Five years ago Steve Jobs stood up and launched the iPhone. It really did change everything. All of a sudden, smartphones seemed completely different from everything that had come before and everyone at work was talking about it the next day. Normal people were talking about a smartphone in a time when the Palm Treo was considered the king of the hill. Normal people did not care for smartphones, but the iPhone brought something special to the industry, something that many of us still struggle to put into words. You can’t always define an experience because it hits the soul instead of the mind, it offers a feeling that is impossible to explain. Whatever it is, the iPhone gave that feeling to me back in 2007.
Since that time, I have been fortunate enough to test and review countless smartphones. Some have been great, some have been awful and the majority somewhere in between, in that smartphone space which makes them mere commodities that can do lots of different things. It is not easy to make a smartphone that stirs the emotions, in fact it appears to be incredibly difficult, but Apple did so with the iPhone (all versions) and more recently Samsung has created an emotional experience with the Galaxy Nexus. As I said, I cannot explain what gives them the charm they have, but to pick one up and to use it is to know.
The Lumia 800 is Nokia’s first serious effort on the Windows Phone platform and it follows a poor couple of years as Symbian users gradually floated away and even fewer decided to jump onto a platform that dominated the smartphone industry for half a decade. It was all going wrong and then Nokia and Microsoft got together in the hope of making a dent into the most lucrative market of all. Could two companies that were going backwards in this industry really come together to create a smartphone to rival the very best? I was sceptical when I first heard the news of the Microsoft / Nokia agreement and have remained so; Microsoft presided over a staggering lack of movement during the Windows Mobile era and Nokia has steadfastly stuck with Symbian and created a succession of smartphones that included excellent cameras, terrible software and some bizarre design decisions that were completely impractical. It couldn’t possibly work.
When the Lumia arrived at my door, I opened up the package and was greeted with a rather uninspiring box, a typical Nokia box in fact. There is nothing in the packaging or accessories that inspires the user to believe that there is a great quality product inside; the USB charger plug is typically Apple in design (yes, Apple) and the headphones are typically Nokia in nature (yes, use your own headphones), but at least the case that comes bundled with the Lumia is a perfect match for the phone. It slips tightly over the casing and somehow leaves the phone looking 98% the same as it did before- clever.
And then there is the Lumia itself. I won’t dither any more- it is a beautifully designed phone and my immediate experience was summed up with two words ‘my gosh’. Actually I said something else that I can’t publish, but to say it was positive would be an understatement. This review will be full of ‘hard to describes’ and it truly is when it comes to how the Lumia feels in the hand. It is like it has been designed just for my hand, it sits there and sinks in to a place that just fits. The way the glass slopes from the body is of course the highlight of the design, but it is also hard to ignore the top and bottom ends which top and tail the curved front and back perfectly. Despite receiving the worst colour of all to review, the design still struck me as beautiful and, crucially, that has remained the case more than a week later. I don’t dare attempt to describe why the design works and can only explain that it gives me a feeling I have not felt for a long, long time from any smartphone.
Nothing is perfect, however, and the Lumia is no exception. The microUSB connector is cleverly designed; you push one side and a cover pops up to reveal the protected port. Unfortunately it is on the top of the phone so docking stations are unlikely to figure in its future, and even then you can’t dock it because of the cover which continues to stick out when charging. It seems strange to create such a beautiful phone and then lumber it with no other method of charging other than a cable which has to hand from the top. The biggest problem is the on/off button which is placed just above half-way on the right-hand side; the exact same place where you are likely to rest your finger when holding it. Who in Nokia missed that one? Everyone in Nokia missed it, again.
Despite the above two problems, I am left with overwhelming praise for the Lumia design and have struggled to just leave it on my desk. It begs to be picked up and stroked. Or as Steve Jobs would say, licked.
Desirable hardware is not uncommon in the smartphone market and neither is desirable software, but when both work together perfectly the bar is raised to a whole new level. The iPhone 4/4S and Galaxy Nexus are the only smartphones that have felt complete to me in both software and hardware, or rather married perfectly together, and no other smartphone has reached their level.
For hardware, the Lumia easily trumps both for style and the fact that it feels very 2012. For all of their greatness, the Nexus isn’t a million miles away from many other Android smartphones in appearance and the iPhone 4S is the iPhone 4 by design which we are well used to after 18 months. The Lumia has a fresh and bold design that does not become vulgar, but to truly succeed the software needs to somehow match the hardware. And it does.
When I first used Windows Phone last year, I felt that it was a very good operating system that masked the technicalities well, but that it was also far too constrained to be of much benefit to a power user. It has been updated since that time and the subtle changes, and time, have made a world of difference; there are many more apps available, more expected features are included and it feels balanced in every area. As much as I fell in love with the hardware, I was bowled over by how well Windows Phone and the Lumia work together. You would believe that one company made both the hardware and the software because the experience is about as perfect as I have seen on any mobile phone. Transitions occur with subtle indicators masking what is happening; they make you feel involved, but stay just on the side of not overindulging the user. In other words, they take exactly the right amount of time to complete if that makes sense.
The combination of tiles and a list of apps should never work in practice, but with time it sort of falls into place. I am not suggesting that it is the best method of letting a person navigate a smartphone, it most certainly isn’t, but I was surprised by how quickly I came to use it without thinking. One-handed use became my default and so that has remained. If you overload a Windows Phone with apps, it will become difficult to manage and maybe that is by design. Just maybe Microsoft doesn’t want you to install hundreds of apps for no good reason. Maybe Microsoft is right.
There is little doubt that Windows Phone is an experience you are forced to pick up and use as it is. You won’t be tweaking it, rooting it or playing around with every setting to make it exactly as you want it to be. There are in fact very few settings available and I can’t but help but wonder why anyone would want to tweak it anyway. This may sound over the top, but I have felt no desire to change Windows Phone on the Lumia because it feels better than any operating system I have used on any phone. It would be easy to miss the subtle beauty of the software because it is so simply to grasp in the first few moment of use. Seriously, Microsoft is onto something here. It has out-Appled Apple in terms of creating a mobile operating system that is completely natural to use.
I am fairly confident that if you sat down 20 people who had never used a smartphone before and asked them which operating system they prefer out of iOS, Android and Windows Phone, the latter would come out a strong winner. It would win because it is so obvious, so smooth and never, ever feels like a computer. That may not satisfy hardened smartphone users, but I am more than hardened to the world of smartphones and it melted me in an instant.
The camera is pretty good, as you would expect from Nokia, but I wasn’t particularly impressed with the results all of the time and found that effort was required to capture shots worth keeping. The half-pressing of the shutter button to focus is great to see on any smartphone and, despite my lack of patience in all thing photographic, it is likely a much better camera than I was able to make it. The fact that I could not obviously snap great pictures when I almost always can with the iPhone 4S suggests that some tweaks could be useful for the average user.
Battery performance is not stellar at this time, a problem acknowledged by Nokia, and an update is expected to resolve that issue soon. I could still manage a whole day with relative ease, but would compare it to the iPhone 4S in this area, a phone that I and many others are also struggling with battery-wise.
There are some decent apps included of which Nokia Drive surprised me greatly. It performs very well indeed and I could get by with this as a day-to-day navigator. The simplicity of the interface and clarity of the maps fit the OS design well and come together to bring a new face to satellite navigation.
The default such as email and the calendar are different to say the least. The use of larger than average fonts should never work, but it does by making the user focus on the words. It is unique and in every single app. The contacts app includes latest activities as the default front screen, the messaging app displays images in square boxes and the marketplace is a series of swoops to find categories etc. It goes against what most people consider to be efficient, but it truly is and with lots of style thrown in for good measure.
As I swiped through the marketplace and installed random apps, I soon realised that they all shard many similarities; they all looked and worked as if they had been pre-loaded onto the phone and this is very unusual. We expect Android apps to be varied in appearance and usage and even the iOS app experience is not 100% consistent. Some are poorly designed while others are exceptionally good, but on Windows Phone every app I have tried so far has felt as if it completely belongs on the Lumia.
Apps that I am used to on other platforms also stand up well on Windows Phone. Angry Birds, Amazon Kindle, IMDb, Pulse, The Guardian, Twitter and Waterstones are as good, if not better, than their iOS counterparts and this is an advantage I find hard to ignore. The iOS eco system and quality of apps are exceptional and if Microsoft can get some market share and increase developer numbers, Apple could have a serious rival here.
The 16GB of built-in memory is decent enough, but with no expansion card support and no options (currently) to buy a higher-end Lumia that is your lot. You do get 25GB of online storage for free, but some will view the memory as limited. The reality is that 16GB is more than enough and that too many people still have a hang up about carrying so much locally. If you use a decent mobile network, there is no reason why you cannot carry a lot of your content in the Cloud, but I also have some sympathy because I am one of those who has a ‘local’ hang up from my early PDA days.
Sound quality is excellent, through decent headphones, and the this shows in the speakerphone and to-ear call quality as well. I also had no problems obtaining HSDPA almost 100% of the time on Vodafone and so the practicalities that we often forget about are covered well. This is a ‘phone’ after all.
It has been a long time since I felt that small surge of excitement when a new phone landed on my desk. In my early years of writing it was exciting more often than not to write about new mobile products, but with time, familiarity and repetition comes boredom. For the first time in years, I am genuinely excited about a smartphone and the platform it is running on. It is hard to get outside of Android and iOS when writing about smartphones in 2012, but it would be a crying shame if that does not become Android, iOS and Windows Phone by the end of the year.
Windows Phone, as a platform, is better than iOS and Android in many areas and lesser in a few. The fact that there is a large incumbent user base already in place for Apple and Google may pose a problem, but it shouldn’t because Microsoft deserves to succeed. It feels like a smoother iOS, yes really, and the fact that you don’t get to see the settings or the inner workings is an advantage for those who don’t ever want to tinker with their phones (presumably 99% of the population).
And the Lumia is completely different to any other phone out there, in a good way. It is truly exceptional and offers a near flawless experience all of the time. This isn’t hyperbole, this is how it feels to use it.
Put them together and something special happens. I still can’t quite find the words to describe the Lumia except to say that it feels completely new to me and at the same time, like an old friend who knows what I want to do and how I would like to do it. It has faults, but like the best products, the good parts are so overwhelmingly positive that I can forgive the odd niggle.
I am going to avoid the temptation of saying this is the best smartphone I have ever used like I did with the iPhone 4 and then the Galaxy S II and then the iPhone 4S. But it is.
There, I said it and I am going to put my money where my mouth is and buy one as soon as I can. I am going to buy one because I can’t stand the thought of sending this one back and that is the first time in many years I have felt that way.
Thanks to The Ideas Network for the loan unit.
Available from Vodafone.