Lumia 900 (mini) Review

On the eve of Nokia’s expected launch of Windows Phone 8 devices, I thought it’d be fitting to briefly review my past several months with a Lumia 900.

Chassis

The Nokia N9 ushered in a new design direction for Nokia’s smartphones, with its unibody, polycarbonate design. The Lumia 800 took that design, nearly as-is, and applied the Windows Phone treatment. Then, before bringing it to North America, Nokia expanded the display to 4.3″, to cater to this demographic. The design is unique, especially in the two less frequently seen colours on other phones, magenta and cyan, and feels extraordinarily solid and high quality in-hand. The chassis wraps around the internals and display in an elongated oval shape, pinched off squarely at the top and bottom. Taking the most conservative route, I chose a black copy.

The combined large sheet of glass and relatively thick polycarbonate shell makes the Lumia 900 relatively heavy. Compared to a Samsung Galaxy S II, also a 4.3″ display smartphone, the Lumia 900 is nearly 40% heavier (albeit also including a larger battery). The battery is not removable, and there’s no back cover at all. Buttons protrude from the right side of the device and headphone, micro-USB, and micro-SIM adorn the top. FCC and other certification notices dot the bottom, leaving the back a smooth landscape, aside from the camera surround brightwork.

It’s not perfect (but nearly is). The bezels (both top/bottom and sides) are wide, so the footprint of the device is larger than it could otherwise be. I’ve become accustomed to it, but picking up the Samsung Focus (4.0″) recently was surprisingly positive, for both size and weight. Furthermore, unlike the Lumia 800’s absolutely stunning curved display, which flows effortlessly from the curved chassis, the display on the 900 is flat, and furthermore, it’s bordered by a raised, plastic edge, which appears to be needed to help hold the display in place, within the chassis. For the side-to-side flicking that’s a significant part of Windows Phone (the panoramic apps), it makes itself painfully apparent.

Here’s to hoping the future phones trim the bezels and, at the very least, remove the protrusions around the display.

Display

The Lumia 900 has a 4.3″ ClearBlack AMOLED display. It’s a WVGA (800×480) panel, with a standard RGB subpixel structure. Compared to the multitude of high end phones with 1280×720 displays recently, it’s not as sharp, but the regular subpixel matrix helps sharpness, and I prefer it over the same resolution, but Pentile 4.0″ AMOLED display of my Samsung Focus. Perhaps once we have 720p displays, it’ll be a case of trying to go back to an iPad 2 from the new iPad’s display (i.e. you cannot), but for now, I’m content with the display quality.

The polarizer that plays a part in the “ClearBlack” naming makes outdoor use more than tolerable. However, as a result, it appears to impact how close the panel itself is to the surface of the glass. Especially since I have a Lumia 800 to compare against, the 900 doesn’t showcase the same effect of the picture nearly “floating” on the surface of the glass. Thankfully, it has some resistance to fingerprints and only requires a quick wipe (or some time riding in a pocket) to be cleaned.

Overall, the display is pretty nice, colours are oversaturated, but, as a result, make the Windows Phone tiles pop, and the AMOLED nature makes the blacks meld into the bezels, creating a nice, seamless display effect.

Camera

I’m a photo junkie, so I’m always interested in the photography capabilities of the cameras in these smartphones. The rear one in the Lumia 900 isn’t so impressive.

Part of that has to do with the sensor itself. While I haven’t been able to dig up the actual part number to take a look at its exact characteristics, empirical evidence shows that it’s likely a fairly small one, replete with poor high-ISO performance (and even noisy shadows at low ISO). It’s apparently not backside-illuminated, like the iPhone 4S’s, for example, and despite the Carl Zeiss branding, the lens (no matter how good) can’t elevate the sensor’s performance to above average.

With the recent 8779 Windows Phone update and the associated Nokia update, two issues are fixed. 1. exposure is now weighted around the focus point, during touch-to-focus. 2. white balance seems to be significantly improved.

However, several issues remain. Autofocus accuracy tends to be poor in difficult lighting conditions. For example, when photographing a peach on a tree, with a shadow across it, I could not get a single in-focus shot, after trying perhaps 5 or 6 times, instead, focusing on the leaves well behind it (both normal and macro modes attempted). Dynamic range is limited, so taking photos in bright conditions usually results in blown-out skies or very dark foregrounds. If you’re careful with the direction of the photo (versus the sun) and now that exposure can be weighted around the focus point, it’s possible to get some pretty good shots.

This is one area I’d love to see improved on future iterations of Nokia’s WP lineup. If the PureView rumours have any grounding in reality, I will be extremely excited.

Performance

Windows Phone isn’t setting any benchmark records, and its hardware is now a couple generations behind leading edge. That said, Windows Phone has a penchant for making good use of the hardware at its disposal, producing fluid animations, little delay in action-reaction, and enables a good experience on reasonably-priced hardware.

The Windows Phone soft keyboard consistently remains one of the best typing experiences I’ve ever had on a touchscreen. Autocorrect is active, but not overwhelming, unintentionally “correcting” words. The IE web browser is good, but sometimes get tripped up by headers, paragraph styling. You can sometimes see this in odd-looking font sizes, for example.

Compared to my Samsung Focus, which uses a Qualcomm QSD8250 1GHz SoC, the Lumia’s QC MSM8255 at 1.4GHz (and not to mention a GPU nearly twice as quick) is noticeably faster, especially when it comes to loading applications and scrolling through lists in some applications (e.g. Facebook).

While the day to day operations of phone are rarely hampered by the quick single core SoC, the generational leap to something quite a bit more powerful with this first generation of Windows Phone 8 devices will unblock the few remaining obstacles to a completely fast and fluid experience.

Wrap Up

No, the Lumia 900 (nor any current generation Windows Phone) will not get an upgrade to Windows Phone 8. It’ll be stuck on WP7.8 for the foreseeable future. However, at its current $49 price on contract, it simply represents a solid phone with a unique design and quality. Windows Phone’s guidelines and closer software-hardware integration means you’re getting a high quality smartphone experience.

Next for Nokia, whatever they launch on September 5 (looks to be a Lumia 820 and Lumia 920), I’m hoping they add a bit of polish to a solid product. The unibody design is fantastic to hold, lends durability, and looks great (not to mention, can be made into all sorts of wacky colours). Simply by the capabilities enabled by Windows Phone 8, a number of hardware features will reach at least parity with other operating system (multi-core SoC’s, high resolution displays). Hopefully the PureView rumours pan out and the smartphone camera reaches new heights of photography.

Not much longer now.

Nokia N9 – Glimpse at Future Industrial Design?

Nokia launched the N9 earlier today, encased with some sweet looking industrial design. If they can bring some of this flair over to Windows phone, I’m on board.

The Meego OS looks darned good already, and with the unibody polycarbonate, flush glass (and curved) and extremely minimalistic design, it looks like great hardware. I’m not really certain what Nokia’s handset OS strategy is, with Meego appearing quite competitive.

One way or another, I hope this is the beginning of Nokia’s revitalization. They have the capability for sure.

Is There a BlackBerry In My Future?

My K790a (cellphone) is dying again. Despite having already sent it into Sony Ericsson to get fixed, the same issues have cropped up – the menu has stopped working problems with missing icons, messages and files have become corrupt of their own accord and a bunch of applications are not longer accessible. A firmware flash temporarily fixes the problem, but the show up again inevitably, which makes me believe this is a hardware issue, not software.

Despite being filled to the brim with features, I’ve been generally pretty disappointed with the device. Features are great, if they actually work. The thing has been plagued with problems, like the above mentioned as well as a navigation stick that doesn’t work properly. It’s gotten to the point where using the phone is more of a frustration than a pleasure.

Bad Sony Ericsson K790a

I’m now questioning my prior opinion that convergence devices are the way to go. It’s all about the matter of ‘jack-of-all-trades, master of none’. I’m looking at high-end phones that include everything from GPS to MP3 players to cameras to (gasp) even telephony. But the MP3 interface isn’t as nice as many standalone players and the cameras are perhaps as good as my 3 year old Canon SD200 that I’m trying to replace. The idea is that you don’t need to carry around a device for each function, but as it stands, I’m not sufficiently satisfied with the converged devices.

With that said, I’m going to go ahead and sound extremely hypocritical by saying I’m strongly considering the Nokia N82. I figure I should at least give another company a chance to impress me with their converged device and Nokia’s as good a choice as any. Aside from iffy thoughts on the physical attractiveness of the N82, the specifications and initial user response to the device leave me with a pretty positive impression.

Nokia N82

On the other hand (and as the title alludes to) I’m also considering a BlackBerry. Part of it is the simplicity. It’s a phone and email device first. Sure cameras and music players have found their way onto the device over the years, but it still performs its core competencies very well. Plus, the geek and business parts of me long for one. My two main candidates in the BlackBerry ring are the Pearl 8120 (Pearl 2) and the 8300/8320 (Curve). Either one would be a massive improvement in texting that my K790a and in the short time I had with the Curve, I absolutely loved it.

BlackBerry Curve

I’m still holding out hope that Sony Ericsson can try and fix my K790a. One year with a cell phone seems a little short, especially if I’m looking at phones in the $500+ range. That could become a very costly hobby. A part of me wants a new toy to play with, but my wallet is clearly screaming otherwise.

UPDATE: Seems like Nokia’s corrected one of my biggest gripes against the N82 – aesthetics – by releasing a black version of the phone. I think you’ll agree that it’s much nicer looking.

Nokia N82 Black

Nokia N800 for $199 – Dell.ca

Well, why wouldn’t it be cheaper? A mere couple weeks after I order the Nokia N800 from NCIX for <$250, thinking it was such a good price, Dell Canada goes ahead and prices it at $199 during their Dell Days deals. Grab it while you can. It ends December 4th. I’m kicking myself as I write this.