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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

April 3, 2012 at 7:07 PM

Nokia Lumia 900 review: A sleek contender

It’s too bad for Microsoft and Nokia that another company already used the slogan “Think Different.”

That would be the perfect line to pitch Nokia’s Lumia 900, the sleek new smartphone that’s making its debut Sunday on AT&T.

If you’re inclined to try a Windows Phone, the Lumia 900 is perhaps the best option on the market now. Its refined hardware and advanced technology should serve buyers well through the life of their phone contract.

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With a list price of $100 – with a two-year contract – the phone’s also a particularly good deal.

But there’s a little catch. A key feature of the phone is its ability to use AT&T’s new 4G LTE network, which isn’t yet available in Seattle and some other large markets.

The Lumia 900 looks unlike any other smartphone now available. Its elongated case, rounded edges and minimalist design give it the look of an airplane wing, which is appropriate given the lift that Microsoft and Nokia are counting on from the device.

Calling this the companies’ flagship is an understatement. This pocket-sized slab of metal and plastic showcases the best efforts of two aging but formidable tech giants sparing no expense to regain their stature in mobile computing before the smartphone phenomenon passes them by.

Some think it’s possible. Research firm IDC last year predicted Microsoft’s alliance with Nokia will help Windows Phone overtake Apple’s share of the smartphone market by 2015, putting Microsoft in second place behind Google’s Android platform.

In the meantime, the Lumia 900 finally gives Microsoft a unique device with top-shelf technology to showcase its phone software.

The large, square icons of the Windows Phone operating system work well on the bright, 4.3-inch diagonal touchscreen.

As a phone the Lumia 900 works well, with clear voice calls even when there isn’t full coverage from AT&T.

The phone also has an 8 megapixel camera and a battery that lasts a full day on a single charge, which is a selling point for LTE phones.

Inside the phone uses a single-core Qualcomm processor. Android phones are now available with dual-core and even quad-core processors. A Nokia spokesman said the single-core model was powerful enough because Windows Phone is “extremely light” and doesn’t need the extra horsepower.

I never found the phone to suffer from the lack of extra cores when playing Netflix shows and games and manipulating photos.

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Nokia’s spare design takes a little getting used to, since the phone’s three buttons aren’t labeled. There’s a power switch, shutter button and volume control on the side. It also has the standard three Windows homescreen controls — home, back and search.

Buyers will also want to spend a little time reorganizing the apps that are preloaded on the Lumia 900’s homescreen.

Instead of Nokia’s excellent and free navigation app, AT&T has substituted its own navigation app that costs $10 per month. You can delete the AT&T app (fine print pictured) and download Nokia Drive from the Windows Marketplace.

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AT&T also fills the homescreen with a large icon for its U-verse video service. That’s fine if you’re a U-verse cable customer, but others will have to pay monthly fees.

These apps from the carrier cheapen the experience a bit, but Microsoft apparently doesn’t have enough clout yet in the phone business to dictate what appears on the initial homescreen.

There are fewer apps available for Windows Phone than for the iPhone and Android devices. But many of the key apps are there, and it’s likely the variety will grow dramatically as developers begin building apps for both Windows Phone and Windows 8 devices coming later this year.

Phone designs are subjective, but I love the Lumia chassis. Nokia made a few changes, though, since the chassis debuted last year on the smaller Lumia 800, which doesn’t have LTE capability. While the 800’s face is a thick slab of curved glass, the 900’s screen is flat and ringed with a protruding frame. It’s fine but a bit less elegant than the 800.

Nokia also made one notable improvement over the 800. The 800 has an odd flip-out panel to access its USB charging slot and a sliding SIM card holder. The panel hid these bits, smoothing out the case, but it feels a little plasticky and it’s a pain to have to push a little button to open the panel every time you charge the phone. On the 900, the USB slot is exposed. To access the SIM card, you have to use a little key that comes with a phone (or a pin, after you inevitably lose the little key).

The Lumia 900 — and a new HTC model also going on sale Sunday– are the first Windows Phones that work with the latest LTE networks.

There are different flavors of fourth-generation, 4G wireless available now, but LTE is the standard that all the major carriers are adopting.

LTE is worth waiting for, and it will be a wait for many buyers of the Lumia 900.

AT&T isn’t saying when it’s coming to Seattle. A spokeswoman said only that it will have the majority of the country covered by the end of 2013.

Nokia claims the Lumia 900’s LTE radio is capable of download speeds up to 50 megabits per second, which is faster than most home cable modems.

In areas where LTE is not available yet, the Lumia 900 can use AT&T’s HSPA+ network, on which the phone is capable of downloads up to 21 Mbps.

The Lumia 900 also works as a mobile hotspot, so you can use it to connect five wireless devices to AT&T. There’s no special charge for this capability, but it’s only available if you pay for the upper-end, $50 per month data plan. That plan’s limited to 5 gigabytes per month before overage fees, so you’d have to be careful about using the hotspot feature.

The company that came up with “Think Different” was Apple, back in 1997. At the time it was struggling to rebuild its computer business, which saw its global market share slip from 5.5 percent to 3.3 percent in the third quarter of 1997. That’s about where Microsoft is today in smartphones – its market share fell over the last three months from 5.2 percent to 3.9 percent, according to comScore.

We’ll have to see if the Lumia 900’s handsome design, its enticing price and the huge marketing push by Microsoft and Nokia are enough to get people to think differently.

Here’s a 900 flanked by the $49 Lumia 710 from T-Mobile and a BlackBerry Bold:

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Here’s the Nokia Lumia 800:

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