When people buy smartphones, they don’t usually base their decision on how many cores the processor has or other arcane specs. They want to know how the phone looks and feels, how enjoyable it is to use, and how much it costs.
On those points, the Nokia Lumia 900, which goes on sale this weekend, measures up well. It’s a very good phone and an even better value, delivering advanced features for $100 on a two-year contract, much less than competitive offerings.
A lot is riding on this phone’s success. For Nokia and its partner Microsoft, it’s a chance to become relevant in a marketplace that has largely passed them by. For AT&T, it’s an opportunity to attract users to its newest high-speed data network and set itself apart now that its monopoly on Apple iPhone sales in the U.S. has expired.
The Lumia 900, which runs Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 operating system, doesn’t match the iPhone’s ease of use or the vast ecosystems of apps and services that have grown up around both it and phones running Google’s Android operating system. But I found it more pleasurable than any of a half-dozen largely indistinguishable Android phones I’ve recently checked out.
The phone weighs 5.6 ounces, features a vivid 4.3-inch screen and comes with 16 gigabytes of storage. You have your choice of three colors and, curiously, two textures: The polycarbonate bodies of the blue and black models have a matte surface similar to the smaller Lumia 800. The white version has a glossy finish.
While the case of my blue test model proved impressively impervious to smudges, the feel of the phone still took some getting used to, due to the raised ridges around the screen where it’s set into the case. My ears took a while to adjust.
I’m a fan of Windows Phone 7, whose user-friendly interface features large, colorful tiles that display continuously updated data about people, messages and other things important to you.
One thing I’m not a fan of, though, is turning on a new device and immediately having to delete a bunch of stuff I don’t want.
AT&T has junked up the home screen with proprietary apps for, among other things, its U-verse television service and a paid navigation service. If you want Nokia’s free navigation app -- and you do -- you’ll have to download it yourself from the “Nokia collection” listing on the Windows Phone online store.
Once you take care of the housekeeping, you’ll find the Lumia 900 a pleasure to use, thanks in part to a couple of important firsts.
It’s the first Windows phone to run over AT&T’s 4G LTE, for “Long-Term Evolution,” network. If you’re lucky enough to live in one of the areas where it’s been introduced, you’ll find that apps and data download far faster than on the older 3G network (including the tweaked 3G service that AT&T confusingly markets as “4G”). But be sure to check on coverage; AT&T still lags behind rival Verizon Wireless in rolling out the new high-speed service.
The other first, for a Nokia Windows phone, is the front-facing camera. Using the Lumia 900 and a beta version of Microsoft’s Skype app, I was able to easily video-chat over LTE with an iPhone user.
I also liked the rear-facing camera, unusually nice for a $100 phone, with its Carl Zeiss optics and eight-megapixel sensor. Unlike some more expensive phones, which can shoot 1080p video, the Lumia is limited to 720p, but that’s still good enough to be considered high-definition.
Battery life on the 900 is good, not great. In my tests, I was able to get through a full day of normal use but found the battery level dropped appreciably while the phone was in standby mode if I kept the power-hungry LTE service turned on.
The Nokia’s performance was slightly better than my Droid Charge, which runs over Verizon’s LTE network. On the other hand, the Charge has a replaceable battery; the Lumia’s case, like the iPhone’s, is sealed.
Even at twice the price, the Lumia 900 would be a creditable challenger to Android phones from the likes of Samsung, Motorola Mobility and HTC. It may not be enough to restore the mobile fortunes of Nokia and Microsoft, but for $100 it’s a premium product at a value price, and well worth considering.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)