Nokia Lumia 900 puts Windows Phone back in the race

If you’ve been sitting on the fence about making the switch to Windows Phone 7, the just-released Lumia 900 could prod you to make the leap over. This stylish, well-engineered phone shows off the strengths of the Windows Phone platform on a bright, crisp 4.3-in. AMOLED screen with a high-bandwidth LTE connection.

Nokia Lumia 900

And although the Lumia 900’s internal specs aren’t that impressive — and despite the low price point ($99 with a two-year contract at AT&T) — it is the first phone that can compete against an iPhone or top-end Android phone because of its combination of affordability and features.

A beautifully designed phone

Let’s start off with the design. This is a flat-out beautiful phone. Made of a single piece of molded polyurethane plastic, it’s sturdy, scratch-resistant and sleek with a matte finish. It comes in black (the color of the test unit I tried), white and eye-popping cyan. The phone is thin with rounded edges and the plastic has a soft feel to it, so that you’ll want to pick it up just to hold it.

The beautiful 4.3-in. AMOLED display is made of Gorilla Glass and sports an 800-x-480-pixel resolution. Colors are bright, text is crisp and easy to read, and it shows off Windows Phone’s frequently used white text on black backgrounds to their best effect.

It has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera with a Carl Zeiss lens, and a 1-megapixel front-facing camera you’ll mainly use for video chats. I can’t say that I was overwhelmed by the camera; it seemed no better or worse than those in other phones with similar camera specs.

Performance and 4G

If you were to measure a phone by its internal specs only, you might not be impressed by the Lumia 900. In a market where smartphones are now commonly supplied with dual-core CPUs (and four-core phones are starting to make their way to market), the Lumia 900 has a single 1.4GHz Qualcomm APQ8055 processor. It comes with 16GB of internal storage, but no SD card slot to add more if you want. It sports 512MB of RAM rather than the more common 1GB.

Despite this, the Lumia 900 is fast and responsive. I experienced no delays in running apps, watching videos, browsing the Web or doing any of my other usual tasks. Judging from the responsiveness of this phone, there’s no need for more than one core. In my experience, it performed as well or better than high-end Android phones with multiple cores, such as the Samsung Galaxy SII.

Incidentally, it’s easy to forget that smartphones like the Lumia 900 are not just small computers, but phones as well. I found the voice connection to be clear and strong.

One of the phone’s best features is its high-speed LTE connection, the first on a Windows Phone. I found the connection to be quite variable, ranging from about 7 Mbps to 13 Mbps when I tested it in Cambridge, Mass. Reviewers in other cities found variable speeds as well, generally ranging from 8 Mbps to 20 Mbps.

Even at 7 Mbps, though, the Lumia 900 is much faster than normal 3G connections available on Windows Phones, and transforms the experience of browsing the Web, downloading, and using data-centric mobile apps. Normally when I do that on a Windows Phone, I know I’m on a phone because of slow downloads and delays. With LTE, heavy data usage feels more like it does on a broadband-connected computer. If you’ve got a need for speed, and you want a Windows Phone, you’d do well to consider the Lumia 900.

And it’s inexpensive: A 4G phone that can be had for $99 isn’t currently easy to find. But soon 4G will be commonplace on $100 phones, including two upcoming Android-based phones: the LG Viper 4G LTE on Sprint and the LG Lucid on Verizon.

When using LTE heavily for browsing the Web, downloading and using data-intensive apps, I was unable to get a full day’s use out of the Lumia 900. In moderate use, it lasted the day. (The 1830mAh battery, unfortunately, isn’t replaceable.)

Included software

The phone runs Mango, the latest version of Windows Phone software, but AT&T and Nokia have stuffed some extras in as well — and these extras are a mixed bag. Nokia’s App Highlights app is nearly useless; it merely highlights apps that you can find in the Windows Marketplace. On the other hand, I appreciated the AT&T Navigator GPS app and the AT&T bar code scanner. Overall, though, I wasn’t impressed by the additional software that ships with on the phone.

Windows Phone itself, though, truly shines on the Lumia 900. The LTE connection means that data piped into the operating system’s live tiles, which display constantly changing data such as social networking updates, pops in quickly. The large screen with rich colors and crisp text shows off those colorful tiles to their best effect.

The downsides

Is the Lumia 900 a perfect phone? Of course not. One of my biggest gripes has to do with the confusing button layout on the right side of the phone. Two silver buttons near the top control volume up and volume down; below them, there’s the power/sleep button; and then at the bottom there’s a button you press for taking photos. It’s far too easy to accidentally press the power/sleep button when you mean to change the volume controls and vice versa.

Also, 16GB of storage may not be enough for most people, and the lack of an SD card slot means that this amount of storage is all you’ll ever get on the phone. It’s true that Windows Phone integrates well with Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud-based storage service for additional cloud storage, but if you want to store music, video or media on the phone itself, you may find yourself hamstrung.

The phone also lacks Near Field Communications (NFC), which will eventually be used for mobile financial transactions and data transfer, especially for working with mobile social networking apps for exchanging photos, files and data. It would have been nice for the phone to include NFC capabilities, because even though it’s not particularly useful today, at some point the standard may take off. If it does, this phone won’t be able to take advantage of it.

And, of course, there’s always the Windows Phone app issue — the Windows Phone’s 70,000 apps lags far behind the 400,000-plus you’ll find for Android phones and the 500,000-plus for the iPhone. And it’s not just oddball outliers that aren’t available for Windows Phone 7; major apps such as Pandora can’t be downloaded either.

The bottom line

The Lumia 900 is clearly the best Windows Phone you can buy today, with a sleek design and top performance that rivals the best Android phones and the iPhone. Combine all that with an attractive $99 price, and you have a winner.

Even though it makes some compromises, such as only 16GB of storage with no SD card and no NFC support, those are relatively minimal compared to the strengths of the phone. And despite having a single-core processor, the phone is a snappy performer. In short, you won’t give up much for that $99 pricetag.

If the Lumia 900 was an Android device, I have no doubt it would be a top-seller. But given that it’s a Windows Phone smartphone, it’s hard to know how much of a success it will be. It’s a good-enough phone that it could be the smartphone that finally helps Microsoft break into the big time in the smartphone race.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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