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Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Nokia Lumia 800 review

So here it is, the Nokia Lumia 800 - the first real Windows Phone phone made by Nokia. I've had virtually no experience with Windows Phone 7 before and was looking very much forward to receive Lumia 800 from Nokia Connects (as usual, thanks!) to find out whether WP7 is able to impress me as much as Nokia N9 and MeeGo Harmattan did recently. Frankly, I actually doubted WP7 could stand up to expectations set so high by Harmattan but having solid hands-on experience with both now, I might revise my stance a little bit after all. Let's see...

Nokia N9 and Lumia 800 are almost identical handsets but running different software platforms. Hardware differences are noticeable but fairly minor. Great addition in Lumia is dedicated camera shutter button, which I missed a lot in N9. On the other hand, Lumia has slightly smaller display required to accommodate additional UI control buttons, which were completely obsolete in N9 thanks to its unique Swipe UI. Thankfully, Lumia's display is the same, top-notch ClearBlack AMOLED kit which is simply stunning, to say the least.




There's no point of elaborating on hardware and design of Lumia 800, since I've praised it so much in my N9 review earlier and all of that applies equally here. Simply speaking, both Lumia 800 and N9 are extraordinarily designed, solidly built and very good looking handsets which are pure pleasure to look at, hold in hand and use. Period.




Now, let's jump into the world of Windows Phone 7, as this is where real difference is. First of all, WP7 brings really refreshing approach to the user interface and experience. Design of the UI is aesthetically minimalistic, very clean and consistent. Even all interaction buttons are simple rectangles with plain text inside - no fancy shapes, shadows and all that. Oversized fonts splashed virtually everywhere might look silly at first but actually are part of cohesive design story. All interface animations and transitions are not only eye-candy but also flawless - I haven't spotted even slightest sign of stuttering of those effects at any point. Impressive.

I praised the user interface of MeeGo Harmattan recently, however Windows Phone adds new perspective to the case. While Harmattan's Swipe UI is unique way of controlling fairly standard user interface, WP7 has quite unique interface controlled with fairly standard set of control buttons below the screen. They both are great just in slightly different ways.

 

First thing to notice in Windows Phone are tiles. Original approach to the homescreen was something I was initially quite sceptical about, as I prefer (or rather - I'm used to) highly customizable widgets to serve different purposes and Android in particular does that very well. However, couple of days later I actually started to like these tiles, mostly because they are indeed a kind-of widgets serving different purposes - just squarely or rectangularly shaped and maybe not that customizable as I wished. They are also very nicely animated and that's not only a visual appeal but practical too. For example, the phone tile will tell me how many calls I missed recently or a tile representing a person (ie. contact card) will let me know as soon as given individual has been busy posting a photo on Facebook, updating Twitter status or doing something similarly important. Very nice touch is dynamic smiley icon on the messaging tile - with no unread messages it's a winking smiley like this: ;-) but once I got 5 unread SMS-es and icon turned surprised, like that: :-o. Clever and amusing. All these little notifications and animations altogether make really cool impression of dynamic, "living" homescreen.

Applications are next to the tiled homescreen, listed alphabetically in a long vertical stack and unfortunately there's no way of organizing them into folders or groups. However, they can be quickly sought via easily accessible app search or pinned as a tile into the homescreen. A feature I found particularly interesting is ability to rate and review or uninstall an app directly from that list, just by tapping an holding an item on the list. I often don't rate apps I use in Android just because I'm not really bothered to specifically go to the Market, find given app and leave my rating or write a review. With approach used here in WP7 that excuse just won't work.



Speaking of Marketplace, I was nicely surprised with it, actually. I thought WP7 application store isn't too mature yet but it turned out that number of useful and well implemented apps exceeded my expectations and I also found few official apps from big names like Twitter, eBay or even Tesco (however their Groceries app isn't as good as for Android). The only issue I've got with the Marketplace is jumping back to the apps list each time an app is chosen for installation. Really annoying when you're browsing browsing for apps and want to install few in single session.

Online presence support is very good. It obviously is revolving around Microsoft Live ID account in the first place, which adds benefit of 25GB of cloud storage in the SkyDrive service, however I was impressed to see support for the Google account out of the box too. This is based on ActiveSync and supports mail, calendar and contacts with no glitch. Other supported services include Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo Mail, Nokia Mail and Office 365.

Motorola Pro+, HTC Desire Z, Nokia Lumia 800
All these connected services are very nicely put together in the People app, which basically is a fancy, yet very useful hub aggregating standard contacts list with social networking accounts, being basic Twitter/Facebook/etc client as well. To be fair, integrating contacts list with social networking services isn't particularly new idea, yet I haven't seen something as nicely implemented in other platforms as the People app here in WP7.

Since I'm touching upon online activities, I guess it's time to mention web browsing. Right, as we are dealing with Windows Phone here, there's probably no escape from the dreaded Internet Explorer and as a web developer I was obviously very sceptical to find any kind of decency in web browsing experience using IE. However, it quickly turned out that my prejudice was hugely overrated as Internet Explorer in Windows Phone does actually provide pretty good experience after all. Sites are loaded fast, basic UI interactions are fluid and generally I haven't felt any major discomfort by using the Internet Explorer at all.

Being a fan of hardware qwerty keyboard in smartphones I am always very sceptical about on-screen input methods. However, I found the keyboard in WP7 fairly nice after all. Just as the rest of the UI, keyboard layout is clean and straightforward, keys are quite large, word prediction and auto-correction works reasonably well and typing overall is pretty accurate. Most of all, it does super-quick input language switching at the touch of a single button and allows accessing national characters easily, which is a killer feature to me in particular. I still would much prefer hardware keyboard instead, but it's hard for me to blame WP7's on-screen keyboard either.

Camera in Lumia 800 is an 8-megapixel matrix with the famous Carl Zeiss optic kit. Firstly, I must say I really liked the easiness of use of camera application - most notably the easiness of reaching previously taken pictures straight from the camera viewfinder. Just swipe from the edge of the screen and that's it. When it comes to the quality of shots as such, well, these are fine but to be fair I wasn't massively impressed either. I've had a feeling that jpeg compression is a tad to high on few shots but it might be just my wrong impression and on the whole pictures look pretty good anyway. What I disliked tough, was video recorder - it was set to record 480p videos by default, despite being able to shoot 720p too. Secondly, it has continuous auto-focus feature, which is great, but I found it quite laggy, especially in poor light conditions hence some videos turn out a bit blurry.





There's no big deal about Lumia's battery, really. It manages to last through my usual working day on a single charge but I tend to recharge it midday anyway - not having done that it could prematurely die just before going to bed around 23-midnight each day. That's pretty much in line with most modern smartphones I've got in my hands recently, so there are no particular surprises either way in this department. However, there is also a battery saver mode available, which turns data sync and presumably some other features off to keep battery happier. According to my unscientific test, battery saver mode gave few extra stand-by hours without recharging during the day.

Time to get some balance on board, so I guess it's time to mention things I really disliked about Windows Phone 7.

For starters - no USB mass storage support! The one and only way of exchanging any kind of files over USB port is via Zune application, which obviously is Windows only. Apparently there's also a way of hooking up WP7 with iTunes in Mac, but obviously Linux guys (myself included) are shown a big fat finger. I found a way around that by launching Windows and Zune in a VMware-based virtual machine inside Linux host - turned out connection between Lumia and VM over USB worked seamlessly and Zune had no problems syncing my photos, music and stuff. Nonetheless, that's a super-dirty workaround which shouldn't take place if good old USB mass storage support was there.

Dirty workaround for syncing Lumia 800 in Linux
(unfortunately doesn't work for firmware updates)
Other major WTF moment was discovering inability to configure MMS service by default. It's just not there in settings menu or anywhere else, hence I had no chance of making multimedia messaging work with giffgaff. I've been informed, however, that MMS configuration could be done with a bit of hackery involving ChevronWP7 thingie, but I haven't really explored it yet. Nonetheless, lack of custom MMS configuration support was pretty shocking to me.

Generally, I felt settings section of WP7 somewhat basic. It just doesn't seem to offer as many options and tweaks as you could usually expect - not sure it that's intentional, or things are just not there yet.

Thing I missed in the UI was some sort of notification centre - an unified place where I could easily pick up awaiting messages, emails, events etc. Yes, I can pick it all up through the fancy tiles on the homescreen, but that requires jumping out of any current activity back to the main door. Even common indicators like signal strength, battery level, vibration profile etc. are usually hidden unless the very top of the screen is tapped once.

Lumia 800, in case you've wondered
Speaking of phone profiles, these are very limited too. The choice is between two modes only: vibration or ringing+vibration. There's no way of completely muting device or putting it into ring-only mode. Also, sound volume settings are global for both media playback and ringing, so playing music loud (ie. while on headphones) yet keeping ringtones quiet is mission impossible with WP7 currently. Oddly enough, I couldn't find any apps covering these shortcomings in the Marketplace either. Weird.

Oh, and WP7 apparently doesn't send anything via Bluetooth. Anyone cares anyway?

Conclusion

Simply speaking, I was nicely surprised by Nokia Lumia 800 and Windows Phone 7. It didn't blow me away as hard as Nokia N9 did but that doesn't mean my experience with Lumia was any worse. In fact, it was equally great, but just... different. Lumia with WP7 offers consistent and very attractive user experience, it already has pretty good choice of 3rd party apps and despite having a number of more or less notable shortcomings, I'm sure most of those will get ironed out in future updates anyway. On the whole, I just need to say something I never expected ever saying: good job, Microsoft!

While I still feel sort of disappointed that Nokia decided to ditch MeeGo Harmattan in long run, I am now more reassured about WP7 as a platform of choice with pretty bright prospects for the future. I tend to believe it has all the potential necessary to become a strong contender in global smartphone market dominated by Android and iOS within the next year or two. Having said that, I am definitely going to watch Nokia's efforts with Windows Phone closely from now on. After all, it is a make or break situation for Finns (and one Canadian), so they will take all measures allowed by law to make sure every human being on Earth will at least hear about Nokia-made WP7 device very soon.

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