Nokia Lumia 920 Review

The Lumia 920 (taken with a competing smartphone)

It’s a fantastic phone. Yes it’s porker at 180 grams, but if you can get over that single downside, everything else is frankly wonderful.

For users coming from Windows Phone 7, the 920 is a huge step-up. The screen is finally on par (and often surpasses) other high-end smartphones; performance is wonderful, with the lack of app load and switch lag making multitasking brilliant; and the new start screen gives you the control you’ve always wanted.

If you’ve never used a Windows Phone, the 920 (and others in its class) might just make you want to.

Hardware

The Lumia 920 brings the familiar polycarbonate body shell from earlier Lumias. Mine is black, but I’d prefer one of the other colour options: cyan, grey, red, white or yellow. The rounded edges feel nice in the hand, and the buttons have been spaced out a little, which makes it easier to differentiate between the volume and lock buttons.

The screen, at 1280×768 rocks a 332 ppi pixel density. For humans, this just means that you’ll fail hard when playing “find the pixel”, just like on the iPhone 4. Brightness and contrast are great, and I haven’t noticed any colour casts or issues.

Another Microsoft device shot with a 920

The camera. Ooohh the camera. Where do I start? Basically this: we took some shots in a dingy Redmond hotel room, and couldn’t stop saying “what the fuck?” when viewing the results. The last time I was this stunned by a camera was when I first used the Canon 5DII. Now there’s no way that the Lumia 920 would match the 5D2’s output, but it’s a hell of a lot better than any other phone camera I’ve used.

Battery seems pretty sweet, and if that’s the one reason the device is so heavy, I can forgive it. Bashing around at Microsoft’s BUILD conference, with flakey WiFi, spending all day tweeting up a storm, and the battery still has 30% charge at 7pm. Not bad at all.

WiFi, Bluetooth, 3G, NFC, and other stuff work fine.

Software

Windows Phone 8 is a player. Finally. Phone 7 was a cool operating system with a stunning new visual design. It worked fine as a phone, but it sucked in a few essential ways that I won’t bother going into.

With 8, performance is bonkers. Running “big Windows” (aka the NT core) means that apps can be massively pre-optimized by the operating system so they load and run super quick. And yes, that means existing Windows Phone 7 apps. Putting 7 apps on an 8 phone is like having brand new apps.

Add to that multiple CPU cores and some serious optimizations around the input and UI thread performance, and you get incredibly slick software. It’s buttery smooth everywhere.

The new start screen is really, really cool. It’s like Android’s customizable launcher without the shitty mess. Pin people, apps, widgets and icons in 3 different sizes, and lay them out in a cool masonry arrangement. For me this was explained best when Steve Ballmer, Joe Belfiore and Jessica Alba held up their phones at the launch event. Three phones, all running the same software, but they looked totally different because of the way each user customized them. None of those users had to root their phones or install custom “launchers”.

Built in apps are fast and work great. Linked inboxes in mail, multiple calendars, the same great people hub, and some nifty new stuff including “Rooms” and “Kids corner”.

Xbox Music with streaming and downloads makes the music hub great, and this is now available to New Zealanders without having to work through a USA Live ID. Like other apps, Xbox music can set your wallpaper using album art, which makes the phone really come to life, even when locked. I’m looking forward to local apps leveraging this wallpaper option, after seeing how the CNN app updates the wallpaper with news photography every 30 minutes.

Another new addition is a real timesaver: not only does the keyboard auto-correct as you type, it also pre-suggests words. If you’re typing a sentence and hit the spacebar, you will get suggestions for the next word without even typing a letter. This is uncannily good: I found it suggested the correct word a good 30% of the time, increasing to 80% after I’d typed a letter or two.

Sure we could have an argument about “Apps”, because Windows Phone doesn’t have Instagram or Letterpress, but my bet is these will come. For one: porting is massively easier in WP8 (I can say this because I have first-hand knowledge of porting c++ iOS games to WP8); and hopefully with 8 we’ll see some decent market share. Hopefully.

So there you go. A biased, enthusiastic review. Feel free to fire any questions in the comments because I’m sure I haven’t covered everything.

Buying

Unfortunately if you’re not one of the lucky few to pick up a 920 at the BUILD conference, there’s currently nowhere you can buy one. There’s no word on carriers for New Zealand at this stage, but given the support of previous Nokia phones, and Microsoft’s planned marketing spend, I’d be confident they’ll show up on all carriers in short order.

Nokia Lumia 800 and 710 Windows Phones in New Zealand

At Nokia World last night (New Zealand time), Stephen Elop and the Nokia team announced two new phones:

The phones will be available in November in Europe, with a rollout to other markets early next year. The Windows Phone Blog has all the juicy details, with the key numbers being €420 for the Lumia 800 and €270 for the Lumia 710.

Lumia for New Zealand?

Here’s some hard facts that help us speculate about New Zealand availability for these devices:

  • Vodafone Group will approve the 800 and 710 for their network. This normally means no further testing is required for Vodafone New Zealand.
  • The 3G bands on the Lumia 800 are fine for either Vodafone or Telecom.
  • The 3G bands on the Lumia 710 are specific to Vodafone only.
  • The N9 released in Europe at around €550 to €600, which translated to a New Zealand price of $999 off-plan.

What follows is rampant speculation, but based on the above, some history, and the N9, I think we can expect the following:

  • We won’t see these phones on official release in New Zealand until January at the earliest. More likely Feburary. Parallel importers will hopefully have them in December.
  • Vodafone will be first to market with the devices. I doubt Telecom will carry them at all.
  • Pricing will be high. Nokia smartphones have traditionally carried a premium in New Zealand – remember when Nokia priced the E7 at $1399?
  • I’d expect to see the 800 at around the same pricepoint as the N9 ($999) with the 710 priced around the $600-$700 mark.
  • I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see ONLY the 710 in market. Vodafone have not brought in any “premium” Windows Phones, opting to sell only the HTC Trophy. They may do the same with Nokia, but I hope not.

So what do you think?

Unrelated

Here’s why we need Nokia Windows Phone (and their awesome mapping app) in New Zealand so badly:



Nokia N9 Review: Gorgeous Hardware

Three-Colors-of-Nokia-N9My understanding is that the N9 was all but complete when Stephen Elop announced Nokia’s sea change. In fact, I’m writing this review 60 minutes before Nokia (hopefully) announces their first phones running Windows Phone 7.  So what does the N9 mean in this context? The rumoured (and demonstrated) “sea-ray” device looks uncannily similar in design to the N9, so you can assume that – software notwithstanding – at least one Nokia Windows Phone will look and feel very similar in the hand to the N9.

On that note, let’s focus on hardware, and I’ll touch on Meego at the end. As is standard, hit me up in the comments if I’ve missed covering anything you want to hear.

Hardware

The N9 is simply gorgeous. The model I’m reviewing is matte black polycarbonate, with a piano black, slightly rounded screen. I can hand it to someone and have them gasping with delight without even turning the phone on. It’s a little hard to explain, but the combination of size, shape, and just overall feel makes the N9 a total standout. I’d go so far as saying it feels more comfortable in the hand than an iPhone 4, and (probably just because the ‘4 has been around so long), feels more futuristic.

amoled_vs_lcdThe seamless polycarbonate body aches to be touched. I found myself gently caressing it to find seams, and failing. The other upside of a solid plastic (it feels wrong using such a cheesy word for this material) body, is that the colour is impregnated through the entire shell. If you can get hold of a blue or pink N9, and happen to scratch it, you’d barely notice.

The AMOLED screen is stunning too. The jet-blacks contrasted with the popping colours under the bulging screen give the entire thing an almost holographic look. The resolution doesn’t come close to the iPhone 4, but the readability in bright daylight blows it – and any other LCD – clean out of the water. The other upshot of the AMOLED display is that Nokia have used it cunningly to display a floating clock when locked – there’s very little battery cost because there’s no backlight burning up the Amps.

I’m not sure if the on-screen keyboard fits under the hardware category, but I do hope the haptic feedback carries over to other Nokia devices. There is a satisfying, but subtle click and de-click when you press and release keys. The timing is perfectly synced with your finger motion, and it adds a genuine “feel” to the on-screen keyboard unlike other phones I have played with.

The camera is Nokia-awesome, and works faster than any phone camera I have played with. I haven’t touched the latest Androids or the iPhone 4, but the speed difference compared to my current Windows Phone is incredible.

The last cool thing about the N9 hardware is the “pentaband 3G”. We humans call it 5-band. For kiwis this means you don’t have to worry if this phone will work on XT or Vodafone. Just stick the MicroSIM in and go.

NokiaHeadsetComparisonThere is one vexing issue with the hardware: Nokia use a different headset pin arrangement to Apple. I presume this dates back to pre-iPhone days, but the sad fact is that a majority of headsets today are built for the iPhone pin arrangement. Any normal headphones will work fine in the 3.5mm socket, but plug in an iPhone-compatible headset and they won’t. Nokia and Apple have transposed the microphone and ground rings. So, while the plugs at left look outwardly identical, the one on top (from my workhorse Ultimate Ears 220vi headset) does not work at all (no audio, nothing) in the N9. The bottom plug is the included Nokia headset. NB: photo taken using the N9, cropped.

Software

If you position MeeGo as a loaded gun to Microsoft’s temple, they should rightfully feel motivated to make Windows Phone a success at Nokia. MeeGo (specifically MeeGo/Harmattan) is an excellent first release for a smartphone OS – notably with a more complete feature set than the original Windows Phone 7 release (and for that matter iOS 1.x). However, MeeGo’s uncertain future makes the Nokia Store for 3rd-party apps somewhat barren. Having said that, the core apps are there: Facebook, Twitter, Skype, YouTube, Foursquare, and yes, Angry Birds.

The OS performs well in most places, with just a wee bit of lag in strange areas like the Settings app, and an occasional miss-registered tap or swipe. Again, forgivable issues for a v1 release, and certainly nothing that really puts you off the day-to-day use of the phone.

MeeGo asks that users swipe in from the edges of the screen to perform common tasks such as switching between apps and checking notifications. Swiping from the left or right edge switches between the three core screens: apps, notifications, and running tasks. As a concept it works ok, but in reality I found myself swiping a couple of times in most cases to trigger the behaviour, then several times more to understand where in the OS I was placed.

MeeGo will serve most smartphone users extremely well. Nokia’s traditional expertise in the core applications is there, and I didn’t find too many rough edges. Mail4Exchange is a full-featured Microsoft Exchange sync; the browser is a variant of Webkit, and works well; and multiple calendars are supported in the calendar app.

Nokia’s mapping and GPS capability truly shines on MeeGo and the N9. Nokia maps with full driving directions and 3D landmarks, with the same fantastic worldwide coverage we’ve come to expect from Nokia. Map data is pre-cached, so using the GPS in the car is not going to cause you expensive data charges. Frankly, the N9’s mapping functionality blows Windows Phone out of the water in New Zealand, and is easily on par with Google Maps in iOS and Android.

There are a couple of software shortcomings that you should note before committing to MeeGo. Not deal-breakers, but just in case they matter to you:

  • GMail contact sync doesn’t seem to be present. Mail and calendar work fine, but not contacts.
  • Copy/Paste is spotty. Works fine from most editable fields, but not from e.g. website body copy.

Conclusion

It’s a great smartphone, and I’m sure it will stick around for a while even with the new WP7 devices coming out. Grab one if you like the look of it, and aren’t overly concerned by the future upgrade path and app store story (although, MeeGo 1.1 is in the wild, so we can hope it will come to existing devices).

You can buy the N9 for $999 from Vodafone, or less with a plan.

 

Windows Phone 7 at Year +1

Windows Phone 7

How do you feel about a Nokia smartphone running Windows Phone 7, with the following features?

  • High-resolution screen with a highly interactive touch UI
  • Full-fidelity HTML5 web browser
  • Copy-paste
  • Full Twitter and Facebook integration (social feeds attached to contact cards)
  • Full-fidelity Office document editing with cloud sync
  • Multitasking

Interested? Microsoft have just announced that all the above features will come to Windows Phone 7 in 2011. The phone is stable and usable today, but I’ve always said it lacks the features to make it perfect (in my opinion). These features get it pretty damn close.

To get a flavour of what a Y+1 Windows Phone 7 experience will look like, check out this YouTube video demo of multitasking:

The Nokia bit is the only thing not guaranteed for 2011, but I’d be surprised if we don’t see at least one Nokia WP7 device this year.

Microsoft had to get a device out to show they were serious about competing, but I do wonder if they would have got a better result by waiting for the features to be baked before releasing. Then again, it’s almost guaranteed that they would have missed the Nokia deal.