Since leaving the world of iOS in February 2010 I’ve not managed to settle in anywhere else. The HD7 I tried first was exciting to begin with but quickly became frustrating due to the lack of decent apps and the limitations of the pre-Mango Windows Phone operating system. After that it was a visit to the world of rooting and constant flashing with Android, thanks to the Samsung Galaxy S. TO be fair, the unofficial CyanogenMod builds of Ice Cream Sandwich were starting to look very good, but the hardware wasn’t proving very durable.
When pictures first appeared of the Nokia Lumia range of phones, I was really taken in. The Lumia range consists of two new handsets – the entry-level 710 and the premium 800. It was actually preview pictures for the Lumia 900 some months later that got me thinking about getting another WP7 handset. The design of the handset was something I found really appealing, and even though I had ditched it once already, I remembered quite a few aspects of WP7 that I really liked. So I sold the Galaxy S and traded up to a second-hand Lumia 800 in as-new condition. The decision to go with the 800 rather than wait for the 900 was mainly because I found the 4.3″ HD7 phone a but unwieldy to use in practice and thought the Lumia 900 would have the same issue.
Initial impressions of the Lumia 800 were good – the combination of a very high quality piece of hardware design and the stylish Metro user interface do work very well together. I believe that after the iPhone, the Lumia 800 is the best phone on the market today for design and build quality. The case and curved glass screen have a real quality feel – unlike HTC phones there’s no hollow clacking noise when you tap the screen with your fingernail. The Lumia glass is much thicker and feels super-smooth to glide your finger over. The bright tiles of the Start screen look amazing on the rich black background, and it’s often impossible to see where the case ends and the screen starts. Turn on the screen and put the phone down at the side of you and it can be a little bit surreal to look at – the way the bright interface elements glow from the deep black laminated screen is really eye-catching. You can see effect to some extent in the main picture at the top of this post. The effect is probably more noticeable on black phones rather than the blue/pink/white colours.
A less impressive aspect of the phone was the well-publicised firmware issues that did their best to ruin the ownership experience. Terrible battery life due to a power drain problem meant that the phone wouldn’t last a day even when hardly used, and music playback quality through the headphone socket was very disappointing. Both of these issues are now fixed – battery life is much improved although still not brilliant, but audio quality through my Sennheiser earphones is excellent – noticeably better than the iPhone 4 and a bit better than my Galaxy S.
Other reviews have criticised the folding door that covers the power socket, which is understandable because it looks easy to break and could be considered inconvenient. Personally, it hasn’t bothered me. I am more bothered by the amount of buttons down the right hand side of the phone – in practice is not as bad as it might look but can be cumbersome. The fact that Microsoft dictate there must be a physical camera button is annoying when on-screen buttons work perfectly well.
The Lumia 800 has a single-core processor – low-end compared to the latest Android phones but the single-core Lumia flies along with it’s well-optimised operating system. Windows Phone makes heavy use of GPU acceleration to relieve the workload on the CPU, and everything is silky smooth. Android phones need a lot more CPU power to run smoothly, and even then you will still see stutters if you look closely enough.
The Mango update is a strange beast – at first it doesn’t seem any different to the earlier release but in fact it’s much more usable. There are still glaring omissions like not being able to paste a phone number into the dialler screen (the web browser rarely picks up numbers to make them clickabe), but on the whole it’s much better. The biggest improvement is the appearance of a proper task switcher that is called up by long-pressing the back button. This fixes the terrible task switching system in earlier versions, which caused awful usability problems in certain scenarios. Another improvement is the IE9 browser which has a significantly better rendering engine. Almost all web pages now look great which could not be said of IE7 on pre-Mango. IE9 also has a great feature – the address bar is at the bottom. This simple difference from other mobile browsers makes a big difference in practice. I develop mobile web sites and when testing them the experience of using them on WP7 is made much more app-like by this nifty little user interface feature – the header bar of the mobile site appears right at the top of the screen, just like a real app.
The software catalogue is also much improved since the early days of Windows Phone. Most major apps are now present, and the best ones make their iOS/Android equivalents look dated and simplistic. When publishers really get to grips with the Metro UI the results can be fantastic – the Windows Phone version of LinkedIn is by far the best, and a real surprise was the brilliantly-designed app that Oxfam have released. Even so, there are still some missing apps. Top game titles from iOS and Android are either not ported over or take forever to arrive. My biggest annoyance is still the lack of a native Amazon (UK) app – the mobile site works but is pretty crappy. And prices are still silly – especially for game titles. How would you like to pay £3.99($4.99) for Pacman?
Overall, I would recommend the Lumia very highly but it’s essential that you’re not heavily invested in iOS or Android. You need to be sure you can wean yourself off these ecosystems. It is difficult for many people to switch from iOS with it’s convenience and huge software catalogue. Moving from Android is probably slightly easier. If you own an older Windows Phone model though, the Lumia represents a great buy.
Things are very different in the world of WP7 compared to other platforms, but if the operating system appeals to you then the Lumia will show it off at it’s best. It scores highly by combining a great operating system with a very stylish and high quality piece of phone hardware. You also get a nice warm fuzzy feeling from owning a Nokia again after all these years.