Motorola, Nokia Phones Summon Past Glories: Rich Jaroslovsky

Lumia 800
A Nokia Lumia 800 smartphone. Nokia Oyj, the Finnish handset maker is seeking to revive its lineup of smartphones in the race against Apple. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Until Apple rewrote the rules, Nokia and Motorola were two of the biggest names in wireless phones. Now both are attempting to recapture a little past glory.

Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. has dusted off its once-dominant Razr brand for a new addition to Verizon Wireless’s Droid line of high-end smartphones. At the same time, Nokia Oyj is introducing the Lumia 800, the first fruit of its bet-the-company partnership with Microsoft Corp.

Both phones are solid performers and so physically distinctive that they won’t be mistaken for any competitor.

I found Lumia the more intriguing of the two. Once the world’s largest smartphone maker, Nokia saw its fortunes implode with the move to app-centric devices like Apple. Inc.’s iPhone and handsets running Google Inc.’s Android operating system. Stephen Elop, the former Microsoft executive hired last year as chief executive officer, jettisoned Nokia’s own operating system and embraced Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 software.

The Lumia is currently being rolled out in the U.K., Germany and France, among other markets. It’s slated to show up in the U.S. in early 2012, although carriers and pricing haven’t been announced. I used my unlocked review unit on AT&T Inc.’s 3G network.

Fast, Fluid

Fast and fluid, with a bright screen and decent battery life, the Lumia turns out to be an ideal platform for the Microsoft OS.

The Lumia’s dimensions are similar to the iPhone 4, but the resemblance ends there. The 3.7-inch screen is ever so slightly raised and curved, giving the phone a sleek shape and look. The polycarbonate body makes it feel solid but not heavy.

The 8-megapixel camera includes a flash and features a Carl Zeiss lens. I found it a bit disappointing after the Nokia N8, which was released last year and had one of the best phone cameras I’ve ever used. Also (and somewhat ironically, since Microsoft now owns Skype), the Lumia has no front-facing camera for video chatting. That’s one of its biggest shortcomings, along with the hard-to-open and potentially breakable hatch covering the micro-USB port on the top edge.

Fewer Apps

All Windows phones function at a disadvantage to Apple and Android devices in terms of the number of apps available. Nokia, though, has brought over several apps from its previous operating system, including very good turn-by-turn navigation. The Lumia augurs well for the future of the Microsoft platform - - and perhaps for Nokia as well.

Back in the day, the Razr was synonymous with thin. But those phones are obese compared with the Droid Razr, which at its thinnest point measures just .28 of an inch. As with many high-end Motorolas these days, the Droid bulges at the top to house the camera as well as audio, video and power connectors. Still, the whole package, including a big, bright 4.3-inch screen, weighs only 4.5 ounces, which is less than an iPhone 4S.

A phone that thin and light naturally raises concerns about durability. In part to allay them, Motorola touts a layer of Kevlar -- the same material used in bulletproof vests -- that covers the back of the phone. While it certainly protects the Razr from scratches, it also makes it feel slippery. The image of ironclad security it’s supposed to project was undermined on my test model by an air bubble that prevented a taut fit.

Fastest Network

The Razr runs on Verizon’s LTE network, the best and fastest in the U.S. (The phone, minus the “Droid” label, is also being rolled out internationally.) The tradeoff is that, as with other LTE phones I’ve used, battery life isn’t great.

While you can get through a day of normal use on a single charge, heavy users may find themselves packing an extra charger; as with the Lumia, the battery isn’t user-replaceable.

Along with the phone itself -- which costs $300 on a two-year contract -- Motorola and Verizon offer a host of expansion options, including a slot for a microSD card (the phone comes with 16 gigabytes of onboard storage and a 16-gigabyte card) and the ability to use the phone as the brain of a laptop computer-dock add-on. The Motorola system uses a PC-like interface called Webtop, providing an adequate netbook substitute for lightweight tasks like Web surfing or tweaking documents.

In addition, Motorola -- which is in the process of being acquired by Google -- says the Razr will be upgradeable to run “Ice Cream Sandwich,” the new version of Android just beginning to show up on phones and tablets.

It all signifies a healthy dose of future-proofing. As with the Nokia, the brands may evoke nostalgia but the products are pointed in the right direction.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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