineering excellence it’s up against in the iPhone, Nokia can’t afford any mistakes.

Back in the game

Once you fire the Lumia up, Windows Phone comes to life. And if you’ve been using iOS or Symbian for a few years, it feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s elegant, fluid and pleasurably different to use.

First off, there’s an aesthetic sensibility about the OS that we’re more used to seeing from Apple. The fonts used, the fluid transitions that glue the various elements together: it all looks and feels first-rate. They’re details of course but details add up and matter day-to-day. We liked stylish little touches like the dots that fly on and off the screen when you’re waiting for something to download. We liked the way the foreground and background scroll at different rates as you swipe horizontally between screens. We liked holding the ‘back’ button down and being presented with cards representing all of our open apps. Details like this make for a relaxing and stylish OS.

The element of the OS that most distinguishes Windows Phone though is the ‘live tiles’. The idea here is that the Windows Phone home screen is a a hybrid of menu (every tile is a link to an app) and set of desktop widgets (because every tile also shows you relevant information pulled from that app.) In practice, once you’ve connected to your various social networks, this means that you home screen becomes almost instantly personalized – with photos of your contacts and updates from them appearing automatically.

Speaking of social networks, that’s another great strength of Windows Phone. The likes of Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook are baked in, updating your contact and diary information automatically in the background and enabling nice touches like the People app which, amongst other things, offers you a stream of updates (filtered by social network or consolidated) of your contacts’ news.

You can also set-up individual tiles for your favourite contacts right on the home screen. In addition to providing a handy shortcut to their details, these tiles automatically serve up that person’s latest profile photo and status update from whatever networks they’re active on. It’s all very social and takes us away from the app-centric approach adopted by Android and iOS towards something that feels more like it’s first and foremost about making your information available to you regardless of what app or network that information originated from.

So, the Lumia 900 certainly makes a good first impression. But to win at the top of the range smartphone game, you need some hidden depth too. Does it have it?

The home runs

There are two standout features on the Lumia 900 and they’re both Nokia exclusives. This being a device from the brand that brought you the N808 and N86, you might be expecting one of these to be the camera. Sadly, it’s not (see part III) but Nokia has played its other two aces: navigation and music.

In addition to the Microsoft-supplied Maps which is fine, Nokia provides two of its own navigation apps: Nokia Maps and Nokia Drive. Both are superb.

The fiasco that is iOS 6’s Maps app has served to remind us of how much we’ve come to depend on navigation on our phone. In the six weeks we spent with the Lumia 900, we tested both apps extensively and they never failed to be anything other than accurate, easy to use and powerful. We’d go so far as to say that they’re better than Google.

Why two apps? Nokia Drive is designed specifically for use in a car while driving. So the UI has been tailored to that with large buttons and on-screen messages. It’s very nice and makes standalone GPS devices completely redundant.

It also has a massive advantage over the competition: you can download maps over Wi-Fi and then use them offline. This is absolutely fantastic when traveling abroad because it enables you to switch off expensive data roaming and still have the benefits of a fully featured navigation app. Try doing that on Android or iOS.

The other standout was the Nokia Music app. What the Finns have done is seemingly simple but also very clever. They’ve built an app that combines: access to your own music collection, the ability to purchase more through an online store and, crucially, a free streaming music service called Mix Radio. This service comes baked into every Lumia and it’s a little hidden gem. Without asking you to register, let alone pay anything, the Lumia will stream and even make available offline, a wide variety of music playlists. It’s a great way to discover music and a wonderful value-add for the device. And just when you thought Nokia Music couldn’t be more complete, you discover there’s also a Gigs tab which lists upcoming concerts near your current location. It all adds up to a simply superb app, one that reminds us of Nokia’s roots in the multimedia smartphone space. This may seem a strange thing to write but something about this app’s dedication – worship even – of music couldn’t help conjure up happy memories of classic devices like the N91 and N95 from the days in which we used to associate Nokia with music, not Apple.

So, good first impressions and a couple of standout features – but are they enough to win the Lumia 900 a place on the smartphone podium? Tune in tomorrow – when we present the third and final part of our review – to find out.

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Nokia gets back in the game: The Lumia 900 (part II)

The Lumia 900 makes an excellent first impression and we enjoyed Windows Phone but does it have the depth to take on the best?

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Our editor-in-chief, the self-proclaimed "greatest wit, raconteur and bon vivant of our age", borders on delusional. Over the years, the fool has squandered more money on fast cars, Swiss watches and electronic gadgetry of all kinds than he – or Mrs Fool – cares to remember. Come nightfall, he can invariably be found stumbling out of Dukes mumbling “just one more Martini; I could have handled just one mmmmm… [thud!]”

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