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Review: Nokia Lumia 800 Worth the Wait

Tue, 11/15/2011 - 8:57am
Andrew Berg

The Nokia Lumia 800 is the beginning of something great for both Nokia and Microsoft. There, I've said it, and I'm quite honestly amazed that I've done so. After watching Nokia's fits and starts over the past year with more than a little skepticism, the Lumia 800 emerges as not only an impressive smartphone but one that could mean there's hope for both Nokia's aspirations in the high-end device market, as well as Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 (WP7) platform.

Form Factor
I admittedly came to the Lumia 800 with lowered expectations, in spite of the raves I'd heard about the hardware. But I was pleasantly surprised when I took the pre-sales device, provided by Nokia, out of the box. The Nokia Lumia 800 is a much-needed break from the run-of-the-mill, brick-like Android devices out there. Heck, the smooth lines, polycarbonate shell and curved Gorilla Glass screen feel even better in my hand than the hard, metallic edges of the iPhone 4S, and I suspect it's lighter as well.

Nokia Lumia800 with WP7-1The 800 recycles a lot of the N9 design, but given its WP7 roots, it's most definitely its own phone. There's the metal physical buttons along the right side of the device, including the volume toggle, power and shutter button. The bottom edge of the phone features a speaker and microphone. On the top edge there's the headphone jack and for better or worse, two flimsy flip and slide covers for the mini-USB port and SIM card. So poorly designed are these covers that I'm only guessing they will not survive in future Nokia smartphone models. The bottom of the screen features three touch buttons in total: Back button, Home button and Search button.

As far as form factor goes, though, it's the overall feel of this phone that will draw consumers. Aside from the iPhone, there are so few surprises anymore when it comes to picking out a phone. You're either looking at millimeters thick or screen size, and regardless of which is most important to you, your smartphone is probably going to look just about like the rest of the pack – black and rectangular. Nokia always has been a meticulous designer of hardware and the Lumia 800 is no exception.

The Specs
If you're an Android devotee and into dual-core processors and high-resolution screens, you're probably not going to be all that impressed with the 800's specs. While a respectable 1.4 GHz processor powers this WP7 (Mango) smartphone, it's a far cry from the Motorola Droid Razr's dual-core 1.2 GHz engine. Additionally, the 800 features 16 GB of internal memory with no expansion slot for an SD card. However, Nokia throws in 25GB of free storage on Microsoft's SkyDrive to compensate. The 3.7-inch Super AMOLED screen is bright and crisp, but again, it's not the 4.3-inches featured on the Droid Bionic. However, with a 1450 aMh battery and a smaller screen, you're probably going to get a lot more life in a single charge than you would with a larger Android device. In my usage, the phone lasted an entire day of light usage with plenty of juice to spare.

Nokia does not let the 800's 8-megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss lens go to waste. The company has included a host of camera settings, making the 800 a good stand-in for a high-end point and shoot camera. The pictures I took looked great, and the physical shutter button makes it easy to go quickly from home screen to camera with very little lag.

The 800 also includes some worthwhile native software additions, including Nokia Drive, Nokia Music (which I couldn't actually test) and, of course, Microsoft's Xbox Live portal. Nokia Drive, which doesn't come native on other available WP7 devices, is a fully animated, incredibly accurate turn-by-turn navigation system that has the look and feel of a standalone unit. Given all of the alternatives out there, it's probably not going to sway a buyer one way or another, but it's certainly a valuable feature on the 800.

Lumia800 SideviewWP7 and UI
Microsoft's contention that Nokia's reputation and distribution will be the catalyst for WP7 adoption seemed farfetched when the two companies announced their partnership earlier this year. After seeing the Lumia 800, I'm less skeptical. Windows Phone 7 is a capable, easy-to-use operating system with a UI that might even find some iOS converts here in the United States.

I've shown my wife, who uses an iPhone 3GS, a lot of incredible Android phones (Bionic, Razr, Thunderbolt) and she's turned them all down with a frown. I showed her the Lumia 800 and she was not only impressed, she said it was better than the iPhone. I had to agree with her on some accounts. The processor is beefy enough that transitions are quick and fluid. Menus in applications are beautifully standardized across the board and there's something satisfying about the WP7 live tiles that just isn't there in the static iPhone homescreen and collection of app icons.

Microsoft also has done a great job of integrating its existing assets. For instance, Microsoft Office, SkyDrive, Office 365 and SharePoint are all right there on the homescreen. Documents I had already saved in SkyDrive were right there once I logged into my SkyDrive account.

Google's suite of cloud-based applications, including Google Docs, does about the same thing. However, the usability on mobile with SkyDrive and Office 365 is far superior and polished, in my opinion. I still use Google Docs over Office 365, but I have to say that if I were a WP7 user, I'd probably prefer using SkyDrive and Office 365 across the board.

Bottom Line
I'm not sure it's fair to bet Nokia's future on this one phone. Just the fact that Nokia was able to get the Lumia 800 in consumers' hands (albeit not American hands) by the holidays is a feat in and of itself. That this phone is as beautiful and engaging as it is and has a stocked application market of over 25,000 apps is only icing on the cake.

Lumia800 8MP CameraAfter assuming the position of CEO of Nokia, Stephen Elop sent a letter to his employees. In that letter he told a story about a man who was working on an oil platform that was engulfed in flames. The man can either plunge 30 meters into freezing water or be devoured by the raging flames.

"The burning platform, upon which the man found himself, caused the man to shift his behaviour, and take a bold and brave step into an uncertain future," Elop wrote to his employees. "He was able to tell his story. Now, we have a great opportunity to do the same."

The Lumia 800 is the rare story of a company that just might have survived both the flames and the frigid waters below. Is it the ideal phone for everyone? Probably not. The Lumia 800 will not be for Android lovers who like huge screens and multi-core processors. However, ease of use, world class hardware design and a brand name known around the world might just have the teeth to take a bite of Apple.

In the end, Nokia has one more challenge to face if it's going to succeed here in the United States. The company has to develop relationships with carriers and figure out predictable subsidies that will translate to all future devices. Americans simply are not going to pay the $585 unlocked price for the Lumia 800 when they can get an iPhone 4 for $100 on a two-year contract. Granted, Nokia can take a pass for waiting on this launch, their first real smartphone contender in this country. It's probably better to test things in your bread-and-butter markets before making a foray into relatively uncharted territory.

Nokia promised "early 2012" for a U.S. launch, so until then, all we can do is wait and see what the rest of the world thinks and go from there.

Check out the 8-minute Lumia 800 documentary that Nokia released last week:

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