The Lumia 900 carries the hopes and dreams of two companies on its shoulders: Nokia, which is looking to re-establish itself in the U.S., and Microsoft, whose slick Windows Phone software has yet to catch fire with consumers. No pressure, right? The $99 Lumia 900 for AT&T looks like it has what it takes to light the way, offering 4G LTE speeds, a premium design and an 8MP Carl Zeiss camera. Nokia also throws in its own apps and content unique to its flagship. Is all of that enough to finally put Windows Phone on the map?
While most smartphones play it safe with black or gray, the Nokia Lumia 900 sports a one-piece polycarbonate body available in three colors: black, cyan and white. We reviewed the cyan version, a bold blue that really pops against the AMOLED screen. The back of the handset has a nice soft-touch feel that makes it easy to grip. The white version (available April 22nd) also looks attractive, though some may be turned off by the glossy finish.
At 5.6 ounces and 5 x 2.7 x 0.45 inches, the Lumia 900 is fairly large given its 4.3-inch screen size. In fact, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is lighter (5.2 inches) and thinner (0.37 inches), even though it packs a larger 4.65-inch display. On the other hand, the Lumia 900's unibody construction feels more solid than the Nexus, which has a flimsy back cover.
We like how the Lumia 900's screen seems to float above the chassis, as well as how the corners taper towards the squared-off top and bottom of the phone. The power button sits on the right side between the volume controls and camera button, while the Micro SIM card tray, microUSB port, and headphone jack line the top.
Nokia includes a small key in the box to open the Micro SIM card tray, but you'll need to be gentle so as not to scratch the surrounding plastic.
Display and audio
Thanks to its ClearBlack AMOLED technology, the 4.3-inch screen on the Lumia 900 delivers rich colors and extra-wide viewing angles. In "The Avengers" trailer, we enjoyed fiery oranges in a scene with multiple explosions, and we could easily make out reflections in a taxi's hood. Games such as "Sonic 4" also burst with color.
Where the Lumia 900 falls flat is its resolution. At 800 x 480 pixels, this screen simply doesn't deliver as much detail as the HD panel on the Galaxy Nexus (1280 x 720 pixels) or the Retina display on the iPhone 4S (960 x 640). We especially noticed the difference when surfing the Web; text looked fuzzier.
With an average brightness of 256 lux, the Lumia 900 falls below the smartphone category average (298), and well below the iPhone 4S (549). The HTC Radar 4G (450 lux) was much brighter. Outdoors we had a bit of trouble reading our email on the Lumia 900's display in direct sunlight, screens with darker backgrounds were easier to read.
The bottom-mounted speaker on this Nokia kicked out an impressive amount of volume. Even with the setting on 15 out of 30 when playing "Little Talks" from Of Monsters and Men, the phone easily filled our kitchen with sound--and startled our dog.
Software and Interface
Although Windows Phone 7.5 debuted on handsets way back in November 2011, it still feels fresh on the Lumia 900. The polish of Microsoft's software shines most brightly on the Live Tile interface.
Unlike anything offered by Apple or the Android camp, the Start Screen presents tiles that deliver dynamic updates, such as the latest Facebook update from a family member, a recent photo you uploaded in the Pictures app shortcut, or the latest weather conditions overlaid on the thumbnail for The Weather Channel app. Features such as these go a long way toward giving the Lumia 900 a more personal feel than competing phones.
As with other Windows Phones, the app screen lists your apps vertically in alphabetical order. Scrolling through it was quick enough, but we wish we could organize apps into folders. Your best bet is to pin your favorite apps to the Start screen. And it's not just apps you can save there; you can pin anything from websites and Slacker radio stations to groups of contacts you create within the People app.
Once you're inside apps, Windows Phone presents a panoramic "Metro-style" interface that invites sideways scrolling through the use of large words that run of the screen. It's attractive, but involves a learning curve versus Android and iOS. To multitask, you press and hold the back button to display all of your open apps, then select the one you want.
Our biggest beef with Windows Phone is that certain items remain hidden unless you press the top of the screen, such as the time, battery life and signal strength. You also can't access settings as quickly as you can with Android 4.0.
Keyboard and Voice Control
We continue to appreciate the accuracy and speed of Microsoft's standard keyboard. We made few typos on the Lumia 900 over several days of use, and appreciated the low-pitched popping sound as we pecked away.
Too bad the Lumia 900 doesn't offer voice dictation when typing, unlike the iPhone 4S and some Android phones. We've found this feature to be a real time-saver on other devices.
So what can you do with your voice? Powered by TellMe, you can dial numbers, conduct searches using Bing, open applications, and compose text messages. The functionality is fairly limited compared to Apple's Siri.
The Lumia 900 has a 1.4-GHz Snapdragon processor under the hood and 512 MB of RAM. Despite offering just single-core performance, this chip ran Windows Phone smoothly in our tests. Most applications opened instantly, and we quickly moved back to the home screen with a touch of the Windows key. Swiping through high-resolution photos and pinch-to-zoom gestures also went smoothly.
When we ran the WP Bench app, the Lumia 900's scores were on a par with the Lumia 710 from T-Mobile. It notched 88.9 vs 88.3 for its smaller brother with the same chip. Interestingly, the Samsung Focus S' 1.4-GHz Snapdragon CPU scored a higher 99.
The only area where the Lumia 900 seemed to struggle was processing data downloaded from the Web. It was as if the processor couldn't quite keep up with the LTE speeds. (See below.)
The Lumia 900 comes with 16GB of storage, which you can't upgrade. For now, at least, you won't find a version with 32GB.
4G LTE and Web Browsing
One key advantage the Lumia 900 has over the iPhone 4S is that it rides on AT&T's 4G LTE network, which offers fast data speeds in 31 markets and counting. In side-by-side testing, the Lumia 900 blew away the iPhone 4S, taking 19 seconds to load the full NYTimes page, versus 34 seconds for Apple's device.
The Lumia 900 was also quick to start streaming video, such as a clip from the ESPN app of a skateboarder pulling off a 1080. Uploading photos to Facebook was also swift.
On BandWidth, an app that measures data speeds, the Lumia routinely surpassed 15 Mbps for downloads, and uploads ranged between 4 and 5 Mbps.
However, the Lumia 900 isn't as fast loading websites as Android LTE phones, which could be a function of the browser and Nokia's slower CPU. For instance, it took the Galaxy Note 3 seconds to load an article on ESPN.com, compared to 6 seconds for the Lumia.
The Nokia was also slower over Wi-Fi than the iPhone 4S, taking an average of 15.8 seconds to load five sites, versus 8 seconds for the iPhone.
Apps and Games
With over 70,000 apps in its stable, Windows Phone has come a long way over the past year, but that number is still well below the 400,000+ apps for Android and 500,000+ for iOS. So how good is the quality? You'll find perennial favorites such as Facebook, Twitter and Spotify, all of which sport Microsoft's sleek Metro interface. Also, many apps can deliver info to your Start Screen, such as The Weather Channel does with the latest temperature.
The Xbox Live game selection is also quite good, including Angry Birds (though not the newest Space version) and third-person action games such as Splinter Cell Conviction. Plus, you can try premium titles before you buy. On the other hand, you won't find many apps that are popular on iOS and Android, such as Words with Friends, Draw Something, or Pandora. Netflix is available, but not Hulu.
Nokia does step up to the plate with some of its own apps, such as Nokia Drive for free turn-by-turn navigation. The app is very barebones, but pinpointed our location quickly on the New Jersey Turnpike and calculated a route to New York City in less than 5 seconds. Our only nitpick is that we had to download the voice component separately.
The CNN and ESPN apps are especially compelling and are unique to the Lumia line. The former was a little slow to load the top stories but included a wide selection of videos. ESPN delivers the latest scores, news and video, and even its streaming Twitter feed. We could pin our favorite sports to the Start screen (like MLB), though not individual teams.
Microsoft's own suite of apps is as solid as ever. Our favorites include Outlook for its clean interface and the ability to link inboxes; the Pictures app for seeing the latest photos posted by our friends, and Local Scout for finding things to do and places to go near your location.
Music and Video
Microsoft's Zune service is the centerpiece of the Music + Videos hub on the Lumia 900, but the hub also plugs into other apps you might be using. For instance, the history page displayed what we last listened to on Slacker and the footage we just played captured by the phone's camera. You can purchase albums and tracks individually or sign up for a Zune pass ($14.99) for an all-you-can-eat experience.
Downloading TV shows and movies still requires that you use Zune software on the desktop, an annoying limitation.
Camera and Camcorder
With its Carl Zeiss optics, the 8-megapixel camera inside the Lumia 900 promises sharp photos. Outdoors, this smartphone delivered crisp and colorful photos, especially of a motorcycle and the intricate stone carving on the roof of a building. You can also tweak all sorts of settings, from white balance and exposure to choosing one of multiple scenes.
Unfortunately, while you can unlock the camera quickly by long pressing the shutter button, we noticed lag when taking photos. A half-second delay prevented us from capturing the exact group shot we wanted of fidgety kids. The Lumia 900 also had trouble with dim lighting compared with the iPhone 4S; images looked considerably darker and grainier with a blue cast. The dual-LED flash helped but often resulted in subjects with red-eye.
The 720p camcorder captured smooth and detailed footage of New York City traffic. Yellow taxis and the clear blue sky looked bright and colorful on the AMOLED display. When I shot a clip of my daughter swinging on the playground, her pink puffy jacket popped, and the Lumia 900's microphone easily captured her giggles from a few feet away.
For now, the 1-megapixel front camera on the Lumia 900 works only with the Tango app, but Nokia and AT&T told us that Skype should be available soon. Too bad Tango doesn't work over 4G LTE; it's Wi-Fi only. When we made a call over our Wi-Fi network to a desktop, the other caller said our face looked pixilated. Audio also stuttered at times. FaceTime this is not.
As expected from a Nokia phone, the Lumia 900 offered very good call quality in our tests. The earpiece provided a large sweet spot, and calls made to landlines and wireless numbers both came through loud and clear. We also found the speakerphone to be plenty loud to hear in a vehicle with kids gabbing in the back seat.
The Lumia 900 features a 1830 mAh battery, which is considerably larger than competing Windows phones. The Samsung Focus Flash, for instance, packs a 1650 mAh battery, while the Lumia 710 only has room for a 1300 mAh pack.
Overall, the Lumia 900 provided very good endurance, but it varied based on where we connected. In an area with HSPA+ coverage (but not LTE) the phone still had 10 percent juice left after 15 hours of light to moderate use. In New York City, where LTE is prevalent, we saw closer to 7 hours of battery life with moderate to heavy use, so you should be able to get through most of a workday.
When we hit the Lumia 900 really hard with the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over LTE on 40 percent brightness), the handset lasted 4 hours and 37 minutes. That's a lot less than the Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx (8:25), but in the same ballpark as other 4G LTE phones on AT&T's network like the HTC Vivid (4:21) and Pantech Burst (4:10).
If you want to squeeze out every extra minute, you'll want to engage the Battery Saver mode under Settings, which will disable push email and running apps in the background.
If the Nokia Lumia 900 was $199 we'd still say it was a worthy flagship device for Windows Phone, so at $99, it's a fantastic value. The design looks and feels great (especially in blue), the interface is as compelling as ever, and the addition of 4G LTE helps speed up everything from surfing to streaming video. And while we wish the display were sharper, the bright and colorful AMOLED screen makes everything from Live Tiles to photos and apps come alive. Microsoft still has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to app selection--and we wish this phone's camera worked better in low light. But for us the more personalized user experience offered by the Lumia 900 helps elevate this device over many Android phones at the same price. This smartphone is a winner.