It's been nearly a year since Nokia announced its intention to use Microsoft's Windows Phone as its preferred smartphone platform. It's been a long wait for fans of the brand, but luckily for Nokia there hasn't been any Aussie Windows Phone releases in the interim to muddy the waters, giving our experience with the Lumia 800 a freshness it might not have had otherwise.
Dissenters will be quick to note that the design of the Lumia 800 is near carbon copy of the N9, released at the end of last year, and imply a lack of original ideas out of the design teams at Espoo. We'd argue against this. Though these handsets are nearly identical, they are also some of the best smartphone designs we've encountered in a long time. Nokia takes the mould of Apple's black box touchscreen smartphone design and manages to make it feel new again in a way that even Apple itself has struggled with over the past few years. The Lumia 800 sports a unibody design constructed from a coloured polycarbonate, which has a stiff, rubber-like look and feel. The handset feels sturdy and seems more likely to withstand the knocks and tumbles of everyday life than many of its stiff plastic competitors.
It is mostly unadorned with visible slots and switches, save for a trio of stainless steel keys down the right-hand side for volume, power and the camera. Nokia hides other external connectors under niftily designed pop-up flaps, with a micro-SIM slot and micro-USB port on the top of the handset.
The SIM slot and USB port are protected with pop-up flaps.
(Credit: CNET UK)
The real show-stopper, however, is the phone's 3.7-inch AMOLED display, complete with a light filtering layer that Nokia calls ClearBlack. According to Nokia, ClearBlack makes things easier to see on the screen, especially outdoors, and we have to agree with this. The screen is also stunning indoors, with the black background of the Windows Phone UI helping the Live Tile icons to really pop off the screen. Photos taken with the rear-facing camera look especially good when viewed on this display and Xbox Live games look even better thanks to ClearBlack.
We do wish the screen was larger, though, having used so many Android devices with screens sized 4.3 inches or more over the last 12 months. Web browsing in particular would benefit from an increase in screen real estate.
Nokia's unibody chassis design does have a few drawbacks to consider, too. The handsets 1450mAh capacity battery cannot be easily removed by the user and its 16GB storage is not expandable. These limitations may turn away those of us with enormous digital music or movie collections, but the trade-off gets our thumbs up this time. The seamless handset design is too sleek not to tarnish with a battery cover that detaches.
Nokia fans will need no introduction to the specs of the camera included in this package. There's an 8-megapixel image sensor inside the phone for capturing your precious moments, but far more important is the Carl Zeiss optics, which the sensor sees through. The lens has a F/2.2 with a fixed 28mm focal length, and though these specs may pale in comparison to the 41-megapixel camera phone Nokia has just announced, it certainly takes a decent photo.
That is decent, but not outstanding, and you'll be hard pressed to discover how disappointing some of your photos are by looking at them through the veil of Nokia's ClearBlack display. On the phone, every photo we've taken looks superb. The colours are warm and rich, highlights are good and the blacks are black. If you take the time to look at the same photos on your PC you will notice a sharp dip in image quality. Colours can look washed out, focus is often soft and there is typically more noise than we'd care to see.
It really comes down to how you use your camera phone. If you think you might like to print your pics, you might look elsewhere. If you'll only view them on your phone, or you plan to upload the best to Facebook, the Lumia 800 will do just fine.
Windows Phone — what we love
As we mentioned above, it has been a very long time since we last reviewed a Windows Phone handset, but for better or worse, the user experience has remained mostly identical over the last year. The Lumia 800 comes with the Mango update pre-installed, so there's copy and paste and enhanced Live Tiles, but essentially this is the same OS that we saw in the HTC HD7 in January 2011.
Nokia packs a 1.4GHz Snapdragon processor into the 800, which is faster than previous Windows releases, but then zippy performance has never been an issue for this operating system. For what it's worth, the 800 performance is lightning fast, with consistently high frame rates for all system animations, regardless of which processes you have been recently running.
Having used so many Android phones recently, it did take us a few days to really get into Windows Phone again, but after we downloaded some of our favourite apps (and started discovering some new ones, too) we started to see our experience with this phone in a new light. We especially like the way Microsoft's Metro UI design has been incorporated into some of the apps we use everyday on other platforms. Facebook, for example, is extremely well put together and benefits greatly from the horizontal swiping gesture common to apps on Windows Phone. IMDB and Flixster also fit this description.
The IMDB app is one example of a service that really makes the most of the Microsoft Metro UI.
(Screenshot by CBSi)
We also love the way Windows Phone handles messaging; how it combines messages across a variety of sources (SMS, Facebook, Windows Live) into a single, coherent thread with a single user. This removes the need to constantly check a number of apps to see whether the friends you communicate with in certain ways are available to chat.
Windows Phone — what we'd love to change
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S
Nokia Lumia 800
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
But beyond this, the browser lacks the same level of customisation you get from the default Android browser. You can't increase or decrease the size of the fonts, which is a problem if you want larger text as the browser does not word-wrap text to fit the screen after you have zoomed in. You also can't choose whether to turn off complex web page elements to speed up the sometimes sluggish browsing experience.
There is a growing list of smaller issues we continue to stumble across the more we play with the Lumia 800. We miss the Wi-Fi hotspot feature available in iOS and Android that we use to share 3G connectivity with Wi-Fi-only devices, like tablets. We'd also love to be able to customise the main user interface a little more than just by background and Live Tile colour. We understand that this aesthetic is central to the Windows Phone identity, but once you've bought into this identity you should be free to change it up.
While the Lumia 800 offers most of what you could already get in a Windows Phone from LG or HTC, Nokia does have some pretty heavy-hitting assets to bring to the table. As the owner of Navteq services, no Nokia phone would be complete with Nokia Maps, which delivers in two flavours for this release: Nokia Drive and Nokia Maps, where the latter is designed for pedestrian travel.
If nothing else, these maps are a huge improvement over the Bing Maps found in earlier Windows Phones. Both Drive and Maps offer excellent navigation with good point-of-interest searching, with Nokia Drive doing so with an alternative large-button UI for in-car use.
Possibly more exciting than maps, depending on your interest in cartography, is the pre-installed Nokia Music app. Also the most curious service on the phone, given that Microsoft has its Zune music marketplace installed. It's like two friends offering you a slice of pizza and you having to choose whom to take it from. Though both offer music downloads, they also have unique features, with Nokia Music serving up details on local gigs and offering an awesome "mix tape"-style free music streaming service called Mix Radio. That service lets you choose from a range of genres, eras or celebrity playlists to listen to, and if you know you are going to be out of data connectivity, like on a flight, you can download a handful of mixes to listen to later.
Multimedia, or the lack thereof
One segment of the smartphone-loving public that might be left cold by the feature set of the Lumia 800 are those film buffs who use their phones as portable media players. Out of the box, the Lumia 800 supports WMV, H.264, MP4 and 3GPP file types, in AVI or ASF file containers. There doesn't seem to be any apps to expand this list of recognised file types to include DivX, XviD or the MKV container, and Microsoft's Zune software doesn't include video re-encoding functionality the way Apple's iTunes does for the iPhone.
Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) browser also gives Adobe Flash the flick, only supporting HTML5 streaming video, and while this is fine for some of the major online video services, like YouTube, it cuts out a great deal of online content as well.
Media sharing is also non-existent on the Lumia 800 out of the box, with no TV-out option available via an HDMI port, the USB port or the 3.5mm headphone socket. Wireless media sharing using a technology like DLNA is also overlooked.
Nokia's Lumia 800 is a real return to form for the once dominant force in mobile phones. The 800's hardware is absolutely top notch, matching sleek design with the sturdiness we want from a portable device. More importantly, its 3.7-inch display is outstanding, even if it is a tad smaller than we'd like.
If we have any complaints about this phone they almost entirely extend from limitations in Microsoft's operating system, rather than any element that Nokia has control over. There are part of the smartphone experience missing that we would consider essential in 2012, especially in regards to the IE browser. There are loads of extras missing, too, like DLNA and HDMI media sharing as well as support for a wider range of audio and video file types.
But these complaints will only resonate with small sub-sections of the total market, and for every veteran tech lover that Nokia can't win over with the features in the Lumia 800, there will be a dozen others who will love this phone for its excellent design, speed and ease of use.