Lumia 730 and 830 Announced

Filling in the mid-range: Lumia 730 series and Lumia 830 launched this past week for between 200-340 Euros. The 730 series is within spitting distance of the new Moto G2 on both specs and price point. The Lumia 830 is a fantastic-looking design and should have a great camera.

The rise of the smartphone has been meteoric, and while many have been designed and priced in the image of the aspirational iPhone, sold in developed markets, it’s the entry price segments, in developing markets, that have powered the vast majority of expansion in the past couple years.

Windows Phone has faced massive adoption challenges, but one area where it has seen some success is in the entry segment, sub-$150 devices, often sold in developing markets or other markets where subsidies are not a major part of the telecom ecosystem. Take a look at the Lumia 520, a ~150USD open market device. It holds approximately 1/3 of the entire Windows Phone market. And that’s not simply in emerging markets; in significant parts of the EU and the United States, the same holds true.

Lumia 635

For Windows Phone 8.1, Nokia is in the midst of refreshing its series of phones, and appropriately, they’ve started with the entry segment. The Lumia 635 is one of the lowest cost LTE devices on the market (189USD open market) and its triplet siblings, the 630 and 630 dual SIM, are even lower in price, trading off LTE support for a lower price point. In North America, the Lumia 630/635 has shown up on a number of carriers at very reasonable price points. Having a soft spot for cheap and cheerful smartphones and wanting to see how things were in the budget Windows Phone world, I purchased one. They’re $99 and 129 at the Microsoft Store, no-contract, on AT&T and T-Mobile, respectively. I got the T-Mobile version. Here are some thoughts on how things are looking for the future of smartphones.

Lumia 635

I currently use a Lumia 1520 as my primary device. There have been many times where I wished for a smaller phone. The Lumia 635 has a 4.5″ display, with okay bezel sizes, wrapped in a polycarbonate casing. From a dimensions perspective, it doesn’t stand out either positively or negatively. Reaching to the corners of the display, with a single hand, isn’t a problem. The corners are rounded and the sides taper, so in-hand, it’s comfortable. It slips into pockets without any issue. Physical buttons are arrayed on the right-hand side, per usual for Lumias. Missing, from the usual complement, is a dedicated camera button.

The back cover, on the T-Mobile version, is a pleasant matte white. The shape and design are unassuming, but in person, look clean and simple. And, if you want a dash of boldness, you can buy colored covers (I’ve seen yellow, green, and orange). Even better, as the casing wraps around the edges and front of the phone, you could do quite a lot of damage to and then easily refresh it. The covers are priced reasonably – $15 each. The cover is a bit challenging to remove, until you get the hang of it, after a few tries. The benefit is a tight fit, with no creaking nor flexing. The replaceable battery, microSIM and microSD slots are hidden beneath the cover; in all cases, the battery must be removed to swap SIMs or microSD.

Lumia 635 back

Compared to another budget phone I’m familiar with, the Moto G, the in-hand feel is a trade-off – the G has a better form-fitting shape, but the materials feel cheaper (smoother and slipperier).

The display is adequate for the price, with an 854×480 resolution. The additional vertical pixels are used for on-screen soft-keys, a first for Windows Phones, but part of a strategic bet to close the gap with Android phone hardware requirements. Gorilla Glass 3 protects the display, and Nokia’s ClearBlack technology helps reduce reflections and increase contrast. It’s not hard to see some pixelation at normal viewing distances, but in typical use, the UI elements are not filled with so much fine detail to expose the issue, and forgivable at its price point. More challenged is the display’s ability to render text on a full website, zoomed out (or otherwise fine text and details). You really can’t read it, without zooming in. The 720p display of the Moto G would obviously be preferred, but I suspect we’ll soon see something in the Moto G LTE’s price range with a similar display from Windows Phones.

There is no front camera (unfortunate for selfi-ers and those who want to use Skype) and the rear 5MP is nothing to write home about. It takes adequate photos in good lighting, and quickly falls off after that. Nokia’s excellent camera app is still preinstalled, so you can tweak and tune every setting as you could on a higher-end PureView device. Take a look at the result.

Lumia 635 camera sample

Capabilities and Experience

I won’t ramble too much on the rest. The software experience and feature set is as you’d expect to find on most Windows Phones, with a few things to note:

  • It ships out of the box with Windows Phone 8.1 and the Lumia Cyan feature pack from Nokia (Microsoft)
    • Given it’s a Lumia, it comes with a number of useful inbox apps, including Here Drive+, providing free offline navigation in many countries
  • It includes a trio of soft-keys for Back, Windows Home, and Search
    • However, the nifty capability to show/hide them on the Windows Phone HTC One is missing here. Hopefully this changes in future 8.1 updates.
  • It’s missing several hardware-driven features:
    • No front-facing camera
    • No ambient light sensor to automatically adjust display brightness (means you need to leave display brightness as 1-of-4 shortcuts in Action Center)
    • No proximity sensor to turn your display off during calls (uses the capacitive touchscreen, instead to do the same)
    • No physical camera button
  • It supports SensorCore, which is a new SDK that enables very low power sensor data collection, particularly while the display is off.
    • One basic capability is to report steps, providing pedometer functionality, but has many other use cases, as well, such as identifying when the user is near a well-known location.
    • The step-counter in the Bing Health and Fitness app is pretty accurate. It’s within +/- 5% of what my Fitbit Flex reports, on an average daily basis.
  • It supports WiFi calling on T-Mobile
    • My apartment doesn’t get a strong T-Mobile signal, so WiFi supplements
    • While I’m traveling internationally (such as right now, to Canada), calls and texts back to the United States are free on WiFi – nice
  • It has 8GB of internal storage, expandable via a microSD card, and 512MB RAM
    • Approximately 3.3GB are used for system files and another ~500MB are taken up by inbox apps
    • The device starts with ~3.5GB of free space on the internal storage

I can live with almost all these trade-offs, to get to this price point (adaptive display brightness, supported by an ALS, is greatly missed). However, the single most significant factor contributing to its budget-phone experience is the inclusion of 512MB RAM. There are a number of apps in the Windows Store (particularly in the games category) for which 512MB RAM does not meet minimum requirements, and hence cannot be installed on the 635. I don’t play any serious games on my phone, so that means little to me.

The more impactful, day-to-day, symptom is the number of “Resuming…” messages you’ll see, as you multitask across apps. With 512MB RAM (versus 1GB+ on the higher end Windows Phones), fewer apps can be kept in the backstack, warm in memory, before critical limits are hit and app contents needs to be ejected. This means a rehydration is needed, when you go back to that particular app. The app platform and apps themselves have done a pretty good job of maintaining state, even across rehydrations, but it still results in an extra second or two to load most apps. Many of the inbox experiences are, thankfully, relatively resource friendly, and launch quickly.

Summary

In a vacuum, there are a few compromises I would not have made, 512MB RAM, lack of an ALS, but hitting a ~$170 transfer price for an LTE phone, in North America, is non-trivial. Even more so, the $99-129 end-user price on pre-paid service is nearly irresistible. It’s a well-built, well-featured, simply designed phone that delivers all the smartphone a basic user needs. It’ll look fresher, while offering similar or better capabilities than the equivalently priced Android prepaid phone around most carrier stores. It definitely meets the bar of a cheap-and-cheerful, tossable phone, and should do well, both on prepaid service in developed markets, while providing a quality option for developing markets, moving towards LTE deployments.

Good

  • Looks simple and sleek, feels nice to hold
  • In-app experiences are smooth and fluid
  • SensorCore support provides a free and accurate pedometer (amongst other capabilities)
  • 8GB internal storage will be enough for many, and good support for microSD expansion makes it a complete non-issue
  • One of the better (best?) combinations of form factor, build quality, performance, feature set and LTE support for the price

Bad

  • Not an ideal choice for heavy multitaskers with 512MB RAM and “Resuming…” pauses
  • No ambient light sensor for auto display brightness adjustments
  • No front-facing camera for Skype
  • Display resolution is a bit below average, especially depending on regional pricing (in the US, it’s average)

Lumia 635 and 1520 Comparison

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.

Windows Phone Development Diary

Oh, I forgot to mention, I’m on vacation this week. It’s the first of the year for me, and a needed break.

That said, I want to remain productive, just in a different direction, so I’ve installed the Windows Phone SDK, fired up MSDN and am ready to get my hands dirty on some basic apps to start.

Some of the most crucial aspects of developing for a new platform are the learning curve and the available tools. I’m not a developer by trade, but my Computer Engineering background provides me familiarity and comfort and sets me up for a quick ramp. I’ll keep a development diary of sorts, noting what makes sense, what doesn’t, and areas that can use some improvement.

And here I go.

Windows Phone 7 – In Focus

Samsung Focus

Samsung Focus (Windows Phone 7)

I picked up a Samsung Focus at the Microsoft Store in Bellevue on opening day. I had originally planned to stick with T-Mobile and the Dell Venue Pro, but after getting the runaround on the ETA for my pre-ordered device and some photo quality issues with the Dell, I decided to jump ship to AT&T and the Samsung Focus. After more than a year fiddling around with Windows Mobile 6.5 and then Android, I was itching for a phone that was a little simpler, and a bit more polished. I think I’ve found it in Windows Phone 7.

It’s still too early to pass final judgment on the hardware or software, but the core functions I need, great email, calendar, messaging, web browsing, and mapping, are all there. The device itself feels better than the ‘plasticky’ description I’d read in a couple reviews, which had initially scared me away from the Focus. It’s a thin, light device that slips into one’s pocket, unobtrusively.