If you are an average consumer in the market for a smartphone, your choices fall into roughly four categories.
Research In Motion, maker of the once-mighty BlackBerry, is verging on the moribund, with less-than-cutting-edge devices that are rapidly shedding market share. Give the Berry a pass.
As BlackBerry sinks, Android is on the rise. However, the Google-based smartphone platform is not the most consumer-friendly. Handset selection is migraine-triggering and paralysis-inducing – choice isn’t a good thing if there is too much of it. The Android operating system is a smidgen on the geeky side, too, with apps that are often inelegant and awkward to use.
The Apple iOS realm has elegance to spare with a small selection of iPhone handsets that are lovely to hold and use – and with apps that are often works of art when compared with homely Android counterparts. The iPhone still has all the buzz, and for good reason.
Then there’s Windows Phone 7.
Microsoft’s upstart smartphone platform differs radically from its iOS and Android rivals with an operating system based on big, colorful tiles instead of the usual app icons. Fire up a Windows Phone 7 device and all you see is a two-column stack of pretty squares corresponding to the device’s apps and functions. Scroll. Tap. Enjoy.
Smartphone software this nice needs equally awesome hardware, and it’s finally here. Nokia’s much-anticipated Lumia 900, an ATT device, goes on sale Sunday, April 8.
Phone 7 devices are available from all the major U.S. wireless carriers, but it’s the Lumia 900 you’ll be hearing about in the coming weeks because it is likely the one to make or break Microsoft’s fledgling smartphone technology. If the software titan can’t gain a foothold in the smartphone market with a device this sweet, it is probably a goner.
The Lumia 900 is also a gamble for Microsoft’s strategic partner Nokia, another mobile-phone titan that, like RIM, has struggled amid the Apple and Android juggernauts. Nokia needs the device to be a smash – and it just might become one.
I’ve been using the Lumia 900 for a week, and I like it.
Physically, it may be my favorite phone of all time. It has a one-piece polycarbonate body that is delightfully minimalist – even the understated iPhone verges on steampunk alongside this device – with the kind of Scandinavian flavor that fits right in here in Minnesota.
The Lumia 900′s aesthetic is different enough to cause a stir at a social gathering, yet hardly garish or ostentatious.
Lovingly fingering my black loaner handset, I feel a bit like Heywood Floyd, a character in Arthur C. Clarke’s “Space Odyssey” sci-fi novels, as he beheld the mysterious alien monoliths on the moon and in Jupiter’s orbit. The Lumia 900 could be the giant slabs’ smaller, less inscrutable sibling.
The Lumia is also available in cyan blue, with a glossy white version coming April 22.
The smooth, clean lines are broken only by four metal buttons along the right side for volume (up and down), power and camera shutter. There are ports for audio and power (via micro-USB cable) on top, with no cheesy rubber covers like those found on many Android handsets. There is an 8-megapixel camera with flash on the back of the handset, and a low-resolution cam on the front mainly for videoconferencing.
That rear-facing camera with Carl Zeiss optics takes very nice pictures and shoots pretty good video – perhaps not quite on par with the iPhone 4S, but pretty dang close. I took a bunch of comparison shots during a weekend walk: http://ojezap.me/HlI7U3.
For videoconferencing, you have a couple of options. Skype, the popular Microsoft-owned service for audio and video chats, has released a beta (as in unfinished and potentially buggy) version of its app for Windows Phone 7.
There’s also Tango, a nifty videochat app with equivalent apps on Apple and Google devices; I tried to Tango from my Lumia to an iPhone and Android phone, and this worked pretty well. It isn’t as well known as Skype, however.
As a Windows Phone 7 device, the Lumia 900 has no major surprises. The tile-centric operating system is nicely familiar and the Lumia’s AMOLED 800-by-480-pixel display does a nice job of showing it off, though it’s a pity the phone doesn’t match the iPhone’s Retina screen with its pixel-dense 960-by-640 resolution.
Want apps? This is a bit of a sticking point on Windows Phone 7, compared to iOS and Android with their more-entrenched, better-stocked app stores.
Still, I was able to load my Lumia with lots of terrific apps: TuneIn Radio for online-radio streaming, Seesmic for tweets and Facebook updates, Foursquare for check-ins, Wonder Reader for RSS syncing with Google Reader, Evernote for access to my notes, Netflix to watch TV and movies, the New York Times and USA Today apps and many more.
But I ran into glaring gaps again and again. Instagram last week released an Android version of its hugely popular iOS photography app – but a Windows Phone 7 version is MIA. Angry Birds Space, the hot new game, is available on PCs and Macs as well as on iOS and Android devices…but not on Windows Phone 7.
It has a lot of functionality built in, at least. My favorite integrated feature is over-the-air podcast downloading for getting tech-related audio and video shows without having to sync with a computer. On an Apple or Android device, I have to download and configure podcatcher apps for this purpose.
As an ATT handset, the Lumia is compatible with the carrier’s Long Term Evolution high-speed wireless-data network. ATT, like competitor Verizon, is deploying LTE across the country. The technology, which I’ve used on Verizon phones, makes for incredibly fast Internet use on the go.
The catch for Twin Cities residents? While Verizon LTE is here, ATT’s equivalent is not. Buying the Lumia isn’t much of a gamble, though, assuming ATT follows through on its promise to debut LTE service here later this year.
For now, Lumia buyers have access to ATT’s slower but reasonably zippy HSPA+ network. In my testing, I managed Internet downloads of 1 to 3 megabits per second. That’s not too shabby, but it pales in comparison with the Verizon-LTE downloads of 10, 20 and even 30 megabits per second.
The Lumia 900′s biggest selling point may be its price. ATT is offering it for $100 – with a wireless contract – and there have been reports of discounts bumping the price down to $0. Ask about that before making a contract commitment.
It is worth noting the current-model iPhone starts at $200 with a wireless contract. There are $100-or-less Apple handsets out there, but these are older, slower, less-capable models.
The Lumia 900′s other selling point is the Windows Phone 7 operating system. Of all the big smartphone operating systems, Windows Phone 7 is the most newbie-friendly for those moving from old-style “feature” phones who want the fewest hassles and complications. If that is you, the Lumia 900 is definitely worth a look.