Nokia's great Windows Phone hope: Beauty without brawn

The poor fit of Microsoft's 'Mango' OS to business needs is no surprise, but the Lumia 900 flagship device's weak hardware is

Nokia may sell more cellphones than any other company in the world, but it's been all but excluded from the United States for years -- and it's seen its global sales steadily shrink as the iPhone and Android smartphones have become the darlings of buyers in an increasing number of countries. Nokia's relevance has been fast receding, and its Symbian, Maemo, and MeeGo efforts became a pattern of failure for a company that just didn't get it. In response, a year ago, Nokia bet its future largely on Windows Phone 7, Microsoft's answer to Apple's iOS and Google's Android.

The first fruits of that partnership -- the Lumia 600 and 800 -- shipped last fall in Europe to disappointing sales. But the Nokia and Windows Phone faithful told skeptics to wait for the Lumia 900, which would prove that both Windows Phone and Nokia were poised to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat across the globe, particularly in the United States where it would be Nokia's turnaround product. Unfortunately, this Windows Phone flagship is no battleship. In fact, it can't even engage the competition in any serious way.

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That's too bad because aspects of both the Lumia 900 and Windows Phone show real promise and class. It's easy to be entranced by the "basic black dress" simplicity of the Lumia 900's design (available in blue, white, and black models), and the tiled interface of Windows Phone is truly inspired, elegant, and alluring. But if you look deeper, you find that the Lumia 900, like Windows Phone 7 itself, is a deficient product whose surface beauty masks a weakling.

The Lumia 900 costs $550 ($100 with a two-year contract) and runs on AT&T's network. It uses the standard Windows Phone 7.5 "Mango" operating system, adding nothing to address Windows Phone's many business shortcomings. Windows Phone 7.5 can't be used in most businesses because it lacks security features such as on-device encryption, VPN support, and support for Microsoft Exchange ActveSync (EAS) policies beyond the very basic set. Its Office suite is also primitive, with bare-bones capabilities far exceeded by apps available for other mobile OSes, such as the popular and capable Quickoffice for Android and iOS (but not for Windows Phone).

The iPhone's iOS of course offers the essential security and management capabilities, as well as business app selection, that make it a great fit in business. Android devices also have a decent selection of business apps. Though Android itself has weak security and management capabilities, Motorola Mobility's Android devices all add such iOS-level capabilities, as do some Samsung Android smartphones. A mom-and-pop shop might get away with using a Windows Phone device, but not most businesses. Windows Phone 7 -- and the Lumia 900 -- is more plausible for personal use.

HardwareIn many ways, the Nokia Lumia 900 is similar to the Samsung Focus S, perhaps the best-known Windows Phone smartphone in the United States. Both are as thin and light as an iPhone but a tad wider and taller (0.25 inch in each direction); they deliver a nice-size screen without taking up much more space in your pocket -- the same strategy of many Android smartphones. Their screens are 4.3 inches in diameter versus the iPhone's 3.5 inches. It's the size an iPhone should be, and the size of many Android smartphones.

At first blush, the Lumia 900's AMOLED screen is attractive: clear and bright, without the cartoonish colors of some Super AMOLED screens. But the more I used it, the more it bothered me. The screen resolution is a paltry 480 by 800 pixels, for a resolution of 217 pixels per inch (ppi). An iPhone's smaller screen has a resolution of 640 by 960 pixels, for a 326-ppi resolution. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus flagship Android smartphone has a 720-by-1,280 screen (316 ppi), and the no-nonsense Motorola Droid Razr Maxx has a 540-by-960 screen (256 ppi). In other words, the Lumia 900's screen is coarse by comparison and gives the impression of being lower quality.

The screen is just the start -- the Lumia 900's hardware is underpowered across the board. Like the Samsung Focus S, it uses a 1.4GHz single-core CPU, versus the faster dual-core CPUs of Android and iOS devices. Its 512MB of system RAM is half that of its Android and iOS competitors; its graphics coprocessor is also subpar. The 8-megapixel camera sounds impressive, but the results are disappointing compared to what the iPhone 4S and flagship Android devices' cameras deliver; the Lumia's pictures are a bit muddy and have a narrower tonal range. The battery power is also on the low side. Like the Focus S, the Lumia often can't make a full workday on a single charge, and its rated usage times are about half to two-thirds that of competing Android and iOS smartphones.

I'm surprised and disappointed that the Lumia 900 -- meant to be Nokia's best foot forward -- uses the same middling hardware as the Samsung Focus S, a device not trying to be the king of the hill. It's almost as if they are the same device in different bezels. The only real hardware difference is in the cellular radio: The Lumia 900 supports LTE 4G networks in addition to 3G GSM connections. As AT&T's LTE service is available in only a few dozen cities, that faster radio speed is one you may only rarely experience.

Few serious apps are available for Windows Phone, so the Lumia 900 feels snappy, but only because it's not doing much when in use. Microsoft is working on Windows Phone 8 (code-named Apollo) that allegedly will fix the many gaps in Windows Phone's capabilities, but I find it hard to trust that the underpowered hardware of the Lumia 900 will be able to run serious applications or games as Android and iOS flagship devices can today. I simply don't see the Lumia 900's hardware being able to keep up with Windows Phone and new apps if Microsoft were to get serious about the OS.

The Lumia 900's bezel is pleasant to hold. Although a slab, it's an elegantly simple one that draws character from its minimalism and subtle lines. There are the usual volume rocker, audio jack, MicroUSB jack, camera button, and front camera (1.3 megapixels), as well as the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and 3G-plus-LTE cellular radios. The simple design means the power and camera buttons are both unlabeled and identical in appearance, so it's easy to press the wrong one until your motor memory kicks in. There's no video-out capability, so forget about using the Lumia to make presentations via an HDTV or projector as you can with iPhones and many Android smartphones.

Beyond the hardware, the Nokia Lumia 900 offers no alterations to the Windows Phone 7.5 OS; you get the standard "Mango" experience.

Email, calendars, contacts, and social networkingWindows Phone 7.5 can connect to Exchange, IMAP, POP, and Gmail accounts; make and synchronize appointments; and manage contacts. For Exchange access, "Mango" supports push synchronization, and for both Exchange and IMAP, it preserves your Exchange and IMAP folder hierarchy for mail. But the lack of meaningful EAS policy support in Windows Phone means you likely won't be able to access your corporate email, as any company concerned with even basic security will impose EAS policies beyond the few that "Mango" supports, as I detail later in this review.

Be aware that "Mango" imposes the EAS policies it does support, so you may find yourself -- as I did -- with a smartphone that requires a password lock even though it can't access your email. (A password lock is a good thing, but if you can't access your corporate data, it's not as useful.) I wish Windows Phone would give me the option of rolling back the imposed policies if all are not met; currently, all rules must be met to access the corporate data the policies are intended to protect.

Email. Although "Mango" displays nice, big text for your messages' From addresses, it suffers from the use of tiny, thin, gray fonts in the message itself, so it's very hard to read. There are no controls over text size -- it's clearly designed for the eyes of teenagers and 20-somethings.

I like Windows Phone's way of handling message groups such as unread and flagged messages: Just swipe to the right to see lists of unread messages; repeat to see flagged messages. "Mango" also implements a color highlight on the subject of unread messages in the All message list, but the Unread list is simpler to use. Windows Phone normally provides a separate tile on its Start screen for each email account, but you can use its linking feature to get a unified inbox both in the mail client and on the Start screen. If you look carefully at the tiny To text, you can see which account the message was intended.

Unfortunately, "Mango" doesn't handle mail folders well. When viewing your mail list in Windows Phone, you have to press the More button (the ... icon) to get the Folders menu, which you then use to see messages in a specific folder. The good news is that Windows Phone 7.5 supports message threading, which you (counterintuitively) have to set up in the Settings app's Applications section, under Messaging, not in the mail client. Selecting multiple messages in Windows Phone 7.5 is easy -- once you realize you need to tap the left side of the screen to open the selection bubbles.

Windows Phone 7 isn't so savvy about opening attachments. It can open Office documents in its mobile versions of Word, PowerPoint, and Excel, though PowerPoint is strangely restricted to version 2007 and later (.pptx) files. It also can open Zip files, unlike the iPhone. But to open PDFs, you'll need a separate PDF viewer, such as the free Adobe Reader. Also, Windows Phone doesn't automatically download attachments, which saves on cellular data consumption. You must tap an attachment to download it, then tap it again to open.

You can easily search for mail, as well as reply to, forward, delete, and select multiple messages, though you can't select or deselect all messages.

Composing messages is straightforward in Windows Phone, though it doesn't support rich text formatting as iOS 5 does. However, "Mango" looks up names as you enter them, drawing on your address book and previous email history to speed data entry.

Calendars. Windows Phone 7.5 lets you view and update your calendars, as well as sync to Exchange and Google calendars. You can also send invites to other users, and any .ics invitation attachments received show up in your calendar automatically.

Windows Phone 7's day and agenda views are pretty, but the tiny colored text for your appointments is very hard to read on the black background. The month view is all but useless; the supertiny text for each appointment in each date is easily overlooked. What will help is to change the device's display setting to use the Light background; that gets rid of the hard-to-read light-text-on-black background in many apps such as the calendar and uses a more traditional, more readable, paperlike color-on-white display.

Contacts. "Mango" has a capable contacts app, called People. One blemish is its unintuitive way to quickly jump to sections of your contacts list: Tap the # icon button near the top to get a list of letters that you then tap to jump to. It's not slick, but it works.

Windows Phone doesn't offer a Favorites feature for contacts, but it does let you "pin" an individual to the Start screen for easy access, such as to click an email address or phone number to initiate a message or call. That can quickly clutter your Start screen, though, making it overly long to scroll through. Windows Phone 7.5 lets you create groups of contacts, as well as link contact cards to create virtual groups. For example, if you have separate entries for a couple, you can link their cards so that each person's contact information appears in both of their cards.

Social networking. Windows Phone's People app provides a convenient location to monitor your social feeds -- Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and others -- and engage in any conversations; use the Me tile to initiate a message to all your networks simultaneously. The app is not as full-featured as the social networking services' own apps, so you still need to use them for more sophisticated actions, including sending a direct message. A bizarre implementation issue on Windows Phone is that if you install the separate Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn apps, you have to sign in separately -- the sign-in you provided for the People app isn't shared with the social networking apps themselves (as with iOS 5's Twitter sign-in).

These social networking capabilities are where "Mango" shines brightest, and they represent the most compelling reason to consider a Lumia 900.

ApplicationsIf running applications is your thing, get an iPhone. Nothing else comes close in terms of rich application options that in some cases can do much of what a computer can do. Windows Phone 7.5 is more suited for lightweight widgets.

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