April 3, 2012 -- "Nokia still makes phones?" a friend of mine asked the other day. While I laughed, I couldn't blame her for asking — ten years ago, almost everyone I knew had a Nokia phone, ones with monochrome displays and differently colored faces.
Today, as you might have guessed, not one person I know owns a Nokia phone.
The Lumia 900, which hits AT&T stores this week, is Nokia's comeback kid, or at least that's what the company is betting on. It is one of the first phones to hit the market since the company announced its partnership with Microsoft and its plans to use Windows Phone, rather than the Symbian operating systems it had used in the past.
But it's more than just another Windows Phone. It costs $99.99 (with a two-year contract) and is packed to the brim with top-of-the-line components, including an AMOLED ClearBlack display, 8-megapixel camera, and AT&T's 4G LTE network for fast browsing speeds. But is a great value enough to catapult Nokia ahead of the competition?
Eye-Catching Design and Display
It's pretty hard to make a smartphone stand out these days -- considering they're mostly screen with cases as flat as possible -- but the Lumia 900 doesn't look like any other phone on the market. The back cover and the rounded edges are made out of polycarbonate, a very durable scratch-free plastic, but feels a lot like metal. It gives the .45-inch-thick phone a thicker base, but it also makes it very comfortable to hold.
It's available in black, white, and blue, and while I was disappointed that Nokia didn't have a white unit to lend me, I ended up loving the blue -- it is easy to find in a bag.
My one complaint about the hardware lies in the placement of the buttons. All of the physical buttons -- the volume rocker, power button, and the camera -- live on the right edge of the phone, which makes it confusing to figure out by feel which is which. A number of times I mistakenly tried to turn on the phone by pressing one of the volume buttons.
But that isn't enough to discount all the other great design choices: Flat out, the Lumia is one of the most attractive smartphones I've ever laid eyes on.
And that beauty continues on to its 4.3-inch AMOLED screen. The 800 x 480 display doesn't have as high as a resolution as the iPhone 4S, so images and text don't appear as crisp, but colors look extremely bright and the ClearBlack display makes it easier to read in sunlight than a phone like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. And sticking with Nokia's theme of durability, the screen is covered in Gorilla Glass, which should protect it against scratches.
A Good, Though Not Great Camera
The Lumia 900's 8-megapixel camera and its Carl Zeiss lens take clear and crisp shots. And thanks to its dual-LED flash, it even takes nice photos in low-light situations. Overall, pictures shot with the Lumia weren't as crisp or detailed as ones taken with the iPhone 4S, but they were noticeably better than shots from other smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.
The phone also has a front-facing 1-megapixel camera for video calling or for what I call the tooth-check. (Secret: I tend to use the camera to check if I have anything in my teeth.) The camera performed well for both of those tasks.
Software and Speeds
The Lumia 900 runs Microsoft's latest version of the Windows Phone operating system, known as Mango. For those unfamiliar with Windows Phone, it provides a very clean interface with a homescreen full of tiles, which can display information about what's happening inside the application. For instance, the temperature displays on the Weather Channel app. You can swipe left from there and get a whole long list of the applications on the phone. It's easy to pick up.
Through and through, the operating system is clean and nipped and tucked -- the keyboard is one of the best on any smartphone (I prefer it to that on Android phones), the Settings Menu is easy to find and make adjustments in, and core apps like the Internet Explorer browser are fluid to navigate.
But the application selection, in comparison to Android and the iPhone, is lacking. There are 70,000 apps available in Microsoft's MarketPlace Store, including the most popular apps like Twitter and Facebook. But new popular apps like DrawSomething or Words With Friends aren't yet available for the platform. It's the lack of those hot apps that hold the operating system back from being as well-rounded as the competition.
The phone's single-core 1.4GHz processor kept everything running very smoothly. While many smartphones these days have dual-core processors, I didn't encounter any slowdowns. Graphics-rich Xbox Live games, like Cro-Mag Rally, played smoothly.
However, the real speed is in the AT&T LTE. The new network, which is currently available in 31 cities across the U.S., is extremely fast. Websites like ABCNews.com (not the mobile version) loaded in just four seconds while I was riding in a cab on the way to work, and apps like Facebook downloaded in just four seconds. In New York, these speeds felt even faster than Verizon's LTE speeds, though that is likely because AT&T's network is in its infancy, and not as many people are on it just yet.
As a phone, the Lumia is also quite good. Voice calls sounded clear through the earpiece, though on speakerphone they sounded more muffled and muted. The good news is that neither the LTE or talking on the phone hit the battery life too hard. After making a one-hour call and using the phone fairly heavily throughout the day with LTE enabled, I still had a 20 percent charge left before going to sleep. That's not something I can claim of my Galaxy Nexus.
For $99.99, the Lumia 900 is a superb value. But even if the phone wasn't just under $100, it would be considered a great smartphone. It has a striking design, beautiful display, solid camera, fast data speeds, and a very clean and easy-to-use operating system.
However, Windows Phone and its application ecosystem still lag behind Apple's iPhone and the many Android phones. If having the most popular apps right here and now are on the top of your list, you're still best off going with the iPhone or an Android device.
But one thing is clear: Nokia is now the maker of one of the best and most attractive phones on the market, and my guess is that will put an end to questions like "Nokia still makes phones?"